Travel Towel

One of the many positive things about technology is microfiber fabrics. They're light weight. They're absorbent. And, they dry quickly. As you're planning for your Camino de Santiago, try out some of these products (towels, shirts, even pillowcases).

Being into plush bath towels, I have to admit, it took me a few showers to grow comfortable using a microfiber travel towel. But, I got used to it.

My advice: Be sure to purchase the largest one you can find (at least a bath sheet size). The larger format doesn't add much weight to your pack and these towels (when dried in a drier) can shrink. No matter how "good" you are about it, your towel will probably end up in a washer and/or drier at some point along your pilgrimage.

It's also worth noting that some of these towels (like the microfiber pants and shirts) can come with anti-microbial treatments. My one recommendation here is that you try out these products for several days/weeks at home before you travel, just to make certain you aren't allergic to the fabrics.

Sleeping Bag/Sleep Sack

Most refuggios offer a cot or bed with a blanket and a pillow. While all the refuggios I stayed at were very clean, the blankets aren't washed after every use. I'm not sure if the pillows ever receive any care. So, being prepared with your own sleep sack or sleeping bag is essential on your Camino de Santiago. The goal is to keep it as light as possible while still being comfortable.

The most important factor when it comes to choosing a sleeping bag is the time of year you'll be walking your Camino. If it's late spring through early fall, a lightweight sleep sack will be plenty. If your walking fall through winter, you'll need a sleeping bag (and possibly a liner) that will keep you warm at night.

Next to your backpack, your sleep sack or sleeping bag will probably be the heaviest single item in your pack. So, it's worth shopping around to find something light and comfortable.

The lightweight sleep sacks provide coverage and comfort without being heavy or bulky. The sleep sack that's pictured above is just under 1.5 pounds.

It's also an option during the cooler walking months to carry a sleep sack and a liner. The liners can add 10-30 degrees of warmth without adding much weight to your backpack. (This one is only 11 ounces!). And, a liner like this can also give you some pillow hygiene.

 

Backpacks

How light can you go? That’s the question to contemplate. We tend to carry too much, which only makes the weeks or months of walking a camino more difficult. On my first camino, I chose a 50-liter Osprey pack. I loved the backpack—the support elements, the construction, the way it felt on my back, the balance, and even the placement of the outer pockets. My goal was to get the contents and pack to around or under 20 pounds. I came close (22 pounds). And, by the second day, I was choosing things I’d packed to leave behind. By the end of the first week, I’d dropped nearly 5 pounds of stuff.

My recommendation: start with a smaller backpack in the first place. I’ve already purchased a new pack for my next camino. It’s only 40 liters. Having the smaller pack to start with will force me to remember to go as light and lean as possible.

What you should look for and consider while choosing a backpack?

  1. Will you carry a platypus (or similar water bag) in your pack? If so, you’ll want a backpack that can accommodate that inclusion. I like to carry refillable water bottles instead (they remind me to drink more often, and maintaining hydration is important. So, for me, I like large, mesh outer pockets that accommodate water bottles.
  2. Easily adjustable straps. There’s a learning curve to adjusting your pack. And, as you travel, you’ll want to adjust and readjust the alignment of your pack. You won’t always pack your belongings the same way; your body is going to adjust during the walk (most of us lose weight while we walk, so the pack will fit us differently as we go); your going to experience the tension of the bag differently based on how you’ve slept and the condition of your feet.
  3. Lumbar/lower back support is important. I like the Osprey packs because they offer back support that’s framed out. It keeps the bulk of the pack off your back, allowing air to travel between your back and the pack. It also directs the weight of the pack off your shoulders and down to your waist. This gives you a lower center of gravity and thus a more comfortable walking experience.
  4. Outer straps and room for hooks and carabiner clips. You might want to carry your sleep sack/sleeping bag on the outside of your backpack and will need the ability to secure it to your pack.
  5. Access points. How do you like to access your belongings? Through the side or through the top. Do you want a pack that opens completely, or one with the fewest access points (with only a top access point, there are fewer possible leak points during rainy weather).
  6. Outer and inner pockets for different types of storage.
  7. Built in rain cover. Having a pack with its own rain cover simply makes life easier. Even if you choose to also utilize a large poncho that covers your pack, having the second layer of defense against rain is a good thing.
  8. Good quality, tear resistant construction.

