*Thank you to Outdoorsy for sponsoring part of our Big Island Hawaii campervan rental trip and this giveaway! Scroll all the way to the bottom of this article to enter our $500 Outdoorsy RV Rental credit…
We experienced a campervan rental (vintage VW) in Texas back in 2020 for a weekend, and we really enjoyed our time exploring in it. But that experience was nothing compared to our time in this Hymer Aktiv campervan exploring the Big Island of Hawaii! This experience made us realize that vanlife may indeed be a great fit for us…soon.
For us, there is honestly nothing quite like the thrill of exploring a new landscape, a new culture, a new environment. No travel experience has made us feel as alive and energized as the unlimited exploration afforded by the RV life.
You can stay as long as you choose, go wherever you please, meet whoever you were meant to meet, and simply appreciate each surprising moment.
For our exploring dollar, we truly believe it’s wisest to leave your “best laid plans” behind and instead choose to be pleasantly amazed with how the experience comes together all on its own. (Hint: Your need to be in control could be hurting you in the long run.)
And the weekend we recently spent in a converted Dodge Sprinter van we rented through Outdoorsy, equipped with toilet, shower and great solar power setup, opened our eyes to the next level of leaving behind those obnoxious plans and simply going wherever the wind blows you. It was liberating and kinda thrilling!! (We may be hooked.)
Camper Van Adventuring On Hawaii’s Big Island
I have to start this off by letting you know a very simple but important fact: the Big Island is not necessarily the easiest place for you to experience van life, or RV life in general, especially if you have no experience with the lifestyle.
You see, RVs are just not very common out here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Big shocker, I know.
There is not a single RV park or RV resort on the island and only a very small number of campgrounds that can accommodate any type of RV (and only of the small variety).
Looking for full hookups for your RV or van, complete with water, sewer and electric? Look elsewhere, because as far as we can tell, there is not a single location with RV hookups of any kind on the Big Island!
So when you think about RVing the Big Island, the first thing you need to think about is whether you are ready for a more “primitive” experience when it comes to available services.
And the second thing: Is your chosen rig actually equipped for those primitive conditions so that you won’t be a stressed out mess by the end of the experience?
Gather info firsthand from those who have done it!
The reality of RV and van life on the Big Island is that helpful information is hard to come by! No doubt about it. You could easily spend hours trying to scour every “official” source online, and it would leave you exhausted and no further along.
So let us help you understand how to tackle the planning phase of your Hawaii van life experience. We’ve been there, we’ve done it, and we’ve had conversations with others who have even more first-hand experience than we do in this arena.
Together, we can get you squared away and on your way to an awesome Big Island van life experience….for a weekend or a couple of months.
Manage your expectations
Here’s the deal: If you’re looking for a “cushy” van life experience of the RV resort variety, you are looking in the wrong place. The Big Island is pretty rustic when it comes to RV and campervan accommodations, to say the least.
But, if you’re looking for a way to get off the “tourist path” and blaze your own trail into the heart of this beautiful island, come what may, you are in for a real treat.
What you will often find, and we will cover this in more detail below, are camping spots that look a lot more like parking lots than anything else. Nothing glamorous or super private or comfortable. Just a spot to park and get off the road for a rest.
A few other things to prepare yourself for as you plan your trip:
- Most campgrounds and beaches do not allow dogs (sad).
- Several state and county campgrounds are closed due to COVID (as of Apr 2021), so check availability carefully.
- No open fires are allowed in any campground locations that we researched…with the exception of barbecue pits in some locations.
- If you are not a resident of Hawaii, you will be paying higher camping fees (sometimes $21/night per person).
Where can you safely stay overnight?
So what are your best options for places to lay your weary head during a vanlife tour around the Big Island? We will list them below, in order of our personal preference, and discuss each one a bit.
HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
This should probably go without saying, but I personally believe seeing the national park during your time here on the island is a non-negotiable. You simply must. Just look at some of the pics we captured during our short visit!
