“What next?” is typically the first thought on people’s minds as they finish the Camino de Santiago. Long distance hiking and pilgrimages are addicting – I know because I caught the bug after I finished the Camino de Santiago in 2012. And if you are like me and don’t like to do the same thing twice when there are so many other places in the world to explore – then you are looking for another pilgrimage similar in nature that will bring you the same excitement, challenge, and cultural exchange that the Camino did. This is why you should consider tackling Saint Olav’s Way in Norway!
Head North to Norway for one of the latest pilgrimage routes that will rival the Camino. Saint Olav’s Way is the latest offering in pilgrimage routes in Europe with 7 different routes through rural Norway all leading to Trondheim Cathedral where Saint Olav is said to be buried. So many people who go to Norway just stick to the popular Fjord hikes, and that leaves the middle of the country rather unexplored by tourists.
What is Saint Olav’s Way?
This is Scandinavia’s network of Pilgrim hiking routes that are based on historical routes of the revered Saint Olav Haraldson.
There are 7 pilegrimsleden paths that are managed by the National Pilgrim Center in Trondheim. The paths lead through Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
1. The Gudbrandsdalen Path – The longest pilgrim route in Norway (399 miles), and the main road to Nidaros, todays Trondheim, during the Middle Ages. It is the most popular traveled path and takes approximately 4 full weeks to complete it. 70% of the pilgrims walk this route.
2. Saint Olav’s Path – The stretch from Selånger in Sweden to Stiklestad in Norway (350 miles). It is the historic path because this is the way of Olav Haraldson’s last journey before the historic battle at Stiklestad in 1030.
3. The Østerdalen Path – Experience untouched and wild nature on the Østerdalen path, the wildest of the Norwegian pilgrim paths (310 miles). This path is recommended for more experienced hikers.
4. The North Path – starting at the Gloshaug Church in Gloshaugen, it passes through Stiklestad where you connect to the St. Olav Path and on to Nidaros (186 miles). Gløshaug Church in Grong marks the start for the pilgrim path from the north. On its way south it passes many sites and places with strong links to St. Olav’s heritage.
5. The Rombo Path – The Rombo path is not only the oldest pilgrim path in Norway; it is also an important connection between two important Nordic saints. Experience the old borders that connect the rich Swedish forests with Norway’s wild and wonderful countryside.(93 Miles)
6. The Borg Path – The Pilgrim path through the counties of Østfold and Akershus lies like a beautiful string of pearls through a varied and fertile landscape (109 miles). This path on it’s own doesn’t finish at Nidaros. However, it hooks up with the Gudbrandsdalen Path.. The route has large parts that are ideal for cyclists
7. Valldals Path – A pilgrims path from the fjords to the mountains, in the footsteps of the Viking King Olav Haraldson. This path on it’s own doesn’t finish at Nidaros. However, it hooks up with the Gudbrandsdalen Path. This is the newest addition to the Saint Olav Ways and there is little information on it to date.
History of the Saint Olav’s Way
Saint Olav Haraldsson (995-1030) started as Norway’s Viking King who united Norway and brought Christianity to Scandinavia. He fell in the Battle at Stiklestad in 1030 and his remains are said to be buried at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. His life and death have many miracles associated with him leading him to being canonized a Saint. In medieval times Christians made the pilgrimage to Nidaros Cathedral to visit the shrine of Saint Olav. However they had additional motivation for the pilgrimage – either they wanted healing from sickness or pain, or wanted remission of sins.
The revival and signposting of the ancient trails were started and completed in the late 90’s. So this is a relatively new trail. In fact it’s still so new that only 1,000 people are recorded as completing it in 2017!
