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Comparing Caminos by Challenge

2020 Camino Guides

Dave

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
First: Camino Francés 2002; most recent: Norte/Primitivo 2019
I’ve been tinkering around with the Chemin Le Puy / Via Podiensis route lately and I realized I now have good data for a number of different routes. I thought it would be interesting to make a more formal, apples-to-apples comparison of the relative challenge of each of those routes. To have a more universal case, I also ran the numbers for the Camino Francés, using Sandy Brown’s lovely new guidebook.

Here’s what I found:

1585332226184.png

Here’s how the sausage is made: for each stage, I divide the total elevation gain and loss by kilometers walked. The vast majority of the time, the number generated falls between the 20s and the 60s. This tidily sorted itself into the five tiers of challenge outlined above. An Easy stage ends up scoring less than 30 (think Güemes to Santander), a Moderate stage scores 40-50 (Santillana del Mar to Comillas), and a Strenuous stage exceeds 60 (many of the stages in the Basque Country!).

Is that the optimal way to do it? I have no idea! At the very least, though, it offers some shred of consistency as I compare these different routes.

As for findings, there are at least a few takeaways that stand out to me. The Primitivo is confirmed as the most challenging, with half of its stages in the two most strenuous categories. I’m surprised, though, by how equivalent the Norte and Francés appear to be, as the former is often regarded as a greater challenge. Finally, the Le Puy route emerges as the easiest of these options, thanks to a very, very flat second half.

There are, of course, other factors that play into the challenging nature of a walk. Tough footing can make a walk much more tiring, for example. But, this is at least one way of comparing some of the routes!
 
Camino(s) past & future
Us:Camino Frances, 2015 Me:Catalan/Aragonese, 2019
Maybe modify the above to have percentages become scores. Easy is multiplied by 1 and strenuous by 5 and then everything is added together for a toughness score. Example for the CF:
32 x 1 = 32
18 x 2 = 36
24 x 3 = 72
9 x 4 = 36
18 x 5 = 90
Score = 266
 
Camino(s) past & future
Camino Frances (2009), Camino Frances (2012), Via de la Plata (2013) and Camino del Norte planned for May, 2015
"There are, of course, other factors that play into the challenging nature of a walk. Tough footing can make a walk much more tiring, for example. "
And therein, you answer your own question. Kudos for an interesting and ambitious statistical analysis...but the subjective experience will always be the ultimate arbiter. The greatest variables are, of course, age and level of fitness and expertise. It would be interesting to see how your chart would change using each of these as a datum point. Personally, I have never found an assessment of degree of difficulty very helpful, but 'good on you' for trying!
 

Dave

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
First: Camino Francés 2002; most recent: Norte/Primitivo 2019
I agree, Rebekah!

And I also agree, at least in part, with you, Ella. I wasn't keen on including a "degree of difficulty" rating when I first worked on the guide, and I'm still opposed to including an estimated walking time. At the very least, though, I wanted some degree of consistency in the numbers. Maybe helpful to some, maybe useless to others. Kind of like guidebooks!

Interesting idea, Rick. Here's how the numbers play out: Francés 266, Norte 256, Le Puy 229, Primitivo 349, Inglés 240.
 

CWBuff

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
in Planning stage: Frances (SJPdP --> SdC) & Finisterre "2021" ... (GOD WILLING!)
CF must be tough. The numbers add up to 101!
 

davebugg

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
Frances(2017)
Frances(2018)
Ingles(2019)
Aragones(2020)
Portuguese(2020)
The disagreement I have, is that total elevation gain is NOT the primary issue with regard to effort. It is the degree of incline that becomes the significant factor for me. Gaining 100 meters in one km is far more difficult that doing so over 5 km.

So one would need to describe HOW that elevation is gained or lost to make an adequate comparison.
 

VNwalking

Wandering in big circles
Camino(s) past & future
Francés ('14/'15)
San Olav/CF ('16)
Baztanés/CF ('17)
Ingles ('18)
Vasco/CF/Invierno ('19)
There is the mind/heart/spirit variable to factor in, and that's impossible to quantify...

