“Thoughts come quickly to those who walk.”
The Camino de Santiago is a 790 km trail, starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, and ending in Santiago de Compostela. The trail itself is a recognized UNESCO Heritage Site, and crosses through the Pyrenees Mountains, across Basque country, through Spanish vineyards and farmland, into Galecia, and out towards the western coast of Spain. Traditionally the Camino starts from your front doorstep, although nowadays, many consider the official route to begin in the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, just east of the Pyrenees Mountains in France. The Camino de Santiago has been a pilgrimage route for over 1000 years, a traditional route since the 8th Century, and has been steadily increasing in popularity over the years, with upwards of 300,000. Along the trail, each peregrino collects stamps in their passports from every albergue they stay in along the way in order to get a certificate at the end of their journey in Santiago de Compostela.
Although the Camino is traditionally a Christian/Catholic pilgrimage to the tomb of St James, the trail is what you make of it, and you will find many pilgrims from many different ethnicities and spiritual orientations. In the fall of 2014, a friend of mine was completing the trip and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to do the trip! I completed the Camino Frances from mid-October to mid-November 2014 over the course of 35 days, with 2 rest days. Although starting the trip with a friend from Saskatoon, I actually ended up making new pals at dinner after the first day of walking and crossing the Spanish border, settling in Roncesvalles: a seasoned hiking sisters from Montana, an adventurous and tech-savvy couple from California, and an eager hiking novice from South Korea. These amazing people ended up being the folks I walked the rest of my journey with, and it was a true blessing of the Camino that we met.
I would be lying if I said that Camino was a completely positive experience. Blisters, back sores, pulled muscles, infected blisters, GI upset, tears, mental challenges, did I mention blisters.? The Camino is an incredible journey because of the entirety of the trail: the accumulation of the highs and the lows. It would not nearly be so rewarding if it did not challenge you. The Camino also brings lifelong friendships, amazing personal experiences, time for spiritual, physical, mental and emotional growth, and exposure to culture, stillness, and reflection. The Camino is still something I often reflect on and am extremely grateful to have completed. I hope you like it too!
There are so many amazing places, people, and experiences on the Camino, it is nearly impossible to sum it up in a few sentences. My friend Leroi made this video to give you a taste of what the Camino has to offer: Camino de Santiago Fall 2014
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The traditional Way of St. James ends at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, however you can also continue walking another 100km to Cape Finisterre and even Muxia on the westernmost coast of Europe (Fun fact: Cape Finisterre in Roman times, was believed to be the end of the known world). If you are an outdoors-person like myself, I would highly recommend continuing your journey a few more days to travel to Finisterre. The view of the Atlantic Ocean is breathtaking and very climatic for the end of an epic journey on foot.
If there’s one piece of advice I would give to myself before I started the Camino, I would say avoid setting expectations for yourself on the trail as they can prevent you from being present and spontaneous. The beauty of the Camino de Santiago is that your life is much more simplified: day-to-day you focus on your next meal, walking the next few kilometers, making conversation, and finding your next bed to sleep and recharge in. This simplicity allows you to fully appreciate your experiences, the relationships you build, and struggles you will overcome. When I finally allowed myself to be present on the trail, I became open to what the trail would offer me in return.
There are local and national groups to check out for more information, to get your passport in advance, and for questions. Check out:
Canadian Company of Pilgrims: https://www.santiago.ca/
Saskatoon Chapter: https://www.facebook.com/saskatooncamino/
When traveling, using a trail, or accessing a natural space, it is always a great idea to be respectful of the environment, the locals, and to your fellow hikers! If you aren’t already familiar, it’s a good idea to review the principles of Leave No Trace. On the Camino, three of the Leave No Trace Principles really stood out for me:
Plan Ahead and Prepare – be conscious of how long you can walk, how often you need to eat, how many litres of water you are drinking daily in order to keep yourself fed, hydrated and safe along the trail.
Be Considerate of Others – one of the coolest parts about the Camino is that you get to walk right through small French, Basque and Spanish communities, and interact with locals, as well as other pilgrims from all over the world. The folks living in those communities are so welcoming and deserve a lot of respect for helping every single pilgrim along their journey.
Dispose of Waste Properly – to put it bluntly: the world is not your toilet. Use appropriate and actual washrooms, and dispose of garbage in bins along the way. Keep the trail looking even more beautiful for the next peregrino. 🙂
Gear: What Do I Bring??
