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Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park More Dangerous Than It Might Appear To the Unprepared


It's possible to encounter altitude sickness at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park if you climb to the summit of Mauna Loa. NPS photo.

Despite the relaxed tropical connotations "Hawaii" might conjure, those who head to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park without preparing adequately for the trip could run into problems.

During the year-end holidays, hundreds of hikers braved a 10-mile roundtrip trek over jagged terrain to witness molten lava cascading into the Pacific at the West Kailiili ocean entry. Many were unprepared for the arduous backcountry journey, according to park officials. 

While there were no serious injuries or deaths, those officials add, "the attraction of the ocean entry resulted in five search-and-rescue operations by park rangers in December, bringing the park’s total of SARs to 21 in 2011 – a number that park officials want to reduce. "

What follows is a report from park officials on the dangers hikers might encounter, and how the search and rescue rangers respond to emergencies.

A backcountry rescue may take up to 12 hours. On Christmas night, it took even longer to rescue a woman with a broken wrist from the West Kailiili flow field. Due to darkness and insufficient landing zones, a helicopter rescue was impossible. Instead, a park ranger hiked out nearly five stormy miles in the dark from the end of Chain of Craters Road, and located the injured woman. He set up shelter on the remote lava field and stayed with her through the night. At daybreak they hiked five grueling miles back to the road where an ambulance waited – 16 hours after she called for help. 

“Hikers need to be aware that SAR missions take time, and that launching a helicopter in the dark or in inclement weather is extremely dangerous. If it’s not worth the risk of flying, we have to wait for daylight, or for better weather, or try to get the injured person out on foot,” said the park’s Emergency Operations Coordinator John Broward.  “Hikers should be prepared to spend the night as it’s a very real possibility.” 

Information on how to prepare for a backcountry adventure is available on the park website, from park rangers, and most hiking clubs. All overnight backcountry hiking and camping requires a permit, obtained from the park’s new Backcountry Permit Office at the Visitor Emergency Operations Center (VEOC).  

It’s not just lava flows and their associated geologic hazards that present dangers to hikers at Hawaii Volcanoes. The park offers more than 150 miles of hiking trails, and many unspoiled and diverse backcountry destinations ranging from sea level to 13,677 feet. On Mauna Loa, altitude sickness and cold-related emergencies such as hypothermia must be considered. Along the coast, high temperatures and lack of shade can cause severe dehydration, heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Hikers who stray off trails or hike after sunset risk becoming lost. While GPS units are handy, Broward and his team recommend packing a compass and a map, which don’t require batteries. (For a complete list of what to pack, see “Backpacking Essentials at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park” below.)

With Spring Break on the horizon, hikers are reminded to prepare themselves and to remember that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an inherently wild place, and not just a walk in the park. 

What to Pack: Essentials for Backcountry Treks in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park 

Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park provides more than 150 miles of hiking trails, with unspoiled and diverse backcountry destinations that range from sea level to 13,677 feet. More than half of the park’s 333,086 acres are designated as wilderness, and nearly 4,500 visitors a year apply for free backcountry hiking and camping permits.  

Thinking about creating an adventure of your own? Here’s what you’ll need: 

Essential Backpacking Gear:

First aid kit 

Trail map and compass

Emergency food supply, cook stove, fuel, utensils; open fires are prohibited

Flashlight & extra batteries 

Biodegradable soap, toilet paper 

Signaling device (mirror, CD, etc.) 

Minimum three to four quarts/liters of water per person per day 

Broken in sturdy boots, and moleskin 

Sunglasses, sunscreen, hat 

Sleeping bag 

Rain pants and jacket 

NOTE: There may be other equipment necessary for your particular destination. Check with rangers for specific campground, cabin, and trail recommendations. 

For more information visit  the park’s website. All overnight backcountry hiking and camping requires a permit. Permits are free (park entrance fees apply) and must be obtained in person from the new Backcountry Office at the Visitor Emergency Operations Center (VEOC) from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. The earliest you may obtain a permit is the day prior to your hike. 


I had a great time hiking a few trails there in 2010 including the Napau Trail which I had to pick up a permit for. I was always amazed at seeing people walking over solid lava rock in sandles with no backpack for water

A good reminder that every hike in Hawai'i isn't an easy stroll on a sandy beach!

I remember telling my sister-in-law that we couldn't hike out to the lava without flashlights or good shoes.  She said:  "The Park wouldn't let us do it if it were dangerous."  I also remember my family complaining that there wasn't a parking lot at the end of the road leading to the active lava.  Two weeks later I found a picture online of the end of the road -- covered with fresh lava.  I sent it to the complainers. 

Thanks to the hard working Rangers that respond to incidents like the one mentioned in the article. I am sure the Ranger that went out that night would have rather been at home with his family. National park Rangers risk their lives, injury or even just their free time to help visitors in need and they do it with very little funding and a smile on their face. THANK YOU NATIONAL PARK RANGERS!

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