The hardest stages I have ever walked have been no more than moderate on paper - and occasionally they should have been 'easy.' And 'difficult' stages have felt easy.

But it's fun to play with this, as we can't go out there to see for ourselves.
 

Turga

Camino tortuga
Camino(s) past & future
CF (Aug/Sep 2017)
CF (Aug/Sep 2018)
Interesting idea, Rick. Here's how the numbers play out: Francés 266, Norte 256, Le Puy 229, Primitivo 349, Inglés 240.
If you want to go on with the idea of a score, then perhaps consider computing a relative score by normalizing the initial score to obtain a number between 0 and 100 (divide scores by highest value and multiply by 100):

FrancesNortePrimitivoLe PuyInglesFactor
Easy
32​
31​
8​
32​
20​
1​
Easy/Moderate
36​
44​
50​
64​
80​
2​
Moderate
72​
57​
51​
54​
60​
3​
Moderate/Strenuous
36​
64​
100​
44​
80​
4​
Strenuous
90​
60​
125​
35​
0​
5​
Score
266​
256​
334​
229​
240​
Relative score
80
77
100
69
72
 

mike mcbroom

Member
Camino(s) past & future
Francis June 17, 2015 ,Portagusee from Porto to Santiago August 2016, Francis may 2018 this year wil
I’ve been tinkering around with the Chemin Le Puy / Via Podiensis route lately and I realized I now have good data for a number of different routes. I thought it would be interesting to make a more formal, apples-to-apples comparison of the relative challenge of each of those routes. To have a more universal case, I also ran the numbers for the Camino Francés, using Sandy Brown’s lovely new guidebook.

Here’s what I found:

View attachment 72009

Here’s how the sausage is made: for each stage, I divide the total elevation gain and loss by kilometers walked. The vast majority of the time, the number generated falls between the 20s and the 60s. This tidily sorted itself into the five tiers of challenge outlined above. An Easy stage ends up scoring less than 30 (think Güemes to Santander), a Moderate stage scores 40-50 (Santillana del Mar to Comillas), and a Strenuous stage exceeds 60 (many of the stages in the Basque Country!).

Is that the optimal way to do it? I have no idea! At the very least, though, it offers some shred of consistency as I compare these different routes.

As for findings, there are at least a few takeaways that stand out to me. The Primitivo is confirmed as the most challenging, with half of its stages in the two most strenuous categories. I’m surprised, though, by how equivalent the Norte and Francés appear to be, as the former is often regarded as a greater challenge. Finally, the Le Puy route emerges as the easiest of these options, thanks to a very, very flat second half.

There are, of course, other factors that play into the challenging nature of a walk. Tough footing can make a walk much more tiring, for example. But, this is at least one way of comparing some of the routes!
I have only walked the CF , Primativo And Portaguese. I agree with just about everyones comments. The CF for me, the first time, was magical and yes live changing. The Portaguese was very nice and not really very hard. Now I walked the Primativo with 2 young grandsons, 19 & 14, it was pretty walking.
I have to say the first part of the walk from SDC to Finesterre has a has along dang hill that was pretty hard.
So, all that said, they are all different and I love every step of them
 

peregrino_tom

Member
Camino(s) past & future
.
Oh what fun!

This feels like it could develop into one of those meandering conversations where the world is set to rights with a fellow pilgrim on a long rainy stage where there’s not much else to do but talk (bit like a C-19 lock-down)

OK I think a social scientist (which I am not) might come at this slightly differently: she’d be interested in trying to understand the level of difficulty/hardship experienced rather than looking to take measurements from various ‘objective’ indicators of difficulty, such as elevation gain.

The starting point would be to spec the purpose and objective, which here might look something like:

The caminos are predominantly walked by older adults (greater opportunity from increased time availablity and income). Adults decline in health and physical ability as they age. They also typically become more risk averse and mitigate this by engaging more in the assessment and planning of future activities.

