youtubeIt’s nearly November, the autumn leaves are on the ground, and the reality of a long, wet winter is slowly setting in.  You’d like to travel to a faraway land, but are still a bit shy of traveling abroad with the threat of COVID so fresh in your mind.  A warm beach sounds divine, so what about van camping in Hawaii?

We can’t get enough of this iconic archipelago.  While still in the U.S., did you know it remains the furthest land mass from any continent on Earth?  The conspicuous absence of lace-up shoes, the multi-hued, volcanic sands, the swimming without a wetsuit, and travel that requires neither passport nor currency exchange all make travel here less of a challenge.  You don’t even need to speak another language – and if you remember to use Spanish vowel sounds, pronounce every syllable, then let the place names roll off your tongue…you just might be mistaken for a local. 

Since living in our tiny vintage camper and traveling the continent for the past decade, we’ve twice cashed in frequent flier miles (for under $50 for both of us) to adventure in the South Pacific. During breaks from Hamlet, we seek out interesting, inexpensive, and unique accommodations that allow us to really dive into a place rather than ensconce ourselves in luxury at a fancy resort or hotel.  Even if we could afford them, resorts and hotels just aren’t our jam; they seem like fortresses of “otherness” rather than an integrated part of an island community. 

This past winter, we spent about a month in the tropics and covered more territory than our previous visits by island hopping among the Big Island (Hawai’i), Kaua’i, and Maui.  Our goals were to live off-grid as much as possible, stay in some unique, off-the-beaten track places, explore both national parks in the state, and try out vanlife – Hawaiian style.  We mixed up our accommodations a bit, did some van camping, tent camping, and stayed in a few off-grid accommodations through AirBnB.  Note: If you are interested in doing the same, check out this online comprehensive camping guide to the islands which includes tent camping, glamping, and backpacking options as well.

We hiked along volcanic beaches, through craters and lush tropical forests.  We watched Humpback whales breach and play, added new tropical birds to our life list, swam in waterfalls, soaked in hot springs heated by the volcano, and snorkeled in the warm tropical waters. 

How is Hawaiian Camping Different?

On the mainland, most drive-up camping follows a familiar set up, loop roads branching off a main road, with campsites hanging off the loop road like alternating leaves on a stem.  On the islands, there are very few campgrounds set up that way.  And, we didn’t find any which could accommodate a large RV or trailer.  These places are “island-sized” – designed for tents, vans, truck campers, and Jeeps with a rooftop tent, which are quite popular.  Another thing we didn’t find was a single electrical hook-up, so we came prepared with portable solar gear to keep our gadgets charged. 


Solar Set Up at Camp

National Parks
Two national parks are located on the islands: Hawai'i Volcanoes (Big Island) and Haleakalā (Maui). Each park offers small, low tech, drive-up and walk-in campgrounds. Many are first-come, first-served, but reservations are required at Hosmer Grove Campground in Haleakalā and for the camper cabins at Nāmakanipaio Campground.  If you have an America the Beautiful Interagency Pass (or equivalent) for the national parks, be sure to bring it as both of these parks require it for entry.  To make the most of your visit, check out our recent article for some additional tips and tricks for visiting U.S. national parks.

State Parks
Composed of 50 parks encompassing approximately 30,000 acres on 5 islands, these parks offer a variety of outdoor recreation and heritage opportunities. While camping is offered at 12 of the parks and recreation areas, campervans are currently only allowed at Wai’anapanapa State Park on Maui. 

County Parks
There are numerous county beach parks spread across 5 islands. Each island is its own county (with the exception of Molokai which is managed by Maui), and each county manages their own parks and permits. There is NO free camping in county parks, and fees range widely from island to island.  This information is buried deep within each county’s website, so we recommend using the following links to find camping information for each island: Kaua’iHawai’i (Big Island)Maui & Moloka’i, and O’ahu

Private Campgrounds – There are a handful of private campgrounds listed on The Dyrt PRO as well as some HipCamp options, but be prepared to pay resort prices. Campervans are generally allowed, but be sure to ask what the parking situation is like as you might find yourself in a glorified parking lot.  Get 30 days FREE on The Dyrt PRO with this link and check out our reviews on The Dyrt for details about the places we've camped!


