This page is intended as an extended version of the Packing section of my book Camino de Santiago Practical Preparation and Background, including information and remarks which, due mostly to limited space, didn't make it into the book. So, there will be some repetition and some going off at tangents and a slightly more conversational (or waffling) style and bad language. I hope it'll give you an idea about some of the thinking and experiences that have informed my opinions of what you should and shouldn't put in your Camino backpack.
If you'd like to buy the book you can find it here if you live in the US, and here if you live in the UK or Ireland. If you live some place else just search for 'Camino de Santiago - Practical Preparation and Background' on your local Amazon site.
I'm also the author of several guides to different Caminos. You can see them all at my authors page on Amazon. These guides also exist as free versions which you can download from this website, or you can buy the full guides and Practical Preparation and Background by making a US$5 donation here.
If you'interested you can download a samples from here of the first 20 pages of the Walking Guide to the Camino de Santiago
or To download a sample of the first 20 pages of Camino de Santiago Practical Preparation and Background, just click here!
I'm also including links to online retailers to illustrate what I'm talking about and to resources you may find interesting. Most of these links go to Amazon.com because most readers are in North American. Amazon allows people to post reviews of their products, not just purchasers, anybody can post a review. This system can be really useful if you want to get a broad cross-section of opinions on a particular product. I find that the most interesting reviews are often the 3- and 4-star ones, and generally, the longer and more detailed a review the more credible it is.
If you're not in North America you'll often find the same products on your local Amazon site by searching for it by name.
If you haven't read the book some of what you see below will seen incomplete or disjointed, please don't bother pointing that out to me. If you have read the book and what you see below seems incomplete or disjointed... Well, I'm always open to suggestions on how to improve it, so feel free to drop me a line on email@example.com
Also, if you find any links which don't work or which need to be updated please drop me an email and I'll fix them.
Also, on this page I indulge myself with giving my own often controversial, strongly held, ill-considered, prejudiced, irrational and sometimes just plain crazy, opinions. Something I carefully avoided doing when writing the book. You have been warned!
Money money money: if you use the links on this page to go to Amazon I will get a small advertising commission for anything you buy. Of what I get I will give 20% to charity. So feel free to use those links as much as you want, especially for those bigger purchases!
Click here to download the check-list I use when I'm packing for the Camino. This list covers everything I need for the Camino. It varies slightly depending on the time of year, as discussed below. Naturally, this list is a very personal thing and there are things on it which will be of no relevance to you.
IMPORTANT NOTE: links to shops on the Internet are for informational purposes only, I most especially do not recommend that you buy footwear without having tried it first!
Lets be serious for a mo. This is the place where mistakes will cost you a lot more than a little embarrassment. Bad footwear decisions can ruin any trip and that's especially true on a hiking trip!
This is something you need to start on at least six months before you start your Camino. If you're buying new footwear especially for you Camino they will need to be thoroughly broken-in before you start walking in them. That means at the very least, that you've worn them on several long hikes (20km +) preferable on consecutive days. Besides when you go hiking you should just put them on whenever you're walking anywhere, down the road, to the pub, around the supermarket. It doesn't matter where, the important this is that you wear them in as much as possible over several months. By the time you take your first step out of St Jean your footwear should feel like they're so comfortable that you hardly know you're wearing them!
Your first decision needs to between a hiking shoe and a boot. The basical difference is that a boot comes up your ankle and a shoe doesn't. Some companies make boots and shoes which are basically identical except for the height of the ankle, so usually the same considerations apply when looking for the right footwear for you, regardless of whether you want boots or shoes.
If you're walking in summer the choice between going with boots and shoes is largely a question of personal preference. In winter boots have the advantage because they give you that little bit more protection from the weather, mud and standing water.
There are many types of hiking shoes available, even some which are designed for running over rough terrain, which are entirely suitable for a summer Camino. They have some disadvantage over boots, especially for inexperienced walkers who may benefit from a little ankle support, but they have advantages too.
If you already run, and have running shoes you're used to, then they, or something very similar, may be your best choice for a summer Camino.
Even if you don't run running shoes are worth considering. They need very little breaking in. They're light and comfortable, give good protection against rough terrain, they're not waterproof but they'll dry out quickly and won't be damaged by drenchings.
On the other hand, if you run into mud, which after a bit of rain on the meseta you're bound to, it's going to get very messy very quickly. Meseta mud is particularly sticky and within a couple of minutes you'll have a kilo of it on each foot. With that much extra weight clinging to your shoes you may find yourself losing them.
Please remember that the advice on commercial sites is basically marketing, so take it with a pinch of salt. Also ladies, watch out for the "pink razor phenominum", which is when they'll try to charge you more for buying "women's versions" of shoes, backpacks, etc. Stuff from the men's products are often basically identical and will fit you fine, so don't be afraid to try them on. And certainly compare prices before buying.
Now, I tend to refer to all kinds of boots as 'hiking boots'. Whereas in reality the experts (in this case at REI) make a distinction between different types of 'hiking boots'. First of all there's:
Hiking Boots: these are boots with a medium to high ankle, made of leather or some synthetic material, with medium to thin sole and medium thread, which gives them greater flexibility. These boots are intended for day hikes across mixed terrain in mild weather conditions.
Backpacking Boots: heavier than hiking boots, with a higher ankle and thicker sole. This better support for you ankle is important on hikes over rough terrain where you will need to carry food and equipment with you for several days in the wilderness.
Mountaineering Boots: are heavier again than backpacking boots. Unless you're going in the depths of winter and you already own a broken-in pair and you're used to wearing them, I would say you don't need to worry about this category. Basically, they're heavier than what you need and they'll end up being tiring over long distances and extremely hot in summer.
So the choice is between hiking and backpacking. The Camino sorts of fall some place between those two use-cases. The terrain is along well-defined tracks or paved surfaces, it's mostly fairly flat, although there will be lots of stones, you don't have to carry a great deal of equipment and food but you will be walking multiple days.
Based on this I would err on the side of 'hiking boots', in summer and 'backpacking boots' in winter, with something in between in the in-between season.
My own preferred resting footwear is a pair of Ecco hiking sandals which I've had for over ten years now and which have proven to be by far the most long-lasting footwear I've ever bought. Although, comparing a pair of hiking boots and sandals maybe isn't fair because my experience of hiking boots is that they lose their waterproof qualities long before the sole wears down. I suspect this is down to several factors, one being poor maintenance. Basically, after a drenching or a long day waking on dusty roads, you should clean your boots and treat them with something to preserve the leather. Of course on the Camino this is almost impossible to do. If they were wet you'd have to let them dry out before you could do anything with them, and dry out naturally because doing it in front of a fire or on a radiator is very bad for the leather, and often by the next morning they're just not dry enough to treat them. Dust could be removed easily enough, but it would still require a degree of self-discipline which I find hard enough in everyday life, never mind when I'm on the Camino with all of its distractions!
Besides, your nice clean boots would make other pilgrims suspect you were secretly getting the bus!
My sandals are light enough to carry, tough enough to wear on rough terrain and super comfortable. I suspect my sandals are no longer produced but they're very similar to these:
You can find more Ecco hiking sandals here:
Men's Men's Ecco sandals
Women's Women's hiking sandals
You can see a general selection of hiking sandals here:
Women's Women's hiking sandals
Men's Men's hiking sandals
For me personally hiking sandals tick all the boxes. They're light, they let your feet breath, you can walk long distances in them without suffering extra discomfort or fatigue, and they can be packed away in your backpack or hung off the outside, fairly easily.
Yep, Australians call flip-flops, thongs. So if a burly, hairy-chested Ozzie tells you he wore thongs for most of the Camino, your first (possibly disturbing) mental image probably isn't right and he's more likely to be talking about footwear than underwear. In case you're confused, these are the types of flip-flops I'm talking about.
Personally, I've never found a comfortable pair of flip-flops, but many people love them and they even seem to come with a degree of street cred which hiking sandals distinctly lack. This is based on my own observations. I live in Dublin and fashion here is a good barometer of what was 'in' in California a year ago. For a few years now the de rigueur summer attire of smart young fellows has been a beach look involving shorts and flip-flops. This, despite the fact that the temperature rarely goes much above freezing.
So, if aesthetics is a consideration for you and you're not worried about being mistaken for a Hollywood D-lister who's walking the Camino in an attempt to "find themselves" or "connect with the universe" then by all means go for it!
Crocs have a lot to be said for them. They're cheap (as long as you stay away from the designer ones). They're light. They're comfortable (although you may need socks under them). They're made of plastic so they're easy to clean, water doesn't affect them, they float, etc. The downside is that they're flammable. In fact, they're so flammable that if all else failed you could use them to light an albergue fire! They also come in all kinds of fabulous colours, like pink and green and yellow.
They had a brief outing as a fashion statement but it never really worked. They look too clunky, or maybe they're too practical to ever be really fashionable. Lets face it, everybody looks faintly ridiculous in a pair of Crocs. Not as bad as tracksuits at mass, but lets not get distracted. If looking ridiculous doesn't bother you, or if it would normally bother you but you're going on the Camino to try being less bothered about things that bother you, then maybe Crocs are for you.
