Some Thoughts for your Camino

The walk is the destination, not Santiago.
Life is the destination.
Now is the destination.
Live now.

I originally wrote this page in response to an email from someone thinking about walking the Camino just after I returned from my first walk. She asked questions about taking less than the whole walk, being in shape, and knowing Spanish. In my enthusiasm, I answered that and more. When I saw what I had written for her, I realized there may be more people out there thinking of doing the walk and looking for similar information. So I massaged it a bit and included additional suggestions, many originating in later email questions. These are the words of one pilgrim, and maybe a few from my wife. Every other pilgrim will have his or her opinions, some very different. Read around for the ideas of others also. Use what you find helpful and forget the rest.

You can read through this page from top to bottom or click on one of the specific topics you are interested in.

What the Camino is and what it isn’t
Walking less than the whole distance
Fellow walkers
Preparation
Shoes
What to carry along
Your Stick
Resting and your mat
Guidebook
Know some Spanish
Where to Start your walk
When to go
Snow and winter walking
Be open and walk
More resources

What the Camino is and what it isn’t

The Camino is not a wilderness walk. It follows an ancient pilgrimage path, a path used long before the Christians started walking to Santiago. If you are looking for a walk in the wilderness on tranquil paths away from traffic and everyday life of Spain, do not walk the Camino. The Camino follows the path of a Roman road that took first the Roman armies and then Spaniards and pilgrims across northern Spain. The original pilgrims were walking to Santiago, taking the shortest and most efficient route they could--it was the Roman highway. Though there are many quiet places along the Camino, a main road parallels that old road today. You are often close to it. You will hear traffic. You will be near people, often many people.

Yes, you have already heard it, many people walk the Camino these days. So if you do not want to be with many people, walk it in late fall, winter, or early spring. The interaction with your fellow walkers often is very enjoyable and for many a valuable part of the Camino experience. But if you do not want that and you want to walk in the heat of the summer, hike in the mountains alone somewhere. The Camino is not for you. Perhaps you could walk the Camino Portuguese, the Via de la Plata, or the Camino de Levante from Valencia instead if you want to arrive in Santiago after a somewhat solitary walk in the end. All these have far fewer walkers (though less support comfort) than the Camino Français, the main route across northern Spain.

Walking less than the whole distance

The length of time you take on the Camino is up to you. It's your Camino, your path. What is important is that you do the walk and that you are open, radically open, to whatever it is that the Universe (God) places in front of you. Some people walk as little as the required (for a Compostela) 100 kilometers (62 miles), a few walk both directions racking up over 1600 kilometers (1000 miles). I walked with someone who started in Germany a year earlier and, in three stages, walked over 2200 kilometers (1350 miles). Many do the walk in sections, a few hundred kilometers each year until they have done it all. I met a woman in Molinaseca who had only 30 days to walk. She was on her 21st day, well within reach of Santiago in those 30 days (she had started in Roncesvalles). I took me 36 days to walk to Santiago from Roncesvalles and my brother 48 days to walk the same distance.

I feel you need to walk 10 to 15 days in a row to get into the wonderful habit of walking, that feeling that makes the walking a kind of second nature. Then you are relaxed at it and can drink in and enjoy the day's events and feel free to wash your head in a town fountain or sleep under a tree or along a river bank to refresh yourself for the next hour's walk. Then “the walk is the destination” as it should always be. My last four days, from Santiago to Finisterra were the best four days of my walk. I was really relaxed by then. In your relaxation you will be more open to whatever it is the Universe has to provide, to hit you with, and it will provide something, probably a lot more than you expect. It did for me.

And don’t listen to the purists. If you feel like taking a bus or a taxi or stopping somewhere for days, do it. This is your Camino. There is no “right” way to go. There is only the way you want to go.

Fellow walkers

A very unexpected and big part of the walk for me was the people I walked with. You will get to know many in the group you are with (the group expands and contracts as some get ahead and others behind and new ones join you). Some will become close friends as the time passes. I still regularly talk with people I met there ten years ago on my first walk. I was surprised and continue to be surprised that it was through talking and interacting with my fellow walkers that I found the source of many of the insights that eventually became the incomplete list of thoughts and insights you see on my Some Camino Thoughts page. I have always been basically solitary but this people aspect gave me a whole new look on community.

Preparation

If you are in good health, you can do the walk with few problems. I walked 5 to 13 kilometers (3 to 8 miles) a day at home for a long time before I went. But that walking was on flat land so it didn't particularly prepare me for the up and down walking of the early part of the Camino. It only took a few days walking the Camino to cure my aches and pains. You can spend weeks and months strengthening your shoulders, back, arms, and legs. It will help. But if you don’t want to do that, you will not die hitting the Camino unprepared. You will suffer the first few days. But surprisingly, the body has a way of getting you in shape fairly quickly--say in a week or so. After that you should be cruising along well. So if you don’t want to do weeks of exercise, don’t; you will live.

