Denby Fawcett: Van Camping Looks Enticing, But Good Luck Finding A Legal Spot In Hawaii


The internet abounds with dozens of companies and private individuals offering camper vans for rent for outdoor adventures in Hawaii.

But the problem is there are very few places in Hawaii where vehicle camping is legal.

That doesn’t stop many camper van websites from painting a rosy picture of van campers welcomed everywhere.

For example, Hawaii Campers LLC on its website  writes enticingly, “We have found many places where there is no need for permits. It is nice to just pull over and sleep on a cliff overlooking the sea.”

That’s not the case. “Just pulling over and sleeping on a cliff overlooking the sea,” might get you an unwelcome visit from the police.

Unlike New Zealand and many states in the U.S., Hawaii does not have RV camps.

The State Parks Division prohibits camping in vehicles at all in its parks except Waianapanapa on Maui. The other 11 state parks offering camping allow only tent camping.

County parks on Oahu have the same rules: tent camping only, no sleeping in vehicles.

And don’t think of pulling up a camper van alongside a scenic road to get some shuteye. It is illegal to sleep at night in a vehicle parked on the roadside.

So how are the camper van businesses able to thrive when the product they are promoting  — carefree camping in many public places — does not exist?

One way is to steer their clients to the three private campgrounds on Oahu that accommodate vehicle sleepers:  Malaekahana Beach Campground, Bellows Air Force Station (only for active and retired military) and Camp Mokuleia.

Camp Mokuleia office manager Tara Tani says many camper van guests who come to the private campground tell her they are relieved to find it after the disappointment of discovering there are very few places for in-vehicle camping on Oahu.

Another way van businesses say they are able to function is because enforcement of camping violations is spotty, almost non-existent.

If you look carefully, you often will see camper vans parked on the sides of the 155-acre Kapiolani Park, which park advocate Alethea Rebman says she has been watching for years.

“The police don’t do anything about it,” says Rebman, president of the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society.

Collin Porterfield rents out his Mercedes Benz van camper.
Collin Porterfield rents out his Mercedes Benz van camper. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2021

Collin Porterfield, who rents a 2015 Mercedes Benz Sprinter to campers, says none of his clients have ever been cited by Honolulu police for sleeping in his dark gray vehicle alongside the road.

Porterfield says he tells his clients to park where they see other vehicles parked.  He says his renters have camped at Sandy Beach and on roads from Laie out to the North Shore; also out in Mokuleia near Dillingham Air Field.

He says as long as the van campers are mindful, keep a low profile and do not cause trouble they seem to get along fine.

“I tell them they are adults. They have driver’s licenses. They know where it is alright to park,” he said.

Porterfield says one place he warns his van campers to avoid is Lanikai, where he says residents have so many other issues they are on high alert for vans parked in the neighborhood at night.

Still, some other business have their own way of expanding the number of possible camping sites by offering their clients hints on how to skirt city and state laws.

Sean and Beth-Ann Mullen, owners of Campervan Hawaii offered their renters tips on how to sleep in a van in public parks even when it’s prohibited — until last week.

The Mullens wrote: “There are quite a few county and state camping spots but they require you to pitch a tent while camping there. We provide a tent in each of our campervans for free in case you choose one of these campgrounds. A lot of our customers just pitch a tent by the vehicle and sleep in the campervan without any hassles but it is not allowed.”

In a camper van, a room with a view of Sandy Beach is possible. Courtesy: Collin Porterfield

When I called Beth–Ann Mullen on Thursday to ask if she had any concerns about offering such a suggestion, she said, “I can’t help what our guests are comfortable doing.” But I noticed the Mullins’ advice disappeared from the Campervan Hawaii website later in the day.

Hawaii Beach Campervans of Laie offers its clients a map that includes “secluded beaches” where they might be able to camp for free.

Its website says: “… on that map there are references of bathrooms, showers and public secluded beaches for camping ‘free,’ which you are not allowed (to do) but many of our guests chose to try, and everything went well so it is up to you to decide.”

