How to pack for a coastal California road trip

Here’s what I packed for week-long road trip up the California coast to Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur in August. It’s one of my favorite places to visit for stunning scenery…

What to pack for a coastal California road trip.

This article was published at an earlier date and has since been updated. I’ve left prior comments in place.

My travel wardrobe may look different than what you’d expect for a summer vacation near the sea. The weather this time of year along the central California coast is often cool, overcast, and even damp. (I must have been a fern in a past life, because I love it!) But if the weather should shift, I’m prepared for much warmer or cooler temperatures.

What to pack for a coastal California road trip

Almost all of our activities will be Casual to Very Casual. We’ll probably do some beach exploring and light hiking. But mostly we’re just planning to relax and take in the scenery. 🌲 🌊 🦌

Out and about in Carmel-by-the-Sea

Out and about in Big Sur

My travel wardrobe details

My travel wardrobe for a road trip up the California coast.

Driving rather than flying means I’m not constrained to a specific luggage size or weight. But I still want to pack efficiently while being prepared and having options. To come up with the color scheme for this travel wardrobe, I started with my tiger print top, and then selected pieces that coordinate. (I lightened this image to better show details, so some of the colors appear brighter here than IRL.)

Starting with the shoes

  • a pair of well-worn sneakers with good traction for hiking, exploring rocky beaches. Mine are a few years old; here’s a similar style.
  • waterproof Birks for pool, beach, spa
  • a supportive pair of walking sandals that aren’t too rugged to wear to dinner (mine are from last year, these are similar
  • raffia oxfords (similar)


  • two pairs of jeans, these and these (similar). An older pair I won’t mind getting dirty, and a newer one to wear in public. 😆
  • a pair of undyed denim trousers (similar). Should the weather turn warmer, these will be cooler than jeans.
  • navy knit pants. a little dressier than jeans, but still relaxed.

Tops & sweaters (yes, sweaters)

From left to right:

Top layers


  • a selection of cotton bandanas and a larger silk “Road Trip” scarf (similar)
  • I’m not planning to bring much jewelry, probably a pair of simple earrings and a couple of small necklaces to layer (here and more options here).

Not shown: bathing suit, coverup, pajamas, “underpinnings.” I’ll reserve the option to add or swap out one or two “wild card” clothing pieces based on the forecast before we leave.

Portable amenities

Are there any items you always pack for a road trip?

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  1. I just learned (through your sneaker link) that Rockport has ww leather sneakers. Who knew? Glad to support your site. I feel like I have my own personal shopper!

  2. It looks like you’ve got it covered and so similar to our long weekend trips to our cape Cod beach cottage. We drive the 2 hours and only difference is I have to pack clean sheets towels and basic breakfast food. I leave our coffee for brewing in the freezer bags there.
    Much easier staying in a hotel or lodge but we own (my dad built it decades ago) so we go with it! Have fun!

  3. I love that area of California, have a wonderful time. You have really stepped up your wardrobe after you had your colors done. I love everything you pick out now.

  4. I love your travel wardrobe, especially in your new colors. I used one once to help plan for my Italy trip.

  5. I love this post – it’s so fun. We’re taking a family road trip to the Oregon coast next week (My In-laws live there) – we rent a house on the beach and it’s the highlight of our summer. I really like the idea of a color scheme. I am going to try that when I start packing. Thanks for the inspiration.

  6. You might want a pair of shorts? I’m kind of a shorts and sweater person in the summer on the coast during the summer…feels more beachy to me! Other than that this is beautifully composed, as usual. Hopefully soon we will be packing again for Europe 🙂

  7. I have missed your travel wardrobes. I especially like that you begin with a lovely scarf. Have a wonderful time!

  8. We pack a portable mini humidifier because hotel rooms are often very dry. You simply attached a water bottle to it and it lasts through the night. The other thing we pack is a power cord with multiple outlets. We both have to charge our phones, laptops, etc. and there are never enough outlets in a hotel room!

