Top five

Pardon the interruption. 

I want to take a break from our series on James the Great and his trail in Spain to share a thought or two or five about gear.

The Camino near Tardajos, Spain.

The Camino near Tardajos, Spain.

Gear choices are intensely personal and determined by priorities, size, fit, style, season, destination, access to resupply, pack weight, etc. etc. Travelers think about these questions: What do I bring? What do I leave behind? What can I throw away right now? It's funny how this list changes as the miles accumulate underfoot!

From time to time, I've shared my thoughts about packing for the trail (see here as an example). In this post I highlight five indispensable items for hiking Spain's Camino de Santiago in the heat of midsummer. 

These five items are not the only things I carried for 800 kilometers. I list them here because they unexpectedly proved their worth.

1. Water bottles within reach.

Walking in hot weather means you need access to plenty of drinking water. The good news for Camino walkers is that there are water fountains in nearly every village. What is even better is that this water is tasty and does not require treatment or filtering. 

Early on, I carried two liters of water and refilled every time I had a chance. As I became more comfortable with the walk (and got to the other side of Spain's central plateau) I gave away my heavy 1 liter Nalgene (sad face), and just carried two plastic .5 liter bottles. 

The Bottle Bandit makes it possible to clip a disposable water bottle to the shoulder strap of a backpack. The Bandit is made of black silicone. It fits tightly around the bottle neck just under the cap. The hack was the elastic band (yellow in color here) that held the bottle securely against my body.

The Bottle Bandit makes it possible to clip a disposable water bottle to the shoulder strap of a backpack. The Bandit is made of black silicone. It fits tightly around the bottle neck just under the cap. The hack was the elastic band (yellow in color here) that held the bottle securely against my body.

Unless you have chimp-like arms with double-jointed elbows it is difficult to access bottles from your pack. One answer to this problem is this little gizmo here. The Bottle Bandit makes it possible to suspend most disposable water bottles from a D-ring on your pack's shoulder straps (and throws the weight of the water to the forward side of your body). Two hacks make it even better. (1) I added a second carabiner in the link to position the bottle further down my chest where it was easier to reach. (2) I attached an elastic band to my pack's shoulder strap below the Bottle Bandit. The band held the bottom of the bottle against my body and prevented it from swinging around and clocking me in the head.

To get a drink, unclip the bottle (I recommend throwing the Bottle Bandit carabiner away and buying a quality one with a smooth action) draw the bottle out of its elastic "holster" and chug. You don't even have to break stride. This system worked for me for the length of the Camino.

Bottle Bandit + elastic loop + ordinary water bottle is the solution to the problem of dehydration on the trail.

2. Dirty Girls on the ankles.

Don't let these words scare you. Dirty Girl Gaiters are easily in my list of top five indispensable items. Maybe my top three. 

Slip these ultralight babes over your ankles and you won't have to pick pebbles and other trail-crud out of your shoes every 15 minutes. You will be lean and fast. You may even improve your looks.

I went with the giraffe pattern to make me appear taller. Other colors and patterns are available. Follow the link here to the Dirty Girl site. (I wouldn't Google "dirty girls" if I were you.)

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Again, I had to hack to improve the Dirty Girls out of the box. The cuff is pulled on after the sock but before the shoe. The front of the gaiter has a metal hook to catch the shoelaces on the top of the foot. That worked fine. The problem was in the rear. The back of the gaiter is held to the heel of the shoe by means of a velcro hook-and-loop fastener. In my case, the hook side of the fastener would not stay affixed to my heel.

I found an art supply store and bought more velcro with peel-off adhesive backing. That didn't fare any better. Finally I found some super glue. After supergluing the "hook" half of the velcro fastener to the back of my shoe, I never had another worry.

Dirty Girls + velcro + superglue is the solution to the problem of trail crud in your shoes.

3. A guide in the pocket.

This is probably a no-brainer, but a good guide book is essential for crossing Spain successfully. Like many other English readers, I carried a updated copy of John Brierley's guide (find it here). The maps, site descriptions, and other tidbits were interesting and informative. As I completed each stage I ripped out the pages and threw them away. It saved weight and gave me some sick mental satisfaction. By the time I reached Santiago de Compostela, my Brierley was completely destroyed.

Note 1: Hostel buzz suggested that Brierley was on the trail at the same time we were. I was relieved that I didn't run into him and be forced to explain what happened to his book. Authors are funny that way.

I butchered Brierley's guide.

I butchered Brierley's guide.

