We are on the Camino now. Ask if you want to follow us on Polarsteps or join the the WhatsApp group for people walking the Camino in May.
Jackie and I had hoped to walk The Way of Saint James, aka the Camino de Santiago in 2021. COVID had us cancel these plans. Just after I retired Jackie and I simultaneously realized we can walk the Camino! For a few days we were thinking to go in September, but the timing just didn’t work, so we are going in May 2023. I am sharing these notes for friends who might consider taking this walk with us.
We will live by the pilgrims credo: I am not in control. I am not in a hurry. I walk in faith and hope. I greet everyone with peace. I bring back only what God gives me. Our desire is to be open to all we will experience, and to be a blessing to all the people we encounter. As always my breath prayer is God, so fill me will you love that is overflows onto everyone I encounter.
For a bit of background, check out 2000 Years of the Pilgrimage which starts with the life of James and ends in the 21st century. In the the 9th century, the starting point of a pilgrimage was people’s front door and the end point was the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral which is reported to hold the remains of the Apostle James. Over time several common routes developed and then were forgotten. In the 1950s there was a renewed interest in the pilgrim routes and a program to welcome pilgrims was developed. Across the world, numerous associations sprung up such as the American Pilgrims which has a local chapter in Northern California.
While the Camino de Santiago started out as a Christian pilgrimage, devoted Christians now represent a small portion of the >300,000 people who travel along “The Way” each year. We have learned that at the start of May that on average 500 people were leaving SJPP each day. For people used to the “typical” wilderness thru hikes like Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail it would be useful to read Ten Reasons not to Hike The Camino de Santiago and a counterpoint What you can expect from the Camino de Santiago.
It is possible to do the Camino as a tourist. That is you are collecting a set of experiences and crossing some activity off your “bucket list”. My perspective is that walking the Way, especially if you are doing the full Frances Camino, is too much of an investment to approach the journey merely as a tourist. I plan to do this journey as a pilgrim.
Pilgrimages provide an environment to step outside everyday life and encounter something greater. Pilgrimages typically involve facing challenges and they aren’t meant to be easy or “relaxing”. It is said the Frances way has three distinct sections. The body: which challenges you physically as you adapt to walking 15 miles a day or so. The mind: between Burgos through Astorga where the landscape can be a bit monotonous. The final section is the Soul where you’re finding your true heart.
I was considering doing a 30 day variant of Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. I started a thread asking if there was any material / recommendations combining the exercises and the Camino Way. Based on the feedback, I decided that the Camino de Santiago will be too social to be fully immersed in the Ignatian exercises unless I joined a group lead by an experienced director. Doing the spiritual exercises as a walking retreat might be best done on the quieter Camino Ignaciano some other time. Rather, this might be the opportunity to really listen to my fellow pilgrims.
Nancy Frey has documented how Smart phones and WiFi have radically altered the Camino experience on her site Walking to Presence. For many people this has resulted in a deeper connections with “home” during the Camino, and less of a connection with people on the Camino. I believe everyone should think carefully about how much they will make use of connectivity. My current belief is less will be more.
We have remove most apps (especially social media and email). Will have a route guide, map, translation app, bible, audio recorder, and a daily devotional app. The one exception is we installed Polarsteps because Jackie’s dad asked up to bring him along because he was unable to join us.
Some resources that might help spiritually prepare that:
- The Art of Pilgrimage: Seekers Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau
- Celtic Prayers of Iona by Philip Newell
- Pilgrim Journeys by Sally Welch
- The Ignatian Way by José Luis Iriberri
- pray-as-you-go podcast and web resources
- Mindful travel advise from Tibetan Monk
- Tim Ferris interview with Rolf Potts: The Vagabonds Way
- Embracing Catholic Spirituality along the Camino discussion
while on the journey
- Gary Johnson’s Devotional Companion for Camino de Santiago
- Lectio 365 is a great devotional app with a meditation to start and end the day.
