Backpacking Hawaii is a thrill seeker’s paradise. Yes, Hawaii is typically portrayed as a tropical island paradise with fabulous beaches, crystal clear waters, and all different colors of sand. But putting this stereotypical honeymooners description of Hawaii aside, Hawaii is the perfect place to go to get your adrenaline flowing, heart pumping, and sweat dripping.
I spent 10 days backpacking Hawaii with my friend. We did everything from skydiving and diving with sharks to surfing on longboards and surfing with kites. We trekked through waist deep mud to play with molten lava, backpacked through a rainforest and scaled a waterfall to hike the ridge of a dormant volcano, and walked above the clouds to stargaze into eternity.
When not living life on the edge, we enjoyed pineapple ice cream, ice cold Hawaiian beer, and lots of ahi tuna poke. A large Japanese influence is evident in Hawaii, and so sushi was a common meal for us.
Here are some Hawaii travel tips that I wanted to share with you if you’re seeking a similar experience.
The Cost of Backpacking Hawaii
While Hawaii on a budget is possible, this was certainly not the case for our trip. We splurged on many expenses such as skydiving, kitesurfing lessons, and rental cars. On the other hand, we saved money by staying in hostels, taking public transportation when possible, and not eating every meal at a restaurant.
In total, 10 days of backpacking Hawaii cost me $3,212. This includes a $1,091.40 round trip, nonstop coach plane ticket from Washington, DC to Honolulu and an expensive 6 day economy car rental for $431.03 which consists of a daily surcharge of $25 as a “young renters fee” for being under 25 years old. Throw in another $100 for gas and you can clearly see that transportation is the majority of the cost of backpacking Hawaii.
Hawaii Travel Insurance
I did not carry travel insurance with me while I was backpacking Hawaii. In retrospect, I probably should have considering the amount of extreme adventure sports that I participated in.
Since then, I always use Seven Corners travel insurance when I travel. To date, Seven Corners has paid for my flight home from Bali during COVID, my medical expenses for a motorbike accident, and my hospital stay when I had a bacterial infection. This would have cost me thousands of dollars, but instead I only paid a few hundred to have the travel insurance coverage.
Home to Hawaii’s capital city of Honolulu, the Hawaiian Island of Oahu draws the largest crowd of tourists when compared to the other seven Hawaiian Islands. The popular Diamond Head crater serves as a backdrop to the famous Waikiki Beach. Honolulu is a busy place with lots of dining, shopping, hotels, and nightlife. The infamous Pearl Harbor is also just 12 miles from Waikiki Beach.
With 37 stores on the island of Oahu alone, you are bound make a purchase from one of the ABC Stores while backpacking Oahu. It seems like an ABC Store is just around ever corner in Honolulu. They have everything from beach essentials and clothing to food and beer.
Although much of the action is going on in Honolulu, you will be spending most of your time backpacking Oahu on other parts of the island. Oahu’s North Shore has much to offer in the way of surf, snorkeling, and sand while many of the rainforest-covered craters on the island’s interior are just waiting to be hiked.
Hostelling International Waikiki
There are plenty of resorts and hotels to choose from in Honolulu, but I don’t suggest staying at any of them. Stay at the Hostelling International Waikiki hostel instead. Located just 2 blocks from Waikiki Beach, Hostelling International Waikiki is an ideal Hawaii backpackers hostel.
This was my first stay at a hostel, so I was skeptical. I figured that I would be miserable without air-conditioning in July, but it turned out to be cool enough at night to sleep comfortably. A large common area and kitchen is a great place to meet other backpackers. WiFi is free and there are coin operated laundry facilities.
At just $33 per night, the price of a bed in a male dorm at Hostelling International Waikiki is affordable. This is one hostel where having your Hosteling International membership will save you money. Without a Hosteling International membership, the price per night is $36, so if you’re staying for more than a week, the membership is a no-brainer to get the discounted rate.
