THE CAMINO

When people discover I have walked the Camino they are often full of questions. It seems to me that if people are considering the walk they need to be reassured that they can do it and will be safe. So, for what it is worth – which really is nothing – I have decided to put an article I had published on the Camino and my thoughts on walking the Camino, along with what I reckon is some good advice, on my web page.

Three short pieces of good advice first …..at least I think it is good advice but that is probably because it is MY advice!

  1. carry the absolute minimum for two reasons (well, obviously you have to carry it but also you will be surprised how wonderful it is to discover how little you need)
  2. don’t get a blister
  3. go with the right attitude – be open to what may come to you and enjoy it

So here we go…

SETTING YOUR OWN PACE

Take it easy....Take your watch off and just walk easy, enjoying the silences of the countryside: the birds, the distant hills, the little villages, the long, lonely tracks, the vineyards, the cows, the flowers and the friendships you will make along the way. Some will stay friends and others are journeymen in your life. Enjoy the lack of 'chatter' in your life: no TV, no friends phoning, no radio, no news, no work. The ‘no news’ was a hard one for me, because I was pretty sure history might end if I wasn’t monitoring it. To my great delight it didn’t.

Also, if you have it, enjoy the sunshine. I was lucky. I only encountered soft rain one morning and I remember that occasion vividly. I had just set out from a refugio before dawn (I always left early – eager to get on the road) so I didn’t notice that the sky was overcast. As I was walking alone in a forested area, damp and dark with shadows, a misty rain began to fall. I pulled the hood of my nylon all-weather jacket down (I only ever wore my jacket in the mornings because it was always cool around dawn) and I turned my face up to the rain. It was exquisite. I remember smiling at the perfection of it and then laughing out loud…all by myself. It was one of many beautiful moments on the Camino. However, if it had rained for three weeks I would have had a totally different attitude. So, enjoy the sunshine.

I keep myself reasonably fit by swimming one or two kilometers in the ocean every morning, but unless you can walk about 25 kilometers every day with a pack strapped to your back for a month or so before you leave then nothing will really prepare your body for the Camino. Please don’t be put off by the fitness issue. People of all shapes, sizes, ages and degrees of fitness complete the Camino. You simply go at your own pace.

It can be difficult at first and my pack was especially heavy (I do not recommend carrying 11 kilo especially if you are reasonably slight) but after about a week it didn’t bother me anymore, because I gradually got fit for the walk by doing the walk - as you will - and because I began to turf things out of the backpack that I didn’t need, like that extra set of underwear.

I found the best time of the day to start walking was the morning, just before dawn. I would usually finish sometime between 1.00 and 3.00 pm. Walk early and finish early was my preference.

I also walked by myself everyday – no exceptions. This was important for me and I do recommend it. I went on the Camino by myself and because I wanted to be with myself. I wanted to get away from the timetables and ‘chatter’ in my life. At the end of the day, though, I would look for company. If someone I had met along the way was staying in the same village as me then we would have dinner together and were often joined by strangers. But if there was no one I knew around (during the journey you begin to meet people who walk at the same pace as you) then I would be the stranger at the dinner table. Everyone is welcoming to a single walker and you always found lots to talk about.

Give yourself four weeks to do it reasonably easily.


INJURIES

In the end I averaged over 30 kilometers a day, but I don’t really recommend setting out at such a pace, especially because the time you are most likely to get an injury is at the beginning. So take it easy at first (especially if you are starting your first day from St Jean Pied de Port in France as I did, and walking over the Pyrenees the first day) until you find your own rhythm and pace of walking.

I also noticed that those who considered themselves the most fit (that would be me) were often the ones who got the injuries (that would also be me). Perhaps because we didn’t take as much care or we weren’t as cautious as those who considered themselves unfit. If you do get an injury there are always doctors, chemists (drug stores) and hospitals along the way, although you will have to get yourself to one (see my story).

If you feel the heat of a blister STOP WALKING IMMEDIATELY and use Compede, which which is like a second skin and much better than band aids. Compee can be found in any chemist and is sold everywhere along the route. But buy some and carry it with you before you start. Better to be prepared.

I had a small medical kit (see my list) that I kept in a small plastic box in a compartment on the outside of my backpack. That way I could access it without having to unpack the whole backpack.

