Tag Archives: trekking

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.

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Doggone Dogon

Our goal was the fabled Dogon Country, a land of striking rock and valleys where a few animists still clung to their ancient traditions along rocky cliffs. Everyone we’d met said it was the highlight of a stay in Mali. Our reality turned out to be something of a mixed bag.

We headed east from Bamako, after a couple of days trying to recuperate at the lovely Hotel Tamana amidst the need to battle the hordes of the swollen city to get plane tickets and visas for Niger and beyond. Without much trouble, we caught a bush taxi that filled up quickly and took us, along with a motorcycle that two guys hoisted onto the already-bowed roof of the navette, to Fana. From there, we caught another ride up a smooth but dusty road to Gouana, a bush village of shea and neem trees surrounded by corn, millet and cotton (a local cash crop) fields. It was the first time a bush taxi ever left earlier than I wanted it to, as the taxi station captain had to hurry us through our bowl of rice and peanut sauce at a nearby street food stall.

We found Rebecca, a Peace Corps volunteer posted in Gouana, with the help of a few women pounding millet along the roadside. Gouana is greener than most of the villages I’ve been to in Niger with quite a few more trees, but the rhythm of life here is the same as anywhere in the Sahel – women pound and ferry water to their homes, toothless old men sit and discuss the weather, children play and get cranky in the heat.

Rebecca with her host family in Gouana

We spent a wonderful night with Rebecca’s host family. As usual, the whole family got a huge kick out of us trying to string together the most basic phrases in Bambara.

The next day, we caught a free ride back down the same road to Fana, and then took a bus east toward Dogon Country. We stopped in a charming little town along the way along the banks of the Niger River called Segou.

On the cliffs above the Banani staircase

Just as we were getting off the bus, we saw a Peace Corps car passing by. Because we had Rebecca with us, they gave us a ride to a great hotel called the Auberge, and then bargained a good price for the night. On the way to the hotel, we told Claudine, the Peace Corps staff member in charge of the health sector in Mali, that we’d been volunteers in Niger. She quickly dialed up a man named Kabiru, who had been the safety and security officer for Niger when we were there.

When they closed the program in Niger, they brought him on in Mali, initially just for one month, then another, then another. It was great to hear his animated voice on the other end of the line. A former wrestler, he’s quick to laugh and always had a smile for everyone, though I don’t think there was anyone who took his job more seriously than he did. When we talked to him on the phone, he invited us to his house in Bamako for dinner with his family.

In Segou, we had a dinner of brochettes and plantains that night at a place called ‘Restaurant Balanzan Cafeteria,’ which is really just a bar and a few plastic tables under a grass roof. Peace Corps volunteers have fittingly dubbed it ‘The Shack,’ but thanks to a congenial owner-chef, the meal was one of the best we’ve had on our trip.

Descending toward Banani

The next day, we took the bus to Sevaré. Even here, two hours from the gateway to Dogon Country, we were besieged by potential guide after potential guide.

I sat and talked with a guy who initially didn’t introduce himself as a guide, but rather as if he was just waiting for the same bush taxi we were. He was patient with my French, and he said he’d been to Park du W in Niger as a guide with a French outdoor company. Somehow, he subtly tipped us off that he could arrange our trip through Dogon.

Later that night, when we were trying to decide on a guide (more or less required for a visit to Dogon), I pulled for him because he’d been less aggressive than the others.

The next morning, everything started off well. Adama was on time with a car to take us to the trailhead where we’d begin hiking, and he even suggested that we draw up a contract so that there was no miscommunication regarding the price we’d agreed upon. From Bandiagara to Songha, we watched as the Sahel gave way to a land of rocks and water greened by the summer rains.

The Tellam dwellings

When we got to Songha, however, our guide left us with his brother, who showed us the town. Adama left us, saying he was going to visit his mother for only a few minutes. Two and a half hours later, he came back to us, but now when he spoke, he contorted his face and talked out of the side of his mouth. Unaware that anything had changed, we followed as he led us down the cliff face called the Banani staircase.

