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Camping in Hawaii?

Kahua Lehua, at Ho'omaluhia Botanical Gardens in the rainforest, the only Honolulu campsites not at the beach.
Kahua Lehua, at Ho'omaluhia Botanical Gardens in the rainforest, the only Honolulu campsites not at the beach.
Photo:Honolulu.gov website

Want to go to Hawaii but don’t want to splurge for a traditional hotel-on-Waikiki vacation? Whether you’ve been before or not, perhaps you aren’t drawn to the hula skirts, mai thais or flowers on the food. But if you’re a nature lover, a hiker, a bird watcher, you must go see that gorgeous set of islands in the Pacific. And an added plus is that Hawaii is a state of the U.S., so no passport or visa is required.

Kauai County, Poipu Beach Park
Photo: Kauai County

There are several options, and the most natural and the least expensive is camping. On the beach or in the mountains! If you already own backpacking equipment, like a small backpacker tent, sleeping pad, and light sleeping bag, you have all you need. Of course, bring along a swimsuit for swimming in the surf, a rain jacket, and a light jacket or sweatshirt for cool evenings. If you have a snorkel, toss that in too, as the islands abound with beautiful places to experience underwater flora and fauna.

Your biggest expense for the trip will be plane fare to Hawaii. Usually the least expensive fares are to Honolulu. Shop carefully online (click these links for Expedia, Travelocity and Kayak, and you can save hundreds of dollars. Check for baggage fees, especially if you’re carrying camping equipment.

Then you’ll need to decide which islands to visit. For great information on the attractions on each island, click here. How many islands you choose will be based upon the amount of time and money you have to spend in Hawaii and how long you want to stay on each island. Which ones you visit will depend on what you like to do. They're all different. Six are readily available to tourists, but one, Lanai, doesn’t have camping facilities.

You can book a round-trip ticket from your nearest airport to Honolulu and then arrange separate flights to each island you intend to visit, or you can arrange a multi-destination ticket. In most cases, the former is the most economical, with each inter-island flight costing between $65 and $100 per person. These short flights run frequently, as often as hourly, so it’s easy to plan your schedule. Tickets are more economical the closer the islands are together, so be sure to notice the arrangement of the islands and plan accordingly. They are in a chain from northwest to southeast, with Kauai first, then Oahu (where Honolulu is), Maui, Molokai, and the island of Hawaii, called the “Big Island.” Most flights from the mainland arrive in Honolulu, so you’ll have to decide whether to head from there north to Kauai or south toward Maui. And you may be able to find, online or through a travel agent, package deals in which a few days in a Waikiki hotel are included in the roundtrip airfare, for no or not much additional cost. Camping is available in the Honolulu area, but may not be as convenient on Oahu as on the other islands, with some parks being open only on weekends, so hotels there are a convenient option. If you do that, be sure to indicate when making reservations that you only need a hotel for a few nights.

To drive to campgrounds, you’ll need a rent car. While you’re making flight reservations online, you may include car rentals at less expense than booking them separately. The cost to rent a compact car is about $25 per day or $200 per week. And you may choose not to have a car on Oahu, especially if you’re not camping there, as public transportation is readily available, and parking fees on Oahu can be quite high. The roads are good, and each island is small enough that you can drive all around each in one or two days, seeing most of the sights, and staying in more than one campground, yet not driving many miles. The cost of round-trip air fare, inter-island transport and car rental for four islands may run between $1000 and $1800 per person, depending on where you’re flying from. Of course, it will cost less for fewer islands. And if you’re traveling with other people, you can share the car expense, lowering the cost per person.

You’ll want to book most campgrounds online and print the permits before your trip, as few of the public campsites have the availability of purchasing permits on site. The cost savings between campgrounds and hotels can be hundreds of dollars per week per person. Websites for national parks, state parks, county parks and forest preserves are convenient and helpful, with a full description of each area, prices, availability of drinking water, fireplaces, and showers, etc. Click here for an overview of camping in Hawaii. Of course, most camp areas are for tent campers, but there are even a few RV parks in Hawaii. Click here for RV info.

Forest reserves are the least developed of all choices. Dirt roads or trails may lead to wilderness campsites, sometimes requiring hikes up steep trails, but your rewards are quiet, privacy and unspoiled views. Pupukea Forest Reserve on the northern tip of Oahu and Waimanu Campsite on Hawaii, the “Big Island" are excellent examples. No amenities other than an occasional pit toilet are included. Click here for access to permits for forest preserves.

County parks are a handy option. Click here for info about and maps of the 10 parks on the island of Hawaii and here to make reservations. All of these sites are on beaches, and most of the campsites cost $20 per person per night. On Kauai, county parks are quite inexpensive, only $3 per person, and payments may be made at the park in some cases. Click here for details. The county of Maui includes both the islands of Maui and Molokai. The website for that county includes two camp areas on each island. Click here for info on those camps and a link to a downloadable application for campsites, which can be printed and mailed. Fees are $5 to $8 per night per person. If you want to camp in the vicinity of Honolulu, click here for options and reservations. There are both city and county parks, and the cost is $32 for a 3-night permit and $52 for a 5-night permit. These can be obtained either online or in the Fasi Municipal Building.

