This is a follow up to our Packing List  post from before we left. I’ll talk here about what worked and what didn’t.
We did the first 11 days of the Camino Francés starting on May 20th, 2013, and we’ll continue next year from where we left off this time. It rained on us 10 out of the 11 days. Every morning the temperature was 45-50 degrees F (7-10 C) and the highest temperature we ever saw was about 65 F (18 C). Both the rain and the cold were quite unusual for that time of year. From looking at the weather from previous years, we were expecting only a couple of days of rain and much warmer temperatures.
Some people say they don’t need them but we loved having ours and will definitely take them next time as well. We usually saw clean sheets on the beds at the albergues but a couple of them only had mattress protectors that obviously weren’t cleaned between pilgrims. Also, most of the albergues we visited had radiators but didn’t turn them on — maybe they did during the winter, I don’t know. They usually had blankets as well but at least one didn’t (Roncesvalles). For this particular trip, we were very glad we had the sleeping bags. At the end of a long day, it was really nice to crawl into our own bedding that we felt clean and comfortable in.
Ear plugs and an eye mask
Essential! Sleeping in a room full of people means there will usually be at least one person snoring, and unless that person is you, you’ll probably want ear plugs. I’d suggest trying them out at home before you go, and try sleeping with them in as well — it’s a bit strange at first, especially if you sleep on your side, but I got used to them and was able to sleep fairly well. I kept an extra pair in my pocket at night, so that if one fell out of my ear when I rolled over, I didn’t have to go searching through the bedding for it in the dark.
An eye mask is good if you want to take a nap before it gets dark, or for the times when someone’s rummaging through their pack with a flashlight and lighting up the room.
Just before leaving home, I changed the Camelbak for two half-liter plastic water bottles to reduce weight and simplify things. Water bottles are sold everywhere and can be refilled with clean, safe water from any tap, including the drinking fountains along the Camino.
Most backpacks have side pockets that look like they should hold water bottles, but usually either the bottles don’t fit when the pack is full or they’re too hard to reach when the pack is on. I got a 0.75 liter insulated water bottle sleeve  and attached it to the front of one of the pack’s shoulder straps so the bottle was always at chest level and didn’t swing when I walked. I then put the second bottle in my pack and swapped them out when needed. I never used all of both bottles in one day, but obviously that could change in warmer temperatures. Put snacks in the side pockets instead.
Camelbaks are fine too though, and Kathey liked using hers.
My choice of lightweight running shoes turned out to be one of my biggest problems because of all the rain and mud we had. The mesh part at the front of the shoe goes all the way down to just above the sole, so anything I stepped in that was deeper than about an inch came right in and soaked my toes in cold water. And once my feet were wet I had to be careful about how cold they were getting, and even changing socks wouldn’t help because the new ones would just immediately get wet from the inside of the shoe. Every mud-swamp we had to get past took way too much thought and effort, and I found myself worrying about mud a lot more than should have been necessary.
I can’t be too hard on myself though — I took them because I have a lot of foot problems and my feet need the extra cushion. If we’d been mostly on dry ground the shoes would have been fine. And even on the wet ground we were on, I never had any problems with grip or traction, even going over the Pyrenees. Also, shoes dry faster than boots and I never got a single blister with mine.
Next time though, I’ll probably go with some kind of hiking shoe with a high water-entry point (where the sides aren’t mesh and the edges of the tongue are sewn higher up). I’ll probably skip the waterproof materials though, since it’ll hopefully be drier next time and I’d rather have something more breathable.
I didn’t fully believe it when I read it on other people’s blogs, but alternate footwear really is essential. At the end of the day, you need to have something to put on that’s dry and somewhat clean (albergues usually ask you to leave your wet, muddy boots in a special area to keep the sleeping areas clean). If you need to go out for food, or to buy something from a pharmacy, you don’t want to have to put wet boots and socks back on.
Because of my foot problems, I’m not really able to wear flip-flops, and once I realized that supportive sandals weigh about the same as running shoes, the decision was easy — I took two pairs of almost identical running shoes.
Next time though, I may bring hiking shoes for wet days and still a pair of running shoes for dry days and the evenings. Most people were fine in sandals of some kind though.