CLOTHING

See my list below. I had one pair of shorts I walked in and one pair of long pants that I wore on the plane and sometimes at night if it was cold, or my shorts were drying on the line. I never walked in long pants. A lot of people had those long pants that zip off into shorts. I had a pair of leggings to sleep in, which theoretically I could also have walked in if my shorts didn’t dry. However, just after Pamplona I lost the leggings  (I had lost my sunglasses, water bottle and one sock on the second day). Without the leggings I slept in knickers and a T-shirt. My walking shorts would be on the ground beside my bed and when I woke up in the dark of the morning so I could easily slip them on. In the end, though, I didn’t care that I was standing around in my knickers. In fact, it didn’t take long before I stopped worrying about anything much at all (except my feet and my blister). That was one of the beauties of the Camino for me: the way a lot of things fell away. However, by the time I finished the Camino I knew that if I ever saw another overweight middle-aged man walking around in his underpants I would scream. They probably thought the same about me!

The most important thing is your shoes. Please pay out the money for a good pair and have them fitted. Your shoes, and whether or not you get a blister, will make the difference between walking in joy, or walking in pain. GET GOOD SHOES even if you have to go without eating for a week to buy a good pair (although I would not recommend that).

Also take a really good pair of sandals. Your feet will need a rest and fresh air every day. So buy a good pair of Birkenstock type sandals. When you are walking through reasonable flat fields or along a road etc. you might like to take your boots off and give your feet a rest. At the end of the day you will also need to take you boots off. Some people (I noticed Europeans were more inclined toward this) would wear their sandals with socks if it was cold but no self respecting Aussie would be caught dead with sox and sandals. I’m sorry, but there is only so much self-respect I will offer up to the Camino.

With regard changes in temperature, I took clothes that I could layer. Layered up if it got cold, or peeled off if it was hot. See my list below for clothes suggestions.

BACKPACK

If you can afford a new, lightweight backpack fitted for your body shape and size that would be great. I used a good backpack, but not an exceptional one. I am told it makes a difference.

Remember whatever you take you have to carry so try to make your backpack as light as possible. I was so careful packing that the day before I left I weighed my backpack and was thrilled to discover it was only 7.5 kilo – so thrilled that I threw in a few more items in only to find when I got to the airport that my backpack weighed 11 kilo. So that was what I walked most of the time with, but I do not recommend anyone, especially a woman, to carry a pack that size. It was difficult at first, but in the end you will not notice the weight of your pack. Eventually, near the end of the Camino, I was just throwing things away. It is surprising how little you really need. You also, sort of, become ‘acclimatized’ to the weight of your backpack and it can feel quite strange if you walk without it.

I met my partner in Venice after the Camino and when we met he went to pick up my backpack to carry to the hotel, but I wouldn’t let him. It was my backpack and I was used to feeling its weight on my back. It had, for a short time, become part of me.

If worst comes to worst I believe there are companies that will transport your backpack from  refugio to refugio, but that is not really the purist’s Camino. The choice is yours.


ACCOMMODATION

Refugios and Auberge (same thing – one word is Spanish, the other French) I think that just about every village along the trail has at least one refugio in various states of repair, capacity and degrees of hospitality. Apparently some have private rooms but I never saw any and didn’t know they existed until a year ago. Sometimes I shared a huge room with a hundred people, or only five other people or sixty. It all depended on the size of the refugio, which can range in cost from around 5 Euro a night to a donation. Most have kitchens and all have bathrooms and clotheslines (I washed out my underwear and T-shirt every afternoon and my shorts about once every six days). Most refugios had a bit of grass outside for lazing around after a long day’s walk.

Many (if not all) had blankets and pillows but I never used those, preferring to use my sleeping bag, an inner sheet, and my own blow up pillow. Sleeping was always in bunks.

I recommend that you try to get a bottom bunk so you can have your backpack unpacked under your bed. That way, when I got up in the morning I could easily dress, grab my toothbrush, towel, moisturiser, soap (shampoo) etc without having to unpack the backpack, go to the bathroom, come back and roll up my sleeping bag, stuff it in the bottom of the backpack and be packed and ready to set off in less than 10 minutes.

Every morning I would wake before dawn and lay listening to everyone sleeping (snoring). I loved that time of day and the anticipation of getting out on the road to see what the new day would bring.

All the refugios have lights out at 9.00 pm and it is frowned upon if you come in late (no one wants to be woken up by late night revellers). I was often asleep by 8.30.  I used ear plugs (the snoring can be atrocious) and eyeshades to block out the light. The lights are turned on again at 6.00 am but it is frowned upon if you get up and start to prepare to leave before that time because you can disturb those still trying to sleep. However, you did need to be gone by a certain time but I don’t know what that time was because I was always out of the refugio before dawn. Those who work in the refugios need to clean the rooms to have them ready for the next load of pilgrims who will start arriving sometime after lunch. It’s all a bit of a production line, especially in the European high season. I DO NOT RECOMMEND that you walk the Camino in the high season (too many people and too hot). I began on 5 May and on some days it felt like I was walking on a superhighway, but not too often. I hear the high season can be terrible.

