Guide to Walking the Camino de Santiago

By Jennifer Miller on April 14th, 2016
BootsnAll

I’ll start by telling you the truth: It would never have occurred to me to walk the Camino de Santiago. It just wouldn’t have. I’m not Catholic. I hike, but not long haul stuff. I’m not generally into “popular” type adventures. And also, I’d never heard of it, so that’s a factor.

But in May and June 2014, I ended up walking 800 km from France into Spain because my friend asked me to. It’s that simple. She called me up when we were living in Thailand and asked me to go. Once I figured out what she was talking about, I was in. I’m always up for an adventure.

  • For her, it was a bucket list item, a dream in the making for a decade and a half.
  • For me, it was a nice thing to do with a month and a half.
  • She prepared mentally and spiritually.
  • I put a couple of hundred miles on my boots and polished my Spanish.
  • She was on a journey of self discovery.
  • I was out for a nice walk and some time with my old friend.

I was not the deep end of the pool in this instance. She laughed at me a little, assuring me that the Camino would get to me. I giggled at her meticulous preparations. We were as unlikely a pair as could be when we set out.

She was on her first big adventure and over-prepared, and I was well traveled and still cramming my bag together as we started up the mountain out of St. Jean Pied-de-Port. We learned a lot together on that walk, and ultimately we didn’t finish it together (we’re still friends, don’t worry!).


“One of the things that amazes me about the Camino is its universal appeal.”

One of the things that amazes me about the Camino is its universal appeal. Thousands of pilgrims walk it every year. Hundreds of thousands have been walking it for centuries. Catholics, protestants, athiests, agnostics, pagans, buddhists, jews, and every hybrid you can imagine line the path. The movie The Way, with Martin Sheen, inspired thousands more to pack a bag and take a long walk. Perhaps you are among them.

If you’re considering walking the Camino de Santiago, here’s what you need to know:

Shopping for RTW airfare, including Spain?

Can You Walk It?


camino sign

In a word, yes. If you can walk, at all, then you can do the Camino de Santiago.

People of all ages, physical shapes and sizes, health and fitness levels do it. I met families with babes in arms who were making the pilgrimage, carrying the child the entire way. I met an 87-year-old woman who was walking it for the third time. I met a mother-daughter trio, in which the daughters were in their mid sixties and the mother in her mid-eighties. I met people walking after knee replacement surgery, and the seriously overweight who were getting there one step at a time. I even met several folks in wheel chairs who, with the help of loyal friends, were on their pilgrimage. I walked with a legion of middle aged folks who’d escaped their desk jobs to clear their heads, and teenage backpackers who were off on their first post-high school adventure.

If you can move forward, you can do the Camino; it’s just a matter of logistics.


Time of Year


camino ruins
The trail is open year round, but not all of the albergues (like hostels) are. You risk snow at the higher elevations if you head out much before mid-May. Summers, conversely, can be very hot on the meseta, with August being the worst. Spring rain can be an issue, but Galicia is likely to be wet no matter when you go. Early summer and fall are perfect for temperature. Holidays and holy years tend to be busier.

We picked our dates – May 28-July 8 – to avoid school holidays (mostly), avoid the risk of freezing temperatures, and to get out before the worst of the summer heat scorched the landscape. In my 38 days of walking, I was sometimes chilly in the mornings, was really seriously cold only four nights in the albergues, had only four days of rain, and only about a week of really hot afternoons.

For me, the timing was perfect.


Planning Your Walk


camino arrows
How long do you need? This is a serious question, and so much of the enjoyment of your trip rides on how you answer it.

The guidebooks will tell you that you need 32 days, and they break that down for you in what seem like lovely, doable chunks when one is sitting at home, dry and warm. There are, however, a few on-the-trail realities that the guidebook breakdown doesn’t take into consideration.


“How long do you need? This is a serious question, and so much of the enjoyment of your trip rides on how you answer it.”

Among them:

  • Your fitness level: If you aren’t regularly walking 9-12 miles (15-20 kilometers) a day at home, then walking 25-30 a day on the Camino might prove taxing. If you’re overweight, factor that in. If you aren’t used to carrying a pack, factor that in.
  • Your speed: If it takes you 12 hours to walk what the book suggests won’t take more than six, that’s going to be an issue. You won’t have time to explore the towns, do laundry, journal, or otherwise enjoy your trip.
  • Illness, or Injury: It’s not at all unusual for pilgrims to become ill or be injured on the journey. Knees and feet are the biggest culprits, but Jade ended up with a hospital visit and four days off of the trail due to a respiratory illness. How does that affect your schedule if that happens?
  • Your need for rest: This is a highly personal consideration. Some people can, and do, walk every single day and longer distances than recommended because they find a rhythm and they love it. Other people find that they need far more rest than the two days the books figure in for the month. How much time do you want to spend chilling out in a cool town? Do you need extra days for side trips and excursions? You might.


