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In a week’s time, I’ll have arrived at Saint Jean Pied de Port, a small town on the French side of the Pyrenees. The following morning, I’ll lace up my shoes, throw on my backpack and start walking towards Spain… and I won’t stop for a month or more.
I’m walking the Camino Frances, one of a number of medieval pilgrimage routes collectively known as the ‘Camino de Santiago’ that finish in Santiago de Compostela, in north-western Spain. Since I’ll be walking 500 miles while carrying everything I need in a thirty litre backpack, I’m planning to take as little as possible … and that definitely includes technology.
As with any other travel gear, it’s easy to fall into the trap of taking all kinds of things ‘just in case’. At the same time, the right mix will actually reduce my overall pack weight, keep me safe and healthy, and make for a more enjoyable experience. It’s just a shame none of it can prevent the inevitable blisters, really.
I’ve settled on the following. For a geek like me, being able to pretty much hold all of it in one hand feels both surprising and liberating!
The main piece of tech I’m taking on the Camino is my nearly two-year-old smartphone, the Google Nexus 5. It’s a good size and weight for this kind of trip, fitting easily into shorts pockets. I’ve had a basic rubber case on it since the day I bought it, which protects it from most knocks and scratches.
The camera was good at the time, and still takes acceptable photos now — but it’s not up there with the latest high-end phones. Still, when I walked a different route for a week earlier in the year, the resulting photos were fine. Not amazing, but good enough for the type of landscape shots I’ll mostly be taking.
I didn’t want the weight of a paper guidebook, and none of the e-book versions seemed particularly great, so instead I’ve opted for this Camino de Santiago guide app for Android. It seems to have the basics covered well, but of course, I won’t really know until I start.
I’ve also downloaded a (Google-translated) copy of this free Spanish guide, and printed out a few sheets of paper with routes and elevations to use and discard along the way.
Other than that, I’ll just have the usual mix of apps I’d use on any other trip — Google Maps, Pocket, Kindle, Pocket Casts, maybe a music player. A Camino preparation e-book I downloaded includes several pages of useful phrases, so I can work on my mediocre Spanish along the way.
I’ll have a Spanish SIM card as well, so after I’ve crossed those mountains on the first day, I’ll have 3G most of the time if I need it. Wi-fi is apparently often available in cafes and bars, and starting to make an appearance in some albergues (pilgrim accommodation), however, so cell data may not really be required all that much.
My phone will be in flight mode while I’m walking to save battery and eliminate distractions anyway, but I figure it’s useful to be able to make calls for a variety of reasons. The cost is low for the convenience.
Portable Battery With Storage
My phone’s battery life was fine when I bought it, but 18+ months of use and upgrading to Android 5.0 haven’t helped, and I now struggle to get a full day’s use out of it. Flight mode and rarely taking it out of my pocket will help a lot, but with plenty of competition for power sockets in the albergues, I’m taking a portable battery just in case.
It’ll give me at least two extra charges from empty, which should be more than enough. It does take quite a while to charge itself back up to 100%, but that’s normal for most portable batteries, and there’s not much I can do about it.
Speaking of limited power sockets, I’ve decided to do my bit for fellow pilgrims by taking this 4-way USB charger. It’s a bit bigger than my single USB version, but since it comes with a European plug, I won’t need a separate plug adapter.
It’ll be about the same size and weight overall, and lets three other people also charge their gear from the same socket. I’m sure they’ll appreciate that.
Two Micro-USB Cables
I’ve got two devices that charge via micro-USB, and two cables to do it with. It also means I’ve got a spare if one breaks — always a possibility. One of the cables is quite long, to reach from randomly-placed wall sockets to somewhere more useful. The other is only a few inches, to take up less space in my bag.
Between snoring, rustling, talking and all the other annoying noises people make in hostel-style accommodation, I’m expecting plenty of broken sleep. Earplugs will be my usual choice, but I’m taking my noise-isolating earphones as well.
They’re small and light, and will let me listen to music or podcasts without bothering (or being bothered by) other people. I don’t expect to use them much while walking, but during those long, dull days on the meseta, they’ll likely get pulled out at some point.
Finally, I’m taking a Suunto Ambit 3 sports watch along with me. It’s not strictly necessary — my phone could replace it for most things — but it’ll be useful enough to justify the little extra weight.
It’ll track my daily route and distance, wake me up in the morning, help me backtrack if I get lost and tell me when sunrise is, since the afternoon heat means an early start most days.
It’s waterproof, too, which means I don’t need to worry about it during the almost-inevitable rain in Galicia. Unfortunately the waterproof charging port means I need to carry a specific charging cable as well — not my favourite feature.
It’s a bit of a luxury, but since it’s small, light and shouldn’t need charging every day, I’m happy to take it along. It also means I can turn my phone off at night, and not use it for GPS during the day. End result? A phone that has battery life when I need it. Handy.
And that’s it. I’m not taking a laptop, since the whole idea is to stay offline. While my camera is reasonably small, the charger and cable add extra bulk, and it’s too large to fit in a pocket and too annoying to wear around my neck or take in and out of my bag all the time anyway.
I looked through all of the other assorted gadgets in my bag, and when it came down to it, I just couldn’t find a compelling enough reason to carry any of them for five hundred miles. And so I won’t.
Let the adventure begin!
What do you think about my tech options for the Camino? Do you think I’m taking too much? Not enough? Any thoughts or suggestions welcome!