California’s extreme landscapes are a scenic and fascinating escape – the perfect summer road trip. From the dry desert heat of Death Valley, to the more temperate alpine weather of Sequoia and Yosemite, you’ll be covering climates as variable as the landscapes themselves. This California national parks road trip packing list considers the dramatic range of conditions you’ll encounter along the way. Note, it is intended for comfort travelers, i.e. those not camping but staying in lodges, cabins or hotel-style accommodation.
General packing tips for California’s national parks
If you are following our California road trip itinerary or something similar, you’re going to encounter quite the variances in climate. Though generally dry, temperatures on our trip ranged from highs of 47˚C (117F) in Death Valley to overnight lows of 10˚C (50F) in Yosemite.
Clothing and comfort
Due to these temperature differences, pack lightweight, breathable fabrics for comfort. Think cotton, linen, silk and merino wool. Synthetics such as polyester and nylon will make you sweat and start to smell quickly.
As you’re obviously interested in California’s national parks, you undoubtably have a healthy respect for nature, so please consider the environment when packing. Think about minimizing packaging and disposables as much as possible – these guides will assist: 8 Essential Eco-Friendly Travel Products and 5 Steps to More Sustainable Travel.
California national parks road trip packing list
Clothing and accessories
- Underwear, bras and socks
- Shirts – pack 1 t-shirt for every 2 days of your trip.
- Long sleeve shirt – pack 1-2 lightweight long sleeve shirts for desert days when sunscreen just isn’t enough.
- Shorts and/or zip-off khakis – pack 1 pair of shorts for every 2-3 days of your trip. I recommend shorts that will be cool, provide sun protection, and are comfortable for extended walking.
- Dress/skirts – you may prefer to substitute a pair of shorts/shirt or two with a skirt/dress.
- Jeans – 1 pair of jeans for the evenings and early mornings if required.
- Sweater or fleece – as above. You’ll certainly want to take a warm layer if for example, you’re planning to watch sunset from Sentinel Dome in Yosemite.
- Rain jacket or poncho – not so much for the rain because it will be unlikely you see any, but if you intend to do hikes like the Mist Trail in Yosemite and you don’t want to get wet, you will need wet weather gear.
- Shoes – depending on the activities you have planned, you need a pair of sturdy hiking shoes or comfortable walking shoes, and a pair of comfortable sandals or light sneakers for the evenings/drive days. Water shoes are recommended for activities such as floating down the Merced River.
- Hat – preferably with a wide brim that is fitted and won’t blow off easily.
- Sunglasses – UV rated to protect your eyes and polarizing to cut glare.
- Toothpaste and toothbrush
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Aloe vera gel – doubles as sunburn relief and body moisturizer.
- Face wash
- Body wash
- Hair accessories (ties and pins)
- Menstrual cup/ tampons
- Laundry soap – a cake of laundry soap is great for washing your smalls in the hotel basin and doesn’t add to your liquids if you’re travelling carry-on only. I’ve been travelling with the Australian equivalent of a Fels-Naptha bar for years now – it lasts for ages.
Day bag/ backpack
- Reusable water bottle or two – you’re going to need more than the usual amount of water in the desert.
- Lunch box or reusable food wrap – for packed lunches/snacks while hiking.
- Waterless hand sanitizer
- Bandana – alternatively a cloth napkin or handkerchief
- Toilet paper – kept in a ziplock bag to keep it dry.
- First aid kit
- Medications and prescriptions
- Lip balm with SPF 15+
- Insect repellent
- Flashlight or headlamp – ideally a headlamp to keep you hands-free.
- Lightweight beach towel – a microfibre travel towel or peshtemal (cotton Turkish towel) are ideal, not just for swimming… A towel is handy for throwing over a steering wheel or car seat to prevent them becoming unbearably hot in the desert.
- Map – there is very little internet access in California’s national parks, so please take a physical map at the very least. A compass may also be helpful.
- Water – especially when you are in the desert. We picked up a large multi-gallon plastic container of spring water (one with the little tap on the bottom) to keep in the car and refill our water bottles.
- Cooler – for keeping drinks and snacks cool. If you are fly-in roadtrippers like us, we pack an insulated cooler bag that folds down flat in our luggage. It isn’t water proof, melting ice with go through the bag, but it does keep things colder for longer.
- Blanket – multipurpose for napping, picnicking, and keeping throwing over the steering wheel to keep it at a bearable temperature while you’re out exploring the desert.
- Umbrella, canopy or sunshade – There is very little shade in Joshua Tree and Death Valley. It’s too hot to sit in the car, and you’ll want somewhere shielded from the sun to sit down and eat, rest or take in the surrounds.
Making memories and filling spare time
- Sketch pad and pencils/paint
- Tablet device
Have a ball exploring the incredible landscapes of California’s national parks on your summer road trip.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,