What other elements do you look for in a backpack?

Laundry

Life becomes rather simple and directed while walking the Camino de Santiago. At the most basic level, you walk, bike, or ride your horse from one village to the next, find a place to stay, shower, do laundry, and then have something to eat. Part of the daily routine (most days) is laundry.

Everywhere you stay will have laundry facilities. While occasionally you’ll come across a machine or a service for a few Euros, most days you do a quick hand wash of your clothes and hand them out on a line or drying rack.

So, you’ll need the basics: laundry soap and clothespins.

Many use bar laundry soap and a brush to clean their clothes. They travel easily and well and are effective at cleaning clothes. Personally, I chose to fill a GoToob with All laundry detergent. I love GoToob—they have locking lids. (I used them for my shampoo, too). One drop of liquid detergent was more than enough to wash out a pair of paints, underwear, a shirt, and socks: a quick swish, rinse till the water runs clear, a solid ringing, and then up on the line or rack.

It’s worth noting that most hiking clothes now include antimicrobial elements, so they don’t get smelly. While many pilgrims wash clothes everyday (it becomes the routine), you could certainly go a few days between washing. As with all things, this is a personal choice.

For clothes drying, I left behind the clothespins, choosing instead large, diaper-size safety pins. The upside, the safety pins kept the clothes on the line no matter the wind and they could be used for other things. The downside, clothespins keep the clothes in one place on the line while safety pins slide. Maybe a few of both would be a good choice.

Another consideration: you might want to pack a few feet clothes line (or retractable one). There were a few refugios that didn’t have enough space or that didn’t have any lines. Being able to string your own for a few hours could make a difference. The cord could also certainly serve multiple purposes. I didn’t have a retractable line the first time, but it would be a nice addition on my next Camino.

12 Ways to Prepare for the Camino de Santiago

I spent more than six months preparing for my 1000 km (625 mile) journey. Here are the top 11 ways you can prepare for your pilgrimage.

  1. Walk. I walk 3-5 miles every day. As my Camino neared, I increased that to 10-12 miles 5-6 days a week.
  2. Hike. In addition to walking on the track every day, I hiked on different terrains at least one day a week. The Caminos include walking through hills, river beds, rock, grass, dirt, pavement, country, and city. So, spend time walking on as many different surface types as possible.
  3. Read. I read a lot of material online and in books about the different Caminos, suggested times of year to visit, equipment lists, and so on. Take time to familiarize yourself with what you’ll be doing and where you’ll be doing it. On a side note, I didn’t take time to learn much about the actual cities and villages I’d be visiting because I wanted to be on an adventure.
  4. Shop. I’m not really a shopping fan, but I began to love going into sporting goods stores. I was always on the lookout for a lighter pair of trousers or the perfect, lightweight fleece pullover. Hiking products are coming in lighter and lighter forms and when you’ll only be carrying 20 pounds or less, the weight of each item really does matter.
  5. Try out your clothes. I wore lots of different clothes when I walked and hiked for comfort, wear, and how well they’d hold up to daily washing before I made my final selections. When I got to Spain and started walking, I also abandoned several items and purchased even lighter weighted clothing.
  6. Break in your boots. Take some time, pick great books, and then wear them to walk and hike so they’re broken in perfectly before you embark for Spain. I would recommend at least 4 weeks of daily walking to get a great fit.
  7. Find a hat. I tried on a lot of hats before I found one that was perfect for my pilgrimage. All hats are different and you’ll want to find one that fits, serves the purpose of keeping the sun off of your face and ears, and is comfortable. You’ll be wearing it at least eight hours a day or more!
  8. Choose your backpack. Next to picking perfect boots, your back pack is your most important piece of gear. Choose a pack that fits well, is comfortable on your back, and is also as small and lightweight as possible. There are so many to choose from you’ll want to take your time and evaluate your choices.
  9. Poles or no poles? This was an ongoing discussion among those I spent time with on the Via, many of the Europeans used trekking poles. Others didn’t like them at all. After a week, I found I preferred using just one pole and I’m now walking with a hiking stick. Sticks and poles help with walking rhythm and improve balance, but they also tie up your hands.
  10. Sleeping bag. Pick a sleeping bag that’s the lightest weight possible, but will also provide you comfort for the time of year you decide to walk. I think one of the reasons to walk in the late spring and summer is that temperatures allow you to carry less and you can choose a lighter sleeping bag.
  11. Water storage. Plan to consume at least a gallon of water a day. Water is heavy and you’ll need to decide how you’ll carry it. On the France Way, the towns are close together and you’ll be able to refill your water reservoir aat one of many fountains. On the Via de La Plata, some days you’ll walk 25km without an opportunity to refill your bottles. You’ll have to decide if you’ll use a bladder that you carry in your backpack, or bottles. Both have their own advantages and it really is a personal choice.
  12. Wear your gear. As your trip draws near, be sure to “suit up” to hike and walk at least a dozen or more miles a day. On the Via de La Plata, the daily average is 25 km, approximately 18 miles, each day. While you don’t have to do this every day, it’s good to practice and feel what walking that distance with pack, boots, poles, and full water bottles feels like.

