Plan an Off-Grid Hawaiian Adventure: Camping, Glamping, & Wilderness Backpacking around the Islands

It’s February, and cabin fever is setting in. Staring out the window, does the snow covering the dormant lawn suddenly transform to warm sand? Does the incessant hum of city traffic begin to sound more and more like waves crashing on the beach? From her isolated peaks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii calls.

We can’t get enough of this iconic archipelago. 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 less of a challenge. You don’t even need to speak another language, though pronouncing place names like a local might help you stand out from the rest of the tourists. 

We each had solo love affairs with Hawaii before we met, Hutch with the 1996 Ironman Triathlon World Championships and Shari with her 5th grade gymnastics team. Each return visit only tunes the ear more acutely to the islands’ siren song. Since living in our tiny camper, we’ve twice cashed in frequent flier miles for adventures in the Pacific. In 2013, we spent nearly 3 months volunteering on an organic farm on Kauai's northeastern shore capped off by a 10-day bikepacking trip around the island in which we camped at various county and state parks.

This winter, we covered a bit more territory by island hopping among the Big Island (Hawai’i), Kaua’i, and Maui. For just over a month, we hiked and backpacked 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 lava pools, and snorkeled in the warm tropical waters.

Without traditional careers, people wonder how we can stretch our budget to accommodate overseas travel. Simply put, while away, our home isn’t sucking down resources – we have no debt, pay no mortgage, rent, utilities, or HOA dues. Living a full time RV lifestyle, our expenses mostly travel with us. During breaks from camper life, 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 seem like fortresses of “otherness” rather than an integrated part of a community. But getting off-grid doesn’t mean that you have to pack your tent and cookset into a rucksack and head off into the bush – unless, of course, that sounds as good to you as it does to us.

Plan an Off-Grid Adventure - Hawaiian Style
From roughing it in the backcountry at the national park to tent/van camping at a beach resort, to solar powered glamping cabins with comfy beds and hammocks, our lodgings covered the spectrum of off-grid Hawaii.  Exploring the islands this way requires a bit more creativity, resourcefulness, pre-planning and permit gathering than on the mainland during the best of times. In the middle of a pandemic, it required much of our collective resources to plan an active, yet relaxed, 30-day itinerary. The best part…it got us away from crowds, high-priced hotels, and into the heart and soul of the islands. 

Put a Little Glam into your Camping

In the tropics, geckos seem to take little interest in our 
presence and go about their colorful business, even on the ceiling. As we lounge upon the porch of our gloriously simple vacation house, our “Horse Hale,” (pronounced “hah-leh” = “house,”) taking in the last light of evening, and awaiting the full moon’s rise from the azure waters of the Pacific, the geckos vie for the best position to snatch up bugs attracted by our lamp. Like pets whose job includes tidying up the floor, these tiny painted clowns of the lava fields take their tasks seriously and entertain us immensely. Blessed is the person who needs only the antics of the local residents and the nightly shifting of colors to pass the time.

“Glamorous Camping” (glamping) strikes a particular chord with travelers seeking a stronger connection to a place without the needless footprint of an expensive resort. Being small and off the grid doesn’t mean that it can’t offer big luxury in all the important ways, as we discovered with our stay in the Pahoa area of the Big Island’s south eastern shore. Rarely, have we felt such a connection to a place that so satisfied our soul.

After spending 4 nights in a tent in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the hale offered everything we needed and then some – a large screened-in bedroom, comfy queen bed, kitchen and bathroom tucked outside under the large hip roof, even a jumbo hammock for afternoon naps. Meals on the covered front porch were a special experience, paired with ocean breezes and expansive views. Did we mention that we were just down the road from some amazing hot lava pools?

Discover Your Glamping Nirvana:
We found some lovely glamping accommodations through Airbnb (using their unique array of filters) as well as through HipCamp. Forget the typical 2 bedroom apartment or house for rent that many of us associate with rental platforms – think tiny houses, treehouses, yurts, and cabanas. Beyond having a unique lodging experience, these stays expose you to the fascinating stories of your hosts and their island experience, which, as we learned, weren’t always taken from the pages of an island fantasy.

