If you dream of exploring Maui beyond the busy resort towns and the luxury hotels, of escaping somewhere no one will try to sell you a snorkel tour or a luau show, or of falling asleep under the stars and waking up next to the ocean, then this is the Maui trip you’ve been waiting for.
Camping on Maui hadn’t ever occurred to me prior to this trip. Hauling camping gear over from the mainland seemed impractical, and Hawaii campsites had a dicey reputation. I wouldn’t have known where to get started even if I’d wanted to. Enter Aloha Outdoors.
Guys, camping on Maui is rad. Bringing gear from the mainland or buying it new on Maui is not rad, but luckily, with a vintage Westfalia Camper from Aloha Outdoors, you don’t need to do either. And the campsites we visited? They were straight up scenes from Eden. Over four days, we got to experience some of the most popular and magical places in East Maui nearly to ourselves after the crowds had gone home. And since many locals also sport VW campers, we blended right in.
Here’s the lowdown on one of the best thing I’ve ever done in the Aloha State.
For three nights, we were the proud temporary guardians of a vintage VW Westfalia Camper from Aloha Outdoors. They rent vans with both manual and automatic transmissions, but we were recommended to go manual for the Hana Highway, which put Ian in the driver’s seat — I prefer being navigator, anyway. The starting rate is $125 per night.
These vintage beauties sleep four with one full-size bed in the body of the camper and one full-size bed in the pop-up. It also boasts a kitchenette with a dual burner gas stove, a sink with a water pump, and plenty of storage space for food & drinks. While the mini-fridges don’t function, they do serve as great storage, and a cooler is provided for keeping things cool. There’s also a built-in dining table, though we tended to eat outside at the beach chairs and table that are also available for a nominal $10 fee per booking.
The campers came kitted out with camping basics like a flashlight, a screwdriver, a first aid kit, jump cables, paper towels and toilet paper, and all the pots and pans you’d need to cook a meal. You’ll also want to rent the “camping kit” of sheets, pillows, and towels for $25 per booking.
I mentioned in an earlier post that we thought long and hard before embarking on this adventure. Rave reviews road trips in these vintage gems are interspersed with horror stories from those who broke down on the road, found themselves sharing their van with little critters, and struggled to drive the temperamental Westies. But what do you expect from a vehicle as old as your parents?
Ian and I talked a lot about the pros and cons and what we’d do if we ended up in a tight spot, and we decided the risk was worth the adventure. We were absolutely delighted that other than a quick van-swap out when we realized the cigarette lighter in our van wasn’t supplying power when we stopped to supply shop, our trip went off without a hitch. While it wasn’t necessarily easy, Ian loved driving that old Westie around East Maui. But the important part was that we had mentally prepared for every situation, and then got to be pleased as punch when it all went swimmingly.
If the idea of your ride breaking down mid-trip would leave you in a total and complete meltdown, fear not — there are much more reliable options. Aloha Otdoors also offers modern, kitted-out minivans and SUVs that have way less drama than their vintage brethren.
Campgrounds on Maui
In East Maui, where our trip was focused, there are three campgrounds. Each one comes with rave reviews and I can’t think of a better plan than speaking a night at each as you inch your way along the Hana Highway, one of the world’s most beautiful roads.
• YMCA Camp Keanae: Privately owned campground in the small town of Keanae, often booked out in full by large groups. Not getting to stay here our first night was our one regret from our trip, but it is the most expensive campground on Maui at $25 per person or $40 per family. It’s unclear if as an unmarried couple we would have qualified for the “family” rate or had to pay $50 total. There’s a fully equipped fitness center on-site as well as two bathhouses with hot showers. Drinking water and fire pits are available. Discounts available for YMCA members.
• Waianapanapa State Park: A state campground on a beautiful black sand beach. The designated area for campers is not oceanfront, but it’s mere steps away in a quiet and lush little tree grove so we weren’t complaining. You must make online or in-person reservations and print them out ahead of time. Do not arrive without these or you can be denied access (in which case, drive onward to Kipahulu.) Camper rates are $18 per night for up to six persons. Waianapanapa has bathrooms with outdoor showers, grills, picnic tables, and drinking water.
