RENTING A CAMPERVAN OR TRUCK CAMPER ON KAUAI: IS IT WORTH IT?
With Hawaii’s reputation for being expensive, Ryan and I thought it would be fun and more budget-friendly to camp during our recent two week trip to Kauai. I had read there was ample beachfront camping at Kauai’s county beaches, which only costs $3 a night for non-Hawaii residents. $3 compared to a $300+ a night hotel room sounded like an excellent option for us.
But we still needed a rental car for our Kauai trip, and as I was planning I came across some campervan rentals and truck campers for rent on Kauai. Since we love traveling by van on the mainland, we jumped on the opportunity to have a vehicle we could sleep in on Kauai versus having to set up a tent every night. While more expensive than a normal rental car, we thought this type of vehicle would give us more flexibility, and it was still a hell of a lot cheaper than a car + a hotel.
So for the first week of our trip, we rented a campervan on Kauai off of Airbnb, and our second week, we rented a truck camper with a rooftop tent from a local company called Kauai Overlander. As our trip approached, I started to plan out our itinerary, researching the best beaches to camp on. In that process, I called the County Park’s Department to get our permit for the first few nights and was told that it’s actually illegal to sleep in your vehicle at almost all of the county-run campgrounds on Kauai. Instead, they require that you set up and sleep in a tent at the county beach campgrounds.
In this blog post, I share my honest experience about sleeping in a camper van and truck camper on Kauai and advice for you outdoor enthusiasts who would like to camp on Kauai.
Where is it legal to sleep in a campervan on Kauai?
Haena Beach: According to the county officials I talked to, there are a few county-run beaches where it’s legal to sleep in a campervan, but only one campground that doesn’t require 4×4 to access. The only campervan-legal beach campground on Kauai that is accessible via paved roads – meaning a VW-style van can actually get there – is Haena Beach. This beach is on the north shore and was CLOSED during our trip (May 2018) due to the massive floods that recently occurred on Kauai.
YMCA Camp Naue: On the beach, there are two other private beach campgrounds where is legal to sleep in a campervan on Kauai. The first is the YMCA Camp Naue, also on the north shore past Hanalei. This was also CLOSED during our trip. We were also told that Camp Naue also frequently hosts large groups, so advanced reservations are recommended.
Kumu Camp: The second private beach campground where its legal to sleep in a campervan on Kauai is Kumu Camp next to Anahola Beach. We stayed here for a couple of nights at the beginning of our trip. The campground has 8 (or so) beach front sites, that were all occupied, plus about 10 more nestled back in the trees. The camp host was very friendly and let us park in a beachfront parking spot instead of back in the trees where there were a lot more insects. Sites were $20, and the grounds were basic. The only thing to note is that the beach in front of Kumu Camp is a favorite for locals, and there was some late night partying down the beach from us while we were there. I’d also suggest making sure your stuff is secure when you go to bed at night, as our neighbors camp chairs disappeared in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, it was pretty rainy, so we didn’t get any photos, but you can find some online if you Google it.
Polihale: You can camp here, but none of the campervan rental companies on Kauai allow you to go out here. The road is a rough dirt road, and you park right on the sand. 4×4, as well as advanced reservations, are strongly recommended if you want to camp at Polihale. Kauai Overlander – the company we rented the truck from – on the other hand, encourages you to go out to Polihale…but the road was closed during our trip. Polihale has since reopened.
There are a couple of other beachfront camping sites for those who have 4×4. I’ll leave it to you to talk to the locals during your trip to find out where they are 🙂
In the mountains
Koke’e State Park: Up in the mountains in Koke’e State Park, there are two campgrounds open to campervans. The first is the Koke’e State Park – state run campground. Reservations are required, and you need to print your permit out and bring it with you. There are no first-come, first-serve spots available. Spots book up far in advance, so if you want to stay here, you should book it as soon as you start planning. The only thing about Koke’e is many of the spots are designed as walk-ups for tents, so there are only a few spaces with picnic tables that are suitable for campervans.
YWCA Camp Sloggett: We heard good things about the YWCA Camp Sloggett, also in Koke’e State Park, but again, this was CLOSED during our trip. They told us they’d be open sometime in June 2018. Check with your Kauai campervan rental company to see if they allow you to drive up to Koke’e.
Where is it illegal to sleep in a campervan on Kauai?
All of the other county beachfront campgrounds are technically off-limits to sleeping in campervans, truck campers, or other kinds of vehicles. This includes Anini Beach, the Salt Pond, Lucy Wright (which I’d avoid), Anahola, Lydgate, and Hanalei Beach Park. I’ll talk more about this below and our experience sleeping in a campervan on Kauai.
