With Camino planning season upon us again a lot of people are starting to get interested in all the little details they need to know before they set out sometime this summer. Since we always get a lot of questions from prospective pilgrims, we decided to put together a bit of an advice cheat sheet of tips for hiking the Camino de Santiago. Most of these tips will apply to any Camino, although they are based specifically on our time on the Camino Francés. And, of course, these are only opinions, and not everyone will agree with all of them. But here they are nonetheless. And if you want to read an even less objective account of our Camino experience you can check out the rest our blog entries or, of course, the book I wrote on the subject…
1. Good shoes (or boots) are everything on the Camino. Solid and broken-in are the keys. We saw all sorts of footwear that worked for different people, but did notice that a higher percentage of people wearing joggers or cross-trainers ended up regretting it. Remember, they may feel solid under normal circumstances, but they will need to be a lot stronger once you add your backpack to the mix.
2. Pay close attention to your blisters. Every single person we knew got at least a couple blisters over the course of the hike, and nearly everyone had a different theory on how to deal with them, but the one thing everyone agreed on was to take care of them as soon as possible before they got any worse. As soon as you feel any noticeable friction, stop and address it using whatever method you have chosen to go with (band-aids, Compeed, moleskin, whatever). And if they get really bad you might have to suck it up and take a day or two off. The only people we met who didn’t make it as far as they intended had to quit because of blisters.
3. I’m sure you’ve heard this one a million times, but pack light! 7 to 8 kg or less is relatively light, although of course we saw extremes in both directions. The pain in your feet and the weight on your back are the two things you will feel every second on the trail.
4. I would only suggest one pair of pants in addition to your hiking pants and I would suggest those be lounging/pajama pants, short enough not to drag in all the unappealing stuff found on albergue floors. You won’t look cool but you’ll be dry and comfortable. There are exceptions, but everyone we met on the Camino socialized with other pilgrims, and nobody cared that you went to the bar in the same pants you wore hiking all day (and all month). And I would go so far as to suggest that if you really want a night out in León or somewhere and want to look good, you might be happier buying new clothes there and leaving them behind than carrying a pair of jeans and trendy shoes for 5 weeks just to use them once.
5. Get the lightest sleeping bag you can find. The albergues aren’t always heated but you will be inside, and the people warm up the room. We hiked through October and into early November and the temperature hit freezing occasionally. Our sleeping bags are quite light, but are rated to 0 Celsius and we were always too hot. If you hike in a warmer time of year you might even be able to get away with a sleep sheet.
6. You will probably end up second-guessing some of your packing choices after you hike for a while. It is possible to mail stuff ahead to Santiago if there are things you can live without. Several people we knew mailed things from Pamplona to Santiago and it worked out fine (despite the supposed 30-day holding rule).
7. Make as much of your wardrobe merino wool as possible – it dries fast and somehow takes forever to start to smell. Everything else should at least be quick-dry material since you will often want to do laundry when you finish hiking, or it will just be soaked with sweat. Either way, you’ll need it dry by morning.
8. Don’t bother carrying huge amounts of water. Just figure out where the next place with water is (usually every 5-8 km) and pack enough to get you there, with maybe an extra half-litre just in case.
9. Bring a medical kit, some duct tape and a little tube of superglue. I have no idea when or why you will need them, just that you will need all three at some point.
10. Other than those things, don’t bring anything “just in case” – you can pick up virtually anything you happen to need along the way, even decent hiking gear.
11. Ear plugs are essential if you are going to be staying in dorms. Absolutely essential.
12. Over the course of a month you are guaranteed to hit some rain, and when you do you will want everything to be fully waterproof. Pants and shoes obviously, and a jacket or poncho that goes over top of your pack. Pack covers are nice in a pinch but don’t cut it for hours in the rain. Something I overlooked and really regretted were waterproof gloves. You may not need them in summer, but when it rained in November it was cold and once my gloves soaked through (basically immediately) I couldn’t feel my hands for the rest of the day.
13. Only carry walking poles if they pack up small and you know how to use them. Based on the terrain, they are probably not necessary 75% of the time (or more), and many people didn’t seem to be helping themselves much when they did use them. But if you’ve used them before there are some steep and slippery sections where they could be very useful.
14. Bring a smartphone to use for photos, internet, music and, of course, as a phone. If it is unlocked I would by a Spanish sim card, or if you are an EU citizen your home plan might work fine. Either way it is really handy to be able to communicate with fellow pilgrims as most people split up over the course of the days and weeks.
15. Don’t bring your laptop unless you absolutely have to for some reason. And only bring an iPad if you are using it as a replacement for a book or e-reader. Otherwise a much smaller phone is a better idea.
