How difficult is it to walk the Camino? The million-dollar question is, I suppose, is the French Way easier or harder than the Portuguese way? Is the last 100km of the Portuguese Coastal Way flat? We always want to know what comes ahead and that is natural.
What is really important though is whether or not you can do it, right? I get that. Everybody hopes they made the right choice. This is not necessarily the easiest though.
Let me give you the information you’ll need to make a good choice when choosing a route along the Camino.
Camino de Santiago Routes
First of all, if you did not know, the Camino de Santiago is formed by a network of routes, with different levels of difficulty and lengths, and with the common purpose that all routes lead to the impressive and beautiful Santiago de Compostela (except for the Finisterre Way which starts in Santiago and ends in Cape Finisterre, ‘the end of the world’).
By number of pilgrims, the most popular Camino routes are:
Explore The Most Popular Route
Discover the French Way, It’s 800 KM of trail has inspired many artists, writers and filmmakers to document their profound journey.Discover More
The different difficulty aspects of the Camino
Since 2006, we have been operating tours along each of the different Camino de Santiago routes, giving us a deep understanding of each Camino, level of difficulty, type of terrain, distances, weather conditions and infrastructure available.
Let’s not lie to each other, no matter which section you choose, you will be walking 5-6 days in a row, at the very least, to complete your journey, particularly if you plan to walk the minimum 100 km needed to be eligible for your Compostela.
Every one of these days, you will be walking 20-25 km on average. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but imagine yourself on the road for 5h or so (excluding coffee breaks) every single day and let’s be honest, this is not something most people are used to (Pic hiker at a desk – funny face).
The different types of terrain on the Camino
The typical types of Camino terrain that you’ll experience are:
This is the best terrain for hikers – I hope you agree with that! On most Camino routes, you will have a minimum of 50% of dirt tracks. Some of them between fields, some of them in small vineyards and some in forests.
These are usually the most pleasant to walk, bringing you closer to nature and taking you away from traffic. The downside is there are usually fewer spots to stop for coffee/toilet break! You have to know what you want 🙂
As you walk on long-distance trails like the Camino, you will come across a variety of city-making (architecture), but a fair bit of the routes are on tertiary/country roads linking smaller towns and villages.
They are usually quiet enough and have dedicated footpaths, although not 100% of the time. But nevertheless, on the Camino, these are extensively used by walkers so you will not feel alone joining the many people on their journey.
As the ascent/descent gets steeper, you will come across some rougher terrain underfoot with stones and rocks. This usually comes with a greater amount of uphill/downhill walking and presents a challenge.
If it helps, I find it comes with greater landscapes too! 🙂
Pilgrims over the centuries simply chose the easiest way to go from town to town. A bit like mountain tracks – which always makes me wonder “who created this?” – the Camino follows the main trade routes going from town to town. The only issue is that in the past 50-70 years, with the expansion of cars and trucks, roads have become greater in number and size.
So, there is a certain amount (3-10%) of the Camino that is along bigger two-lane roads and highways. These are more common as you get into big cities (Leon, Porto, etc) although local authorities are trying to find new ways in.
Anyway, these are not uncommon but usually only last for an hour or two here and there on a one week trip.
The length of your walking day
As you get into multi-day walking, finding the right balance of ground coverage and rest is paramount to a successful trip. As you must travel far to reach the Camino, you want to make the most out of your trip.
Since walking is about experience and scenery, you might think that the more you see the more value you get from your journey. I would agree with that to a point. For example, would you walk from dusk to dawn? I am sure that this will put you off as it would put me off as well.
Reaching Santiago de Compostela is something you want to appreciate, not regret or that, you need to make the journey endurable and enjoyable.
What is a long walking day anyway?
Ok, let’s start with the theory of walking!
An average walking pace is 4 km/h. Try to imagine the pace you have as you go down to your local shop to get milk. That is about 4 km/h. A slow walking pace will be around 2.5 km/h or 3 km/h and a fast pace is between 5 km/h and 6 km/h.
Now, so what? Well, l just think about it for a minute. The faster you go, the harder it is to maintain the pace or the more strenuous it gets. The slower you go, the more time you will spend on the path and see people overtaking you and so on.
You want to be walking between 4 and 6 hours ideally, excluding breaks.
Camino walking times
What if you want to push it a bit during your trip? Every now and again, I get a person ringing who wants to do 200 km in 1 week. When I ask why people then say they want to see more during their week. The issue with this is that in terms of clocking mileages, yes, but in terms of enjoyment – no way.
If you push too much, you will get more tired. You will have more pressure during your day.