Timing and Route
The common view is that the best months are April, May, September, and October. You are missing the worst of the summer heat and the crowds due to school being out and the harsher weather (and closed services) during the winter. The temperatures in the fall and spring are cool which is perfect for hiking, generally (7-18C, 45-65F) though it could go be colder or warmer. It is likely there will be several days of rain in the spring. The fall has less risk of rain, but larger crowds.
Any of the guides listed below will provide nearly all the information you will need to plan a journey along the Camino de Santiago. A good starting point would be the online planning resources from the Village to Village guide.
All the guides break the journey into daily stages. Most complete the journey in 33 stages. Many of the stages are identical across the guides with the guides diverging slightly and then resynchronize in a few days. The traditional first stage from sjpp is one of the longest and toughest. Discussion of how to handle it / where to stay
Traditions & Important Sites
- Remember loved ones lost with wooden cross along the way
- Drink Rioja wine from fountain of Bodegas Irache, just outside Estella (early in stage 6). Stop at the blacksmith shop 200m before the fountain.
- Leave a burden behind, symbolized by a rock from home (or maybe the laptop you are carrying) at Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross (stage 24)
- Wash in the stream at Lavacolla, just outside Santiago
- Pilgrim’s Mass
Some people plan “zero days”to explore a city’s sights and sounds. Other times zero days are to recovery from an injury or illness. The best recommendation is to take a zero day when you body tell you to, and skip zero days you might have planned if your heart wants to continue to walk. Commonly recommended towns for zero days:
- stage 3 – Pamplona (lively town, food). I think it’s a bit early, but helpful for people who aren’t experienced walkers who might need to swap some of their gear, get a massage, etc.
- stage 7 – Logrono (good size town known for wine and hundreds of tapas places, especially along Laurel street)
- stage 13 – Burgos (arch, museum, churches have original stain glass)
- stage 20 – Leon (arch, food)
- stage 22 – Astorga (arch)
- stage 25 – Villafranca
The follows are some towns which the community has indicated are good places to consider if you want a quiet rest:
- stage 5 – Estella, architecture
- stage 10 – Santo Domingo or Grañón
- stage 17 – Villalcázar de Sirga
- stage 18 – Sahagun
- stage 19 – Mansilla de las Mulan
Interest Sites (History, etc)
The follows towns might be worth exploring as you pass through:
- stage 12 – Atapuerca cave
- stage 24 – Ponferrada castle
- stage 26 – O’Cebriero churches
- stage 28 – Samos monastery
- stage 28 – Detour down to Ourense will add 90km, take you on a less traveled route and past some natural hot springs
Festivals (2023) Along the Way
An incomplete list which of seasonable festivals;
- Festa do Cocido in Lalin, February
- Easter, Sunday, April 9, 2023
- Festa do Maio – celebrations in Villafranca, Pontevedra etc, April 30-1st May, 2023
- Ascension, Thursday, May 18, 2023
- Fiestas de San Bernabé in Logroño, June 11, 2023
- Saint John and Midsummer celebrations take place in many other seaside towns and also in Santiago de Compostela, June 23, 2023?
Sleeping & Housing
Nearly all the land along the routes are privately owned. Historically it’s been harder to find a camping spot than a bed in a alberque (hostel for pilgrims), hostel, or hotel, though the 2023 season seems to be stressing the system. I would recommend forgoing camping and leave the typical back country backpacking gear behind (tent, stove, sleeping pad, sleeping bag warm enough for outdoors, etc).
Alberques (guide to alberques) are the cheapest, most available, and more common option. They are also a key part of the experience due to their communal nature. Even if you are planning to primarily use hotels, spend at least a few nights in public alberques to get the full Camino experience. All alberques have dorm style housing. Some of the alberques have private rooms for extra money. Linens and blankets are often not provided, and has become even less common due to COVID. Unless you have made reservations for every night and confirmed they will provide all you need, you should plan to bring a sleeping bag, or a sleep sack + quilt/blanket and a towel. More on this in the gear section.
