Preparing for the Camino de Santiago
The Camino is not your typical long-distance trail
The Camino de Santiago runs for 484 miles from the small town of St. Jean Pied du Port (foot of the pass, referring to the adjacent Pyrenees Mountains) in the southwestern corner of France through northern Spain to Santiago. Some hikers continue west for another 47 miles to Finisterre and the Atlantic Ocean.
The Camino attracts hundreds of thousands of people (called pilgrims or peregrinos) every year from all over the world. Last year, Americans comprised only 6 percent of Camino pilgrims. Many walk the Camino to figure out how to deal with some pressing personal problem or a major life change, such as death of a loved one or a divorce. Others walk to better understand themselves. Others walk simply to enjoy the cultural experience. Expect to see lots of pilgrims every day.
Betsy and I will begin our hike at St. Jean in late April and end at Finisterre in late May. We chose this window because we wanted to enjoy the greenery of spring. Plus, it will provide an opportunity for me to regain my hiking legs under moderate circumstances and avoid the busiest and hottest months of July and August. I expect that we’ll average about 14 miles per day to leave plenty of time for sightseeing and visiting with other hikers.
What gear to take on the Camino?
Pretty much what you’d take on any long-distance hike with important exceptions as noted below. The list below shows what I’ll take. Not counting items worn while hiking, my pack weight will be 12 pounds with an estimated additional two pounds of water and one pound of snack/lunch food. Carrying 15 pounds each day highlights a key and delightful difference between other long-distance hikes and the Camino.
Ankle brace, Mueller, foam
Backpack, Gossamer Gear Mariposa, bigger than I need but I already have one and it’s very comfortable
Bandana, to keep the sun off my ears and neck and for other purposes
Battery pack, Betsy and I will share
Buff, for cold days
Cell phone plus charger cable and Euro outlet adapter, check to see if you need a SIM card
Duct tape, wrapped on hiking poles
First aid kit, neosporin, gauze, band-aids, Q-tips, leukotape, Vaseline, chapstick
Gloves, sunglasses, worn while hiking
Gloves, black, REI pile
Gloves, green, dishwashing, I’ve discovered that my hands don’t function well in cold rain
Hat, baseball, worn while hiking
Hat, blue pile for cold days
Headlamp, for emergencies
Hiking poles, Black Diamond, collapsible
Ibuprofen, N=30 in small pill bottle
Jacket, Golite down, for cool mornings
Long-john bottoms, lust-over-the-knee length, for cold days
Long-john top, blue, for cold days
Money, valuables, cash, credit, ATM, medical cards
Notebook, pencil, extra leads, and eraser, for journaling
Pack cover, Peregrine
Passport, in a small plastic bag, make sure yours won’t expire on your hike
Pencil, sharpie, for writing in guidebook
Pillow, Big Agnes, inflatable
Plastic bag, all of the stuff in the main compartment of my pack goes in a sturdy plastic bag
Pocket knife, Swiss Army, medium size
Rain jacket, Montbell, black
Rain pants, Montbell, blue
Shirt, long sleeve, blue, worn while hiking
Shirt, short sleeve, for sleeping
Shoes, Hoka One Bondi, 8, 11.5, 4E with orthotic
Shorts, worn while hiking
Sleeping bag, Golite ultralight, quilt
Soap, in small plastic bag, from motel
Socks, REI black polyester liner, two pairs, one worn while hiking
Sunscreen, small bottle
Toilet paper, in small plastic bag
Tooth care, toothbrush, floss, toothpick, toothpaste
Towell, small, blue
Vitamins, N=35 in small pill bottle
Water bottles, Recycled, 28 oz, 1.5 liter drink bottles
Wind shirt, Golite, blue, worn on cold, windy days
What gear don’t you need to take on the Camino?
Through-hiking the Camino de Santiago is unlike the AT, PCT, or CDT in many respects. Key differences include few places to camp, daily walking through small towns with hostels (albergues), cafes, and grocery stores, plenty of drinking water, and mostly low to moderate elevation gain. These realities mean that you won’t need to carry a tent, cooking gear, food for multiple days, or lots of water. You won’t need to hike 20-plus mile days to complete your journey before the snow flies.
You won’t need a tent because you’ll be sleeping in albergues or hotels every night. You probably won’t take cooking gear because of numerous cafes and restaurants, some of which offer low-cost pilgrim meals. Some of the albergues offer breakfast and/or dinner on a donation basis. Plus, some albergues have cooking facilities where you can prepare dinner or breakfast with food you buy at a grocery store. You won’t need topographic maps, but I recommend a guidebook and its maps to help you find accommodations, eateries, and scenic attractions, especially in larger towns and cities. My wife, Betsy, and I will carry Camino de Santiago by John Brierley (2023 version). The Camino is well-marked, although pilgrims who don’t pay attention to where they’re going can get off track. During the height of summer (July, August), you might not need a sleeping bag—a sleeping bag liner might suffice.
Useful tidbits of information
You can find full-length films of the Camino de Santiago, plus loads of videos (of varying quality and usefulness) online. Betsy and me have found it worth our time to watch many of them.
Most albergues accept only cash, but you can find ATMs in towns.
Remember that you’ll be walking through small towns and large cities where you can buy things that you need, such as groceries, toothpaste, and first-aid items.
You’ll do a lot of road walking (mostly lightly used) on the Camino, perhaps one-quarter of the total distance. In my experience on the CDT, road walking either blacktop or gravel hammers my feet. Thus, I’ve opted for shoes with plenty of padding, namely Hoka Bondi 8. I need extra-wide shoes, and the Biondi is the only (for me) suitable Hoka shoe that comes in extra-wide (4E) widths.
You might want rubber tips for your hiking poles, especially on long sections of road walking. My wife finds the clicking of hiking pole tips on asphalt highly annoying.
You should be able to charge your cell phone every day—but take a European charging adapter.
l recommend taking leukotape for blister prevention / management and fixing holes in clothing.
Take heavy-duty ear plugs, as you would use in shelters on the AT, to reduce the racket of snorers in the albergues.
You might consider an umbrella in July and August (sunny, hot, clear skies, limited shade).
For the most part, water is readily available from drinking fonts and in towns so you won’t have to carry much water (2 liters at most). That said, you may want more carrying capacity (an additional recycled plastic bottle) for certain sections in the summer, especially if you sweat a lot.
You’ll see lots of people on the Camino, especially if you’re there in July and August. You may have to hunt for an albergue that’s not full during the summer months.
Albergues typically feature bunk beds, several to many in a room. Hence the need for ear plugs and possible eye covers. You can take a shower pretty much every night, wash and dry clothes in machines. or wash out socks in a sink.
A final thought
Here’s a great piece of advice that Betsy and I got from a friend who hiked the Camino last year: What you might think will be a problem (such as navigating Spanish, not finding a place to stay, getting lost) won’t turn out to be a problem. Sure, you’ll encounter difficult situations, but relax, the Camino provides.
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