The Logistics of Laundry on a 500 Mile Hike

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Breaking the rules by washing my clothes in the sink (instead of the outdoor stream) in the hostel at San Bol

I don’t know if my clothes had ever been so filthy as when I walked 500 miles across Spain.

Talk about the dust! It clung to everything…my hair, my skin, my shoes, and of course,  my clothes.

Every afternoon, finding a place to stay for the night wasn’t just about finding somewhere to sleep – it was also a task in finding somewhere to take a shower, and to wash and dry my clothes. For most of the journey, I walked with only two sets of clothes. I wore the first set as I walked  – usually from 6am until lunchtime.

Every afternoon, I walked into small villages, built-up cities, or countryside towns, and found a place to stay for the night. Every day, I scrubbed my clothes in a sink – usually with cold water and whatever detergent I had to hand. Mostly, I used shower gel to clean my gear. I couldn’t rationalise carrying a second type of detergent just for my clothes. So, the shower gel doubled-up as shampoo and laundry detergent too, in an effort to reduce the weight of my backpack.

I wore the second set of clothes while I washed the first set and waited for them to dry.

So, even though I alternated my wardrobe every morning and afternoon, I essentially wore the same clothes every day for six weeks.

As you can imagine, things got tricky when both sets of clothes needed to be washed at the same time. What would I wear then?!

Things also got tricky when the rain poured down and drying my clothes outdoors was impossible. The first time it happened, I stayed in Puente la Reina and 99 other pilgrims scrambled to use the electric washing machines and tumble dryers at the same time. I waited for 4 hours for my turn but eventually went to bed at 10:30pm exhausted and without getting a chance to dry my clothes from the rain – the machines had been in use all that time! I hung my clothes to dry indoors in the hostel but they didn’t dry at all, and I had no choice but to wear damp clothing when I left the next morning.

Along camino, a lot of the sinks were outdoors and had built-in washboards to help us scrub away the grime. They’re a smart design, and I felt like a Victorian washerwoman, bent double over a vat of stinking cloth!

In the hostel at San Bol, we were instructed to wash our clothes in the outdoor stream instead of in the indoor sink. I broke the rules on that one.

Sometimes, the hostel owners provided detergent and/or scrubbing brushes to help with the cleaning. Sometimes the water was warm or even hot, and I delighted in watching the grime melt away quickly. The smallest blessings can be the sweetest!

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A standard camino sink

Friends asked me: Why didn’t you use a washing machine instead?

After all, there were days when I was so physically spent from all the walking and my feet were so impossibly sore, that to stand at a sink and spend another 20 minutes labouring over dirty clothes was just *too much*. It takes a lot of time each evening to find a place to stay, shower, do the laundry, find somewhere to eat, and get ready for the following day. That small routine can take hours, and when I was tired and sore, it sometimes felt like the death of me.

So my friends wondered why I didn’t just throw my clothes in the machine every day and save my energy.

Short answer: many of the hostels didn’t have automatic washing machines….so I had no option but to scrub them by hand.

Secondly, washing clothes in a machine takes a lot of time. The quickest cycle might be 30 minutes in length…that’s quite a bit longer than it would take to wash them by hand. It’s actually labour-saving to quickly wash them by hand, hang them to dry, and walk away, than to wait for the machine to wash them. Plus, getting them washed was the easy bit: getting them dry was the greater concern. So, if you were to ask me whether I prioritised those extra minutes on the washing or on the drying I’d tell you that I tried to get my clothes into the hot sun as soon as possible. Only then could I fully relax.

Thirdly, it can be quite expensive to use the facilities every day along camino. Each time I used a washing machine, I was charged around €5-6. And it was the same each time I wanted to use a tumble dryer – an extra €5-6. I didn’t have enough clothes to fill a full load so I often shared with someone else and split the cost. But still, the costs add up pretty quickly and I didn’t want that expense every day. Assuming all the hostels had machines, I split the cost with someone, and I had time to wait every day…I’d still spend €6 on laundry every day for 6 weeks. Quite frankly, I’d rather spend the money on wine instead! 🙂

But in saying that, the few times I did avail of washing machines and dryers, the results were amazing! That photo at the top of the post is what I faced pretty much every day I had to wash them by hand in a sink. Don’t feel sorry for me…everyone else was the very same! But I’ll admit, my clothes were pretty grimey and I don’t know that I was much better myself. After throwing them in a washing machine, my clothes looked and felt truly clean.

Up to that, I appreciated washing machines in that kind of abstract, first-world way. During and after camino, I thought automatic washing machines were a truly awesome thing and I gave thanks for their mighty power!

Towards the end of the journey, in Galacia, I hung my clothes on an outdoors line and while I went away for dinner, the wind and rain blew everything across the fields. When I returned at 9pm, I had to walk around in the pitch black night and the pouring rain, looking for my clothes in dark, grassy field…and hoping that the wind hadn’t blown my few items into the cow dung!

Washing the gear was relatively easy but I found it trickier to dry the stuff.

Most of the time, I used outdoor clothes horses of all shapes and sizes. Occasionally, there were indoor clothes horses too. Often they were already full, so finding a free space was like shopping for gifts on Christmas eve – a bit of a competition.

Thankfully, in 6 weeks I had only a few days of rain so most of the time, my clothes were perfectly dry when I needed them at 6am the next day. In Ponferrada, however, my clothes were still wet when I woke the next morning, and I walked out into dark rainfall with the cold dampness seeping into my skin. My backpack too was full of damp clothing. I genuinely didn’t know when I’d get a chance to dry any of it properly – it would be hours at least, and maybe even days if the rain kept up. That was utterly disheartening.

But most of the time, I dried my gear on clothes horses sitting in the sun.

Sometimes, there were outdoor clothes lines hung between buildings or trees.

Occasionally, I hung my clothes from the end of my bed.

Once, in Carrión de los Condes, I had to weave my clothes through chicken wire to dry them.

And best of all was in Samos when the hostel guy told me they didn’t have a garden or any clothes horses, so I had to go across the road and throw my clothes on top of the shrubs and bushes there. 70 of us draped our laundry (including underwear) on the bushes, for the entire town to see as they walked past. I wish I’d taken a picture of it!

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Creative Clotheshorse in Carrión de los Condes

What were your experiences of laundry life on your travels? Did you wash your clothes by hand or use the machines? Did anything go missing, get eaten by goats, or show up in an unexpected place?

4 thoughts on “The Logistics of Laundry on a 500 Mile Hike

  1. Ah the dreaded laundry!! I so wish I could avoid doing it, but alas, it needs to be done. I’m having visions of washing clothes from your photo of the sink you posted. There are some great all-purpose soaps you can use instead of using up your shower gel. It did everything for me,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry to leave you with grimey grey visions, David! Sounds like you are far more organised than I, with the all-purpose soaps! You’re right of course. I didn’t buy any before I left and somehow never bought any when I was in Spain either. But next time I’ll know better 🙂

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