Tag Archives: hiking

Gear for the Camino

I thought it might be interesting and perhaps helpful to anyone thinking of walking the Camino to highlight some of the gear I took along. I’ll preface this post by saying I’m not a health expert of any kind, so any opinions I have about staying healthy on the Camino are just based on my own experience. This is particularly true of my feelings about footwear, which seem to contradict nearly everyone else’s who we met.

This is not an exhaustive list. The goods that pilgrims choose to bring are as diverse and personal as the reasons they have for doing the Camino. Taste, time of year, and personal preference should all weigh heavily in what to throw in a Camino-bound pack. I will say that although walking 500 miles through the microclimates of northern Spain is challenging, the Camino for the most part is not a technical expedition. This isn’t Everest or the Appalachian Trail. We were never more than an 18-km walk from the next town, and the half dozen or so cities along the way have just about every luxury or emergency supply you’d need.

Shoes

I chose to stick with my Asics trail runners. I bought a new pair of GT-2160 about a month and a half before our trip. Though a beefier sole might have been nice for the constant rocks and the significant portions of roadwalking required by the Camino, I was happy to go with a shoe I knew. I avoided the serious blisters that seemed to accompany every pair of high-top boots we saw along the way. Yes, my feet were sore in a way I’ve not experienced while backpacking on the AT and PCT in the States, but again, I think that’s more a function of the trail substrate than my shoes. I’ll say that I do not have ankle problems. If you do, a high-top boot might be the way to go, as there are sections with some loose rock and the terrain can definitely be uneven.

I will say that 500 miles pretty much destroyed the body of my shoes, though this might be due to my freakishly wide feet (at one specific point). The soles are worn but are still in good shape. We only had two significant rain storms our entire 28 days, and even those were fairly short. My feet got wet as these shoes aren’t Gore-Tex, but this is something I’m used to as I backpack in the States with trail runners as well. In my experience, the occasional value of Gore-Tex is trumped by the extra weight and the increased perspiration it causes, which seems to cause blisters and other foot problems. As we were staying in albergues every night, I was confident I could get even soaking shoes dry by the next morning. Plus, I had decent socks.

Socks

I bought a 3-pack of Stoic wool-blend hiking socks from Steepandcheap.com for about $15. Someone had cautioned that these socks aren’t SmartWools, and while I definitely found that they wore out quickly (all three pairs were pretty much useless after we finished and ended up in the trash in Santiago), the kept my feet comfortable throughout the day. The outer layer pilled quite a bit from the get-go, but that didn’t seem to affect their performance too much. And they dried fairly quickly when washed by hand, though again, the fibers seemed to slough off in my hands as I scrubbed them.

These socks are designated right and left, which after this trip I’m convinced is a racket by sock manufacturers. Let’s be honest – you’re not wearing burlap sacks on your feet. Every athletic sock worth it’s sweat-absorbing weight has a bit of elastic in it, so it should conform to the contours of your foot – either foot. All having right- and left-designated socks seemed to do was make each sock wear more quickly in specific spots, instead of more evenly with sock that end up on one foot or the other at random each time I put them on. If anyone has any information about how fitted socks might be beneficial, let me know and I’ll correct this post. Right now though, I can say that I would have gotten more mileage out of these socks had I ignored the “R” and “L” designations.

Clothing

Pilgrims are easy to spot along the Camino even without their packs. They’re the ones wandering into mass with vented polyester shirts and doffing wide-brimmed nylon hats with chin ties in nice restaurants. If that works for you, great. I enjoy gear shopping as much as the next person. But after our travels last summer shredded a Northface polyester shirt that was a bit scratchy anyway, I decided to go with something a little more comfortable and durable. I bought a cotton-blend Kuhl button down before we left and wore it every day we hiked. I washed it by hand each night, and though it’s definitely showing some wear, I was very pleased with how it worked. Button downs allow more flexibility in regulating heat (i.e., unbutton a button if it’s hot, button up if it’s cold), they dry more quickly on a cloths line, and in a pinch, you look a bit sharper than if you’d just worn a t-shirt.

My shorts are pretty simple, basically a light pair of swim trunks. A hat’s an absolute must for the Camino, as the sun can be fierce and you’re sometimes spending 12 hours a day in it. Forget about trying to hike only in the evening to avoid burning rays – you’ll get quite a bit darker, even up until the 9 p.m. sun in Spain.

I brought along a light scarf, which was perfect for warding of the chill in the morning and for covering my neck from about 10 a.m. on. Sunglasses too were important, as the reflection off gravel paths and wheat fields can feel unrelenting at 3 in the afternoon.

My favorite piece of gear is my Icebreaker sweater. Again a steepandcheap.com purchase, it felt a little overpriced even then at $55, but I wore it every day to stay warm while we were hiking, and then again in the evening. It’s held up very well, especially in the shoulders where I wear my pack. Best of all, it takes a lot to make this thing smell bad. I washed it twice during the entire month, and while I wouldn’t go around hugging strangers, I didn’t earn the nickname “Pigpen” either.