Crocs here Crocs
Knowing more-or-less what kind of boots or shoes you want is just the beginning. Besides the fact that there's a bewildering range of brands there's also the problem of knowing what size to go for. Your normal shoe-size is a good guide here. Generally I would go up a shoe-size from my normal one because you'll probably find after a couple of weeks of walking that your feet have mysteriously increased in size. (I'm talking about metric shoe-sizes here. I'm normally a 42, for my hiking boots I'd usually try on what would normally be the next size up, 44. Using UK measurements, if you're a 9 you could try 9½ or 10, whatever is next up).
The advice given by people who do mountain and rough terrain hiking is often to get a tight fit. This is more important if you're walking on uneven surfaces where your feet will be frequently twisting to the sides and it's going to be more uncomfortable and harder to keep your footing if you foot is moving from side to side inside your boot. This won't be the case on the Camino so beware of being told you foot must on no account have any spare space inside your boot.
Boots that are a bit big can be corrected with thicker socks. Boots that are too small, unless you get lucky and find some who bought theirs too big and who's happy to swap, will ruin your trip.
Too small will mean discomfort, blisters but also possibly problems with toe-nails. Which brings up another important point, it's important to keep your toe-nails short. As short as possible. For this a nail clippers is essential. Toe-nails is something you need to check every day and before you start walking. I know that and I've known it for a long time but it still didn't stop me making a stupid mistake when I walked the Camino de Madrid a few years ago. My first day out of Madrid, I'd slept badly and started very early because I knew I wasn't going to sleep any more and luckily the sun came up and it was a beautiful sunrise with the sky slowly going from deep blue to lighter blue to a clear azure over the dusty countryside north of Madrid. One of my left toes felt a bit uncomfortable and I made a mental note to look at it later. That later was when I reached my destination and I could see straight away that it was already too late. My toe-nails were all present and correct but this one in particular was sore to the touch. I had waited that little bit too long. At home it wouldn't have been a problem but the fact of walking 23km on it was too much and the constant scraping against the toe of my boot had loosened it.
I cut it back as short as I could and the next day I used a plaster and masking tape to bind it and protect it. I'd just caught it on time and it wasn't a serious problem but all the way to Santiago that injury I'd picked up on my first day walking caused me discomfort, and I cursed myself for my stupidity because it would only have taken me two minutes that first morning to stop, get my nail clippers, get my boot and sock off and trim it down to size.
It didn't heal properly until I got home. Then about three months later I was trimming my nails and, much to my surprise, the whole thing came off and I discovered a new one had grown underneath it. It didn't hurt at all. It still looks a bit funny but funny looking toe-nails is the least of my worries.
So, with your normal shoe-size + 1 in mind find yourself a good outdoor shop (again, a warning, please don't buy boots online! Whatever about any other piece of equipment you buy, boots have to be tried on.)
A good outdoor shop will have staff who hike themselves – the kind of people who wear hiking gear even when they're not hiking – and probably not the expensive, fashion accessory brands either. They should also know how to measure your feet (which they should offer to do without being asked.) They'll also know about which kind of boot is best for the width of your foot.
Good staff are hard to find and hard to keep, especially in badly paid retail positions. So you have to be careful that you don't end up dealing with the kind of employee who doesn't know their arse from their elbow and should really just be confined to folding T-shirts and stacking shelves.
This is where doing your research beforehand is important and having a list of questions to ask. Ask about the pros and cons of each brand and design. Somebody who doesn't know what they're talking about will quickly run out of bullshit answers, and the old favourite 'I use this one myself', can only really be used once! Take your time and try on every kind of boot you think might be suitable. The duff employee will quickly begin to show signs of impatience. Tell them why you're shopping for boots and see if it elicits a flicker of interest or even recognition.
When you find something that fits, walk around in them as much as possible. I know this isn't so easy in a shop and you have to be reasonable about closing times, etc., but try to get a feel for the boots, they should feel roomy enough for your toes, your heel should be comfortable and not move around. You can best test this by walking up and down slopes. If your foot slides forward when you're going downhill you may have problems with your toes jamming against the boot.
Another consideration is the material the boot is made of. For simplicity's sake lets say the choice is between leather and synthetic.
Pros and cons of leather: takes an age to dry, need a longer break-in time
Pros and cons of synthetic: they dry faster, shouldn't need breaking-in
Outdoor Gear Lab have an informative website, although much of what they cover is more hard-core than you'll ever need on the Camino: http://www.outdoorgearlab.com/
All that said, if you've had problems with you feet in the past you'd be well advised to seek professional help. There are things you can do that will make it easier on yourself. My girlfriend was plagued by pain on the soles of her feet and sometimes right up her legs. A specialist recommended a set of custom made insoles which changed the weight distribution on her feet and her pain problems were greatly reduced.
There are several options for rainwear: rain jacket, poncho, umbrella.
A rain jacket is an essential piece of equipment for pilgrims with the possible exceptions of those going in high summer who plan to bring a poncho instead. Even then it's a risk because there's always the possibility of cold, wet, windy weather when you'll wish you had a proper jacket to protect you against the elements. I remember one July on the meseta, one day it was 35 degrees in the afternoon and we were all complaining about the heat. The next day it struggled to get above 20 with a strong headwind and menacing dark clouds blowing in from the Atlantic. By the next morning it was raining cats and dogs and blowing a gale and cold. When the wind is in the west Northern Spain gets its weather from the Atlantic. So when it's raining the wind is usually in the west, which is the direction you'll be walking.
For three days we struggled on through it, freezing and increasing soaked and dispirited. My primitive and haphazard raingear didn't help me much. That year, for whatever reason, I'd abandoned the idea of serious raingear in favour of a plastic tarpaulin about 4m x 4m. The idea was to be able to use it as rain protection, something to sit on for picnics, and as a sort of a makeshift bivibag for sleeping outside. The classic multi-use scenario I thought smugly to myself.
The picnicking and sleeping outside bits went fine, but as rain protection it didn't really go with high winds and walking. You could sit under it all day and be as dry as a bone but the walking bit clearly hadn't been thought through in any great detail. It pulled me in one direction and then pushed me in another. It accumulated vast reservoirs of water in its folds which poured in on top of me when I tried to adjust it. It flew off and disappeared into the hazy distance before I even knew what was happening. Pilgrims sauntered by me trying unsuccessfully to conceal their laughter. I quickly attained Camino Legend status. The guy with the orange tarp, visible from great distances, struggling to make headway against the gales while trying to hold his monstrous raingear in place. Stories were swapped about my exploits, how I chased it across three fields until it became entangles in a tree, how I fell in a river because I couldn't see where I was going, how it took me ten minutes to walk 100m because its sail-like qualities were so effective.
None of them true of course. I don't even remember what I did with the tarp in the end but I've never contemplated going down that route again.
And in fairness, we did had three days of the type of weather which is extremely uncharacteristic of that part of Spain in summer, and many pilgrims were caught out with inadequate raingear, and for some unfortunate souls, none at all.
Many of us ended up walking short stages and hunkering down wherever we could find some warmth and sustenance. Which is fine if you've got all the time in the world. It's often one thing people forget when they set themselves ambitious walking schedules, on cold rainy days it's going to be difficult to leave a cosy café where your friends are booking in for the night, drinking glasses of wine beside an open fire and tucking into tortilla de potata.
The range of anti-rain devices I own has evolved considerably since the times when I faced the elements armed only with a sheet of plastic I found in the garden shed of the house we were renting at the time.
In summer I carry a light rain jacket I found on Amazon made by an American company called Keela. This is an excellent jacket for summer, it's very light, it packs away into a handy pouch, it protects your neck and the hood keeps the rain off. It only cost £31.86 (about €40). Really for that price you can't ask for more. Lets face it, a decent tarp would cost you more and, well, we've already tried that! Keela Stash-away Jacket Orange L
My winter jacket is by Regatta (probably my favourite brand of outdoor gear because they combine good quality clothes with good value for money. There are brands which are generally better than Regatta, such as North Face or Patagonia, but they are often three times as expensive. And lets face it, you are paying extra for the logo.
My current Regatta jacket is very similar to their All Peaks Jacket. It comes with a detachable lines which when detached is a very cosy, padded, cold-weather fleece, which is actually too warm for hillwalking, I use it mostly when I'm some place cold and sitting still. The jacket on its own is great for hillwalking in cold weather and combined with a poncho it makes excellent defence against the rain.
Anyway, waterproof jackets. Their most valuable qualities are their waterproofness and breathability.
I've always gone for the cheap option when it comes to waterproof pants. I don't see the point in spending a fortune. You can get breathable pants, but since the bottom half of your body is going to sweat less than the top half.
I describe my Road to Damascus experience of the poncho in some detail in the book, where I plug the benefits of my Altus poncho so much that you could be forgiven for thinking I owned shares in the company.
Altus is a Spanish brand which isn't commonly available outside of Spain. You can see it here (this is the exact one I have, although there are newer models now).
Here's a selection of ponchos on Amazon. Remember, don't bother with the ponchos which are basically disposable. They'll just rip after a few hours and in any case you can buy them in shops along the Camino.