Camp Olawalu

Pro Tips: 

  • While we typically camp nearly reservation-less on the mainland, previous experience in Hawai’i showed us this wasn’t as easy. We still left enough room in our plans to wander, to linger, to move on if the rain simply wouldn’t stop falling, or the noisy roosters who crow all night were too plentiful.  Bring ear plugs!

  • Camping in the national parks is very inexpensive because they are run by the federal government, so the state of Hawai’i doesn’t add a hefty surcharge for non-locals. Campervans are allowed at these campgrounds, but in most cases, you will be camping in a parking lot next to the tent campground.  Also, it can be VERY cold and windy up at the elevations in either of these parks, so come prepared with full winter camping gear!

  • Campervans are only allowed at a few of the state and county parks, so check on regulations for each park. Each park closes for a full day on different days of the week, so be sure to pay attention to these details when building your itinerary. This closure allows them to do some deep cleaning, lawn mowing, and keeps people from taking up full-time residence in these campgrounds.


Wai'anapana Park Campground

Tropical Van Camping: Tips & Tales from the Islands

We tried out 2 different styles of inexpensive camper vans – a modern, converted minivan and a Volkswagen Vanagon from the early 90’s.  While both had their unique features, can you guess which might have been our favorite?  What can we say…we love to roll vintage! 

While the narrow, winding roads, low hanging trees, small parking lots, and tiny campgrounds simply can’t accommodate larger RV’s, modern campervans, minivans, vintage Vdubs, and Jeeps/trucks with rooftop tents are easily sourced from a variety of rental agencies and private parties, and typically range between $100-$300 per night.  Check out Go RV Rentals, RV Share, Outdoorsy, and Airbnb (using their “Camping” filter) for some great options!  Pro Tip:  If you are interested in boondocking, be sure to clarify the options with the folks from whom you rent the vehicle, as the locals know the territory and the rules/ethics on their island.


Hawaiian Van Life

From our campsite at Kulanaokuaiki Campground (2,700 ft elevation), we could see the glow from the lake of lava at the bottom of Kilauea’s caldera in the heart of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. As dusk set in, the orange and pink reflection of the steam plume lit up the area as we prepared our evening meal.  From our vantage point, this glow only hinted at the geothermal activity going on in the distance.  Our interest grew and we promised to investigate further the next day!

We got a tip from a Park Ranger that crowds begin to thin out at the eruption viewing area later in the evening, but between dusk and 10pm it could be “like a rock concert down there.”  While others were making their long drives back to their lodges and hotels, we were able to grab a spot right at the front of the viewing area rope line and stay as long as we wanted without feeling like the view hogs.  The knowledge that we’d be snug in bed within 20 minutes at our campsite in the park, freed us to linger and marvel at the display that Mother Nature (or “Pele” as the Hawaiians call this goddess of fire) cooked up for us!


Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

In Wai’anapanapa State Park on Maui, we met tourists running around trying to get it all in within their designated 3-hour day visit reservation window in this park.  But, as overnight guests in their campground, we felt like we had all the time in the world to go just a bit further along the coastal hike, snorkel and swim in the tropical water, watch the sea explode through the blowhole, explore the beach caves, and watch both the sunrise and sunset.

Staying in this gorgeous park also gave us the freedom to leave for the day to drive to Hana and back, do some hiking in the national park, swim in some waterfalls, and more -- without the long, exhausting drive that most tourists try to fit in during a day trip from Kahului.  This place is stunning, small, and well-known, so you’ll need to reserve early if you want more than a single night.  We’d recommended at least 3 nights here, as there’s so much to explore. 