Tropical Tent & Van Camping
From our tent campsite in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, we see the glow from the lake of lava at the bottom of Kilauea’s caldera. As dusk sets in, the orange-pink reflection of the steam plume lights up the area. From our vantage point, the glow only hints at the geothermal activity going on below. Our interest grows and we promise to investigate further tomorrow. Nighttime seems to be the right time to check out what’s happening in the crater.

After a full day of hiking through craters, we pull up to the parking lot near the overlook of Kilauea’s latest eruption event after sundown. Leaning out the window to the ranger directing traffic we ask, “What do you think, should we go have dinner and come back to see the volcano later in the evening?” After letting him know that we are camping just down the road, he replies, “Oh hell yes! At this time of night, it’s like a rock concert down there. The later you can wait to go see it, the more you’ll have it to yourself.” Rangers always know what’s up; we’ve never been steered wrong.

At 10pm, the few empty parking spaces in the lot surprises us. Walking out to the overlook, we seem to swim upstream as the crowd heads back to their vehicles. Yes, we timed it just right! With visitors thinning out, we can grab a spot right by the end of the viewing area rope line and stay as long as we want without feeling like the view hogs. Even at this distance, the sight of molten lava relentlessly spreading outward punctuated by the occasional belch of earth fire flying from the pyroduct, inspires both awe and wonder. We feel some sympathy for folks who have a long drive back to their rented rooms, and vacation hales, we’ll be snug in our cozy sleeping bag in less than 20 minutes. So glad we decided to camp in the park!

Find Your Camping Groove: On the mainland, most drive-up camping looks pretty similar, with loop roads branching off of the main road, and campsites hanging off the loop road like alternating leaves on a stem. On the islands, there are very few campgrounds set up in that familiar way.  We also didn't find a single electrical hook-up, so come prepared with a small solar set-up to keep your gadgets charged. The Dyrt PRO is a great campground locator app to use to plan your trip, read reviews, use offline when you don’t have cell service, and get discounts at private campgrounds. Get 30 days FREE with this link and check out our reviews on The Dyrt for details about the places we've camped!

  • 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 with it comes a pass to experience the sunrise at the 10K ft summit, so no additional permit/reservation is needed) and for the camper cabins at Nāmakanipaio Campground. Pro tip: Campervans are allowed at most of these campgrounds, but in most cases you will be camping in a parking lot. Also, it can be VERY cold and windy up at elevation in either of these parks, so come prepared with winter camping gear!

  • 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. Camping is offered at 12 of the parks and recreation areas. Some offer additional backcountry camping and lodging opportunities as well (see below). Pro tip: Campervans are only allowed at Wai’anapanapa State Park on Maui. Also, each park closes on different days, so be sure to pay attention to these details when building your itinerary.

  • 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, and fees range widely from island to island. Use the following links to find camping information for each island: Kaua’i, Hawai’i (Big Island), Maui & Moloka’i, and O’ahu. Pro tip: Campervans are only allowed at some of the parks, so check on regulations for each park. Each park closes on different days, so be sure to pay attention to these details when building your itinerary.

  • Private Campgrounds – There are just a handful of private campgrounds on The Dyrt PRO and 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.

Island Wilderness Backpacking - The Ultimate Off-Grid Adventure
Hiking along the Nāpau trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is unlike any other trail experience we’ve ever had. Winding through newly covered lava flows and surviving remnants of the Hawaiian rainforest, the trail leads you away from the other visitors and into the heart of the park. This landscape of lava, Pahoehoe and A’a, is as old as we are, one flow erupted in 1969 and the other 1971, yet looks like it cooled just last week. Is the rising fog that obscures our vision simply low-lying clouds, or steam rising from the ground that lends such an ethereal vibe to this trail experience? Closer inspection proves that the day’s rain quickly transforms back into a gas by the ever present geothermal heat so close to the surface.