If you are traveling during peak season I would encourage pre-booking accommodations early. It seems there are more people doing the Camino than there are facilities. If you have a reservation and don’t need it, please cancel it.
Many people worry about bedbugs, especially in the alberques. From reports I have read and from friend’s experiences it seems like bedbugs will be found occasionally but are uncommon. If you stay in a location that has bedbugs, there is nothing that can guarantee you won’t be infected. There is some evidence that treating your sleeping gear with Permethrin will provide some protection. If you end up picking up bedbugs, washing throughly and then washing all your clothing and gear in 140F water will kill them.
Packing & Gear
Everyone I have talked with that wasn’t an experienced light-weight onebag traveler or ultralight backpacker has said they brought too much stuff. They often either gave away the unnecessary items or shipped them home. General theory is if you didn’t use an item by the home you get yo Burgos, you aren’t going to need it, and you should get rid of it. I encourage everyone to treat the Camino like a pilgrimage and leave behind excess baggage and live in the moment. I have some general notes about packing light aka onebag travel. Be inspired by Tim Evans’ 7L fanny-packing list.
If you are doing the Camino in the in the summer you don’t need a lot. A small first aid kit focused on foot care, comb/brush, toothbrush, and toothpaste. Hiking clothing that can dry overnight, clothing to wear while your clothing are drying (light sandals/slides, shorts and tee are enough), rain gear, a fleece or sweater, and a sun hat. When needed (which is less frequent than you might expect) you can wash you hiking clothing in a sink, shower, or machine if one is available. If you are staying in alberques you will want a sleep sack. A blanket is nice but you could get by wearing your fleece / sweater assume the building is heated. That’s all you need.
It’s better to bring twice the money you think you need, and half the stuff. It fairly easy to pick up items that you forgot, lost, or are damaged. Several of the town along the Camino have a Decathlon store, which is the Ikea of outdoor equipment and clothing. There are also a number of stores which cater to nearly all the needs of pilgrims (shoes, clothing, backpacks, toiletries, etc) such as Boutique du Pelerin in St Jean Pied de Port and Caminoteca in Pamplona. Most of the towns have a small store near or on the Camino route which sell comfortable shoes (almost all sell Hoka) and some other items that pilgrims might need.
For people who are used to luxury & comfort, don’t just prepare yourself to “rough it”, but embrace a simple and more communal experience. It is especially important to minimize what you bring because you will be carrying everything for many miles each day. If your bag feels heavy before you start walking, you are bring too much and it will get worse as the days progresses.
A number of studies have found that when people carried more than 7-12% of their body weight there was a noticeable increase in fatigue. I have seen that I can carry around 6% without noticing any impact compared to walking with no pack (less than 9lb). By the time the pack is 10% of my body weight I notice I tire more quickly.
Some people ship their bag(s) town to town via a transfer service and carry a small daypack which holds only what they need for the day. This costs 4-6Eu for one time, and around 150Eu for an entire journey. If you do this I would recommend using a duffel such as TNF Basecamp or one of the $4 Ikea duffels as the bag that gets shipped, and carry a light daypack. Realize that mistakes can be made, and you might find your transfer bag misplaced for a day or two. For people who are finding lodging as they go, using a transfer service can add stress and complications since you don’t know where to ship your bag on days you don’t have a reservation. Several traditional alberques have banned “suitcases” / transfer services from delivering saying they exist to serve pilgrims, not tourists.
The single most important item you bring is footwear. I think minimalist shoes are the best way to go IF you have used them for at least six month. Otherwise I would generally recommend wearing trail runners or hiking oriented sandals. Sandals are often seen as people recover from bad blisters which makes me wonder if they won’t be the best “shoes” to start with. I have written up a brief comparison of boots vs trail runners. For people who are prone to getting blisters I would recommend sizing up your shoes by 1/2-1 size and wear 2 pairs of socks: a thin liner made of coolmax or nylon closest to your foot, and a thick wool sock worn “inside out” so the fuzzy part is against the shoe, and the smoother side is facing inward toward the liner and your foot. Another good option are Xoskin toe socks. I have zero blisters after 1400 miles, and had pre-blisters from other socks heal while repeatedly walking 15 mile days.
