What a trip it was! 800km, 40 days, so much pain, so much joy.
I can say now with all honestly and absolute certainly that walking the Camino was (and will remain) a highlight of the adventures that I’ve done in Europe and I’m so happy I was able to share it here on the blog. I wanted to write while I was doing it so that I could capture the raw emotions while they were happening, and although I didn’t blog nearly as much as I’d hoped (in reality there was so little downtime), I’m so glad I managed to get the 4 posts out that I did so that I could capture those moments in real-time. It’s far too easy to look back on an adventure and see only the rosy parts of it, and I didn’t want my blogs to reflect only that.
Then again, I can’t deny how many beautiful moments I had. And they DO become more beautiful and meaningful as I look back on them.
The people I met, my Camino family and the Second Breakfast Club enriched my experience so very much. And some of the nature I saw and the moments I had will be etched in my mind forever.
Sunrise over the Meseta and a picture of Suzie dancing on the hill that just captured it all, drinking Calimochos with Diana, Suzie and Jessica in Burgos, posing by so many (so, so many) murals, eating a plate of BBQ’d ribs in Fromista that was so huge even my hungry pilgrim-stomach couldn’t eat it all, the Donativo albergue in El Buergo Ranero where the metal death-beds bowed and creaked so badly I wondered if I’d survive the night.
Each day delivered something crazy, beautiful, boring and memorable. How many adventures give you all that?
But today I wanted to do a more practical recap, starting on some topics that might be useful those of you who decide to do the Camino in the future. Stuff I haven’t written about yet, such as what gear worked and what didn’t; the expectations or fears I had beforehand and how those played out in practice; aspects I liked and those I hated; things I might change if I were to do it again. I have no idea how many posts all this will take, so I guess I’ll take the journey with you as I write and just see. Shall we?
Let’s Start With The Gear
I guess the first question I might ask if I were a blog reader, especially given the nerdy-type I am, is how all my gear worked out. I spent months testing it all before I left for the Camino (something I’m really happy I did in retrospect), and wrote many blog posts about that process, but how did it actually work out in practice??
Honestly I’m happy to say almost everything was practically spot-on and there’s very little I would change the next time around. But there are a few details which I think are worth sharing.
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Items That Absolutely Worked
Shoes and socks -> your feet are your most valuable asset on the Camino and the key to keeping them in good condition is having the right shoes and socks, and to get that right you simply have to try and test, test, test.
Even if your buy the rest of your gear on a whim, I really recommend getting properly fitted for shoes (go get yourself measured at a hiking store), trying out different merino wool socks, experimenting with sock liners (some like them, some don’t) and then doing MANY long walks to see how the combo works out for you.
Personally I was SO happy I went with trail runners (vs boots) and really felt this helped a lot. My Merrell running shoes were lightweight, required almost zero break-in and made walking on the many asphalt/concrete surfaces (which make up ~1/3 of the French Way Camino!!) so much cushier/comfier. Combined with Injinji toe liner socks and Darn Tough main socks it was an absolute no-blister winner for me.
I’m also really happy I chose NON Gore-tex shoes as I felt my feet breathed better and that the shoes dried out much faster on wet days. I can’t tell you how many folks I met who wore boots on the Camino that not only struggled to get them dry (after long rain days), but also battled desperately with blisters and foot pain on longer and hotter days. Honestly folks, try trail runners!
I have one more very important tip here. I bought my shoes 1 size larger than I usually wear based on a tip from a Camino forum, and that turned out to be KEY! When I was on the trail my feet swelled (significantly!) from all the heat and walking, and having that space to expand inside my shoes meant I kept comfortable and blister-free. I would never have known!
Clothing -> NO cotton…that’s my main tip here. My T-shirts & bras were both Merino wool blends (I went with the Supernatural brand), my underwear was non-cotton (I love these Balanced Tech ones) and my hiking pants/jacket/puff were all quick-dry hiking gear.