This isn't meant as a joke, bringing an umbrella is a serious idea on either a summer or winter Camino. In fact, it's sort of surprising how few pilgrims do. For one thing on hot summer's days one of the problems, especially in the meseta, is the lack of shade. This makes walking in the afternoon difficult and unpleasant. Walking with an umbrella, or in this case a parasol, is an ideal way to bring the shade with you. Parasols used to be all the rage in the 19th century and still are in Asia. But for some reason their use has largely disappeared in western societies. Umbrellas have an interesting history, they seem to have originated in the China and to have arrived first to Persia and later to Europe, following the route of the Silk Road.
Anyway, if you intend to walk in the afternoon, it's something worth considering. The only real inconvenience is the fact of having to hold it, unless of course you can manage to keep it in position by passing its handle under the straps of your backpack.
The first backpack I used on the Camino went against all the advice I now give people when choosing one. But then, those days I really didn't have a clue!
It had no frame and its weight went entirely on my shoulders. It was basically a soft suitcase you could carry on your back. I still have it and its' still fine for going on trips which don't involve more walking than it takes to go from airport to train! It looks a bit tatty now after serving me well during a year of travelling around Latin America.
I had far too much stuff with me too. I had a full-sized towel, I'd never heard of light-weight pack-towels. I had all kinds of clothes, even a pair of jeans. I'd never hiked more than an afternoon before so I had no idea what kind of clothes you needed and there was no place to look in 2003 for advice about these things if you didn't know someone who hiked or someone who had already done the Camino.
I'd like to say I managed fine but the truth is I didn't. (you can read about it in My Camino adventures below) The first day I wrecked my knee trying to keep pace with someone who was a seasoned hiker and the next morning I could hardly move. It was agony to walk 12km over completely flat terrain. By day three, when the heavens opened in torrential sheets of rain, I gave up and got the bus. That was the end of my first Camino adventure. An utter disaster! Ironically it wasn't my lack of preparedness or second-rate equipment which did for me, it was being ignorant of a basic rule of hiking, set your own pace and don't try to keep up with people who can walk much faster than you can.
Often a little knowledge and the right frame of mind is more important than the latest, hi-tech, expensive equipment.
My next backpack was made by Regatta and I used it to cross the Pyrenees in the winter of 2005 and again on my first big Camino when I walked from Pamplona to Finisterre in the summer of 2006 (the year of the heatwave). It was a cheap mid-1990s model. It had no frame, it wasn't waterproof and it didn't have a rain cover. You hardly ever see anybody on the Camino now-a-days with such a basic backpack. And for good reason... Basically, modern backpacks with a rigid frame, rain-cover and waist-strap which takes most of the weight, are far superior and not even very expensive any more.
I managed fine with my old Regatta. I had shoulder pains but a bit of stretching usually sorted it out and it wasn't really a problem. I did a long Camino in the summer of 2006, and managed with it for several years after that. I didn't realise how much I'd been torturing myself until I bought my Deuter Futura Pro 38 – which is a 38 litre backpack. Sort of Similar to this one but an earlier model.
It was a huge jump forward in technology. It had a rigid frame which shifts the weight to your hips and keeps the backpack away from your back to keep you cool on hot days. A rain cover. And straps which are padded enough to make it comfortable to carry no matter how much crap you jam into it!
Overnight my gammy shoulder disappeared!
Deuter is probably the most common brand of backpack among European pilgrims (with the exception of the Spanish who tend to favour Quechua). It's not a coincidence that they're popular. They're well made and designed, tough and light. Also, crucially, they were one of the first companies to begin selling serious hiking backpacks at around the €100 price mark. No doubt taking advantage of cheaper manufacturing in China. Up until then serious backpacks had been seriously expensive.
I was and still am very happy with my Deuter backpack but I bought a new one for the simple reason that, for summer Caminos, it was too big for my needs. In summer you don't need so much warm clothing, rainwear and a heavy cold-weather sleeping-bag, so you can manage with a much smaller backpack. My new one is a Gregory Z25. It's 25 litre. Quite a big step down from the Deuter but it has the advantage of having an expandable pouch at the back where you can stuff your raingear when you're not using it or pull it tight closed when you're wearing your raingear.
My backpack's very similar to this one, which is the slightly bigger Z30. But a slightly older design. The new Z 25 doesn't have a proper waist-strap, a change which I find slightly difficult to understand because it means you can't get the weight to rest on your hips which makes it impracticable for anything except short hikes. My one however, is the dog's bollix. It's a perfect size and weight, it's easy to carry, it's easy to get on and off and it gets on to Ryanair flights as hand-luggage without attracting the attention of the girls in blue!
You see Gore-Tex stickers on everything now-a-days, besides places where you'd expect to see them such as jackets and boots. Recently I've see them on ponchos and backpacks too. Gore-Tex works by keeping water on the outside out while at the same time allowing water on the inside (ie. your sweat) to pass through, keeping you dry inside. This the famous breathability effect. It achieves this with a simple bit of science, the Gore-Tex layer has tiny holes in it which are too small for cold water to get through, warm water, which naturally forms into smaller droplets, can. So, the rain stays out and your sweat is expelled. Lovely.
This principle works fine in jackets and boots as long as the ambient temperature is below 30 degrees C (or thereabouts). Above that and there isn't a big enough temperature difference between inside and outside to allow Gore-Tex do its thing.
But what's the point of it on a poncho which isn't sealed close to your body and is open at the bottom anyway, allowing your body heat to dissipate and your sweat to evaporate? So, the only thing a poncho needs to do is keep water out. And there isn't going to be a sufficient temperature difference between the inside and the outside of a poncho to allow Gore-Tex to function anyway.
When you see it on a backpack you know you've ventured into the realm of the absurd. A backpack rain-cover can just be pure plastic and it'll keep your stuff dry without you encountering any condensation issues. One of the things I advise people to pack is a bin liner (I think Americans call them trash bags) which you can use as an extra lining inside your backpack for when the heavens really open. Personally I don't know anything that works better. After eight hours in heavy rain every backpack lets a certain amount of water in.
So, Gore-Tex (and similar products) is great for certain things, but if someone tries to justify a more expensive backpack because it has a Gore-Tex layer, be a bit sceptical!
Personally I always tell people they're better off with a sleeping-bag even if they are going in the height of summer. This is just because I tend to err on the size of caution and because I have had the experience of being freezing in the middle of summer on the Camino. I know, I know, everybody warns you about the heat, but it's not always hot in northern Spain. In fact Burgos province, where you'll spend 4 or 5 days has a reputation among Spanish people for being the coldest part of Spain. There's are places I've stayed in several times, like San Bol, and it's always been cold. Even in June and July! And this isn't even the mountains. You'll also spend a few days at high altitude so the nights there will be chilly.
That said, those places are the exception, and in summer the problems in crowded dorms tends to be heat – exacerbated by the fact that there's nearly always somebody who insists on closing every single window! Don't get me started.
And, by the way, a note for you Norteamericanos, air conditioning is more-or-less non-existent on the Camino. People in Spain have always managed without it. Old buildings had thick stone or adobe walls which kept the cold out in winter and the heat out in summer. In more modern buildings people tend to keep the shutters closed during the day which keeps them relatively cool inside. This works well because it's not humid and it gets cool at night.
I get the impression (and I know I'm looking for trouble saying this) that the people who don't want to bring a sleeping-bag tend to be over-doing the "keeping the weight down" thing. A sleeping-bag doesn't weight much and it is, in my opinion, an important piece of equipment. Anyway, what's your objective by not bringing a sleeping-bag? Your backpack weighs half a kilo (about a pound) less, that's a difference you'll barely notice. You have a bit more space in there. Space you don't need, unless you're planning to bring a few other things.
You'd be surprised how many people skimp on the essentials and then brings things they really don't need like tablet computers.
Anyway, if you're too hot you can always unzip your sleeping-bag part way or just lie on top of it. If you're too cold your only option is to put your clothes on (and if you didn't bring a sleeping-bag the chances are you didn't bring any warm clothes either).
My own current summer sleeping-bag is a Deuter Travel Lite 200, which claims to be comfortable down to 8 degrees C, which, from my own experience is fairly accurate. If you wrap up, T-shirt, fleece, etc. you can sleep it in comfortably below that, although you'll start to feel the cold as you get close to freezing-point. On the website I link to above it makes incorrect claims.
Technical information about a sleeping-bag is usually printed on its stuff-sack or on a label on the bag itself. Here's the information for my Deuter.
I recommend Deuter sleeping-bags. As with the backpacks, they're good quality and reliable (you don't want the zip on your bags breaking half way through the Camino!) And the information that Deuter themselves provide about temperatures is generally accurate, something which is not true of all manufacturers. Also, they're reasonably priced. I got mine for €50. It's as good as bags which cost double that. I'm quite tall (just over 6 foot) and I find the Deuter suits me perfectly. Deuter sleeping-bags are also very popular with pilgrims.
If you're going in summer you have a choice to make between a full sleeping-bag and a sleeping-bag liner. If you're travelling outside of June, July and August, the only real choice is what kind of sleeping-bag.
I'll deal with summer first because that's what most people will be interested in. Here's a selection of light weight sleeping-bags.
They're called sleeping-bag liners because their original purpose was to give your sleeping-bag a little bit more cold resistance and to keep it clean. They only give a little resistance from the cold (4 or 5 degrees C), so work it out for yourself, what temperature are you comfortable sleeping with no covers, subtract 5 from it and you get (for me personally) 20 degrees C.
