One of the stories from this year’s Camino was the heat. Oh, the heat! I like to escape the humidity of a northeastern US summer for Europe where it’s almost guaranteed to be a little cooler and all-around much more pleasant. And usually, it is.
But this summer, Europe experienced some record-breaking heatwaves, and I happened to be walking through one of them.
It was intense.
I like to think that I can handle heat pretty well- after all, until earlier this year, I’ve never owned a car with working air conditioning. I rarely use air conditioning in my apartment, either (I have one small window unit and I generally only use it a few times a year, on the very hottest and most humid days. But I suppose I should say that my apartment stays pretty cool and a fan is often all I need to manage the heat). In any case, walking a summer-time Camino has never been too stressful to me. I expect that it will be hot, but I never worry too much. There have been some pretty uncomfortable days, but I’ve always been able to handle them pretty well.
But this summer was a different story. All told, I only walked for about 3-days in really bad heat, but that was enough. It was the end of June, and the end of my Camino Aragonés. The heat had been building and building and then suddenly it burst: unrelenting and all-consuming. At times, it was hard to think, that’s how hot it was. The highest temperature I saw recorded was 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), displayed on one of the pharmacy signs as I walked through an empty town one afternoon (empty, because every other person was inside, taking a siesta. More on that later). 40 degrees is hot, and it’s very possible that I may have experience heat a degree or two higher; I know that other parts of Europe certainly did.
I learned a few things about walking in this kind of heat, and I thought I would share more of that experience here, in case anyone else ends up in the middle of a long walk and trapped in a heatwave.
When I think back to those days, what stands out the most is the sense of community and support that developed among the pilgrims on the Camino. We were all walking through the heat, and it was a struggle for everyone. I think that the heat helped us form stronger bonds; pilgrims looked out for one another, always checking in and making sure others were okay. And, in addition to the sometimes intense experience of walking really long distances, we added an incredible heat to the pilgrimage, and it was like we were all in it together, even if we were walking separately. Like I’ve said in a previous post, the Camino Aragonés had this really nice community feel to it anyway; there were about 12-15 other pilgrims walking the same stages as me, so I got to know the others from staying in the same albergues. But I think the heatwave just made the connections easier. By the end of the Aragonés, I felt like the entire group was my Camino family, even the Spanish guy in the red shirt who didn’t really say much to anyone. It didn’t matter. When I saw him at the albergue in Puente La Reina, I ran up and smiled and gave him a big thumbs up (we couldn’t really communicate so gestures and body language went a long way). His smile was just as big as my own: we’d each made it, and in a way we’d been looking out for one another. That’s what mattered.
I walked through the heatwave but I never felt like I was in it alone. That meant a lot.
This idea of group support leads me to my next point. When walking in a heatwave, start early. Start really early. I was trying to do that anyway, but ‘early’ took on a new meaning the morning we left Sangüesa. The night before, a Dutch woman organized a 4:30am wake-up call. We were all in one big bunk room in the albergue, and this pilgrim figured that if a few of us were going to wake up really early, we might as well all wake up really early. Initially, I thought the wake-up call was way too early; anything in the 4 o’clock hour is a time that is meant for sleep, and I’ve always felt pretty strongly about that. And sure, I could have stayed in bed while everyone else woke up, but when you walk a Camino, if several people are moving around in an albergue room and packing up their things, it’s guaranteed to wake you up.
So I rose with the others and drank a cup of instant coffee in the common room, ate a bite of leftover tortilla from the night before and then headed out alone, pilgrims a few minutes ahead of me, pilgrims a few minutes behind me.
It’s probably no secret that I like to walk alone. I don’t mind occasionally walking with other people but mornings are my favorite time to walk alone, so even though I left the albergue just after 5am and it was pitch black outside, I was happy that I was walking by myself.
This was good and fine for the first 20 minutes: I was walking on a sidewalk out of town, the arrows (when I could find them with my flashlight) were pointing straight ahead. The air was somewhat cool and it was kind of exciting, a little thrilling, to be walking under what still felt like a night sky.
But then, naturally, I missed an arrow. I walked, then turned around, confused. I heard voices behind me and realized it was a group of pilgrims from the albergue. I waited until they caught up with me and then, together, we figured out where to go. I walked with them for awhile, up and down the hills until the sun began to rise behind a mountain, throwing a soft pink light through the sky. Eventually I stopped for a break and let them walk ahead of me so that I continue walking on alone. But I learned something that I should have already known (because I’ve gotten confused walking in the dark before): if I need a flashlight to walk the Camino, I shouldn’t be too far from other pilgrims.
In any case, waking up really early and starting your day’s walk well before the crack of dawn is important in extreme heat. The first few hours of the day were really pleasant and so, so beautiful as the sun was rising. Once that sun had crested the mountain, however, the heat began. It was a bit like a race against the clock, walking as fast as I could before the sun had fully risen in the sky. But the more kilometers you can walk before the sun rises, the less you’ll have to walk in really bad heat. For those three days of walking through the heatwave, I think I had finished walking and was checking into my albergue by noon, or 12:30 at the latest. The last few hours of the walk each day were tough: by 10am the heat was strong, and the time between 11:00am and noon was just a difficult hour, the kind where you need to focus on each footstep and tell yourself- “One step at a time. One step at a time.”
I can’t imagine what I would have done if I’d needed to continue walking through the afternoon on those days. It would have been really difficult, and maybe dangerous. In the past, I’ve heard pilgrims say that they walk in the morning hours, take a really long siesta during the afternoon, and then continue walking in the evening when the heat has cooled. I think this could be possible if you’re walking a Camino route where you know there will be availability in albergues, or else if you’ve made a reservation in an albergue or hotel, so that you could arrive late and still be guaranteed a bed.
