Hiking El Camino de Santiago Blog: Summary
Average: 17.3 miles per day
Along with my friends Lucky and Milky, I started the Camino from St. Jean Pied de Port on September 25th, and got to Santiago de Compostela on Oct 24th, i.e., 29 days and 753 km (467 miles) later. We took one full day off en route, so 28 days of hiking means we averaged 27.8 km per day, or 17.3 miles. We hiked an additional 3 days to do the 87 km (54 miles) from Santiago to Finisterre (“end of the world”, NW coast of Galicia) on Oct 27th. And Milky and I then hiked one additional day north to Muxia, another 30.8 km (19.1 miles).
So total distance was 467 + 54 + 19 = 540 miles.
What’s a “normal” time to hike the Camino from St. Jean to Santiago? It really varies a lot; some suggest 32 – 35 days. I can confidently say that hiking it in 28 days meant that we were often passing others and virtually never passed; this in part because our little group tends to walk faster than average. That doesn’t necessarily map to higher average miles-per-day walked: many people walked more hours of the day than we did. In the autumn, we were perhaps more inclined to go with an earlier finish to the day. But we nevertheless did hike more miles per day than is typical for the Camino. I don’t say that as any sort of boast — there’s no single ‘right’ way to hike the Camino, and it’s definitely not a competition (!), but more just as baseline data. My experience this year might be more interesting to you if you anticipate hiking a few more miles per day than average too.
Our Hiking ‘Style’
Our typical pace and hiking ‘style’ for this trail wasn’t something we explicitly set out to do, but more just a sort of natural default given our past history of backpacking (we’ve all three thru-hiked the ‘big three’ trails in the U.S.). I think that we were all inclined to have conversations along the way with others as we walked, and certainly we sometimes did so. But there was a sort of inadvertent “egging each other on” effect; if I hung back to chat with someone, I could see my friends getting away from me, and at some point would say goodbye to whoever I was talking with and increase my pace to catch up.
I don’t mean to say that this was somehow a ‘bad’ thing, just a ‘different’ thing. I quite enjoyed really moving on the trail, and we certainly did have some good conversation and interaction with others along the way. But we didn’t make as many longer-term connections. If hiking this by myself, I would have likely taken more days to hike it, in favor of richer and longer-term connections with other hikers met along the way.
Hiking in the Dark
We also evolved to hiking for an hour or so in the dark at the start of every day. We didn’t explicitly decide and plan to do this. And we didn’t’ really need to do it: earlier in the year when there’s a lot of competition to get a bed somewhere, folks do get up really early in order to “beat the crowd”. We knew that we didn’t have to do that, hiking in October.
I think it started because Lucky just wasn’t able to sleep beyond a certain point in the morning, but over time we all came to sort of enjoy it, and it meant that we could get in a decent number of miles and still have a lot of daylight (to include sunshine to dry clothes in the afternoons) when we stopped for the day. I will say that having the trail plot on my smartphone GPS app was a real help in keeping us on track in the dark. Most of the time you can do this just fine, but it can be all too easy to miss a sign that would be obvious in the daylight. So when hiking in the dark I would periodically check.
Gear and Clothing Choices
I was very happy with my gear and clothing choices. For clothing I had just one pair of pants and a pair of shorts to wear when washing/drying the pants, and that was fine. One pair of “sleeping socks” and a thinner pair of oversocks plus a couple of pairs of liner socks — sufficient. Two button-up shirts and two long sleeved capilene 1 (light synthetic) pullover shirts, one of which I typically slept in. One of the big ways to keep weight down is to be aggressive in only carrying the clothing that you really need. Knowing that you’ll be sleeping indoors every night helps a lot there.
Not Checking Baggage: Check!