16. If you aren’t already reading on your phone or iPad, bring an e-reader or just one book, don’t make the mistake of carrying a bunch of spares.
17. While we are on that subject, please read something – it’s creepy when you just lie there for hours staring at the bunk above you.
18. Bring a guidebook. If you don’t, you’ll just spend a lot of your time borrowing from other people and asking if anyone knows how much further to the next coffee machine. It is a good idea to tear out the pages as you go. Then you can carry them in your pocket for handy reference and throw them out at the end of the day.
19. Bring a head lamp for reading, midnight bathroom runs, and finding your albergue in the dark after too many bottles of wine. And hiking early in the morning, of course.
20. Learn to pack your backpack as efficiently as possible (i.e. how to best distribute the weight) and know what each of the straps does. We helped one guy who had been hiking for 5 days already with his pack sitting at a 45 degree angle because one of the straps wasn’t tightened.
21. Keep an extra pair of socks hanging off your pack and switch back and forth every time you take a break. It feels great, and dry feet are less likely to develop blisters.
22. A water bladder is fine if you are hiking alone because a bottle can be a pain in the ass to get at. But if you are travelling as a pair, or have a very convenient bottle holder, I would go with bottles because they are so much easier to fill up as you go. Most people using bladders (myself included) ended up carrying more water than was absolutely necessary just because they are so annoying to fill at trailside fountains.
23. If you don’t particularly care about “doing it all on your own” there are a companies who will transfer your pack to your next destination for about 8 euros per day. Some feel this is some form of cheating, while others argued they weren’t doing this to punish themselves so why not make it more enjoyable? You decide.
24. If you have a choice, I would hike in fall. Summer is apparently ridiculously busy, and obviously very hot. September would be good but I hear it is getting much busier, too. We went in October and the last 3 weeks were nice and cool, although by the start of November a few albergues were starting to close. But there were fewer pilgrims, too, so it should work out.
25. If you are not hiking during peak season you probably don’t need to worry about getting to your next destination early. It is so much more relaxing not to rush, there is nothing to do when you get there anyway, and often the last arrivals ended up getting whole dorms rooms to themselves because they naturally fill up every room in order. Pay attention the first few nights to decide if you have to worry about places filling up and if not, go slow.
26. You should try to shop for snacks and breakfast foods immediately upon arrival in a new town – shop hours are erratic, once you shower and take off your hikers you won’t want to put them back on, and there is always a good chance that celebratory afternoon beer will turn into 10.
27. Learn to wash your clothes in sinks and showers, then do it as part of your daily ritual as soon as you settle in at the albergue.
28. Be friendly. You will cross paths with some people once and then never see them again. But some of the people you see the first couple days will end up in your orbit over and over again all month. Might as well get to know them now instead of after the seventh awkward encounter.
29. The Pilgrim’s Menus are a set meal offered by most restaurants and are generally the best deal around. A lot of places let you order a partial menu for less money (many of the girls found this to be enough).
30. Don’t expect to lose a bunch of weight. Sure, you’ll burn a lot of calories but the diet is carb-heavy, and trust me when I tell you that at the end of a 25-kilometre day you are not going to feel like denying yourself anything, least of all food and drink.
31. There are three different sizes of beer: a jara is usually the biggest jug you can get, a caño is usually about the size of a pint, and a caña is barely bigger than a shot of beer and is, in my humble, a complete waste of the time it takes to order.
32. There is a small Camino passport called a credencial that you need to pick up from a Pilgrim’s Office before you start. It gets stamped in each place you stay along the way (and in restaurants if you want) and you must have one to stay in the albergues. The symbolic scallop shell is completely optional, but oh so fashion forward.
33. Go to Mass at least once, preferably in one of the big churches in Burgos or León, or the all-pilgrim mass in Roncesvalles. Of course, if you are a practicing Catholic you should probably go more than that.
34. Take your time – rest days feel really, really good. The main problem, though, is convincing yourself to stay behind if you have friends moving on.
35. Speaking some Spanish is polite and can come in handy, but it is certainly not essential.
37. People always ask how much it costs. It is different for everyone, but if you stay in albergues, eat Pilgrim’s Menus and don’t drink your weight in cerveza every night, you are probably looking at around 30 euro per day plus snacks, alcohol and splurge days.
36. People also always ask about ATMs. Rest easy, there are lots.
38. Decent budget hotels are not very expensive (25-35 euro in the bigger cities) and can be a pretty amazing break from dorms now and then.
39. Hiking the Camino Francés is definitely difficult, exceptionally so at times, but based on what we saw literally anyone can manage it if they are determined enough and willing to stick to a pace their body can handle.
You can also read about our Camino del Norte and Primitivo adventures…
Any more questions, send me a message and we’ll see if we can help. Happy planning!
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