Want to skydive in Oahu? You’ll most likely end up at the Dillingham Airfield in Waialua which is home to a few skydiving companies. Waialua, a 45 minute car ride from Honolulu or just over 2 hours by public transportation, is a small town on Oahu’s North Shore.
As a student, the cheapest place to tandem skydiving in Oahu is at Skydive Hawaii. With a valid student ID, skydiving from 12,000 feet is just $150 at Skydive Hawaii. Pacific Skydiving Honolulu offers students a $15 discount and charges $174 for a 14,000 feet jump.
It actually works out that the price per 1,000 feet is $12.50 at both Skydive Hawaii and Pacific Skydiving Honolulu. Pacific Skydiving Honolulu also has a 10,000 foot option for $144 as a student, which is technically the cheapest skydive price out-of-pocket, but this works out to be more expensive at $14.40 per 1,000 feet.
No matter where you choose to skydive in Oahu, you’ll have an epic perspective of the island from above. After leaping out of the plane, you’ll freefall for 30 seconds to a minute. Your tandem guide will then pull the shoot and you’ll gracefully glide back down to solid ground for at least 5 minutes.
I was fascinated by the sheer magnitude of the island rising out from the Pacific Ocean. It was marvelous see how the lush mountains of Oahu transition into beaches which in turn gradually progressed into darkening shades of blue as the ocean water deepened.
Diving with Sharks in Oahu
Diving with sharks in Oahu is a thrilling experience. North Shore Shark Adventures offers caged shark diving in Oahu. Located in Haleiwa, North Shore Shark Adventures is one of the highest rated shark diving agencies in Oahu.
You’ll primarily see Galapagos sharks and Sandbar sharks while cage diving in Oahu’s North Shore. If you’re lucky, a Tiger shark or Hammerhead shark will make an appearance. Since shark sightings are 100% guaranteed at North Shore Shark Adventures, you won’t go home disappointed.
The price of a 2 hour caged shark diving experience is $96 per person. This includes 20 minutes in the water with the sharks. This is a perfect amount of time for first time shark divers. Cage diving with sharks in Hawaii is definitely something you’ll never forget.
Waimea Bay Cliff Jumping
Waimea Bay in Haleiwa is a hidden gem on Oahu. Far enough away from Waikiki, Waimea Bay boasts a stretch of golden sand beach on the North Shore without a tourist or commercial influence. I recommend spending at least a day in Haleiwa.
Most noteworthy is the Waimea Bay cliff jumping. The Waimea Bay cliff height is 10 meters. At least in the summer when the swells of the North Shore are practically nonexistent, you’ll find an energetic crowd of kids and adults alike scaling and jumping off of the Waimea Bay cliff. It goes without saying, use common sense on the Waimea Bay cliffs, and make sure you can swim before taking the plunge!
Dole Plantation Hawaii
The Dole Plantation is a must when backpacking Oahu. The pineapple soft serve ice cream at the Dole Plantation is to die for.
Dole Whip consists of fresh pineapple chunks amongst delectable pineapple ice cream. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it. The closest you can get to Dole Whip in the Northeastern United States is the Pineapple Dole Whip from Aloha Soft Serve in Ocean City, NJ.
The Dole Plantation cost is free for entry into the plantation country store. Activities such as the Pineapple Express Train Tour, Plantation Garden Tour, and Pineapple Garden Maze cost between $7 and $11 for adults. Most of these activities target children; however, the Pineapple Express Train Tour is worth checking out to learn about pineapples and the history of Dole. Download this Dole Plantation brochure for free ice cream and a discount on the Pineapple Express Train Tour.
Paddle Boarding Waikiki
Located less than a block from Waikiki Beach, Kai Sallas’ Pro Surf School Hawaii offers the cheapest paddle board rental in Waikiki. The price for a full day stand up paddle board rental for 2 people was just $55 with a Groupon. Regular price is $45 per board which includes paddle boards, longboards, and surfboards. For you beginner paddle boarders, the Pro Surf School also offers paddle board lessons.
