|

What to Pack for San Francisco: 5 Essentials for Every SF Packing List

Want the inside scoop on what to wear in San Francisco? You’re in the right place. I’ve called San Francisco home for over six years now, and know everything there is to know about micro climates, Indian Summers, and Karl the Fog. And I’m sharing it with you in this guide to what to pack for San Francisco.

When you spend some time walking around San Francisco, particularly where tourists hang out like Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square, you’ll undoubtedly see tons of “I <3 SF” sweatshirts. The reason?

I can tell you that it’s definitely not because they’re super fashionable.

More often than not, it’s because visitors show up in San Francisco picturing “California weather” – 80 degrees and sunny 24 hours a day/7 days a week/365 days a year – only to be greeted by fog, wind, and chillier-than-expected temperatures, particularly in the summer months when most tourists are visiting San Francisco.

While that idyllic California weather may be true in Los Angeles and San Diego, it most certainly is not true in San Francisco, which has drastically different weather patterns than other parts of California.

So different, in fact, that SF’s fog even has its own name and Instagram account – Karl the Fog. Lucky for you, you’ve got me, a local San Francisco resident who knows never to leave home without at least three extra layers, to help you figure out what to pack for San Francisco. 

Planning a Trip to San Francisco? We’re Here to Help!

Heading to San Francisco? Don’t miss our other SF travel guides. They’re written by us, two SF locals (at least for the past decade or so).

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I make a little bit of money if you click through and book. That being said, I would never recommend something to you that I don’t stand behind 100%.

What to Pack for San Francisco: A Local Resident’s Complete Guide

Before we get to the San Francisco packing list, let’s first talk about what the weather is like in San Francisco. 

What is the Weather Like in SF?

San Francisco’s climate is super mild. It rarely rains, it’s usually between 55-70 degrees fahrenheit, and it’s generally a very pleasant place to be. 

The interesting thing about climate in San Francisco is that it varies wildly by neighborhood. In the Mission, it’s often 5-10 degrees warmer than it is at Ocean Beach or in Golden Gate Park, which means you not only have to think about dealing with the sometimes stark difference in daytime and evening temperatures, but also about the differences between neighborhoods.

In terms of what rain gear to bring, just remember that San Francisco sees an average of two days of rain between May and August. TWO. Between May and September, it gets roughly an average of an inch of rain.

In other words, don’t worry too much about rain in San Francisco. 

Annually, according to NOAA, San Francisco gets an average of 23.65 inches of rain. Compare that to 49.4 inches in New York City, 39.88 in Seattle,  and 37.75 in Chicago, and you’ll see that San Francisco doesn’t get too much rain. Pack a rain jacket and maybe some waterproof rain boots at the VERY most, but I wouldn’t worry too much about other rain gear beyond that, even in the dead of winter. 

Here is what weather is like in San Francisco by season. 

“Summer” in San Francisco

Summer: June – August

Summer in California! I know growing up in Seattle, it’s something I always imagined. What it must be like to get out of the gray that plagues Seattle for 9 months a year and into 24/7 sun! Then I moved to San Francisco six years ago, and I realized that summer in San Francisco often means intense fog in the morning and evening and a brisk wind, which is not something most people realize. Pack layers and a jacket for summer in SF, and count your lucky stars if you’re actually able to see the Golden Gate Bridge through the fog during your San Francisco itinerary

Fall: September – November

This is the best time to visit San Francisco – we generally have a warm and dry “Indian Summer,” which means it’s warm from Labor Day well into October, and sometimes even November. 

It also coincides nicely with school starting up again, which means that kids are back in school, and the number of tourists dips. 

If you want to catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge without Karl the Fog being in the way, this is the time to do it. I highly recommend walking across the bridge into Sausalito as a fun little half day trip. 

Winter: December – February

Winter is chilly and grey, and it can be a little bit wet. I always laugh at Californians in the rain, having grown up in Seattle. It’s really not that bad, although I will say that when it rains, it pours. Unlike Seattle, where more often than not it’s a constant cool mist, it POURS in San Francisco sometimes. If you’re visiting in the winter, pack a rain jacket, but that’s probably the extent of the winter-specific gear you need to bring. It’s not terribly cold, and it doesn’t snow, so rain is the only thing to watch out for. 