Walk Saint Olav’s Way
There are so many great reasons why you should walk Saint Olav Ways, and once you decide to do it, you’ll need to know what to expect and how to prepare. Even though I only did a short sampler of the popular Oslo to Trondheim route (Gudbrandsdalen Path), I learned a lot about the logistics, planning, and details of the route and what to expect if you do walk the entire route. And because I completed the Camino de Santiago years ago, I can also compare and contrast it to that route. I’ve put together the basics of the pilgrimage; what you would want to know before embarking trying to answer the most frequently asked questions to help you get started on your way! However – if you are already in the planning stage, then check out the Saint Olavs Way website and Route Planner and the book The Pilgrim Road to Trondheim.
Saint Olav’s Way Frequently Asked Questions
Who Can Walk it?
Anyone! Even though Pilgrimage routes are normally religious in nature, anyone can walk it for whatever reasons they want. However, you do need to be fit and have trained for it. This is a real hike with varying weather and route challenges. (See Difficulty section below)
Is it crowded?
Currently only 1000 people finished the route and picked up their Saint Olav letter in 2017. The number is increasing every year – but it will feel empty compared to the Camino de Santiago which had 301,000 completions in 2017. Granted – the walking season is hindered by the weather and the paths are really only walkable from June to September. However this is still a relatively unknown pilgrimage with few participants so far.
Can you walk it solo?
Yes you can walk is solo. However, since there are fewer people on the trail overall, expect that you will be solo for most of the time. If you are looking for some solitude and alone time, then this is perfect. If you want to walk it solo but be surrounded by other people still, then this might not be the hike for you. I always say that there are so many people on the Camino trails that you are never really alone and sometimes you have to work at being alone, but on this trail that won’t be a problem. If you are comfortable with hiking alone, then this can be a great trail for you.
Difficulty of Saint Olav’s Way
This is always a hard thing to answer because each person’s definition of hard is different. Evidenced by this conversation I had with one of our Norweigan guides as we walked up what I defined as a hill. “Today’s walk has a lot of hills,” I remarked to her as I was trying to catch my breath from being winded and my calves burned from the incline. “Hills? These aren’t hills” She remarked surprised. My hill might not be your hill. However, I do firmly believe that the Saint Olav Ways is a higher difficulty than the Camino de Santiago.
It is a proper hike and most days where hiking boots and poles are necessary. Every day there are hills (or whatever you want to call them) and then there are some fairly challenging mountain passes too. The top elevation goes to 4,333 feet on the Gudbrandsdalen Path. Plus you need to contend with the weather, which is a bit more extreme than Spain. We actually had hail at the top of the Dovre mountain pass. You will have to deal with rain, cold temps, muddy trails, swampy trails, and lots of ascending and descending. I don’t want to scare you, there are plenty of days where it is rolling hills and farmland similar to the Camino, but there are also more technical days too. You will want to train for this. You are expected to walk 13 to 17 miles per day on uneven terrain; I hesitate to call it a walk, for me it was more of a true long distance hike.
When Can You Walk It?
The optimum hiking season for Saint Olavs Way paths is May to August. This is when the lodgings are open and the various pilgrim centers. Starting in September you could be dealing with some pretty fowl weather potentially and short days.
Where do you sleep and do you need to plan in advance?
There are pilgrim hostels and housing along the way. However, they are spaced out further and they must be planned ahead. It is not recommended to just show up and expect a bed. Not because the route is too busy – but really just the opposite, it’s not that busy so people aren’t always prepared for your arrival. Plus, many of the pilgrim farm stays are working farms that provide lodging as a secondary activity, so they are not always there ready to cater to pilgrims 24/7.
If you are planning to walk the Saint Olavs Way you’ll want to go onto the Pilegrimsleden Website and plan out your daily trek and nightly stays by reserving in advance along the route. The website makes this process pretty easy and provides the recommended stops and options for lodging each day along each route.
It is important to recognize that the lodging is one of the things that really sets this trail apart. There are many old farms that cater to pilgrims passing through that have a lot of history and the owners are eager to mingle. It’s a more personal experience on Saint Olav Ways and you’ll never find any giant alberges/hostels with 20 beds.
