Walking a camino. It remains my best travel experience ever! It left me with the fondest memories and taught me the most about myself. This year I was going to be hiking a Pilgrimage again! I just couldn’t resist when I could still be on the Camino Frances for almost 2 weeks. Even though it was already November…I flew to Pamplona and the very next day I took my first steps on this ancient pilgrim path to Santiago de Compostella.
Walking an ancient Camino? Do you have that dream too? Read more about the nearly 800 km Camino Frances I walked in 35 days in September 2016. Start reading at the account of the first 200 km on the Camino Frances.
One of the most meaningful journeys you can make if you ask me is to make a pilgrimage, to walk a camino. You are in the moment, you need to plan very little so you can ARE most of your day. Just do what you do, walk from point A to B and if B is reached too quickly you can just walk through another village. While pilgriming you meet so many inspiring people who have inspiring stories…. I really loved that. After a few weeks, you really are totally IN THE MOMENT.
I started my first camino 3 September to early October. This second time, I walked part of the Camino Frances in mid-November. I didn’t have much time to walk the whole camino anymore either, so I started in Pamplona and walked up to Burgos. A very nice stretch to walk, very varied with lots of villages but also some longer stretches of over 10 km between 2 villages. I walked in the foothills of the Pyrenees in Spain. The camino took me along mountain paths and forests and eventually through the vineyards of the La Rioja province. I started in the province of Navarre then walked a bit through La Rioja and ended up in Castilla Y Leon.
Because I have now walked in the late high and low seasons, I can show you some of the differences and give you some advice on when to hike. Read on about the pros and cons when walking a camino in cold and hot weather.
Meeting a lot of fellow pilgrims or not?
When I started in Saint Jean Pied de Port on 3 September 2016, I immediately hooked up with a French couple. This was a really good experience for me as they helped me through the first tough day and adapted my bag and poles to my body just as well. I also saw dozens of pilgrims walking and the terrace of Orisson was full of pilgrims. Even then, I felt a kind of connection because we all took on quite a challenge that first day.
When I started in Pamplona around 8 o’clock in the morning I saw 2 Sicilians at the hostel. Otherwise, I walked alone for the first few hours until I saw another Spanish couple at Alte del Perdon who were walking the camino for a weekend. During the 8 days I was on the Camino I met about 15 to 20 pilgrims. I saw some of them several times and so you quickly get that closeness. You see each other briefly over a cup of coffee or in the hostel you see each other again.
It is super quiet on the road in the post-season. This is from mid-Oct to early March approximately. If you prefer to walk alone and don’t want to see other pilgrims every time, very nice of course. For me, the added value was precisely seeing and talking to so many people from different cultures. If it is nice and warm outside, it is easier to sit on the side of the road, some pilgrims will come and stand next to you for a short while and so it is easier to start a conversation.
For me, this one falls under a con as I really liked the fact that I could actually talk to many pilgrims and share the path. Sharing is multiplying and that was doubly true for me on the camino!
Carrying your own water – Camino Wandelen
If you are walking a long distance, you obviously need to make sure you have enough water with you. When I started in 2016, I still had days of 30+ degrees. Those were days when I therefore had to have 2 bottles of water with me as well. Fortunately, you will still come across quite a few water points along the way where it is mentioned that it is aqua potable, i.e. drinkable.
In cold weather, water is of course no problem. Not for refilling but also for the extra weight you have to carry. If it’s hot, you should carry at least 2 bottles of water with you anyway. It can happen that you walk 10 km without encountering anything and in hot weather that is quite a long time, at least 2 hours. You almost have to use those filler points then but for this they do contain water with something added to it, it is said. I can drink it just fine and it doesn’t bother me. My stomach doesn’t mind it but I don’t find the side taste a disaster either. Again, I filled my bottle every day from the tap and at points I came across along the way.
So in winter this is an pro, less water needed on the road and thus less weight
Open Albergues on the Camino Frances
If you walk the camino in high season, in every village you come across at least 1 or 2 albergue. If the village has more than 50 to 100 inhabitants, you will probably find more hostels and possibly a hotel. The villages along the pilgrim route live off pilgrims’ expenses. There are small shops everywhere and you can buy coffee everywhere, so in every village you can stay in an albergue.
Surely that is different in the off-season. Many inns are closed. The choice is not plentiful and so you have to plan a bit more. If you don’t like choices, this is ideal. You look up online which albergues/hostels are open and you know how far you have to walk that day. There are several websites for this where you can see what the current status is. I looked a lot on the app camino.ninja/app. This is useful not only to see what hostels are in all the villages but also whether they are open. Also camino.love and aprinca are a websites that keep a list.
In summer, you and don’t have to plan as much and you can stop in any village if you like. Or if your feet don’t want any more that day … or it just looks cosy. I really loved that carefree, no planning and just seeing where you end up! Sometimes I didn’t look at my notebook for days during my first camino (I didn’t have an app yet and being online all over Europe wasn’t free of charge then either). I just walked and saw where I ended up. Many hostels are situated along the route and you just pass by, if not you can follow signs that lead you to most of them.
It’s so easy once you’re on the road on the camino …. in high season.
I now booked a hotel in Navarrete because the two inns I saw that I thought would be open were closed. Afterwards, I thoroughly enjoyed the bath my room had and lay back to give my muscles the rest they needed for a while…but it was stressful for a while after more than 30 km. The fact that I might have to walk on because I couldn’t find a bed.
So for me, this is a con of walking the camino in the off-season.
Staying warm in the albergues
Inns by no means always have a stove. So assume that the building itself is just not comfortably warm. So when you take a shower, you undress in a cold room. the shower is always nice and hot, though! Also when you drink a cup of coffee, from the vending machine, you are in a room that is far from heated. I don’t like that. I’m not at all that I get cold easily but I really like a heated room and taking my coat off when sitting at the table. I did get tired of this at one point…. Having the coat on outside and not being able to take it off inside….
