Hawaii Packing List: What to Pack for Paradise

By Nick Hilden
Surfboards in Hawaii

Hawaii is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world thanks to its unrivaled sun, sand, and local culture. Whether you’re visiting the Aloha State to relax on the beach, hike the jungles, hit up the party scene, or all three, you’re in for an outstanding vacation in paradise, as long as you’re properly prepared. With this in mind, we’ve put together a comprehensive Hawaii packing list.

It’s no surprise that you’re wondering what to pack for Hawaii. This island paradise offers a wide range of activities, and you want to be prepared.

Man wearing backpack near the ocean

The Best Travel Backpack for Hawaii

Proper packing starts with the right bag. For me, that’s the Tortuga Outbreaker Backpack. As a carry-on-sized travel backpack, the Outbreaker allows you to avoid the hassle of checking a bag while making it easy to maximize every square inch of your airline’s carry on limits. You can pack light for Hawaii and don’t need to be wasting your time in paradise at the baggage claim when the beach awaits.

The Outbreaker is also ideal for Hawaii’s unexpected showers thanks to its waterproof sailcloth exterior and water-resistant zippers.

People on the beach in Hawaii.

Hawaii Packing List

While Hawaiian weather is consistently hot and humid, you’re still going to want more than your basic shorts, t-shirt, and sandals. Below are a few tips for what to wear in Hawaii to account for the weather and to look more like a local.

Casual Clothes

Hawaii is, unsurprisingly, a very laid-back place. Everyone wears shorts, sandals, and short sleeves all the time, even at the most upscale restaurants. Don’t waste space in your bag packing fancy clothing you don’t need and will never wear.

Layers

Multi-functional, breathable layers take you comfortably in and out of your rental car (you’ll need one) as you stop at the viewpoints, waterfalls, an old lava tube along Maui’s road to Hana, or on your cruise along Kaua’i’s newly designated Holo Holo Koloa Scenic Byway.

Despite the trade winds that arrive from the Northeast, the climate is humid year-round. As a rule of thumb, the windward (northern and eastern) sides of the islands experience more rain than the leeward (southern and western) sides.

Clothes that transition well from rental car to sandbar will keep you cool and collected.

Rain Shell

Sudden rain showers are a normal part of life in Hawaii, especially during the winter rainy season. Be prepared with a light rain jacket that can pack down when you don’t need it.

Activewear

Bring lots of it. Whether you consider yourself a serious trekker or recreational hiker, a kayak enthusiast or a first-time surfer, Hawai’i has an outdoor activity for you. Here’s your activewear checklist:

  • More than one swimsuit
  • 3-5 t-shirts and/or tanktops
  • Appropriate footwear, including flip flops
  • Quick-drying fabrics for surf-to-shore activities
  • Light fabrics with SPF built-in

Sun Protection

You’re going to be in the sun a lot, so be prepared. Sunscreen tends to be outrageously expensive in Hawaii, so bring your own from home. Don’t forget other sun essentials like sunglasses, a hat or visor, and sunburn gel.

Daypack

There are two important activities on all Hawaiian trips: water and walking. Whether you’re hiking the lava fields to the charming coffee plantation town of Captain Cook, wandering the shopping district in Waikiki, getting rained on in Kauai, or swimming with sea turtles, you’re going to need a daypack.

You didn’t come to Hawaii to stay in your hotel, you came to get out and do stuff. Load up your daypack and make the most of your adventure. Preferably, a versatile bag with shoulder padding for volcano hikes and waterfall adventures, yet clean lines and a low profile so you don’t look like you’re hauling a hiking bag down the main street of Kona when you’re headed to dinner from the beach.

The Outbreaker Daypack is just right for a day of sightseeing or shopping around town. It’s super lightweight and packs flat into your travel backpack without taking up much space. Like the full-sized Outbreaker, it’s also made from water-resistant fabric to keep your stuff dry.

A beautiful blue lagoon.

What to Pack for Hawaii by Island

Some island activities require more preparation. Make sure to include these items when planning your packing list for your vacation to the following islands:

Big Island

Sneakers or Hiking Shoes: For the uneven and jagged terrain of the Big Island’s lava fields, protect your feet and ankles with a pair of durable and supportive shoes.

The same goes for the many coastal and mountain trails of the other islands. Island weather can be fickle, so use your best judgment about venturing out on particularly hot days or immediately after a rainstorm, when mud can make the once-solid trail a precarious slip and slide.

Oahu

Fancy Pants: If you are staying on Oahu and are looking for a festive night out, pack your fancy pants or go-to dress, though keep in mind that it should be a muted version of what you’d probably wear in Miami or Vegas. Or, pick up an outfit at Ala Moana in Honolulu, the state’s largest shopping center and home to high-end designers as well as budget-friendly staples, including Zara and H&M.