So, you would be counting on it being that warm every night. Which it often will be in summer. Just not every night. Then you'll be falling back on whatever else is in your backpack that doesn't need to be plugged in an maybe a grungy albergue blanket (if you can get one, because you won't be the only one who's cold). Let me be more specific about what I mean by grungy. This is a blanket that might get washed once a year. If you look at it carefully you'll see deposits of hairs, toe-nails clippings and dust (that would be skin).
Pack or travel towels are a recent invention which have lightened backpacks and given pilgrims a quick-drying alternative to traditional towels. They are made of polyester fibre which absorbs water and dries quickly. In fact, just wringing it out is enough to get it dry enough to be used again. This has huge advantages over traditional towels, especially in cold weather.
Here are some examples of Pack Towels.
There are two factors you should consider, the danger of theft and the danger of loss.
The danger of theft really just applies when you put something down out of your sight, which ideally you should never do. To this end you need something to hold your valuables which is compact enough to keep on you at all times and, at least to some extent, water resistant, so you can keep it with you even when you're in the shower (not actually in the shower with you, but in the shower cubicle with you), without having to worry about your passport, etc. getting wet.
There are a number of products available which fulfil this function. The pouch I used for years is similar to this Travel Neck Wallet or this Document Organiser. And it works great, except that for me ultimately it had two problems: I wasn't comfortable carrying it around my neck and it's just too bulky to go in most pockets, and two, it encourages you to keep all your valuables in one (obvious) place.
The discomfort bit is important here because if you find it irritates you around your neck you'll be tempted to take it off when you sit down for a rest and one day (like me!) you'll leave it behind you! (like me!)
Nowadays I’ve abandoned this kind of pouch completely in favour of buying pants (trousers) with good big zippy pockets (at least two of them). In fact the first thing I look at when I’m buying Camino pants is the pockets. If they're not what I need I don't buy.
One pocket is for my wallet – and I use my normal wallet from home – with cash, cash card, etc. The other pocket is for my passport, Credencial, credit card, etc., all kept safe and dry in a zippy bag. The pocket with cash gets opened a few times a day and the other one usually only once, when I need my Credencial.
When I go for a shower my pants come with me and I fling them over the partition or hang them in the cubicle. At night I roll them carefully and put them under my pillow or, if the bed is against a wall or partition, jammed into a corner between the mattress and the wall. Basically, some place where getting at it would be difficult and guaranteed to wake me – assuming someone knew where to look. Which is another key point; a wallet in a pocket, a few documents in another pocket, it's discreet, it doesn't scream "all my valuables are here" in the way that a thing hanging around your neck does – or a money belt for that matter.
So while my wallet is bog standard and zippy bags you can find in any supermarket (possibly called freezer bags). I have one secret weapon for use if all else fails, a belt with a secret compartment where you can stash a few banknotes, here it is on Amazon. I always have a couple of 50-euro notes stashed in it just in case.
The experience which made me abandon using a pouch happened on the Camino between Dumbria and Muxia in the autumn of 2013. I went to Muxia on the bus with the intention of walking back to Santiago. I'd never walked it in that direction and I wanted to see what it was like, from the point-of-view of waymarkings, if they were easy to follow in that direction.
I had my document pouch containing passport, cards, etc., around my neck when I left Muxia. It was a cool morning but towards 11am the sun came out and it began to warm up. I was walking along a track in a forest in the middle of nowhere. I stopped to have a break and to remove a layer of clothing. To do so I had to take my document pouch off. After a while I got up to go again and left my pouch sitting there in plain view on the top of a stone wall.
I was nearly in Dumbria before I noticed it wasn't in its usual place. I took my backpack to pieces and still couldn't find it. Beginning now to feel a cold panic, I started to imagine the scenarios: somebody finds it, they go to the police who, guessing I'm a pilgrim contact the albergues who have never heard of me because I slept in a guesthouse, so the police hang on to my stuff for a few days to see if I'll claim it before sending it to the embassy in Madrid.
I had about €50 in cash. So I was OK for now. Still it was a strange and disturbing sensation. All your life you know you can rely on the plastic cards in your pocket delivering you whatever you need anywhere in the world. It's a constant I think I had taken for granted. And suddenly it was gone.
Not sure what to do next, I thought about phoning the police. Then, when I turned my phone one, I had a stroke of luck. On my Spanish SIM and there was a missed call. I called it back. It was a café. A pilgrim had found my belongings and taken them there and in the pouch they had found my phone number! I'd written it on a piece of paper because you need to use it when you're buying a top-up. And I had completely forgotten it was there!
That however was where my luck ran out. The pilgrim, assuming that I, like any sensible person, was walking TO Muxia and not the other way, took it with him and promised to drop it at reception at the municipal hostel there.
And, here I was, nearly in Dumbria. I decided my best bet was to continue and try to get a bus back. Unfortunately, I didn't know at the time that Dumbria is on the bus route to Finisterre and not Muxia. So to get to Muxia would have involved getting a bus back towards Santiago and changing some place for the Muxia bus. These are buses that go two or three times a day and none was due any time soon.
Having exhausted that possibility I decided to try hitch-hiking. I hitch-hiked a lot when I was a young fellow, mostly in Ireland and Germany. Lots of people hitched then. We didn't have money to pay train or bus fares so hitching was the only way it was possible to go places. It was always an adventure. I hitched a bit in Spain too, up the Mediterranean coast from Alicante to Barcelona after I jumped ship from a yacht skippered by a crazy English guy who nearly got us all killed. But that's another story.
Anyway,you know the expression, when it rains it pours, and it was turning into one of those days. Two hours later I was still trying to convince someone to stop and give me a lift. Of course, the longer you're there the more fed up you get and the more like a crazed serial killer you look, and there comes a point where nobody except possibly a crazed serial killer (and one who's having a slow day at that) would even consider stopping for you.
I was at that point. It was 3 in the afternoon. It was hot. I was despairing of getting a lift anywhere, never mind the combination of three or possibly four lifts I'd need to get to Muxia, so I decided to go for the surer route and start walking. At least that way I knew I’d get there today. Around now I got a text from the municipal hostel in Muxia that my belongings were waiting for me there.
So, at least I had that reassurance.
The walk went OK at first, hitch-hiking might have endangered my sanity but at least it was a rest from walking. Back through the forest I trudged, taking my time and grateful that the afternoon was getting cooler. (Muxia to Dumbria is a beautiful walk, by the way!) When I arrived at the road to Muxia I decided to walk on it instead of the official Camino, because it's a bit shorted and there was the outside possibility of a lift. Outside is the word. I must have looked half dead staggering along the side of the road with my thumb out. I walked for a long time, to within a few kilometres of Muxia, before my luck finally changed.
My saviour was a young Spanish woman who spoke excellent English and had an enormous dog in the back of her car. She told me she took pity on me because I looked exhausted, which made me wonder what all the other car drivers who hadn't taken pity on me had thought. She said she often picked up pilgrims. She was a freelance translator from Madrid who'd moved to Galicia as a sort of a pilgrim too. She was a Jehovas Witness who'd moved to Galicia to help find converts there. She was chatty and friendly, she told me she liked living in a small village, all she needed was internet access to be able to work and it was extremely cheap to live in rural Galicia. It was mostly old people in the village and they liked to talk about God.
She was nice and I got a positive feeling from her. She seemed like someone who wanted to give a good example. I was extremely grateful to her for stopping because I was really on my last legs. I think I was only 4 or 5km short of Muxia when she picked me up but I'd already walked over 40km that day, which is far more than I'm comfortable with, and that last bit (a 10 minute care drive) could easily have taken me two hours.
She dropped me right at the door of the albergue, despite my trying to explain to her that it would be OK if she dropped me down the street (she clearly wasn't familiar with this Camino business!)
I needn't have worried. An experienced hospitalero can tell by the cut of someone how far they've walked that day. The Camino-Taxi gang seem to think it's enough to walk the last kilometre and I have occasionally seen hospitaleros question people closely because they don't look like they just walked 7 hours under the hot sun. Although I’ve never seen a hospitalero turn someone away.
You hear stories about people (OK, it's always Spanish people) rolling up in a taxi outside the albergue and strolling in expecting to be accommodated. I've never actually seen that myself, and I would presume taxi drivers on the Camino know to advise the more gormless "walkers" to at least walk the last 100m!
I heard a story about a couple who arrived into Ponferrada and announced to the hospitalero how they'd gotten a taxi for the last 8km because the walk into the city was so awful and it's not reasonable to expect people to walk along the side of a busy road in this weather and the taxi driver was so friendly and helpful and was picking them up in the morning to safely deposit them beyond the city limits where they could start walking again...
He told them to get a hotel.
One day in Hornillos my girlfriend and I got two of the last beds in the municipal and people who arrived after us had to continue to San Blas. One Spanish pilgrim (obviously a Camino veteran, you still meet them, middle-aged Spanish men, solitary figures with basic equipment, who walk the Camino every year as they've done for years, wine and Chorizo for breakfast and staying in the same old reliable hostels where they're greeted with the familiarity of old friends and afforded the same treatment as everyone else) told the hospitalero that a group of four Spanish women, who'd gotten the last beds, had arrived by taxi.