Dan Dennison is senior communications manager for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the mother agency of the State Parks Division. In an email, he wrote: “While we don’t encourage people to skirt the rules or laws, the DLNR Division of State Parks is exploring changing the rules to allow vehicle camping in select locations around the state.”

He said the parks division is considering this change because of  “an explosion of interest in vehicle camping.”

Dennison said there is “no time frame at this point in time, but we would encourage people and vendors to abide by current rules until such time these changes are in place.”

He said when the proposal to allow vehicle camping in parks is complete there will be ample time for the public to weigh in at public hearings.

City Parks and Recreation spokesman Nathan Serota says the city has no plans to start allowing vehicle camping in its 16 parks now offering tent camping but it is watching to see how DLNR makes the change.

Serota said in an email: “Our Camping Specialist has been tracking the increase in these types of campground activities and we will be discussing further if additional measures need to be taken to address this issue.”

Airbnb lists camper vans for rent as well as two websites dedicated to van rentals: RVshare and Outdoorsy. Rentals are also listed on Google and offered on Amazon Marketplace.

The range of prices goes all the way from a converted school bus at $90 a night to Porterfield’s Mercedes Benz van at $299 a night.

Porterfield’s listing says, “Imagine driving around Oahu in your hotel room on wheels, being able to park in any open parking spot, (No Parking Garages) and taking a warm shower after an amazing day hiking, snorkeling, beach play or any other activity Oahu offers.”

Even though many of the van sites advertise their vehicles as hotel rooms on wheels, the state charges their renters only the vehicle rental surcharge and the general excise tax, not the transient accommodations tax known as the hotel room tax.

Porterfield said the online companies he uses to advertise his Mercedes van pay all the required taxes for him.

Middle-priced camping vehicles are popular, especially on the North Shore, including converted Volkswagen vans, many of them funky 50-year-old models.

Hawaii Surf Campers owner Lucas Baggio opens a small refrigerator in one of his VW camper rentals.
Hawaii Surf Campers owner Lucas Baggio rents colorful VW campers for $179 a night. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Lucas Baggio of Hawaii Surf Campers of Wahiawa has been in the van rental business for the last six years, renting to travelers 10 colorfully painted Volkswagen vans for $179 a night.

He warns his clients about sleeping alongside the road because he says the colorful vans attract attention and it is not uncommon for them to get cited by police. (It’s just an ordinary traffic violation ticket, not a serious criminal charge.)

He said instead he steers his van renters to the three private campgrounds on Oahu and also offers them an electronic map to show where four private landowners for a fee will allow camper vans to park on their property.

But according to the city Department of Planning and Permitting, that kind of private property rental can be done only in resort zones with the permission of the landowner or with a conditional use permit.

So again, it’s not easy.

Baggio calls the  state’s and city’s current prohibitions of vehicle camping in parks “silly.” He said the camping vehicles are self-contained and need no extra public services such as water fill-ups or wastewater dump sites and they take up about the same room in a parking lot as a car.

He said he is greatly in favor of DLNR’s plan to open up some parks to vehicle camping.

Porterfield says the laws against vehicle camping were made a long time ago when the concern was about people living full-time in their cars, not modern camper vans for vacationers that produce their own electricity and take care of their own waste products.

He said, “In state parks, where there are designated camping areas, where it’s also OK to park — what possible difference could there be for campers to sleep inside versus outside their vehicles?”

He said there is very little difference between a car pulling into a parking place and setting a tent in front of it and a camper van pulling into a similar parking place and the people sleeping inside the vehicle instead of outside in a tent.

DLNR spokesman Dennison said it will be some time before the parks division comes up with its proposal to allow vehicle camping in some state parks but he anticipates there will be push-back.

“Some counties are opposed to in-vehicle camping, as they are seen as increasing overall visitor accommodations, and legalizing them may incentivize more start-ups despite a lack of legal locations to utilize them,” he said.

I see that as a possible problem, too. If state parks allow vehicle camping, more people will want to get into the business at a time when there are already too few places for Oahu’s resident population to camp.

It is also a good idea to pay more attention to this growing short-term vacation rental business — albeit on wheels — before it gets out of control, like residential neighborhood vacation rentals did.


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