A scale that rated the comparative level of challenge of the different caminos could assist older adults (in particular) in deciding whether, having walked the Camino Frances, another particular camino was within or outwith their capabilities, or, if marginal, help them to consider additional means of support (agency) or other strategies that would allow them to complete the route in a safe and meaningful manner.

A starting point for understanding what is meant by ‘challenge’ might be to consider the reported reasons as to why pilgrims have found the camino to be difficult, tiresome, exhausting or even caused them to drop out.

A trawl through the forum might point to the key factors being… amount of elevation, degree of elevation, roughness of path, weather conditions experienced, scarcity of accommodation (either because of lack of supply or over-demand) and concomitant impact on length of stages. Also scarcity of places to stop between stages to eat/shelter etc, friendliness/hospitality found along the way inc experiences with people and dogs.. to mention a few

Some of these might be introduced into the initial model proposed by Dave, such as degrees of elevation, path conditions and accommodation places per km (or some such)

Alternatively one might decide that rather than try and identify all of these and weight them accordingly, it might be better to survey a good sample of those that had experienced the various routes and process their experiences into a rating scale. Questionnaire design would be key here in order to understand things like the impact of time of year on the challenge and the capabilities of the pilgrim undertaking the route. It’d also be important to qualify (or even rule out) the response from some groups, such as pilgrims with a tendency to hop on a bus on a rainy day..

One useful approach might be to only survey those who have already walked the CF, so that this becomes the experiential benchmark for the ratings assessment of all the other routes

Apparently, this forum’s demographic matches more or less the demographic we are seeking to provide practical useable information for – so makes for the obvious place to run the survey..

We might arrive at two complementary ratings

1 a hiking challenge rating based on a computation of the elevation gain and degree, path quality and average/high/low temperature and rainfall in each season. Possibly accommodation per km or stage point could be added too.

2 a pilgrim’s experience challenge rating which would draw in all our lived experiences, some of which we can identify and others of which we may not be able to fully articulate, in to a fuller assessment of, the degree of challenge that awaits on each camino.

Ah, I think I see the village up ahead now where we will seek shelter, hot food and hospitality and hope to dry out all our sodden clothes. It’s been a fascinating conversation. Maybe we’ll pick it up tomorrow if the rain continues?
 

lt56ny

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
CF(2012) Le Puy/CF (2015) Portugues (2017) Norte (2018) CF (2019)
I have walked the CF CN and Le Puy. I totally agree with @davebugg. It is the inclines of both the uphills and the downhills and the distances you have to walk to achieve each peak and the amount of daily up and down. The other major factor is of course fitness level and age. There is not a doubt in my mind and I would be surprised if there was for any but the most fit pilgrims that the Norte and the Le Puy caminos are far more difficult to walk then the Camino Frances. I have not walked the Primitivo but by all accounts of friends who started on the Norte with me but branched off to the Primitivo (I walked the entire Norte) that the Primitivo was more difficult than the Norte. There are no week or more stretches on the CF that equal to the first week on the Norte or the first 10 days or so on the Le Puy Camino.
I think one final point ( I am not sure if this was addressed) is the experience of the Pilgrim. Knowing how to walk and knowing how to breath and knowing your body are also important factors. Pacing yourself going uphill and breathing properly and, especially for us older pilgrims knowing how to walk down those really steep downhills. I may curse the uphills more but I worry alot more about the wear and tear on my body on the downhills.
I think it is fun trying to figure it all out and I love the work everyone did on this but it always ends up being a personal decision. Thanks to all for the work they did.
 