“If I were doing it again, I’d add a full week to my itinerary as flex time.”

If I were doing it again, I’d add a full week to my itinerary as flex time. I’d have taken a few days to rest my ailing feet. I’d have taken a day or two more in places I loved. I’d have walked shorter days sometimes.

Lodging


camino beds

There are lots of lodging options on the trail, from the 5EU a night municipal albergues with 50 of your closest friends to a room, to very nice boutique hotels in the bigger towns. Many of the private albergues have options for private rooms, or smaller rooms which can be as cheap as a bunk bed if you split the cost between three friends for a triple, only with a private bath and no curfew!

There are almost always options in a given town that are not listed in the guides. It also bears noting that comparing the guides from various countries sometimes yields interesting options that you might not have in yours.


“The short version is that lodging, in general, is not a problem, and you don’t need to book it months in advance.”

There are companies, like Walks in Spain, that will pre-book your accommodation in very nice places and provide you with their own walking guides if you feel the need to have all of your lodging organized before you leave. The danger in this, of course, is what happens if your trip doesn’t go as planned. Shuffling those reservations can be another kind of adventure.

Should you pre-book accommodation along the Camino?

The short version is that lodging, in general, is not a problem, and you don’t need to book it months in advance. The albergues DO fill up in busy periods and in the last 100 km (the most popular stretch to walk). The solution to this is to call ahead either the morning of each day, or a day in advance if you are really worried, and let them know you’re coming. Most places will hold a bed with a phone call and no deposit.


Budget


camino kids

Walking the Camino de Santiago is one of the few truly inexpensive journeys left in Europe. Because the albergues are only open to pilgrims, and because they are often subsidized by the municipalities, they are ridiculously cheap.

Lodging Costs


  • Municipal albergues (the least expensive) run between 5-10 EU a night.
  • This includes your bed, shared bathroom and showers, and often laundry options (either hand wash tubs, or coin operated machines). Many of them also have kitchen facilities.
  • Private albergues will be slightly more expensive, from 10-20 EU a bed in a shared dorm. 25-50 EU a night for private rooms accommodating 1-3 people.
  • The private albergues often offer breakfast and sometimes will have laundry service available as well.


Food Costs


  • Meals run the gamut of pricing. Most common are the three course Pilgrim Menus, with wine included, for 10-15 EU average.
  • When you get tired of those, search out the local restaurants and spend a little more for the variety!
  • Breakfasts and lunches can be had in any bar of any little town for 5-10EU, less if you pick up fruits and veggies at a market stand and a loaf of bread from the bakery and picnic on your way.
  • Of course, budget for drinks in the evening with new friends and a few splurges along the way!


“Most pilgrims fell in between and were budgeting 30-40EU a day and traveling comfortably.”

I met young guys walking with a daily budget of 20EU (I bought them dinner and they were grateful!) and older folks who were staying in three and four star hotels every night, eating and drinking well, and spending over 100EU a day. Most pilgrims fell in between and were budgeting 30-40EU a day and traveling comfortably.

Gear & Packing


camino gear
Everyone says pack less for a reason. That’s because you should pack less!

My top tips for packing light on the Camino: 

  • Trade your sleeping bag for a light sleep sack (most albergues provide a blanket)
  • No more than three outfits (one to wear, one to wash and one for evenings out)
  • Don’t bring your laptop or anything else to add weight or worry. Just don’t.
  • Don’t pack three pairs of shoes and a bathrobe, like my Italian friend did.
  • Don’t ship a whole box of crap you don’t need but are afraid you might, ahead of yourself to a hotel in Leon like a grandfather I know did.
  • Don’t pack your entire medicine cabinet either.
  • DO get properly fitted for a pack and train with it at the weight you will carry on the trail.


A Word on Feet


camino feet

The most common injury and ailment on the Camino is trashed feet: blisters, cuts, worn raw places, lost toenails, you name it. Virtually everyone suffers to some degree, some of us worse than others. Training in your shoes helps, obviously, but it isn’t always a guarantee that you won’t have problems. My shoes were well worn in, and I suffered with worse feet than I’ve ever had the whole way to Santiago. C’est la vie.

“The most common injury and ailment on the Camino is trashed feet: blisters, cuts, worn raw places, lost toenails, you name it.”