Because you are walking through villages and larger cities from time -to-time, having the perfect gear will not necessarily make-or-break your trip. One of the many luxuries of the Camino is having access to amenities should you need them. That being said, it’s always best to plan ahead. Here is some of the gear I took along, some mistakes I made, and some gear I would bring with me next time.
No doubt about it, the Camino is tough on your feet! When considering footwear for the trail, the most important thing is to take a pair of footwear that are comfortable to you, and ones that your feet are familiar with. Trail runners, low hikers, and mid-hikers all have their advantages, but having a sole that is more rugged than a typical running shoe will give you more support overall and will prevent your feet from becoming fatigued as quickly. Make sure to break in your shoes! Your feet will swell about half a shoe size after walking for hours on end, and if your shoes are not the right size to accommodate that expansion, this will create hotspots that lead to blisters.
Blisters can be minimized by keeping your feet dry as much as possible. Change your socks often, wear merino wool socks, and bring waterproof footwear if you are expecting rain during your time on the trail. Liner socks are completely underrated and I would highly recommend them. Liner socks put the friction between your socks, rather than on your foot. They also help to wick moisture from your feet and move it into the hiking sock.
Pharmacies are very common along the route, with lots of products for treating blisters on your feet such as moleskin, bandaids, gauze, BlisterMedic (or Compeed in Spain) and duct tape. Get comfortable with doing your own blister maintenance.
Shower Shoes – I wish I had: Crocs or slip on shower shoes that you can wear out on the town with a sock. Truth be told, my feet were so fatigued at the end of walking all day that wearing flipflops was a struggle. I also found that I wanted the option to wear socks if walking around at night when it was chillier and as dorky as it sounds, I wish I could have worn socks with sandals but I could not in my flipflops.
Did you know that a well-fitted hiking bag is based upon the length of your spine? Make sure you have a backpack that properly fits your back length. The measurement of your spine from the height of the top of your iliac crest to your C7 vertebrae at the base of your neck will help you find the right back length for a properly fitted pack. The hip belt should be sitting evenly over your iliac crest of your hip bone (this is typically higher than most people would instinctively wear their packs).
Check out this video of Sarah and Bill from the shop with what to look for when fitting a pack! https://www.instagram.com/p/B-sDKKenMtA/
Experts recommend only hiking with about 10% of your body weight on the Camino de Santiago. If you hike in the off-season, you may need to pack more cold-weather clothing, which may influence the weight of your pack. The closer you are to the 10% range, the less discomfort you’ll have over all. Aim for a backpack with a capacity somewhere between 30-45L.
While 10% of your body weight is ideal, remember that you can carry more weight if absolutely necessary and you will still be able to achieve the feeling of Pack-Zen.
Because I was a broke student at the time, and was travelling the trail during the colder seasons, I needed clothing to prepare for everything from hot temperatures, to below freezing with snow. I used my Osprey 65L Ariel backpack, a bag that I had previously used for other trips, and I definitely overpacked it and needed to mail myself some clothing home, haha.
I wish I had: packed less and brought a smaller pack!
It is extremely likely that you will end up wearing the same few garments the entire time you walk. Try your best to avoid bringing pieces of clothing that are not functional. Here’s a list of some items you may want to bring along:
- Rain gear (waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, poncho)
- Merino socks (2-4 pairs)
- Liner socks (2-3 pairs)
- Underwear (3-6 pairs)
- Base layer top/bottom (depending on season)
- Synthetic midlayer (fleece or synthetic insulation)
- Hiking pants/leggings
- Hiking shorts (or convertible pants if that suits you)
- Hiking shirts (1-3)
I wish I had: a fleece jacket or synthetic midlayer, such as an Arcteryx Atom LT, Patagonia Nano Air, or North Face Ventrix or Thermoball. I made the mistake of bringing a down jacket that got very wet when my rain jacket was no longer waterproof due to extended periods of rain, meaning that my one layer to keep me warm was no longer doing that! Moisture clings to down pumules and causes it to lose its loft, and thus lose its warmth. Synthetic materials dry much faster and would have been a better alternative for me.
This is totally dependent on the weather you are expecting while you are there, but one thing I wish I had brought with me was a Sea to Summit Poncho, or at the very least a heavy-duty garbage bag to make myself a poncho that would last multiple uses. I experienced 16 days of straight rain and unfortunately even Goretex will become saturated and struggle to perform when it’s put under a test like that! To be completely honest, on the really rainy days, a makeshift garbage bag poncho worked the best for me.