Trekking poles

I was glad I threw in my trekking poles at the end. While I do feel a bit ridiculous with them, like someone who took a wrong turn on the way to the Alps, they’re a great help in climbing hills, help you lock into a rhythm on flat stretches, and are knee-savers on the few brutally steep sections that can last for 10 km sometimes. Nearly every pilgrim has at least one walking stick, some choosing to go the more traditional route and buying one of the ubiquitous wooden sticks that are for sale everywhere along the way.

Sleeping gear

I took just a light silk sleep sack. It weighs almost nothing and kept me pretty warm while keeping the bed bugs at bay. Lots of other pilgrims bring more robust sleeping bags, and one or two nights I would have appreciated a bit of extra warmth. But I’m a pretty warm sleeper and most albergues have blankets (which smell like moth balls) that you can use. For me the space I saved was more than worth being without my sleeping bag.

Pack

This was the most disappointing piece of equipment I brought. After years with a Kelty internal frame pack that was bent all to hell from too many bush taxi rides and tosses by baggage handlers, I got an Osprey Stratos. I’m working on a dedicated post for my experiences with this bag, but I’ll just say broken straps a week into a month-long hike don’t inspire confidence.

The size I chose was just about right. It’s a 38-liter bag, what Osprey calls a daypack/light overnighter, but with a little thrift, this capacity was perfect for the Camino. It would, I believe, suffice for the traveling we did last summer as well. I’ll post my complete review of the Osprey bag soon.

Advertisements

Leaving Burgos

On Saturday, Anne-Claire and I left the relative buzz of Burgos, a city of 170,000 people through a park on the edge of the city. Compared to the grimy eastern entrance to the city – an industrial zone we’d walked through the morning before – the morning quiet of the river promenade transitioning to the wheat and grass fields of the meseta was sublime. Much of the way was flat, and we had a clear goal in mind – to reach the tiny town of Hontanas more than 30 km away, a village Anne-Claire and I had visited with Amable and Michel last summer.

The Burgos cathedral is a true hidden gem in Europe, palacial in scale and ostentatiously ornate beyond all expectations. Outwardly Neogothic, its interior blends its Gothic roots back to the 12th century and the heavy influence of the in-vogue French churchs of the time with Baroque and Rococo ornmantation. While impressive, it does seem that any bishop or patron with enough money could arrange to have a chapel (most of which would be massive churches on their own stateside) built in their honor. A South African friend of ours commented that the term “stinking rich” came from this practice, as selpulchres of old weren’t air tight and the fumes from decomposing bodies would escape into the church.

Beyond the grasp of the city are just wide open fields and big blue skies so vivid they don’t feel real. Every so often, a fallow field blanketed in poppies in full bloom. Though we arrived exhausted from a day of sun and wind exposure, the hike to Hontanas was one of my best days on the Camino.

Imperfect Pilgrims

My apologies for this post being a bit scattered. I’ve been thinking about what to write for hours while walking – perhaps a bit too much. Hopefully, something coherent comes out of this.

From our first day on the Camino, I’ve been impressed with the level of faith that sustains some of our fellow pilgrims through what for many of them is the toughest endeavor they’ll ever undertake. My worries about the annoying pain in my foot pale in comparison to the blisters and tendonitis and arthritis and extra pounds that plague other hikers, who come in every shape, size and (starting from a minimum of around 20 years old) age. While people seem to walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons, we’ve noticed that most folks are older, and typically the reasons these pilgrims are walking at least tangentially religious.

Even more broadly, I don’t think I anticipated how much weight many Spaniards, especially older ones, give to the Camino. Whether they’ve done it themselves or they’ve just seen it grow from the tiny trickle it must have been during their childhood in the early 20th century, their respect transcends language.

In Pamplona, a woman shook her fist at us from a hunched position over a set of braced crutches. Until this point, we’d gotten only chilly receptions from locals, so I expected more of the same – not the wishes of “Buen Camino!” and “Via con Dios!” that she yelled as we passed. Occasionally, we’ll walk into a restaurant, and thanks to my light hair, blue eyes, or, more likely, the slightly hobbled walk of an all-day hiker, we’re spotted as pilgrims and toasted or wish a safe journey. Or people who help us along the way take a second out of their workdays to make things just a little bit better, like the woman at the post office in Burgos who mercifully spoke more English than we spoke Spanish, spent 45 minutes with us as we sent extra clothing ahead, and gave us a fistful of postcards to remember our trip by. And sometimes, we’ll step into one of the Tuesday evening mass for the pilgrim blessing. Incidentally, the song they sang for our protection in Santo Domingo de la Cazada sounded an awful lot like “This Land is Your Land,” a tune that’s stuck with us for hours of hiking over the past few days.

