If you read this I assume you have read at least one of the many guides to the Camino and therefore I skip directly to the essential part. How to pack and what to wear – since its here most people fail.
Camino de Santiago is for everyone, young and old and you do not need to be an athlete to walk it. I met many older people who walked the entire distance without any problems, while many younger and middle aged encountered problems, often because they walked too long distances each day instead of relaxing and walking with their body and not against it.
Some wore too heavy backpacks, which you can if you walk for one or maybe two weeks. But if you carry a heavy backpack for more than that your body will get in to trouble. Every gram of weight in your backback will be carried by your joints and muscles. Over the days the micro impacts adds to hundreds of thousands.
This guide is a reminder for you to pack with awareness.
Disconnecting from everyday life begins with packing
Packing light is an art in itself and involves sort of a zen attitude to what you really need. Untethering to the material world is difficult and leaving home for several weeks with the bare essentials is a challenge for almost everyone. But stripping away everything in you and nothing but you, is also what the whole journey is all about and the disconnecting from our everyday habits all starts with the packing.
As a rule of thumb try to make your rucksack weigh no more than 10 per cent of your body weight and a maximum of 10 kgs. In the end my pack weighed 7.5 kgs with water, which was ok for me even though today I would have tried hard to pack it even lighter. There are pilgrims who walk with very little stuff, hardly more than a blanket for the night and a toothbrush, while others have so much they pull a cart behind them.
What shoes to wear?
Find a pair of comfortable shoes. They must not be too tight since your feet will swell a bit. All types of walking shoes works but my advice is to find a light shoe that looks like a running shoe but has a fairly stiff sole.
Skip the idea of hiking boots. Hiking boots are made for walking in terrain, not on asphalt and dirt roads. They are also unnecessary warm and a lot heavier than running shoes. In case you choose boots remember not to tie them higher up than the ankle, you must be able to flex the foot with ease. The upper eyelets on boots are provided for additional support when walking in hilly terrain with steep slopes, where only the front part of the shoes soles are used.
Many I met on the Camino did not know this and neither did I. The problems manifests itself by giving Tibialis Anterior Syndrome (terrible pain) on the front of the legs that usually takes 2-3 weeks to heal. Pain relieving ointments are available at pharmacies along the road, but of course it is best to not end up there. One woman I met had such severe pain that she had been unable to walk for four weeks and was completely stranded in an albergue along the road.
Bring a pair of leather or cloth sandals that you can alternate with. Its also very good to have since indoors the hostels floors are usually icy cold. I did not bring a pair but made one from a piece of sleeping mat that someone cut off to lighten his pack.
The size of your sleeping bag will decide the size of your rucksack. If you walk in the warm season you will have a much smaller sleeping bag. Often people start by buying the rucksack. I suggest you do it the other way around. That way you can bring the gear you know want to pack to the store and see how well it fits. Go to several stores and take your time. Pack, repack and pack again. It’s your best friend and you want it to be perfect.
If you shop for a new backpack, the most important is how it fits on your body. Don’t go for a unisex pack. Go for one that really fits, is light, doesn’t have too many straps and nifty pockets and preferably waterproof. My bag was waterproof, had no side pockets but a top pocket. It also worked to take as hand luggage on the plane. I could have used a much smaller one since I got rid of things along the way.
You have to bring your own sheets or a sleeping bag. A sleeping bag that goes down to minus 5 will be just right for the colder seasons. Most hostels have blankets in the wintertime.
During summer time, a thin summer sleeping bag will be the right choice. An inner silk lining is nice to sleep in. You can also wash it and it will dry over a day. A small pillow case is also very nice to have. I had one in thin fleece that I put the sweater in and it made up a perfect pillow.
During the summer time (July and especially August) its high season and you can expect to sleep outside every now and then because it is usually more pilgrims than there are bunk beds. Many places will have tarp tents set up outside to sleep under and for this reason its useful have a rollout mattress that is not too thin. This also gives you the opportunity to sleep in a forest or out on a field under the bare sky.
For spring and autumn a thin mattress is good enough as it will only be used for the lunch break. In the cold seasons it is sufficient with just a small pad to sit on. I would not recommend an inflatable mattress since there are many spiky plants that may puncture it.
What to wear for the Camino
Starting with what to wear closest to the body, my suggestion is to get a thin merino wool t-shirt and underwear in the same material. The advantage with merino wool is that you can wear it for a week without odeur (Its not smelling). With cotton and synthetic materials closest to your body it will take no more than a day before you stink. Wear one set, and have a spare set in the backpack.