Having said that, this national park offers limited options for overnight stays.
- Namakanipaio Campground – Elevation: 4,000′. Toilets and water available. Currently closed for season (Apr 2021). Appears from some images that it can accommodate vans and small vehicles at campsite, even though details on site say these are “walk to/boat to” sites.
- Kulanaokuaiki Campground – Elevation: 2,700′. Pit toilet available. We were planning to say at this campground when we arrived at the national park. When we drove up, we realized our only option was to park and sleep in the small parking lot. All sites were “walk to” only, specifically for tent camping.
Hilina Pali Overlook
Elevation: 2,200′ (approx). Pit toilet available. While this spot is located within the national park, let me stress that this one is NOT an official campground and is NOT designated for overnight parking. Having said that, it is located at the end of a very loooong one lane road (Hilina Pali Rd, 10 miles?) and is one of the most peaceful spots you will ever experience. It also overlooks a huge area of rugged coastline with a million dollar view.
If you were to “break the rules” and stay here overnight in your van, odds are very slim that you would see a soul after sunset…let alone a park ranger. But I’m not endorsing such irresponsible behavior. 🙂
Even if you don’t camp here, you owe it to yourself to make the drive down the one lane road and spend a couple of hours hanging out. There are also a couple of different hiking trails that shoot off from this spot, so you have pretty much everything you could possibly need or want.
We were definitely familiar with Hipcamp before starting our research for this van tour. But we had never used them personally to book a stay and had never really dug in to see what they had to offer us.
But when we did jump in (after realizing that all campsites on the island were completely booked), we were pleasantly surprised with the camping options available on the Big Island. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there were a ton of options here…at least not on the Kona side of the island. But the ones we did see seemed like they would offer the “authentic” experience we were looking for with this adventure.
We ended up at Barbara’s place, which was a two acre plot of land (with house) on the Big Island, about an hour south of Kailua Kona in Miloli’i. Barbara cares for a small flock of sheep (about 6-7), entertains roosters and wild turkeys, and eats from more fruit and avocado trees than you can shake a stick at! Even though it is located just off the main highway, it was very peaceful and inviting with a great sunset view.
Discuss access and vehicle clearance details with hosts!
When we arrived at our host location, we ran into some issues with our 9.5 ft high van because of fruit trees at the entrance to the property. After 30 minutes or more of trying to squeeze the van through and also make it up a slippery slope, we ended up staying just across the road instead of actually on Barbara’s property. But it was all good!
The moral of the story is this: Book early so that you have the time to fully discuss all of the details of the property (which may not be included on the listing) with the host. It will make your trip go much smoother…trust me.
STATE AND COUNTY CAMPGROUNDS
While some of the campgrounds on the island are currently closed, many have now reopened (as of April 2021). None of them are typical of campsites like you’ve probably experienced on the mainland. Less structure, less privacy, fewer amenities. In fact, with most of them you probably wouldn’t really know they were campgrounds if you just stumbled upon them!
But don’t be picky. All you need is a safe place to lay your head at night, right? Let go of your expectations and just enjoy what comes your way, which can often pleasantly surprise you.
You can explore State of Hawaii camping options here.
You can explore Hawaii County (Big Island) camping options here.
As a non-resident, you will pay a bit more than Hawaiian residents…but I think you’ll find it will be worth it for the memories you make.
FREE OVERNIGHT STAYS
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous (and “cash conscious”) and would really prefer to save some money, you could explore the world of free overnight camping. But please understand, your experience with this option is definitely not guaranteed.
A friend of ours here on the island, who has spent quite a bit of time locating safe overnight spots to sleep in her van, shared one particular harbor area that had worked out well for her: Kawaihae Harbor in the North Kohala region of the island.
Kawaihae Harbor is located just north of Spencer Beach Park, which is a family-friendly beach spot where you could spend hours on the sand. And if you are looking for the best (and biggest) beach on the island, you will find Hapuna Beach just a bit further south.
