Walking the Camino de Santiago: Getting Ready

Hikers around the world are rediscovering Spain's Camino de Santiago, Medieval Europe's version of the thru-hike. A veteran of the pilgrimage shares his tips for getting your boots on the path.

Aug 12, 2013
Outside Magazine

   Photo: Fresco Tours/Flickr

There are a plethora of guidebooks and online resources to help you plan your pilgrimage, but I’m of the opinion that you should do the minimum amount of planning possible. If there's any hike that's worth improvising, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is it.

That said, it's a good idea to bring a basic route guidebook, such as the ones published by the Confraternity of St James. Have this posted to you before you start and use it to figure out what kind of pace you'll have to set and what sights you want to see, based on the length of your trip.

Once you're on the way, you'll find this plan changes. You'll meet some people you want to walk with for a few days; you'll want to push yourself to do another few miles; you'll decide it's a perfect time to sit by the river and think about life. Unlike a backcountry hike, there's enough infrastructure around that you don't need to have every detail perfectly laid out.

There's very little technical walking on the main Camino routes—you'll mostly be on well-maintained tracks or pavement—so you don't need much backpacking experience. If you don't hike much, get out and around your neighborhood for an hour each day, and take care to break in your shoes beforehand. If you don't do a lot of walking, get out and about around your neighborhood for an hour or two each day. I always said my training for the Camino was the first week of the Camino: by the time you've pushed through those first five days, things become a lot easier.

The clothing and technical gear you'll need for the Camino depends on what season you're hiking in, but err on the lighter side. Your fully-packed bag, with a bit of food and a full water bottle, should weigh no more than 15 percent of your body weight, with a goal of 10 percent. For my 155-pound frame, I aimed for 22 pounds or less. Start with this list:

—A 30-40 liter backpack

—Your credential, passport or valid ID, journal, and a pen in a waterproof bag. Bring a journal so you can add stamps and jot down notes.

—A water bottle of some kind. I like a two-liter Platypus with cap, which you can use on those days where it's a long way between water stops.

—Toiletries. No make-up, but plenty of sunscreen and soap suitable for hand-washing clothes. If you can endure it, many men and women avoid shaving on the Camino to eliminate the weight of that gear.
—A small first-aid kit, including painkillers, antiseptic cream, bandages, blister plasters and a sterile needle to drain blisters. Pharmacies are easy to find, so you don't need medical supplies for the whole way unless you rely on a particular prescription.
—Two t-shirts, two pairs of zip-off trousers, and three pairs of underpants and socks. Wash at your stops and dry overnight.

—Whatever you need to stay warm and dry. At times you might be walking over plains in 40-degree heat; a week later snow will start falling in the mountains. I recommend merino wool thermal underwear (top and bottom), a fleece top for warmth, a wind- and water-proof outer jacket and pants, and a pack cover to protect your things from the rain.

—I favor light, comfortable walking shoes or hiking sandals over boots for most of the Caminos, with the possible exception of the Primitivo. I always bring along a pair of flip-flops to allow my feet to breathe and dry after walking.

—As few electronics as you can bear. Bring a camera and a phone, but leave the laptops and iPads at home.

—Basic eating utensils. Most refugios and albergues have kitchens, but I'd recommend carrying a spork, sharp knife, lightweight plate, bowl and cup. It's not uncommon to have someone spontaneously cook a communal meal, or pilgrims to all chip in and make something together.

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