Preparing for the Camino de Santiago

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Much of the Camino is either hard surfaces (like sidewalks or roadways in towns) or this--finely crushed gravel that's pleasant to walk on.
Much of the Camino is either hard surfaces (like sidewalks or roadways in towns) or this–finely crushed gravel that’s pleasant to walk on. Notice the pack covers.  With all the rain, mine was on almost every day. Pack covers help keep the pack dry, but they aren’t 100%. Use a pack liner and waterproof stuff sacks as well.

Most would consider me an experienced long distance hiker. I’ve completed 1,405 miles on the Appalachian Trail (summer 2014) and I just finished The Camino in Spain. Each trail is different. I found there were things that were unique to the Camino de Santiago. While there are many paths to Santiago, I took the most popular, The Camino Frances or The French Way. This Camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and finishes about 780km later in Santiago. I skipped the first 30km to avoid hiking the mountains during the first week of April. (It turned out to be a good choice. There was heavy snowfall and part of the trail was closed that week). I hiked from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela in the spring of 2016. It took me 37 days to walk the roughly 450 miles (750km, approximately), which included a day off in both Leon and Burgos.

The path is well marked, though you have to pay attention since it might be signs, yellow spray-painted arrows or shells in the sidewalk. The last section has new markers like this one, counting down the kilometers.
The path is well marked, though you have to pay attention since it might be signs, yellow spray-painted arrows or shells in the sidewalk. The last section has new markers like this one, counting down the kilometers.

It turned out to be a cold spring, with substantial flooding. If you are lucky and have great weather, you probably need to carry even less than what I did.

WHAT NOT TO BRING

First let’s start with what you DON’T need.

  • Tent–It’s mostly private land, so there is almost nowhere to legally set up a tent. You can set up at some hostels, but you don’t save much money this way.
  • Cooking equipment–There are bars, cafes, grocery stores and restaurants in every little town where you can eat or buy prepared food. If you want to cook, stay in a hostel with a kitchen.
  • Water purification–Every town has a fountain and the water is probably better than what comes out of the tap in my hometown of Atlanta, GA, (although, that’s not saying much).
  • Laundry soap–You can hand wash items with the same soap you use for your body. Mostly hostels will supply soap for automatic washers (lavadoras). Some will also have dryers (secadoras).
  • Pillow–Every hostel I stayed in had a pillow.
  • Blow up mattress—Every hostel I stayed in had real mattresses. I did see at least two churches where pilgrims could stay for free, but they slept directly on the stone floor. If you are really on a budget or going during July/August (the height of the season when places run out of beds), you might bring one of these along.
  • Food—I carried only a few snacks most days—nuts, cheese or fruit. Towns are 2-6km apart and you can almost always find a place to eat. If you are not sure about supplies ahead, get a sandwich (bocadillo).
There's dozens of little towns that you walk through. All have a church that's probably older than the USA. Don't rush through. Go inside all of them that you can.
There’s dozens of little towns that you walk through. All have a church (or three) that’s probably older than the government of the USA. Don’t rush through. Go inside all of them that you can. There’s a story and history in each.

WEIGHT

Carry less and you will enjoy it more. Most guidebooks will say that you should keep your pack under 20 pounds. I carried less than that on the Appalachian Trail! I didn’t weight my Camino pack, but I’d guess it was 10-12 pounds.

WHAT TO BRING

  • Sleeping bag/sleep sheet—I hiked in April/May 2016. It happened to be one of the coldest, wettest springs on record. We had several unseasonably cold nights. Some dropped to freezing. I was grateful I’d brought a summer weight, down sleeping bag and added a blanket in a few hostels. If you hike when it’s warmer, you can probably just do with a sleep sheet or bag liner. Most hostels had blankets, but not all. Some don’t even have sheets, so bring something.
  • Camp towel—You need a towel that dries easily, so no cotton. Mine was fairly small, but others had towels large enough to wrap their bodies in. Get something you can attached to the outside of your pack on sunny days so it can dry while you hike.
  • Clothes—By far, the most important item is good walking shoes. I like Merrill trail runners with thick soles and I add an additional insole for arch support and cushion. The next most important item is socks. I use silk sock liners and Darn Tough hiking socks. I had three sets of each. For the rest of the clothing, make sure everything is rugged and quick dry. No Cotton or blue jeans. These are the clothes I brought, which includes what I wore each day. This is about one set more than you have to have, so it’s possible to carry even less: Three sets each of underwear (sport bras and quick dry panties), shirts (two long sleeve wool, one short sleeve poly). Two pair of hiking pants. One button down camp shirt that could layer over my other shirts for warmth (optional). One pair hiking shorts (I only hiked in them twice. It was cold most days.). A travel vest with lots of pockets. BTW, I hate the pants with the zip off legs. They sound like a great idea, but the zippers seldom hold up and they always seem to hit the place were my thighs rub together when I walk. Can you say blisters? The quality of men’s pants seem to be better made than women’s. My hiking companion found pants that resisted stains and light rain. They were superior to mine. Whatever you buy, make sure they have pockets.
  • Spare camp shoes—I have an off brand that looks like a pair of Crocs, but a bit lighter in weight. I wore these around town and they doubled as shower shoes. Many people use flip flops. The advantage of Crocs is that they can also be used for hiking short distances if you have bad blisters, very swollen feet a toe injury or your regular hiking shoes completely fail.