The fact that we had 10 days out of 11 with rain made dealing with the rain a top priority issue. Unless you’re going in the middle of summer and don’t expect any rain at all, it’s worth having some kind of plan for the days when the clouds open up on you.
First, the running shoes were hopeless in a hard rain because the water immediately soaked in through all the mesh. I noticed though, that in a hard rain even the people with waterproof boots got wet socks and feet. I saw a few people with gaiters on, to keep the water from running down the legs into the boots, but I didn’t ask how well they worked.
And second, the Columbia breathable waterproof jacket turned out to be more breathable than waterproof. After researching this a bit, I discovered that the problem was probably because my jacket didn’t have “sealed seams”, where all the zippers are covered in a plastic edging. My jacket for next year will be this Columbia shell rain jacket . Kathey’s Sierra Designs  rain jacket worked fine for her.
And third, with hindsight working in 20/20 now, we really should have had rain pants but we left them behind because of the weight.
Next time, we’ll take better waterproof rain jackets and some kind of rain pants. Rain pants also do a great job of keeping your legs warm on cold windy days, even if they’re really lightweight, and are a lot easier to put on and take off than thermal underwear.
A lot of people use rain ponchos instead of a rain jacket and backpack cover. We never tried ponchos, but I can see how it might be good to cover both yourself and your pack all at once, instead of allowing the front straps of the pack to get wet with a jacket. But we never had a problem with anything in the pack ever getting wet, and we liked having our hands free instead of being under a poncho. If you use a pack cover, make sure it fits tightly — mine even had a strap to go around the pack to keep it in place. I don’t know much about ponchos, but one thing I noticed was that some of the really long heavyweight ones went over the pack and then came all the way down to the back of the person’s calves, whereas others were short and flimsy, and blew around in the wind a lot and didn’t cover the back of the person’s legs at all. It’s all about trade-offs, I guess.
Zip-top plastic bags are essential. Take several. We had one for our passport, Camino passport, credit cards, and extra money, and always kept it in a zippered pocket on the front or side of our pants. I carried the guide book in another bag in the other front pocket, and when it was raining, the iPhones went in bags as well. We also used them just to keep things separated in the pack, like the way you might use stuff sacks, but zip-top bags are see-through and weigh a lot less. Like I said, take several.
Shirts: I took two synthetic shirts — one long sleeved and one short. With both shirts, the rain jacket, and the backpack on, it was just warm enough for temperatures in the mid to upper 40s F (7-10 C), especially if we were walking uphill a lot — then I usually wanted to take something off. But having only two shirts (or two of any piece of clothing actually) means that it’s imperative that at least one of them stays dry at all times, because you always need something dry to change into at the end of the day. (Another reason why a good rain jacket is critical.) I didn’t take a fleece because of the weight — I was usually fine without it but there were moments where it would have been a nice luxury.
Pants: I had two pairs of zip-off synthetic pants, which worked out great. Even though they were very lightweight, my legs were usually the warmest part of my body because of all the walking, and rain pants could compensate for the cold and windy extremes. I made one mistake though… I only brought the legs to one of the pairs, thinking I could then have one pair of pants and one pair of shorts, and move the legs between them as needed. The problem was that when the legs got wet, I only had a pair of shorts to change into, and sometimes it was cold enough outside in the evenings that I had to wait for the legs to dry before going out. Next time I’ll take the legs for both pairs, but still just one belt to move between them.
Underwear and socks: I had three pairs each. I only ever needed two sets of each, but they didn’t weigh much so I may or may not do the same next year. I thought that if it rained in the morning and then cleared up, I could change into dry clothes for the rest of the walk and still have the third set as backup in case it started raining again, but that never really happened.
Hat: I had a great hat that I wore every day. It was made of a lightweight mesh that was just enough to keep from getting sunburned but still be very breathable. Take one with a bill on the front to keep rain out of your face — I pulled the hood of my rain jacket over the top of my hat and it worked great. If you’re thinking of taking a hat with a brim all the way around, make sure the back doesn’t hit the top of your backpack and drive you crazy.
Cotton is evil
All of your Camino clothing should be synthetic, so it can dry quickly overnight. Sometimes you may be able to lay things over a radiator, and many albergues even have washers and dryers now (for a few Euros) but there will be times when things just have to air dry, and synthetic clothing will almost always be dry by morning. And of course synthetic is much better at dealing with sweat against your body than cotton is.