• Kipahulu Campground: A national park campground next to the ‘Ohe‘O Gulch, also known as the Seven Sacred Pools. Campsites literally back up to ocean cliffs, so you can fall asleep listening to the sounds of the ocean. Camping is first-come, first-serve for a maximum of one hundred people. There is no charge for camping however entering the National Park costs $25 per vehicle. The campsites have picnic tables, grills, and pit toilets and there is no water supply available. However, water fountains and toilets are available at the Kipahulu Visitor Center, a short walk away (where I took a sink shower out of desperation.) You can stay three nights with your admission, just hold on to your ticket — but you’re limited to three nights per calendar month.
If you want to explore West Maui as well, there are two campgrounds in Olowalu, though I have no personal experience with these. West Maui is smaller and the roads are simpler to drive (with the exception of the stretch from Kapalua to Wailuku, which I have never had any desire to tackle and shouldn’t be done in these campers). Keep in mind that West Maui is infinitely more developed than East Maui, so you’ll be getting a very different experience there than our off-the-grid adventure.
• Papalaua Wayside Park: A county park that allows camping. It’s oceanfront, which is incredible, but it’s also backed by a busy highway, which is less so. There are portable toilets, picnic tables, and grills, but no showers or water supply. Camping is $10 per adult per night on weekdays and $20 per adult per night on weekends, which I find a little rich for a place with porta potties. Pets are welcome for $6 per pet on weekdays and $12 per pet on weekends. There’s a three or four night consecutive night maximum (information on official website conflicts itself and no camping on Wednesday or Thursday. Permits must be acquired ahead of time through any of Department of Parks and Recreation’s district permit offices. Due to the cost and the annoyance of having to apply in-person for permit, I’m not sure this would be my first choice.
• Camp Olowalu: A private campground that also offers a-frame cabins and glamping. Camper van sites are behind the tent camping sites about a hundred yards from the beach. Camper van rates are $20 per person per night and pets are welcome for $3 per pet per night. Amenities include flushing toilets, enclosed outdoor hot showers, fire pits, grills, dish washing stations, and drinking water. While I wish campers could park up by the water, this place seems pretty dope otherwise.
If you start doing research on campsites in Maui, you might see a few other names come up. None are suitable for the VW Westfalia. Here’s why:
• There are three hike-in campgrounds in Haleakala National Park accessible via long, strenuous treks: Paliku, Holua, and Kapalaoa. Clearly, there’s no point in renting the camper if you’re not going sleep in it, so these sites are out.
• There are two drive in campgrounds in the summit zone of Haleakala: Hosmer Grove and Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area. However, both these are no-gos for Aloha Campers as the vehicles need to stay below 5,000 feet. If you’re really keen on them, Aloha Outdoors also rents kitted-out Honda Elements perfect for heading to these sites.
• Kanaha Beach Park is still listed in some guidebooks and in some places online as a camping option, however the county park has been indefinitely closed to camping in a move to break up the homeless encampment that developed here. By most accounts I heard it was a sometimes scary, often unpleasant place for recreational camping. Sadly, Hawaii has a very big problem with drugs and with homelessness and to hear the naysayers tell it, campgrounds on Maui are nothing but glorified shelters and drug dens. Clearly that’s the opposite of the experience we had, and I think Kanaha Beach Park is a big part of why camping on Maui hasn’t had a great reputation in the past. Here’s hoping the former residents have landed somewhere safe and stable.
• Wild camping is something I’m sure many consider when renting from Aloha Outdoors. Camping on the beach for the purpose of fishing is technically legal in Maui, however pretending to fish while camping probably won’t endear you to locals. Despite playing fast and loose with some of the hiking trails, I am a rule follower when it comes to where to lay my head at night, and so I was quite content with sticking to officially designated campsites for this trip.