Most of the pilgrim lodging is simple though, a bed in a shared room, a shared bathroom, and some shared kitchen facilities. The Pilgrim Centers along the Gudbrandsdalen path offer lodging which are always a ‘must stop’.
Some examples of pilgrim lodging and hotels along the Gudbrandsdalen Path:
You can also carry camping gear and easily camp for free anywhere along the trail. Norway operates under the “Right to Roam” policy. You may put up a tent, or sleep under the stars, for the night anywhere in the countryside, forests or mountains, as long as you keep at least 500 feet away from the nearest inhabited house or cabin.
For my week long walk, I stayed in a few hotels, and a few authentic pilgrim lodges with shared space.
Pilgrim Centers Along the Route
There are six regional pilgrim centers along the Gudbrandsdalen path and one at the St. Olav’s path. The centers provide local knowledge of the trail and can help you with information and tips concerning your pilgrimage. They also offer a variety of guidebooks and brochures. Some centers offer accommodation. Contact the centers in advance of your trip or stop by on your way.
Where do you eat?
There are restaurants and markets in many of the towns you go through. Pilgrims stop at markets along the way and carry food with them to prepare in the shared kitchens at the pilgrim lodging. Be aware sometimes you need to carry a few days worth of food supplies. Some of the pilgrim lodges/hotels also do provide full dinners, breakfasts, and paper lunches to take with you each day. You’ll be able to find out the specifics of what the lodging offers on the website or by calling and asking them while doing your planning.
How do you find your way?
The trail is very well marked. Granted I was following guides most of the time, however there was ample signage on the Gudbrandsdalen path. There are downloadable maps on the website too however they are simply paper maps that you can use. They are also supposed to be coming out with GPS maps that you can add to your phone or tablet so that you can get real time updates on the trail.
Do you have to do the whole thing at once?
No, not at all. In order to get your Saint Olav Ways letter of completion you will need to walk the last 100kms. However you can also do it in shorter segments over the course of a number of summers if you’d like. The website has a number of great recommended shorter itineraries (nice 3 to 5 days hikes) if you don’t have the full 4 weeks to complete it in one go.
However in order to prove that you have walked the required amount to get the letter, you carry and fill out a Pilgrim’s passport similar to the Camino de Santiago. You get stamps along the way from lodging, churches and sites. At the end you provide your passport as proof that you have completed the walk (or the last 100km of the walk) and then you receive your letter. You can pick up a Pilgrim’s passport at one of the Pilgrim Centers.
What if you get sick or hurt?
Most days the trail does stay near some sort of civilization so there is always help nearby. However there are also days where you are hiking mountain passes and there are no roads or farms nearby. You’ll likely want to walk with a cell phone just in case you have an emergency. However since you have planned ahead with your lodging if you don’t show up that night people will know and can act on it.
There are pharmacies in each town, however you will want to carry a good first aid kit with you – especially to deal with foot care and blister issues which seems to be the prevalent problems most pilgrims have.
Do you need to know Norwegian?
Not at all! It always helps when you try to learn a little, but most Norwegians know English quite well. I never had a language barrier during my travels in Norway.
What gear do you need?
You’ll definitely want rain gear, gaitors, good boots, a pair of comfortable sandals/shoes, a well fitting backpack, hiking poles, pinless clothesline, great wool socks, and gear for cold weather too (gloves, wool layers).
I tried out my Montem hiking poles on this trip and loved them. They are lightweight carbon fiber, yet very sturdy – and bonus…not that expensive! You will also need to take bedding (sleeping bag) and towel as most pilgrim lodging expects you to have your own. Of course if you stay in a hotel, that wouldn’t be necessary.
I have a hiking gear list on Amazon that I suggest you check out here!
However the backpack I have on that list wouldn’t work for this hike, you will need something bigger (you’ll likely be carrying around 20 to 25 pounds).
Do you need hiking boots?
