Hey, Thru-Hiker: Like It or Not, the Camino Has a Few Things To Teach You

This is a guest post by Tim Mathis.

I’ve hiked the PCT and the Tahoe Rim Trail and thousands of miles of wilderness in the Americas, Europe, and New Zealand. I say that up front to establish some credibility, because I know how some thru-hikers get when I tell them that my favorite long trail is the Camino de Santiago. It’s like gushing to a hardcore punk about how much I love U2. (I also know that analogy makes me seem like an old dork.)

I do understand why some people are skeptical of the Camino. The Camino is clearly a cousin to the thru-hike. But it’s the sort of cousin who gets way too into spirituality and makes family gatherings uncomfortable.

It’s a long walk across a whole country, but compared to the long trails in the States, it’s pretty soft. There are towns, hostels, and bars at two-hour intervals the entire way. It can be genuinely busy, with something near half a million people walking every year. There’s no actual wilderness involved.

Plus, it calls itself a pilgrimage. Pretentious, right?

All that’s true, but it’s still wrong for thru-hikers to dismiss the Camino.

Thru-hikers are on pilgrimage, whether they know it or not.

For a little bit of historical context, pilgrimage might seem weird these days, but the interesting thing is that we’re the weird ones for thinking that. It’s actually an incredibly common human experience, and has been for a very long time.

For a workable definition, a pilgrimage is a long walk to an important place, taken with the hope that you’ll be transformed along the way.

If you’re not acquainted, the Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route in Spain. It’s there because, about 1200 years ago, a guy named Paio claimed that a vision led him to the burial site of St. James’ bones.

They probably weren’t actually St. James’ bones.

That’s beside the point now though. People started descending on Santiago de Compostela from all over Europe, and across the years the site grew into a major city. Multiple routes developed infrastructure, myths, and traditions supporting pilgrims along the way. The practice mostly died off for a few centuries, but during the last 50 years, it’s had a cultural resurgence.

Now the most traditional route, the 500-mile Camino Frances, is probably the most popular long walk in the world. The Frances is also what most people are referring to when they say “the Camino,” by the way, although multiple routes are gaining in popularity.

The thing is, the Camino isn’t unique — not even close. Taking a long walk, to an important place, with the expectation of transformation is a nearly universal human practice across cultures and religions. Some of the oldest stories, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, suggest that pilgrimages were happening even prior to recorded history.

Today, pilgrimage is practiced in virtually every culture outside of English-speaking North America (and a few pockets in Europe and Oceania). Literally billions of modern people will go on some type of pilgrimage in their lifetime, from the Hajj to the Ganges to the Bodh Gaya to the Mazu pilgrimage in Taiwan.

Interesting, right?

People going on Camino are practicing a universal human tradition.

Also though, viewed from a certain angle you can see how the thru-hikes are filling the void left by the absence of traditional pilgrimage in North America. Pilgrimage has grown up everywhere, in virtually every culture. It makes sense that it would grow up here too.

You won’t find many thru-hikers who refer to themselves as pilgrims with a straight face, but even if we’ve stripped away the religious veneer, we’re doing the same thing that pilgrims have always done. We’re going on a long walk, in an important place, with the expectation that it will transform us.

We might not describe our intentions in spiritual terms, but what thru-hiker doesn’t think their trip will have a major impact on their life? Spending five months living in the wilderness, surrounded by dirtbags living their countercultural dreams — it’s not just an adventure outside, it’s a quest for a better way to live.

Good news thru-hiker, that’s a pilgrimage.

4 Things the Camino Can Teach Thru-Hikers

When you place things in context, the Camino really is a (very old, admittedly annoying) older cousin to the American thru-hike. They rose up in different cultural contexts, but both are born out of the same human impulse to go on a long walk in an important place in order to change your life. As with all older cousins, the Camino would like to teach us a thing or two.

Or four. Here are four things the Camino can teach thru-hikers.

1. Thru-hikers should embrace the connection between a long walk and transcendence

There’s a lot of God talk that can pop up in Camino culture, which can be off-putting. Here’s what I think though: we just need to understand what’s going on.

There’s no way to prove this, but I believe it anyway. The reason pilgrimage has been adopted by Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Taoists, Native Americans, Polynesians, the Greeks, Hindus and more is that a long walk reliably connects us to things that are bigger than ourselves. That is, a long walk reliably triggers experiences of transcendence.

On the Camino, this happened for me while sitting in a 13th-century church, listening to a choir of monks chant evening prayer in Latin. Even though I didn’t agree with the monks’ formal religious beliefs (or even understand what they were saying), the voices echoing off the walls on a quiet summer evening sucked me up into a dream world. I felt like a part of this grand myth that’s been transforming pilgrims for eternity. It didn’t feel like a stretch. I’d been sleeping in old stone hostels that had housed thousands before me. I’d crossed a pass that featured in The Song of Roland — France’s oldest work of literature. I’d walked on roads built by the Romans. It was a walk through a fairytale.