If you wanted to spend a whole week with a Westie, I’d do our same three night itinerary around East Maui — heck, add in another night if you just want to chill on a beach all day one day, though we didn’t feel rushed in the slightest — and spend a few nights based in one of the campsites in Olowalu exploring West Maui, too.
I got weirdly obsessed with finding “the best” stops along the road to Hana. In retrospect, that was kind of silly. Literally, almost everywhere and everything along the road to Wast Maui is amazing. Definitely get a good map and guidebook and do some research on spots you’ll love, but don’t get too hung up on which waterfall to go to or which banana bread stand to stop at (answer: all of them) and be open to surprises.
• Day 1: Kihei to Ke’anae
• Day 2: Ke’anae to Waianapanapa
• Day 3: Waianapanapa State Park to Kipahulu
• Day 4: Kipahulu to Kihei
What to Pack
• Motion Sickness Aids: Granted, this wasn’t as serious a risk for us since we took the road very slowly and stopped more frequently than day-trippers, but did I mention the 600 curves? If you’re going to have your head down in a guidebook, you might want to pack a just-in-case measure. I’m a big fan of Dramamine Non-Drowsy Naturals, which are nothing but a clinical dose of ginger and work magic on me.
• A Really Excellent Guidebook: There are a lot of guidebooks to Maui, and some of them are downright reviled by locals for giving shady advice. You can’t go wrong with the Moon Maui Guidebook, which was written by my friend and all around excellent human Kyle, who was raised on Maui and is now raising two kiddos of his own there. It has a particularly exhaustive, well-researched and original section on the Hana Highway that includes details and stops I’ve never seen explored elsewhere.
• Good Reading Material: Slowing down and camping means you’ll get to chill out and relax on the beaches other tourists just snap a photo of. Come prepared with a great book, some crossword puzzles, or whatever other analog entertainment does it for you. I had a blast reading Paul Theroux’s great satire Hotel Honolulu while reflecting on our time in Oahu.
• Fun and Silly Accessories: When Ian looked in my bag and saw my flower crown, pineapple sunglasses, and watermelon sarong, he asked, “are we going on a vacation or to a costume party?” My answer? Why not both!
• Hiking Shoes: It might be tempting to set off with nothing but flip flops, but East Maui is lush and rainy, and you’re going to wish you had proper footwear for some of the hikes you set off on once you get here. We put on trainers for our hikes at Twin Falls and The Pipiwai Trail, and many wear them to head to Kaihalulu Bay, too. I wore a pair of Nike Free trainers similar to this style.
• Bug Spray: Our stop of Keanae Arboretum aside, we didn’t struggle too much with bugs on this trip, considering our location. I’m a big fan of this organic, all-natural bug spray that comes in a recyclable aluminum bottle rather than a plastic one.
• Car Outlet: If you want to charge phones or even larger electronics like a computer or dSLR camaera, I recommend packing a charger that plugs into the cigarette lighter. This is a similar model to one which I’ve used for several trips now, and is noisy but functional.
• Sleep Mask and Ear Plugs: If you sleep in the pop-up, you’re basically sleeping in a tent on top of your car. These essentials will ensure you can sleep soundly in even at the brightest and noisiest of campsites. The campsites we stayed in were super quiet and we woke with the sun, but for weekends and the West Maui campsites that back up to highways, these would be handy.
• Headlamp: While the camper had its own lights, I’d never go camping without a headlamp! Super helpful for converting the camper and cooking dinner after dark, as well as midnight trips to the toilets. I’m obsessed with my compact, travel-friendly model.
• A Scrubba Washbag: I spent most of this trip in a bathing suit and a sarong, and did laundry when we got to our hostel in Paia. That said, if you’ve packed light (as you should for a camper) and have a longer trip, this little hand-washer is perfect for any camping jaunt. Read my full review.
• Dashboard Dancer: Would it even be a road trip in Hawaii without a hula dancer on the dash? BYO, or stop at a souvenir shop upon arrival.
Note: I received an Aloha Outdoors rental free of charge in order to write this review, however, the cost is included below for reference.