6 Boot Tips

Nothing compares to trying boots on and hiking in them. Here's some advice to get the most out of your shopping trip.

  1. Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

    Select boots that are a half- to full-size bigger than you normally wear. The reason? While hiking all day, your feet will swell. And, if you do develop a blister or ailment, you'll want room inside your boots to accommodate bandages, extra liner socks, or even a tubular bandage (the latter were a wonderful solution for a foot problem I developed.)

  2. Try on both the left and the right boots at the same time while wearing hiking socks, not cotton socks. Additionally, consider sock liners. They'll help you keep your feet dry, which is essential to healthy, pain-free, blisterless hikes.
  3. Don't just walk a few steps and take them off. Walk around the store, continue shopping, and going up and down stairs if you can.
  4. Ask about the store's return policy. It's important if you get out and hike with your new boots that if they don't fit you can return them. (Easy returns is one reason to truly love REI, Inc. They let you return just about everything--membership has its privileges.)
  5. Don't just try them on and arrive in Spain with new boots. Get out and walk and hike in them. Get comfortable wearing them. Help them conform to your feet so you'll be ready when you arrive to begin your Camino and won't even have to think of your feet.
  6. When traveling to Spain, wear your boots on the plane. You can replace just about everything else if the airline loses your luggage, but you don't want to start off your Camino with brand new boots.

Pick Great Boots to Walk the Camino De Santiago

There's nothing worse than finding yourself with blisters or black and blue toes during or after your first day of walking the Camino de Santiago. That's what happened to me because there wasn't anyone to help me pick out my boots. Finding the right pair and breaking them in is the key to avoiding painful feet, not to mention the possibility of causing long-term foot problems. To avoid this pain, there are a few decisions to make.

 

Boot Types

First, what style will you choose? There are four main types of boots to choose from: Lightweight Hiking Shoes, Hiking Boots, Backpacker Boots, and Mountain Boots. The well tramped trails of the caminos often lead folks to choose hiking shoes or hiking boots. If you're carrying a heavy backpack, you'll want bulkier backpacker boots that offer support and better balance. While walking the Via de La Plata, I met folks wearing all of these and even a marathon runner who had chosen running shoes. There's no right or wrong, instead it's based on your needs.

 

Boot Cuts

Second, what cut of boot is best for you? Do you want a low cut boot for ease of motion? Or, is a high cut boot that keeps your ankles supported at all times better for you? They also make a mid-cut boot that offers easier range of motion and some ankle support. I chose the high cut. I have a tendency to roll my ankles and I didn't want to take the chance on a sprain.

 

Boot Construction

Finally, the conditions you expect to hike in will help you determine the boot construction materials. You'll want to take time to understand your boot's construction. The upper boot portions come in leather, cloth, waterproof, synthetics, or a combination of them all. Soles are many layers and combinations of materials. Different polymers and rubbers offer varied levels of comfort, support, protection from the elements, and moisture wick-ability. The time of year, expected rainfall, and temperatures during your walk are the factors to consider here.

