The Camino Invierno. The winter is the least popular season to walk the Camino. In the wintertime on the Camino there are no crowds, plenty of hot showers for everyone in the albergues, and lots of free time in the evenings because the sun sets early.
For clarification, I hiked the Camino Frances route, but in the winter. “Invierno” in Spanish means “winter.” There is also a separate route called the Camino Invierno that parallels the Camino Frances for the last 100 kms to Santiago de Compostela. Confused yet? No matter which Camino you are trekking in the wintertime, this information will be applicable to you.
Contrary to what you might think, the weather isn’t terrible… all the time. The Camino might be quiet, but it’s not lonely. Winter pilgrims are a hardy bunch, and you’re likely to meet everyone who is hiking at the same time as you.
If you’re thinking about a winter hike of the Camino de Santiago, then you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to answer every question I wish I had known before beginning my pilgrimage.
Camino Invierno Budget
- Daily Cost: 30 euros or less (unless you want to spend more)
- Albergue Cost: donation-12 euros; most typically the price is 5-6 euros
- Pilgrim Meal (with multiple courses): 8-10 euros
- Breakfast in a Café: 3.50-4.50 euros
- Coffee: 1-1.50 euros
- Sandwich: 2-3 euros
- Doing Laundry: 2-5 euros (split it with others to save money)
I found it easy to stick to a budget of 30 euros a day on the Camino. (It helped that most of the bars were closed for the season.) I should note that I typically chose the cheapest albergue option, and only ate dinner at restaurants half of the time. I also bought snacks at the supermarket, so I didn’t have to pay for lunch in cafes everyday.
If you want to splurge on private accommodation every now and then or want to eat every meal at a restaurant, then your daily spending will increase.
There are ATMs on the Camino in most towns. I never had a problem finding one when needed. I would recommend withdrawing the maximum amount to avoid piling on those pesky foreign transaction fees.
Gear for the Camino Invierno
Camino Invierno Packing List:
- Sleeping bag
- Water bottle- 1 liter capacity
- Pilgrim credential
- Hiking pants
- Tights/ thermal pants
- Long-sleeve base layer shirt
- Fleece jacket/ mid-layer shirt
- Rain jacket/ poncho
- Rain pants (if your hiking pants are not water-resistant)
- Down jacket
- A few pairs of underwear
- A few pairs of socks
- Sports bra (you know, if you need one)
- Beanie hat/ knit cap
- Walking shoes or hiking boots
- Sandals (for evening time)
- Fast drying towel
- Shampoo, conditioner, and soap
- Comb/ hair brush
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Moisturizer, lip balm, self-care stuff (only if you get dry winter skin like me)
- Trekking poles
- Backpack rain cover
- Comfy clothes to sleep in
- Tablet/ book/ something to occupy yourself in the evening
Camino Invierno Gear Guide
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- Backpack. I hiked with the Granite Gear Crown2 65 liter backpack. You don’t necessarily need 65 liters of space. A 50 liter or less will do. I was traveling more after the Camino, so I wanted a backpack I could use for both.
- Sleeping bag. This is necessary for a winter Camino, as many albergues don’t provide blankets. I brought my Feathered Friends 20 F bag. However, my friend had a cheap bag from Decathlon (a low priced athletic store chain in Europe) and that worked just fine. Since you’re not sleeping outside with it and only need it for one month, it’s fine if you just want to use a 20 euro sleeping bag.
- Water bottle. I only carried 1 liter at a time in my Nalgene. You can just ask at cafes to fill up more water. I also had a Hydroflask and made tea in the mornings. It was nice to have a hot drink on chilly days.
- Headlamp. Necessary for days you want to get an early start. It’s also good to have if you want to pack up early or get settled into bed when the overhead lights are out.
- Pilgrim credential. Necessary for staying at the albergues. You need to show it to check in. You can pick these up at albergues at the start of the Camino. Or you can order one before you arrive. Every country has it’s own organization where you can request a credential, usually for free. For USA residents, it’s the AmericanPilgrims.org
- Hiking pants. I wore these pants from REI. The waist is stretchy, so there’s no muffin top effect. Also, they have substantial pockets. They actually look pretty flattering too.
