Tips for walking the Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago has undergone a revival over the years with the number of pilgrims walking this ancient route to Santiago de Compostela growing considerably. With numbers flourishing, the growing popularity, at times, can put a strain on the system. While there are countless churches and villages along the way that are dedicated to the pilgrim’s journey, the race for beds can become tedious. Differing purposes and demographics of the pilgrims can further add to the strain. In spite of this, I am so thrilled that I had the opportunity to walk the Camino in it’s entirety. I learned a lot as I walked my 800 Kms across Spain and hope you find my perspective and my travel and preparation tips useful.
Tip #1: Know what you are walking for!
I know that sounds a little silly…but it is so true. If you are looking for the physical challenge of walking 40+ Kms per day, you are looking at a completely different walk than the person who is on a spiritual or religious quest. Try not to get off track as to what you are setting out to accomplish.
I met one pilgrim on the way that was walking for the second time. She suggested that her first time walking, she had been caught up in the race for beds and urgency of others walking for different reasons. She lost her purpose and assimilated the purpose of the pack! This time, her goal was to take her time, go at her own pace. I met her when she found herself cut down by blisters. She had fallen into older habits and felt this was the universe’s way of telling her to slow down and do her own thing. It was a valuable lesson for me – I had struggled with blisters and body pains, as well as the race for beds on the Camino and can’t say it enough – I let everyone else change how I was walking. My Camino was not unfolding the way I wanted it to and she gave me the reminder I needed to get back on track.
Tip #2: The internet is filled with websites and information dedicated to how to walk the Camino, but at the end of the day…I believe the best tip anyone can give you is to listen to your body!
I spent countless hours researching, reading and asking questions of those who had walked before me. This wasn’t my first hike either. I had trekked in Nepal and a done a number of day hikes in many hiking destinations around the world. I thought I knew what I was in for. Beyond the hiking, I had done a solo, self-supported voyage across Canada by bike. With so much Camino information out there, I felt more than prepared when I set out on my journey. Having trained in the hills in my hometown, carrying a full pack and walking in the heat of the day, I thought I was ready. As a cycling enthusiast, I felt my general fitness would carry me through what ever my training may have been lacking. It turns out, I was not prepared and this shocked me!
Tip #3: Less is more!
There are formulas, anecdotes and conflicting theories on what a pilgrim needs to take and what that weight should be. Should it be 10 kgs or 10% of your body weight? Carry the absolute minimum or pack things you will want for a rainy day? Clearly, there will always be differing factors for everyone. What is your purpose? Will you be carrying your own bag? How much time do you have? I met a man who was carrying an exorbitant volume of camera equipment (he put me to shame!). The weight of his pack was substantial and it showed. I only ran into him the one day – I never found out how he fared but my knees hurt just thinking about it! Seeing him struggle, I was happy to have eliminated some of my equipment before I set out. In spite of this, I still posted things home or ahead on 3 different occasions and dumped a few more items along the way.
Every ounce on your back is magnified as you walk. My bag was heavier than most – I wanted to photograph my trip so I carried multiple lenses, a tripod and a laptop. In the end, I was often too tired to use my various lenses – I stuck mostly to my “all-in-one” which is so versatile for a trip like this. At one hostel, the owner took pity on my tired soul and offered to carry my bag upstairs. Half way up, he stopped, turned to me and asked if I had another pilgrim in my bag! I agonized over what to pack and I really thought I was bare bones. Clearly, I was mistaken. I met some minimalists who carried less than some women carry in their purses! By the end of my journey, my knees, ankles and one hip hurt. The wear from the weight on my back was magnified as I walked day after day after day. In the end, I used bag carrying services on a few days. I just couldn’t handle the weight!
TIP #4: Take time to enjoy the smaller moments!
This is a personal journey – don’t let others push you along. I wanted to take the time to think. As I had written in a previous post, this was a period of transition. I also wanted to take the time to indulge in my passion for photography and keep a journal.
I walked for 43 days and found much of the time I got wrapped up in what others wanted. Not surprisingly, when I got caught up in everyone else’s Camino, I stopped taking the time to enjoy the things I wanted to do. At one stage, I even got an email from a friend at home asking if I was actually enjoying myself! I slowed down. One day, I walked only 2 hours. I finished walking by 9 am and savoured the moments at the Ermita de San Nicolas. It was my first personal epiphany. It still took me until Galicia to really come into my own. That’s nearly 600 Kms to figure to figure it out! Needless to say, Galicia was my favourite region on the Camino.
Tip #5: Be prepared for the onslaught!
I once read that the Camino de Santiago’s Way of St James, also known as the Camino Frances, can be likened to “a spiritual commuter on a conveyor belt to salvation”! Perhaps a little cynical but the fact that this has become a major tourist route was not lost on me as I walked along.
The historical and spiritual significance of the trail has gained world recognition. As such, people from all walks of life will be there and no doubt, you will be challenged. I was. Repeatedly! Ultimately, the Camino is what you make of it! You will be living in close proximity with others and patience will become a valuable virtue. I struggled at times with what I perceived as the rudeness of others. Perhaps they felt the same way about me. At times, I booked into private rooms along the way to get the space I needed. I highly recommend it! (See related links below for tips from the road.) It was a welcomed bit of alone time and great for sanity along the trail.
I was not ready for the onslaught of people for the last 100 Kms, even after having read about it. The numbers exploded, and with so many only walking the last section, the atmosphere changed drastically. Pilgrims who had walked the distance grumbled about those who were there for a week long vacation….graffiti against “Touregrinos” became prolific. Bed shortages became a daily reality. The system was strained.
In spite of that, walking the Camino was an incredibly rewarding experience. I met so many wonderful people who have had a lasting impression on me. Will you be walking the Camino?
Take the time you need in your preparation, during your walk and after as the journey does not finish when you finish walking. Buen Camino!