Our only guides are the regularly spaced ahu (stacks of stones) to mark the path. Should the fog roll in dense and heavy our only choice would be to sit tight, set up camp right on the spot, and wait it out. With little to no evidence of a worn trail along the ground, hikers must rely on going from ahu to ahu in low visibility.

We spent 3 days out in the backcountry in this quiet region of the park which BTW didn’t provide reliable water sources, so we carried in 18 liters to last us. Yeah, you read that was heavy!  On the way back out we were practically skipping from the lack of weight in our packs.

Grab Permits for Backcountry Adventure:
There are several wilderness camping and lodging options on the islands. Some are primitive sites located in dense tropical forests or on top of ancient lava flows, others offer remote cabins and shelters along the coast or deep into canyons and craters. Backcountry permits and a small fee are required for all of these camping options and reservations fill up quickly for some of the more popular trails and cabins. Every park has a different reservation window, so plan accordingly.
  • Kaua’i – Backpacking options on the island include the intensely popular Kalalau Trail in the Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park and in Waimea Canyon State Park along the Kukui Trail and Canyon Trail. Pro tip: Both of these trails can be very slippery and muddy when wet. To stay safe and upright, you will be hiking slowly, so plan on doubling or even tripling the time it typically takes you to hike.

  • MauiHalekalā National Park offers 2 gorgeous wilderness camping options, and 3 historic wilderness cabins. Pro tip: These trails are at high altitude (7-10K feet) and range from steep, rocky terrain to lava flows to loose sand and gravel. Plan extra time for hiking due to the high elevation and challenging terrain.

  • Hawai’i (Big Island)Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park boasts 7 incredible and diverse wilderness camping opportunities, ranging from sea level to over 13,000 feet. Pro tip: Many of the trails are at high altitude (7-13K feet) and range from steep, rocky terrain to lava flows to loose sand, gravel, and mud. Plan extra time for hiking due to the high elevation and challenging terrain.

Hawaiian Vanlife - Surfboard not Included

“Please don’t park here unless you’re surfing,” implores the sign along the rutted out dirt road leading to an overlook of the ocean and stunning views of neighboring islands Moloka’i and Lanai. It also leads to several barefoot trails winding down to the water and one of the better surf breaks along the north west shore. We hang back until around sunset before finding our parking spot for the evening. It’s only then that the more surfboard-laden vehicles start heading back into town. At night, this busy road becomes a peaceful resting spot.

Opening the back door to our rented 1990 VW Vanagon, we catch the last light of the day and the cool ocean breeze, making this one of the more stunning boondocking places we’ve ever experienced. Between sunset and sunrise this road is quiet, peaceful, and lovely. At around 5:45am, the daily procession of folks catching a few waves before work begins. Not sure if this is universally true but surfers really like to pump the reggae to 11 no matter the time of day.

Just back down the hill towards town lies a stunning rock beach at Honolua Bay, with some of the best snorkeling access on the Hawaiian islands. Here we meet Jimmy, who owns much of the property adjacent to the beach and acts as its caretaker. A super friendly guy full of local beta, he falls in love with our van, and invites us to camp down on his property. It’s tempting, but as we look around, we see a number of Hawaii feral chickens. We’ve had that bad night of sleep before; roosters like to get up and strut their stuff even earlier than surfers do.

Find Campervan & Jeep Rentals: 
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 you rent the vehicle from, as the locals know the territory and the rules/ethics on their island. Campervans are NOT allowed in many campgrounds, so be sure to check regulations before making your reservations.

While we love to camp reservation-less, previous experience on Kaua’i showed us this wasn’t easy. We still left enough room in our plans to wander, linger, or move on if the rain simply wouldn’t stop falling, or the noisy roosters were too plentiful.  So, whenever those snow induced daydreams have you craving flip-flops and board shorts, keep in mind that you don’t have to spend a fortune in luxury all-inclusive resorts to enjoy an adventure on the islands. Rolling off-grid doesn’t mean suffering, you just might find yourself loving it as much as we do.


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