- Tights. There were lots of cold days where I had to add a layer under my hiking pants. I like Nike tights, but use whatever is your favorite.
- T-shirt. REI has a cheap and quality line of synthetic t-shirts for women and men.
- Long-sleeve base layer. SmartWool makes my favorite long-sleeves. They don’t get too smelly, they look good, and they last a long time.
- Fleece or mid-layer shirt. I usually take this opportunity to save money and go buy a fleece from the thrift store. I honestly don’t find much difference in expensive vs. cheap fleece jackets.
- Rain jacket and pants. It WILL RAIN on the Camino Invierno. For rain jackets, Outdoor Research has a good line for women and men. Outdoor research also has good rain pants.
- Down jacket. It will be cold in the evenings. I used a MyTrailCo down jackets. For a cheaper option, Sierra Designs is pretty good. There are also really cheap ones at Decathlon.
- Underwear. I bought a few pairs of quick-drying underwear from Patagonia. Here’s the trick for not doing laundry all the time: bring your underwear from the day into the shower with you and hand wash it. Hang it up on your bunk and it will be dry by morning.
- Socks. Get merino wool socks. Two pairs for walking and one big fluffy pair for wearing at night. I like Darn Tough and SmartWool socks.
- Gloves. Get a nice thick pair for those cold days.
- Hiking shoes/ boots. I started in boots, but they caused too much pain in my feet. I had to switch to trail runners. My preferred shoes are Salomons. I will say if you are going to hike in trail runners, get the kind with Gore-Tex. The most important thing here is to walk in your shoes at home and make sure they are comfortable.
- Sandals. Have something to wear at night when you want to get out of your wet shoes. Flip flops or sandals with do just fine.
- Quick-drying towel. REI has a good line of them, or pick one up at Decathlon.
- Shampoo, conditioner, soap. I’m on an anti-plastic crusade right now, so I recommend using shampoo and conditioner bars. They also take up less space than bottles.
- I’m not going to run through the whole toiletries list. You guys know what you need.
- Trekking poles. I like to hike with one trekking pole. Some people like two. If you have trouble with your knees or feet, trekking poles do help a lot.
- Backpack rain cover. My Granite Gear backpack is water resistant, so I didn’t need a rain cover. I think most backpacks won’t be water resistant, so you’ll probable need one. Additional trick: take a big trash bag and line your backpack with it. Stuff all your gear inside. Then it’s extra water-proof.
- Comfy night time clothes. I LOVED having my cozy fleece pants to wear at night. You’ll spend a lot of time in the albergues. I highly recommend bringing some comfy clothes to wear at night.
- Camera. If you’re not into photography big time, your phone will do just fine. But if you are into photos, I recommend a mirrorless camera, like the Sony A6000. Osprey makes a good case for it that you can clip to your pack.
- Tablet/ book/ evening entertainment. It gets dark early on the Camino Invierno, so there’s lots of chill time in the evenings. Bring something to keep yourself entertained.
Saving Money on Camino Gear
I realize this is quite a bit of stuff to buy if you are not already an avid hiker with a closet full of gear. The two main things you should not skimp on are your hiking shoes and your backpack. It’s important that those two things are of good quality.
As far as everything else goes, I would encourage you to use what you already own, shop second hand, get discounted versions of it. Do whatever you need to do to get on the Camino without ruining your budget.
I traveled to Spain with extra luggage that I didn’t necessarily need to bring along on my Camino. I was planning on traveling after the Camino, so I had clothes and other things that I needed. If you’re planning on going home after the Camino, I recommend not bringing extra luggage. You can just go shopping for a new outfit when you’re done if you want to get out of those hiking clothes.
So what do you do with extra luggage while walking the Camino?
You mail it to Ivar in Santiago, of course. Ivar is a guy in Santiago who will store your luggage for you while you hike for about 20 euros. Just go to the post office when you arrive in Madrid and send it. I believe I spent about 15 euros on mailing a big box. There’s even a post office in the airport. Do a search for “correos”, as that’s the Spanish word for it.
