In Part I of my practical tips, I covered the issue of lodging and generally tackling the Camino de Santiago in winter. In Part II, l review packing. I had trouble finding tips for winter packing. All those people telling you to walk in sneakers? Not in winter, my friends.
Your pack will make or break you on the Camino, especially if you have never done a long multi-week walk with a pack before. Every single gram counts and you can’t afford to be carrying stuff you don’t use. (None of the pilgrims I coincided with ever sent the pack by car and I’m not sure these services even run in winter.)
The standard Camino wisdom is that your pack should weigh about 10% of your body weight and in any case a maximum of 9 kgs. I carried a 30-liter backpack with about 7 kilos of weight including a half-liter of water, and I had the smallest pack of anyone I saw. I could have shaved it down to 6kgs if I’d given some items up but in winter it’s difficult to get below that given the warm clothes you need to carry.
Everyone has different needs and wants while traveling so you need to decide how you want to use your weight. Think about what you want for walking and what you’ll want for the afternoon down time.
If you’re not a packing list freak and don’t want to read all the detail, here are 10 items that I was really glad I had:
Winter Camino essentials
- Rain poncho, preferably one that can fit over you + backpack
- Winter, waterproof jacket with lots of pockets
- Waterproof gloves (neoprene or other)
- Hiking boots
- Backpack cover
- Chimbo soap or any pH neutral soap that can double for hand-washing clothes and body-washing
- “Esparadrapo” – paper surgical tape available in any Spanish pharmacy, for blisters
- Ear plugs
- Ziploc bags for all your clothes
My main piece of advice is to organize yourself to minimize stops while walking to open up your pack. Keep things you will need during the day (like a rain poncho) in outer pockets of your pack and snacks, phone, etc in your jacket pockets.
The only thing I packed that I didn’t need was a padlock. There weren’t lockers at any of the inns where I stayed.
Now for the nitty-gritty. I’ve divided my packing list by concept and explained all the whys and wherefores. I didn’t have to buy anything new for the trip but I’ve indicated when there’s a better choice than what I have.
I packed all my clothes in Ziploc bags for additional protection against rain and to stay organized. All of my stuff fit just one way in my backpack, which was helpful to make sure I didn’t leave anything behind. Even if you have extra room in your pack, I would recommend always packing exactly the same way. The heaviest items should always go at the bottom of the pack.
This disclaimer shouldn’t be necessary since the only person reading this is my mom, but here goes: all links are provided for information only and I don’t make any money from them. (Hi Mom!)
Clothes and hiking gear
- 1 pair of hiking pants – any “quick-dry” pants will do.
- 2 short-sleeved cotton T-shirts – 1 for walking and 1 for afternoon downtime/sleep. It’s really nice to have something clean (or at least something that you haven’t been sweating in all day) to put on after a shower. Most pilgrims had technical fabrics that dried much faster than my cotton tees.
- 1 long-sleeved cotton T-shirt
- 1 long-sleeved spandex top with fleecy interior
- 3 pairs of wool socks. Many pilgrims were wearing special “anti-blister” socks.
- 3 pairs of underwear
- 2 sports bras
- 2 pairs of long underwear – 1 to layer on really cold days and 1 for sleeping only
- 1 pair of shorts – to optimize weight I didn’t carry an extra pair of pants. I wore shorts over a pair of long underwear when my walking pants were in the wash or drying from the rain. As a bonus, I got to know what it feels like to be the town crazy for a few hours each afternoon. (See above photo.)
- Outer layer of my ski jacket. The inner layer is a fleece that I decided not to take. Any breathable, somewhat waterproof winter jacket will work, preferably with lots of pockets.
- Montbell UL down parka – this is the star of my gear. It weighs just over 200g and is super warm either on its own or as a layer.
- Fleece neck warmer
- Thin fleece hat
- Gore-tex mittens – gloves would have been an infinitely better choice but I already had the mittens. You’ll want either Gore-tex or neoprene gloves so your hands stay both warm and dry.
- Rain poncho that also covers the backpack
- Backpack cover – this is the only piece of gear I bought on the way. I thought the poncho would be enough, but the sideways rain and high wind blew the poncho all over the place and my pack got all wet anyway. The backpack cover also kept my pack dry when it was not raining quite enough to merit stopping to put on the poncho.
- Flip flops – I was only thinking of the shower and hanging out inside at the inn, but a better choice would be an adjustable, slip-on sandal to be able to walk around town in socks and sandals and take a rest from the boots.
- mid-cut hiking boots – for January, February and possibly March, you definitely need boots or a sturdy hiking shoe. All the other seasons you could probably get by in a good pair of sneakers, but in winter you need to be prepared for a lot of rain, thick mud and snow. Whatever footwear you choose, it should be completely broken in before you start walking.