All that made huge big difference. You can’t always wash when you want (sometimes it’s raining, sometimes it’s too late, or (often) the only washer/dryer in the albergue is in use for hours on end) and merino wool meant I was able to go days and still keep both comfortable and stink-free (it’s magical stuff folks, simply magical). When I was able to wash, having quick-drying gear meant I could hang it out on the line in the PM and it would be ready to go a few hours later. It worked out really well.
Cotton gets heavy, stinky and takes too long to dry. Just don’t do it.
Also my idea of “bring one, wear one” worked out well too. You really don’t need many clothes on the Camino, just one outfit for the day and one for the night, plus some extra layers for inclement weather (cold, rain etc.) and if you manage a few washes in-between IMO it’s all good. My “night” outfit I only wore in the evening after showering so (get ready for some TMI here) I was able to go 30 days before I washed that for the first time!! My “day” outfit I washed maybe every 2-3 days? The only extras I bought were underwear and socks (3 pairs of each) simply because my motto was “clean underwear, clean socks, the rest I don’t care”. I felt comfortable with that and it really helped to keep my pack weight down.
Rain Gear -> Poncho and umbrella….PERFECT. I don’t know how much more I need to add here. The Altus poncho made me look like Michelin man but covered me, my backpack and half my legs. I still got moist inside on long wet days (all rain gear does, as you sweat), but it worked surprisingly well. Plus it eliminated the need for both a pack cover and rain pants (= less to carry). As for my umbrella….well, he was a star. Much more to come on Olaf below.
Backpack -> Well worth the effort to find the right one! It took weeks to find a backpack that felt comfortable, but I have to admit it was all worth it on the trail.
I walked 400km with my fully-loaded Gregory Zulu 40l pack and could have easily completed the rest of the Camino that way if I hadn’t had the death-bunk-bed accident that cracked my back in week 3. Even after that incident I chose to send my mini-daypack ahead (loaded with ~3-4kg of gear) and walked with the remaining ~3kg in my main backpack simply because it was so comfortable. That also allowed me to carry my water bladder and attach Olaf as needed. I won’t say finding the right backpack was as important as finding the right shoes (simply because the backpack forwarding services are so readily available on the Camino Frances), but for me it was right up there for my daily comfort and ease.
Hiking Poles -> An absolute necessity, at least for me. I’m not going to lie to you, I saw folks who walked the Camino just fine without hiking poles, but it would have been impossible for me.
Hiking poles, when used properly (and this is important…I recommend watching the video below, even if you think you already know how) relieve up to 40% of the stress on your knees and back, and that’s significant! The sticks don’t need to be fancy (my sticks are over 20 years old!), nor do they have to be ultra-light (some of the new-fangled foldable ones are actually too fragile for my tastes), but they do have to be comfortable to hold and use. Test them, learn how to use them…IMO you won’t regret it.
NOTE/ I also used NEENCA knee braces and really felt they helped my bad knees, especially on the downhills. I trained with these before I left for the Camino to be sure I liked them.
The Little Things -> Make a difference in the day-to-day. I was very happy with all the little extras I bought with me. My body-sized Packtowl worked out great (perfect balance of size and absorbency IMO), using a Source water bladder (vs carrying bottles) helped keep me hydrated, solid shampoo (vs liquid) was a game-changer, carrying a mini-Swiss army knife came in super handy so many times, my cheap lightweight sandals were a wonderful relief for my feet after long days of walking, extra ziplocks had all kinds of uses. And sorting all my gear into lightweight stuff-sacks really helped to keep things organized in my pack.
A last item that I never mentioned on the blog, but came in really handy was cosmetic sample containers. They’re super lightweight and allowed me to bring several extra luxuries (e.g. face-cream and tiger balm) without having to pack the full-sized items. A neat little discovery.
Items That Worked So-So (Or I Would Change)
There were a few items I brought which didn’t work or that I would do differently the next time.
Sleeping Bag -> Worth it, but I’d Love To Try a Quilt Next time. I get easily cold and I have to admit my lightweight sleeping bag was an absolute winner on chilly nights. On hot nights however it was superfluous and the 1/2 zipper became annoying (leg in, leg out? either way was uncomfortable). If I go back I would seriously consider a lightweight backpacking quilt as it seems so much more flexible to use (fold like a sleeping bag, open like a blanket) and very compact and easy to pack.