The second most important item is your backpack. People who complete the Camino generally use outdoor oriented pack which are between 20-40L in volume. For people carrying less than 10 lbs, there are many good options. If you are carrying more than 10 lbs you will want a pack that has a hipbelt which is capable of transferring the majority of the weight to your hips rather than just stabilizing the pack. I have a post about selecting a good trekking pack.
Most people bring a light weight sleeping bag (rated for 40-50F) which removes the need to worry about linens or blankets. My recommendation would be to use a silk or nylon sleep sack which is paired with a light weight quilt or light blanket. When it’s warm you can use just the sleep sack. A good quality down backpacking quilts can cost $300, but if you only need enough insulation for sleeping inside (say rated for 55F), then there are a number of light weight down or synthetic outdoor blanket / quilts. The classic poncho liner, aka woobie is another option. I have also noted that clothing which are warm enough for “light work” in 40F (a typical spring morning) should be warm enough for sleeping in a 60F room. For many people, just a sleep sack combined with outwear as a blanket/insulation could work. I am using a sleep sack and a piece of Polartec Alpha Direct 120gsm fabric which I will use as a blanket at night, and as a shawl, vest, or poncho liner during the day.
You might want a headlamp for the days you get an early (before sunrise) start, and if you are staying in a alberques to function after “lights out”. If you don’t own one, I would recommend the Nitecore NU25UL which recharges via USB. For more complete information look at my headlights post. If you aren’t planning to hike in the dark use the flashlight on your phone.
Unlike backcountry backpacking, you rarely need to carry much food or water because you will be in the next town before you need more. Generally .5-1L of water will be plenty, especially if you periodically stop at a cafe or food trunk for a drink. You will want more water on the hottest days. You might want to carry some food with you when entering a less populated area on Sunday because the groceries / cafes / restaurants might be closed or have hours which are incompatible with your schedule. Of course, if all the food options are closed you can either treat it as a day of fasting.
I was originally going to bring a trimmed version of my normal packing list. A week before we left I decided to go lighter… my pack is 5.5lb. The picture below is everything in my camino packing list including the items I am wearing. I was tempted to swap my backpack for a 14l sling bag.
Guide Books and Apps
There are a variety of guidebooks and applications designed to help people successfully navigate the Camino de Santiago. All the guidebooks provide information about the route itself and places to stay. Some provide a day by day schedule. Others provide information which allows the pilgrim to decide were they want to stop.
- A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierley is the classic english language guidebook (minor updates 2023, don’t buy it in kindle form, terrible formatting, no hotlinks!). It breaks the route into discrete stages. Many people follow his stages woodenly which typically means that the villages listed at the end of each stage will be more crowded. Brierley includes selection about ‘the mystic path” and “personal reflections” which can be enriching, but annoy speople wanting a purely practical guidebook for a long hike.
- Moons Guide is the only guide which highlights food, and focused more on local culture, detailing local festivals and annual events.
- Wise Pilgrim is a very practical guide which is reported to be the best iOS/Android App. The app supports offline maps. The full content is available as a Kindle and Paperback book. Much of the content is also freely available of their website. Has booking.com links for any of the lodging that supports online reservations, and WhatsApp links for any lodging that can contacted that way which is great for non Spanish speakers
- Buen Camino De Santiago by Carlos Mencos is a well regarded app that is available for IOS, Android
- Camino Guides by Gerald Kelly is available as an iOS/Android app, Kindle, paperback, and a downloadable PDF. Gerald also makes a free version of the PDF available (which is missing maps and historical background).