The hospitalero didn't do anything. He was a volunteer, French I think, didn't speak much Spanish, probably had instructions not to go looking for trouble and probably didn't feel inclined to do so either. You can't reasonably expect a volunteer who's there for two weeks, on his own, to be telling people "you can stay" and "you can't". Ultimately the Camino relies to a large extent on people not abusing what is offered for free or for very little money. And when people do abuse it's difficult to deal with.
A permanent hospitalero might have cast a cold eye over these ladies and asked them straight-out if they walked the whole way, which they'd more than likely admit they hadn't, and suggested that the private albergue across the street might be more appropriate accommodation. At which point they would have retreated with good grace.
Anyway, we were coming back from breakfast the next morning and the four ladies were getting into a taxi on the street outside the albergue.
For many Spanish people "doing" the Camino doesn't necessarily mean "walking" it, it means "doing" it! They don't see taking a taxi or bus as "cheating". And, in a way they're following the traditional methods of pilgrims in years gone by who just wanted to arrive to Santiago and were happy to accept lifts on the back of a cart (or on a riverboat in northern Europe) whenever it was available, and didn't regard that as taking from their pilgrimage in any way. In fact many of them went the whole way by horse, which was then what driving is today.
Fortunately, this kind of thing is rare. Until you get to the last 100km. By then there's so many people "doing" the Camino that you hardly notice.
Back to Muxia. The hospitalero in Muxia, an employee of the Xunta who deals with pilgrims year round, was expecting me and had all my things (nothing missing!) and accepted my explanation that I'd walked most of the way to Dumbria and back, and checked me in for the night.
Later I met the man who'd found my things and brought them here. He was a big brown Frenchman who told me I owed him a beer but that given my state of exhaustion it could wait.
The next morning I got up and I walked to Dumbria again. Taking my time, enjoying the sunshine and the quietness of the Galician countryside.
If you've never used earplugs then now might be the time to start. ie. Before you go on the Camino. There are several different types, and different kinds, sizes, suit different people. A good pharmacist should have a range of different ones. They're not expensive so my advice is to buy a few different ones and try them out.
On the Camino they're useful to have if you get stuck in a dorm with a monster snorer or if there's noise from outside, as can happen in some urban albergues on Friday and Saturday nights.
I don't use them every night. My approach is generally to put them under my pillow before I go to sleep so I can get them easily if I’m woken during the night. There have been nights when I was extremely grateful for them!
I was always a bad and light sleeper but since my first long Camino I sleep a lot better than I used to and rarely have the experience of waking at 4am and knowing straight away that I wasn't going to be able to go back to sleep. It's strange and I don't have a rational explanation for it. I think on the Camino I just got used to a certain level of noise and that after a while I found I could sleep through it because I was constantly physically exhausted in a way I never was at home.
When I was younger I used to suffer more from work-related stress and for a few years I lived in staff accommodation of a hotel where there was often random noise at night and where I had to get up early for work. This was stressful and even after I left there I still had trouble sleeping. I think I became over-sensitised to noise and so I slept badly even when there wasn't any!
The Camino seems to have helped me to break that cycle. I remember breakfast conversations where other pilgrims were saying things like, "so-and-so kept me awake half the night", I was amazed because I was in the next bed and I’d slept like a log! I think I’d internalised the idea that I was a bad sleeper and so I became one!
It helps too that I no longer work in jobs that cause me a lot of stress. Prior to that I was working in the IT industry (with all the crap that that entails!) and travelling a lot to customer sites around Europe. I lived in hotels for over a year. To this day for me staying in hotels is something you have to endure on holidays, it's not something I enjoy, not like I enjoy curling up in my bed at home on a dark winter night.
On the best material for socks most pilgrims go for artificial fibre because it doesn't hold water and dries quickly. They also tend to be hard-wearing, no bad thing when you're hiking 800km!
There's a surprising variety of different kinds of socks available, for something that you would have been forgiven for think would be fairly straight-forward! The first category to look at is probably hiking socks, for men and women.
Running socks are another option, they tend to be lighter and lacking the strategic padding of hiking socks and so more suitable to combine with shoes rather than boots. Here are women's and men's. Although, there doesn't seem to be such a big difference between them.
Some pilgrims swear by Merino wool. Merino is a breed of sheep originally from Portugal. Wiki article here. Merino wool socks tend to be a bit pricey, but if you're a devotee then I suppose they're worth it.
I would suggest you buy your socks first and then go shopping for boots etc. wearing your socks.
Until very recently all of the pants I’ve ever walked any Camino had one thing in common, they were all bought in Penneys (AKA Primark, which is to clothes what Ryanair is to flying, ie. Cheap). They were usually cotton mix, which some people would consider completely unsuitable. But I always managed fine. The thing to really avoid is denim (but you knew that already!)
One of my main considerations when buying pants is good, secure, zippy pockets. After that it's warm ones for winter and cool ones for summer. One long and one short.
Recently however, I acquired a pair of Regatta (again) hiking pants (they were reduced to clear) and find them really great for walking in in more-or-less any weather. They're made of 94% Polyamide and 6% Elastane. They're very comfortable to walk in in cold or warm temperatures, even when they're soaking wet they don't make you cold because the material is very light and doesn't hold moisture, and they dry extremely quickly. Best of all they have no fewer than three zippy pockets!
I used to always wear T-shirts on the Camino but I started wearing a long-sleeved shirt a few years ago and have never looked back. There's nothing special about it, I think I bought it in a charity shop during one of those periods my I worked in a workplace where wearing a shirt was considered important. I don't think I paid more than a fiver for it. It's made out of some kind of nasty plastic material that's probably explosively flammable. I’m sure it's at least twenty years old.
It does the job though. It's cool when the weather's hot because it's kinda baggy on me and it allows the air to circulate. It protects me from the sun. In cold weather it tucks in or combines with a T-shirt. If you hang it outside on a warm day it's literally dry within five minutes!
It just goes to show that you don't need expensive gear to walk the Camino. The only piece of equipment that I don't get cheap is boots. Because the quality of your boots makes a real difference. You could walk it in really cheap shoes too (and lots of people do) but I think it would at times be tough going.
So, when I go on the Camino, winter or summer, I bring my shirt and a T-shirt. I wear the shirt during the day and the T-shirt in the evenings. And both if it's cold.
Pilgrims tend to split along the Atlantic divide when it comes to waterbottles. Most North Americans go for transparent plastic bottles, such as Nalgene, while Europeans tend to go for metal ones such as Sigg.
Which you prefer is really just personal preference.
I've tried both and personally I prefer one litre plastic bottles you buy mineral water in. They're light, they're not durable but they will last a few weeks (which is all you need), they're cheap (and sometimes even come in two-for-one deals), they're a perfect size to put in most backpacks' side pouches, and if you lose one it doesn't matter a damn.
I also find that two litres of water is a good amount to start the day with. And having it in two bottles lets you spread the weight evenly.
I tried the bladders you drink through a tube too but it just seemed pointless after a while. People say the advantage is that you don't have to stop to drink, but it's not a race!
Every time I walk the Camino I meet people who ran themselves ragged for the first two weeks trying to keep up with someone, or keep to some arbitrary schedule, or just trying to prove something to themselves. What generally happens is that they get increasingly tired, suffer from an accumulation of minor injuries, and are miserable. Then generally, about two weeks in, something happens. There's a terse discussion with a walking companion whose attitude is "you have to keep up", the injuries and fatigue get to the point where they just have to slow down or even stop, or maybe it's just that they see other people taking their time and enjoying the experience and they ask themselves. "what's the point of rushing?"
One woman said, "I started to enjoy it the day I realised it wasn't a race!"
It's very common for people who start the Camino together not to finish it together. You can be great friends in normal life and have completely incompatible views of what the Camino should be.
So, I guess that's why I dislike water bladder systems, because they encourage the attitude that it's a race.
Then there's the 50-click a day gang. For some reason they tend to be mostly Koreans. I think they have limited time and they want to cover the whole thing and nobody tells them they won't be able to keep up that pace. They probably tried it for a day at home and it went OK and they thought they could do it everyday for two weeks.
Again, they tend to have a crises of some sort, although in their case it's usually four or five days in. A Korean girl I met in Pamplona told me she thought she could make it there from Saint-Jean in two days, when it took here three she realised she wasn't going to make her schedule. She said it was just much harder than she'd expected. She wasn't helped by cultural difficulties either. She spoke a bit of English, largely useless in rural Spain, and her idea of Western food was Burgers and French fries. She was half starved because she couldn't communicate and she didn't recognise any of the food and was afraid to try it. I asked her what she ate at home and she said rice and fish and vegetables. I brought her to the shop and showed her the rice and the tinned fish and wrote down the Spanish words for her. The next morning she got the bus to Leon. She had two weeks to get to Santiago so starting from there would have given her enough time.
Another Korean I met, a young fellow, looked about 20. I met him first near Logroño. He'd averaged about 50km a day coming from Saint-Jean. Some of the other pilgrims were fêting him and calling him "Super-Pilgrim". I asked him how he felt and he said tired but OK.