Shoes

Your shoes are your most important piece of equipment. You need a good pair of running or walking shoes. You do not need heavy hiking boots. On our first few long walks (including the Camino), I used good walking shoes with no ankle support--I never got one blister. But in our last walk across the US and southern Europe we walked 5300+ miles in 2009-10 with cushioned running shoes. They are now my shoe of choice. I will use them on the Camino when I walk it again.

Speaking of blisters, listen to your body once you get out there. If you are getting blisters or worse, change the way you are walking or carrying your pack or tying your shoes (I usually retie my shoes four or five times in the morning before I get them right), or just rest a while--but listen to your body, it will tell you when you should make a change. And by all means, do not force it to do what you want by taking pain killers to hide the pain. It will come back to get you later. See Resting and your mat below for more on keeping those blisters away.

What to carry along

Get a good, light backpack with support around your waist and across your shoulder straps. My last backpack, a Granite Gear Vapor Trail, was 2.2 lb--1 kilo; it went those 5,300+ miles with me. Take less than you think you will need, much less if you are used to "making sure" you have everything you need. I carried a bit more than 8 kilos (18 pounds) on my first Camino walk and I still had several things I could have done without (remember the extra pair of jeans I had, Guys? How could you forget, you ribbed me enough for them). If you don’t have something that you find you "need" once you are on the Camino, you can get it along the way. Remember, Spain is a modern country full of stores that have almost everything you will ever need.

One of these days, I will add a list of what I feel one should carry along in that backpack. I have a list somewhere; I just don’t know where it is at this time.

Your Stick

Take along a walking stick or, better yet, pick one up along the path soon after you begin your walk. Contrary to what most of the books I read said, your stick is not to keep off the dogs. Most of Spain's poor dogs are scared of you and move away with their tails between their legs. The others bark with their tails wagging. You need that stick to help keep you from falling in the mud. It is a very helpful third leg. You do not need those fiber poles I hear so many clacking around with. They just make you walk harder. You are out there to enjoy the walk not to work some kind of workout; enjoy it. And pick up a stick in the woods when you need one for support. Then leave it on the side of the path when you no longer need it. Maybe you’ll have three of four along the way. Why carry the extra weight?

Resting and your mat

We have a ritual that we have used a long time to save both our feet and our bodies. We rest every five miles (eight kilometers). At our average speed of 2.5 mph (4 kph) that is once every two hours. We stop under a shade tree in the summer or out of the wind in the colder seasons. We lay out our mats, take off our shoes and socks, and sleep for 20 minutes or so. We wake up with dry feet, dry socks, dry shoes, and very relaxed. When we do that three times a day, we have covered our average 15 miles or so for the day. We are quite relaxed. And our dry feet are almost guaranteed no blisters. On rainy days? Well, we cannot do it and the walk is harder.

We are in love with our Thermarest Z-lite sleeping mat. It is comfortable to lie on and folds into a compact package to put on your backpack. It was one of our most valuable items (after the umbrella) on our long walk. We used it several times a day.

The umbrella? I use a golf-sized umbrella to keep both the rain and the sun off me. My wife uses a slightly smaller one. We do not use a poncho or rain gear—I only get wet from the inside with them. If it is raining and blowing so hard that the umbrella is not keeping me dry above the ankles, I probably should be staying over a day and not be out in the rain. Besides all this, it is so much easier to put up and take down an umbrella than it is to mess with traditional wet and sticky rain gear.

Guidebook

There are many guidebooks and maps out there. The first time I walked the Camino, I had a guidebook that was so bad that I essentially had none. I made it asking for help as I went--and that was back in 2003 when there were a lot less people walking. You will get so much information in the refugios and from your fellow walkers that a guide is almost not necessary. That said, one good guide is A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St. Jean * Roncesvalles * Santiago [paperback] by John Brierley. It includes route maps, altitude maps, route info, and phone numbers of places to stay and village offices along with good general information. I know it is available at Amazon.com and many other places. He has another book of only maps, but you want this full text version.

You will learn more as you walk so you should be able to get info for the Santiago-to-Finisterra leg from another pilgrim, in a refugio, or at the Galicia tourist bureau in Santiago—the latter has a lot of other good things too. You’ll get what you need when you need it, as we like to say.

Know some Spanish

Try to know some basic Spanish. You don't have to be fluent, just the basics for getting directions and food and drink, a hundred words or so. The more you know the better. Knowing some Spanish makes it a lot more fun when you stop for your morning or midday coffee or beer or coke and bocadillo (sandwich on French bread--a staple). The more Spanish you know the more fun you'll have talking with the very friendly Spanish people. Please, do not expect every Spanish person to speak English, you are in their country.