At the first sign of a problem, get thee to the pharmacy in the next small town, buy betadine and compeed plasters and stay on top of those feet. If they get infected, or swollen, or hot to the touch, see one of the many podiatrists that line the Camino. Of course I didn’t follow much of my own advice as I just washed, threaded, disinfected, wrapped carefully and kept walking. My friend Shane was wiser; he took a few days off, rode the bus instead, and then was fine as frogs hair on his 40 km days for the rest of the journey. He’s smarter than I am.

On Adjusting Expectations


camino path
It is likely that your Camino will not go according to plan. What happens when you get sick? Get hurt? Fall in love with a little town that is begging for you to spend an extra three days you don’t have? Or when you find that you simply can’t walk 25 km a day, every day, that your range is more like 15-20? Some people quit. Other people adjust their expectations.

“It is likely that your Camino will not go according to plan.”

When Jade was in the hospital in Najera and then delirious in her hotel later, I was worried about this. Quitting seemed like a real possibility, and no one would have blamed her. Instead, she got herself on a bus and moved ahead that way for a few days. Then, when she could walk again, we walked, and we strategized about how she could make up the time or remake her plans in order to do the things that were most important to her, like visiting the Iron Cross and getting her Compostela.

In the end, she hugged me goodbye, and we parted in Leon. She bussed ahead to execute her new plan, and I kept walking for the both of us. It was a good compromise. It allowed her to do the Camino, and get her Compostela, within the bounds of her resources of time, money, and health.


“The Camino is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are many ways to walk, the trick is to find your own and make peace with it.”

The take home message: The Camino is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are many ways to walk, the trick is to find your own and make peace with it.

Cutting Corners Without Cutting Corners


camino marker
One afternoon, wandering through a vineyard, I noticed the tiniest twinge in my left ankle. I made straight for the pharmacy, bought a brace, and kept walking. Within a week it was so bad that I needed help down from the top bunk in the morning and it was all I could do to get through the 25 km into Molinaseca, with medication, arnica gel, and a modified pace. Not good. I met a number of people who were making a second, or third, attempt at the Camino after having knees or ankles send them home limping on previous efforts. I was worried.

Then, I discovered Jaco-Trans.

From beginning to end on the Camino, you can have your bag shipped from albergue to albergue ahead of you.

It costs 7EU for most of the journey.

After Sarria, it’s only 3EU, I suppose due to the increased volume of pilgrims. If you are unable to carry your pack for some reason, or if your knees or ankles are bothering you, or if it’s just more fun and easier to carry your daypack with water and nothing else, I highly recommend shipping your bag.


“From beginning to end on the Camino, you can have your bag shipped from albergue to albergue ahead of you.”

To those who say it’s “cheating,” I would ask which is better: finishing well, or not finishing at all? Enjoying the journey, or suffering? Healing, or going home wounded? Walking every step, or not walking at all? If the difference between your ability to complete your dream and walk the Camino is lugging a pack, problem solved.

Ready to plan your RTW Trip? Want to include the Camino?

Alternative Transportation


All along the Camino there are options for transportation other than walking. Some, like taxis and buses, will get a person to the next town quickly, but will also take you off the trail. Sometimes this is a good thing. Don’t be afraid to use the buses and taxis if you need them. Better to walk 15 km and bus the last five than to not walk at all that day!

On one particularly tough day, there is the option of riding horses up the mountain to O’Cebrero. You’ll see the sign in the village at the base of the hill. You can’t miss it. If climbing is hard on you, especially at the end of a long day, then hitch a ride; it will be a great story, and you won’t miss a step of the trail.


Gaining Days & Shortening the Meseta


camino shadows

There’s no way around the fact that the meseta is a long, hot, straight, flat, dull slog. I loved it, personally, but it wasn’t exactly visually stimulating, and it is definitely the portion of the journey that will get inside your head the most. If you are interested in crossing it faster, maybe gaining a couple of days in your itinerary, and not sacrificing even an inch of the trail, then perhaps you want to consider renting a bicycle.

There are companies that will trade your backpack for panniers on a bike, ship your empty bag forward, and let you take off across the easiest part of the Camino for wheels. You’ll easily be able to ride twice, or three times, as far as you could walk. You’ll see it all, and authentically propel yourself over every inch of the terrain with your body, only faster and with more fun!

Have you walked the Camino? What’s your best piece of advice? What did you learn the hard way? Tweet us @bootsnall. I’m headed back to Spain in June to walk the final segment, from Santiago to the sea. Advice for that leg? Tweet me @edventuremama