I recently wrote a post about my experience hiking a portion of the Camino de Santiago (“The Way of St. James”), but I wanted to write another post with some practical advice for those of you who might be considering doing it yourself. The amount of preparation recommended varies a lot: I’ve talked to people who have started preparing for the Camino a year or more in advance. I, on the other hand, maybe considered the idea of doing Camino for about that long, but did almost no practical planning of any kind until a few days before I left. It helped (a LOT!) that I had already been living in Spain for a few years when I set out. This made the logisitics of getting to my starting point very easy, and I already knew the language and culture rather intimately.
I suppose there’s probably a happy medium to be found: over-planning could take the magic out of it–it’s meant to be an adventure, and the best adventures don’t have carefully pre-meditated itineraries. But no planning could wind you up in a bad situation that could have easily been avoided. I am by no means a Camino expert, but I had a very positive, relatively incident-free experience on the Camino, so I thought I’d share with you some tid bits that might help you on The Way:
Things to know ahead of time
1. A few key words and phrases. English isn’t nearly as widely-spoken in Spain as it is in the other Western European countries, much to the suprise of many (American) tourists. That said, I was shocked by how much English there actually was on signs and menus in the tiny pueblos along the Camino. It seemed to be more prevalent than what you’ll find even in some of the larger Spanish cities: a sign of the Camino “boom” of these last few years. Still, a few English words on signs does not mean the locals are going to understand you when you rattle off a lunch order in English or ask them where you can buy some Band-Aids. You should learn some basic phrases and niceties to use along The Way.
And even if you’ve got a couple years of Spanish-speaking under your belt as I did, there’s still some Camino-specific vocabulary to know:
peregrino = pilgrim, i.e. you and everyone else on their way to Santiago
albergue = the special “pilgrim shelters”/hostels especially for pilgrims of the Camino
linterna = bunk bed (most commonly what you’ll be sleeping on in an albergue)
aldea = small town/village (I lived in Spain for almost 3 years and didn’t come across this word until my very last week there! I always used “pueblo,” but aldea is commonly used to describe the villages in the very rural parts of Spain)
etapa = one stage/phase of the Camino, typically a 15-35km stretch
You may already know that there is more than one route for the Camino de Santiago. The most common route, the Camino Francés, starts just over the border into France and goes down through north-central Spain and westward to Santiago. Another route I’d like to try someday is the Camino del Norte (a.k.a. the Northern Route or the Coastal Route) which goes all along the rugged northern coast of Spain, through the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias before dipping back inland to Santiago. This route is known for being beautiful, but wetter and more physically challenging due to the constant climbs and descents in the terrain. You can even begin the Camino in southern Portugal and walk north all the way up to Santiago. Obviously, the less traditional routes will have a lot less accommodations for pilgrims, but if you’re really looking to rough it then you can start wherever you’d like and just camp all the way.
As far as the recommended etapas for each day, there are lots of route guidebooks for the Camino that will break down each stage and give info about each town. The particular one I used was given to me as a gift and is in Spanish, but I can’t actually even find it online (I know, hard to believe!) so you’ll just have to check out some Amazon reviews and find one that looks good for you.
3. Your options for accomodations: Again, this will depend largely on the route you take. On the heavily-traveled Camino Francés, you’ll have the most options for albergues, and the numbers will increase as you get closer to Santiago. Most towns have a albergue municipal, or public albergue for about 6€/night or a free will donation (called donativos.) I personally recommend checking out the many private albergues along the way, which offer beds for 10-12€/night and are much more comfortable than the public ones. You’ll probably only have 6 or 7 other people sleeping in the same room as you, versus 30-40 in a public albergue. They usually give you a blanket too :-) There seem to be new private albergues popping up everywhere as the number of peregrinos continues to increase, so check out the competiton. If you’re not too exhausted when you arrive to your stop, you can take some time to shop around a bit and pick the albergue with the better showers or more-equipped kitchen or cool Irish guys playing guitar on the patio.
How long to go
This is obviously dependent upon how much time you can afford to take. But even if you’re on an extended sabbatical and have all the time in the world, you should still consider two things:
1. Cost. The Camino is probably one of the cheapest adventures you’ll find on the face of the Earth, but it still costs money to eat and stay places. My budget on the Camino was pretty frugal: 15€/day for food and 15€/day for lodging and miscellaneous expenses (bandaids and athletic tape, mostly.) I was able to stick to this budget fairly easily. But even 30€/day gets to be a lot if you plan to do the entire journey, which takes most people at least 30 days. And I would imagine that keeping at it for that long, you would incur a few more incidental expenses than I did on my week-long hike.
2. Your level of physical fitness. This may seem like a no-brainer, but seriously take it from me: this journey is not for the faint of heart. I was a little cocky going into it, thinking it would be a piece of cake for me. I’ve worked as a fitness instructor for a number of years, run several half-marathons (including one, my PR, just a few months before doing the Camino) and am just overall pretty active, and I will tell you that I grossly underestimated the physical challenge that is the Camino. The only thing that saved my ass (quite literally, perhaps) was that I had spent the two years prior living in a big Spanish city with my main mode of transport being my own two feet; in my everyday work commute and errand-running, I put on an average of 3-5 miles walking. I’d say that this high mileage walking, more than any gym time or running, was my best preparation for the Camino. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to do some training hiking with a big pack on too, if that’s not something you’ve done in the past. The longest I had ever hiked with a pack on prior to the Camino was probably 6 or 7 HOURS…so it’s a small miracle that jumping straight into doing that much or more for 6 DAYS straight didn’t cause more problems for me.