Where to Start your walk

There are many places throughout Europe and in Spain where you can start walking the Camino. But when you are taking the full walk in Spain on the Camino Frances, the “main” route, you normally start at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees of Spain or at St. Jean Pied-de-Port in southern France. (You have to walk over a big mountain the first day when you start in St. Jean and for that reason I am not a fan of St. Jean.) For a shorter walk, you can start almost anywhere. If you only have time for the minimum, Sarria is 102 kilometers (63 miles) and only five or six days from Santiago--and eligible for the Compostela, the document from the church in Santiago saying you have done the minimum. You will walk through beautiful Galatian countryside. León was 14 days from Santiago for me (an average walker), a bit over 300 kilometers (180 miles) from Santiago. Starting from León you will see broad flat plains, mountains, valleys, and the beautiful green of Galicia. No matter where you start, really consider taking another 4 days after Santiago to go the extra 90 kilometers (56 miles) to Finisterra. The land in that part of Galicia is unique and the walk so relaxing by that time.

When to go

When is the best time to walk the Camino? My first time, I walked in spring and everything was wonderful. That’s quite possibly the “best” time, if a “best” time exists. All was green and flowers were everywhere. I felt like a king or Indian Rajah with all the flowers around me. But it rained all May in 2013 so you don't know from year to year though good weather is the norm.

Summer's heat is oppressive on the plains and in Galicia to say nothing of the crowds you encounter during the high tourist season. Summer is also very dry--most of the vegetation is yellow or brown by then. I haven’t walked in summer and am not contemplating doing so.

Fall is beautiful and second best to spring.

Some walk in the winter. If you do that, be prepared for some snow, ice, and cold temperatures in the mountains--and very few companions along the way. Having said that, I have also walked in February and March. Both times were joys for me. February was not as cold as I had expected, though I did have some snow in the Mountains of Leon in March.

Snow and winter walking

(May 2013) In response to a question from one who will be walking this November, I sent the following.

You may see some snow in the Pyrenees if you are starting in November. That will put you in the Mountains of Lyon and later at O Cebreiro, the high point, and Galicia in late November or early December. You will probably encounter some snow.

How should you prepare? I always carry cloths so I can wear layers. For winter walking, I would add one heavier coat*, long johns, gloves, a warm scarf, and maybe a pair of extra-thick socks to the things I would carry were I walking in warmer seasons. Even if you encounter no snow, these things can be helpful some cold, windy mornings and days. I am a minimalist--I tend to have one entire set of clothes and take layers off or put them on as the temperature or weather demands. In addition, I usually walk in running shoes. For a late fall-winter walk, I would likely choose a heavier walking shoe, maybe even one with ankle support (something I feel is excessive and unneeded in other seasons).

We walked in January and early February, 2010, from Lisbon to Santiago. There was a lot of rain but no snow. I will never do it again in Portugal because it was so damp and cold and they have very inadequate heat in their hotels and refugios--damp, cold, and mildewed. When they had heat, they turned it on only at five and off at 11, never enough to heat up a room that has been cold and damp all day. But they did have blankets. The Spanish part was different--they heated most of their buildings to keep them drier and warmer.

Out on the path, you are walking and that helps keep you warm. It's the wind more than anything that makes you cold. Add some snow in the mountains or rain at the lower altitudes and it can get downright miserable. None the less, I want to do the Camino once in the winter some day (but not Portugal again!).

* I always have a light wind breaker as one of my layers of clothes. Instead of a heavier coat, you could add a couple good sweaters to wear under your windbreaker and that may be enough. That would also give you a better range of layers.

Be open and walk

This page may be a longer answer than you were looking for but you have many options. Grab one or two and run with them. Everyone seems to have their own solutions. There are so many dynamics happening when you put yourself out there that no matter how or when or where you start or how long you walk, if you are open, the Camino can be one of the most positive experiences you will have in your life.

More resources

If you want to read more, check out Nancy Louise Frey's book Pilgrim Stories: On and off the Road to Santiago (University of California Press, 1998). This book gives you a good feeling for what can happen as you open yourself to life on this marvelous excursion into self and the universe. It was reading as well after the Camino in 2003 as it did before I left.

And don’t miss the movie The Way staring Martin Sheen. It is a very good rendition of what the Camino did for four people. The Camino is really an individual thing. There are as many different Caminos as there are people walking the path.

Our Walking and Pilgrimage Resources page has many more references and links to help you find what you need for your pilgrimage walk.

And don’t forget the resources we listed at the top of this page.

Good luck and Buen Camino (Have a good walk). And remember the walk is the destination. Life is the destination. Now is the destination.


[I edited this page February 2012, a few months less than nine years after I originally wrote this page just after my first pass on the Camino. I still basically agree with all that I wrote here then. In the meantime I have married and my wife and I have walked the Camino three times more, the Via de la Plata, the Camino Portuguese, and from our home in Germany to Rome over the Alps and down the Via Francigena. We have also walked 5,300+ miles (8,600+ km) across America then from Lisbon to Santiago and on east as far as Genoa, Italy. So there are things to update to our current experience level. I am adding things here and making changes to give you insights for your Camino that are more in line with where we are today. If you have read this before, read it again. I have changed and added quite a bit.][Updated again October 2013.]

In addition to this page we have and other writings and a guided pilgrimage, books, slideshows and workshops that can help you. After you have read this page, check out some of the following references for more information. All are available under Our Offerings and Our Pilgrimages on the top drop-down menus.


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