There are 55 state parks in Hawaii (click here for official state park guide), and 14 provide overnight camping. Click here for maps, specific info and reservations. You’ll need to use “log in” at the top right to create an account for reservations. Most state parks charge $18 to $20 per night, per person. Check for availability, especially on Oahu, as a few parks are only open for a few days around weekends. And in most cases, campers are limited to 3 to 5 consecutive nights in one park. Special rules apply to camping at Na Pali Coast State Park on Kauai because of the extreme popularity of the wilderness campsites there. Most sites can be reserved up to 1 year in advance online, and a printed permit for any park should be carried for proof. You can also click here for reservations.

Camping in vehicles and camp trailers is not allowed in state parks except in one small area for camper vans in Waianapanapa State Park on Maui. It’s at the end of the magnificent and renowned Hana Highway, one of the most highly ranked drives in the world. Be sure to start out on that road several hours before sunset. Though it’s only 68 miles long, it has 620 curves with 59 bridges, of which 46 are only one lane, all winding through one of the most fabulous sections of coastal rainforest in the world. You will need 2 to 4 hours to make the drive. Tent camping is also allowed at Waianapanapa State Park, and a spectacular black-sand swimming beach is nearby.

Two national parks offer camping. In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on the Big Island, some sites are drive-in and others are hike-in sites. Mauna Kea is the highest of the volcanoes above sea level, at 13,784 feet. These are very high, so if you camp at one of these parks, bring warm clothing and sleeping bags, as both are in the mountains, with nighttime temperatures often falling into the thirties. There are also drive-in and hike-in sites in Haleakala National Park, on Maui. Entrance fees to these parks are $10 per carload for 7 days, and some of the campsites are free while others charge $15 per night. Check websites for specific info (click here and here for Volcanoes National Park and here and here for Haleakala National Park.) Camping in the parks makes visiting the awesome sites in and around the volcanoes quite convenient.

One downside to camping in Hawaii is that several campgrounds don’t provide showers, and others just have outside or beach showers, with nude bathing prohibited. Especially for the ladies, getting the salt and sand off without revealing too much, even with a swimsuit on, may be tricky. Often these sites are near the shore of ocean, river or lake where you can rinse off, but the water may still leave your skin sandy or salty, so that leaves much to be desired.

Another option is guided camping excursions on several of the islands. Click here , and type in “camping” at the top right to discover some possibilities. Those trips cost more than camping on your own, but the tour companies provide the equipment and transportation and arrange many outdoor activities.

Planning ahead for meals is important for those on self-directed trips. If you’re in one of the populated areas, especially near a beach, at mealtime, there are plenty of restaurants and fast food. And you can often save considerable money by walking or driving a few blocks inland, away from the shore. There may be a price difference of almost 50%. Some campgrounds provide grills or campfire rings with grates, and some provide firewood or allow campers to gather it in the area. But in many campgrounds, you’ll want freeze-dried camping food and a backpacking stove or no-cook food items, silverware, and a GI can opener. (For suggestions, click here for a previous article, “No-Cook Camping.") In some parks, no drinking water is available. Check websites for that info. You can buy jugs of water at markets or convenience stores on the way from the airport to the park.

Weather is so consistent in each area that the best advice is to consider altitude and direction when planning your trip. Temperatures along the coastlines average a low of 63 and a high of 88, including both winter and summer. Of course mountain camping is much cooler. The northeast corner of each island is generally the rainiest and coolest. Click here for a link to Hawaiian weather. You’ll find it very easy to be comfortable while camping there.

The islands have evolved many species of plants and animals that can’t be found elsewhere. Camping is an ideal activity to allow you to see many different species not found by tourists in the more-developed areas. There are no native terrestrial amphibians or reptiles, though there are sea turtles and sea snakes. Watch for the endangered nene goose, the state bird, as well as many other beautiful and interesting birds. The only native land mammal is the Hawaiian hoary bat, although the monk seal lives part of its life on land also. Sea creatures are part of the allure of the islands. They include whales, dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, seals, sea lions and a wide array of bright-colored and unusual tropical fish. Some of the many introduced animal species, of which many have caused extinction of other animals, include cats, pigs, goats, chickens, rats, mongooses (which were introduced to control the rat population), wallabies, pronghorn antelope, and of course, humans, which are perhaps the most invasive of all.

So with all this information available and choices of inexpensive options, you can have a wonderful trip to Hawaii, explore from one to five islands, camp in exotic locations, and have tasty meals at a much lower cost than you ever thought. And best of all, while other tourists are heading back to hotels for the night, campers have the privilege of spending the night out in nature, with the surf or the mountains, palm trees, starlight and the moon. What are you waiting for? Just go!