I met him again a week later in Belorado. He'd been there three days already. He had some kind of tendinitis and could barely hobble to the shops. He seems in pretty poor form. I talked to him a bit and invited him to have dinner with the rest of us who were cooking. He didn't want to. He just lay on his bed and didn't talk to other people.
I wished him good luck before I left the next morning. Never heard of him again.
Sockets are often at a premium in albergues so you may find it difficult to get you "appliances" charged. There are several lightweight items which can help: for when the only power outlet in the dorm is already in use an Adapter Plug can save your bacon! This is a pretty fancy one compared the one I use I bought in an electrical shop in Spain for about €3. It weighs nothing and transforms one power-outlet into three.
Alternatively you could go for a USB charger like this Quad-Port USB Charging Station.
A possible alternative is to go for solar power. Recently I've been experimenting with a solar charger and I'm pretty impressed with the results. The model I bought is the PortaPow Rainproof Solar USB Charger. This is a "UK" company (it's made in China like everything else). Earlier this summer I was on the Camino del Baztán while writing my latest guidebook and using my phone to make GPS traces of the route, which is pretty heavy on the battery, normally you'd only get 5 or 6 hours of use, but supplemented with this charger it was easily about to handle an 8 or 9 hour walking day while recording my exact location all the time. If I let it charge all day and plugged my phone into it in the evening it recharged to to 100%. It weighs about the same as a light paperback book and it's even rainproof. If there's no sun you can even charge its battery from the mains and use it as a spare battery for your phone.
I reckon, if you're a light user of your mobile phone, you could walk the Camino with this hanging off your backpack, and never have to use a mains charger, even in winter.
Another alternative is the now common reserve battery. This is basically a battery which charges from a USB charger like a phone and which you can then use to charge your phone. These are cheap and light. Their cheapness is their great advantage, you can buy a good one for under €20. Plug it into your USB charger while you go off and do other things. If someone steals it at least you won't have lost an expensive phone. They come in all shapes and sizes, this is just an example. You can even buy them from shops along the Camino.
If you're travelling to the Camino using one of Europe's low-cost airlines then probably you're saving an extra few bob by taking your backpack as hand-luggage. You save a bit of money like this but the sole disadvantage is that you can't bring a knife with you. Now, a knife isn't essential on the Camino, but it's handy if you like to picnic occasionally. Cheese, chorizo, it just doesn't taste the same if you have to gnaw it with your teeth. I'm told caveman eating is the latest weight-loss fad from California, but to be perfectly honest, I couldn't give a shit. I like to cut my food into civilised sizes before I eat them. So, I always had the problem that you aren't allowed to carry a knife as hand-luggage for fear that you might trigger a chain of events which 14 or so years later would see religious fanatics on the brink of controlling large parts of the Muslim world.
Well, I think I've found the solution to this problem (not the Muslim world one, I hasten to add), but the one of knives on planes. It's a plastic knife. While plastic knives aren't strictly speaking, by the letter of the law, allowed on planes, they are discreet enough to get through security if you pack them deep enough in your backpack and so that makes them de facto allowed. The one I like is this one Sea to Summit Delta Cutlery Set. I combines lightness, with practicality and the necessary discreetness. It's a bit pricey for three pieces of moulded plastic but, oh, the styling is immaculate! It also comes with a handy clip that holds them together.
Update 2017: I recently met someone who used one of these on the Camino and she described it as nice to have but not essential.
This is an extract from my upcoming book about my Camino adventures entitled We Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. It is available on Amazon - see the link at the bottom of this page. What follow is a short extract...
I was hilariously ill-prepared for my first Camino adventure. It was the autumn of 2003. I had a backpack, which was the only one I owned and which had served me well on various holidays, but for the Camino it was completely unsuitable. It was more like a soft suitcase you could carry on your back. And, naturally, I‘d packed far too much stuff. And the wrong stuff. I had a couple of changes of clothes, jeans, cotton socks and T-shirts, rain-gear that wasn‘t really waterproof, and loads of other things you‘d normally bring on a holidays but which were just completely wrong for the Camino (jeans, a spare pair of shoes, an ambitious reading list). I only had a week, which was probably just as well.
I only knew about the Camino because I‘d heard about it when I lived in France. Nobody I knew had ever walked it. I had never seen it mentioned in the media. No Irish person I knew had even mentioned it. All this despite my “Catholic upbringing” in a "Catholic country".
There was hardly any information on the internet. My only source was an ancient guidebook with useless maps that looked hand-drawn. From this I gleaned that if I showed up in León I would find a "pilgrims hostel" where I could sleep and where I would be issued a "passport" giving me access to other hostels (a bit like a Youth Hostelling Card). It all seemed surreal. I think if I hadn‘t actually seen with my own eyes pilgrims ambling out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port one sunny afternoon in 1999, I wouldn‘t have believed such a thing was possible at the dawn of the 21th century.
At work I told them I was going to Spain for a week, without giving any specifics, in case the whole thing was a complete disaster. And, without a clue of what I was getting myself in for, I flew to Madrid on Friday evening and on Saturday morning got a train to León and walked from the railway station, across the river and into the city. Once there I got completely lost, until, in desperation, I accosted an old lady, who seemed to guess I was looking for the albergue – as pilgrim’s hostels are called – and exhibited a surprising degree of concern for my well-being, even walking with me to the end of the street so she could point it out to me. Despite her efforts I still had trouble nailing it down and walked past it twice thinking it was a garage or something. I don‘t know what I had expected an albergue to look like, but obviously I didn’t expect it to look like a garage. I think I‘d expected it to stand out a bit more in a modern urban landscape.
When I eventually got there (the one that‘s connected to a convent and whose entrance, even today, looks like a garage) I walked into a world which was entirely foreign to me. The reception in that albergue was outside in a courtyard, under an awning. Lots of people were milling around but when I arrived there was nobody on reception. Seeing me looking a bit lost, one of the pilgrims took it on himself to propel me upstairs to the dorm where he motioned to me to take a bed and make myself at home. So I did. I copied everyone else and spread my sleeping-bag on my bed and stored my backpack beside it. Then I went back downstairs.
In the meantime the hospitalero (as those who run the albergues are called) had reappeared. He was an elderly French gentleman and he looked at me in surprise over the top of his reading glasses when he saw I had no luggage. He then looked at me in greater surprise over the top of his reading glasses when I told him I already had a bed because another gentleman had given me one. This prompted an annoyed remark about people ‘taking it on themselves when clearly it was none of their business‘ and an intense scrutiny of the assembled masses to try to identify the culprit. This having been unsuccessful, he asked me where I‘d arrived from. I told him Madrid, on the train. With a shrug he asked me if it was my first time and I told him it was. He asked me if I‘d walked from the train station and I told him I had. He told me the hostel was only for people who arrived on foot but since it was my first time and I‘d walked from the station he‘d let me stay anyway. He then did something which surprised me. He told me I was very welcome and not to worry about a thing.
He walked me through the formalities of issuing me a pilgrim passport. There was more surprise when he saw my Irish passport and enquiries about why I spoke French. I explained I‘d lived in Luxembourg for six years.
So, formalities over and equipped with my pilgrim passport (which I later found out was called a Credencial), and officially a pilgrim, I set out to explore. I looked around the albergue (which in the intervening years hasn‘t changed much), got kicked out of the women‘s dorm, found the showers and wondered at there being only three for all these people, and had a look at my fellow pilgrims. They were mostly elderly French and German men and a few Spanish. I remember being astonished at how strong and fit and sun-tanned they were. Most of them had already been walking for several weeks.
I went out and walked around the surrounding streets for a while, looking for something to eat. It being early evening, there was nothing going apart from tapas, so I contented myself with that and a couple of glasses of wine, and headed back to the albergue. I sat in the reception area and observed the few pilgrims arriving in at that late hour and the comings and goings of the pilgrims who were already settled in. Many were heading out to dinner in groups and I felt a bit left out. I had random conversations with a few random people then it got quiet so I sat and read.
At about half eight a nun came in and asked if anybody wanted to go to the pilgrim blessing. There was only three or four of us there and we all demurred. She made a comment to the hospitalero which I didn‘t understand but which I assume was something along the lines of, “fine bunch of pilgrims these are”. There was shrugging of shoulders and what-can-ya-do gestures on all sides, and she disappeared.
I was a guest of theirs again several years later and, nuns being nuns and being pretty good at foisting religious observance on the reluctant, they‘d come up with a way of upping their numbers. They had moved the curfew back to something ridiculously early, so everybody had to be back in the albergue before the pilgrim blessing began. This way they have a captive audience! The last time I was there, their attendance rate seemed to be approaching 50%, which is pretty impressive given where they started.
Anyway, people arrived back in dribs and drabs and we were packed away to bed at some childishly early hour and I slept very badly. It was Saturday and the convent albergue in León is in the Zona Humida, the area where all the bars are, and the noise outside went on until the early hours. I had no earplugs so I lay there for ages until exhaustion got the better of me. Somebody, I can‘t remember who, once described night-life in Spain as consisting of a lot of standing around and talking. They hit the nail on the head.