Quick- dry towel, I took travel-sized containers (such as GoToobs) with laundry soap and bodywash, shampoo and conditioner, sunscreen, toothbrush and toothpaste, travel-sized deodorant, razor, tweezers (can help with blisters, slivers, and general first aid as well).
I wish I had: a sink plug for doing laundry in the sink! It saves lots of money at the laundromat if you wash your underwear, socks and even quick dry hiking shirts in the sink. A large flat rubber sink plug would have been really helpful for me.
I also wish I had: a microfiber quick-dry towel, such as PackTowl which we sell at Outter Limits – the less plush quick-dry towels will dry much faster and do not get musty as easily. I would also recommend getting a size large enough that you can wrap around your waist leaving the shower rooms if need be.
Locker lock, passport holder, external battery pack for phone, European power adapter, Camino trail guide book or app, silk liner, hiking poles, head lamp, sun hat, first aid kit including Blister Treatment Kit! Journal, pen, camera, hydration bladder or water bottles, tupper ware container and reusable cutlery, extra boot laces, a Buff or bandana.
I wish I had: a pocket-knife or Swiss Army Knife! I often bought ingredients from shops to make bocadillos along the route, and I often had to borrow a knife to cut baguettes, cheese, avocados and tomatoes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Did you train prior to your trek?
I was 22 years old when I went and exercised regularly at the time, so I did not train specifically for the trip although I was active everyday. Training is a great idea to break in your footwear to get used to wearing your pack!
Did you use trekking poles?
Yes! They are really great, especially coming down from steep inclines such as in the Pyrenees and in Galicia. Even a single walking stick or trekking pole helps to ease some of the pressure on your knees. Many hiking backpacks also have accessory straps to tuck away your hiking poles in a convenient spot. Note: most airlines will make you check your baggage if you have trekking poles.
How did you deal with blisters?
Break in your footwear, merino wool liners and socks, make sure your feet stay dry as much as possible, and get comfortable with blister maintenance, which may mean popping blisters your own blisters if need be!
Did you use any water treatment?
I did not. There are fountains along the trail with water that is clean and safe to drink.
Are there bed bugs on the Camino?
Sometimes! Do some research to know what bed bugs look like in their different life cycle stages, and know what their feces look like so that if you see signs of them, you can look for alternative accommodations. You can also inspect beds to see if there are any on the mattress. I took a Silk Travel Liner to sleep in that gave me peace of mind at night.
Did you take a sleeping bag along?
Most albergues will have blankets available for you to use, which I used along with my silk liner. In some places, I would sleep with layers on to keep myself warmer at night, especially when it got closer to the end of my trip and some albergues do not turn on the heat at night in the off season.
What item(s) did you take along and wish you hadn’t brought with you?
I am embarrassed to admit this, but I was optimistic about the “barefoot” walking trend and so I brought along a pair of Vibram Five Finger shoes. Those shoes are awesome and definitely have a time and place, however my feet were so swollen at the end of each day from walking that I couldn’t even fit my feet into them, haha. Again, take footwear that is familiar to you and you have broken in.
I also brought with me a very heavy power converter, which was unnecessary for my needs because I mostly needed it to charge my cell phone. Look at the fine print on the adapter that came with your phone as most of them will converter voltage, and you just need the correct adapter to fit into Spanish outlets. It is definitely important to research what sort of power adapter and converter you need for whatever gadgets you bring with you, as cameras, hair tools, etc need specific converters.
How many rest days should you plan?
It depends on how much time you have! There are so many beautiful places I wish I could have spent more time in. Keep in mind that if you take lots of rest days, you may lose your pace with other pilgrims, but you will meet lots of new people along your journey. 🙂
Did you feel safe? Were you ever worried about your valuables?
I felt extremely safe, although I also brought a lock with me to lock up my valuables while going to the shower, etc. if need be. Most folks walking the Camino have no intention to add any extra weight to their packs, however it’s always a great idea to keep your valuables close to your body, locked up, or in a secure location at all times.
Would you walk the Camino again?
People always ask me this! The Camino Frances was honestly life-changing, but if I complete another Camino in my life, it will be either the Portuguese Way or the Camino Norte.
Best of luck preparing for your journey! Ultreia, buen camino, and happy trails!