    1. I never thought of packing a power cord with multiple outlets but I will do it going forward. I have a zipper bag with items like that I always want when we travel. Have also added those Dollar Store night lights that have come in handy in. motel room. Susan, I love your combination of travel clothing. You’ve sure got it figured out.

  9. Wishes and positive vibes for a great trip! Isn’t it fun to pack a suitcase again? I look forward to your review of what worked and didn’t work when you return. 🙂

  10. I love your ideas for a road trip wardrobe. We are going to France in the latter part of September . I am in a quandary about what to take. It will be a tour…so Paris, Normandy and the usual. Shoes, pants and tops? Raincoat?

    1. When I last went to Europe, refined, tie up ( not slip- on) sneakers were everywhere. I never felt a need for a dressier air of shoes.

    2. Went to Paris, Amboise, and Normandy in June. Like the poster above, we never needed any shoes other than sneakers. We ate in nice bistros and cafes (though nothing “starred”) and I never felt underdressed.

  11. A suggestion: try Adelaida winery not far from Cambria. You need reservations-the view from the winery is lovely of the central coast hills
    and the wine excellent. We went to a wine tasting with paired cheeses for my stepson’s wedding 3 weeks ago, spectacular!
    As always your packing posts have great suggestions!

  12. What a beautiful travel wardrobe! Ever since you had your colors done, you really look fabulous! I love seeing travel wardrobe ideas! Although, I do link to your picks hoping they have some cool color options in that style, as I wear the cool jewel tones:) My Mom wears your colors, and I always am looking for ideas to pass on to her. There is nothing that is more satisfying to me than a perfectly planned travel wardrobe!

  13. I can’t wait to see how you style these pieces. I think it is perfect down to the shoes. Mr Coffee makes a small, compact 4 cup(2 mug) coffee maker. Takes up hardly any room if you drive. When will they get it through their head that 6 oz is not a cup. But it makes 2 nice 12 0z mugs fast.

  14. Have a lovely time! Thank you for your post today, so timely, I am leaving for Cali soon, too and love your tips. Will also add a blue to your great ideas for my wardrobe.

  15. Susan, if you’re overnighting in Half Moon Bay, be sure to try Pasta Moon restaurant for dinner. I’ve lived in HMB for 22 years and it’s always been a favorite of ours. We just spent two days in Carmel and I was surprised how crowded it was. Everyone is traveling again. Enjoy your trip!

    1. i went to half moon bay many years and still remember it as a magical place, as was carmel. we live in australia but did a road trip from los angeles to san francisco along the coast. many happy memories!

  16. I love this packing plan and the instant coffee! But I would recommend that you take along a light Uniqlo puffer vest just in case it gets cold at night! My other tip for weather/clothes planning is to look at the location you are traveling to on Instagram-and see what others are wearing! Have a great time!

  17. Debating about getting a Jenni Kayne sweater like the one you’ve packed, but they look oversized on the website. How does yours run and did you size down? They’re pricey for cotton but certainly get good reviews.

    1. Hi Laura, I love mine! I sized down to the XS. It’s still roomy but not huge. The quality is fantastic. I wash mine in the machine (in a lingerie bag, delicate cycle, dry flat) and it comes out looking like new.

  18. What a beautiful collection! I look forward to seeing the outfits when you post about your trip. I’ve been eying that golden Ann Taylor cardigan since you first posted it, and it’s now 50% off so I ordered it. Do you think the Jenni Kayne sweater is worth the cost? Have you used it much?
    Have a wonderful time!

    1. Thanks, Shira! I do think the sweater is worth it. The quality is outstanding, and it’s such a timeless, easy-to-wear piece.

  19. Great post! Love your choices. We’re talking about a similar trip in October. I’m really curious about where you are staying and the length of your trip. Would you mind sharing your tentative plans? Thank so much!

  20. We always bring our “travel” Mr. Coffee pot ($20), 2 mugs, coffee, all stored in a canvas shopping bag. Love love your color palate! We love the Central Coast as well!