Spend the day at one of these beaches, and then around sunset head up to nearby Kawaihae Harbor where you can park in their lot for the night. According to our friend, she has never had any issues there or been asked to move her van after dark.
Harbors may be your best friend….
Generally speaking, harbors around the island, as long as they are not gated off, would likely be good options for overnight parking since activity there should be very minimal after dark. Of course, that’s not to say that all harbors would allow this; some might have security on the premises to discourage overnight stays. All I can tell you for sure is that Kawaihae Harbor comes recommended based on firsthand experience.
How about a little “fishing”?
Another local recently let us in on a little secret that could help you with your overnight parking:
According to her, overnight fishing is allowed pretty much anywhere on the island, meaning that you will not be bothered or asked to move if you appear to be fishing. So…toss a cheap fishing pole in with the rest of your gear and you will have a plausible reason for “overnight parking” at any beach location you can access with your van.
As I said, I can’t speak from experience with this particular approach, but I would definitely be willing to try it out if I found myself back in a van anytime soon! And I trust the source of this information, so I think you can as well.
What’s the worst that could happen? You have your sleep disturbed and have to make a move in the middle of the night. Not a lot of fun, but maybe that risk makes sense for you!
Our Big Island Campervan Itinerary
We picked up our campervan rental at the Kona Airport, just north of Kailua Kona, on Saturday afternoon. Then we immediately headed to our condo in Kailua Kona to load her up and get on the road fast!
STOP 1 – HIPCAMP LOCATION IN MILOLI’I
For our first night, we headed straight to the Hipcamp spot since it was already about 4:00 and we knew we wanted to get set up before sunset. Since it ended up taking a while with the “access” issues at our location (details above), it was a good thing we made that choice!
Our Hipcamp host provided chips and guacamole (from her own avocado trees) for us up on her deck. While we snacked, we watched the sunset over the ocean and had some great conversation…and white wine we brought along to wash everything down.
STOP 2 – SOUTH POINT PARK
The next morning, we hit the road around 9:30 am and headed about 30 minutes further south to visit South Point Park, which is the most southerly point in the entire United States. I mean, that’s cool and all, but it’s the wind, waves and incredibly clear and turquoise water that will really blow you away. (Got some good shots of the van during our stop as well. Of course.)
Just a few minutes after we arrived, we heard a group of guys right by us start yelling and running around frantically. It didn’t take us long to realize that these guys had something BIG on their fishing line! We saw it thrashing around 100 yards offshore and knew we had to stay and watch the outcome.
Well, within less than 20 minutes, they had landed TWO large sailfish! They had to weigh 100 lbs each at least, and these guys were losing their minds with excitement at their good fortune. It was quite the spectacle to watch and seeing these guys so jazzed put a smile on our faces.
We headed off to our next destination simply amazed at our perfect timing for that visit. I mean, WOW!
STOP 3 – KULANAOKUAIKI CAMPGROUND (DETAILS ABOVE)
We rolled into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park around 1:00 on Sunday afternoon and were greeted by great weather and fairly light crowds. Since we were pretty tired, we headed straight to the campground where we had planned to camp for the night.
When we arrived, we realized that Kulanaokuaiki Campground only offers walk-in campsites for tent camping. We couldn’t get our van into, or near, a campsite. Nope, our only option was to park in the small parking lot instead. So we prepared some great sandwiches for lunch with the bread and produce we grabbed at the farmer’s market in Keahou on Saturday morning.
While we were eating, a couple of ladies rolled into the parking lot to unload their bikes and head out on a little cycling trip through the park. We got to chatting with them and they gave us some great recommendations for hikes and other possible places to park for the night….if the parking lot just wouldn’t suit us. (One of the ladies just happened to be from Texas also…go figure.)
STOP 4 – HILINA PALI OVERLOOK
So after a short nap, we headed back out to see what else we could discover for the day. And that little excursion is what led us to Hilina Pali Overlook (at the end of Hilina Pali Road), one of the most peaceful and quiet spots I’ve ever experienced. We instantly fell in love and then headed out on a short hike down the hillside toward the coastline.
