Kalalau Trail Solo Hike – July 25-26, 2012

My family and I regularly vacation in Hawaii, having previously visited Maui and the big island. This year, we decided to repair ourselves to the garden island of Kaua’i, renowned for its stunning geography and fantastic features including the Waimea Canyon, ‘The Grand Canyon of the Pacific,’ and Mount Wai’ale’ale, the wettest spot on earth. It is also known for the sharp features of the Nā Pali coastline located along the NW side of the island, which can only be seen close-up by air, boat or foot. The latter requires travel along the Kalalau Trail, which stretches for 11 miles starting from Ke’e Beach all the way to Kalalau. If you haven’t heard or read about this hike, it’s known as one of the best hikes in the world per National Geographic and also as one of the most dangerous in America per Backpacker.

The Kalalau has been on my ‘to hike’ list for some time. I read about this hike for the first time in Backpacking Light’s final issue #11. Once we had reserved airfare and lodging for our trip back in late April, my wife encouraged me to see whether I could get a permit for an overnight trip to Kalalau Beach. With only months until our trip, I hardly expected that I would be able to get a reservation, but fortunately for me, the cumbersome process of getting a reservation via mail has been replaced by an easy-to-use online reservation system. I was able to check permit availabilty on my desired days, procure a permit for a mere $20, and print it in PDF format. I’ll note that I’m very fortunate to have such a wonderful wife that will allow me to take 1.5 days for myself while on a family vacation–I love you, baby!

The focus of this post will center more on the thought and planning process that I went through for this hike as I found a TON of information available on the interwebz regarding the history of the trail, the features, etc. I haven’t found a lot of information available, however, regarding how to do this without carrying a 40+ lb pack!

In planning to hike the Kalalau, the biggest thing to keep in mind is its tropical location and abundant rainfall, with average daytime temperatures in the 80s and nightime temperatures in the 60s. This would mean that I would not need a sleeping bag, nor would I need anything more than a tee-shirt and a lightweight rain jacket. To cover these needs, I elected to bring an M50 sleeping-bag liner, a merino wool tee and a a short-sleeved cuben fiber rain jacket. I’ll note that once I arrived in Kaua’i I quickly recognized that even lightweight merino would be overkill and that a fabric without insulative properties would be much better. For this trip, I decided to go with a shirt made of bamboo fibers as bamboo is purportedly 3 degrees cooler than cotton.

Given the risk of rain, I decided to bring an UL tarp, an SMD Gatewood Cape. This would require me to suspend the cape from a tree or to use one center pole for the hike, so I’d need to determine whether I’d be willing to travel with hiking poles. I ultimately elected to purchase hiking poles when I arrived in Kaua’i as there’s a Walmart located in Lihue. This turned out to be a great call as they were cheap, they worked well, and the cost @ ~$20 was cheap enough that I didn’t care about leaving them behind for another hiker after I completed my hike. To round-out my sleep system, I would need a bivy sack and sleeping pad. I decided to carry my go-to bivy, the MLD SuperLight, and my Klymit Intertia X-Lite–an uber-minimalist pad that I had not used before.

I also elected to not bring a stove, nor to buy one in Kaua’i. In general, I only have one hot meal per day on any hike in the NW and I could certainly do without a hot meal in Hawaii. I would need to filter, chemically-treat or purify the water in Kauai due to the risk of leptospirosis. Rather than bring a bulky filter, I decided to entrust my steripen to this duty! In addition, I would plan to bring Aquamira should I suffer electronic failure.

I would also need a really low volume, lightweight pack for this trip. I’ll note that I have a lot of lightweight packs at my disposal, but none of them suited my volume needs for this trip . . . that is, extremely minimal volume needs. I could easily get all of my gear into my REI Flash 18 pack, but it lacked side water bottle pockets, a critical feature for a long trip in hot, humid conditions. I ultimately ordered a custom extra-small ‘Zero’ ZPack from Joe Valesko in blue cuben fiber with hybrid-cuben water bottle pockets. Given that I didn’t need a hipbelt, I ordered 2 shoulder pouches for camera and snacks and a water pouch for trips where I desired to carry a water bladder.

Otherwise, I would need a some additional supplies such as minimal first-aid and repair kits, a small towel, a potty trowel, various meds, etc.

For gear worn, apart from my bamboo shirt noted above, I would hike in a pair of Keen Newport Sandals, sport a pair of ExOfficio boxer briefs and REI Sahara cargo shorts, and wear a Kavu Chillba conical hat that is made in the US but is of East and Southeast Asian descent.