- Village to Village Guides by Anna Dintaman & David Landis is a practical guide (last updated in 2018?), and has a good online supplement.
- FarOut (aka GutHook) is a hiking oriented mapping guide which focuses on the trail, water sources, etc rather than the towns. I don’t see the point with how well the trail is marked.
- TrekRight Camino Guide is a iOS Guidebook application. UI needs work but is one of the most complete online guides. Trail notes, offline maps, indications of service in town include grocery stores, some good details sbout each of the lodging locations. Missing booking links and WhatsApp contacts. Has a notes, flags, highlights flags
- Camino Ninja is a free app that seems well regarded. Alas, the author died in 2022… it is no longer updated. Folks doing CaminoCamino are working to pull the data into their app.
- caminodesantiago.me is a very active online community run by Ivar Rekve, a resident of Santiago de Compostela.
- santiago.forwalk.org is a very well done website. They have a number of “pre selected” routes / stages with information about what services are available with pictures and links to make reservations.
- Route Planner which lets you choice start/end locations, and then select the villages you want to stop in (lists type of accommodations but no description of them). For these selections the website can generate a number of files including a path to be viewed through google earth, gps waypoints, and a schedule in a nice, spreadsheet readable table
- American Pilgrims; Online Resources is a list of other resources that are freely available on the Internet.
- Stingy Nomads Camino de Santiago Guide seems filled with useful information from a couple that has recently walked many of the routes.
- camino adventures
- onestepthenanother: Recommendations for pilgrims on several trails
- backpackinglight camino thread
- gronze.com: in spanish, but google translate can make it quite useful
- Metroblue: Best weather app I have found. The weather maps are really useful. iOS https://apps.apple.com/us/app/meteoblue-weather-maps/id994459137
- I Will Push You – Wonderful movie about a great friendship. Patrick joins Justin to complete the walk. The journey would have been impossible for Justin to complete by himself due to a neuromuscular disease.
- TrailJournals: Camino de Santiago is a site which originally was used by long distant hikers for the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail but now hosts journals for other trails including the Camino de Santiago. I particularly appreciate Slow Walkers (first) 2007 journal… he has more recent entries as well.
- Time-lapse of the first day walk (POV) and Video of the first day 45 minutes video describing the first day experience
History, Culture, Architecture
The Camino is steeped in history. Having a sense of the history and culture and enrich the journey. While walking the Camino you will pass some classic architecture. Some resources to appreciate this background:
- The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook by David M. Gitlitz won’t tell you anything about the modern cities, hostels, or amenities but will give you an in-depth look into the history of the path you are walking.
- Iberia by James Michener isn’t about the Way, but provides a good amount of background about this region of Spain.
- History of Spain: Readable and engaging history book
- Beginners Guides to Architecture on the Camino: Some good threads on caminodesantiago.me
Random Hints / Practices
- Be curious and ask questions of the people you meet. There are many amazing stories you will hear, and many reasons people are walking the Camino.
- Make a list of people you meet and take pictures of help your memory. Maybe consider asking how you could pray for them and make prayer cards.
- As you enter new cities look for a poster with a list of local taxi phone numbers and take a picture. Often in the entry of hostels, sometimes there is a poster near the entry / exit to the town.
- Walking takes hours to go between towns, but a taxi and bus takes tens of minutes. It’s pretty quick to return to a town to retrieve something you left behind.
- Get used to Spanish schedule. Breakfast is a croissant or other slightly sweet pastry in a coffee, maybe a tortilla. Lunch is generally 1:30-3:30 or 4pm. Dinner starts at 8 PM. Many stores are closed in the mid afternoon and on Sundays.
I am not in control. I am not in a hurry. I walk in faith and hope. I greet everyone with peace. I bring back only what God gives me.Murray Bodo, The Pilgrim’s Credo
Thank you and good luck.
Very nice and comprehensive description of the whole adventure. Thank you for sharing.