Be aware of the hours listed on Ivar’s website. He’s not around during weekends in the wintertime. I arrived on a Friday afternoon, so I had to stick around Santiago until Monday to pick up my box.
Winter Weather on the Camino
The reason that there is so many things on the gear checklist is because you will need it. Be prepared for all weather conditions. Sure, some days may be sunny and warm. But there will be just as many days of walking in cold rain or snow. When you show up to an albergue soaked to the bone, you will want a hot shower and dry clothes to put on.
Make a habit of checking the weather forecast somewhat regularly. This will help you plan your days accordingly. You will want to walk shorter distances when there’s bad weather and longer distances when it’s nice.
There are some mountainous sections of the Camino that you may not want to walk if it’s snowing. There are alternate lower routes that are marked in the guidebook and apps. Another good reason to check the weather forecast is avoiding snow days in the mountains.
The Camino is well marked, so you don’t need to worry too much about navigation. Just have a data book or Camino app to reference along the way.
- Wisely Camino App – Download the maps for this app then you can use it without being connected to the internet.
- If you prefer books over technology, I recommend the Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago.
Transportation to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France
If you fly into Madrid, you will need to take a bus to Pamplona. From Pamplona, you can take a bus to Roncesvalles. Unfortunately, in the winter months buses do not go all the way to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France (SJPP) from Pamplona. Taking a taxi is an option. I opted to walk from Roncesvalles to SJPP then turn around and walk back.
Alternatively, you can fly into Paris, take a train to Bayonne, and finally a bus to SJPP. It’s also possible to take a train to Bayonne from Madrid.
If you’re starting somewhere else on the Camino, it is much easier to get buses in the winter time. In order of furthest from Santiago de Compostela, there are direct buses or trains from Madrid to: Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon, Ponferrada, and Sarria.
- Check bus schedules here (there are other bus companies available, but I found this one to be particularly useful) and train schedules here
Albergues in the Winter
An albergue is like a hostel just for Camino pilgrims. You need to have a credential to stay at them. (More on credentials in the gear section.) There is usually a big room with lots of bunk beds. There are showers and often a kitchen and washing machines.
Many of the albergues are closed in the winter time, so you do have to plan ahead a bit more. There will always be an albergue within walking distance every day. Occasionally it is inconvenient because you have to choose between walking a short distance or a long distance; there may be nothing in between.
Some of the albergues were unlocked and pilgrims could let themselves in. Someone would stop by in the evening to collect money and stamp credentials.
My Camino app was accurate with showing which albergues were open during winter. In SJPP, they gave me a list of albergues that were open for the winter.
What to Expect from Winter Albergues:
- Some of them can be cold. They are often old buildings and probably aren’t insulated well. Bring warm clothes to sleep in and a sleeping bag.
- Reservations are not necessary during a winter Camino. I did not make a single reservation my entire walk. It was never a problem.
- Since there’s not many other pilgrims around, you’re almost guaranteed to get a hot shower.
- Most of the albergues have kitchens, so you can save some money by cooking dinner for yourself if you want. This is also nice because oftentimes in the winter there are no cafes open in the morning. You can make your coffee and eat breakfast before leaving for the day.
- There’s almost always wifi.
- There’s a washing machine at least half of the time.
Camino Albergue Etiquette:
- Keep your things condensed to the area around your bunk bed.
- Keep your showers short so there’s hot water for others.
- If you cook, clean up after yourself.
- Keep your voice down when others are sleeping, both in the morning and at night.
- If you wake up before everyone else, don’t turn the overhead light on. Use your headlamp while you pack up. One time a couple turned the lights on early before anyone else was awake, and I was grumpy because of it.
- Not really etiquette, but bring some earplugs for your own benefit. If light bothers you while you’re sleeping, bring an eye mask.
- Generally, just be considerate of others and aware that albergues are a shared space.
- Aprinca.com has an up-to-date list of Camino albergues open in the winter months. The list is not active during the warmer months.
- The Wisely Camino app is my preferred and costs $5. The Buen Camino app is free and is also good.