Dave

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
First: Camino Francés 2002; most recent: Norte/Primitivo 2019
If you want to go on with the idea of a score, then perhaps consider computing a relative score by normalizing the initial score to obtain a number between 0 and 100 (divide scores by highest value and multiply by 100):

FrancesNortePrimitivoLe PuyInglesFactor
Easy
32​
31​
8​
32​
20​
1​
Easy/Moderate
36​
44​
50​
64​
80​
2​
Moderate
72​
57​
51​
54​
60​
3​
Moderate/Strenuous
36​
64​
100​
44​
80​
4​
Strenuous
90​
60​
125​
35​
0​
5​
Score
266​
256​
334​
229​
240​
Relative score
80
77
100
69
72
Love this. Incidentally, I realized I should probably also run the numbers for the Norte-Primitivo combo. It works out to a 302 / 90 relative score. So, definitely a more challenging combo!
 

Dave

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
First: Camino Francés 2002; most recent: Norte/Primitivo 2019
Ah, I think I see the village up ahead now where we will seek shelter, hot food and hospitality and hope to dry out all our sodden clothes. It’s been a fascinating conversation. Maybe we’ll pick it up tomorrow if the rain continues?
I look forward to reading your finished study, Tom! I do find that days with villages interspersed every 4-6km fly by for me, in comparison to stages with longer open stretches. And those cobblestone descents on the first days of the Norte take a lot out of me. So, no question, lots of different variables in play here! I'm sure you'll get it all untangled.
 

Dave

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
First: Camino Francés 2002; most recent: Norte/Primitivo 2019
I have walked the CF CN and Le Puy. I totally agree with @davebugg. It is the inclines of both the uphills and the downhills and the distances you have to walk to achieve each peak and the amount of daily up and down. The other major factor is of course fitness level and age. There is not a doubt in my mind and I would be surprised if there was for any but the most fit pilgrims that the Norte and the Le Puy caminos are far more difficult to walk then the Camino Frances. I have not walked the Primitivo but by all accounts of friends who started on the Norte with me but branched off to the Primitivo (I walked the entire Norte) that the Primitivo was more difficult than the Norte. There are no week or more stretches on the CF that equal to the first week on the Norte or the first 10 days or so on the Le Puy Camino.
It's funny--one of the things that drove me to do this is your point about Le Puy. I think it's the prevailing wisdom, that Le Puy is harder than the Francés. My perception has always been that it's considerably easier. It was, thus, very convenient for me that this data, at least, aligned with my vantage point!

I wonder to what degree the opening week of a walk shapes our perception of the challenge. Nothing sticks more firmly in one's memory than those opening days, right?

Well, here are the difficulty scores for the first five days of each of these:
  • Francés - 5, 5, 4, 3, 3
  • Norte - 5, 4, 5, 5, 5
  • Le Puy - 2, 5, 3, 3, 2
  • Primitivo (from Oviedo) - 3, 4, 4, 5, 5
Huh. Even within that range, it's clearly the easiest (based on this specific/limited data). Interestingly, it's in the next five days that the Le Puy route gets harder, while the Norte and Francés cool down a bit.
 

andycohn

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
CF (12-15); Muxia (15); Portuguese, Primitivo (17); Norte, Ingles, VF partial (18), Le Puy (19)
I find these kinds of musings lots of fun, especially with the situation outside.

I agree with the comments above that a theory based only on elevation gain is limited. 5 sharp up and downs of 100 meters each over the course of 20 kilometers is going to be a lot harder than 1 500 meter gradual ascent and descent spread out over that same distance. As pointed out, also, the terrain itself makes a big difference. This is so especially with the Le Puy route, where many of the climbs are over rocky trails with protruding tree roots. That makes it way harder to climb (and descend) than where the trail is smooth, or even paved, such as on most of the more hilly stages of the Frances, Norte, or Primitivo.

I came up with my own theory of difficulty using the Gronze ratings to arrive at average difficulty for a 25 kilometer stage. Admittedly, it, too, is subjective, because it's based on the writers' opinions of what's hard or not. If anybody is interested, here's my earlier thread on this topic, entitled "Towards a Theory of Difficulty": https://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/threads/towards-a-theory-of-difficulty.65377/

Overall conclusion, based on Gronze, from easiest to hardest: Portuguese, Frances, Le Puy, Norte, Primitivo. But the first 250 k. of Norte and Le Puy are equal to or harder than the 250 k of Primitivo from Oviedo to Melide.

