This is the ultimate guide to hiking in Hawaii and not be a total asshole (because there can be lots of them).
One thing is this: you’re probably going to fall in love with hiking in Hawaii. There are no predators like bears, big wild cats, snakes, or harmful plants like poison oak or poison ivy or deer ticks (yay for no Lyme disease!).
What is surprising to most people is that hiking on the mainland is quite different than hiking in Hawaii. Here is my ultimate guide, whether you’re a visitor or a new transplant on how to have a fabulous time while staying safe…and not be a total asshole while hiking in Hawaii.
Do your damn research
Hiking in Hawaii can be very different. Yes, you have a lot of popular and easy paved trails like Diamond Head or Makapu’u Lighthouse but there are lots of hikes where trails are not as obvious or not as easily marked. Hiking trails can also change due to construction, fences being put up, mud, landslides, flooding waters, overgrown bush, and what not.
What happens when uninformed assholes go hiking in Hawaii? They get injured, lost, or die. Then they decide to sue the state or the owner and then awesome hikes get shut down or closed. Don’t be that guy that ruins it for the rest of us.
I like to consult at multiple places when researching a hike. There are national hiking sites like All Trails but I also like to research local hiking websites as well. Some websites are:
- AllTrails.com: One of the most popular hiking databases out there. It’s great for quickly searching a hike, planning how to get there, and sometimes, there are great tips from previous hikers as well as some photos to give you a clue on a hike’s view and location. With AllTrails, there is the option to download and print the maps as well as record your steps so you can turn back and retrace your steps if necessary.
- Oahu Hike : Spencer and Dakota are the founders, editors and photographers for OahuHike.com along with a team of other photographers. They have a decent database of most of the popular hikes along with detailed photos.
- Hik3beastHawaii: Steven owns his blog and while it is in need of a design update, the website has a lot of hikes and his Instagram is full of great hiking photos for inspiration.
- UnrealHawaii: David is the founder, writer, editor, and photographer for Unreal Hawaii since 2010 and it’s a photo collection of the outdoor lifestyle of Hawaii. The #unrealhawaii is also popular as hell! I like his site because it is easy to use and navigate.
- Exploration Hawaii: Another Hawaii-based blog that includes topics on hiking as well as food, backpacking, and beaches. It’s been around since 2011 and I enjoy his site because, like me, he’s a minimalist!
- The Official Government Site for Hawaii Hikes.
- There are also Yelp reviews on certain trails as well
- If a trail is listed as hard to find, I suggest searching YouTube for hiking videos to get an idea of what landmarks to look for
Understand the rules and laws
Hiking in Hawaii….can be a bit of a grey area with the law sometimes. Some hikes are perfectly legal and maintained while other hikes are completely illegal and dangerous. If you get caught on any of these trails, a hefty fine or even arrest is possible. These hikes in Hawaii are a hike at your own risk! If you get caught, that’s your problem.
Some hiking trails are located on land that is on private property or on government property, (such as Hamama Falls), so it is technically considered trespassing. If you’re trespassing on private property and/or government lands, you’re also hiking at your own risk. Be on your best behavior if you decide to take that risk and hike responsibly. If you get injured, don’t be an asshole and sue anybody (or have your greedy family sue) because of your stupid shitty ass decision to get that Instagram photo.
If you’re parking your car in a residential neighborhood (like the Lanikai Pillbox Hike), please remember to be respectful and keep quiet when you’re heading to the trailhead. Try not to disturb the peace in the morning, especially on weekends. Don’t be that loud asshole and push residents to close hikes in their neighborhood.
Safety while hiking in Hawaii
- Don’t hike alone in Hawaii. Use the buddy system or hike with a group of people. We have lots of visiting avid hikers but sometimes they are not prepared for the terrain and lack the proper gear. There is a chance of getting lost, and if injured, it is much better to have someone else with you to find help. On a lot of hikes, there may not be cell phone service. I have T-mobile and generally lose service frequently on my hikes. Some people with AT&T lose service as well. If in doubt, find a hiking group (meetup.com) to go with.
- Always let other people know where you are hiking, how long you should be gone, and when you should be back.
- Don’t completely trust the ropes. Ropes are put there by other hikers and may not always be secure as you think. Rain, weather, and regular use can deteriorate the ropes. Use ropes at your own risk and do not put your whole weight completely on the rope.
- Be able to read a map. Trailheads and trails are not always easily marked here. If you’re going on a hidden trail, bring a paper version of your map as well as on your cell phone.
- Bring a spare/portable battery to charge your phone for emergencies. As always, also don’t count on always having cell phone service though.
Take your belongings
Do not leave ANY belongings in the car. It doesn’t matter where the car is, just don’t do it. There are plenty of stories where people have returned to their car to find all the windows smashed and things are taken.
Wear proper footwear
When hiking in Hawaii, there is always an array of footwear that people are wearing. The majority of people here will hike in running shoes (at least on the easier trails) but you can’t go wrong with light hiking shoes. I wear my Nike cross-trainers on easy hikes and if needed, I wear my waterproof low-ankle Keens. Any type of footwear, there needs to be a lot of grip for traction.
A lot of hikes here are muddy and there can be some wading through streams, creeks, and waterfalls so a waterproof pair of shoes is a plus. Some hikes can be very steep with a lot of loose gravel and dirt (such as the Makua cave) so wear your hiking shoes. With the advanced and expert hikes, wear spikes and gloves because there are ropes.
Wear proper gear
This is hiking in Hawaii. Wear sunscreen and a hat. This would be not the ultimate guide to hiking in Hawaii if I did not include this major tip.
