When we start getting ready to pack for El Camino de Santiago we spend a lot of our time thinking in all the stuff we need to take and how to avoid making our rucksack heavy.
In my experience I can assure you that, after every Camino you finish, you realise that you could have done with fewer things than the ones you finally decided to take. As logic will have it, every season has its own climate, therefore each season will require specific items of clothing to suit the different kinds of weather we will face.
We have to remember that the majority of the Jacobean routes traverse the north of the Iberian peninsula, so even if we decide to travel in spring or summer, we can still encounter low temperatures, heavy rain, fog, wind or even snow, so it is better not to become complacent, cold is, after all, one of pilgrim’s worst enemies.
When it comes to what clothing to take, there is no written rule that one needs to follow blindly, for a start, every person has a different tolerance to temperature and its changes. About brands and styles, there are many out there. My recommendation is to spend an afternoon in a shopping centre where you can try, by touching and seeing in situ all the products, so you can decide. Usually the shop attendants where they sell mountain clothing are quite clued up and can give you good advice.
In my opinion, your clothing for El Camino should include this:
TO WALK IN ANY SEASON
These would be equally essential in cold season as in warm season, especially given that we never know when rain might come. An impermeable boot will stop water, mud or sand getting in our feet and it will help with keeping our feet dry, which is essential to avoid getting blisters and chafing that could ruin our trip. Even if we are lucky enough to escape the rain, it is not unusual to encounter rivers, streams, puddles and muddy footpaths. Some people prefer to use trainers, these can be helpful in sections of tarmac road because the feet will get less hot, but if the sole is very soft we will notice every single pebble and irregularity on the road. Also, trainers become sponge-like when it rains. I would recommend to take some light trainers for resting time and as emergency shoes, in case your boots break or get soaking wet.
I never tire of repeating that one of the most important allies in El Camino is taking good care of your feet; one way of achieving this is with a bit of investment. You will hear and read lots of theories about socks; sport socks inside-out so you don´t feel the seams; executive socks under sport socks, so they glide; or thick socks to avoid chafing, as I said, there is a world of theories. It is worth spending a bit of money in technical socks, you will see the difference. The special material used in them hugs the feet, it has been designed to avoid chafing and to enable the feet to breath, stopping the feet getting hot and softened which will make them prone to getting blisters. Three pairs of socks should suffice, provided you wash the ones you use on the day. I also like taking a pair of cotton socks for resting time, I use them with my flip flops, I know is not very stylish but it is very comfortable.
Trainers for resting time
In this topic my heart is torn between the advantages and disadvantages. Some days they have been very useful and some days they have been redundant, but I always end up taking them. As I mentioned above, when talking about boots, trainers can be useful on tarmac road because the feet get less hot, the material and design of trainers usually allow for good breathing of the feet. But if we don´t want our rucksack to be too heavy we would opt for a light pair of trainers, which can translate in one with thin soles, therefore you will feel everything on the road. On the other hand, they can be useful if your boots get wet and you do not have enough time to dry them up, or if you want to wear something other than your boots for your resting time.
Some people even use them for walking…for some this works well, but generally it is not advisable. They are a good option for resting time, so your feet get good airing at the end of a hard day. If you have blisters or chafing it is also good to use flip flops, so they allow these to dry better. They are absolutely essential to use in public showers, so we avoid warts and other fungal infections that could ruin our trip.
In warm weather it is very likely that we will be only wearing t-shirts most of the time. Ideally they will be made of synthetic material, these are moist wicking and temperature regulating fabrics; cotton is not advisable because it is very absorbent material and very little transpirable. I usually take a cotton t-shirt for resting time, I find the cotton feeling is more agreeable for these moments.
They should have the same features as the short sleeve t-shirts, they should combine perfectly with these. Usually the long sleeve one goes over the short sleeve one, as a second layer. I always take at least two, depending on what season I am walking.
If we are walking in winter, we can skip shorts altogether, unless we are going to stay in a hotel with a spa. We can always take some convertible trousers with zips to shorten them, if needed be. For the summer months they are a must, though. When it gets very hot there is nothing better than having your legs well aired, but beware of the sun, many people fail to protect their legs with sunproof lotion and it is not unusual to see sunburnt calves out there.
There is not much to say about long trousers. In cold months it is better to take at least two pairs, one for walking and another for resting time, although a third pair would not go amiss if we get caught in the rain or if our second pair fails to dry in time after washing. In warmer months convertible trousers with zips to make them short or long are a good idea. Sometimes, even in warmer months, the mornings can be quite fresh and it might be an option to start with long trousers and then shorten them up when it starts getting too hot.
Walking under the rain can be an exhilarating experience, or a nightmare if we are not dress appropriately. Rain can find us at any time, even in seasons when there is meant to be little or no rain. In the north of Spain is common to get several days of rain in a row and probably we will not be able to afford the luxury to wait for better weather. The raincoat is an item of clothing that can have a double function: to protect us from the rain and also to keep us warm. Because is not made of breathable material, it will retain our body heat, but remember that will also make you sweaty inside.
