The Core Basics
- Casual wear for daytime sightseeing. For example, shorts and t-shirts are fine for day time wear. Ideally, we recommend wearing moisture-wicking, quick-drying clothes as they’ll dry quickly if you get caught out in a rain shower, plus they dissipate perspiration more quickly. If you have a choice of colors, choose lighter shades that are cooler to wear on warm, sunny days.
- For dinners, you really don’t need to get dressed up for the vast majority of restaurants. Most places will say “resort wear” is their dress code. So what does resort wear mean? Men might want to wear shorts or khaki trousers and a collared shirt. Ladies may want to wear casual skirts, sun dresses, capri pants, shorts, etc. (See our posts with photos showing resort wear for Hawaii for women and examples of Hawaii resort wear for men.) Most restaurants are pretty casual and don’t make a big deal over it. We’ve seen plenty of people out to dinner in shorts and a nice t-shirt. When possible, I like to make my dinner reservations about a week or more before I leave for Hawaii. When I call to make the reservations, I ask what the dress code is. That way there is never a doubt. While we’re on this topic of what type of clothes to pack, I want to encourage you to pack light. It saves so much time, effort and airline charges for checked luggage. Please read my articles on why it benefits you to pack light and practical strategies to pack light. Note that the above photo on the right shows me holding all the clothes I packed for a 17-day Hawaii vacation.
- Hawaii is generally warm year-round, but sometimes you might encounter a short cold spell when visiting in the winter months. Bring a light jacket (ideally a breathable, rainproof jacket) or sweater. You’ll probably want to have a sweater or jacket just for the plane ride over. If you are staying or visiting in any of the uplands/upcountry areas like, Koele in Lanai City, Kula and Haleakala on Maui, Volcano on the Big Island and Waimea Canyon on Kauai, you’ll definitely want to bring a light sweater.
- Bring two swimsuits per person so that you will always have a dry (or at least dry-ish) suit to wear.
- Bring a swimsuit cover-up as most resorts request that you modestly cover up while in lobbies and common areas other than the pool and beach.
- For the pool and beach, you’ll likely need a shoe like a flip flop. If you plan to spend a lot of time in the ocean, you might want to bring reef shoes or a hiking sandal – which we describe in more detail below.
- A hiking sandal with a closed-toe is very multi-functional for Hawaii as we describe in this post. They’re great to wear for sightseeing and unexpected, short treks over lava rocks or dirt paths. Some tours require closed-toe shoes.
- Long trousers, preferably moisture wicking and quick drying are useful to have. Several Hawaii vacation activities either require or are best done in long trousers– like horseback riding, ziplining, hiking over lava, upcountry visiting/hiking, ATV tours, etc. To save packing space, I generally try to wear these on the plane ride to Hawaii.
- Sunglasses, ideally polarized sunglasses are best in Hawaii.
- Bring sunscreen, with an SPF that is higher than what you would normally wear on the mainland. We have tried many sunscreens in Hawaii, our favorite is ThinkSport. It’s highly rated for safety on EWG.org, plus it is coral-safe. It blends very well, especially for a mineral-based sunscreen. It comes in 3 oz container sizes and is relatively in expensive. Which ever sunscreen you choose, make sure it does not contain Oxybenzone, which bleaches and kills Hawaii’s coral. I also recommend a rash guard top. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to wear a high SPF sunscreen in Hawaii. The sun’s rays are exceptionally strong there. See this post on the importance of sunscreen in Hawaii and how to avoid a sunburn. Remember that if the container is larger than 3.4 oz, you will have to check your luggage. Whether you check the sunscreen in your luggage or carry it on board the aircraft with you, always put it in a zip-lock container in case it leaks in transit. (Also see this discussion on bringing sunscreens to Hawaii.)
- Lip balm with SPF
- Hat and/or visor
- Bring a map of the island(s) that you will be visiting. The free maps you get from the rental car company are somewhat hard to navigate by because the island is sectioned off into multiple pages. If you have a portable GPS navigation systems or mobile app for your smartphone, bring it as it can be a real stress reducer for navigating the islands.
- Bring your guidebook. My personal favorites are the Ultimate/Revealed island guidebooks. They’re the best we’ve found with great descriptions and useful maps. These guidebooks are very well organized and easy to read. Though I will caution that you always need to check safety conditions, particularly around streams and the ocean before following advice from the Revealed guides. Also, be careful not to trespass. Here are links to the individual island Revealed series guidebooks.