On some Camino routes, it can be easy to alter your schedule and just walk short days in extreme heat. A 10 or 15 kilometer day, if started early, could have you finishing by mid-morning before the worst heat of the day. A lot of albergues don’t open until early to mid afternoon, but it would still be better to hang out inside, at a bar or restaurant, and wait for the albergue to open, rather than continuing to walk through the heat. On the Aragonés, I met two French pilgrims who decided to skip ahead a stage and take a bus to the next town, so that they could walk shorter stages and still arrive in Puente La Reina on schedule. They were worried about walking 25 or 30 kilometer stages in the heat, and so they adjusted their plans.
I think this is always a good idea. Some pilgrims will stop walking if it gets too hot, and either hang out in a village or town, or take a bus to a city for a few days and then just return when the weather has cooled. I think mentioning this is important, because walking through a heatwave can be dangerous. I never felt like I was in any danger this summer, but it helped to start early and walk fast before the sun had fully risen. If I hadn’t been able to end my walking day by noon, it could have been a very different story.
But ending the day around noon has another advantage: if the albergue is open, it gives you time to claim a bed, take a shower, wash your clothing, and then head out for a big menu del dia lunch before returning to the albergue for a nice, long siesta.
I loved doing this. I had some incredible meals and with a full belly and a hot sun bearing down, there was nothing more I wanted to do than go back to my bunk and rest for awhile. This is a pro-tip for the Camino: a menu del dia (menu of the day) is very similar to a pilgrim’s menu, but the quality of the food is often better. The price is comparable- around 10 euros- and you’ll get a starter, main dish and dessert, bread and wine, too, just like the pilgrim’s menu. But it was a treat to have varied and delicious options (and the little pitchers of wine help slow you down for the siesta, too).
Walking in the dark and eating big lunches are good and fine, but what about actually walking in the heat?
I focused on three things: keeping myself as cool as possible, drinking water consistently throughout the day, and resting in shade every chance I got.
In terms of keeping myself cool, options are a bit limited, but there are still some strategies that I think any pilgrim could use. The first is to wear a wide-brimmed hat that will keep the sun off of both your face and the back of your neck. Initially, I only had a ball cap, but when the heat got bad I went out in search of a better hat. The town of Sangüesa had a pretty awesome general store with really cheap stuff, and I found a 2 euro hat with a somewhat wide brim. It was navy blue which wasn’t the best (lighter colors are recommended), and the fit was rather poor, but at least it shielded my head from the sun more than my ball cap did. (Some pilgrims carry an umbrella to fully protect themselves from the sun, which can also work really well).
My other tip for trying to stay cool while walking in a heatwave is to use a buff. I’ve written about my buff before, and it’s come in handy more times than I can count. But my very favorite way to use it is this: when passing a fountain, run it under the water until it is soaked and dripping. Without squeezing out too much of the water, I’ll put it either around my neck or up over the top of my head. Water gets everywhere, but- at least initially- it’s cool and refreshing. The buff will dry out and warm up pretty quickly under a hot sun, but even ten minutes of a cool sensation against my neck or head is such a relief. I’ll refresh the buff at every fountain I pass.
And speaking of fountains, it might go without saying that staying hydrated is really important during a heatwave, but I’m going to say it anyway. Water is key. I read somewhere that it’s better to take small sips continuously throughout the day during extreme heat (rather than gulping down a ton of water all at once), and I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but it’s what I tried to do. In any case, I made myself drink even if I wasn’t feeling thirsty, just to make sure that I was giving my body enough water. And this is something I do on the Camino anyway, but every time I passed a fountain I would fill my water bottle. Even if the bottle was nearly full, it didn’t matter. I’d make sure it was filled to the very top (and often, the water from a fountain is cooler than what’s been sitting in your bottle, so it helps to refresh). You’re going to sweat a lot while walking in hot temperatures, so that makes it extra important to stay hydrated. Many people carry electrolyte tablets or some equivalent, and I think this is a good idea, especially if you’re walking in the summer. (There are lots of different kinds you can buy: I’ve tried these, and these).
Finally, the shade. If you’re on a forested path or walking in an area with lots of trees, the air will be a little cooler and the shade will be a relief. But on the Camino, it’s often difficult to find shade. So much of the path is out in the open, and my walk on the Aragonés during the heatwave was no different. There was a long stretch when I could see the path winding far ahead of me, the heat shimmering up from the ground, the path was a blaring white and there wasn’t a spot to hide in the shade for what felt like miles. In a case like this, there’s not much that you can do. But if you do pass a tree, even just a tiny section of the trail that has just a bit of shade, my best advice is to make a beeline to that spot and stand there for a few minutes. Small breaks are good for your body during a heatwave, and a chance to escape a relentless sun is important. I actually learned this from a dog that I hiked with a few years ago in France: on hot afternoons, he would criss-cross the road to walk in shade as much as possible. At first I thought it was funny, but then I realized that this dog was really smart. He knew what he had to do to stay cool.
I now look back at those days of walking in the heat and I wonder- “Was it really that hot?” Then I remember the last day in Puente La Reina, sitting around a table in the albergue with a group of pilgrims: from Italy and France and Japan. Most of us had just met and we were eating and laughing and toasting to the Camino and even while sitting still at the table, sweat dripped from all of us. There was no escape.
Walking in the heat isn’t always fun and it’s important to be really careful, and the smartest thing might be to change plans and avoid walking during the hottest days. I’m curious if others have had experience walking the Camino in a heatwave: what did you do? Do you have any other tips or tricks?