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Packing for Kalalau: the Gear

August 10, 2015
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Back in the spring, when we were planning our Kalalau Trail hike, I joined a Facebook group for the trail. In the months before the trip it was a perfect way to get advice on things like parking and packing and after the trip it became a great way to stay up to date on a place that is now near and dear to my heart.

I have noticed that a few of the same questions come up all the time. What should I pack? Should I take a tent or a hammock? What type of shoes should I wear? I will admit that I asked all these questions myself. While we have done a ton of hiking and camping, rarely have we combined the two. Backpacking was fairly new to us, as was doing anything in a tropical climate.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of what we took (you presumably know about things like headlamps, cookware, sunscreen, etc.!) and, obviously, your needs may be different than ours. Only you know how warm you sleep, how much you eat, and whether one bottle of wine will last you through your whole trip!  This list covers some of the basic things that made our lives easier and better while on the trail and at the beach.

So with all that in mind, let’s get started!

Osprey Aura 65 Liter Pack – I think I tried on every pack in every size in every store in Boulder before I settled on the Osprey Aura 65. I was unsure of how much stuff we would need and had a hard time imagining going hiking without all the things I usually take to stay warm here in the mountains! This bag was very comfortable and 65 liters was perfect. Keep in mind that I carried a crapload of photography gear with me. Without all that gear, a smaller bag may have been plenty.

2-Person Backpacking Tent – Our normal camping tent is this one (keep in mind that we typically camp with a kid and two dogs!) but we didn’t need all that space for this trip since it was just my husband and I. We borrowed a two-person tent from a friend (it was REI brand but several years old so I’m not sure of the model) and it worked perfectly. There seems to be some debate about whether a tent or hammock is the way to go for this trail but I say tent all the way! Keep in mind that it rains a LOT at Kalalau. We were happy to have the shelter.

Shoes – Shoes are the other thing that seems to be hotly debated in terms of what works best for this trail (which is narrow and slippery). I hemmed and hawed over it for a while and ended up going with my favorite trail runners, my Brooks Cascadias (with custom inserts). They were perfect – they have great traction and they dried very quickly when they got wet (which happened a lot). I also took a pair of Chacos which I threw on pretty much as soon as we got to the campground.

Jetboil + Aeropress – I will go ahead and tell you right now that this little combo of tools has changed our camping lives. Honest to god, you guys. My love for the Jetboil + Aeropress combo is probably worth a post in itself but for now I’ll just saw that I am a huge coffee snob and this is, by far, the best and easiest way to make good coffee when you’re camping. Please believe me when I tell you that drinking good coffee on that insanely beautiful beach in the morning is the absolute best way to start your day.

This is what morning at Kalalau looks like. I guarantee that having a cup of good coffee here will be one of the highlights of your day.

Mummy Bag Liner – This was another thing that caused a lot of angst while we were making our packing list. Where we camp it is usually cold at night, even in the summer. I don’t think I have ever gone camping with anything less than a 15 degree sleeping bag. The idea of not taking anything warm to sleep in was really hard to wrap my brain around. But we decided to go for it and these liners (which we use in our down bags at home) worked perfectly. A word of advice: if you plan to sleep on the beach itself, you will probably want another layer of insulation. A light fleece blanket to throw on top would have been perfect.

Trekking Poles – Whether or not trekking poles are necessary is another thing that is hotly debated. As far as I’m concerned, they are not optional for Kalalau. Have I mentioned that this hike is slippery and narrow? And that you’ll have 30-some pounds on your back? Take poles. Just trust me on this one!

Water/Steripen – Knowing that we were in for a long, hot day we started our hike with a lot of water, just like we would if we were going to be out all day in Colorado. We quickly realized that, unlike at home, there are water sources everywhere on this trail. We ended up dumping out all but one liter each and refilling our bottles at the various streams and waterfalls when our supplies ran low. The Steripen made this quick and easy. Water is heavy, you guys. Don’t carry more than you need. We also had iodine tablets in case the Steripen died on us.