Waikiki Beach is a great place to paddle board. The waves are typically gentle and rideable. Waikiki is actually a bay, so the waves break far out and roll into shore without any surprises.
Don’t leave your stuff unattended on the beach while you’re out paddle boarding all day. I had my bag stolen while enjoying the Waikiki surf.
Nothing valuable was taken: just my shirt, sunscreen, bag, towel, and a few bucks. I even went to through the effort of concealing my bag in a small hole under my towel before entering the water. I’m not saying Waikiki is unsafe, but consider this a fair warning.
Ka’au Crater Hike Oahu
The best Oahu hike is the Ka’au Crater hike. If you’re looking for an day hike with waterfalls, then look no further because the Ka’au Crater hike has three waterfalls, one of which you get to climb. This 5 mile hike up to and around the Ka’au Crater will take you at least 5 hours.
The Ka’au Crater trailhead is located near the end of Waiomao Road in Palolo, just 5 miles from Waikiki Beach. You know you’re in the right place when you see the ignorable Government Property, No Trespassing signs. The Ka’au Crater trail is marked by orange ribbons, water pipes on the floor of the rainforest, and ropes lining the many of the steep sections of the trail.
Wear a pair of shoes with good traction because the trail is usually wet and muddy. Try to be at least a bit physically fit because the terrain is pretty demanding.
The mud, sweat, and multiple stream crossings are totally worth the lookout that awaits you. Stunning panoramic view of the island of Oahu are visible from the Ka’au Crater summit, including Honolulu, Waikiki Beach, and Diamond Head. You’ll hike the entire ridge of the crater before descending back down into the jungle and back out to the trailhead.
Kitesurfing Lessons Oahu
My buddy and I took kitesurfing lessons in Oahu with Honolulu Kite School. The price of a 4 hour private kitesurfing lesson for the two of us was $500 total. Equipment was included in this cost.
We met our kitesurfing teacher on a Wednesday at 1 PM at the He’eia Kea Small Boat Harbor. An escort boat took us out to what is called the “secret spot” in Kaneohe Bay. The secret spot consists of clear, shallow, turquoise water with steady winds—ideal conditions for great kitesurfing.
As a kitesurfing newbie myself, I highly recommend taking kitesurfing lessons as opposed to renting kitesurfing equipment and learning on your own. Kitesurfing is nothing like surfing. In addition to being dangerous, there is a large learning curve.
You won’t be a pro kitesurfer after 4 hours, but you will know the basics. There is no better feeling than catching a gust of wind in your kite and effortlessly riding the surface of the water with your board. Kitesurfing is fun, so if it’s in your budget, definitely check it out.
Best Place to Eat in Oahu for Locals
My vote for the best local place to eat in Oahu is Genki Sushi. While it’s technically a chain, Genki Sushi is a restaurant that you must try in Oahu. There are eight locations on Oahu, but the closest Genki Sushi to Waikiki is the location on Kapahulu Ave which is just a 25 minute walk from Waikiki Beach. Other Genki Sushi locations exist on other Hawaiian islands as well as a few in California and Washington State.
Genki Sushi is chain of conveyor belt sushi restaurants that originated in Japan. Ready to eat plates of sushi and other Japanese dishes ride their way around the restaurant on a conveyor belt the height of your table. When you see something you like, simply take it off the belt and enjoy. Although individual dishes are not expensive, Genki Sushi is à la carte so expect a higher bill than usual.
Backpacking Hawaii The Big Island
Although it’s the biggest Hawaiian Islands in size, the Big Island of Hawaii is not the most popular tourist destination. The most popular Hawaiian Island is Oahu.