The problem is this information is very hard to find online, and it was only after stumbling on a Trip Advisor conversation that I first found out that campervan camping is mostly illegal.
Renting a Campervan on Kauai: Is it Worth It?
The EuroVan we rented on Airbnb looked awesome. The ad said “Sleep on a different camping spot every night of your trip — and enjoy a ‘FREE MILLION DOLLAR VIEW’ only inches away from the world’s most beautiful beaches Kauai has to offer.” You already know if you read the above section that this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the camping situation if you want to abide by the law.
But anywho, the campervan came equipped with a stove, a fridge, a full-sized bed and a pop top roof so you could stand up inside the van. We knew we’d be limited to where we could drive in the EuroVan, and we’d have to stick to paved roads. We would not be able to go out to Polihale State Park (which was open at the time of my reservation), but we figured there’d be plenty to access on the paved roads that it wouldn’t be an issue.
The week prior to our trip when I found out that sleeping in your car is illegal at most of the county beaches, I contacted our Airbnb host who basically said she’s been doing it for more than 10 years and it wouldn’t be a problem.
Unfortunately, that’s not what we experienced. What we found is that if you want to sleep in a campervan on Kauai (and you don’t want to deal with being nervous about getting busted), you’ll need to get to the campground to set up after dark and after the ranger has gone home – usually after 8pm. Then you’ll need to leave by sunrise before the ranger comes around and knocks on your window. When trying to be “stealth”, we also didn’t feel comfortable sleeping with the pop top up due to the fact that we were breaking the rules, which made the van hot and stuffy.
This schedule of avoiding the ranger makes it hard to use the van for cooking and is not a fun or relaxing way to vacation. From the locals we talked to, law enforcement is starting to be more strict about people sleeping in vans/cars as more and more people are utilizing and living full-time in the campgrounds due to the high cost of living on Kauai. Further, if you sleep in a van, that basically means, you’ll be sleeping in a parking lot stacked with cars, while people in tents get the prime beachfront real estate.
Camping at the Salt Pond in a campervan
Of course, there are people that don’t mind bending the rules and will ask for forgiveness if caught…but generally, I’m a rule follower and certainly don’t like setting a bad example here on my blog. Also bending the rules and constantly worrying that I’m going to get caught leaves me feeling really anxious – not exactly what you’re looking for on vacation.
The other thing I didn’t like about the EuroVan is I felt like we stood out as tourists. Because EuroVan and VW camper vans are limited in where they can go, it’s not the type of car many locals would drive. Theft and car break-ins are not unheard of on Kauai. So when you have a van with ALL of your stuff in it, and you stand out as a tourist, I believe you are more of a target. Some of the campgrounds – like Lucy Wright and the Salt Pond – had a slightly sketchy vibe when we were there – so you really want to blend in as much as possible.
I do understand that the timing of our trip with the recent floods meant that our options were fewer than normal. However, even if Haena beach had been open, the van still wouldn’t have provided the flexibility or experience we thought we were getting when we booked the campervan on Kauai. If we could plan our trip all over again, we 100% would not have gotten a EuroVan / VW Style camper van on Kauai. After an uncomfortable night at the Salt Pond, we decided to get a hotel for the last three nights of our EuroVan rental – meaning we actually spent MORE money than had we just gotten a normal rental car + hotel.
Once Haena Beach is back open, if you are interested in renting a campervan for your Kauai trip and forming your own opinion, I’d recommend Kauai Camper Rental instead of Airbnb. They seem like stand-up folks, and this is their entire business. They messaged me on Instagram and lended some helpful advice, and we saw the inside of one of their VW vans, and it was in much better shape than ours. They’ll also be able to give you the latest information on where you can and can’t camp, unlike our Airbnb host who didn’t even live on the island and seemed to have no clue.
One other important point to note….whether you decide to sleep in your van or sleep in a tent, you should always get your camping permit from the county (more on that below). That way, even if you do get talked to by a ranger, at least you will have your permits in order – which seems to be a bigger priority.
Renting a Truck Camper on Kauai: Is it Worth It?
For our second week, we rented a Toyota Tacoma with a rooftop tent from a company called Kauai Overlander. We were excited to be able to get a little further off the grid with the 4×4. I’d also never used a roof-top tent, so I was looking forward to giving it a test run.
Our truck was kitted out with a full kitchen setup and a cool drawer organization system off the back of the truck bed, and it was a lot more convenient to cook in than the EuroVan…although in the pouring rain, it was still a challenge to stay dry.
The company owners gave us the run down and told us to go off-roading and that we better bring the truck back dirty. That was exactly what we were looking for. They also gave us a packet of information laying out directions to all of the places we could legally camp in the truck – most of which required driving on dirt roads or sand.
