Kalalau for Beginners

I’ve mentioned this before: feel free to send me questions, my email is andy (a) great(dash)hikes (d o t) c o m. It used to be on this website, but I had to take it down due to spam. Eventually, I would like to implement an “Ask me about Kaua’i” button, but email works in the meantime. I try to answer all emails, and if it has a wide appeal, I’ll just publish the answer here.

Janis sent me a question, and I think the answer may interest a lot of people:

My husband and I just returned from a trip to Kauai and we just loved everything about it. We hiked the trail to Hanakapai Falls and are contemplating trying the whole 11 miles to Kalalau Beach. We are in our upper 50’s, in relatively good shape, but have never backpacked before. Would you only recommend this trail for young people?

Also, what is the best way to overcome a possible fear of exposure on the cliff sections? I think I could possibly have a problem, but I really want to overcome my fear and do this hike. It is now on my bucket list.

Any suggestions other than “don’t do it”? ha.

Janis, I think backpacking in general is not a question of age but of experience. I helped my Dad hike the Kalalau trail when he was 65, and there are plenty of people of all ages hiking in Kalalau. In fact, given that experience comes with age, you see lots of old backpackers on trails all over the country. However, by your own admission, I’m not sure you have all the experience to tackle the Kalalau trail yet. It sounds like you have a good fitness level, so I think with some equipment and training, you could do it in a year or two. There is also the issue of sleeping outdoors in a tent or hammock—some people have no problem with it, others will put up with it to be in Kalalau, and yet others just aren’t comfortable with it. Since you’ve already considered this, I’m going to assume you’re not in the last category.

Having never backpacked before, you need some equipment and skills. Hopefully there is a hiking club near where you live that you can join and learn about backpacking skills. Sometimes you can rent or borrow their equipment first, until you buy your own. For Kalalau, you will need to bring the following with you on the airplane:

  • Backpacks
  • Hiking boots and hiking poles (recommended when you have a heavy pack on your back)
  • Shelter (usually a lightweight backpacking tent, but could also be a hammock with rain fly for each)
  • Mats for insulation from the ground (if in tent)
  • Lightweight sleep sack (you don’t need the heavier sleeping bag that’s necessary the mainland, so unless you can afford a down bag, a separate fleece sleep sack is lighter and smaller to pack).
  • Water filter and purifier rated to remove leptospira bacteria
  • Camping food
  • Lightweight hiking clothes (breathable synthetic fabrics)
  • Kalalau map (though it is easier to buy on Kaua’i, see links below)

None of this needs to be expensive, but you should have good quality equipment that fits well and that you’ve practiced packing, carrying, and using. Some of it can be rented on Kaua’i at the backpacking stores, but I really think that bringing an extra suitcase or pack as luggages is a small price to pay for having your own trusted equipment with you.

I no longer recommend taking a stove to Kalalau because it can be a hassle to take on the airplane. They all have different rules about them. Since you’re usually going for 3-4 days, it’s not an ordeal to eat cold foods. If you do want hot foods and are willing to deal with the extra weight, you need to determine if you can take it on your airline (before you buy tickets) and under what conditions, and then buy the gas on Kaua’i.

Once you have borrowed, rented, or bought this equipment, you need practice carrying it long distances and using it. The Kalalau trail has over 2500 feet of elevation gain over 11 miles. You don’t want this unfamiliar trail in an unfamiliar climate to be a surprise and a huge challenge to your abilities. Because you say you’ve never been backpacking, you need to start light and go for a short distance for a single night. Practice setting up camp and making your water and food. As I mentioned, you should find a club or friends who backpack to help you learn about preparing, packing, hiking and camping safely. A lot of other skills such as route-finding (or just following the trail), weather prediction, staying warm, knowing first aid, and just staying safe in general are the same as with day-hiking, though usually require a bit more thought and effort in order to extend over the several days of a typical back-packing trip.

Then work your way up to 10 mile hikes with 30-lb packs. For Kalalau, you can stop at the 6-mile marker, but I actually don’t recommend it because it is a wet and muddy spot. It is much better to go lighter and faster (and longer) all the way to Kalalau (or even to a trail-side stop if you don’t make it all the way). The one difference I have found between backpacking in Hawaii and the mountains of California is the humidity. You must be prepared to drink more, stay cool, and avoid over-exertion. If you come from the eastern or southern states, you may be more prepared for the humid weather.