You’ll encounter God-talk on the Camino, but the route’s resurgence has been primarily driven by non-religious hikers. Estimates are that less than 30 percent of people on the modern Camino walk for anything like religious reasons. A big part of the appeal is that it passes through these places that trigger these experiences of transcendence.

In the same vein, a reason so many people are willing to suffer through the effort required to thru-hike is that living in the wilderness puts us in our place and helps us connect with a reality that’s deeper and more fundamental than the stuff of everyday life.

On our last night on the PCT in 2015, there was a total lunar eclipse that overlapped with a supermoon. My wife and I put up our tent, bundled up in our sleeping bags, and watched an enormous moon disappear in a surreal acid trip of an evening in the North Cascades. We’d spent five months sleeping outside, walking over peaks and through the trees, and drinking from streams. In the wilderness a few miles from Canada, we were specks of dust on a small planet, witnessing a grand cosmic event below towering peaks and an enormous sky.

Human beings need these types of experiences. We don’t have to cite God or St. James, but thru-hikers should just embrace it. We hike for the sake of transcendence.

2. Thru-hikers should embrace the idea of sacred places, because it ensures that they’ll stay protected.

One of the things that people find most confronting about Camino culture is its relationship with spirituality and “the sacred.” The idea that the whole thing is driven by the pull of a saint’s fake bones seems obscene, right?

I get it, but that’s missing the point. For the vast majority of people on the Camino these days, it’s not about the bones. The Camino is sacred because the route has facilitated beautiful experiences for millions of people across more than a thousand years. Walking it feels like participating in that tradition and becoming a part of that same story.

The significance of this kind of collective belief shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s a key reason that places get protected.

The Camino Frances has long been a line in the sand in northern Spain. For hundreds of years during medieval times, most of modern Spain was under Muslim control. However, the steady stream of pilgrims along the Camino helped maintain a predominantly Christian population and control in a thin sliver of northern Spain throughout its history. (Not that I’m defending one religion vs. another.)

While the Camino declined in importance for several hundred years, during the particularly nationalistic period following WWII, Spaniards re-embraced it as a symbol of Spanish unity and history. They began re-investing in the Camino because of what it represented about their history and values. (Much of this was driven by the authoritarian Franco regime. I’m not sure what to do with that, but anyway…)

When the Covid lockdowns lifted in 2022, and Spain needed to figure out how to revitalize its economy, the Camino was their number one tourism investment.

When people believe a place is sacred — that is, when they think it matters — they protect it. This is true at an individual level, and at a government level.

This is an important lesson for the long trails in North America. Their increasing popularity means that entire wilderness corridors are becoming sacred to thousands of people, even if we probably wouldn’t use such spiritualized language to say it. Locations along the trails are coming to represent important things to thousands of hikers. Katahdin, the High Sierra, Springer, the North Cascades — those places mean something now, right?

A lesson from Camino history is that this “sacredness” is crucial to making sure these wild places stay protected. The trails facilitate life-changing experiences for thousands of hikers every year. As thru-hiking culture is developing, it is becoming an important part of US culture more broadly. The trails are becoming a part of the United States’ identity, and symbols of core values like a connection with wilderness, perseverance, and human freedom.

Because the places have come to represent important things, the political will to protect them will increase. Because they are protected, they will continue to do their job, of helping people understand the life-changing magic of a long walk in the wilderness.

3. Thru-hikers should embrace community alongside our individualistic ideals.

There’s this popular, but false, image of pilgrimage as the solitary quest of a lonely wanderer searching for enlightenment. On the Camino, that image doesn’t survive for long. As soon as you arrive, you’re surrounded by crowds of travelers from all over the world. You sleep in communal hostels, you eat dinner in bars full of other pilgrims, and you pass through a steady stream of communities that are supported almost exclusively by the Camino economy.

This is the nature of the vast majority of traditional pilgrimages, from the Hajj to Mecca, to the journey to Bodh Gaya in India, to the festival of the Virgin of Guadeloupe in Mexico. They happen in crowds.

This isn’t a bug in the system. It’s a feature. On the Camino, even if it’s annoying sometimes, the community is one of the most important parts of the experience. You spend a month making friends with people at critical junctures in life. You walk and talk and push through a shared struggle. You end up forming lifelong connections, and you become a part of a community that endures long after you finish the walk.

