We had been planning a trip to Kauai and wanted it to be a little different than a typical tropical vacation. We wanted to stay in each region of Kauai and do as many day hikes as we could interspersed with snorkeling and swimming at the beach. I thought that if ultralight backpacking works for people hiking long distances, similar principles ought to work for general travel as well. Bringing minimal gear and luggage would allow us to have a different travel experience and be more spontaneous.

Kalalau Trail

Diane "Piper" Soini on the Kalalau Trail

It was nice to use a small utility style backpack for my carry on item on the plane and the Riksak for the small item limit as both would be used for a backpacking trip and day trips during our vacation. Because we had food items and trekking poles we brought a large suitcase to check those items in.

Type 2 Utility Backpack

At the Honolulu Airport with my Type 2 Utility Backpack and Riksack

Gear I brought for the entire trip included the following:

Category Gear Selection Details
Carried on plane Gossamer Gear Type 2 Utility Backpack
Gossamer Gear Riksak
Plastic Bag pack cover
Gossamer Gear Thinlight Pad- 1/8"
Pocket shower used as a stuff sack
Jacks-R-Better Quilt 45 degree F rating
Equinox bivy sack
Two bathing suits board shorts and bikini tops
Three cotton/poly ladies t-shirts very light shirts
"Desert" shirt
One pair of hiking pants
One pair of hiking shorts
Two pair underwear
Fleece sleeves and hat Used for mosquitoes!
Chaco sandals
3 pairs of socks for chafing with the sandals, one pair unused
Zpacks cuben fiber rain jacket went unused
Rain skirt went unused
Cookless kitchen screw-top jar, bowl/cup and spoon
Sawyer Mini
Platypus bottle
Classic Swiss army knife
Safety pins for drying socks on back of pack
Ditty Bag UL first aid and hygiene kit in bag
Hugh Tracy Kalimba Musical Instrument
Checked in luggage Homemade dehydrated backpacking food
Chrome Umbrella for sun at the beach
Gossamer Gear LT4 Poles
Two person shelter
Ground Cloth
Tent Stakes
Purchased in Kauai Beach towel
Snorkel gear

I was able to bring what I needed for the backpacking portion of our trip along with other essentials for travel in the two small packs.

We started our trip in the Wiamea area. We did a number of great day hikes in Koke'e State Park. Our first hike was a nice loop with the local Sierra Club to a lookout in Wiamea Canyon.

Wiamea Canyon

Wiamea Canyon from a side trail off the Ditch Trail

They call Wiamea Canyon the Grand Canyon of Hawaii. You can see it from a drive-up vista point but it was nice to hike inside the canyon and see it that way.


One of the best, most adventurous hikes we did was the Alakai Swamp Trail. The Alakai Swamp is a high altitude swamp (they say it is the highest) and what is said to be the rainiest place on earth. It is one of the few places left on the island with mostly native vegetation.

The trail begins at Kalalau Lookout in Koke'e State Park, which is at the end of the paved road. The trail was slick with mud that offered no traction. We were grateful for trekking poles but what we really wished we had were our Kahtoola KTS crampons. As soon as we thought of this we noticed what appeared to be crampon marks on the trail. Later we met the owners of these footprints: two local girls wearing crampons. We walked slowly and gingerly while they blew by us with confidence.

After the mud, the trail reaches boardwalks that are much easier to traverse. We made good time and enjoyed the vigorous workout. Someone said there were 400 stairs in one section of the trail.

Alakai Swam Trail

Alakai Swam Trail boardwalk

We were surprised that in Koke'e State Park, where most of the trails are 3000 feet or more above sea level, that it could be quite cold. The lowest temperature we experienced was in the mid-50s. It was probably a little colder at night.

After a few days exploring the Wiamea area we went to Po'ipu. One of the best day hikes we did on the trip was the Maha'ulepu Coast Trail. It was not a strenuous trail but it was nice and long. Plus it had some of the prettiest coastal views of our trip. We turned back when we got to private property and a lovely hidden beach.