My decision to not check baggage and thus fly without poles or a knife turned out very well. Milky and Lucky both brought poles, and only used them maybe one day total (the first day, in the Pyrenees). Milky actually gave his away en route. Lucky has had luck (hence I guess his trail name) in flying with poles in/from the U.S. in his carry-on baggage, but that luck deserted him when trying to fly out of Santiago, and became a bit of a PITA both in checking them and then in trying to find them at the baggage claim in Paris. I bought a knife for 9+ euros in Paris and used that some, but for this trip I found that I wanted a knife a lot less than when I hiked the trail with my wife two years before. It really differs depending on your strategy for eating breakfast and lunch. If you’re cutting up a lot of bread, fruit, vegetables, spreading butter or other spreads on your bread, etc, a decent knife is much more important than it is in backpacking in the U.S. For this trip I could have done without it, and just gave it away at the end of the journey. What I would do instead is get a solid lexan (stronger-than-average plastic) serrated knife and make do with that.
I didn’t need the inflatable pillow I brought. EVERY albergue we stayed in had a pillow, the long style that are common in Spain: https://tinyurl.com/o9nreow
What would be very helpful would be if you could get your own pillowcase that fit on of those. Some albergues (typically private, not municipal albergues) give you a very thin disposable sheet and pillow case; with care, the disposable pillow case can be carried along and reused. I’m not saying that will definitely keep you safe from bedbugs, but if they’re in the pillow case, they’re likely coming for you anyway, so no reason to worry about it (and I had zero issues with bedbugs on either trip along the Camino).
I brought a 45-degree rated quilt, and enjoyed having that, but I will say that I needed it a lot less than I had anticipated. Two years ago, starting almost a month earlier, my wife and I had no sort of blanket or sleeping bag, and had a couple of cold nights as a result. If you do bring some sort of sleeping bag along, bring something pretty lightweight and low volume. Of course your experience could vary a lot, not only based on differing weather conditions, but on your personal metabolism (some people feel cold at night in the same conditions where others are warm).
I do suggest some sort of European style sleeping sack, the type that are typically used there for hostels and the like. Something like this: https://www.rei.com/product/690012/cocoon-coolmax-travel-sheet
Given the higher chance of bed bugs, however, I was comfortable in both of my Camino trips using this:
Time of Year to Start
In 2013, my wife and I started our Camino hike September 3rd and got to Santiago on Oct 9th. It was MUCH more crowded than this year, with a September 25th start and a Santiago-end of Oct 24th. Starting our hike about 3 weeks later made a very large difference in how many people were on the trail. This manifested in many ways. While still friendly and fun, at times in 2013 there was a sense of competition, a feeling that one had to sort of beat other hikers to a target town in order to find a bed. After a while, we began just calling to make reservations one or even sometimes two days in advance, just to have a more relaxed experience while hiking. In 2015 there was none of that. Only once did we find an Albergue fully booked when we arrived, and that was a case where a lot of people (or perhaps one or two large groups) had reserved spaces ahead of time. It was no problem, we walked for five minutes and found another (also nice) Albergue and checked in.
But more people on the trail meant more people to walk with and to interact with. It’s possible that our particular group would still have mostly been passing people without a lot of interaction, but it’s my feeling that had we hiked earlier in the year we would have had a(n even) richer experience in this way. So IMO it’s a trade-off. Note also that a holy year (one in which the 25th of July falls on a Sunday) is a wild card in this calculation: holy years are much more popular, the pilgrim population spikes in those. The next holy years are in 2021, 2027, and 2032. If you’re not Catholic (and/or, not in need of having all of your past sins absolved), I’d suggest avoiding those years.
Hiking the Camino More Than Once
I wrote an article before I hiked this year explaining why I thought that this particular trail is in particular a good choice for hiking a second time. I’m happy to say that after finishing my second trip, I still feel the same way. Hiking it a second time meant that I understood a lot more of what was happening, already sort of knew the process, had my expectations tuned. My better basis for understanding just meant that I could then start to absorb more of what I was walking through. I mostly stopped in different towns, stayed in different Albergues, certainly talked to different people, had different weather conditions, and while of course the sights that unfolded before me were familiar at times, it was still always sort of fresh and fun.
I don’t think I’ll hike this trail a third time; if I do it will be because, once again, there’s someone that I would particularly like to hike with that’s doing the trail. But I’m happy to have had the privilege of hiking it twice.
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