There’s a clear analogy with the standard long trail experience. Before you start, you have this false picture of what it’s going to be like. You imagine walking into the woods to spend months alone in the wilderness. But within a week, you’re grouped up with other dirtbags, shoving together in the back of trucks hitching into town, and having long conversations about what the hell you’re going to do with your life after the trail.

The more the long trails have grown in popularity, the more this has become true. There might be something lost in that shift, but generally speaking, it’s a gain. The community that’s developed makes the experience possible — from trail angels to the gas station attendants who sell us half-gallons of ice cream when we really, really need them. Trail family is what makes the experience persist. You form lifelong connections, and for the rest of your life, you’ll have an instant bond with other thru-hikers whenever you meet them.

We should embrace it. Like pilgrimage, thru-hiking requires a degree of individual initiative, but it isn’t about being alone in the wilderness. It’s about community. Or maybe better, it’s about being alone in the wilderness… with a lot of other people who are also alone in the wilderness.

4. Thru-hikers should have a little faith. (Go on. Make it weird.)

A final thing that people have a hard time dealing with in Camino culture is the pervasive sense of faith that surrounds it. I don’t mean religion. I mean the simple acceptance that the Camino is a walk that will change your life.

It’s true. It’s all so cringe-inducingly earnest.

Here’s the thing though: that faith is well-founded, and the last lesson the Camino has for thru-hikers is to lean into it. Make it weird. Admit that you’re going on trail looking for magic. In all likelihood, you’re going to find it.

The experience of thousands of years of history is that a long walk really is a transformative experience. It helps us transition to new stages of life. It helps us get our priorities straight. It helps us come to terms with death and loss. It helps us figure out what really matters. It helps us ground ourselves in tradition and history and the cosmic scope of the universe. All of that stuff happens on the Camino. All of it also happens on the long trails.

The pervasive sense of faith in Camino culture might be a bit cringy to some, but it reflects reality. Walking with a community of people who are expecting something profound creates a vibe, and it makes it more likely that you’ll have a profound experience yourself. People who go into this sort of experience with a clear sense of what they’re looking for are more likely to find it.

I’m not saying we need to start talking about trail magic and trail angels as if they are actual magic and actual angels. It’s just that we should have a bit of honest faith in the process. Long trails have changed plenty of people before you, and they’re likely to change you too.

We’re all on the same (ancient, eccentric, beautiful) team here.

If you get the chance, you should walk the Camino. It’s like going back in time to visit your ancestors. The Camino is different from a wilderness thru-hike, it’s true, but it’s part of the same complex, beautiful tradition. Maybe I’m trying to sell Bono to Johnny Rotten fans here, but that’s fine.

Even if you never end up on the Camino, there’s a lot to learn from it. It’s a bit uncomfortable to admit at first, but thru-hikers are modern-day pilgrims walking in the wilderness, absorbed in the truth, beauty, and meaning of it all. In the end, we’re not so different from those dorks on the Camino, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to admit it.

About the Author

Tim Mathis is a hiker, traveler, psychiatric nurse, and writer. He is the author of the new guidebook The Camino for the Rest of Us, as well as The Dirtbag’s Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds. He also writes online at www.TimMathisWrites.com.

All images, including featured image, courtesy of Tim Mathis.

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Comments 5

  • Drew Boswell : May 29th

    Thanks for a thoughtful and well-written article, Tim. Your “Dirtbag” book has been on my to-read list for a bit, but based on this Camino article I believe I’ll have to jump it up to the top so I can get to it sooner. Cheers.

  • Jeff Harmon : Jun 1st

    This started as a great article and I’m hoping to finish it on a laptop or something. Perhaps it’s just my phone but the number of flashing ads that restart with every scroll is offensive to my senses. I just want to read the well written article not have a seizure.

  • Ken Campbell : Jun 1st

    That’s some good writin’

    Makes my feet want to move. I have some long walks on the calendar and I definitely am looking for magic.

  • John Tercius Rutkowski : Jun 4th

    Well said about the Camino. I’m just back from the Camino Portuguese sur la Costa and Finsterre.
    Yes, shorter walks, but the same community from around the world.

    Learning about each other when you have a different language is very spiritual.

    I just discovered this “Shantiago” on you tube, it captures the spirit of walking the Camino.
    The system is not liking my url, so search YouTube for Shantiago

    Also listening to the peregrinos singing together as they walk into Santiago is quite moving. Ultreia! “Farther”

    Search YouTube for Ultreia English pilgrims.

    Another pilgrim and I are working to bring that Spanish feeling to the US trails. (2 70+ year old climbers/cavers/hikers)

  • John Tercius Rutkowski : Jun 4th

    The Camino is a community walk, not a wilderness one, but community needs to be preserved just the same

    See my Camino journey in the blogs here.


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