For the most part, the same rules applied at the county beach campgrounds for the truck as the Eurovan. On the books, the Rangers still consider rooftop tents sleeping in a vehicle. It might not make sense, but that’s what we were told by the folks at the county permitting office.
The way the beach campgrounds are set up is they are walk-in, meaning you can’t just drive up to your camping spot like you’d expect in an established campground. So with a rooftop tent, you are still technically in the parking lot, and you are even less incognito in a rooftop tent than you are in a VW van.
The main established campground we got away with sleeping in the rooftop tent without any issue was Anini Beach. Here we were able to pull close enough up to grass that the tent ladder off the back of the truck was inside the “camping area.” Overall, camping at Anini Beach with a roof-top tent seemed to be a gray area. I think your outcome all depends on the ranger, how nice you are, and what kind of mood they are in. Lucky for us, the Ranger there was friendly and didn’t give us a hard time about it. I also think because of Haena Beach being closed from the floods, they were a little more lenient than normal with van campers at Anini.
Where the truck shined was getting away from the established county campgrounds and going off grid based on the information that Kauai Overlander provided us. We were lucky to find a SICK free camping spot up in Waimea Canyon State Park. There are a bunch of dirt roads up there that are used by the hunters, and with a little exploring, we found what ended up being our favorite camping spot of the trip.
The truck provided more flexibility than the van, but most of the camping options for the truck were concentrated on the south shore. The truck would have been perfect for Polihale, but Polihale was still closed from the flooding. There are a few other options on the south shore that we learned about, but I won’t disclose them here out of respect for the locals. If you go and rent a truck from Kauai Overlander, they’d be more than happy to share all the great secret spots for your trip.
I also felt like we blended in a little more with the truck. I think people just assumed we lived on the island since it doesn’t look like a rental.
Would I rent the truck camper on Kauai again? Yes, but maybe not for an entire week. The truck was a lot pricier than a normal rental car, and I think 5 days would be enough to get a taste for the off-grid experience.
My Recommendations for Camping on Kauai
Camping on Kauai is a great way to experience the island, and if I could do it all over again, I’d do a mix of: tent camping with a normal rental car, a couple of nights in an Airbnb condo where you can cook your own food, clean up, and enjoy the pool, and then maybe a few nights in the truck camper where you can get off the grid and have a more wild experience – although you could still do that with a tent. This mix would allow you to have a well-rounded Kauai vacation.
If you want to camp on the north shore of Kauai, I’d recommend getting a normal rental car and bringing your normal camping gear. I’d say for most typical outdoor travelers, there is plenty to do on the north and east side of the island where you don’t need a 4×4, so you can save money by just having a normal rental car when you are on that side of the island.
For camping on the north and east shore, set up a home base at Anini Beach, which is a nice central location. People leave their tents set up while they are away for the day, so I’d generally say you don’t have to worry about breaking down and setting up a new camp each day. Just don’t leave valuables in your tent while you’re out exploring.
Beach-front tent camping at Anini Beach
The campgrounds on the south shore didn’t have quite the same chill vibe in our opinion. It depends on your comfort level, but the south shore campgrounds seemed to be a little seedier, so here we would prefer staying in a hotel/Airbnb or getting a 4×4 – like the Toyota Tacoma we got – so you can camp outside of the county beach campgrounds.
The other option I’d recommend is to get a condo or hotel in a Central location like Kapa’a. This is a major tourist hub where there a lot of good restaurants and hotel options. We spent a few nights at the Aston Islander on the Beach. While the pool wasn’t amazing, the beach-front bar had $7 happy hour Pina Coladas, the rooms were (relatively) affordable compared to everything else, and the hotel had a very mellow vibe. The Aston was also right next to one of our favorite take-out spots – The Sleeping Giant Cafe. Get the mochi ono wrap! You won’t regret it.
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How to get Camping Permits for Kauai
Even if you plan to sleep in your campervan at locations where it’s technically not legal, your best bet is to still get your permit and display it in your front window at all times. Here are some helpful resources to help navigate the permit system.
- County Beach Parks – Tent Camping here is only $3 a night, but permits need to be obtained before arriving at the campground. This county campground website has a list of permitting location, as well as instructions if you want to mail in your permit request form prior to your trip.
- State Parks – Polihale and Koke’e book up in advance. Make sure to reserve your permits ahead of time. Don’t just show up and expect there to be permits available. This State Park website has all of the information.
- Private Campgrounds – Visit each individual campground’s website (I included them all above in the first section) and follow the instructions to make a reservation.