What to bring
Perhaps it’s more useful to tell you what NOT to bring, as there are some items to omit that might surprise you.
You need NOT bring:
1. A map or a GPS device of any kind, especially on the Camino Francés route. The route is very, very well-marked with yellow arrows or shell symbols, and there is usually someone to follow or at least a local or passerby to ask in order to ensure you’re on The Way.
2. A sleeping bag, especially in summer. They’re cumbersome and unnecessary. All albergues provide, at the bare minimum, a disposable fitted cover for the mattress and pillow. The nicer ones provide blankets. One of the nights, I used my microfiber towel to cover my legs and my jacket on top.
3. A lot of food. It’s good to be prepared, but food weighs a lot and it’s really not all that crucial to have food reserves, as may be the case in other long hiking trips. Because the Camino is such a traveled road, there are plenty of people making a business out of it and ready to provide you with just about anything you’d expect to find in a restaurant, grocery store or convenience store. That said, I found that curiously the last 10 or 15k of the journey was very replenishment-sparse, so if you decide to combine the final two etapas as I did (for a final day total of 40k), you’ll want to make sure you have reserves on that last day.
You should, however, bring:
1. An iPod or other listening device. Sure, nature sounds are peaceful and your walking partners’ stories are fascinating, but sometimes your feet are bleeding and you don’t care about either and you just want to blast some angsty rap music to remind yourself of how badass you are.
2. The aforementioned microfiber towel. This has been my token travel towel for all my trips in the past year. They’re great if you swim regularly too: very quick-drying!
3. A journal. Even if you’re not much of a writer, I think you’ll find that you really want to jot down some of the thoughts and feelings you’re having. Even just documenting how each day goes is fun to look back on and useful when giving tips to future Camino-goers.
What to wear
You’ve heard a hundred times in a hundred scenarios to “dress in layers,” and this can’t be stressed enough for the Camino. Remember, you’re covering a lot of elevation, even if you only do the last part. I went in August, in the dog days of an especially hot summer, but I still needed a range of clothing. I started each day with pants, a tank top, long sleeved shirt, jacket and scarf. Even all of that wasn’t quite warm enough one mornings in chilly O’Cebreiro, a town atop a mountain on Galicia’s eastern border. But by 11am every day, I was stripped down to shorts and a tank top. And drenched in sweat by midday. So a clothing packing list should look something this (all items quick dry/moisture-wicking material): 1-2 prs pants, 1-2 prs shorts, 1-2 short sleeve or tank tops, 1 long sleeve top, jacket, scarf, hat, socks, underwear, shoes.
Shoes are another subject that could probably have it’s own post altogether. Athletic footwear has become a hotly debated issue since the dawn of the minimalist shoe movement. Full disclosure: I’m a total minimalist running convert, and that actually ended up significantly affecting my experience on the Camino, in both good and bad ways. I brought two pairs of shoes on the Camino: my heavy-ish duty Salomon hiking shoes and my New Balance Minimus running shoes. I planned to use the hiking shoes, which have a hard sole and toe cap, for the especially rocky parts of the route (which turned out to be, um, pretty much all of it) and use my minimalist shoes for the smoother parts as they’re MUCH lighter, but offer no “protection” from said rocky paths. The problem was that I really hadn’t hiked more than a half-day in the hiking shoes, and never in scalding heat or on such rugged terrain. I destroyed my feet with them in the first couple of days: really bad blisters and the start of inflamed heels–a condition that has stopped many a Camino-goer in their tracks. I had spent over a year getting used to using minimalist shoes, which teach you to step differently, and then went back and “blinded” my feet with a big clunky pair of hiking shoes. Bad life decision. After wearing the hiking shoes for just a few hours of the first two days, I abandoned them for the rest of the trip and pranced painfully along in my Minimuses. The good part was that training in minimalist shoes had already taught me to step more carefully and with better posture, so it probably saved me from other potential problems. But since I had already wrecked my feet with the hiking shoes, I was in a lot of pain, especially for the first few miles each day. And there were a lot of bandaids, needles and an entire roll of athletic tape involved.
It should also be noted that we amazingly encountered almost no rain whatsoever on the entire trip. This is an absolute anomaly for northern Spain, and heavy rains making muddy paths may call for more heavy-duty hiking boots. In conclusion, footwear has to be “to each his own,” but I would urge you to use only hiking shoes you’re very used to and perhaps bring an extra lightweight pair. And flip flops for the showers/airing your feet out at the end of the day.
What to expect
Expect to find your limits, both physical and mental. Expect that they won’t be what you expected. I assumed my biggest physical limit would be my back, as I have a slipped disk from an old sports injury that gives me trouble when I overdo things. Instead, my back felt strong and was basically pain-free, but I never expected to be fighting back tears from the pain in my feet for the first mile or so every morning. You might actually find that your limits are much greater than you had thought–that you can go further and endure more pain than you previously realized. There might be mental struggles too, with so much time left alone to your own thoughts, but I think this is one of the main reasons why people do this sort of thing. To wrestle with hard questions.
Expect to meet a lot of amazing people from across the globe. Expect them to offer you things, like some of their wine or some Compeed. Offer things back. Listen to their story and tell them yours.
Expect to see Spain in arguably the coolest way possible. Being conscious of (literally) every step of the journey is a fantastic way to gain an appreciation for a place. You’ll be completely alone in the middle of the Spanish countryside at times and bumping elbows with locals in tiny villages at other times. It’s incredible.