We had a leisurely lunch in Banani in the valley below, during which time, our guide was also mostly absent. Afterward, as we were leaving the village, the restaurant owner chased us down on his motorcycle. Shaking, his eyelids pulled into tight slits, he explained that Adama hadn’t paid him for our lunch, as was our agreement, and the two of them had a very un-West African shouting match in the street.

On the valley floor

Adama’s rebuttal was that he’d lent the restaurant owner some money a few years back, and his way of calling in the debt was to bring tourists there and then leave without paying. Which is just what we ended up doing. Adama was obviously upset, and Anne-Claire tried to let him know that we didn’t want to be dragged into any more of his problems.

The rest of the afternoon went OK, though we’d catch a whiff of alcohol every once in a while as he led us through the villages on the sides of the rocky cliffs. The culture here, at least in the villages we visited, seems to have been diluted by the constant stream of outsiders. The intricately carved Dogon doors have in many instances been replaced by tin or plain wooden doors, as the price offered for the carved doors by tourists was just too high to turn down.

The land itself though is spectacular. Most of the villages are built into the side of these striking spines of rock known as the Fallaise jutting out from the farmland below. Up even higher in crevasses in the rock are Dogon cemeteries and villages in miniature where the Dogon believe a pygmy people known as the Tellam lived long ago.

Around sunset, we found ourselves in a village, once again without our guide. Coincidentally (or not), there was also a small bar in the village, and when we finally found Adama, he was stumbling and slurring more than ever.

Dogon door

We continued to trek through increasing darkness to Kundu where we spent the night on a rooftop (until it started raining around 2 in the morning). Our guide had to be rousted by the auberge owners as the storm was closing in – he’d passed out in a white plastic chair, drink in hand.

The next morning, we decided to cut the trip short and try to get to Bandiagara that night instead of the next morning. The guide agreed, and once we got in cell phone range, he started calling to arrange for the car to come and get us in Songha at around 4 o’clock.

Swapping Peace Corps stories

The hike was beautiful, if a bit strenuous, especially in flip-flops. At around six o’clock with no sign of the car, Anne-Claire lost patience and started walking toward Bandiagara, stopping at the few houses along the road with cars to see if they’d be willing to drive us.

Adama followed us, alternately trying to calm us down at the tardiness of the car and screaming into the cell phone at the driver that the ‘whites’ were getting impatient.

Finally, we found a guy willing to drive us down the road until we found Adama’s driver on his way to come get us. If we’d stayed in Songha, we’d have been waiting until at least 8 o’clock. We switched to Adama’s friend’s car, and after a flat tire, we made it to Bandiagara, where we spent the night at a Peace Corp hostel.

A rough day turned into a pleasant evening, as we waited out a storm with beers and brochettes at a local bar, listening to the stories of volunteers who were a year or two into their service – a comfortably familiar feeling that reminded us that Niger wasn’t far away.

Quick update from Mali

Anne-Claire and Haoua in Kayes

We’ve been on the road for the last few days, including about 21 straight hours yesterday ending about 3:30 at a little hotel that thankfully is a true oasis in the chaotic bustle of Bamako. Today, we head out to a Peace Corps Volunteer’s village about 150 km east of where we are now.

I have a couple more posts from Morocco to put up, and then a few from Senegal. Senegal was a terrific. It’s amazing what a little rain and a coastline does for a country. The trouble is, we’re not likely to have great access to internet, though if we do, I’ll try to get a post or two up. So, if you don’t hear from us for a while, don’t worry. Our plan – always mutable, of course – is to head to eastern Mali for a few days, check out Dogon country, then return to Bamako for a flight to Niger next week. Flying ended up being cheaper than the several days of travel and the visas for Burkina Faso at ~$100 apiece.

I’ll leave you with a picture of Anne-Claire and a little girl named Haoua, who was drawn like a magnet to us at our bus stop in Kayes a few hours inside the Senegal-Mali border and thought nothing of hopping up on her lap, to her mother’s delight. You’ll hear from us soon!