    If you are carrying too much weight and going too many miles a day to enjoy the trip, you are going to miss all the art, like this!
    If you are carrying too much weight and going too many miles a day, you won’t enjoy the trip. And you are going to miss all the art, like this!
  • Water bottle—I just re-use a soda or juice bottle. Nothing is lighter in weight or less expensive. When the bottle gets banged up, I buy a new drink. You don’t have to carry a lot of water at any given time since almost every town has a fountain where you can fill up. Lots of people use those large bladders that fit inside a backpack, but I don’t like them. They leak, are tough to clean and way too easy to overfill. Water is heavy and since there is plenty of clean water readily available, it’s unnecessary to carry much. While I usually had two 1-liter bottles, I often just drank a lot of water at each fountain, then carried half a bottle.
  • Credit card/bank card/cash—Make sure to let your banks know you are traveling. Find an ATM card and a credit card that will work in Europe and won’t charge you an arm and a leg in fees. You will mostly need cash. Small hostels and cafes won’t accept credit cards.
  • Passport—You will have to produce this for every hostel.
  • Pilgrims Credential—This is your Pilgrim’s Passport which you will have stamped every day at hostels and cafes along the way. This is to prove where you walked and will serve as a nice souvenir later. You can get this along the way or order it ahead of time.
  • Plastic zip-lock bag for your Passport/CCs/Credential/Cash/etc.—A simple plastic bag will store everything, keep stuff dry and will be easy to carry. This is essentially a waterproof wallet. I took mine with me everywhere–even the shower. I slept with it under my pillow. This is the one thing you cannot afford to lose.
  • Coat/Fleece—I wore my down jacket often during this cold spring. It packed up very small, but still kept me warm. I even slept in it several times. I like fleece for the warmth and light weight, but it doesn’t pack up as small as I’d like. This can double as a pillow if the one at the hostel isn’t comfy.
  • Hat—for sun and rain
  • Sunglasses
  • Buff—Doubled as a sleep mask, ear muffs or headband. Don’t know what a buff is?

    Take a break 2-4 times a day and meet other walkers. There are lots of nice cafes for second breakfast or just a pint.
    Take a break 2-4 times a day and meet other walkers. There are lots of nice cafes for a second breakfast or just a pint.
  • Rain gear—Jacket/rain pants/poncho/pack cover/pack liner/umbrella or whatever combination works for you. This spring in Northern Spain was unseasonably wet and cold. We saw rain 32 out of the 37 hiking days. We got hail twice and saw lightening every evening for most of a week. I had a rain jacket and added an umbrella, which worked especially well in town. Near the end of the hike, the temperatures were just warm enough that I over-heated in a full coverage rain jacket. I’d wear the jacket, unzipped, and use the umbrella to keep out most of the rain. If it were very cold and windy, I’d put the umbrella away and add rain pants. If we’d had sunshine, the umbrella would have doubled as a parasol since there’s little tree coverage on this trail. I made sure the rain jacket was large enough to go over my down jacket in case it got really cold. Sometimes I wore the rain jacket just to deal with the wind. I’ve had poor luck with ponchos—somehow I can’t seem to stay dry in them. BTW, check to make sure your rain jacket is still keeping out the rain. I brought the same one I’d used on the Appalachian Trail two years before, but it had lost its waterproof properties. I had to replace it. I also recommend a pack cover, a pack liner (I use trash compacter bags, but any trash can liner will do), and I have each of my sets of gear in multi-colored, water-proof stuff sacks. DON’T GET ALL YOUR STUFF SACKS THE SAME COLOR. Color coding makes it easy to know your clothes bag from your sleeping bag at a glance.
  • Backpack—The less you carry, the fewer features you need in a backpack. I originally thought I’d take a smaller, summer backpack that I used on the Appalachian Trail. However, with so much less gear, I didn’t need anything large or substantial. I found a durable day pack and wore a travel vest (a vest with lots of pockets) to carry small items.
  • First aid kit—Don’t over-do it here. I’m talking about band-aids (plasters in Europe) and the anti-inflammatory of your choice. I also used a simple knee brace. Remember you will be able to buy what you need along the way. I highly recommend buying Compeed Brand for covering your blisters. Nothing sticks as well. They are easy to find in Spain.
  • Personal items—toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, comb, small bar of soap, small container of shampoo. You can easily replace this stuff as you run out, so use a small size/travel size of each.
  • Guidebook—I used the most popular English guide by John Brierley. The maps weren’t always accurate, but over-all it gave me the info I needed. He spends WAY too much time talking about things that are off trail for me. After I’ve done 20km, I’m not about to add an additional 5km just to see another church). He’s also clearly tuned into a spiritual side that I can’t relate to. I saw a Michelin Guide that was smaller and about as good, though many hostels weren’t mentioned in it. As I used pages, I tore them out and threw them away to lighten my load. Yes, the ounces add up.
  • Hiking poles (Optional)—I use them when going up or down hill and I think they save my knees. These can be difficult to travel with on a plane, however. If you don’t have checked luggage to put them in (and make sure they fit in your luggage), consider buying a cheaper pair after you get to Spain. Or do without.
  • Phone/iPad/Camera/Journal (Optional)—Most hostels and restaurants have free wifi, so you can check in with the folks back home by email. I have an unlocked smart phone and put a Spanish SIM card in it. For 40 Euros, I got the SIM card, a new phone number and enough data for 3 months in Spain, since I use it frugally. Using Apps like FaceBook Messenger or WhatsApp, you can even make international phone calls for free when you have wifi. If you carry any of these items, make sure you have chargers for them, waterproof bags to keep them dry and a plug converter for Europe.