The fear of heights (acrophobia) is going to be an issue you should consider before you make all this investment in time and equipment. I don’t know if it can be overcome, but perhaps with experience and habit, you can manage it. So before you do the backpacking training, you may want to do “height training.” Find trails that require you to be near cliff edges, and see how you can deal with it. Take the hiking poles to give you more confidence. Start taking a larger pack on these cliff hikes to get a feel for the weight and balance near the edge. Not having such fears myself, I may be way off base here, but there may be mind-calming techniques such as meditation or affirmations you could look into. Nor do I don’t know if traditional psychologists can help, if you feel it is really blocking you.

The Kalalau trail does have some areas that I imagine will trigger a response in people who have fear of heights to some degree. The worst is the cliff section at about 6.5 miles where there is a passage on a narrow dirt trail, and then a rock balcony with a real drop-off. Other sections of the trail aren’t so bad, but there are erosion and overgrowth right next to steep and long slopes that go very far down to the ocean. It is all generally safe (but always exercise your own judgment based on actual trail conditions), but you might not be able to predict your fear-reaction, so the best you can do is to prepare yourself in similar situations.

Here are the most relevant articles I’ve posted, to cover some of what I mention above:

There are now tons of videos of the Kalalau trail on YouTube. Some people may not want to watch too much and keep the surprise and awe for their own hike. But you might want to watch the ones about the cliff section to see if you think you can handle the heights there (but of course, it is totally different in person without the distorting effect of the camera lens).

Finally, if you feel all this preparation and training might keep you from backpacking to Kalalau, another option would be to hire a guide. A competent guide can essentially give you the training you need, right on the trail. The guide should be able to provide most of the equipment, and then probably carry most of it so you only need a full day-pack instead of a backpack. You still need to be able to do 2 long and difficult 11-mile full-day hikes, deal with the humidity, and overcome your fear of heights. And it is probably expensive, but it may be a good way for you to “do” Kalalau, and you’d also be learning backpacking skills that would help you go other places on your own. For guided hikes, I always recommend Eric at Hike Kaua’i With Me (he has a facebook page too).

Best of luck, Janis, whatever you decide. Backpacking is a great way to explore the natural beauty of Kaua’i, the mainland, and all over the world. It might also be an activity that helps you conquer your fear of heights. Feel free to ask additional questions, and let me know when you get to Kalalau.

Printed from: http://great-hikes.com/blog/kalalau-for-beginners/.
© 2017.

4 Comments   »

  1. Doug says:

    I’m trying to get in touch with anyone on Kauai that can give me a mailing address for Alakai, [a local who hikes a lot in Kalalau]. I have a package to send him but lost his address. If anyone can help me with a name & phone number I could call I’d appreciate it. My email address is: douglasklein (at) hawaii (dot) rr (dot) com
    P.S. Next month will be my 40 trip back to Kalalau on the Na Pali trail.

  2. Andy says:

    Hi Doug. I took the freedom of editing your comment to remove some details and obfuscate your email address. It’s not wise to post your address directly on the internet for scammers and spammers to find.

  3. Ron Hudspeth says:

    how long is the “crallers conner”? 50 yards? how long does it take to complete that section? Thank you

  4. Andy says:

    Hi Ron, it’s longer than that, mabye 150 yards altogether, but with different conditions along the way. See the post http://great-hikes.com/blog/kalalau-trail-condition/ where there are photos. That was from 2007, but the photos I have from my 2012 trip are nearly identical. They have to keep this section open otherwise the whole trail is impassible. Here’s a rough description:

    – First there are 100 yards of downhill trail crossing a rocky and gravelly slope (foreground in the main pic). This is essentially the last of the switchbacks down that slope.

    – Then you turn at the back of the gully and you’re on the narrow part. You have 100 yards on packed dirt, more or less flat. The side of the trail looks steep, but it’s not actually dangerous. In some places, the trail is eroded or sloping sideways, but the dirt is not particularly slippery when dry and it’s passable.

    – At the end, there are 50 yards on a rock balcony next to a not-quite-vertical drop-off. The footing is much better, not always flat, but all rock and 2 feet wide. The rock wall next to the trail is not vertical, so you don’t feel like you’re being pushed off the trail.

    Last time I went in 2012, I took a video of the whole 100+150 yards, and it took less than 5 minutes with pauses and commentary. You can do it in 3 minutes and still taking your time to step carefully. I’ll have to post the newer pictures and video sometime.

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