When I awoke the lights were on and (it seemed like) everybody else was already up and silently packing their backpacks. I got myself up and, just because I was a complete newcomer, went and had a shower, wondering all the while why the showers were empty. I think everybody knew I was new because one man took it upon myself to tell me what I now call “rule number one”: don‘t shower in the morning because you’ll be putting your boots on when your feet are wet and soft, leaving you more susceptible to blisters. And, as any pilgrim will tell you, you don’t want to be susceptible to blisters.
In those days you learned as you went along. As you made mistakes, people told you and helped you where necessary. There were no internet forums where you could ask thousands of questions and read millions of answers on every possible aspect of Camino life which had already been asked by generations of bewildered prospective pilgrims before you. You arrived, like I did, wide-eyed and apprehensive. With absolutely no idea what to expect or what was expected of you. But you figured it out pretty quickly with the help of other pilgrims.
Nowadays I think some people arrive over-prepared (and as the author of a book which tries to help people prepare, I‘m guilty of cashing in on the “preparing for the Camino industry”!). But some people prepare and plan so thoroughly that there‘s hardly any room left for surprises or spontaneity.
Anyway, back to León where, half asleep, numb, bewildered, I stumbled out into the pre-dawn city and followed other pilgrims through the streets for what seemed like an eternity. We passed a café and there were pilgrims inside so I went in myself, desperate for a coffee. As I drank my coffee and ate my croissant I experienced for the first time that early morning Camino ritual of breakfast television news on RTVE, followed by the all-important weather forecast. Then, as the dawn light turned the morning sky to grey, I hit the road again.
Eventually, after wandering for what seemed like forty days and nights, the urban sprawl dissolved and I found myself on the open, dusty Spanish meseta, the high altitude plateau which takes up much of the centre of the Iberian peninsula, where I soon fell in with two pilgrims who were walking together. Arturo was an engineering student from Ourense, and Wolfgang an elderly man from northern Germany. With my rusty German and basic Spanish I soon became the translator between these two friends who had, if I understood correctly, been walking together for several days already.
At the time my Spanish consisted of a couple of hundred words, tops, and quite a lot of French with a “Spanish accent”, mixed up with quite a lot of pure guesswork. You can go a long way with very little Spanish if you know some French and don‘t mind making a fool of yourself. You can throw a French word where you don’t know the Spanish because lots of the basic words are fairly similar, pan, vino, dormir, grande, bien. It works OK for simple stuff although there are many pitfalls. You’ll get funny looks if you say burro for butter (it means donkey), and you’ll get lots of laughs if you say teta for head (it means breast). And once you get beyond the basics, and especially when you start encountering verb conjugations, the results quickly become very hit-and-miss and the potential for misunderstandings are limitless.
It helps that Spanish people are quite receptive to pointing and gesturing as a way of making up for gaps in vocabulary.
We walked at a leisurely pace. Arturo was suffering from a sore knee and was walking with the aid of a stick and with some difficulty, especially on descents. It was sunny but not hot and we took frequent breaks which made the going easier. Early in the afternoon it was becoming obvious that Arturo‘s discomfort was increasing, so when we came across a man in a van who was accompanying a group of pilgrims (remember, this was 2003, so the “man in a van” phenomenon isn‘t as recent a development as some people would have you believe) Wolfgang accosted him to ask him, mostly through sign-language and pointing, if he‘d mind giving Arturo a lift. He was very obliging and cleared him a space among all the luggage and arranged to drop him in Mazarife where we‘d easily find him. Mazarife at that time only had one albergue, a so-called municipal albergue, owned and run by the local community. Today it has three private ones.
With Arturo gone Wolfgang and I continued at a brisker pace. I was fine with the pace and didn‘t feel tired until about 5km before Mazarife, where we met a group of French pilgrims who had spread out along the Camino for quite a distance. This irritated Wolfgang who accelerated to try to pass them as quickly as possible. I followed for a while but when I fell into conversation with a woman from Toulouse I was relieved to slow to her pace and watch Wolfgang disappear into the distance. I wasn‘t in any discomfort but my legs were tired and I felt like I couldn‘t match Wolfgang‘s pace. The French woman was friendly and chatty and happy to meet someone who spoke her language, and the remaining distance to Mazarife, across featureless, flat farmland, passed quickly. Once in the village we said our good-byes and I went in search of the municipal hostel. When I arrived, an argument was in progress between an Eastern European pilgrim and the hospitalero. The Eastern European pilgrim was alone but had the Credenciales of two friends who were walking behind. He wanted to check all three of them in for the night. The hospitalero was trying to explain to him, with the help of other pilgrims and in a variety of languages, that people could only be checked in when they arrived. It was my first day and even I knew that (having read it in my guidebook). I waited, saying nothing, for the discussion to end.
The Eastern European pilgrim eventually left and I was checked in and paid my €3, got my Credencial stamped, and was pointed in the direction of the dorms, without having understood a word of what was said to me.
That hostel has since become a private hostel called Albergue de Jesús. It has been extensively renovated, including the addition of a swimming pool, although to call it a “swimming pool” is being generous because it has no water filtering system and is really just a concrete pond painted to resemble a swimming pool. They‘ve also built some kind of “Viking” boat in the back garden which is visible from a great distance and looks faintly ridiculous. But at that time the albergue was an old house which had been treated to a very perfunctory renovation and the addition of a shower room, toilets, and extra beds and rows of mattresses along the covered balcony which encircled the inner courtyard.
I installed myself on a mattress at one end of the balcony, excited by the idea of sleeping outside under an awning. Arturo was there too, although Wolfgang had apparently continued to the next village, 15km away. I was pretty astonished that he had had the energy to keep going. The distance I had walked that day was the furthest I had ever walked in one go in my entire life. There was no way I could have continued. I felt exhausted and stunned, almost like I’d been beaten up. I played rugby in school. Twice. Both in my first week. And that’s how I felt after my first day on the Camino, like I’d been chased around a muddy field on a dark November’s evening by a group of ruddy faced, hairy legged, farmers sons wearing boots that seemed to be designed for inflicting pain. Even the freezing shower room, lukewarm water and total lack of privacy, all felt vaguely familiar.
In school I’d quickly found out from the other nerds in my class that you could sit out rugger practice in the warmth and comfort of the library with a book open in front of you and that nobody would bother you. But here there was no escape! So, although I had enjoyed the day I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself in for.
After lying down for a while I just about managed a walk around the village. Mazarife, apart from the addition of two albergues, a (horribly) renovated church and a spruced up bar, hasn‘t really changed much in the intervening years. It‘s a sprawling agricultural village, typical of that part of Spain, where farm-houses and outbuildings are clustered into villages rather than being out in the countryside. It had one small shop which was closed but opened for us after one of the locals told us to just knock. (Recently, in another Camino village, I saw a sign on the shop door telling people not to knock if it was closed – they must have gotten tired of being constantly on-call!). There wasn‘t much in the way of food in the local bar so I brought myself some bread and cheese in the shop and the shopkeeper presented me with a free bottle of the local wine. It was red, closed with a cork but with no label of any description. I couldn‘t understand why I‘d been the recipient of such generosity. Maybe she’s taken pity on me! But when I got back to the albergue, clutching my prize under my arm, I discovered that everybody who‘d been to the shop that day had also been given a bottle of the local plonk. It was receiving good reviews too! In some parts of Spain a quantity of wine is put by every year for local consumption. It isn‘t aged, so it doesn‘t fit any of the standard classifications, but it tastes fine. (They‘re hardly going to reserve the crap stuff for themselves, are they?) If you ask for ‘El vino de aqui‘ / ‘the wine from here’ in shops in wine regions they‘ll often produce an unlabelled bottle from under the counter and sell it to you for a euro or less.
So, it was bread and cheese and wine for dinner, shared with an eclectic bunch of pilgrims sitting around the albergue courtyard drinking their wine. Arturo retired early and I ended up talking with some elderly German pilgrims, a group of friends who‘d set out together on this Camino adventure, who had lived through the post WWII division of their country from both sides of the divide.
I slept cosily in my sleeping-bag on the balcony with the stars for my ceiling. Day one on the Camino was over and the distance covered was a heroic 22km.
The following morning was bright and sunny, but my condition was less than optimal. My right knee was very painful and I had difficulty, even before we set off, coming down the stairs in the albergue. I could tell it was going to be a hard day. Luckily, Mazarife to Hospital de Órbigo is as flat as a pancake, because on flat ground the pain in my knee wasn‘t so bad. Arturo and I hobbled along slowly, alternating between moaning in discomfort and laughing at ourselves, two young men being overtaken by people twice our age.
We made a small detour into the village of Villavante in search of a cup of coffee – which we were desperately in need of – where we were the only customers in the village bar. Then as now you only needed to go a few minutes off the Camino to encounter a rural Spain of semi-derelict villages with sleeping dogs on the main street, populated by old men in blue overalls and women in plastic aprons. It was like you crossed a line and the Camino didn‘t exist.
The young woman in the bar served us coffee with milk, too hot and tasting awful, and a plate of factory-made magdalenas (the small sugary buns or muffins which you find all over Spain), which was the only food they had. Naturally, super-organised that we were, we hadn‘t brought a thing to eat with us!
