The following are notes I am pulling together for myself which might be useful to others who are considering walking The Way of Saint James. I had hoped to walk the Camino de Santiago in 2020, but that didn’t happen for obvious reasons.
I am considering integrating this pilgrimage with the 30 day spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. It might be that the Camino de Santiago will be too social for the Ignatian exercises and that I am trying to pack too much into a single trip. Doing the spiritual exercises as a walking retreat might be best done on the quieter Camino Ignaciano.
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 14th 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 numerous local chapters including one 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. For people used to the “typical” long trails which are primarily in the wilderness, it might be useful to read What you can expect from the Camino de Santiago and Ten Reasons not to Hike The Camino de Santiago.
IN PROGRESS… section needs additional material.
Gary Johnson’s Devotional Companion for Camino de Santiago
The Art of Pilgrimage: Seekers Guide to Making Travel Sacred by Phil Cousineau
There is a thread I started about combining the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius with walking The Way of James. Serval people provided useful advice and pointers to useful resources which I will eventually incorporate into this post.
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.
Everyone I have talked with that wasn’t an experienced light-weight traveler has said they brought too much stuff. They often either gave away the unnecessary items they brought or shipped them home. I encourage everyone on a pilgrimage to leave behind excess baggage and live moment by moment. For people who are used to luxury, comfort, and ease, don’t just prepare yourself to “rough it”, but embrace a simple and more communal experience. I have some general notes about Travel and Pack light.
Nearly all the land along the routes are privately owned. It’s harder to find a camping spot than a bed in a alberque (hostel for pilgrims), hostel, or hotel. I would recommend forgoing the typical back country backpacking gear (tent, stove, sleeping pad, heavy sleeping bag, etc).
Alberque are are quite cheap. Many offer both dorm style housing as well as private rooms for a bit of extra money. The majority of alberques provide linens… but they can be coarse material. I recommend bringing a silk sleep sack which feels nicer against the skin and is especially useful in the rare case that a alberque doesn’t supply linens. People terrified about bedbugs (I don’t know anyone who has encountered them) can treated their bag with Permethrin for extra protection. Having an extra blanket is recommended. I like backpacker oriented down quilts which will be lighter and more compact than a sleeping bag or traditional blanket. You can often find down blankets on outdoors drop for <$100. Sometimes Costco has reasonably light weight down quilts for less than $30. If you stay in dorm style rooms bring ear plugs and an eye mask. Hotels are more expensive, but will reliably provide linens and private rooms.
There are typically small cafes every few miles, so you don’t need you carry a lot of food and water unlike a typical back country trip. I would recommend just .5-1L of water and maybe a small snack. The only exception is that if you are entering a less populated area on Sunday or Monday, the cafes / restaurants might be closed. In these cases carrying a big snack might be advised. Of course, if all the food options are closed you can either treat it as a day of fasting or rely of the charity of the townspeople and ask for food.
You will want a headlamp. I would recommend the Thrunite TH20 which is about the same cost but significantly higher quality than the headlamps sold in many stores. It is powered by a single AA battery. You can use disposable batteries or bring rechargeable batteries. For more complete information look at my headlights post.
I would recommend the pilgrim experience… carrying everything you need and trim out things you don’t need. If your backpack feels like a burden, you are likely carrying too much. I would recommend using an outdoor oriented pack which is between 20-35L in volume. If you are carrying more than 10lbs make sure it has a waist strap which actually lets you transfer weight to your hips. Tim Evans carried everything he needed in a 7L fanny pack.
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 around 4Eu for one time, and around 120Eu for an entire journey. If you do this I would recommend using a travel duffel 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.
To get a sense of what it’s like walk the Camino de Santiago, read through Slow Walkers 2007 journal.
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. It breaks the path 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 some people, especially people wanting a purely practical guidebook for a long hike. Available only in paperback.
- Village to Village Guides by Anna Dintaman & David Landis available on Kindle, paperback, and has a good online supplement.
- Wise Pilgrim is a very practical guide which is reported to be the best iOS/Android App. 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.
- 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).
- TrekRight Camino Guide is well regard iOS Guidebook application.
- 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.
- 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
- caminodesantiago.me is a very active online community run by Ivar Rekve, a resident of Santiago de Compostela.
- 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.
- American Pilgrims; Internet Resources is a great list of other resources that are freely available on the Internet.