If you are ill you can stay more than one night and if you get tired of the refugios you can stay in a hotel or some other sort of accommodation, but I recommend you stay clear of brothels, or rent by the hour rooms.

One night, in Burgos actually, a young woman and I decided to rent a room rather than stay in the refugio. It was a strange hotel and when we first walked in I said that I didn’t like the feel of it but we decided to stay anyway. After being shown to a room we put our backpacks away and went out to explore the city and then for a meal. We had decided to enjoy ourselves, stay out late and sleep-in in the morning (something you couldn’t do in a refugio). When we returned to the hotel late that night we were both cold so I decided to pilfer blankets from one of the vacant rooms. When I went looking  (the doors to each room were open) I discovered we were the hotel’s only guests. During the night I was continually woken from my sleep by the sound of doors opening and closing and toilets flushing. In the morning we discovered all the beds had been slept in.  Didn’t take a genius to work out what sort of hotel it was.


PASSPORT

You need to register to receive your passport, which allows you to stay in refugios, where the passport will be stamped when you arrive. In Santiago, at the end of the Camino, you take your passport to the Camino office and receive a certificate officially declaring you have completed the Camino. It is important to arrive in Santiago in the morning and register early so you can attend the lunchtime celebration in the cathedral. Very moving…

FOOD

There are places to buy food in every village so don’t worry. Food is never a problem. There are also small restaurants in every village that serve ‘pilgim’ dinners early (from about 5.00 pm) for about E8. It’s a three course meal (usually a few choices for each course) and wine. There are also kitchens in every refugio (I can't remember one that didn't have a kitchen) and a fridge. Sometimes I would cook dinner in the kitchen with other pilgrims, most of us sharing what we had, but refugios never supplied meals. No exceptions.

I would buy something in the village the day before to have for breakfast and would often pack a sandwich for lunch. I’d put the food in the top of my backpack and stop somewhere to eat after walking for an hour or two in the morning. Other people would make and eat their breakfast in the refugio or stop at a bar along the road. As the Camino progressed I noticed that people became less hurried and would stop about 9.00 when the cafes opened to have their breakfast and a coffee then. But you would have to wait until around 9.00 am to buy anything for breakfast because nothing opens early (the Spaniards have all been up until the wee hours of the morning socialising).

My water bottle was stored in a compartment on the side of the backpack. I noticed many people had those drink bottles with the long plastic straw that you attach to the top of your backpack so you didn't have to stop and take the backpack off whenever you wanted a drink. I think they are a good idea, but I didn't have one nor did I need one because I could easily find my bottle. The thing you really don't want to do is stop and unpack your backpack. Remember, you usually stop walking somewhere between 1- 3, so you might want to wait for lunch until then.

Also, although I love water, I was always a little nervous of drinking too much because then I'd have to stop and find somewhere to pee on the side of the road and to do that you usually had to have clear vision if someone was following you. For guys it wasn’t a problem…at least peeing wasn’t a problem.

Bananas are good for cramps. I didn't get cramps, which was lucky because I hate bananas.

RELIGIOUS PILGRIMAGE

I am not religious and most people who do the Camino aren't, but every evening there are services in each of the churches in the villages you will stay in. I went to many of them in the beginning because the churches were a refuge along the way, especially when I was feeling a bit lonely. Another reason to visit the churches is to see the 'black Madonnas'. Most of the guide books tell you which churches have the Madonnas. In the end I didn’t do the churches because I was too busy having a good time with new friends.  

CAMINO GUIDE BOOK

I didn’t take one. Instead I took photocopied pages of the trail. In most books each individual map is divided into walking distances of approximately 25 kilometres (a day’s walk on average), and details distances and topography. I would recommend that you buy one of the good guide books so you can read about the villages you are passing through. I mostly walked in a daze, simply enjoying the surroundings, oblivious to history. The choice is yours. Mine was probably not a good choice. However, you do need the maps of the route and on the back of each map are the latest details of the various refugios in each of the villages – how many beds they each have, what time they open and usually a critique of the refugio. It is important to get the most up to date maps because you don’t want to walk into a village late in the day exhausted only to find that the refugio no longer exists.

Don’t worry about getting lost because the Camino is sign posted exceptionally well. Everyone takes a wrong turn somewhere along the way, but you soon realize you can’t see any signs and work your way back until you find your way again. I went off the track once, for about 50 metres.


