Post-Mortem Thoughts

I’m taking some time here to discuss how my Camino preparations worked and failed, in the hope that others planning to walk the Camino can benefit.

Advice Bias – It’s great to be able to read the blogs of folks who have completed the Camino and to learn from them. However, you need to apply some critical thinking when doing so. For example,

– What time of year was it when that other person made the walk and when will you be doing it? Any difference will make a huge difference in how applicable the advice is.
– How big is that person? Believe me, a pair of size 14 sandals and XXL clothing takes up a huge amount of space in a backpack (I’m 6’2″ – 220 lbs) creating a totally different packing challenge for me than for someone considerably smaller.
– What’s their fitness level? If they regularly run 10Ks and marathons and you don’t, then perhaps following their scheme of 32 kilometers per day on the Camino is just a bit too ambitious for you.
– How old is that person? Young people have a huge advantage on the Camino. I’m 68 and my joints are as creaky and worn out as those of most people in my age group. Advice from someone much younger/older than you may be less relevant.
– Did they have their backpack transported? It’s easy and cheap to have your backpack driven from one albergue to the next, relieving you of the effort of carrying it, which is significant. Did they do that? Are you planning to do the same?

Training – For seven months prior to leaving for Spain, I was in the gym five days a week, where I spent an hour a day on the treadmill and did upper body weight work every other day. For four months, I hiked 2-3 hours in a national park, with a full pack, one day each weekend. It turned me from a couch potato into a reasonably fit person, but it was not enough. I was not conditioned enough aerobically for the challenge ahead and my feet were not toughened up enough. The first week of the Camino was an exhausting shock. My feet were destroyed, even though I was careful to break-in my hiking boots and used SuperFeet “Green” hiking insoles. If I had to do it again, I’d focus more on aerobics and walking longer training hikes (10-12 miles).

Boots – I wore a great pair of Keen Targhee II Mid-Height boots. They did a great job of for me, did not seem to weigh too much, and were waterproof yet didn’t suffocate my feet. I chose mid-height boots because I wanted good ankle support and, without a doubt, it was very necessary on some of the Camino trails. I replaced my SuperFeet insoles halfway through with generic “gel” insoles that provided much better bottom cushioning. You will reach a point where you can feel every single, tiny pebble on the path through your boot soles and you’ll change the way you walk just to find the smoothest way – that gel insole saved my feet. Do whatever you need to do to provide the most comfortable shoe/foot experience you can! I packed an extra set of boot laces, which I did not need. I also packed some “Boot Balls”, a pair of small plastic balls containing boric acid, used to eliminated boot odor overnight, which I recommend.

Backpack Security – I spent a fair amount of time planning how to prevent someone from stealing my backpack when I had to leave it outside a cafe. Total waste of time and money. I only had to leave my backpack outside twice in 36 days and both times I could easily see it through a window and there were scads of other pilgrims around it. No need at all to lash it to a railing or lock it to a table leg. Mind you, I removed my neck wallet (containing passport, money, and credit cards) from the pack’s top compartment and wore it into the cafe with me. That’s just basic security. Otherwise, don’t obsess over someone stealing your pack or trekking poles. I over-packed with some combination carabiner/locks and Velcro security straps, which I subsequently jettisoned along the way.

Rain Jacket & Pants vs Poncho – I started with the former and ended with the latter. Let’s face it, both of these rain gear approaches will produce the “internal steam bath” effect under exertion and you’re going to wind up wet one way or the other. In the end, I liked the poncho much more because:
– My poncho is hooded, has arms, and is cut to be large enough to go over a backpack. I could pull it out of its stuff sack and put it on in about 10 seconds, without having to take off my pack (or even stop walking).
– Your pack stays completely dry – with a rain jacket, the straps are out in the rain and can wick moisture into other areas of pack.
– I could unzip the poncho front to get more fresh airflow once rain stopped falling.
– I could also slip my arms out of the sleeves, tie the sleeves across my chest, and get even more fresh airflow without uncovering my pack. Returning to full coverage if rain started again was quick and easy.
– In its stuff sack, the poncho took up a lot less than half the pack space that the rain jacket and pants did and weighed less, too.

Yes, a poncho can be difficult in the wind, but mine came down below my knees and I never had a problem with wind catching it. Yes, the bottoms of my pant legs got wet and my socks wicked the moisture, eventually, into my boots. Wasn’t a big problem for me, but you could supplement the poncho with gaiters to prevent this.

Music and Ear Buds – I thought the idea of listening to music while walking the Camino was blasphemy: you’d miss the sounds of nature, you’d be distracted from the Camino experience. Well, not surprisingly, it was great to be able to listen to my music at times on the trail. Yes, the Camino can be boring and music helps. Also your music generally reflects YOU, and I found it useful in helping me concentrate my thoughts about different things as I walked. Note that, by wearing ear buds/phones you’re cutting yourself off from some sounds, like mountain bikes approaching from the rear, and that can affect your safety.

Cell Phone – Having a cell phone with something like the Wise Camino app (which can show you your real-time location using GPS) was essential. The Camino path is poorly marked in places, splits occasionally without much explanation, and may be hard to follow early in the morning before sunrise, even with a headlamp. Being able to figure out where the heck I was and where the path went was crucial for me several times. If you’re a solo pilgrim, it’s even more important. In addition, it was essential to be able to call ahead a few days in advance and reserve spaces in albergues and hostels, especially if I wanted a bottom bunk or a private room. Pilgrim traffic on the Camino is growing every year and I think the days of just showing up and getting a bed are ending.