Food on the Camino
Most villages will have a restaurant where you can go for dinner. Typically, you get a few courses and bread and wine. I think it will be OK for gluten-free people because usually there’s a few options that involve vegetables and meat. Vegetarians will be alright too. I had a hiking buddy who was vegetarian and restaurants could usually accommodate him.
Alternatively, you can save some money by going to the supermarket and cooking dinner for yourself in the albergue kitchen.
Stock up on snacks and lunch stuff from the supermarkets. Sometimes I would stop in a café for a sandwich, but sometimes there would be nothing open in the villages. It’s wise to have cereal bars in your pack so you don’t go hungry.
Coffee lovers rejoice. The café con leche in Spain is out of this world. Usually there’s a café open in the morning where you can get a tostada (toast) or croissant. Spain is big on just eating bread for breakfast, which felt insubstantial to me. Sometimes the cafes will have tortilla, which satisfied my American breakfast cravings. Tortilla is a casserole of eggs, potatoes, and cheese. They will cut you off a slice.
In the mountainous areas, there were sometimes no cafes open in the morning. It’s wise to have some breakfast snacks and instant coffee on hand for these times.
Walking the Camino Alone
I began my winter Camino solo. Would I recommend it? Sure.
The trail isn’t swarming with other pilgrims by any means, but there were usually 4-12 other pilgrims at the albergue on any given night. There will be enough people around that you can make friends if you want, but you can also do your own thing if you want as well.
If you’re looking for a party every night and lots of people to socialize with, walking the Camino in the winter probably isn’t for you, summer child. The winter experience is more about quiet evenings, and seeing the same people every day.
What about the safety factor of being a solo pilgrim in the winter time? During my walk, it only snowed a few times. And for the mountainous regions, there’s always an option to take a lower route if the weather is bad. There’s always a village within 5 kilometers or so, and there’s always a road even closer.
Check the weather report nightly to see what to expect.
Hiking the Camino as a Woman aka “Pelegrina”
I was surprised that there were far more men doing a winter Camino than women. Back in the States the ratio of women and men on hiking trails is pretty equal nowadays.
Another surprise was how many men I saw in their underwear at the albergues. European men are not shy about hanging out without many clothes on, that’s for sure. And they all seem to wear really tiny and tight underwear too. One guy told me that the boxer style (that many American guys wear) is for old men.
I’d say for the most part the other pilgrims treated me like anyone else. Sometimes the guys would tell me how “strong” or “brave” I was or how impressed they were that I was doing the Camino. They meant to compliment me, but it seems there’s still an underlying message of I’m brave or strong for a girl.
Sometimes I would let my ego run wild and purposely hike faster than them. I think I did this to prove the point that I’m not strong for a girl; I’m just strong.
Safety on the Camino is a concern about as much as anywhere else. I had one negative encounter in Santiago when a drunk guy crawled into my bed and wouldn’t leave when I told him to. I had to call for another pilgrim to come intervene.
Basically, there are disrespectful, asshole dudes everywhere in the world. I do not think there’s more on the Camino than at home.
FAQs about the Camino:
I don’t know Spanish. Will this be a problem?
It won’t be a problem exactly, but you will meet lots of people who are not speaking English. I recommend learning a few basic phrases in Spanish and carrying around a phrasebook. You’re basically asking the same type of questions every day, (“I would like a coffee with milk.” “Is the albergue open?”) so with a little bit of effort you will be able to get around just fine.
My Spanish skills are basic, and it was enough. I was just confused a lot of the time, but that’s usually expected during international travels.
Should I get a Spanish SIM card for the Camino?
There’s wifi everywhere. The vast majority of albergues have it, and most cafes do as well. You can download the Camino maps and use them without being online. There were only two albergues I stayed at that didn’t have wifi.
So, this depends really. Do you want to be connected all the time? Or are you OK with only using the internet in the evening and during coffee breaks?
Will I be alone on the Camino Invierno?
No, there will be other
crazy like-minded people on the Camino as well. Not a lot of them by any means, but I never spent the night alone in an albergue.
Do I need a plug converter for the outlets?
Yes, you do if you’re coming from anywhere other than Europe. You can easily pick up a plug converter when you arrive in Spain. Or you can get a US to Europe plug converter here.