When I discovered the possibility of camping on Maui in a Volkswagen Westfalia, my eyes lit up like a child on Christmas morning. I’d been to Maui many times before, but I’d never had the opportunity to experience the island in this unique way.
Not to mention, Hans and I have been talking about trading in our stationary lives for the van life for SO long now, that even a chance to try it out for a few days absolutely THRILLED the both of us.
Maui is a big enough island (the second-largest in the Hawaiian chain, in fact) that getting around requires the use of a rental car of some kind–at least, if you want to explore beyond the reaches of your resort or hotel.
But when you add to that the ease and convenience of sleeping just about anywhere you want, then a whole new world of possibilities opens up to you.
We partnered with Cruisin Maui Rent-A-Car to see what Maui van life was all about, and started to see the island in a whole new light.
Here are just a few of the things we learned about car camping on Maui that we think you should know before embarking on your own Maui camping adventure.
Read about our other unique Maui experiences for even more inspiration!
Gas is more expensive than on the mainland, but it won’t break the bank.
For all the driving we did around the island in the three days we had our campervan, I was surprised when we didn’t even use up a full tank.
We paid, on average, $3.59 per gallon (in October 2017), which is more than we pay in Washington but similar to prices we saw recently in California.
The cheapest fuel on the island can be found at Costco in Kahului, so if you want to save a bit of money, head here to gas up. You can also download the Gas Buddy app to locate gas stations near you.
When we filled up to return the van to the rental company, we spent around $35. A full tank might cost you closer to $40.
Food is more expensive too…or is it?
Like most people, we assumed food on Maui would come with astronomical prices due to the fact that so many things have to be imported from lands far, far away.
So imagine our surprise when we discovered food priced the same or lower than it was at home! Now, this certainly doesn’t hold true for everything–it will depend on what you like to eat.
But overall, we found that grocery shopping on Maui wasn’t anywhere near as daunting as we’d erroneously assumed.
We stocked up on local produce, Clif Bars for a reasonable $1.25 each, and a certain brand of ready-to-eat Indian dishes that we love, which were HALF the price that we pay in Washington (for traveling half the distance, I guess).
Since we were often in Paia, we frequented Mana Foods where we also found lots of delicious locally baked bread. Another good option is Foodland, found in Kihei, Lahaina, and Wailuku, but you’ll also find big chain grocery stores like Safeway and of course, Costco.
Legit campsites are not as prevalent on the island as you might think.
Camping and living in vans on Maui is actually quite common, but the number of actual campsites is surprisingly limited.
Plenty of people can be seen car camping in places like parking lots and beaches, even when signs are posted stating that it’s not allowed.
We never really felt comfortable enough to do this ourselves, in spite of the prevalence; so, while many people do it, I can’t fully endorse this myself (and neither will any car rental company).
So, your options are to find a legitimate campsite or take the risk of parking somewhere you’re technically not supposed to park.
And while there are many state parks in Maui, they are not equipped for car camping and therefore do not allow it, with one exception: Waiʻānapanapa State Park.
Other options for car camping on Maui include:
These campsites are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Hosmer Grove is located near the summit of Haleakala Crater, so be forewarned that it’s a rather chilly place to camp at an elevation of roughly 7,000 feet. Kipahulu is located near sea level on the east side of the island and is reached via the Hana Highway.
This is a beautiful spot located on the Honoapiilani Highway, just 6 miles from the bustling town of Lahaina. It offers beach access and amenities like showers and toilets in addition to a stunning view of the West Maui Mountains.
We chose to stay at Camp Olowalu, parking our van in their car parking lot which is large enough that you do not need to worry about making a reservation in advance. We were a little taken aback by the price of camping which, rather than paying per vehicle, is paid per person.
We enjoyed its proximity to Lahaina and the chance to take showers, and we admired the tents and bungalows so much we almost considered renting one of those for the night instead.
As for the other nights, we were fortunate to have friends on the island who encouraged us to park in their residential neighborhoods where we wouldn’t be bothered and where we could use their showers in the morning, something we continue to be grateful for to this day!