Six Ways of the Camino de Santiago de Compestela

In Europe, there are as many "Ways" to Santiago as there are homes, because locals often begin their pilgrimage to Santiago by walking out their front doors. For the rest of us, we tend to choose a Way because of the time we have, the landscape, or the difficulty of the journey.

Like many planning to walk a camino, I started my plan with the France Way. Made popular in movies and books, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site, and it is the most popular. But, I wanted an experience closer to what the France way used to be like: fewer people walking, no rush to begin each day, and yet, still, plenty of accommodations. That's why I choose to walk the Via de La Plata and the Sanabres Ways.

Everyone has a Way or Camino that suits their desires and here are brief descriptions of the six most popular Ways to Santiago so you can begin exploring your own journey.

 

The English Way

A lesser known Way is the English Way or Camino Ingles. At just 110km (~68 miles) it is the shortest complete Camino that will allow you to qualify for a compestela. (Pilgrims on foot must travel at least 100km). According to American Pilgrims on the Camino, this way accommodated English pilgrims who arrived in Galicia by sea. It's a short direct route that is best traveled March through October. There aren't many pilgrim accommodations, compared to the other routes, but there are many moderately priced hotels. Expect to spend 4-5 days walking this Way.

 

The Portuguese

At 240km, The Portuguese Way (Camino Portugués) trails the Atlantic coast of northern Portugal and Galicia in Spain. This is a hilly route because of the streams and rivers emptying into the Atlantic. With heavy rains most of the year, September is a recommended month to traverse this Way. There are plenty of lodging options and the route is well way-marked. Expect to spend 12-14 days walking this Way.

 

The Primitivo

American Pilgrims on the Camino suggest that this is a difficult route because it passes over the western end of the Cordillera Cantábrica with a number of ascents and descents of 6 to 8%. The Camino Primitivo is 285 km. It begins at Oviedo and at Melide joins the France Way. Only attempt the Primitivo in the summer months and be prepared for extreme weather. Expect to spend 12-16 days walking this Way.

 

The France Way

By far the most popular is the France Way (Camino Francés). Made famous in books and movies, the France Way was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 20XX. The France's 774km (~481 miles) are extremely well marked with painted yellow arrows, plaques, and signposts. It's so popular that you'll barely need the markings because it is a constant flow of pilgrims. Even with snow in the winter and extreme heat in the summer, this Way can be traveled any time of the year and there are excellent accommodations. Expect to spend at least 30-35 days walking this Way.

 

The Northern Route

Like the Portuguese, The Northern Route is a coastal, hilly Way. You'll begin in Irun and follow 825km or about 512 miles of hilly, coastal paths and roads along the extreme northern coast. This Way was popular during when the ancient Muslim occupation of Spain created a threat to the France Way. Expect impressive sea views, extreme heat in summer, and wet conditions much of the rest of the year. The Northern Way is probably best walked late May through early October. Accommodations near the beaches might be sketchy in the summer months when Spaniards are enjoying beach holidays. Expect to spend at least 33-40 days walking this Way.

 

The Via de La Plata + Sanabres

This was my chosen route. The Via de La Plata is 1000km (625 miles) and begins in Sevilla in southern Spain, follows the old roman roads northward to Zamora and then allows the pilgrim join the France or the Sanabres to Santiago. It is recommended to begin this Way in late April or early May and then follow spring northward. The route is well way marked and there are good accommodations throughout the spring, summer, and fall. It is a popular bike route as well as a walking route and we even connected with some horseback riders, too. Expect to spend at least 40-50 days walking this Way.

While many of the ways are popular to complete in one go, it is common, too, that pilgrims extend several short trips over a few seasons or years to complete their journeys. Beginning when they return in the town or city where they ended their previous trip.

What is Camino de Santiago?

El Camino de Santiago (translation: the Way of Saint James), a religious pilgrimage that ends at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. According to Americans on the Camino, the Way of Saint James has been calling pilgrims for more than 1000 years. Depending on where you choose to begin your Camino, the journey can be between 100km to 2000km.

In the early 20th century, walking the Camino de Santiago fell out of fashion, but a resurgence in the practice has arrived in the 21st. This seems due to three things:

  1. Shirley MacLaine's book, "Out on a Limb," where she details her walk along the Frances Way (one of the major Camino routes);
  2. UNESCO designating the Frances Way a World Heritage Site; and,
  3. Emilio Estevez's movie, "The Way," starring Martin Sheen.