In my opinion, I would recommend hiking boots for this trail. Light hikers will work, but you will want something that is waterproof, and has a good sturdy sole and support as the path can be quite uneven and rocky at times. And of course – whatever you wear make sure they are well broken in before your hike.
Even in my short sampling of the trail I had blisters from walking 15 to 20 km a day and it is really hard to put on boots the next day with a throbbing toe!
I’m a big fan of OBOZ boots for hiking. This lightweight pair were sturdy enough for the trail and were waterproof!
How much does it cost?
Let me just start by saying, Norway is not a cheap country to travel in. However, this is probably one of the cheapest ways to travel through Norway since the accommodations are simple and you are using your own two feet as transportation!
Lodging accommodations for pilgrims range from $40 to $140 a night. One website I read said on average to plan for $60 per day staying in pilgrim hostels.
Restaurant food ranges around $20 to $40. So it’s obviously cheaper to buy food at the market and make it on your own.
Those are your main expenses along the way! Lodging in the bigger cities are typically more expensive so do keep that in mind. You can find ATMs in most towns along the way.
Can you Have Your Bag Transported?
There currently is no way to have your bag transported daily along the route. They hope to have this feature eventually, but as of now you will need to carry your own.
Is there Internet access?
Yes – most pilgrim lodges had Internet access since the owners also live there. It’s not always the fastest, but they typically have it. Getting a sim card or carrying a mifi device l might be a good idea so you have connectivity on your phone along the paths. I carried /rented the Telecom Square Mifi device on this trip and it worked well.
Do you have to walk independently or are there organized group tours you can take?
Yes, there are some package options offered by operators. Pilgrim packages are suitable for pilgrims who want to pay for a custom-made trip, where everything is included. The tours are offered by various travel agencies you can find here.
What do you do when you arrive in Trondheim?
It’s pure bliss! Trondheim is a lovely town with plenty to do so plan an extra few days there for sure. When you hike into the city expect a lot of sidewalk hiking that day. You will need to descend into the town, but there are some nice lookouts up high where you can see the Cathedral in the distance. When you arrive at the Cathedral you’ll find the last mile marker and a Pilgrim’s Center. The ritual is to walk around the Cathedral 3 times before entering.
Definitely check out the Cathedral a bit and book a more detailed tour for the next day as I’m sure you will be tired when you arrive! But be sure to go around the back of the Cathedral (past the graveyard) to the Pilgrim’s Center to receive your final stamp and Saint Olav Letter. Even if you aren’t collecting stamps or care about the letter, it’s a good idea to check in with them there as that helps them get stats for the walk too!
You can stay at the Pilgrim’s Center if you have reserved in advance, or splurge at the Raddison Blue in Trondheim. Be sure to spend a few extra days in the city and consider a walking tour, take a boat ride out to the islands, check out the great craft beer and food scene, and tour of the Cathedral and it’s museums (I recommend doing the Crypt tour)! Get more ideas at Visit Tronheim.
If I haven’t answered your question, please do leave me a note in the comments and I’ll get back to you! I hope you consider this hike as a great ‘next adventure’ after the Camino de Santiago!
Resources in English
Pilegrimsleden Website – the website has information on how to plan your trip from where to stay to downloadable maps. It’s run by the people who manage the trail, so it’s thorough and has tons of information.
There are few guide books in English, but this is one that was recommended:
This is a guide to the 643km Pilegrimsleden from Oslo to Nidaros/Trondheim. The book is primarily aimed at the “long-haul” pilgrim, who walks in a single journey, alone or with few companions. The guide provides step-by-step walking instructions, runs from one place to the next, beginning with the distance from the previous one, its height and population where known, a list of the facilities available and then the history and places of interest where relevant. Buy on Amazon.
You can see all of my photography from the Saint Olav Ways at my photography site here.
I was a guest of Visit Norway for this hike, however all opinions expressed here are my own.
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