- Store (on your phone) or bring print outs of directions, confirmations, etc. I have heard many reports from readers telling me that they printed my advice and found it extremely helpful on their Hawaii vacation. If you’ve not yet explored all my unbiased Hawaii vacation advice, good starting points would be on my Hawaii vacation island guides: Oahu vacation guide, Maui vacation guide, Kauai vacation guide and Hawaii (Big) Island vacation guide.
- Camera with lots of memory or film and battery life. If you have a battery charger, bring it too. You might be surprised at how many photos you’ll want to take.
- Binoculars for views, watching lava, bird watching, stargazing and humpback whale watching (January – April)
- Beach bag that packs flat and/or lightweight back pack for carrying snacks, water, guidebook, and other sightseeing necessities for when you hike, go on tours, etc. I usually bring a reusable shopping bag that doubles as a beach bag.
- Your own personal medicine and first aid kit. See suggestions for medical supplies you might need on your Hawaii vacation.
- Travel-sized wet wipes to have with you in your car when you are on the go.
- Bring a breathable, waterproof jacket in case it rains. I also like to pick up a package of disposable rain ponchos to keep in the rental car as back up for when I forget to bring my jacket
- Consider bringing a small stash of snacks to get you through emergency situations. See my article, Food For Thought – Bringing Snacks to Hawaii.
- Don’t forget to bring your manners – so make sure you read these Hawaii vacation etiquette tips. 🙂
It’s important that you make sure you know what not to pack for Hawaii. Don’t waste valuable luggage space on things that you don’t need. Save that space for bringing home chocolate macadamia nuts and Kona coffee.
If you plan to hike:
- Mosquito repellent – We like the pre-moistened towelettes, which are very convenient for packing and carrying with you.
- Anti-itch solution (like Benadryl or Tricalm) in case the mosquito repellent didn’t work or got washed off.
- Hiking shoes or sneakers that you wouldn’t mind throwing away if they get muddy. Unless you plan hike many, many miles and technical trails, a good hiking sandal with a closed-toe works well. Hiking sandals are also good to wear for simple walking in Hawaii for sightseeing. Plus, some tours (like horseback riding and ATV tours) require closed-toe shoes.
- Collapsible hiking poles can be useful, but not essential. If I’m planning to hike a trail that’s difficult I stuff mine in my luggage when I can.
- Lightweight back pack with water bladder or a belt-like pack that conveniently holds water bottles.
- Quick dry clothing.
- Bring some energy bars to have on hand.
If you plan to go to higher elevations like Haleakala or Mauna Kea:
Note: if you are going on an organized tour, the tour company will usually provide a parka. So check what will be provided before you pack a heavy coat.
- Thermal underwear
- Windproof gloves
- Windproof jacket
- Winter weather hat, headband, and/or ear muffs. Note if you plan to go on a guided tour of Haleakala or to Mauna Kea, the tour company will most likely provide a parka and gloves.
- Long pants and shirts for layering
- Flashlight if you plan to be there for star gazing.
- If you plan on staying in the Upcountry like Lanai City on Lanai, Volcano on the Big Island, or Kula on Maui for examples, you’ll want to bring long pants and a sweater for evenings. Even the Volcano area on the Big Island can get chilly at night.
If you plan to watch lava flowing on the Big Island:
- Hiking shoes or trail trainers for walking over uneven lava surfaces.A good hiking sandal with a closed-toe would also work. We do not advise you walk over fresh lava, however, if you should decide to take that risk, you will need a shoe with a thick sole.
- Hiking poles
- Long pants – like hiking pants.
- Flashlight for finding your way in the dark. (Night time lava viewing is best.)
- Gloves can be helpful in case of a fall.
- See our advice for seeing lava activity in Hawaii.
If you plan to do water sports including snorkeling, kayaking, etc.
- Bring a waterproof floating case or other waterproof bag that will protect your keys, cash, cards, etc. Never swim with your rental car keys unprotected in your pocket.
- Reef shoes can be helpful, especially if you plan to spend a lot of time in the ocean, but lately I’ve been leaving my reef shoes at home. Instead, I’ve been bringing my water/hiking sandals that serve multiple purposes.
- Rash guard tops are very nice to wear for watersports. They usually have a built in SPF 50. We really really love our rashguard tops. If you don’t have one, a couple of good places to order them is Zappos and LandsEnd.
I hope these packing tips will help you as you prepare for your vacation to Hawaii. Please feel free to add any of your special packing tips in the comments.