Why not push the km during your trip:
- You will get more tired each day
- You will get more tired throughout your trip
- You will get grumpy (yes, that is how we are when we get tired, like these babies)
- You will have less time chilling, exploring, “taking time to slow down”
- You will meet fewer people as not many will be able to keep up with you
- If you push yourself too much, your body will let you know > Injuries and blisters
In other words, just go for an average stage length and take advantage of the time you have to either slow down or meet more people or read more of your favourite book. Even though the Camino is a pilgrimage, it is also a holiday.
I have managed challenges, ultra runners, and people who tend to do more regardless. The happiness rate is lower than people who walk at a reasonable pace.
Beware though, on the Camino, we do not control the distances between stops. That means that if there is no accommodation (or not suitable) after 20 km, we might have to choose between stopping at km 17 OR 25 or sometimes 28.
As a rule of thumb, I think that 20-25 is ideal, I would not recommend more than 30 (whenever possible). After that, we adapt to your wants and needs and can indeed organise 10-15 km/day or longer days.
An ideal walk is when temperatures are mild, a little breezy, and with sunshine right? I am with you on that. However, the weather is not always like this (or is it?).
Here are the factors that will affect the difficulty of your walk.
Temperatures below 10C or above 28C
For lower temperatures, you can indeed layer up but it makes things harder. When it gets quite warm, if not hot, it strains your body even more than lower temperatures. I would recommend to start earlier in the day to finish by 12h00 ish and avoid the sun right over your head for too long.
The rain in Spain is not as wet as in other parts of the world. “What does he mean”? You might ask. Well, what I mean by that is Spain is a Mediterranean country and so temperatures are generally higher and humidity lower.
Hence, if it rains for an hour, it might not be that heavy, and it will dry out more quickly as compared to more nordic countries such as the UK and Ireland where humidity is higher and therefore keeps things wet even after the rain has stopped.
In any case, rain does impact the difficulty of your trip as walking through the rain all day long is more tiring physically and mentally.
Wind rarely has a massive impact on the walking itself and comes usually with changes in weather. The greatest impact on wind is the multiplicator effect it has on cold (wind chill) and that it can get tiring when you have a front wind all day long.
So, the weather can affect your walk to various degrees. Remember to stay safe and sound and that if weather conditions are too bad either way (heat, cold, rain etc), you can shorten your day with public transportation or work around the weather depending on your schedule. The Camino is a journey that can present some challenges, not a race or challenge in itself.
We have developed a simple system to give you the better time to go on the Camino. So you can make the best choice depending on your schedule.
Having the right gear will help you overcome these, so check our packing list here.
Altitude gain and loss
Some of the difficulty of walking the Camino comes from the altitude gain or loss during the day. You would be surprised by how we all see the world differently. What is a hill for some is a mountain for others and so on.
On the Camino, you will have an altitude gain of 300-500m per day. Specifically on the French Way, an average altitude gain of 321, and on the Portuguese Way, an average altitude gain of 278m.
The challenge, however, is when you are going on a trip and there is that 1 day with 1000m altitude gain like on the first section of the French Way from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles (FR1). These days are longer and more challenging for sure. But they are still achievable to anyone who did a minimum prep for it.
Now, some people ease going up the steeper hills by walking backwards (I have seen it!) but I don’t think you can go on for too long that way. You can zigzag a bit if need be or just get on with it. It is temporary, and remember that what goes up …
… has to go down! Some people see the downhill part as more challenging. In fact, the steeper the way down, the harder it is on your quad muscles, knees and ankles. So if that is you, you want to take it easy going downhill.
One way to ease the uphill and downhill on the Camino is the use of walking poles. These reduce the load on your feet by 10-15% and offer a more stable platform. Before you go to the shop and get your pair of poles, go on a practice run near home with friends and borrow a pair of walking sticks to see if you like it or not.
This is a great way to Train for your Camino, to try new walking techniques and to meet old friends or new friends.
Who is the Camino for?
I have walked with my children (cheating a few stages as granny had a car!) and they both walked up to 21 km with temperatures of 30C (we were well hydrated and finished by 13h00). I have walked with students and those who were tailing were the cold, dude who showed up with the caterpillar shoes which might be good for bricklaying but not great for walking.
I have walked with 70s+ people who might not have wasted as much energy chatting and sipping on beer as we middle-aged folks, but went through days without a bother.
There are many people I met along the Camino that had various issues themselves such as arthritis, visual impairments, heart conditions, pacemakers, you name it. They all got on ok. Some of them were slower than others but in the end, we were together and that is part of the reason why the Camino is so great. We all go through it the same.
Walking the Camino is not difficult. It is a state of mind. Just know that you will be ok. Whether it is warmer, or colder, a rainy week or hopefully a perfect week. It does not matter, you will be fine. Use these points simply to help you better prepare for your trip and increase your enjoyment once there.
If you have specific questions about the different stages of the Camino, get in touch with us! We can help you plan a Camino walking holiday that suits you and your fitness level.
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Originally published on 14th October 2019