It’s hard to say exactly why walking the Camino in winter is something I prefer. It could be the summer’s terrible sunburns, the all-day sweating – which is never a good look – or the crowds that drive me into the least popular months of all. Or it could be that I come from a family of hermits and introverts who shun contact with other people in many instances. There is something quite special about doing an Advent Camino. Since I do walk in winter, I thought I would share some of my top tips.
#1. Know what’s closed.
In many ways it’s easier than knowing what’s open, because after the Feast of the Three Kings (January 6), most everything closes. There is a wonderful list published annually on November 1 that is updated frequently. It will say what albergues are open (http://www.aprinca.com/alberguesinvierno/). In every instance, when you check into a place for the night, scope out what is open tomorrow – and how far away it is. Then ask the hospitalero to call ahead to make sure they are open.
#2. Expect to pay more overall.
Since you may need to spend the night in a pension or small hotel on the way, instead of an albergue, you should budget a few more Euros every day, just in case.
#3. Take warmth seriously.
Many places you stay in the winter will only have heat for part of your stay there. In one instance, a few years ago, the hospitalero turned on the heat at 8:45 p.m. But I was there mid-afternoon, freezing. In another place, there was no heat at all and no hot water in the morning. If it is 55 degrees Fahrenheit outdoors, expect it to be 55 degrees indoors as well.
#4. Layer your clothes.
The one mistake I made last time I walked in winter was not having the right indoor warm clothes, like a fleece to wear to dinner or in the common areas of the albergue. I take a cashmere cardigan because it is the warmest, lightest solution. And long johns to sleep in!
When you stop for lunch, look for local soups, hot teas, toast, spaghetti, and save the salads and cold sandwiches for when you are in Santiago de Compostela.
#5. Expect lousy weather.
With climate change, it gets harder to predict the weather anywhere other than it will most likely be terrible in the winter. Many Camino online groups discuss the weather “last time,” or “when I was there three years ago.” It’s best to take a look at your best weather app the night before so you can plan for the next day walking. I can tell you, twice I have seen balmy, sunny, beautiful weather in Galicia in January.
#6. Get used to solitude.
If you like building a Camino family of pilgrims you meet along the way, walking in the winter might not be for you. The number of pilgrims walking is as low as it gets all year in the months between November and March. The few people you do meet will be like-minded loners, for the most part. Expect to walk a good bit of each day by yourself. For lots of us, it’s why we do it. The hours of quiet reflection far outweigh gloomy weather.
#7. Ignore the “stages.”
It’s easy to make the mistake of expecting the broader infrastructure that is there in the summer to support you in the winter. It may not. I went deliberately to a town at the typical “end of the stage” a few years ago, only to find one bar open that did not serve food, that was about to close, and zero place to spend the night. Know what is open and make a plan. Staying off the standard stages is a little more challenging in the winter than it is in the summer months, but you can do it – as long as you know where your next bed is. And it gives you a chance to explore a new place.
#8. Don’t miss the side trips.
There are a couple of side trips that I always recommend to pilgrims walking the Camino Frances or the Camino Ingles. Since you will not be in the summer rush to a bed, you should scan each route to take advantage of the wonderful heritage sites along your way. Vilar de Donas is one of my favorites – between Portomarin and Palas de Rei. Get off the road a bit. Samos is beautiful too. Or the San Miguel church in Pontedeume on the Camino Ingles.
#9. Pick your route carefully.
Simply put, mountains get snow. Snow is not as lovely to walk in as you might imagine. You get wet, you get cold. I cannot recommend the Camino Primitivo in the winter and the routes through the Pyrenees are dangerous.
#10. Get creative.
Walking in winter will challenge your people skills more than anything else. If everything is closed and you know you need to stop for the night, get creative. We walked into a town and saw everything was closed so we stopped at the only open place, a nice restaurant that was just finishing up serving lunch. We had a warm meal and asked the waiter if he knew a place to stay. He said, no, but his mother might know something. We ended up staying at her cousin’s place. A house with a three-bed room over another restaurant.
Who are your support people? You will need to use everyone to get this job done – the hospitaleros, the bartenders, the grocery clerks, anyone at a taxi stand. All of these people will know someone who can help you and, in many cases, someone who also speaks English.
Can I do this? Yes. Pack up and go. Please do some homework, wear your layers, make some conversation with the people in towns, and enjoy the quiet. You will not miss the rushing or the throngs of tourists and pilgrims that fill the Caminos in the summer.
Lastly, understand that days are short in Spain during the winter. Plan for late sunrise and early sunsets. Ultreya!
For more tips, get Buen Camino! Tips from an American Pilgrim – updated for 2020, and available on Amazon and Kindle!