For food, I decided to procure my usual assortment of grub. Breakfasts would consist of a fruit pie and a GU20 gel. Snacks would consist of Clif Shot Blocks, Honey Stinger Energy Chews, Tanka bars and Justin’s nut butters. Lunch would consist of several ounces of Fritos. Dinner would consist of a sandwich that I would get on the island and a candy bar. I bought the majority of this stuff before I left at REI, leaving only the sandwich and pies for Kaua’i.

My limited gear list is as follows:

Item Weight Notes
Zpacks Zero X-Small Backpack 4.85 oz hybrid-cuben side pockets
SMD Gatewood Cape/Stakes 13 oz Simple; storm protection
MLD SuperLight Bivy Sack 7.62 oz Bug & ground protection
MLD M50 Quilt Liner 2.80 oz Lightest bag liner formerly avail–rated @ ~60F
Klymit Inertia X-Lite 6.20 oz Lightest inflatable pad
MontBell UL Comfort Sys Pillow 2.40 oz Luxury item
ZPacks Cloudcape 3.40 oz Light rain protection
First Aid/Repair/Meds/Other 9.62 oz Various small items
Petzl e+LITE Headlamp 1.38 oz Minimalist headlamp
Sun/Glasses/Contacts/Saline 4 oz Optics
Nalgene 32oz Canteens (2) 4.20 oz Wide-mouth opening
SteriPen Adventurer Opti w/lithium batteries 3.60 oz Dependable, minimal hassle
MiniDrop Bottles w/Aquamira .36 oz Chemical redundancy
Total Weight 3.96 lb

All-in-all, this would be my first trip with a sub-4 lb base weight. I would have a total carried weight of ~10 lbs for this trip, making an overnight trip of ~26 miles and ~10,000 ft of elevation gain very doable.

As a result of myriad trail reports indicating the risk of vandalism and break-ins at the trailhead, my wife and kids agreed to escort me to the trailhead. It was an approximate 1.5 hour drive from Poipu to Ke’e along the east and north coasts of the island. We left around 6:30am and arrived at the trailhead just after 8am. After eating my allotment of grub for the morning, readying my gear, and saying goodbye to the family, I hit the trail at about 8:30am.

It was a long hike, mostly due to my detour to Hanakäpï‘ai falls. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake as it added a lot of extra time to my hike and stretched my hike to fifteen miles on day 1. This side trip was costly for two reasons: (1) I took a spill after slipping on the wet path — note that Keen’s don’t provide great traction on a slick clay surface — and (2) I pummeled my elbow and watch after slipping when I jumped across Hanakäpï‘ai stream. Fortunately I departed this section without serious injury.

Day 2, by comparison, was much easier at a mere 11 miles and only took 6 hours to complete. Although it was an option, I decided to forego paying for a boat ride back to the trailhead. I returned to meet the family at just after 2pm. Overall it was a fantastic hike and very doable, especially with ultralight gear!

Photo journal of the hike below:

The start of my journey at the Kalalau Trailhead


Epic view of the Napali coastine


The author at Hanakäpï‘ai Falls


The Kalalau sign!


Napali Cliffs


My first view of Kalalau Beach. I was very tired by this point!


Ultralight setup of my Gatewood Cape


Sunset on Kalalau Beach

Parting Thoughts
◾This is a tough hike given the distance and cumulative elevation gain
◾I highly recommend travelling with ultralight gear; other hikers were very inquisitive and envious of my setup
◾The side trip to the falls took a LONG time and the trail was often difficult to follow. Not recommended if hiking to Kalalau Beach in a day.
◾My sandals worked very well for everything but the falls section. I could have used my poles more effectively to prevent slipping.
◾The Klymit Inertia X-Lite was passable, but not very comfortable
◾I only needed the bivy sack for warmth during the night
◾My Kavu Chillba provided great shelter from the sun, but caught wind like a sail during the sketchy cliffs section

This entry was posted in Backpacking, Hawaii. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Kalalau Trail Solo Hike – July 25-26, 2012

  1. McLovin says:

    Fantastic report, I had to close my browser quickly just now lest Mrs. McLovin discover that I not only haven’t been taking her to Hawaii, but that there are solo SUL backpacking ops available 🙂 Requesting a Kavu Chillba review soon…?

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