Note 2: While I still believe a guide is essential and that Brierley's book is top-tier and mystic, I will confess that I was drawn to a publication by Dintaman and Landis midway through my Camino (see it here). I appreciated the extra care D&L gave to offering hostel evaluations. I copied these notes into the margins of my Brierley. Were I to do it again, I might just go with D&L from the start. 

A good guidebook is the solution to the problems of getting lost, finding food, or locating places to sleep.

4. Lube on all moving parts.

I know this may be a little gross so if you want to skip the next couple of paragraphs I won't be hurt. But in the spirit of full disclosure I need to say this: petroleum jelly is the salve of salvation. It is the answer to a myriad of skin problems. Others must think so too; every pharmicist on the trail stocks tubes of the stuff.

Many of my comrades suffered on account of blisters, rashes, and cracks in the skin. Despair and infection sent some of them home and a few of them to the hospital. A contributing problem in each case was friction. That's where the petroleum jelly comes in. While it cannot overcome poor clothing choices or ill-fitting shoes or extreme heat, it is a great friction fighter when liberally applied to the private parts, buttocks, inner thighs, armpits, nipples, heels, feet, etc. etc.

Petroleum jelly works magic on the piggies. It kept mine pink and soft and blister-free through 500 miles of walking.

Petroleum jelly works magic on the piggies. It kept mine pink and soft and blister-free through 500 miles of walking.

I slathered on the jelly every morning. And I do mean slathered. After heels and toes were gooped, I pulled on my socks, gaiters, and shoes. It was a little squishy at first, but one gets used to it and even welcomes it. Occasionally, if I was walking for miles on scorching asphalt, I'd stop midday and slather again. Do you know what happened? I DID NOT HAVE ANY BLISTERS, RASH, or CRACKING PROBLEMS! Ha! (My thanks to Mark Nelson for this idea).

Of course I limped here and there for other reasons . . . like rusty joints and old age. But at least I never spent my evenings on my bunk trying to drain and dry blisters. That is far more yucky (and dangerous) than slimy feet and disgusting socks.

And speaking of disgusting socks, here is my fifth and final indispensable discovery.

5. Scrubba for the filth.

Petroleum jelly build-up, the sweat of the day, the dirt of the trail, and grease from the chorizo sausage all stick to clothing. This is a problem if you wish to feel human and socialize with other humans from time to time.

For my midsummer Camino I carried two outfits. One was my hiking clothes (shorts, socks, and a shirt). The other was my evening clothes (shorts, socks, and a shirt). Hmmm. At the end of each hiking day I washed my hiking outfit and hung it in the sun to dry. Every three or four days I washed my evening clothes. How did I manage the problem of washing all these items by hand? The secret is the Scrubba, the backpacker's "washing machine."

The backpacker's washing machine in action. Image from  here  (accessed 8/25/2018).

The backpacker's washing machine in action. Image from here (accessed 8/25/2018).

The Scrubba ain't cheap (see the link here) and it is a bit larger/heavier than I hoped. I hesitated to buy it for those reasons. However, in the end, I am glad I threw down the coin. My Scrubba is a beast. I lived out of a backpack for two months in the Middle East prior to my experience in Spain. I washed clothes everyday. The lime-green bag with its built-in washboard did the trick with no punctures or signs of wear.

Procedure: (a) put stinky clothes in the Scrubba, (b) dump in a little powdered detergent, (c) add hot water, (d) seal the top of the Scubba by rolling and clipping, (e) drain the air from the bag using the Scrubba valve, (f) shake and bake and rock and roll and let those little nubbins inside the bag do their thing, (g) rinse, (h) hang to dry. Sometimes I did all of this in the sink. Sometimes I used the shower. Sometimes I used a sidewalk. It worked perfectly every time.

Note: the Scrubba converts to a dry-bag if it starts raining while you are on the trail.

Thanks to my Scrubba I smelled like a rose for the first hour of every morning. After that, everybody smelled the same so it didn't matter anymore.

The Scrubba is the solution to the problem of stinky clothes.

Observe. Engage. Contemplate. Clip on your water. And keep on keeping on.

Observe. Engage. Contemplate. Clip on your water. And keep on keeping on.

These five items unexpectedly proved their worth on my Camino. You might consider them for your own. Or for travel elsewhere.

One day I'll tell you about the five things in my pack that did not prove their worth. They are hopefully rotting in a Spanish landfill somewhere. But that is a story for another day.

Buen Camino!


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Join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean experience in October, 2018. We'll be cruising aboard the luxurious Celebrity Reflection. See the link here for details. Onboard lectures will provide focus as we visit the ports of Malta, Rhodes, Santorini, and, of course, Athens among others. An optional add-on visit to Rome is possible on either end of the trip.