Thermarest – I took my itty bitty backpacking Thermarest. It was perfect for sleeping on (obviously!) but it also came in handy for lounging around on the beach. Like this:

Clothes – I am not going to go through a detailed list of clothes that I packed because you know what you need. I will say that I took a few short sleeve technical shirts, one cotton tank top, two pairs of shorts, a cheap cotton skirt, and a long-sleeve rash guard. And socks and underwear and things. I also took a rain jacket but I don’t think I ever used it. It’s hot there – the rain feels good!

We stressed quite a bit over what to pack for this trip but, all in all, I think we did pretty well and don’t have any major regrets.

If you stumbled on this post because you are planning a Kalalau trip of your own and trying to figure out what to take with you, I hope this list helped you out. Any questions about what to take? Leave me a note in the comments and I’ll give you my opinion (for whatever it is worth …!)

Also, you should know that I’m totally jealous, fairly small, and can easily fit in your luggage …

Happy travels, friends!

This post contains affiliate links. All gear was purchased with my own dough. Thank you for supporting Peak & Pixel!

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Killing Time at Queen’s Bath

August 1, 2015
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One of the things that came up in conversation most often when we were out at Kalalau was what else do you recommend doing on the island? People tend to spend all of their time planning their Kalalau hike (there’s a lot of logistics!) but don’t put much thought into what they will do when they’re done. And with so many options (snorkeling! sailing! making like a monk seal and sleeping on the beach!), it can be hard to choose.

Whenever someone asked me what I thought they should do when their hike was over I always had the same answer: Queen’s Bath.

I discovered Queen’s Bath while watching YouTube videos before our first trip to Kauai. I remember coming across a video that showed jagged cliffs, an angry sea, and a stunning swimming spot. I knew I had to go. It’s the perfect place to spend a lazy day on the island and still feel like you’re getting a heaping dose of Hawaii.

Queen’s Bath may be located right outside the ritzy town of Princeville but it is far removed from the city’s big resorts and bigger money. A quick hike along a waterfall takes you down to a rocky moonscape that stands in sharp contrast against the bright blue ocean. The first thing you notice when you arrive is the way that the waves come crashing into the little coves, swirling against the rocks. The second thing you notice? The turtles.

I desperately wanted to see sea turtles when we visited Hawaii. Despite growing up near the ocean and spending a lot of time along various coastlines, I had never seen one in the wild. We were well into our trip to Kauai when we visited Queen’s Bath and I was starting to fear that I wouldn’t see one at all. And then, suddenly, they were everywhere!

I could watch the turtles all day. I loved seeing them bob around in the water, totally at ease in the crashing waves. There are some animals that are perfectly suited for their environment and this, hands down, is one of them. They were definitely a highlight of our trip.

After we had our fill of the turtles we made our way to the Queen’s Bath itself. Queen’s Bath is a small, natural pool in the rocks that is constantly refreshed with water from the ocean. With a cliff to jump off of and schools of fish swimming around in the water, it’s a great spot to swim and snorkel. It’s also a perfect place to lay back and let the saltwater hold you as you stare at the blue sky and think about just how freaking lucky you are to be hanging out in Hawaii.

Queen’s Bath itself.

The one caveat about Queen’s Bath is that it is can be pretty dangerous. A lot of people will tell you that it’s one of the most treacherous spots on the island. The same waves that keep the water in the pool nice and fresh can build quickly, crash over the rocks, and sweep unsuspecting visitors out to sea. If you want to swim when you go to Queen’s Bath it’s best to go at low tide. You can absolutely be safe here but you have to keep your wits about you.

There’s a good chance that you’ll see local kids diving off the big cliffs right into the swirling, angry water. As fun as it looks, think long and hard before doing this!

We’ve seen a lot of Kauai now and Queen’s Bath might be one of my favorite spots on the island. I was only just starting to take my photography seriously back when we visited and now I’m itching to go back with upgraded equipment, way more knowledge, and a better understanding of just how magical this place is. It’s a pretty special spot.

If you go: The hike down to Queen’s Bath is short and fairly easy. You will see people wearing flip-flops or even going barefoot but it is probably best to wear Chacos or hiking shoes for better traction. Bring a swimsuit, a lunch, and plenty of water. Don’t forget to wear (and reapply – which I, painfully, forgot!) sunscreen. Be safe and never, ever turn your back on the sea!