Note/ Many folks only bring only a silk sleeping bag liner which is fine on hot nights, but IMO too cold on colder nights (although supplemented with blankets it works OK). It’s another option, especially if you walk the Camino in the warmer months, and it does save a ton of backpack space. Personally however I don’t plan to EVER walk the Camino in the warm months (Nonononono!).
Wilderness Wash -> A disappointment. Hard soap is way better. I lugged Sea-To-Summit Wilderness Wash for weeks, mainly for handwashing my clothes and TBH it was a disappointment. It just didn’t get my clothes, underwear especially, that clean which was particularly bothersome as it was the one piece of clothing I really wanted nice-smelling and sparkly clean everyday. I switched to a hard soap half way through the Camino and it was SO much better for handwashing. IMO one good soap (for clothes, body) is all you need.
Blister Prevention & Care -> All you need is cream, tape and gauze IMO. Even with the best shoes and socks you may still end up with blisters for a variety of reasons (sweaty feet, unusual hot spot, laces not done correctly, pebble in your shoe etc.) and having the right care on-hand is key. I got a very small blister on the edge of my pinky toe early on (despite using Injnji toe socks as liners) and quickly discovered that all the fancy blister care I’d bought along was mostly useless or actually made it worse (I’m looking at you Compeed!). What DID work however was a good foot cream (I used Gehwol) and simple, thin stretch-tape to wrap my toe. I decided to use both daily and had zero issues thereafter! Friends who got bigger blisters or had to go to the hospital for them were also given cream, surgical tape and gauze. It’s old-fashioned, but it works and IMO it’s all you need.
Items I Forgot (Or Might Bring Next Time)
There’s actually very items I felt I forgot on this trip. And to be honest it’s not something I would worry about too much, even if you decide to go yourself. There are SO many places to buy hiking gear on the Camino Frances (almost every major town has either a Decathlon or a wells-stocked Pellegrino Shop) so even if you need new shoes you’d have no problem buying them along the way. Given that, here’s the few items I felt I forgot.
Power Bank (For Charging) -> Depends On Your Needs. I think I was the only one in our little group who didn’t carry a power bank. It was OK in retrospect, but I did have to be careful. I charged my phone fully every night, put it in “airplane mode” during the day and only used it for photos, offline maps and oral note-taking while on the trail. By the end of the day my battery was always dead, but I survived. However I wasn’t able to listen to any music while walking (most of my companions did, on and off), nor could I forgo my nightly charge (finding a power outlet was absolutely key). A power bank would have been nice….
Headlamp -> Could Be Useful. I didn’t bring a headlamp and honestly didn’t need it except for the last morning on the Camino where we started hiking at 5am (so we could get to Santiago for the noon mass). I had to rely on my hiking companions that day and it was oddly disorienting. If I were walking in summer (where walking in the cool of night is KEY) I would definitely need this and it’s just a nice-to-have if you ever need to leave really early for any reason. I think I’d bring one next time.
Spork -> I Ended Up Buying One. I didn’t think I’d need any cutlery on the Camino given that I planned to eat in restaurants and cafes the whole way, but our early-morning starts changed all that. Most morning cafes didn’t open before 7 or 8am, yet we’d be on the trail by 6am so I ended up buying breakfast (mostly yogurt and instant coffee) just to get something down before we started out. Having a lightweight camping spork meant I could manage all that without eating with my fingers. Much more civilized.
My STAR Item – OLAF
Those of you who followed me on the Camino already know I’m going to talk about my hiking umbrella here.
Olaf became such an important part of my Camino that he effectively self-actualized and I was forced to name him. And he became rather famous amongst other pilgrims too. In fact when I arrived in Santiago at the church square, a Korean man came running up to me gesturing wildly about Olaf, clearly ecstatic that he’d made it. He asked for a selfie, just one of many that I participated in thanks to my saucer-like traveling companion.
Like all sentient beings however, Olaf was not perfect so I did want to talk about him in a little more detail for those who are trying to decide if a hiking umbrella is for them in the future.
