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. One morning, just after I retired Jackie and I simultaneously realized “We can walk the Camino!!”. For a few days we were thinking go in September, but it seems like there are too many things that we need to work through at home, so we will, God willing, be walking the full Frances Camino route May 2023. I am sharing these notes for friends who might consider taking this walk with us.
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” 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 doing 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”.
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. Would it make sense to bring a real camera to do portraits of people?
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. Our current plan to to remove most apps (especially social media and email). Will have a route guide, map, translation app, bible, audio recorder, kindle, podcast with highly curated list and use a Spanish SIM card which will be given to just a few people for dire emergencies.
Some resources that might help spiritually prepare that I am still looking through:
- Gary Johnson’s Devotional Companion for Camino de Santiago
- 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
- Mindful travel advise from Tibetan Monk
- pray-as-you-go podcast and web resources
- Tim Ferris interview with Rolf Potts: The Vagabonds Way
Timing and Route
The common view is that the best months are April, May, September, and October. You are missing 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.
Traditions & Important Sites
- Remember loved ones lost with wooden cross along the way
- Drink Rioja wine from fountain of Bodegas Irache, just outside Estella (stage 5)
- Leave a burden behind, symbolized by a rock from home at Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross (stage 24)
- Wash in the stream at Lavacolla, just outside Santiago
- Pilgrim’s Mass
Many people plan “zero days”. Some people use 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)
- stage 7 – Logrono (wine, tapas)
- stage 13 – Burgos (arch, museum)
- 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 to rest a bit (e.g. a bit quieter than above)
- stage 10 – Santo Domingo or Grañón
- stage 17 – Villalcázar de Sirga
- stage 18 – Sahagun
- stage 19 – Mansilla de las Mulas
- stage 28 – Sarria
Interest Sites (History)
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
Festivals (2023) Along the Way
FIXME: A list which of seasonable festivals which includes: date, location, description
- 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. It’s harder to find a camping spot than a bed in a alberque (hostel for pilgrims), hostel, or hotel. 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 private alberques have private rooms for extra money. Linens and blankets are not necessarily 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. More on this in the gear section.
Many people worry about bedbugs, especially in the alberques. From reports I have read it seems like bedbugs will be found occasionally but are not common. They are more common in the alberques but also are found in the guest homes and hotels. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Bedbugs are more likely when you have a rapid turnover of people. Peak season is exactly this situation since every stay is just one night. Conventional wisdom is that they are less likely early in the season. Many locations have little or no visitors over the winter followed by a deep cleaning preparing for the new season which eliminates any carry-over. As the season progresses, there is an increased chance that someone will bring bedbugs in. 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 which will kill them.
Packing & Gear
Everyone I have talked with that wasn’t an experienced light-weight traveler or ultralight backpacker has said they brought too much stuff. They often either gave away the unnecessary items or shipped them home. I encourage everyone to treat this like a pilgrimage and leave behind excess baggage and live in the moment. I have some general notes about packing light which are my generic notes encouraging onebag travel. It’s better to bring twice the money you think you need, and half the stuff. You can always pick what you need up locally, or order things via Amazon to be delivered at a future stop. I thought my packing list was fairly minimalist, and then I saw Tim Evans carried everything he needed in a 7L fanny pack.
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 day 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 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.
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. I have written up a brief comparison of boots vs trail runners to help people consider the trade-offs between these two options. In hot weather some people opt for sandals. 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. Only have around 200 miles on them so far, but Xoskin socks seem really great!
After shoes, 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 actually transfers 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 approach would be to bring a silk or nylon sleep sack which is paired with a light weight quilt. 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 50F), they there are a number of light weight down or synthetic outdoor blanket / quilts. The classic poncho liner, aka woobie might even work. 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.
You will 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 Thrunite TH20 which is about the same cost as what you would find at your local store but significantly higher quality. 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.
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 1-2L of water will be plenty, though 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. 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.
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 (updated 2022, kindle download currently unavailable). 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 some people, especially people wanting a purely practical guidebook for a long hike.
- Village to Village Guides by Anna Dintaman & David Landis is a practical guide (last updated in 2018?), 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).
- Camino Ninja is a free app that seems well regarded. Alas, the author died in 2022… so I don’t know if it will continue to be updated.
- FarOut (aka GutHook) is a hiking oriented mapping guide which focuses on the trail, water sources, etc rather than the towns.
- TrekRight Camino Guide is a 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.
- Iberia by James Michener isn’t about the Way, but provides a good amount of background about this region of Spain.
- 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.
- onestepthenanother.com: Recommendations for pilgrims on several trails
- backpackinglight camino thread
- my camino gear list (tentative)
- 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
Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.Sir Walter Raleigh, The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage (1604)