Preparation for this once in a life time hike can not be overstated! Yes you should hike this trip, but you should prepare well. There are many ill prepared people each year whom need a rescue that could have easily been avoided if they prepared. Here is some basic information to help you prepare.
You will be hiking 10 – 12 miles (16 – 20 km) round trip over hardened lava. It is not smooth, sometimes loose, and can cut you easily. The hike one way will be 2.5 – 3 hours! The nice thing is the majority of the time it is hard like concrete and easily to walk / grip. Only when it is wet is this a problem. The photo to the right should give you a good idea of what it looks like. I personally twisted my ankle on the walk back, but with care was able to hike out in pain with buddies the 5 miles remaining.
The national park has a list of MINIMUM requirements here just over half way down the page. In addition, I recommend the following to be safe.
- Marshmallows & a coat hanger – yes it is worth it if you can get close!
- 5 liters water per person*
- 2-3 flashlights per person**
- 4+ extra batteries**
- Hiking boots that are NOT steel toed! – They overheat & can burn you.
- Camera with extra batteries
- Food / Snacks – a 5 – 6 hour hike plus time you stay … you’ll be hungry
- Tarp / Rain jackets – in case of rain, you may need to hunker down for the night***
* – The closer you get the the lava surface flows the more you will need. When taking pictures I was usually 5 – 7 feet away. I would return to our base camp and drink a whole liter due to thirst. It is like standing in an oven!
** – It will be PITCH BLACK on your hike home. You will be hiking for 2+ hours in the dark home. Without light you will not be able to navigate the lava fields. (Maybe with full moon with difficulty). If you trip and fall, as we did, you may break your light. It is best to have a backup. Plus 2+ hours of continuous use drains batteries pretty well. I recommend hitting up Walmart and buying a few $1 Rayovaks as backups. On our hike out we broke 2 lamps, one died and we hiked out on two $1 lights and mine.
*** – If it rains the rocks turn slick, like a slip n slide! Your likelihood of injury skyrockets. Also if injured, you may need to keep the rain off. Because it is Hawaii you won’t freeze to death if you are covered from the elements. Ironically enough hypothermia is in the top 5 hazards in Hawaii. (If you’ve been on Mauna Kea you’ll know why.)
Where are you most likely to be injured / killed watching lava? Answer: at the ocean entry / coast! At the entry there is a chance that the place you are walking will collapse into the ocean. We’re talking up to a square mile or more. You won’t be able to out run it. If it collapses you’ll go with it and probably never be recovered. If you are viewing ocean entry be careful and in my opinion do not go too close to the entry site.
Are surface flows safe? Answer: relatively, yes. When you are walking over the lava fields you should be fine. Lava moves slowly if it begins flowing toward you you can easily out walk it. There is minor danger from visible (surface) flows of the lava. You should be able to walk near it without a problem. As long as you mind your space you should be fine. We went as far as walking on the 10 minute old flow … not recommended as it is hot, but you could.
What is an unseen danger? Answer: gas, and not from your partner’s bottom! I’m talking about sulfur dioxide that is rising from the lava. Again, these are most prevalent near the ocean entry due to the lava mixing with salt water releasing the gases. You can check an up to the date map here from the USGS. The wind can blow this over you and it would be toxic very quickly. Research about the smell and location of it before you go. In a nutshell, if the wind is blowing that is a good thing as it will keep the gas away from you. We smelt it briefly in one or two spots, but it didn’t hang around more than 20 seconds or so, hence we were fine. If you have a respirator even better just in case.
The National Park Service created a short video to watch as well. Yes it is worth your 5 minutes to watch it so you have a better idea what you are getting into.
Video Credit: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Initially this is where I got all my information. The site design looks old and content is a bit too, however the information is invaluable. Oh and check out their awesome Fun With Lava page!
Although not posted every day, it is updated regularly and gives an idea of what is going on with the volcano with pictures.
** Disclaimer: I provide this information to help as information online is not very easy to find. Conditions change, it is up to you to make safe choices!