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How dangerous is Kalalau, really?

June 15, 2015

Pull up any list of “most dangerous trails” and “hardest trails” and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find the Kalalau Trail sitting pretty well near the top. And it’s easy to see why: The trail is narrow and exposed, crumbly and slick. Clouds hanging over the coastline dump rain onto unsuspecting hikers. The wind picks up and threatens to throw you off the trail, straight into the angry, crashing sea below. It’s long and hot and chances are you’ll be carrying 30 pounds, or more, on your back. It’s not easy.

It’s also not that hard.

Last winter, when we first started talking about hiking the trail, I was a little concerned. Between the list of superlatives that have been applied to this trail (hardest! most dangerous!) and the hair-raising videos on YouTube of people making their way across the so-called “Crawler’s Ledge”, I was convinced that this was going to be it for us. We were going to head to paradise and die right there on that eroding stretch of coastline.

We had seen the first few miles of trail a few years before, on our hike up the valley to Hanakapiai Falls. Nothing about it seemed daunting to me other than the hordes of people that were also making their way down to the beach. It was crowded, but otherwise completely safe. Everything I had read said that things got a lot harder beyond Hanakapiai (mile 2) and that after you leave the Hanakoa Valley (mile 6), things would get really real. This is “death on the left” type stuff.

When we left Hanakaoa on that fateful Monday morning and headed for the ledges, I was a little apprehensive. But the sun was shining and the birds were chirping and we were in goddam paradise and I couldn’t be bothered by it all that much. A half mile or so from the ledge, a man came trotting past in the other direction. He told us that it was beautiful up there but that it was also very windy. He warned us to hang on tight. I felt my chest tighten.

If you’re at all like me you do a lot of research before you do something hard. You read a lot of trip reports. You watch a lot of YouTube videos. And then the moment comes and that thing that you fretted over stares you right in the face.

“There it is.” I said to my husband, pointing down to the narrow chunk of rock and dirt that I had read so much about. “That’s the beginning of the hard part, the stuff that everyone talks about.”

We made our way down to the ledges.

When I say that I”m not afraid of heights I mean that I’m no more afraid of heights than anyone else that isn’t really afraid of heights. I’ve been in a lot of exposed places and nothing has really given me pause. I’m able to block out the consequences of a fall and keep moving forward. I only get shaky if I think about it too much. That is not acrophobia, that is being human.

The ledges caught my attention for sure. They are narrow and rocky and the consequences of a fall are incredibly high. But they’re not hard. The firm footing and abundant handholds give the whole thing a feeling of security. In my opinion, the sketchier parts of the trail are actually a bit beyond Crawler’s Ledge, in the places where the trail is 12 inches wide and made of slippery gravel that slopes gently downward, straight towards the angry ocean.

But really, it’s not that bad. In my experience, Kalalau was all bark, no bite. It was physically demanding, yes, but it wasn’t especially sketchy. And the ledges are way overhyped. I did a little research about deaths on the trail before we headed out for our hike and found one story of someone falling off the cliff to their death. Considering the thousands of people that hoof it out there every year, those are pretty damn good odds. The real danger in Kalalau is the rivers, which rise with the rains and become impossible to navigate. Three or four major river crossings between the trailhead at Ke’e Beach and the Kalalau Valley can make the trail impassable during heavy rains but if you prepare for an extra night or two out in the wilderness, you can safely wait out the storm.

As with many “dangerous” things, it’s all a matter of perspective. Sure, you can fall from the ledges or drown in the river. But in reality, you’re far more likely to crash your car on the way to the airport or die of some condition related to inactivity than you are to fall from a cliff at Kalalau. Perception of risk is a funny and irrational thing.

At the end of the day, just how “scary” Kalalau is well depend on many things. How you deal with heights and any anxiety you have over them. How confident you are with your footing. How easily you can convince your brain to just shut up when it starts reminding you that you are, in fact, mortal. I didn’t think it was all that bad and I’d recommend that anyone with enough fitness to go the full 11 miles at least give it a try.

You can always turn around. But you probably won’t.