Spring: March – May

Spring is a good time to visit SF. The weather is consistent, it’s not too wet (especially in April and May), and the tourist crowds are thin compared to summertime. 

Plan on ~60 degree days, cool nights (pack an extra layer), and a pleasant amount of sun. Plus, Karl the Fog hasn’t quite woken up from his slumber to terrorize the tourists at the Golden Gate Bridge, so you might be able to snag a couple of pictures without him in the way.

5 Essentials to Pack for a Trip to San Francisco

I’m not here to give you seventeen things that you need to bring to San Francisco that you would also need in pretty much every city around the world, like money belts or water bottles. Yes, you should definitely bring those things. And probably at least one pair of underwear, which you also won’t find on this list. 

Instead, I want to focus on what to bring to San Francisco that might be different than you expect to prepare you to have an incredible trip. 

These are the five essentials that need to be on every San Francisco packing list.

Essential #1: LAYERS

When people ask me what to wear in San Francisco, my first answer is always LAYERS. 

Every good Bay Area local knows that you should never, under any circumstances, leave home without a jacket. I don’t care if it’s 75 and sunny. By the time the sun goes down, there’s a chance it’s 55, windy, and foggy. Thanks, Karl. 

There are three layers that you’ll find me, and every other San Francisco resident, carrying around constantly. 

  • The lightweight jacket – The Patagonia Nano Puff jacket is the perfect jacket for San Francisco (and travel in general). It is a San Francisco staple, and is worth the investment for the simple reason that I wear it almost every single day of the year. It’s a great piece to bring with you when you head out for dinner – it can pack down into your bag / purse pretty easily – or when it’s a little chilly out for your taste. Alysha and I both have the Patagonia Nano Puff, which we love. Alysha loves hers so much that she bought a second one with a hood. 
  • The warm insulated vest – This is another great lightweight layer that you can add to your wardrobe to add a little bit of windproof warmth. I have a Patagonia Nano Puff vest. Another good place to look would be LL Bean – they’ve got vests of all kinds for you to choose from, from outdoorsy to more casual city wear. 
  • The quarter-zip fleece – Another staple that I wear constantly, especially after dark when the temperature starts to drop. Look at LL Bean and the North Face for some good options (I love the LL Bean Colorblock Pullover!)

In the winter: A waterproof rain jacket
This is really only necessary in the winter, which is when it rains. The best rain jacket from the hiking trail to the city, I think, is the Black Diamond Stormline Stretch Rain Shell (trust me, I’m from Seattle). Look at the North Face Resolve for a solid, more affordable option. 

Essential #2: Comfortable Walking Shoes

The second thing to think about when you’re packing for San Francisco is comfortable walking shoes. 

You’ve almost certainly heard about San Francisco’s famous hills. And with the pleasant, mild weather throughout most of the year, it’s a great place to explore on foot. 

However, leave the flip flops at home – you’re going to want closed toed shoes for the hills, and the fact that our streets can be kind of gross. 

Recommended Walking Shoes

Alysha and I both love our Teva Arrowoods, which are waterproof and super comfortable to walk around in. I also have a pair of Cole Haan GrandPro Sneakers that I’ve had for years, and are a good, comfortable, less outdoorsy alternative.

Other brands I love include Seavees, which I think are quintessential California style, and New Balance, a timeless classic style. 

On the women’s side, Alysha has a recommendation. You’ll constantly find her wearing booties around the city, and her favorites are Franco Sarto. She has the same booties in roughly eleven colors. 

Essential #3: A Solid Pair of Jeans

Jeans are king in San Francisco. I almost can’t think of an occasion in San Francisco where jeans wouldn’t be acceptable. The obvious exception would be a wedding or business meeting. I wear jeans almost every day to work, and you’ll want to bring your favorite pair to SF with you – you will probably wear them the whole time you’re here. 

Recommended Jeans

My go-to jeans are the Levi’s 512 Slim Taper Flex. Did you know that Levi’s is a Bay Area company? Their headquarters are right here in San Francisco.  

I asked Alysha what she’d recommend for women, and she mentioned that her go-to jeans are Joe’s Jeans (buy them at Nordstrom Rack for a steep discount) and Madewell jeans (again, check Nordstrom Rack). 