The problem with camping in places where it’s not allowed is that you just can’t guarantee that it’s safe. We were warned by more than one person to be wary of break-ins and to make sure anything valuable in our rental cars was always well hidden, but ideally not left behind at all.
This definitely made us think twice about spending the night in beach parking lots and I’d encourage anyone else to exercise caution as well when choosing a place to park for the night.
Westfalias are tricky to drive on many of Maui’s roads.
If you plan to rent a Volkswagen Westfalia for its Instagram-worthiness, be forewarned that it’s not quite as simple as driving any old car. For one, it’ll be a manual transmission, so if you’re not comfortable driving manual, you may want to opt for an automatic campervan instead.
And this becomes particularly tricky even for experienced drivers when you throw curvy roads into the mix. We hoped to drive the road to Hana during our trip, but we knew that it would be a total pain in the ass in a Westfalia.
And, depending on the car, the engine may not be burly enough to get you to the summit of Haleakala, either. Remember, these are old cars, and unless the engine has been rebuilt, it may not have the guts to climb 10,000 feet.
Lastly, you’ll be seated on top of the car’s front wheels, meaning you’ll have to take turns wider than you would in most other cars. You’ll get used to this part in no time, but it’s worth being aware of it ahead of time.
It might just help you blend in with locals.
In Maui, or any of the Hawaiian Islands for that matter, locals tend to drive basic, no-frills vehicles.
With the amount of damage they endure thanks to the beating sun and the constant barrage of salty, humid air, island cars have a tendency to age a bit faster than cars on the mainland.
So, it’s rather unusual to see locals cruising around in fancy new cars. In fact, this is one of the easiest ways to spot tourists! A neon yellow Mustang convertible is definitely not a local’s car.
When you cruise around the island in an old car with some wear and tear (like a 1986 Volkswagen Westfalia), you’re more likely to be taken for a local, which usually works in your favor.
Not that we ever found Maui locals to be anything but kind, but I always like to be as inconspicuous as possible when I travel, and this is a great way to do it.
Your van will get messy. Just go with it.
I consider myself a pretty savvy packer these days, but somehow both Hans and I managed to bring way too much on our 9-day trip to Maui, and when riding around in a van that’s also your temporary home, you’re going to want to save as much space as possible.
If you book with Cruisin Maui Rent-A-Car, your van will come outfitted with a number of things, and you can pay for additional gear if you want it.
So in addition to the numerous bags between us, we were also carrying a huge jug of drinking water, a cooler for food, a kitchen set, a camp stove and propane tank, beach chairs, towels, snorkel gear, and of course, bedding.
And because we were more interested in experiencing Maui than tidying up our van every few minutes, well, let’s just say things got a bit out of hand.
In the end, our messiness didn’t have any effect whatsoever on our enjoyment of the van. It did occasionally make it difficult for us to find things when we needed them, but thankfully, we didn’t leave a single thing behind or lose any of our rented gear (phew!).
You’ll definitely want park it somewhere and watch the sunset at least once.
I get it–you’ve got a pair of wheels and you want to use ’em! But I’d also highly recommend taking at least one afternoon to find your ideal sunset spot and just chill.
Drive up Haleakala for a bird’s eye view, or park it at sea level on the beaches near Olowalu. Grab a beer, or some fresh papaya, or some delightful food truck tacos, and sit back and enjoy the show.
Maui has some of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen, and no matter what your vantage point, they’re sure to dazzle you, too.
We chose the strip of beach along the Honoapiilani Highway to stop and take it all in, and a beautiful moment turned into an absolutely unforgettable one when Hans got down on one knee and asked me to be his forever person!
It was the perfect way to end our van life trial run and a memory we’ll both cherish for a lifetime.
Things to Pack for Van Camping in Maui
To save space in your luggage while making sure you’re adequately prepared for an amazing Maui camping experience, here are some things I’d recommend you pack:
- Packing Cubes
- Microfiber Towel
- Camping Hammock
- Biodegradable Soap
- Reef Safe Mineral Sunscreen
- Car Charger
- Wireless Radio Adapter
- Portable Coffee Maker
Have you ever considered renting a campervan on Maui?
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Many thanks to Cruisin Maui Rent-A-Car for sponsoring us with rentals during our trip.