WHAT TO TAKE

Remember, you have to carry everything so try to take as little as possible. Also, if you forget something, or need something, there are plenty of shops along the way. Start off with less and if you need more then buy it along the way. Little villages might not have everything but you walk through large towns every couple of days so anything can be bought.

This is my list of what to take:

  1. backpack - I also had a small nylon backpack that folds up into itself. It was useful to carry on the plane and I could use it when I got to a refugio and wanted to go out and not leave any valuables back in the refugio with my backpack.
  2. walking stick - I used a thin branch of a tree I found while crossing the Pyrenees. I loved my quirky branch and bought it back to Australia, but I would recommend you use proper walking sticks. Two preferably….
  3. Boots - good, worn in boots that you know don’t give you blisters
  4. Sandals – good pair to give your tired feet a rest at the end of each day, or can be used if you are walking along an easy track (hang your boots off the back of your backpack)
  5. Leggings – to sleep in and also could walk in them if shorts were wet (lot the leggings)
  6. Underwear - 2 pair knickers and two bras (light material so they dry easily) and two pair of underpants for guys
  7. T- shirts - 2 cotton
  8. Shorts – 1 pair (preferably easy dry with lots of pockets - cargo pants good. Some people took those pants that zip off below the knees, to be used as long pants and shorts).
  9. Long pants  - 1 pair for plane and at night if cold (cargo pants with pockets great)
  10. Overpants - nylon wet weather overpants
  11. Long sleeve top - 1 cotton top – thermal good.
  12. All weather jacket - nylon
  13. Scarf – this was one of the most useful things I had. I could use it if I was cold or use it under my backpack on pressure points where I was being bruised (shoulders and hip bones)
  14. Walking sox - 2 x good, woolen walking socks
  15. Sunglasses
  16. Hat
  17. Sleeping bag – that folds into tiny bag
  18. Pillow – I took one of those blow up pillows you use on planes because I didn’t want to use communal pillows
  19. Inner sheet for sleeping bag (good for when you got hot in bed at night)
  20. Eye shades (to sleep at night)
  21. Earplugs (to sleep at night)
  22. Towel (small camping towel)
  23. journal and pen (optional)
  24. credit cards (take two and keep them separate in case you lose one)
  25. mobile phone / camera
  26. charger for phoneband aids
  27. Water bottle - buy yourself some water in a plastic bottle from the shop when you start and keep reusing that bottle
  28. bum bag (big enough to fit passport, cash, plastic card, tissue or handkerchief and perhaps blockout) If you use one of these you don’t need to keep stopping and fishing in your backpack for things
  29. plastic pegs – 5 for hanging clothes out to dry each day in the refugio
  30. Rope l- ight piece of rope, in case it is raining, or the line if full in the refugio and you need to hang your washing around your bunk to dry during the night
  31. baby nappy pins (if your clothes haven't dried you pin them onto the back of your backpack while you walk to dry and you can also use them for other emergency repairs) I can hear you thinking that you'll never do that, but you would be surprised what you do. Don't worry about how you look because everyone looks the same.
  32. plastic bag (like from the supermarket - has all sorts of uses)
  33. Small plastic box (I used it as for my medical kit which I kept in a separate compartment on the top of the backpack so it was handy to access if I needed it while walking and yes, it needs to be handy, because if you are walking you don't want to have to unpack your whole backpack to find a headache tablet or the blockout).
  34. Small covered knife and small spoon - knife has a thousand uses and I needed spoon for yoghurt each day

Medical kit and toiletries

This is all personal but this is what I took.

  • toothbrush and small toothpaste
  • moisturizer
  • cleanser
  • foot massage cream - Vicks Vapour Rub for feet at end of day or some other sort of foot rub. Your feet really do need to be looked after and a massage at the end of the day is brilliant.
  • shampoo (use to wash body, clothes and hair). Didn’t take conditioner or comb. Just ran my fingers through my hair and pulled it up on top of my head.
  • deodorant
  • sun cream
  • pain killers – I carried them with me and never thought to use them even when my toes was a throbbing red blister causing excruciating pain
  • anti histamines
  • antibiotics (if you have them, otherwise don't worry there are doctors and pharmacies everywhere)
  • small nail scissors • tweezers (for all sorts of reasons)
  • toilet paper. You can always get more from the refuges.

What I didn’t take – no make up, mirror, perfume, jewellery….I tried not to look in the mirrors in the refugios in case I frightened myself. I did take a watch but lost it (see my Camino story). I have never worn a watch since the Camino.

So Buen Camino. Feel free to contact me if you need clarity on anything.

Walking the Camino (PDF)
Article published on walking the Camino.
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