Be careful about dryers and synthetic clothing though — especially if you pay someone to do your clothes for you. Set the dryer on “Syntetico” to make it use a slightly lower temperature, and check the clothes after about 10-15 minutes. It doesn’t take long.
The exception to the no-cotton rule is maybe something like a bandanna. I sometimes just wanted something that would actually absorb water, but it wasn’t a big deal not having one.
We didn’t use them, so I can’t give an informed opinion on them. People that use them say they take weight off the back and knees, and add stability when stepping over things or when on slippery surfaces. We decided to go without them because we didn’t want to have to keep up with them all the time, and all of our training was without them. But talk to the experts if you’re thinking about using them. I’ve heard people say there are advantages to having two vs. just one, and the lightweight metal sticks are usually adjustable (for going up or down a hill) and collapsible when not being used (as opposed to a heavy wooden stick that isn’t). The hand grips can also be made at an angle to help reduce strain on the wrists.
We each had an iPhone, and we brought a dual iPhone charger as well. That was it for tech gear. The iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 have really good 8MP cameras and we used them for all our photos and videos (the iPhone 4 is only 5MP and not nearly as good though). I occasionally wished I had something larger like a 7″ tablet, to make typing and editing on the blog easier. But since I also wanted to have my phone, it didn’t make sense to carry two devices, and I got used to typing with one finger fairly quickly. I’d never even consider a netbook or laptop though, because of the size and weight.
The dual charger was nice because we could charge both phones and only take up one outlet, but outlets weren’t nearly in as short supply as I thought they’d be. Everyone has something that needs to be charged, and the albergues understand that.
Be sure whatever charger you bring supports 220 volts. If it doesn’t, get a different charger instead of trying to mess with a heavy power converter. Also bring a pin adapter to convert the pins from your country to the two skinny round pins that Spain uses  (there’s a fatter version for other countries too). You don’t need the three-pin grounded version.
One of our phones had a Spain SIM card in it so we could make emergency calls if needed, and to call ahead to private albergues to make reservations occasionally when we were going to get in late. (The municipal albergues usually don’t take reservations.) We had a data plan on the SIM card also, but it was expensive and a headache dealing with the company we got it from, so if you’re not sure you’ll need it, you might just plan on using the WiFi (pronounced “wee-fee” in Spain) at the albergues. The guide books list which ones have WiFi and we were able to get it at every place we stayed.
I posted daily to this blog from my phone, and it was ok but a pain sometimes. Make sure you get everything setup before you go as far as posting, uploading photos, and especially writing posts while offline. The WordPress iPhone app I used had no support for offline photos, and occasionally lost paragraphs of text if I didn’t refresh the list of posts after every save. I’m sure that’ll improve in future versions though — I only mention it for people considering using it in the very near future.
One of the best things we took was an iPhone app called GPS Kit . It’s an amazing app that’s well worth the price. I downloaded the GPS tracks  for the entire Camino Francés from the web site of the guide book we used, and then imported the tracks into GPS Kit. I also used GPS Kit to cache the map areas along each side of the Camino paths. I could then always see whether we were on the right path or not, just by looking at our current location in GPS Kit — all without a data connection. GPS Kit even let me drop waypoint markers on the map, and then it displayed the direction and distance to the waypoint, updated in real-time as we walked.
I had considered taking things like a deck of cards, or other fun things that might help us pass the hours in the evenings. But just before we left, I was a bit panicked about the weight and got rid of several things, including the cards. To be honest, between the time it took to do the blog posts and just being so tired in the evenings in general, we wouldn’t have used the cards a single time anyway. We took a couple of e-books on our phones, and they were nice to have sometimes. But a walking pilgrimage is quite different from a camping trip, and the priorities on the Camino are all centered around walking — everything else is secondary, and can probably be left at home.
Even with the unusually bad weather, we had a great 11 days of walking, and we can’t wait until we can continue our Camino in 2014. We actually did pretty well with our packing list, and I think other than my footwear, we’ll probably only make a few changes next time. The hardest part of packing is keeping the weight down, but we tossed out a few things at the last minute and didn’t miss them at all.
I hope this helps you plan your own Camino. If so, feel free to let me know in the comments below. Thanks!