Besides, blankets to keep you warm at night are not standard everywhere. I was not well prepared for this because otherwise I would have arranged for a thicker sleeping bag…. Apart from that, fellow pilgrims were also cold even though they had a good sleeping bag. That night I lay in my sheet bag, with a thin fleece blanket over it and one of those old-fashioned tickle blankets from the hostel. I had also been chilly… So that hadn’t completely solved my problem. What would have been best is a small hot water bottle, once you are warm in your sleeping bag, under the blankets, it often stays warm. My small hot water bottle ( 1lt ) snapped a while back so I have to look for a new one.
For me, this is the biggest con. I don’t get cold easily but if I have nowhere to warm myself I find it very unfortunate. I then seem to become sort of obsessed by the lack of a heat source and only want to warm up.
Eating pilgrims’ meals together
The cosy pilgrims’ meal is no longer offered everywhere in the off-season. This is because there are too few pilgrims and so everything is a bit stripped down. And so also the pilgrims’ meals that are just so cosy and fun. I had a pilgrims’ meal only once in these 8 days with two fellow pilgrims (Mexican and Spaniard) and the two owners (German) of the hostel Casa las Almas in Espinosa del Camino. Super cozy. The Mexican, too, immediately indicated that he thought this was very cosy and by far the nicest hostel so far. He had started in Saint Jean Pied de Port.
Together, you make the Camino Frances so much more fun.
After a day’s walking on the Camino, sometimes it is really no fun when you still have to look for a place to score your evening meal. In summer, I didn’t mind as much and was happy to walk around the village or town where you had ended up on my flip-flops for another round. But when everything is a bit colder, darker and a lot of things turn out to be closed, the fun is gone for me. So several nights I ate a big granola bar I still had in the bag. The next morning I took it double again with a fine breakfast and a cafe con leche.
So for me, this also falls under the heading of con
Travel light – summer / winter
Basically, you can travel lighter in summer than in winter. You carry a bit less fabric, shorts and shirts instead of long trousers and jumpers. Your sleeping bag and sleepwear etc also count. For me, it turned out differently anyway. When I went the first time, I had just over 6 kg with me. You guessed it, I was carrying far too much. And also things with me that I now left at home on this short trip. In the years since, I did learn what I do and don’t need. My toiletry bag, for instance, is much smaller. My bag weighed 5 kg in total this time, with water.
That first trip, I also carried a photo camera (Panasonic Lumix) and a small laptop. Everyone thought that was crazy, of course, but I still kept a diary very extensively back then … I do that less now too. I take notes and rely on my photos to relive the story all over again.
This trip, I had left those two devices at home and only had my phone (Huawei P20) with me. I can do much more with that now and also take much better photos with it than in 2016. I also had less clothing with me now than I did then even though it was winter clothing now. Of course, I only went for 8 days but apart from that, you only need to bring 2 sets of clothes. I secretly hadn’t done that the first time either. More always sneaks into your bag even though you know from all the preparation you have done online that you don’t need it per se.
Hiking a Pilgrimage – Spain
Sitting along the route for a while and enjoying the scenery
When it’s warm, I take more time for everything. I have now walked parts of 15 km without stopping anywhere. Only stopping to take a sip of water and to take a photo but otherwise not too long. It only makes you cold. Even just sitting on the railing of a stone bridge or on a big boulder by the side of the road…. I didn’t do it now while I did every morning the first time. Every morning I ate an apple or banana sitting bythe roadside. I had my sarong with me then and used it as a rug to sit on. Shoes off, socks off and enjoy the surroundings….
Picnicking is less likely to be done and so you also spend more money on cafe con leches and sitting inside to warm up or stay warm during your break.
Nice surprises along the route
What I also found very unfortunate was that the places where in summer, high season, people stand along the camino to sell a sandwich or chilled drinks are not there. Points like that were so nice, so authentic! There you sat with several pilgrims enjoying the moment. Enjoying a sandwich that someone had prepared or a coffee or chilled drink in the middle of nowhere. People parked their camper van or food truck somewhere along the road.
Also, those surprises made it so much fun!!!
But Mary wasn’t there either. When I was in preparation for my Camino in 2016, there was a programme on EO where they interviewed pilgrims during their pilgrimage and showed people along the camino. Maria was 1 of them and so I sought her out. Just before Logrono she has been standing for years, since her mother died she has taken over. Her mother stood there before her! 5 years back, Maria gave me a stamp in my passport…. Now the place was empty and deserted.
But many churches were also closed. So was the church in Los Arcos, a very beautiful church where I also got a stamp 5 years ago. The church has an imposing golden or gold decorated interior. Many Catholic pictures and alcoves with statues are there and I take my first picture of it.
I also find this a real con that these fun surprises are not on offer in the off-season
So when are you going to be hiking a pilgrimage?
Would you like to walk alone? Do you like colder weather? Stress of choice when there are many hostels to choose from?
Then go for it in the off-season…
Would you like to be part of a vibrant community of pilgrims coming from all over the world? Do you also enjoy meeting the very locals who organise a lot for the ever-passing pilgrims? Would you like to be able to stop anywhere to spend the night?
Then you too are that pilgrim who walks in the high season.
Obviously, I belong to the latter category 🙂 I prefer walking in warm weather and love the crowds on the camino. I actually found the added value of learning so much from others. Still, I really didn’t mind the quietness while walking…. The first time, I could hardly take a photo without fellow pilgrims in the picture. And the picture above is great, isn’t it? It was freezing (-1) there at the time….