First of all I should be precise. I actually tested TWO hiking umbrellas before I left on the Camino. For many weeks I used the lightweight Euroschirm Liteflex (209g, 7.3oz) experimenting with several different types of shoulder-strap hands-free attachments, both home-made and purchased. It was good and worked pretty well, but I always ran into issues with gusts of wind whipping it around more than I liked. I would say it was 90% there, but I really wanted better.
So two weeks before I left, I broke down and bought the heavier Euroschirm HandsFree Umbrella. I wasn’t keen on the extra weight (366g, 13oz), but once I tried the attachment mechanism (it attaches to a clip on your shoulder strap, and then has an extension pole that attaches to your hip belt) I knew this was the one for me. It was SO much more solid especially in the wind, and felt very comfortable to wear overall. This was the umbrella that became Olaf, and I never regretted bringing him. Not everyone will like the weight on this one, but I would say the design is 100% there on attachment & comfort.
The parts I loved are easy to talk about:
I loved that I could use Olaf for both sun and rain. In the rain he kept my upper body completely dry while the poncho kept the rest of me mostly dry (this set-up was soooo much more comfortable than being entirely wrapped inside a poncho, head and all). In the sun he kept the majority of my body (especially mid-day) completely in the shade, dropping temps by several precious degrees. In fact on the Camino I used Olaf more for the sun than I did the rain, and received many more compliments for him doing so.
I loved the airflow he provided, both for rain and sun. In the rain I could open my poncho up top and keep much drier overall, even when hiking and sweating. In the sun I sweated far less than I would have under a constrictive hat. Airflow was always a positive thing with Olaf, and just made life so much more comfortable no matter the weather.
I was very happy with the wind resistance. The hip-belt attachment on the Euroschirm HandsFree is simply genius and provides so much more stability than shoulder-only umbrella attachments. I certainly won’t claim that Olaf can take any kind of wind, but during the 40 days I was on the Camino I think I only had to close him a handful of times due to gusts. Most of the time he handled the wind very well indeed.
I loved that I could close Olaf (without taking him off). Olaf is large enough that you can actually open and close him without having to take him off your pack. This came in VERY handy for going in/out of churches, cafes, shops or simply closing-up quickly due to high winds. I didn’t know about this before I left, but once I figured it out I used this feature constantly.
The parts that are not as lovable (sorry Olaf):
Your field of view is impacted. With an umbrella you don’t see the sky (obviously) and taking good selfies is a little more challenging. Plus going through towns and such you basically have to lean backwards to see buildings or anything above eye level. Sometimes you miss stuff if you don’t deliberately lean back to look up.
You need a sturdy pack to attach this to. There’s no way you can use this umbrella with a flimsy day-pack. You need a good pack with solid shoulder and hip-belt straps to properly take advantage of the hands free attachments.
Trees and bushes can be an issue. Olaf was super easy to wear in the open, but when walking through trails with trees and bushes on the side I had to be careful not to snag him on something. In particular during wet conditions I would sometimes have to bend over and shimmy along the edge of the trail in an L-shape so as not to get him caught when trying to avoid trail mud. It was quite the gymnastic maneuver.
The side-position options do not work for women. Olaf has an option to hook him sideways across your body (for sideways rain/wind/sun) which seems like a pretty useful idea in concept, but simply doesn’t work in practice if you have boobs. Think about it if you like. It….just…doesn’t.
Overall I used Olaf 30 out of the 40 days I was on the trail, which is quite impressive. He was most certainly worth it, to me.
And That’s Just The Gear Side
Wow, I didn’t expect that to be so long. Almost 3,000 words later and I’ve only just covered the gear-side of my story!
But perhaps this is just as well. For the gear-nerds amongst you this will probably be an appropriate time to stop, and for those looking for the more spiritual or practical sides of the Camino you’ll have something to look forward to in my next post(s). See you then.
SO what did I miss, my dear blog readers?? Are there any gear questions that I didn’t cover? Or something you’d like to ask specifically? DO go ahead in the comments below!