The other day in a beautiful town called Estella, a woman stopped us in front of the ruins of an ornate 12th century church. She asked us if we were pilgrims, and when we said yes, she launched into (so far as we could tell as she was speaking in Spanish) the story of the church and how most pilgrims only stop to take a photograph and move on. When she realized we weren’t understanding much, she smiled and dropped her gaze from ours, then put her hand on my shoulder and wishing us well for our journey. As we left Estella, we were greeted by a pleasant surprise – a wine fountain provided by a few resident monks.

Of course, it’s important to realize this respect is for this path we’ve chosen to walk and the month of reflection it entails. I imagine also it’s a reflection of the place her faith has in the lives of those we meet along the way.

In many ways, my experience on the Camino has opened my eyes to the best of what religion can be. Community, discipline, thoughtful reflection – you find all of these benefits in some measure in most pilgrims you meet.

And yet it’s difficult to reconcile the sort-of personal purity we get to experience in these momentary interactions with the broader doctrine that Catholicism, and most faiths in fact, espouse. Yes, belonging to a church provides the opportunity to build community with like-minded folks, who are often pretty nice people. It provides the impetus for hard work and discipline, out of which accomplishment and success are often born. And I find myself truly missing the ceremony, the rituals and the practice of faith on a weekly basis that I had growing up in a church-going family.

But in someway, being part of a faith implies the tacit if not explicit acceptance of church dogma, doesn’t it? Throughout history right up through the present, that has translated into the exclusion/subjugation of certain groups based on gender, race, orientation, etc., the glorification of wars in the name of God for land or commodity or souls, and the exaltation of worldly materialism. And this from faiths whose very name comes from an inclusive pacifist who by all accounts was a communist (note the small ‘c’).

But here along the Camino, we’ve met pilgrims of faith who demonstrate the good parts of religion – taking each other based only on our shared humanity, absent the shackles of unacceptance that can come with doctrine. These are perhaps incomplete exchanges, as we don’t know much about the people we meet in these momentary interactions.

The institutions that we create as imperfect people aren’t in fact the perfect, unerring sages we hold them up to be. I remember a favorite priest growing up teasing my sister (but serious, in a way, as well) that she would be the first woman priest. This tiny act of dissent seemed to me to more closely follow all the teaching we seemed to be getting during mass. So too, many pilgrims I’ve met actually more closely follow the tenets of Christianity than the grand institutions, even the one (Catholicism) that has made this pilgrimage so important for more than a millennium. I suppose in some way it’s a good example of individual parts being greater than the whole.

First day: St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles

Here we go! After a marathon train journey and two other connections, we finally hopped on a one-car commuter line with a few dozen other technical fabric- and hiking boot-clad would-be pilgrims from Biarritz to the small Basque village of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which has become the de facto trailhead of the French Camino de Santiago. Whether that’s for historic reasons or simply because it’s the last town in France before crossing the foothills of the Pyrenees into Spain, I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s another painfully charming spot with winding stone-cobbled streets and walls built as much for beauty as defense.

Alas, we tore ourselves from the village at about 8:30, later than most, to tackle one of the French Camino’s most difficult chunks. A lovely hostel lies about 11 km into the walk, but at that rate, we’d need three months for this journey, not one, so after a quick coffee there, we continued to climb. The next waypoint, unless you’re packing your own shelter, lies in Roncesvalles, another 16 km further.

Most of this stage – about 24 km in fact – climbs through pastureland where the Basques pasture their cattle, ponies and black-faced Brebis sheep, but apparently the healthy vulture population spiraling in updrafts like bubbles in a glass makes it necessary to prohibit dumping animal remains.

Temperamental weather can sometimes force pilgrims to take the lowland route, but all we had was sunshine and cool breezes to accompany spectacular view after spectacular view across rolling hills tapering into the ocean to the west and lapping at snow-covered spires to the east.

Roncesvalles is a tiny Spanish town with a massive hostel, necessitated by its position as a bottleneck on the Camino. Across three floors, several hundred bodies bed down every night here at this well-organized modern dormitory attached to a 12th-century church during the summer. Pilgrims almost undoubtedly out-number the town’s residents during the evening hours.

 As I understand it, hotels in small towns like this one often put together a communal pilgrim meal with an appetizer, entrée and dessert for pilgrims at a reasonable price. After enjoying our first of many, and some good conversation spurred on by a thirsty Italian who ordered us all a second bottle of wine, we happily put our weary legs up to rest in the hostel by 8:45.

Just a quick note – I’m going to try to put up shorter posts more frequently from our time on the Camino. Part of it is that I’m pretty exhausted by the time we arrive some where to sleep every night that writing longer posts is tough, and part of it is spotty access to wifi, though so far it’s been pretty good. There’s so much I’d like to share but know my words and Anne-Claire’s pictures, good as they tend to be, can’t capture. Hopefully, I’ll be able to provide a small window into this experience that we’re so lucky to be enjoying.