Essential #4: A Good Day Bag

This is another thing to make sure to have on your packing list for San Francisco. You’re going to need a place to store your picnic supplies, extra layers, and goodies that you pick up along the way. Get a comfortable pack that you can carry all day, because you’ll probably be doing a ton of walking in SF. 

Recommended Day Bags

I love Timbuk2 backpacks and messenger bags for their straightforward tech-forward design and durable construction (plus they’re based in SF!), and Alysha loves her Parker Clay backpack (they also have totes, if that’s your preference). 

If you have camera gear and want a camera backpack, Peak Design is the way to go. Again, they’re an SF-based company that makes stylish and functional camera gear. Their Everyday Backpack is the perfect travel camera backpack on the market. 

Essential #5: A Packable Tote Bag

Save the planet by packing an extra packable tote bag to your San Francisco packing list. Plastic bags are illegal in San Francisco, and paper bags just don’t hold up to a day of exploring around SF.

I love tote bags as a multi-purpose solution, and always bring one with me on my trips. Go with Baggu, another SF company (shout out to Taylor S for turning me onto them). 

What NOT to Pack for San Francisco

There are a few things that scream “CALIFORNIA” that I would probably leave at home. 

Flip Flops

I know what you’re thinking. “California? I’m wearing flip flops for sure! Beaches all day!” Turns out, that’s not quite right. The climate in San Francisco is VERY different than other parts of the state, and it’s rarely flip flop weather in SF. However, there are two other good reasons why you shouldn’t wear flip flops.

First, hills. Have you ever tried to walk up or down hill in flip flops? It sucks. And guess what you’ll find in San Francisco? Tons of hills. You’ll want to pack the aforementioned comfy walking shoes and leave the flip flops at home.

Second, if we’re being honest, the streets of San Francisco aren’t exactly the cleanest around. You’re going to want closed toed shoes. 

High Heels

See above under hills. Instead, go for booties, which are Alysha’s go-to shoe. She has these booties in something like seventeen different colors (okay, three, but who’s really keeping track?).

Down Jackets

It can get chilly, but not THAT chilly. Even in the winter, it only gets down into the 40’s at the coldest. A lightweight jacket over a sweater will be plenty. This is the jacket that I bring with me everywhere in SF – it’s lightweight, packable, and plenty warm to ward off fog-induced chills that often hit San Francisco when the sun goes down. 

Fancy Clothes

There is absolutely no need to pack fancy clothes with the obvious exceptions of weddings, business meetings, and a trip to the French Laundry in Napa. 

San Francisco is a super casual city. Even walking around in the Financial District you won’t see too many people in suits. I remember the first time I visited Chicago and New York, I was STUNNED at how many people wore suits every single day. Not in San Francisco. 

I wear jeans almost every day of the year, as does my wife. Maybe bring a few tops that are a little classier if you’re planning on going out. 

For men, which is obviously my domain, party shirts are the way to go in San Francisco. I’m in love with Bonobos short sleeve Riviera shirts, and my collection is growing by the day. They’re a great way to simultaneously show off a little personality and also keep it classy. They often run big promotions, and they cycle through the patterns seasonally, so you can sometimes get them at a nice discount. 

Gluten Free Donuts in Portland
My avocado party shirt from Bonobos in action in Portland, OR

Shorts

I can only think of a handful of days since I’ve lived in San Francisco where I would have been able to wear shorts all day. There’s a good chance that it’s either going to be super cold and foggy in the morning before it burns off and turns into shorts weather, or after the sun goes down and Karl the Fog rolls in to ruin all the fun. It might be worth packing a pair of shorts if you’re planning on heading outside the city to wine country or to the East Bay, where it’s decidedly warmer, but in the city you probably won’t need them. 

Recap: The Essential San Francisco Packing List

Here is a quick review of how to pack for San Francisco. 

The five essentials to wear in San Francisco:

If you’re visiting San Francisco in the winter, add a pair of rain boots and a solid rain jacket

… And party shirts. All the party shirts.

…And what not to pack for San Francisco

  • Shorts
  • Flip Flops
  • Down Jackets
  • Fancy Clothes

Read my other San Francisco guides to get insider tips on San Frnacisco from a local.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

A Perfect 4 Day San Francisco Itinerary

The Best Day Trips from San Francisco

Gluten Free San Francisco

Hungry for more detailed travel guides? Read some of my latest posts to stoke your sense of wanderlust!

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.