Maha'ulepu Trail

Maha'ulepu Trail hidden beach at the end of the trail

Near Koloa we decided to try a trail that a local person recommended called the Kahili Ridge Trail. We had read an online review of the trail. It sounded Kahili Ridge Trail

Tony on the Kahili Ridge Trail

It was too steep for us to get very far. In one place there was even a rope to help you on the slope. The trail was mostly dry for us, thankfully, as I hear it is usually muddy. Even on the dry trail I slid down unable to stop in one section. We turned back after about an hour and a half as it became far too steep and it was beginning to rain. We enjoyed the craziness just the same and ate lots of the feral guavas strewn about the trail as our consolation prize.

In Kapa'a we called one of the nice people we met on the Sierra Club hike in Wiamea Canyon and she took us on a great hike up Sleeping Giant. There are three separate trails to the summit providing options for trail runners and hikers to get some exercise after work. The trail has nice views along the way and goes to the summit pictured here.

napali coast

Ready to begin at the Sleeping Giant trailhead

Soon it was time to go on our backpack trip on the Na Pali Coast.

Most of the gear we brought proved to be useful and packing minimally made it easy for us to go from one destination to another and see much more of the island than we would have been able to if we were carrying our usual luggage. There is a little bit of a learning curve to packing minimally for vacations, but overall it is very successful and really added to our experience.

Hanakapi'ai Beach

Hanakapi'ai Beach

Our backpacking trip was a great way to end our vacation. It is a unique and challenging trail as the water is extremely dangerous and signs implore you not to swim. Additionally, there is a creek crossing at the beach that can experience flash floods. It has swept people to their deaths in the ocean.

From the beach there is a 2 mile side trail to Hanakapi'ai Falls. The trail was difficult, muddy and slippery. There were many creek crossings. Tony slipped in one of them and bruised his face and ribs pretty badly, but the waterfalls were beautiful.

Hanakapi'ai Falls

Hanakapi'ai Falls

We were surprised that leaving at noon for a 6 mile hike took all the rest of the afternoon. We ended up camping at Hanakapi'ai Beach which was very cold. Tony slept in his silk sleeping bag liner and I slept in my bivy sack. We shared the down quilt. In the morning we got up slowly in the dark canyon and continued on toward Kalalau Beach.

Mile 7 of the Kalalau trail is noted for a precarious section of trail. Poised above the crashing surf hundreds of feet below, with waves crashing like thunder so hard against the cliffs you swear you can feel the impact, the trail becomes a thin, vertiginous perch wide enough for just one hiker. I stopped to take a picture of what I was about to do. Then I took a deep breath, told myself to relax and refused to look down.

backpacking in Hawaii

Perilous trail

When I was past the treacherous section, I looked back to see Tony going through it. Fortunately this section was not slippery. The trail had dried out quite a bit since the day before and this scary part was all dry, grippy rock. No mud or dirt. Frankly, there were other segments of the trail less dramatic to the camera but far more terrifying for the hiker.

hiking in Hawaii

Finally we reached Kalalau Valley. It truly felt like the end of the earth. It had to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. There were archaeological ruins leftover from the first people to have ever lived on the island.We descended to the beach which was wide with soft sand and rugged waves. At the end of the beach is a beautiful waterfall.


It appeared that about 100 hippies were living here at the beach. We arrived very late in the afternoon. We knew we would have to get up very early to make it the 11 miles out so rather than camp near the beach with all the hippies we found a quieter location among the terraces formed by the old walls from the original Menehune people's gardens.

camping in Hawaii

I sat on a grassy plateau above the beach and watched the sun set at the end of the earth, at the place where they believed souls departed from the cliffs.

sunset hawaii

The night was warm and dry. We did not need the down quilt to sleep comfortably. A passion fruit vine grew near our camp so we had fresh fruit with our breakfast. We got a fast start and found the trail was much easier after a day and night without rain. We made good time and completed the 11 miles in about 6 hours. When we returned to Ke'e Beach we went for a swim and then washed off in the outdoor shower.

Our minimalist, but not quite ultralight hike had been a success. However, it would have been much better to have had 5 or 6 days for this hike. We could have visited all the side trails and spent some leisurely days at the beach.

The Type 2 Utility pack worked great for both carry-on luggage and backpacking. It was comfortable to wear and roomy enough for a minimalist kit. It got fairly muddy brushing up against the trail in some of the tricky sections, but the mud came right off and the pack still looked new. The Riksack was the perfect tool for day hikes, shopping trips and general travel.

This post was contributed by former Trail Ambassador Diane "Piper" Soini.

January 12, 2015 — Brian Fryer