For easy day hikes, you can get away with shorts and a t-shirt or tank top but if you’re going on anything longer than a half day, I recommend wearing hiking pants (women like to wear yoga pants or capris too), and breathable tees. Hawaii receives random showers so packing light rain gear isn’t a bad idea.
Bring (enough) water & snacks
It gets hot and humid in Hawaii, especially when you’re tramping around the forest or on a hike with little to no shade cover. Bring enough water. It sucks without water. Bring your trusty Camelbak if you have one. People in Hawaii love their Hydroflask. I also like the designs from Swell Water Bottles.
Don’t eat breakfast but bring snacks
Don’t eat breakfast?! I know right, it goes against everything that everybody says. If you’re going to eat before a hike, eat something light (a banana, granola bar, or a simple slice of toast). Having a heavy breakfast and going on a hike gets me sick and nauseous so I tend to skip breakfast and bring some snacks. My favorite snacks are dried mango slices, trail mix, or a Cliff bar.
Watch out for open wounds and cuts if you’re going on WET HIKES. This means hikes with waterfalls, streams, rivers, lakes and ponds.
Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. The disease occurs all over the world, but is most common in warm climates. You can get Leptospirosis by swimming or wading in freshwater puddles, ponds, or streams contaminated with animal urine, or by coming into contact with wet soil or plants contaminated with animal urine. The bacterium enters the body through broken skin or through the soft tissues on the insides of the mouth, nose, or eyes. You can also get it by direct contact to urine, blood, or tissues from an infected animal. People cannot spread leptospirosis to one another.
The symptoms include fever, headache, chills, sweating, muscle pain, painful eyes, and vomiting. Occasionally, yellowing (jaundice) of the skin and the whites of the eyes and a rash may also occur. The symptoms may last from a few days to several weeks. In some persons, the infection can be mild and without obvious symptoms. On the other hand, as recently as 2016, acute liver and kidney failure have been observed. The symptoms usually start 7 to 14 days after being infected, but the onset can range from 2 to 30 days.
Wear bug spray
If you’re hiking in the forest, especially after a rain or to any kind of waterfall, for the love of all that’s good and holy, wear bug spray. There is no need to worry about ticks and Lyme Disease in Hawaii but mosquitoes love the fresh blood from visitors and transplants. OFF is a good bug spray brand and I recommend or else you end up looking like this.
Clean up after yourself
This goes without saying. Don’t be the littering asshole hiking in Hawaii. Do NOT litter and clean up after yourself and your pets. Let’s take care of Mother Earth so she can continue to take care of us. This tip belongs in every guide to hiking in Hawaii and the rest of the world.
Some local hikers always bring a plastic bag to take some trash on the way down.
Trail Etiquette (when most people are assholes)
- Greet other hikers. How about a small wave or a hello or a cheerful good morning? Hawaii is small so people here are sweet and cordial. If you’re passing by other hikers, a polite acknowledgment is fine if you’re in a rush. Don’t be the asshole that just tramps past other people like you only have five minutes or something.
- Do NOT hog the viewing point/summit. Locals can totally tell if you’re from the mainland (or are international) if you just walk by people without a second glance and get to the summit while acting like it’s your own personal photo shoot location. Wait your turn and be patient. If it is a crowded hike, take your photos and then allow others to have a chance to capture theirs. If you’re sitting on top of the bunkers (on those pillbox hikes), move and allow others to enjoy the view.
- Offer to take photos of people. If you’re waiting for a chance to take some photos, explore around, take a break, and come back for more photos or to relax if you need to. Remember: You don’t own the mountain. I don’t care how many followers you have.
- Allow others to pass if they’re catching up behind you. This is like not allowing drivers to pass you in the left lane while driving.
- On a one-way trail, and facing hikers going uphill, it is considerate to step aside and let them go. They usually have the right of way. It is nice to be patient if there are children or if the hikers seem a bit more senior/elderly.
- Don’t blast your music on your portable Bluetooth speaker. It’s nice that I can hear you tramping along but it ruins the mood and not everybody will appreciate your taste in music (this, I assure you).
- If you bring your dog, please clean up after them. Keep them under control in case they see another dog or if something easily distracts them, or best – keep them leashed. If a dog attacks me and if it’s possible that I fall and die, I will kick your dog off the mountain instead.
- STAY on the trail. Do not go off and make your own trail. This causes erosion and we like to keep our nature in pristine condition. Stop trying to be Marco Polo and explore shit on your own.
Know your hiking limitations
When someone asks how hard a hike is, the answer is SO subjective. It depends totally on:
- Who you are asking
- What hike it is
- The level of fitness of every person
- Conditions of the hike/trail itself
- Do your due diligence and research since a level of “hard” can be very hard or a level of “moderate” might be easy or hard for certain people!
If you have a knee condition, an “easy” hike such as the Makapu’u Lighthouse (paved and such) can actually be painful and hard on the knees.
Urban hikers can be a bit surprised at the steepness and ridge hikes in Hawaii. Conditions can change from dry to rainy or muddy so there is extra danger there. There are a lot of stories about visitors/tourists hiking up a trail and are too scared or frightened to head back down. Know your limits and respect them. Hiking is not a competition, it’s actually just walking. Hiking is a way to get some physical exercise out in the wilderness, enjoy nature’s beauty, breathe some fresh air, and spend time with good people.
I hope you enjoyed reading my ultimate guide to hiking in Hawaii and learned how to NOT be an asshole! Feel free to reach out to me via social media or email if you have any questions!
Overall, be considerate, be safe and have fun! Aloha!
If you liked this post, read my other article on family-friendly hikes in Oahu.