Even more people travel to Maui than the Big Island which makes the Big Island the third most popular Hawaiian Island out of the eight. As a result, the Big Island is much less commercialized than Oahu and Maui. Consider this good news for your backpacking Hawaii adventures
The Big Island of Hawaii is home to the tallest peak in all of Hawaii as well as the southernmost point in all of the United States. The Island of Hawaii is also home to three of Hawaii’s five active volcanoes: Kīlauea, Mauna Loa, and Hualālai. Lōʻihi is an underwater volcano just south of the Big Island while Haleakalā is the only active volcano in Maui. There are no active volcanoes on Oahu.
Talk to some of the locals in Hawaii and you might be fortunate enough to learn some Hawaiian Pidgin, a local dialect that combines the English and Hawaiian languages. When asked by a local “howzit?”, you can respond by saying, “ho brah, backpacking Hawai’iz da’ kine!” which translates roughly to, “Hey friend, backpacking Hawaii is the real deal!”
Travel from Oahu to The Big Island
It’s really easy to get from Oahu to the Big Island. Take a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Oahu International Airport to Kona International Airport on the Big Island. This 160 mile flight will take approximately 45 minutes and cost $160 roundtrip.
Unfortunately, there is no ferry that goes from Oahu to the Big Island. Chartered boats are available, but will likely not be cost effective. Your best best is to fly from Oahu to the Big Island on a commercial airline.
Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo
Hilo is the largest city on the Big Island and the third largest city in all of Hawaii. We snagged an incredible Groupon that let us stay in an ocean view room at the Grand Naniloa Hotel for just $268 for 3 nights. The price per night worked out to be about $45 per person which is close to double what your cheapest Hawaiian hostel would cost.
We figured we’d take a break from the hostel life and pamper ourselves at this 3-star waterfront hotel. But other than sleeping, we didn’t spend too much time at this Hilo hotel. Therefore, we didn’t get to take advantage of the free round of golf at Banyans Golf Club or enjoy the onsite pool. Instead, we were trekking through the jungle, playing with molten lava, drinking Hawaiian beer, and road tripping to the extreme edge of the United States.
One thing you should know about Hilo is that it rains here an incredible amount. Hilo sees on average 126 inches of rain per year which puts Seattle’s 38 inches of rain per year to shame.
So for that reason, don’t expect to spend your days on the beach under the sun in Hilo. Less than half of the days in Hilo even see the sun. Fine for backpackers, not so much for honeymooners.
Lava Tours in Hawaii
Formerly known as Poke A Stick lava tours, Aloha Lava Tours is essentially your guaranteed way to see real, flowing lava in Hawaii. This guided lava tour on the Big Island will take you as close as the scorching temperature of the lava allows, which is often close enough to poke a stick into. No joke—on our tour, we walked up to flowing lava and poked it with a stick. To see land being formed right in front of your eyes is a breathtaking experience.
Aloha Lava Tours offers multiple types of Hawaiian lava tours. We went with, and I recommend, the Top the Pali Tour which is a 9 hour/10 mile round trip tour to the base of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō Crater. The price of the lava tour was $158.12 per person after taxes and worth every penny.
Update August 2023: It seems like Aloha Lava Tours is out of business according to their Google Maps profile.
We hiked 5 miles out through the Kahaualeʻa Natural Area Reserve in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, some parts through waist deep mud, to the base of the Puʻu ʻŌʻō Crater. As you can tell, this lava tour is not for the faint of heart.
After emerging from the jungle and trekking into what seemed like a barren wasteland of recently solidified lava, we spent over an hour alternating between playing with the lava with our sticks and staring mesmerized at the bubbly, red-hot, flowing lava. Occasionally, we’d see the earth spit out a low stream of molten lava in what I like to call a miniature eruption.
I can’t speak highly enough about my experience with Aloha Lava Tours. This epic lava tour was literally one of the best experiences of my life. I highly recommend Aloha Lava Tours to anyone who wants to get up close and personal with real, flowing lava in Hawaii.
The Southernmost Point in the US
Contrary to popular belief, the southernmost point in the US is not Key West’s Southernmost Point Buoy, but rather Ka Lae on the Big Island of Hawaii. Key West is, in fact, the southernmost point the the continental United States. But when considering all 50 states, Ka Lae, also know as South Point, comes out on top—or rather, bottom.