We ate ourselves a snackish dinner after our hike, came face to face with a wild pig, and generally just enjoyed the peace and quiet while reading our books and crocheting (Julie, not me) in our camp chairs next to the van while we looked out over the vast ocean. (We may or may not have “fallen asleep” at this location. We will never say.)
STOP 5 – MAUNA ULU HIKE
You remember the ladies we met at the campground earlier? Well, their top recommendation was a short 2.6 mile hike just a few miles away at the Mauna Ulu parking lot. We thought it would be perfect to get up early on our last morning and head out in the cool morning air to see what this hike had to offer.
My oh my are we glad we made that decision! With temps in the low 60s, sun shining and a light mist falling on us, we headed out across the lava fields left by Mauna Ulu’s eruption.
We were completely blown away by the scope of the lava, the vegetation pushing its way up through that lava, and the rainbows created by the perfect mix of sunshine and mist that morning. It was almost too perfect to believe.
The 2.6 mile hike to Pu’u Huluhulu (meaning: hairy hill) was mostly flat about 1/2 the way, then gently sloping upward across lava fields for 1/4 of the trail, and finally ascending rather quickly, with switchbacks, for the final 1/4 as it entered a densely forested area. Basically, it was the perfect morning hike before we had to head back to reality and civilization.
ADDITIONAL BIG ISLAND STOPS YOU COULD ADD
Honestly, we weren’t interested in pushing it really hard for this weekend; we wanted plenty of time to relax and just soak in the van life as well. But if you truly wanted to make the most out of your van adventure, you could pretty easily add these stops to your itinerary:
- Keauhou Farmer’s Market (Saturday mornings 8am-12pm, stock up on Hawaiian produce and other goodies)
- The Coffee Shack in Captain Cook (we might be slightly addicted to their amazing French toast…and legendary Kona coffee, of course). CLOSED on Tuesday and Wednesday!
- Punalu’u Bake Shop near Na’alehu
- Akatsuka Orchid Gardens in Volcano
- Punalu’u Black Sand Beach (some camping available, harbor nearby)
A Huge Thanks to Outdoorsy RV Rentals
We can’t end this without saying a huge thank you to Outdoorsy for helping us make this Hawaiian van life adventure a reality by sponsoring a portion of our trip and sponsoring this giveaway. It really was a dream come true and we had an amazing time!
If you follow us at all here on the site, you know that we do talk about Outdoorsy RV Rentals quite a bit and have personally rented from them multiple times in the past couple of years. Based on our experience, we simply can’t recommend another RV rental option more highly than this one.
Hop over to their site and book your RV rental as soon as you can, because RV and van life is only getting more and more popular each day!
Want to keep exploring all the camper van things?
One other thing you might have noticed if you hang out here much is that we are pretty fascinated with campervans. We don’t just rent them…no, we write about them quite a bit as well!
If you want to dive deeper into all things campervan on our site:
- Could You Live Full-Time in a Campervan?
- What It’s Like to Rent a Campervan for the Weekend
- Should You DIY Your Van Conversion or Hire a Van Conversion Company?
- The Best Camper Van Conversion Kits on the Market
- The Best Camper Van Conversion Companies
- Top 5 Hawaii Camper Van Rentals Under $175
Don’t worry, I can almost guarantee there will be plenty more camper van content to come as we continue to explore this niche and experience it for ourselves in the coming months! Hang on for the ride…
Enter to Win a $500 Outdoorsy RV Rental Credit
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Todd Bonner loves a competitive game of table tennis, a breathtaking hike and simply exploring new places. He spends most of his time sharing information about RV travel and safety, RV accessories and tips, and the National Parks he has visited and still desperately craves. When he’s not busy working on TREKKN, you will often find him staring at pictures of Glacier National Park (probably his favorite spot on earth) or creating new products for Clever Camper Company.