Hawaii on a Budget: Guide to Camping on Kauai and the Big Island
Hawaii conjures up images of sunsets, surf, volcanoes, palm trees, hippies playing ukulele and… empty wallets. There’s no denying Hawaii’s an expensive choice of holiday destination, but there are ways to keep the costs down. If you need big fluffy bathrobes and tiny bottles of ‘complimentary’ conditioner* to be happy you may as well just stop reading now. But if you crave a Hawaiian adventure without the lavish price tag then this might be the blog for you. Camping is the answer!
*Honestly, is there ever enough conditioner in those tiny bottles for anybody other than a balding man taking care of his two hair strands?
Camping is a great way to explore Hawaii on a budget. Forsaking fancy resorts* left us with enough money to rent a small car and loop around both Kauai and the Big Island. All up our camping gear cost us approximately $200 (USD). That sounds like a lot… until you compare it with the price of one night’s accommodation in a hotel. Bargain! $200 got us a Walmart tent (don’t buy something too cheap, it needs to be mostly waterproof), an airbed, two pillows, a sheet, a sleeping bag, a camping stove and a pan. And obviously if you’re flying from home you can just pack most of this!
*Okay…full disclosure: I fricking love fancy resorts, and we did spend two nights in one moderately fancy resort (it was the cheapest one we could find that still had a pool).
Reality check time
Before I get into the details it’s time for a quick reality check. Throw away all your “freedom in the wilderness” style fantasies of camping alone in nature wherever you feel like pitching your tent. Camping in Hawaii is highly regulated and you need to purchase permits in advance to camp at basically all the campgrounds. The traffic can be terrible and what counts for a “car” is what most in Australia would call a “truck”. And while wilderness does exist, many areas are highly developed, touristy and down right tacky. And don’t even get me started on the exclusive, glitzy resort strips only accessible if you can name more than seven designer shoe brands.
Also, ‘Hawaiian’ pizza isn’t even Hawaiian. It’s Canadian.
Now that that’s out of the way… camping in Hawaii was one of the best things I’ve ever done. During the day popular tourist spots can be teeming with people, but they really come to life in the late evenings when all the day-trippers have gone back to sipping cocktails by the pool (sigh, I love cocktails).
Wake up to the sound of crashing waves and chirping birds. Take a morning stroll along an empty Hawaiian beach (taking care not to step on all the turtles lazing on the shore of course). Watch the sunset without also having to watch a bunch of other humans that are much richer than you (ugh).
From active volcanoes and steaming sulphur vents to powerful waterfalls and pounding surf, Hawaii is full of (somewhat) affordable adventures.
Most camping on Kauai and the Big Island is by permit only. Permits MUST be obtained in advance. They can’t be purchased at campgrounds, with the exception of camping within Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, where camping is first come first served.
Camping is by permit only…Just making sure that point got through.
The policing of camping permits varied a lot while we were camping, from twice a day to not at all. County campgrounds were particularly strict at checking permits. Our sore, sleepy eyes were almost blinded by a rave party of bright torches as a huge group of people scrambled to get their permits from their cars… at 5am! Those permit checkers are pretty close to evil. The first time I heard the ominous sounds of whispering outside my tent in the middle of the night I was sure I was about to get murdered.
It’s easiest to display your permit on your tent at all times so you don’t get rudely woken up. Hang them in a little plastic sleeve folded in a way that ensures all relevant details are visible.
Booking Camping Permits
Unfortunately there isn’t a single, centralised camping permit booking system that covers all the islands of Hawaii. There are separate groups of campsites operated by the State of Hawaii and by each islands county. Additionally, camping in Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island is operated separately.
Be careful to read each sites conditions and facilities before making your choice and booking. Some campsites are only accessible by hiking, or unsealed roads that will void your rental car agreements. Having said that, it’s definitely possible to get a full camping experience without a 4×4. We did it in the cheapest rental available, despite the rental agency trying to convince us we absolutely needed to upgrade our car to a full sized Jeep (sneaky liars).