Fun to think about and argue about.
 
Last edited:

libranlady1

New Member
Camino(s) past & future
walk last 100 klm in august 2013
I agree, Rebekah!

And I also agree, at least in part, with you, Ella. I wasn't keen on including a "degree of difficulty" rating when I first worked on the guide, and I'm still opposed to including an estimated walking time. At the very least, though, I wanted some degree of consistency in the numbers. Maybe helpful to some, maybe useless to others. Kind of like guidebooks!

Interesting idea, Rick. Here's how the numbers play out: Francés 266, Norte 256, Le Puy 229, Primitivo 349, Inglés 240.
Interesting figures😀
 

dougfitz

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
Spain: Mar 2010, Apr 2014, May/Jun 2016. Norway/Sweden: 2012, 2018. Other: 2011, 2019. CP (2020)
Is that the optimal way to do it?
It might be, but the discussion that has followed contains one fundamental and fatal flaw. @davebugg hints at it in his post, and that is that we are not measuring things here, we are assessing their relative difficulty, and ordering the results. Despite the attempts at different mathematical manipulations, in the absence of what a mathematician might call ratio value, these manipulations are basically invalid.

What we have done is determine that one stage might be more or less difficult than another, but what hasn't been done is establish any indication of whether being in the first category is half as difficult as being in the second, or one third as difficult as being in the third, etc. Unfortunately, that is what is inferred in @Rick of Rick and Peg's post, and it has no solid foundation. Even the OP's original calculations spanned less range than that on the face of it.

That doesn't mean the OP's work is without real value. It clearly isn't, but @Dave didn't try and stretch the mathematics too far either. What we can see is what routes have more difficult stages. There are two routes where the two more difficult categories account for 50% or more of the routes. Every other day (on average) is going to be in the 'tough categories'. Compare that to the the CF and Norte, where about 27% of the stages are in these tougher categories - under one in three days and close to one in four days.

The other approaches, based on empirical techniques, include Naismith (and the various improvements by Trantor, Aitken and Langmuir) and Tobler. Naismith and its derivatives give a hiking time for a particular route, whereas Tobler is an approach to determining the area that someone who might have become lost could be in given the time since they were at a last known location.

Do they answer the underlying difficulty question? Certainly there appears to be the information available to undertake an analysis based on these rules. But I am more inclined to @Rebekah Scott's view here - I'm not sure that it's what is really relevant.
 

Linda Fantillo

RiverWalker
Camino(s) past & future
September/October 14, May 17, September 18, MAY 2020
The Camino de Santiago is not a trail, it is a pilgrimage. No matter how you slice it up and quantify it, it is a spiritual journey. That makes it unique in all the world -- that, and the open-handed generosity of the people you walk it with. Otherwise, it's just another hike.
PS - on a side note, received your wonderful book the other day. I had planned to read it on the plane from Canada to London, then Asturias and start the Primitivo. Well we all know that will wait for another day, but have started reading it now and am enjoying it immensely. Thank you and wishing you a very healthy Spring!
 

PerlaDelCamino

New Member
Camino(s) past & future
Camino Francés 2018
Chemin Le Puy /Via Podiensis 2019
The Camino de Santiago is not a trail, it is a pilgrimage. No matter how you slice it up and quantify it, it is a spiritual journey. That makes it unique in all the world -- that, and the open-handed generosity of the people you walk it with. Otherwise, it's just another hike.
The Camino is a walking pilgrimage with - as one may argue - several complementary dimensions.
Technically speaking, some parts of the Camino are also trails.
For example the Camino Francés is a long-distance route corresponding to both the GR65 Long Distance Trail throughout Navarra, and part of the E3 path (one of the eleven European Long Distance Paths). Interestingly, many hikers perceive long-distance routes as as a spiritual pilgrimage, and have their own 'hiking families' on the way.
 

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