We sat there, forlornly watching children’s programmes on the old flickering television high up in the corner. The walls of the bar were covered with faded photos of fiestas past, groups of fresh-faced young people with handsome Spanish features, dressed in fashions spanning several decades, their numbers decreasing as their clothes became more modern. It reminded me of the Scottish legend of Brigadoon, and I imagine that when we walked back to the Camino the village would disappear into the mist only to reappear in a year‘s time.
Our limping and resting and pitiful sighing and being passed by our elders in colourful Spandex, continued until early afternoon when, as we were coming close to abandoning hope, Hospital finally came into view.
With trembling knees we walked the last few metres over the bridge, wincing in pain as we descended the small incline onto the main street.
We were ready to fall over.
A grand total of 13km walked on day two.
We staggered into the first albergue we came to, Albergue San Miguel, in an old building around a courtyard with murals painted by pilgrims on the walls. We checked in and after a quick shower went in search of lunch.
In a restaurant by the bridge Arturo had a very long discussion with the waiter and ordered us a local speciality. When it arrived it turned out to be a huge slab of cold ham. I think it had been boiled. I didn‘t like it much. When you’re “out foreign” and they “up sell” the rustic local colour, it’s a bit disappointing to end up eating the kind of shit you were forced to eat as a child.
At least the wine went down OK.
Afterwards we went and looked at the bridge but since both of us were still in considerable pain we didn‘t get far.
Back at the hostel some of our friends from the previous day were already there. A dark-eyed German girl called Anne, who I‘d spoken to briefly in Mazarife. She sympathised with my knee problems and suggested some exercises which had helped her overcome her own problems. I tried them but, to be honest, I think the damage was already done and the only thing that would help me now was rest. She had walked from Saint-Jean. She told me she was enjoying it but that the meseta had been hard. Her own knee problems had started in the Pyrenees (as these things so often do) and had cleared up after a few days when she started doing regular stretching.
There was an American girl who was already a Camino Legend because she had the smallest luggage anybody had ever seen. It wasn‘t even a backpack. It was like a big bum-bag (what Americans call a fanny-pack) which she wore on her hips, usually at the back, but she could easily swing it round when she needed to get something out of it. I looked at her in envy, thinking of my own packing disaster. She didn‘t have a sleeping-bag, just a liner sheet, and a light waterproof cape. She walked in leggings which she said were dry enough to put on once they‘d been washed and wrung out. On top she wore a tee-shirt and fleece, both made of quick-drying artificial fibre. I‘d never encountered this type of clothing before. In those days high tech hiking gear was still quite new and expensive. Nowadays you can buy it anywhere and, if you hunt around, quiet cheaply, although the quality isn‘t always great. She said she‘d been a bit cold on a couple of nights but that it was worth it to not be burdened down with a heavy backpack.
She told me about a conversation she had had with some European pilgrims about her brother, who had walked the Camino the year before. During his Camino he had decided that he wanted to become a Roman Catholic Priest. Some of the European pilgrims had expressed the opinion that becoming a priest was a waste of a life. She seemed surprised at this attitude and asked me if I thought the same.
I was a bit surprised by the question and had to think carefully before answering. I told her I had mixed feelings about the Catholic Church in general. On the Camino you meet members of religious communities who are exemplary in their openness and willingness to welcome all comers, regardless of whether they‘re walking the Camino as Catholics or not. This is one of the really positive things about the Camino; it showcases what‘s good about the Church. However, my experiences away from the Camino has been much more mixed. I‘ve met many religious who embodied the spirit of love which Christianity claims is at the heart of its philosophy but I‘ve also met many who didn‘t.
So, I told her about some of my experiences and how I could understand why some people would regard becoming a priest as a waste of a life, but that whether it was or not really depended on what kind of a priest he wanted to be. One of the good ones or one of those who any impartial observer could only regard as a liability. I also pointed out that by taking vows he‘d be signing up to the whole legacy of the Church, and that it, as an organisation, in recent times had an extensive track record of concealing the abusive behaviour of some of its clergy. The day he took his vows he‘d have to take an oath of obedience to the Church which would make him part of that culture.
She seemed genuinely surprised by what I said but she didn’t reject it. It just seemed to be new to her. Maybe she‘d never heard criticisms of the Church openly expressed before. I think people who live in countries where Roman Catholicism is a minority faith are less exposed to criticisms of it than if you live some place where it‘s the dominant religion.
She also had no idea that Papal infallibility is a relatively recent invention, or that many Catholics philosophers question its validity.
In the evening Arturo and I went to the local shop and bought bread, cheese, chorizo and wine (no free wine today) and settled down to eat in the albergue courtyard. It was a pleasant place although our spirits were low because of our knees. We went to bed early to get lots of rest for the morrow‘s walk to Astorga. I remember lying awake in my bunk, listening to the other pilgrims quietly getting into their sleeping-bags, feeling excited and apprehensive.
In the morning Arturo was feeling a bit better but I wasn‘t. If anything I was worse. We set off together along Hospital‘s straight main street and even switching from the footpath to the road was agony. To make matters worse it was raining heavily and I was sopping within a couple of minutes in my amateur rain-gear. I was faced with the prospect of a long, painful, miserable day, and I didn‘t have the heart for it. With regret, I said good-bye to Arturo at the end of the main street and headed back to the albergue to ask for the bus-stop. The hospitalero was clearing away the breakfast things. He seemed unsympathetic to my question but he grumpily told me where to go. I didn‘t really understand what he said but at least he pointed in a particular direction and since I didn‘t feel like asking again I went that way and hoped for the best. When I came to the main road I began to feel like I was on the right path and when I saw a petrol-station it twigged with me what he‘d said: gasolinero – petrol-station. And hey presto! There was the bus-stop opposite! It even stopped raining as I waited for what seemed like a long time, slowly getting cold in the stiff, moist westerly wind.
The café in the petrol station was open and its brightly lit interior and the prospect of a proper cup of coffee were very inviting, but I decided I didn‘t want to risk missing the bus. It was due any minute, and had been for a while. I felt upset and disappointed that my first attempt at the Camino had gone so wrong. I‘d only really managed two days, and the second one was pretty short. I had felt close to tears seeing the people who I‘d made friends with over the last two days walking away from me into the gloomy morning.
Eventually the bus rolled up. I paid a derisory sum to bring me the distance that would have taken me all day on foot, and settled down comfortable in my seat watching through the steamed-up window pilgrims donned in ponchos and rain jackets, their head bent into the western wind, marching solidly towards their destination. Part of me wished I was with them. Part of me didn‘t – my knees mostly.
I spent the morning limping around beautiful Astorga and trying to warm up over hot chocolates in cafés where it seemed like every customer left the door open after them. I thought about visiting Gaudi‘s house but decided to leave it for another day. Already I was thinking of coming back. I just didn‘t know when and I didn‘t know how long it would take. In the event, it was several years before I set foot in Astorga again and when I did I was already well used to walking long distances. And the weather was better.
In the early afternoon, I met Arturo and we had lunch. He was feeling better, the two short days had done his knees a lot of good and he was feeling more confident about being able to continue. He told me about how as a student in Santiago he saw the pilgrims arriving every day and began to wonder what it was that motivated them. This gradually turned into a desire to find out. It sounded similar to my discovery of the Camino many years before in Saint-Jean.
He walked me to the bus station in the rain and we embraced and I got the bus back to León. It was Tuesday afternoon and my flight home didn‘t leave until Sunday, I had to decide what I was going to do. I knew nobody in that part of Spain and I‘d never been there before. In the train station, I checked the timetable and looked at the map and decided that a train to Gijón that was leaving in about an hour was as good a bet as any. The woman at the ticket office was a bit snobby with me and pointedly corrected my pronunciation. In fairness, I must have sounded hilarious and I got a lot of funny looks. Even now, after years of practice, I still can’t say Gijón.
My train passed through the Picos de Europa mountain range, but since it was foggy and raining all the way there wasn‘t much scenery to be seen.
I spent a few dull days around Gijón, an industrial port city with a nice historic centre on the seafront and not much else. At least the weather improved and a couple of days rest did wonders for my knees. By Thursday I was able to do some walking along the coastal path which is part of the Camino del Norte (which I hadn‘t even known existed until I saw a map of it in Gijón railway station). I walked about 12km in total. It was a pleasant sunny day and the views were beautiful. But the highlight was lunch in a small hotel in an isolated spot on the coast. I had monkfish. The best fish meal I have ever had in my life. At €35, it was pricey by Spanish standards, but worth every cent. A half litre of white wine washed it down perfectly. So with a full belly, in the afternoon sunshine, I tripped my way back to Gijón feeling pretty happy.
The other highlight was that a Russian navy sailing ship was visiting. It was the biggest sailing ship I’ve ever seen. And the tall, blond, broad-shouldered Russian sailors were turning a few heads around town in their full dress uniforms.
My journey back to Madrid was uneventful. It was sunny and dry there, as it nearly always is, and I enjoyed strolling in the Parque del Buen Retiro, my favourite urban park in the world (with the world‘s only public monument to the devil, el angel caido).
My first Camino experience certainly taught me a few things about how to pack and prepare and what to expect once I was there. I definitely wasn‘t finished with this Camino thing and intended to go back when I got the chance. In the event that took a lot longer that I expected because the next year I quit my job and headed off to explore Latin America.