The following budget breakdown is per person, based on two people sharing costs. It is also for out-of-state residents — Hawaii locals pretty much get discounts everywhere, just ask!
• Camper Costs: $220
Prices vary slightly if you’re reserving automatic or manual, or by date, but in general a three day rental (the minimum) with camping kit and rental of chairs and a small table will set you back about $440.
One thing I’m a big fan of about Aloha Outdoors is that unlike with big brand rental agencies, you can choose your pick-up and drop-off times to suit your schedule, as long as it’s within the 7am-7pm open hours, and you don’t have to worry about extra fees piling up.
• Campground Fees: $30
We paid $9 each per night for two nights at at Wainapanapa and $12.50 each for one night at Kipahulu.
• Gas: $30
We filled up three times — once before leaving Kihei, once in Hana (just to be safe, we weren’t empty) and one more time bef3re returning in Kihei.
• Cabs: $24
We paid $48 for a metered cab from Kahului Airport to Aloha Campers — zoink. Uber gave me a $65+ estimate, so cab seems to be the way to go here. Luckily, on the other end, our friend Caitlin generously gave us a ride to our next destination of Paia.
• Groceries: $54
Unlike previous camping trips I’ve been on, we brought way less food. We only cooked breakfast and dinner since the food in Maui is soooo epic, and we wanted to munch all day! We stopped at the Safeway in Kihei and loaded up supplies for three easy campsite dinners and three camping breakfasts ( a bottle of wine, because why not.)
• Other Meals: $74
From fresh banana bread to homemade fruit popsicles to coconut vegan ice cream to kalua pork, we were constantly pulling over to brightly painted little farm stands to sample the delicious treats of Hana. We’re still talking Hawaii prices — expect to pay $6 for a banana bread, $7 for two scoops of ice cream, and $20 for a grass-fed burger and iced tea.
• Activities and Entry Fees: $0
We considered some very cool paid activities like organic farm tours or surf lessons in Hana, but in the end we were so entertained by the beaches, hikes, and waterfalls along the way, we never had to open our wallets for anything else. We are so grateful to the people of Maui for keeping these wonders free and accessible to all!
Total: $432 per person for three nights and four days of accommodation, transportation, entertainment and food on one of the most expensive islands in the world. I’m quite pleased and I wouldn’t change a thing!
• There’s an ATM at Halfway to Hana in Keanae and at Hana Gas in Hana. The latter is the only place to get gas once you’ve left Paia.
• Get ready to jam out to Jawaiian music. Jawaiian is Hawaiian style reggae, and it is pretty much non-stop on radios across the Aloha State. I love it, and driving around with the windows down and the radio on is one of my favorite things about being in Hawaii. That said, the same songs will play on repeat constantly — just roll with it and take it as a chance to memorize the lyrics. Want a primer? Download music from Common Kings, Kimie, and Irie Love to get in the mood while planning your trip.
• Know that petty theft in Hawaii is a real thing. Some people actually leave their cars unlocked and empty while hiking on Maui! We were stressed at first but we made sure all valuables were hidden in kitchenette cabinets or under seats while we were away from the camper, and that the camper was locked at all times, and otherwise left it to fate. Aloha Outdoors vans have no logos or other marketing, so it’s easy to blend in with other local rides.
• Prepare to go off the grid. We lost cell phone service frequently, and definitely didn’t have any wifi. Enjoy your digital detox!
• Plan your trip over weekdays, if possible. You’ll have the East Maui campsites to yourself — they’re mostly popular with locals, who work Monday to Friday jobs — and probably have lighter traffic on the road itself, too.
Other Road Trips
Obsessed with the idea of a camper van vacation? Check out my other adventures including a week-long dive and drive trip through Central Florida’s freshwater springs, and a five-day, three-state road trip around the Grand Canyon.
What do you think? Would you go camping in Maui?
Mahalo to Aloha Outdoors for hosting us!
Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from August of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. Right now, we’re in October of 2016 in Hawaii, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts from Jamaica, Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.