County operated camping on Kauai:
Cost: County camping on Kauai is super don’t-even-have-to-resort-to-two-minute-noodles-for-dinner kind of cheap! At $3 per person per night (for non residents) you will not find a cheaper way to experience the island. The only exception is at the Lydgate Camping Ground where sites are $25 per night due to its popular and central location (close to Lihue).
Booking and Availability: Because they haven’t discovered the Internet yet, no online booking is available for county-operated camping on Kauai. Walking into the Lihu’e, Kalaheo and Hanapepe Neighbourhood Centres is the easiest way to purchase permits. Keep in mind they’re only open Monday to Friday and have differing opening hours (you can check these here: http://www.kauai.gov/Camping). We purchased our permits in person with cash at the Lihue Neighbourhood Centre. The process was very easy and took less than half an hour.
Alternatively you can mail in an application form in advance (downloadable on their website), but you need to pay with a money order and apply long enough in advance to receive your permits by mail.
Note: Every campsite is closed for at least one day a week so plan your stays carefully.
Don’t miss: Camping at Haena Beach Park and hiking the Kalalau Trail from nearby Ke’e beach.
A good day hike option is to walk the beginning 2 miles of the Kalalau Trail to Hanakapi`ai beach, then do the 2 miles to Hanakapi`ai Falls. If you’re anything like me this will be more than enough walking for you! Watch out for all the feral cats hanging around the waterfall though… we made the tragic mistake of packing tuna for a picnic lunch…
County operated camping on Hawaii (the Big Island):
Cost: Admittedly, at $20 per person per night, the cost for these campsites is quite expensive for just the privilege to sleep on the ground in a tent, but it’s still cheaper than other options.
Booking and Availability: County operated campsites on the Big Island can be easily reserved online and refunds are available online up to 15 days prior to reservation date. The online system shows how many camp spots are available for all days of the week.
Don’t Miss: Camping at Punalu`u Beach Park where you can watch the turtles lazing on the black sand beach as the sun sets.
State of Hawaii permits (for ALL islands):
Cost: State run camping is much more expensive than county run sites on Kauai. The cost can be up to $50 per night for some “shelters”.
Booking: Everything is managed online. Easy peasy, although refunds aren’t possible within 15 days of your stay.
DO miss: Manuka State Wayside on the Big Island. If you want to feel like you might get murdered in your sleep then you should consider camping in this spooky, spider ridden “open shelter”. We had pre-paid permits for this site but when we got there we decided that not being hacked to death with a blunt axe in our sleep was worth forfeiting the money. Punalu`u Beach Park (a county operated campsite) isn’t too far away and is actually worth staying at.
Camping in Volcanoes National Park
There are two camping choices within Volcanoes National Park. The first is the Kulanaokuaiki camping area that allows camping ($10 a night per site) for up to seven days in a month on a first come first served basis. Just keep in mind that there are still entrance fees for Volcanoes National Park. There’s no running water, but there’s a clean and relatively smell-free drop toilet. I had the pleasure of using it. Keep that in mind when you put your bum on the seat… mmmm….we are now bum friends.
The second choice is Nāmakanipaio campground, located conveniently on the side of Highway-11. Sites here are $15 a night and are first come first served. Pay by putting cash into a little envelope when you arrive. Alternatively, since the campsites are operated by Hawaii Volcanoes Lodge Company, you can always pop into the nearby Volcano House and pay by card. The sites are grassy, surrounded by huge eucalyptus trees, and there’s nice clean toilets and running water.
All of that is irrelevant though, because the highlight of this campsite has got to be sleeping under the red glowing clouds reflecting the light of the red-hot magma from the nearby Halemau’ma’u crater. If you don’t want to sleep within walking distance of an active volcano then you’re totally and utterly crazy!
So if the cost of Hawaii is putting you off but you’re still desperate to see the quirky chickens that have overtaken Kauai, hike through lava tubes, fly over active volcanoes or get lei’d at the airport, then camping is for you. Except for the lei part…unlike in the movies that didn’t actually happen. Devastating.