  21. We drove the California coast for our anniversary trip in 2019. I wish we had brought a small soft sided (collapsible) cooler and an ice pack for cold items we picked up along the way (cheese, beer, fruit stand items). Since you’re driving you may have already planned to bring one since you’ll have the space – I also seem to forget to bring a packable cooler when we fly somewhere and rent a car!

  22. I love your travel wardrobe! I love your wardrobe since you have had your colors done. Definitely an inspiration! I also really love the Instagram lives you have done with the Red Leopard ladies, so fun and informative. Thank you for doing those.

    My husband and I did a two week trip earlier this summer that included a lot of driving. A few suggestions:
    1) Bring a cooler.
    2) Bring either a dish towel or large cloth napkin for each person. We found that, for various reasons, we ended up eating in the car more than we had thought we would. Paper napkins can be so flimsy and I always end up spilling where the paper napkin is not. Having a large piece of cloth helps that situation.
    3) Get a book on CD or Audible, it makes drive time fly by.

    Have fun!!

    1. I just posted almost the same thing below!
      Good places to eat are not fully staffed in vacationland and we had quite a few picnic meals — which were far healthier than a fast-food drivethrough!

  23. We did a 20-hour(!) road trip to the East Coast and I took wipes and hand sanitizer with me for bathroom breaks on the way. Also took my own pillow cases and towels for the hotel.I was very glad to have them. Have a wonderful trip!

  24. Thanks for the packing list. I’ll be up there by the beach at the same time. I’ll use your list as a beginning. I haven’t packed in so long I’ve forgortten how. Thanks for the tips. See you on the highway!

  25. I also HAVE to HAVE my coffee and always pack my portable Gevalia. It makes 1 or 1 12-oz travel mugs, and it’s pretty darn good with my Starbucks dark roast. I do like the instant packets you featured too, definitely was a desk drawer staple back in the day. I also make sure I have slippers for hotel room, keeps my feet off the hotel carpet that might not always be as clean as we’d like.
    Enjoy your trip!

  26. Congrats on your road trip! LOVE your color selections, Susan. We live on CA’s Central Coast, just south from where you’re staying. May I suggest you add a warm scarf for chilly mornings, windy afternoons &/or often cooler evenings. We moved here from S. CA, & always have a soft scarf in our cars now. Great to plan layers if you drive inland a few miles to warmer temps. Too many wineries, olive oil tasting rooms & eateries to list in our region. We use Highway 1 Discovery Route’s suggestions for stops along the way to your destination: Enjoy!

    1. Ronda, thanks for providing link to Highway 1 Discovery; hubby and I are driving (from Seattle area) to Santa Barbara/Los Angeles area for various events in early October and we are debating which route to take returning. We did a similar road trip two years ago (returning thru Nat’l Parks in northern Cal) and thanks to Susan’s “road trip travel” wardrobes, I was able to put together outfits for a wide variety of events and activities. If we return via Hwy 1, will be different. Looking forward to her recap, as always.

  27. I love how you started with the print blouse. I hadn’t thought to do it that way. I usually start with what 3rd layer I want. I love the combination you put together and will try it that way, whenever the next travel may occur.
    The few things I always take no matter where I’m going are slippers, a light weight knit cap for windy days or evenings that can be stuffed in my bag. A scarf as my neck gets cold in AC or the wind and a small flashlight, mostly for reading in bed when there’s no light on my side or it’s too bright for the sleeping hubby. Also helps with the trip to the bathroom in a strange room in the middle of the night. It came in very handy one time when I dropped an earring that ended up under the bed and we couldn’t see it until I remembered the flashlight. Another time I dropped a contact and found it with the flashlight.

  28. Fabulous travel wardrobe, have a wonderful time. I agree with several of the posts about a collapsible cooler, we like to have snacks in the car or in the evening. I always take my kobo for lots of reading material even if that is only after the sun sets. Enjoy!!