Absolutely essential. If you are going to walk in the drier seasons, maybe you will not take it out of your rucksack, but if you get caught under the rain you will never regret taking it with you, despite the room and weigh it takes in your rucksack. When it comes to protecting yourself from the rain, some people opt for wearing a raincoat and protecting the rucksack with a plastic covering, but in my opinion, it is not the best option, because the water will sip between your back and the rucksack and the rucksack straps and back will end up soaking wet. Raincoats also tend to finish in a straight line at the back, which can cause the water to drain towards our trousers. A poncho, ideally with sleeves, is more useful and quicker to put on, we can cover ourselves and the rucksack at the same time, also leaving some distance between the draining of water at the back and our trousers. A tip: If it is too rainy and your poncho has sleeves, you can take your arms out and put a stick in its place, push it ahead and you will create a greater distance between the draining of water and your feet.
Hat or cap
It is very important to wear a hat or cap to protect your head from the sun and high temperatures, it’s not only at the beach that we can get heat stroke, the risk on the mountains is the same or even greater than at sea level, given that the altitude makes us that bit closer to the sun. A good hat or cap should allow rapid evaporation of sweat and the airing of the head, to diminish the sensation of intense heat, it will also avoid getting sunburnt. Despite many of the routes going through lush nature, there will be sections of the way where we will not be able to find a single shade where to seek shelter, i.e, Vía Aquitania, an old Roman road with a stretch of 12 km that can turn into hell on very hot sunny days. We need to be especially aware of the sun if we are going to walk La Vía de la Plata o El Camino del Levante, because being on a more meridional latitude (at the south and centre of the peninsula), the shades will be very few.
We also need to protect our eyes from the sun rays. Being in the middle of nature or on the mountain does not always mean to be surrounded by trees and feeling fresh. There will be many sections exposed to the merciless sun that will reflect from the footpath and onto our faces, hence hat and sunglasses combo being a winner choice.
IF YOU WALK IN WINTER MONTHS
Technical fabric vest
The best way will be to wear layers, the first one, being the one in direct contact with our skin, should be moist wicking to keep us dry and it should be temperature regulating. Cotton is not the best fabric to achieve these purposes because it is very absorbent and little transpirable. A synthetic sweater that clings to our skin and helps regulate the temperature will be our best choice. It is advisable to carry at least three of them: one for wearing when walking, one drying from washing the day before, and a spare one.
A fleece is made with materials that are light; it has been designed to keep air in between its soft fibres, this air keeps warm with the heat of our own body, that is its secret. This item of clothing will offer us a thermal layer to protect us from the cold and to regulate our temperature. Ideally the neck and cuffs will be adjustable to avoid cold getting in or heat going out.
This last layer is the most important one and it tends to be the most expensive one as well. Ideally it will have the same features as the other layers: moist wicking, temperature regulating but also, most importantly, impermeability to keep us dry. In order to fulfill all of these criteria, the fabric is usually made of membrane, such as Gore-tex. They allow the evaporation of moisture from within but don’t let moist come in. To make them perfect, they will need to have protected zips and adjustable cuffs to avoid losing heat. Another interesting feature is that the back of the jacket is longer than the front, to avoid that when we walk the jacket starts “climbing up” our backs and leaves our lower back unprotected.
Inner layer trousers
They are made of technical fabric and they should be as the vests: moist wicking and able to keep your warm.
There is a popular belief that we lost more heat from our heads than from any other part of our body when faced by low temperatures, but this is not the case. According to a study by the University of Indiana, the amount of heat we lose through our heads is not greater than from any other part of our bodies, for example, from a hand without a glove. What is different between our heads and necks from the rest of our bodies in this respect, is that our head and neck have more sensitive nerve endings, therefore there is a feel that our head gets colder. Maybe carrying a winter hat is not essential in warmer months, we can always make do with the hood from another item of clothing, but forget it in winter to your own peril! And given the choice, one that covers your ears will make it perfect.
Imagine you are climbing O´cebreiro on a rainy day, or that you are traversing one the many plains of Castille and Leon with that lovely freezing cold and no place to find shelter…Even your ideas will freeze. Remember that the head, neck and face are parts of the body that have many sensitive nerve endings that will make you feel very cold. The best item for the neck is a snood or balaclava.
As it happens with the hat, this can be a bit exaggerated to wear them in August, but barred from that lovely window of “good weather” in June, July and August, it is quite possible that more than one morning you will miss them if you did not bring them with you. I have already told you of my trip in May, where I found myself walking on snow, dry cold and wearing two pairs of gloves for 40 days. We need to remember that walking with your hands in your pockets is not really an option most of the time when the terrain is abrupt, and also if you are one of those clever ones that walk with two sticks…well, you get the point. Our hands are most of the time at the mercy of the elements.
AND TO SLEEP?
This last point is the most personal one. My personal opinion is that you do not need pyjamas for El Camino. My tip is to sleep with all or some of the clean clothes for the next day, depending on the time of the year. This is a particular use that I like for different reasons. Firstly, because in the mornings it tends to be quite cold, if you sleep on your clothes for the next day, you will not lose any body heat when you change trousers or sweater. What is more, even if I do not sleep with the clothes for the next day on, I will still place them inside my sleeping bag, so they get nice and warm. Secondly, is a bit more practical for when you want to get going, in the shelters it can get a bit chaotic, it can be dark, lots of people, scattered clothes and shoes, so if you are half dress when you get up, that is surely an advantage.
I hope you found these bits of advice about what to pack for El Camino useful. Cheers!
Cover photography: Jose Antonio Gil
Traslation: Elivra Sánchez