What to choose for mid layer depends on the season. You can choose a buttoned shirt or a sweater of some kind. You only need one.
Summertime – something against wind and rain. During the cold season add a thick fleece or a jacket. I walked during the semi-cold to cold season and had a thick fleece and a slim, lightweight rain jacket that also worked as a wind shell.
It suffices with the pair of pants you wear. Do not pack a pair of pants! Make sure the ones you choose are of the type where you can take off the legs with a zipper – without having to remove the shoe. Often you walk with shorts only. Women can use a sarong or such to cover the legs when they enter churches – if that is necessary, I am not totally sure of this.
Mittens and long-johns
Bring a pair of mittens, a beanie and long merino wool long-johns to sleep in during the semi-cold to cold season.
Three pairs of socks,
A rain parka that can accommodate a backpack can be a choice if your backpack is not waterproof. These are cheap, lightweight and easy to buy along the way.
Yes, you need one. Summer – wide brimmed to protect your nose and neck. The rest of the year, you will want a beanie to keep your head warm when you sleep.
The little things
- LED head lamp
- sewing needle to puncture blisters
- nail scissors
- 50 ml of schampoo with a good cork
- old fashioned style toothbrush (not electric)
- half-full tube of toothpaste
- shaving stuff (I use shave cream in a tube – much better than the stuff in supermarkets. Buy it at Gents for example)
- A roll of toilet paper
- Pads, tampons
- A medium sized towel. I prefer one thats around 50 x 100 cm. Ikea has a cheap one in just the right size.
- sunscreen stick
- some band-aids
- a notebook or diary
- guide book
- pilgrims pass (you get it in the pilgrimage office in Saint-Jean-Pied)
- credit cards
- travel tickets
- important addresses and phone numbers
- a lightweight pocket knife
- a couple of zip-lock bags for the small stuff
- a tote bag for the laundry
- a hard plastic container to store sensitive food so its not squished in the backpack
You don’t need one since the route is very clearly marked but it’s nice to have one. There is a plethora of guidebooks. The one I used was in German, it was titled Spanischer Jacobsweg and published by Rothe Wanderführer. It was ok. For my next trip I have bought A Pilgrims Guide to Camino de Santiago by John Brierley.
Pocket camera with a large memory card.
Wrist watch with alarm.
Cord for hanging laundry
Things to avoid
Mobile phone. It’s good to have. A lot of people use it to connect and decide where to meet using the app WhatsApp. But – isn’t the reason why you walk to have your own space and solitude? At least it was for me. My suggestion is that you resist the temptation.
Books – they weigh too much and you will have less time than you think to read anyway. Stick to one.
If you fly, you cannot bring the pocket knife and the nail scissors with you. You can either buy those things in France or Spain, but cheaper and much easier is to post the things to your self Poste Restante to the post office in St. Jean in advance.
Many hostels have washer and dryer. I did almost all of my washing by hand with a bar of soap or shampoo in a sink and let it dry on the outside of the backpack while I walked.
Food and water
I often packed food for lunch and some snacks. On Saturdays you need to buy breakfast and lunch for the Sunday since all shops are closed Sundays.
I strongly recommend to use a Platipus water system instead of bottles because its otherwise easy to drink too little and get dehydrated and thereby become fatigued without realizing why. You need to drink at least two litres a day. In the summer you need to drink a lot more. This equals six 33cl bottles minimum and its just a lot easier to drink that much with a Platipus system.
I spent between zero and 25 Euro per day, maybe 17 Euro in average, which was enough for room and food plus refreshments during the day at some bar or café. Cash is preferred over kreditcards and ATMs are available in the larger cities only. I withdrew cash from my visa card as I went and you don’t need large amount. It’s hardly even an effort to do the whole walk on less than € 1000 including air faires.
The Camino Pass
The first thing you do in St. Jean is to go the Camino office in the village and get a Camino Pass. You must have one to be able to stay in the albergues along the way. I believe most albergues issue Camino passes, just be sure to get one if you start somewhere else than in St. Jean du Pied du Port. How to find the place in St. Jean? Ask. Everyone ones where it is.
Perhaps most important
Perhaps most important is to remember why you walk.
Try and let go of your everyday life and avoid getting caught up in the chit-chat that will go on around you. Be present with where you are. Use the time you spend wisely and connect with the beautiful inner core that you have.
I wish you a good journey!