Ka Lae is located at the end of the 12 mile long South Point Road off of Hawaii Belt Road. There you will find a few vendors alongside a dirt parking lot. Parking here is free, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
A lone wooden sign will direct you to the “Southernmost Point in the USA Kalae” to the right and “Green Sands” to the left. The cliffs of the southernmost point are only a few hundred yards just south of the sign.
On the contrary, the green sand beach is a good 2.5 mile hike along the Pacific coastline. The green sand beach is only accessible by foot. As a result, this secluded beach will be much less crowded than your typical Hawaiian tourist beach.
Kona Brewery Tour in Hawaii
Definitely check out the Kona Brewing Company brewery while on the Big Island for a taste of Liquid Aloha. The Kona Brewery Tour costs $10 plus taxes and fees. Sign up ahead of time because space is limited and tours tend to fill up. Set aside a couple hours for the tour.
Kona has been brewing beer since 1994. You’ll learn about the history of the Kona brewery and how beer is brewed. Most importantly be able to taste the dozen or so Hawaiian beer that Kona has to offer. My two favorites are Longboard Island Lager, a light-bodied beer, and Koko Brown, a roasted malty beer.
If you can’t make it to the Big Island, Kona Brewing Company also has a restaurant in Honolulu on Oahu. Known as the Koko Marina Pub, this restaurant is located 10 miles west of Waikiki beach near Hanauma Bay and offers pizza, burgers, and of course Liquid Aloha on tap. The Koko Marina Pub in Oahu does not offer brewery tours.
The Highest Point in Hawaii is Mauna Kea
At 13,800 feet above the Pacific Ocean, the dormant volcano of Mauna Kea is the highest point in the state of Hawaii and the second highest island in the world. In fact, Mauna Kea is technically the tallest mountain in the world when measured from its oceanic base. Measuring in at 33,000 feet, Mauna Kea is even taller than Mount Everest.
The Mauna Kea visitor center sits at 9,200 feet above sea level and is accessible by car via Mauna Kea Access Road. You can park at the visitor center or along Mauna Kea Access Road since the small visitor center lot tends to fill up. Directly across the road from the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, you’ll find an unmarked but well-groomed trail that will take you to the top of a crater. The short 1/4 mile walk is totally worth the views that await you at the top.
Stick around after the Mauna Kea sunset for the best stargazing of your life. You don’t need to pay for a Mauna Kea stargazing tour. Pretty much anywhere you go on the Mauna Kea mountain, you can look up into a night sky littered with thousands of twinkling stars.
Stargazing in Hawaii is ideal because the light pollution is limited considering you’re on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Want to see a shooting star? You’re guaranteed to see them on Mauna Kea. Want to see the Milky Way? You’ll see the Milky Way’s dust, gases, and stars in all its glory from Mauna Kea, no problem.
Definitely make sure Mauna Kea is on your Hawaii itinerary. Either get up early, stay up late, or stay up all night if you have to. Mauna Kea will be yet another highlight of your backpacking Hawaii adventures.
Backpacking Hawaii and Oahu
I’ve only shared with you my experience on two out of the eight Hawaiian Islands in this backpacking Hawaii travel guide for thrill seekers. There is so much to do and so much to see in Hawaii that I recommend well over a week here. No matter where you’re coming from, getting to Hawaii is going to be a big cost and take a while, so you have to make your trip worthwhile.
In no way am I saying that you must follow my Hawaii travel guide verbatim. I offer you this blog post as a collection of suggestions to make your adventures as memorable as possible when you visit Hawaii.
Wether you’re a thrill seeker looking for the next rush, or a honeymooner wanting to escape the beaches for a day, I hope you find my backpacking Hawaii travel guide valuable.
Love island travel? Read about my experience backpacking Bermuda on a budget, and let me know below which island you’re traveling to next.
Mahalo and aloha!