Kaua’i, Lana’i, and Moloka’i

Portable Speaker: What these smaller islands lack in nightlife, they make up for in balmy evenings after the bars and restaurants close. Head back to your hotel or Airbnb, throw open the sliding door to your lanai, and turn on some tunes while the brews you picked up at the Big Save market melt away the day’s adventures.

The mountains of Hawaii.

Where to Stay & What to Do in Hawaii

Looking for recommendations on where to stay and what to do? Consider one of these island retreats, as well as a few novel suggestions for activities beyond the sandy beaches the Hawaiian islands are known for.

Big Island

Stay Rimside on Kilauea Volcano: The recently renovated Volcano House hotel features views of the spewing volcano from its large picture windows. As the only hotel within Volcanoes National Park, this spot’s got your access to the molten fireworks.

Kaua’i

Stay in a secluded guesthouse in the hills of the North Shore: The Palmwood is an intimate bohemian retreat focused on thoughtful furnishings, locally sourced meals, and enough space for reflective moments. Check out the photos on Instagram; the definition of tranquility.

Go tubing through remnants of a Kaua’i sugarcane plantation: With Kaua’i Backcountry Adventures, float through history on Lihue Plantation’s (Hawai’i’s oldest) irrigation system that once fed more than 15,000 acres of sugarcane. Or, pack a cooler and head to the beach that’s always on my list whenever I have the rare chance to return home.

Lana‘i

Stay in a plantation-style cottage close to town: This Airbnb offering lists more than 100 positive reviews from former guests. They rave about its clean rooms, quiet evenings and full kitchen; perfect for preparing a meal with ingredients from the farmers market (Saturday mornings near Dole Park), which is only a 15 minute walk into town. The wraparound porch, or Lanai, is a nice touch too.

Visit a cat sanctuary in Lana‘i: Located less than a mile from the airport, Lanai Cat Sanctuary is open daily and, thanks to visitor donations, provides for the care of more than 500 cats in need. Or, breeze through the island on a downhill bike tour offering views of Mount Haleakala and the neighboring island of Moloka‘i as you cruise into its largest city of the same name. Here, Lana‘i City is small-town charm personified. Zero stoplights, one gas station, and just one school.

Maui

Stay on the precipice of an ancient Hawaiian sacred site in upcountry Maui: Maliko Retreat offers private, jungle, and ocean views from a 20-acre shade-grown coffee plantation set atop Maliko Gulch.

Tour a lavender farm on Maui’s East side: On Maui’s drier eastern side, the town of Kula’s minimal rainfall and abundance of sunshine allow Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm to flourish. Draped slopeside over Haleakala, a summertime visit means you can experience all 20 varieties of the soothing herb in bloom, although there is lavender to be had year-round. Plan for an earlier morning visit to catch a clearer, 180-degree view of Kihei, the north shore, and the West Maui Mountains. Or, for moody ambience, go later in the afternoon when there will likely be more cloud cover and a mist in the air.

Moloka‘i

Cheer on winners of the Moloka’i Hoe canoe race: Every fall, beginning at Hale o Lono harbor in Moloka’i, this prestigious canoe race follows the treacherous Ka’iwi (or Moloka’i) Channel and finishes on the shores of Waikiki, on Oahu. Teams from Hawai’i and beyond participate. According to Hawai’i Magazine the race, “has become one of the longest-running annual team sporting events in Hawai’i and perpetuates one of Hawai’i’s most important cultural traditions.”

Oahu

Stay in Waikiki’s newest hipster paradise: Opening its doors in May, The Surfjack hotel on Oahu blends mid-century modern design and local art (like a living fern installation by Paiko Hawaii), and regular poolside entertainment. If you’re a fan of ACE Hotel properties, you’ll dig this hotel from Aqua-Aston Hospitality.

Eat your way through an evening food truck crawl in Honolulu: On the last Friday of every month, the hipster ‘hood of Kaka’ako (and my favorite refurbished chic area of Honolulu) hosts Eat the Street, where more than 35 food trucks and vendors set up shop to serve your tastebuds from 4 – 10 p.m.

According to my foodie-enthusiast sister, who lives and works in Honolulu, you’ve got to try the Musukawas truck for musubi (Spam and rice, wrapped in Nori, just like sushi), “They ALWAYS sell out. Pair some of those musubis with a Liliko’i lemonade served in a mason jar. Boom.”

Getting Around Hawaii

Unlike many other U.S. destinations, like Washington’s San Juan Islands or The Overseas Highway that links the Florida Keys, one must travel by plane to get to the other islands.

Island Air offers six one-way flights as part of their Holoholo travel pack for travel within the larger islands of Hawai’i, Oahu, Kaua’i, and Maui. For travel from the mainland and within the islands, including Lana‘i and Moloka’i, Hawaiian Airlines is your bird.

Plan to rent a car once you land, and fly if you will be island hopping. Keep in mind, that there are no ferries in Hawaii.

Bring everything you need without checking a bag.

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