Wai'anapnapa Coastal Trail

While exploring Maui, one of our bucket list items was to experience the sunrise from the 10,023 ft Puu Ulaula summit in Haleakala National Park – only a short walk from the parking area.  Securing a permit a month in advance AND getting up at 3am to drive up the winding, steep road to the top from 2 hours away – only to be shut down by fog – is what thousands of tourists experience every year.  We discovered that camping in the park for 3 nights allowed us the freedom to sleep in much later, poke our heads out of the van to see if the skies were clear before making the drive, and significantly reduced our time to the top (just a 30-minute drive from Hosmer Grove Campground).  We were lucky enough to get a clear view of the sunrise twice, from very different vantage points, which turned out to be an extra special bucket list bonus!  And, nothing goes better with a sunrise photo session than an amazing breakfast cooked in the van.  Pro tip:  Securing a camping reservation inside the park is also your permit for watching the sunrise from the peak – no separate reservation needed!   Keep in mind that no permit is needed to watch sunset, but get there early as the crowds can get crazy.


Freezing Up at the Halekala Summit Sunrise

With all of this said, keep in mind that the campground is at 7,000 feet in elevation, so winter clothing, fluffy blankets, and a winter sleeping bag are important, even inside a van.  Many of our neighbors froze in their rented tent-topped Jeeps, with their beach camping blankets, so come prepared for serious winter temps in the campground…and even colder at the summit.  Bring as many layers as you can put on your body!

While most tourists come just for sunrise or sunset, this park has so much more to offer.  While the hiking is challenging, the views are nearly unmatched in any national park.  Hiking the Halemau’u Haleakala Overlook & Sliding Sands (Keonehe’ehe’e) Trails are definitely on our top 10 day hikes list (accessible from a road) within a national park! 


Hiking in Haleakala National Park

Opening the back door to our rented classic VW Vanagon, we caught the last light of the day and the cool ocean breeze, making this one of the more stunning boondocking places we have ever experienced.  As we cooked dinner outside, we watched Humpback whales breach and play from the cliffs high above the sea, with Moloka’i Island setting the backdrop for this magical scene. 

Between sunset and sunrise, this road is quiet, peaceful, and lovely.  But, at around 5:45am, the daily procession of dawn patrol surfers arrive.  Not sure if this is universally true but surfers really like to pump the reggae to 11 no matter the time of day.  Did we mention those earplugs?


Boondocking on Maui

Just back down the hill toward the town of Kapalua lies a stunning rocky beach at Honolua Bay, with some of the easiest and best snorkeling access on the Hawaiian Islands.  Here we met Jimmy, who owns much of the property adjacent to the beach and acts as its caretaker. A super friendly guy full of local information and plenty of aloha, he fell in love with our vintage van, and invited us to camp down on his property.  That’s Hawaii hospitality for ya!  It sure was tempting, but as we looked around, we saw a number of Hawaiian feral chickens and politely turned down his generous offer.  We’ve had that bad night of sleep before; be warned, roosters like to get up and strut their stuff even earlier than surfers do!

So, whenever those cold rain and snow induced daydreams have you craving flip-flops, fresh pineapple, and board shorts, remember that you don’t have to spend a fortune on all-inclusive luxury to enjoy an adventure on the islands.  Rolling off-grid doesn’t mean you have to suffer; you just have to let yourself love it as much as we do.  Aloha!


Fun in the Sun

Shari and Hutch
Author: Shari and HutchEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
In 2012, Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison left behind careers and a comfortable home in North Carolina to travel with the vintage camper trailer they lovingly restored, outfitted with solar, and named "Hamlet." What began as a short break from careers and responsibility quickly turned into a love affair with roadlife. They have parlayed their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking gigs from coast to coast. Known to their friends as simply Shari & Hutch, you can learn more about their full-time, solar-powered adventures on their website at freedominacan.com.

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