    This hill was covered in rocks and sheep droppings, but it had a lovely cross on top and a great view.
    This hill was covered in rocks and sheep droppings, but it had a lovely cross on top and a great view.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?

Most guidebooks will lay out a 30-33 day trek starting from SJPP to Santiago, roughly 500 miles. Take longer so you can enjoy it more. Remember, you can start anywhere or you can walk other routes. If the Compostela (the document they give you at the end to verify you did the walk) is important to you, you only have to walk the last 100k (or bike 200k). And you can do this at your speed. Why push yourself with 30k day when 10-15-20 is so much more enjoyable? Personally, I say take all the time you can. Stay an extra day in Burgos and Leon and really enjoy those lovely cathedrals and art museums while resting your feet. It’s the journey, not the destination! Can you take 40 days? If not, then just choose a shorter route. Or decide to do the walk in sections.

Take an extra day in Leon and see the cathedral. It's amazing. Leon also has a castle.
Take an extra day in Leon and see the cathedral. It’s amazing. Leon also has a castle.

WHEN TO WALK

If I had it to do again, I’d go in the fall. Spring will always be wettest, though this particular year had record flooding. July/August is the high season and the hottest time of year. It can be difficult to find a free bed in the hostels and heavy sweating is not my thing. Winter is too cold for me and some hostels and cafes won’t be open. I’d go September and October, starting about a week after Labor Day. By mid-November, it’s getting pretty cold and dark, plus hostels and cafes in small towns will start to close.

Even if you aren't Catholic, go to a pilgrims mass occasionally. Most every town has one every evening.
Even if you aren’t Catholic, go to a pilgrim’s mass occasionally. Most towns have one every evening.

COSTS

  • I budgeted 35 Euros a day and came in a bit under budget. You can do it for less by eating from grocery stores and staying in the lowest priced hostels. You can easily spend more by staying in hotels or pensions and having a service carry your backpack (mochila) for you each day (5-6 Euros a day).
  • Hostels are 5-12€. The closer you get to Santiago, the more expensive. Once you get within 100Km of Santiago, the prices are 10-15 Euros. There are more people, too, and more of a party atmosphere.
  • Food: breakfast of 2 eggs, toast and cafe con leche is 5-6€. A more common Spanish breakfast is toast and coffee for 3-4€. BTW, you’ll have to ask for butter and jam. Toast usually means dry toast.
  • Pilgrims meals are 9-12€. It’s a big meal, including a first and second course, dessert and wine or water. There is usually a vegetarian option, but it might be little more than pasta with a few veggies.
  • Coffee or a caña (short, draft beer) is usually 1.5 Euros.
  • Laundry—usually 3 Euros to wash and 3 Euros to dry. Typically, the hostel wants to do the wash, so double check your belongings as soon as you get them back. You aren’t carrying much and you can’t afford to lose socks or underwear.

I hope this information can help you have a successful hike!

My Compostela--which we waited 2 hours in line for. Since the bicycle riders I. Front of us had not showered in a month, this turned out to be the most grueling part of the hike.
My Compostela–which we waited 2 hours in line for. Since the bicycle riders in front of us had not showered in a month, this turned out to be the most grueling part of the hike.
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Beth

I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

3 thoughts on “Preparing for the Camino de Santiago”

  1. Do it while you can. I couldn’t do it now if I wanted to since my knees and ankles are shot. Beth, you are an inspiration!

    1. I know. I’m beginning to feel my age. There are certainly things I won’t do, don’t have the energy for. It’s tough getting old, but I won’t complain. It’s a privilege that not everyone gets.

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