- Walking sticks – this is totally personal choice. I almost always hike with walking sticks so for me it was a no-brainer. You can try going without and pick up a branch from the ground or buy walking sticks along the way if you are feeling like you need sticks.
- Headlamp – I didn’t use this at all for the Camino but it was useful for walking around the inns in the dark
- Reflective Velcro band – for extra visibility when walking on roads. I didn’t wind up walking on any highways in the dark but was glad to have it just in case.
- Vaude Sioux 100UL sleeping bag – I get really hot when I sleep so for me, a summer bag rated as comfortable from 16-20ºC was enough considering I was always sleeping indoors. Very few of the inns have blankets so you will need to carry some kind of blanket or sleeping bag.
- Silk sleeping bag – as an inner layer for the sleeping bag for extra warmth and also for hygiene (easier to wash and dry than the sleeping bag itself)
If you feel you’re missing something after you start, Decathlon is a big chain sports store in Europe with very good value for money and each of the cities along the Camino have one (Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León…). It’s usually outside the city center so you’ll have to ask how to get there by public transportation. Most of the bigger towns on the Camino also have a sports store of some kind, though the prices are much higher than Decathlon.
What I didn’t pack:
I chose not to bring rain pants. Another pilgrim in my group swore by them but I find them to be hot, almost like cooking your legs sous-vide, and I was fine with my quick-dry hiking pants. Depends on what you hate more – having sweaty legs or wet pants. (This goes back to always having somewhere to dry my pants. On less well-equipped routes, like the North Way, rain pants could make sense because you may have 3 or 4 days without being able to dry anything, and putting on wet pants in the morning sucks.)
I also didn’t bring my gaiters. I didn’t miss them. Another guy in my group wore his gaiters every day just to keep the bottom of his pants clean. When he got to town, he would take off the gaiters and be able to walk around without dried mud all over his pants. Another matter of personal choice.
Toiletries are where I decided to spend my weight, without a doubt. I am sadly addicted to my face and body creams. So I didn’t carry an extra pair of pants, but I did carry about half a kilo of creams… It’s slightly embarrassing.
- Ear plugs – if you’re sleeping in pilgrim’s inns, you will need them. Trust me.
- Microfiber towel
- Tooth brush
- Travel-size tube of toothpaste
- 300mL tub of Nivea body cream – my husband tried desperately to get me to give this up or take only half, but I know my cream needs and it came back about 70% empty.
- 150mL of assorted face moisturizers
- Towelettes for washing my face
- Lush shampoo bar
- Chimbo soap, half a bar. This is a pH neutral soap available in any Spanish supermarket that is good for both hand washing your clothes as well as for body.
- Diva Cup (ladies only)
First aid / medical kit
- Nail clippers
- Nail scissors
- Esparadrapo – a sort of paper surgical tape available at any Spanish pharmacy for 2 euros. I used this to protect blisters that I had drained and found it much more effective than Band-Aids or Compeed-type bandages. Just cut a small square and apply directly to the skin.
- Antibiotic cream – I actually didn’t use this but not bad to have
- Sewing kit – needle for draining blisters and thread for sewing anything that may need mending
- Lighter – to disinfect the needle before sticking it in your blisters
- Vaseline – to rub all over your feet to avoid cracks and callouses, or just as a lubricant for massaging your feet. Some pilgrims say rubbing your feet with Vaseline prevents blisters though it didn’t in my case.
- Tiger balm (or any kind of sore muscle cream)
Keep in mind that you’re not going into the bush. You’ll be walking through towns and big cities, and if any special needs come up, you can purchase things on the way (antibiotics, stronger anti-inflammatories, ACE bandage, etc.). I only carried what I used every night.
- Smartphone – I live in Spain so I just brought my own phone. If I had come from abroad, I would have gotten a Spanish SIM or a cheap pay-as-you-go phone. In winter, it’s helpful to call ahead to see which inns are open. Also, as there were only 10 or 15 of us on the Camino each day, I liked the peace of mind of having a way to communicate in case of emergency since the wait for someone to pass by could be awhile.
- phone charger
- Small point-and-shoot camera. If you have a good smartphone camera and are not a photographer, forego the camera.
- extra camera battery and charger
- Moleskine notebook
- Thermos for tea – I used it as a water bottle during the day
- Cloth bag for groceries or wandering around town
Food and drink
Again, keep in mind that you will be walking through several towns daily. There is no need to carry 2 or 3 days supply of food. I generally carried half a baguette and a package of cold cuts, and my pockets full of snacks (nuts, granola bars, etc). If when I got to the hostel, there was a kitchen, I’d go out to the supermarket to buy groceries to make dinner. If there wasn’t a kitchen, I’d go out for dinner. I coincided with a vegetarian couple who for both dietary and budgetary restrictions always had back-up groceries in their pack up to about a kilo. So, you have complete flexibility on the Camino to manage your food however suits you best, carrying extra groceries or improvising as you go.