In fact, based on figures kept by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the Caminos, which saw a decline down to just 1000 or so trekkers a year in the '70s, now welcomes more than 100,000 pilgrims annually on the various Caminos.

 

What is a Pilgrimage?

Throughout much of history there have been major journeys that devout individuals have taken to prove their loyalty, answer the request of their leaders, or improve their spiritual status, or have their sins absolved. Just a few of the famous pilgrimages include:

  • Walking or riding the Camino de Santiago, Spain;
  • Walking to Mecca, Saudi Arabia;
  • Riding to Canterbury, England'
  • Climbing to Machu Picchu, Peru and,
  • Visiting the 88 temples of The Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan.

People who embark on a pilgrimage aren't only religious or spiritual. Many walk for joy, fun, health, or as a vacation. (See "11 Reasons Why to Walk the Camino de Santiago".)

A Day on the Camino de Santiago

For about seven weeks, I walked the Via de La Plata way of the Camino de Santiago. I chose that Camino because of the expected solitude and physical beauty of the landscape. While every day was a new experience, different cities and towns, new foods, changing landscape; each day also offered a routine. Here’s what a typical day was like.

5:30

The other pilgrims at the alburge (pilgrim’s refuge/hostel) would begin to stir at about 5:30 in the morning. I would do my best to stay in bed until 6:00. Then, after a bit of bathroom time, I’d dress for the day and repack my backpack. Because the Camino is a series of day hikes, if you’ve packed properly you’ll be using just about everything you have with you each day. Thus, you’ll be packing and repacking every day.

 

Next came breakfast. Some toast or a muffin, a piece of fruit, and hot tea, when available. Each alburge is different. Some places provide a little breakfast, others don’t. I’d know that the day before and prepare accordingly.

 

6:30

It was my goal to begin walking by 7:00 each morning. Although, many mornings that would get pushed up to 6:30. It would usually be dark when I’d set out. And, as the day’s walk progressed, the pilgrims would spread out along the route based on their walking style.

 

9:00

My fellow pilgrims came to call me “the slow walker.” I suffered some foot issues that slowed me down. I also liked to stop frequently, take pictures, and enjoy the scenery. One of my daily stops was at about 9:00, when I’d have a snack and air out my socks. Spending 10-15 minutes with no socks on allows your socks, feet, and boots to air and dry a bit. That makes a big difference when it comes to comfortable walking.

 

12:00

I’d continue walking until around noon. If I wasn’t within about an hour of the next town, I’d stop for another break and a snack, usually cheese, a can of tuna, and my last piece of fruit, plus another foot airing!

 

2:00-4:00

When you arrive in the town of the day, usually between 2:00 and 4:00, the first goal is to find the alburge or hostel where you’ll be spending the night. These range from town/city facilities to private homes, or even hotels. The price range for the facilities would be from free, to a donation, to 7-20 euros. Once registered, I’d find a bunk and take off my boots.

 

4:00

Before dinner, there were several chores to complete: make your bed, take a shower, and do laundry. Hopefully, it was a bottom bunk, a hot shower, and a sunny day to dry the clothes. Daily chores became a routine. You get to know how your fellow pilgrims spend their time and somehow, everyone has time to do all they need to. And, it worked out well most days, because chore time for me was also siesta time for the town.

 

5:00

Next up, dinner and shopping. One of the nice things about walking 20-25km each day is that you can eat whatever you want. You’ve got to refuel the body to do it again tomorrow. Depending on the place you’re spending the night, you need to shop for breakfast items as well as snack and lunch foods that will hold up in your backpack.

 

This is also the time to do any other shopping, such as visiting the pharmacy, picking up odds and ends, and being a tourist through that day’s town or village.

 

Usually, over dinner, I’d plan the next day’s walk, too. I tended not to research ahead more than a few days. All that really matters is the next day’s walk and planning for how much water to carry and what the food needs would be. The basics, really. That’s what the Camino is about, reducing life to the absolute basics.

 

8:00

Back to the alburge and some time with the journal before brushing the teeth and getting ready for bed.

 

9:00

Bedtime.