  29. A lightweight cashmere poncho/wrap is an essential part of my travel packing. Especially cosy if you feel the cold when over tired.
    Such lovely colourful choices for your trip, it’s like watching a butterfly emerge from their chrysalis.

  30. I always bring some sort of hydration tablet or powder. We roadtripped from sea level elevation through the mountains regularly growing up and I would always end up a little bit dehydrated with the change in elevation. I figured out as a teen that if I drink a gatorade that first evening, I recover a lot faster and can get down to all the fun vacation stuff right away the next day. Now instead of having to go buy a sports drink, I’ll make sure I carry a few packs of Nectar or Nuun or Pedialyte in my purse so I’m ready to go.

    *Pro-tip that I read in “How to Sh*t Around the World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Traveling,” in a pinch, if you’re dehydrated or suffering from traveler’s diarrhea you can add a generous pinch of salt to a glass of soda or add a generous pinch and approx. 1 tablespoon of sugar to a glass of water to help your body rehydrate and recover.

  31. Can really see the difference in your wardrobe choices pre-color analysis and now. Love the colors. Curious about the navy knit pant. I thought navy was more of a winter color choice versus spring palette?

    1. Hi Judy, there’s a shade of navy in every color palette. A Spring navy would be lighter and brighter than a Winter navy.

  32. I recently returned from a road trip to New England, where CVOID cases are low but staffing is stressed and dining options not at their fullest.
    As such I’d advise traveling with picnic equipment. While resturants may be operating with constraints most groceries were well stocked and we often used our soft sided cooler and travel bottles/cups to hold on-the-go lunches or breakfasts.
    We had a long drive on the Interstate and spent almost no time in the food places there, beyond running in to use the restroom. We’d get our to-go lunch/dinner and stop at nice spots to enjoy far healthier meals without the risk of germy indoor air.

  33. This is a terrific capsule. I love the bright color added to the neutral. Your colouring is similar to mine. I do wear the golden yellow but I shy away from the orange you have embraced. I’m also starting to find the beige washes me out unless it’s on the dark side of beige. I think these colours look terrific on you and terrific together. A great inspiration to me. Your shoe choices (always the hardest part of travel wardrobe decision making) are perfect. Practical, varied and dressy enough for dinner out. You’ve got a proper windbreaker and lovely layers to choose from. What a great collection. You’ve made it look so easy.

  34. I remember this post about travel to one of my favorite destinations. I wonder how many of these items are still in your wardrobe. I don’t see them featured in current posts. I struggle with when to cull past seasons, how big a wardrobe to keep and rarely if ever see the subject addressed on fashion blogs. I get the how to process addressed in downsizing articles but not the specifics.

    1. I still have many of these pieces in my wardrobe. Haven’t shown them lately because they’re either no longer available or it’s been too warm to wear them. It’s hard to provide a standard guide for what to keep/purge and how large of a wardrobe to maintain, as it can vary widely by individual. In a few weeks, I’ll have an announcement about some of the personal services I’ll be offering, including closet detox and organization.

  35. We did a vacation in July 2010 called “Westward Ho!” where my husband flew out to meet me in SLC for a voice teachers’ conference, and then we drove down to Zion National Forest, across to Vegas, into California and stayed in June Lake, Paso Robles for wine country, and then headed up to San Francisco for a few days to fly back to (then) Milwaukee. We stopped in Carmel and WE WERE FREEZING. We had to go buy jackets! And then we got up to San Francisco (where we had gone a few years before, but in October), and I had to buy a hat!!

    Had a great time, though, but I was reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was July in San Francisco.”

  36. A tip for those of you who live with snorers: Bose Sleep Pods! Expensive ($250), but worth every penny. At home I have a spare bedroom I can escape to, and I can live through 1-2 nights away, but we went to Europe for 3 weeks in June and these were lifesavers! Available from Amazon.

      1. They are miraculous! I only wish they’d been available 45 years ago – would have saved us a lot of aggravation.

  37. Maybe think about adding some type of hat or visor for your beach strolls and a refillable, insulated container for water/coffee.