Phew, that’s all. In case it’s not obvious, I love packing lists. I read packing lists I have no intention of using. I can barely ride a bike but I pore over Cass’ packing lists for bike travel at While Out Riding. So here’s hoping this post will be useful to future pilgrims and entertaining for packing list freaks like myself.
Great tips. I’m getting ready to start the Camino in about a week. I am proof that your mom isn’t the only person who reads your articles.
Haha, thanks! There has been A LOT of snow in the past couple of weeks. Stay safe and buen camino!
Thanks for this. I walked the camino Frances last spring and I’m thinking of going back, maybe to walk the norte, but I’m stuck in London until October at least, so I’ve been telling myself it will have to wait until next year. Reading this, I think maybe not! Do you know if there are many winter pilgrims on the northern route, and are albergues open up there? Thanks again, this is a really helpful article. Matt x
Hi Matt, the Camino is addictive, isn’t it? I hope to walk a piece of the Camino del Norte in September myself. I’m not sure how transited it is in winter, to be honest. From what I have heard, many albergues are closed on the North Way in winter, but I don’t have firsthand knowledge. I don’t know any pilgrims who have done it in winter, only in spring/summer. There are certainly fewer choices for lodging than the French Way overall. I have also heard that particularly the Cantabrian section is quite poorly signaled, so that’s something to consider for winter walking when you’ve got fewer hours of daylight and wet/cold weather. As I’m not much help on this one, you might want to check in on one of the Camino forums and see if anyone who has done it can give you more info.
Terrific comments, Casey. Thanks for taking the time to put them on the web.
I notice you pack both a Spandex top with fleecy interior (presumably a mid layer) AND your Montbell UL down parka. In the interests of saving both volume and weight (and because I am an Australian ignorant about extended walking in snow/ice), do you need both?
I plan to walk the CF from SJPdP next February.
Hi Peter, glad the post was useful. Winter pilgrims rock! If I were to do another winter Camino, I would probably pack a long-sleeved top in a moisture-wicking fabric rather than the Spandex top with fleece interior and still include a light down jacket (the Montbell UL in my case). Buen camino!
Hey Casey, just wanted you to know your blog still lives on! I’ve found this post to be one of the most useful I’ve seen on the web. Will definitely keep it bookmarked. Thank you!
Hi Casey! Your blog is by far the most useful I’ve found for doing the Camino in winter. Thank you so much!! My husband and i are thinking of completing the French way in early February but we are a bit worried that it will be wet and miserable the whole time… how did you find the weather? Did it rain often? Was it bearable and a worthwhile experience even if its very grey / rainy / cold?
Hi Lilli, Sorry for the delayed response. February is likely to be a little wetter than January, which is when I did the Camino, and obviously the weather varies from year to year. Last winter the weather was very, very wet and unpleasant all over Spain – this year, who knows? There will almost definitely be snow at the beginning (between St Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles) and at O Cebreiro in Galicia. For me, it was bearable and worthwhile but it all depends on your state of mind and your “why”. If this is the trip of a lifetime to do the Camino, February might not be the best option to make sure you reach the end. If the Camino is just one idea for a trip to Spain and you would feel OK abandoning the Camino if the weather is really bad, then I would say give it a shot!
Really nice post, thank you.
After over 5 years, this list is still the best resource I’ve been able to find on preparing for winter Caminos. I’m planning one for the upcoming weeks (currently living in Spain), and your blogs are of particular help to me.
So glad to hear it, Seth!
It took many searches to find your site. It is by far the best description of conditions despite being several years old. How magical that your words and effort cross time to me now. Thank you if you ever read this.
Probably one of the most helpful blogs/lists I’ve seen!
I’m walking in November and tossing up whether hiking boots are necessary or I can sneak by on sneakers – thoughts?
I would go with at least a hiking shoe – semi-waterproof and with a sturdy sole – even if you don’t want a boot. Buen camino!
Thank you for taking the time to create this. It has been very helpful. I walked the French Way from St. Jean to Fisterra in March/April 2009. I now plan to walk, around Jan. 20, the Camino Portugues from Porto to Santiago, then follow the French Way backwards to Roncesvalle.
I recall meeting several repeat pilgrims on my journey in 2009. Now I understand why. The Camino captures your heart and imagination. And your dreams. Must be extra special in the winter.
Thanks for the encouragement and super clear packing list. I hiked part of the Camino (St Jean to Logrono) and plan to do another section next year. So I was wondering how early to start out from Logrono, and your post here tells me – whenever I wish! So thanks for that! I’m thinking March won’t be too crowded. Thanks again for the encouragement. – Mike
It makes me so pleased when potential winter pilgrims pop up here every year – it’s the only reason I keep the site up really! Buen camino, Mike!