I also spent some time thinking about packing some fancy and complicated arrangements for plugging in my iPhone charging cable, all of which was completely unnecessary. I had outlets available at all times at night and all I needed with a simple EU plug adapter. I also used a simple Otter box case for my phone, no need anything more bullet-proof.

Headlamp – If you plan to be up and out early in the morning, before sunrise, a headlamp is essential for finding your way. My Camino was in September and October and sunrise came later and later as the days went by, so my headlamp got more of a workout than I thought it would.

Socks – There are a lot of different sock strategies and mine was to wear a single pair of LL Bean boot socks. In addition, I used a scheme that cut my daily walk into logical quarters. After the first quarter, I’d stop walking wherever possible, remove my boots, and give myself a little foot massage. At the halfway point, I’d repeat the massage, put my feet up on a chair, etc. for a few minutes, and replace my socks with a clean, dry pair. I’d hang the “old” socks off the back of my pack to dry as I walked. At the 3/4 point, another stop for boots off and foot massage. Seemed to work well (although I did get some deep blisters early on). I also carried two giant 5″ long safety pins, purchased from Amazon, which I used to hang my socks off my pack.

Toiletries – Some albergues don’t provide anything in the bathroom other than TP. You have to bring your own towel, soap, shampoo, etc. There may not even be paper hand towels near the sinks. I packed both a big micro-fiber camp towel for after showering and a similar small towel just for drying my hands after brushing my teeth. But, don’t pack all the toiletries you would take on a vacation. Don’t pack deodorant, shaving cream (yes, I shaved but I used hand soap), after shave, perfume, cologne, hair gel, etc. I had a manual toothbrush, floss, toothpaste, Lush shampoo bar, razor and blades, folding comb/brush combo, and that was it.

Laundry Kit – I had the clothes I was wearing and one spare set, which meant I was doing laundry every day. Sometimes, the albergue or hostel had a washing machine and dryer, which they charged 3-4 Euros each to use and, which like many European appliances, took forever to run a cycle. I mostly did my laundry by hand in either a provided laundry sink, or in the bathroom sink. This meant I had to carry everything I needed to do the laundry, including a clothesline. Albergues often provided outdoor drying racks or clotheslines which I used when I could but I also got really good at stringing up my own clothesline in unlikely places. I carried laundry soap, two suction cup hooks, a 12-foot line, and eight clothespins. I over-packed with a second kind of clothesline and extra hooks, which I jettisoned along the way. Note that hand-washing stuff and then putting it into a clothes dryer usually doesn’t work well; without the spin cycle a washing machine provides, your clothes will be relatively wet going into the dryer and take forever to dry.

Trekking Poles – For me, an absolute necessity – they kept a stumble from turning into a fall on many occasions. The footing on a lot of the path, especially on the steep inclines and declines, is really tricky and having poles was vital. Not everyone uses them, or even a walking stick, but they really saved my bacon. Be sure to bring extra tips to cover the end points. My poles had cork handles and didn’t have a “shock absorber” mechanism.

Sleeping Bag – I carried a Sea to Summit Traveller TR 750 bag and used it frequently and always when in a bunk bed. It was plenty warm, packed down quite small, was lightweight, and long enough for me. I sprayed the bag with Permethrin before departing for Spain and, despite worrying about them, I saw zero bed bugs.

Extra Stuff – I carried a bag of extra stuff that it turned out I did not need at all. This included extra clothesline, carabiners, a charger-battery for my iPhone, extra ZipLoc bags, extra rubber bands, my own pillow case, trash bag for wet clothes, and a pack of ear plugs. Didn’t use any of it.

I Wish I Had Taken: A pair of warm, waterproof gloves. My hands got pretty cold during extended periods of rain, when my regular gloves soaked through.

The “You Can Buy It There” Myth – When discussing Camino packing lists, I often see this phrase touted as a reason for not packing some things. On the face of it, it’s true, Spain is a modern society with a fully-functional retail system. But, that’s not much comfort when you have a splitting headache at 2:00am and going out to buy something is not possible. Also, products vary widely from country to country and even something as simple as toothpaste can be very different in Spain. You comfortable using Advil? How about Paracetemol, the European near-equivalent? Not so much, maybe. In addition, rural towns along the Camino may be less likely to have what your looking for, or stores that are open when you need something. And, oh yes, stuff like Paracetemol can only be bought in pharmacies; it’s not available in grocery stores (or anywhere else). Bottom Line: if it’s medicinal, lightweight, small, and likely to be needed in a pinch, pack your own.

Thanks again for following along here with me on my Camino. It was an amazing experience. I’m currently living in Barcelona and you can read about that, and my future travels, here on this web site.

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2 Responses to Post-Mortem Thoughts

  1. Patrick says:

    Great summary, Lee. Insightful and practical advice for any of us future pilgrims. Thank you.

  2. singram230 says:

    Just got myself caught up on your journey, and what a journey it was!!! I’m so proud of you!

    Can’t wait to hear about the next chapter – city living in Barcelona! 🙂

    xoxox Sarah

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