In the summer of 2022, I walked the Camino Frances from Villafranca Montes de Oca to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain - around 550km. I am not a Christian, yet for me, it was far more than just a long-distance hike.
Some of these tips relate to the practicalities of walking, some to the pilgrimage element. What would you add to the list?
Tip #1 - Train
If you're starting at St Jean Pied de Port, the first two days of walking are punishing as the route climbs up and over the Pyrenees. Was the person who decided to start the Frances route there some sort of masochist? Or perhaps they thought that pilgrims would leave their worries from home behind if their first two days of walking were almost entirely uphill.
Wherever you start, if you train before you go, those first couple of days will be less painful.
Here's a video of one of my training days. I had the good fortune to meet up with the fabulous Sarah Williams, who was filming for her YouTube channel. I was exhausted after walking for 13 miles. She and her friend Alex walked almost twice as far!
Tip #2 - Look after your feet
A good proportion of pilgrims have trouble with their feet at some point, usually because of blisters. There's no need to wear walking boots - trail shoes will be fine on this route, but don't assume that they will be comfortable. When you're training, wear the combination of shoes and socks that you are planning to wear on the walk to check that both are comfortable together.
Every time you stop for a break, take your shoes and socks off to air your feet.
Take a blister management kit with you - blister plasters, tape, and something I swear by - hiker's wool.
Tip # 3 - Wear socks with terry loops on the soles, especially if it's hot
I know this is anti-intuitive, but give it a go. It was a tip given to me by an ultra-runner after I suffered from terrible blisters when walking through a heatwave in thin socks.
Walking the Camino, the heat was worse, I wore thicker socks with terry loops on the soles and I had no blisters the whole way.
My favourite socks at the moment are Darn Tough. They fit my feet well and are guaranteed for life. Yes, life! After walking the Camino plus many more miles in two pairs of these socks, they are showing little sign of wear.
Tip # 4 - Drink plenty of water before you set off in the morning and as you walk
This is a tip I got from Martyn Howe, in his book 'Tales from the Big Trails'. He drinks a litre of water every morning before starting to walk. I'm not sure I could manage that much - I chose to drink half a litre and it worked for me. Drinking before you set off means that you are not starting the day dehydrated.
There are drinking fountains in every village on the Camino Frances, but sometimes those villages are a long way apart. Check distances before you set off in the morning and make sure that you have enough with you. The last thing you want is to be walking across the Meseta in blinding heat with little shade and not enough water.
If you are reluctant to drink before you set off because you might need to wild pee, read on!
Tip # 5 - Take a pee cloth with you
I swear by my Kula cloth. I no longer worry about digging out tissue paper or trying to bury it when I've finished peeing. The cloth hangs from my rucksack. That means it's always available when I need it and it airs as I walk. When I can, I rinse it with a bit of soapy water to stop any build-up of nasties.
Please don't be one of those people who leave toilet paper alongside the path.
Which brings me on to less savoury toileting requirements...
Tip # 6 - Take some toilet paper and dog poo bags with you, just in case you need to do more than a wee
They weigh hardly anything. I didn't need to use mine but would have been mortified if I had to leave anything like that behind.
Tip # 7 - Take a separate bag for valuables so you can keep them on you at all times
This includes any medication you rely on.
Note: It can be difficult to keep your valuables dry in the shower. If you use a waterproof/dry bag, the problem is resolved. I chose to use a bum bag (fanny pack for readers in the US) that fitted my camera, phone, passport and bank cards in it. It wasn't waterproof, so sometimes it was a bit of a juggling act keeping everything dry.
Tip # 8 - Don't keep all your valuables together
I know this seems to contradict the last tip, but I'm sure you can find a way! If your passport, bank cards and cash are all together, what is going to happen if they are lost or stolen? I kept some of my money and cards in zipped pockets in my clothing and some in my bum bag. Some people use money belts under their clothing. One of my Camino family kept all his cash and bank cards together. The morning he couldn't find his wallet, his stress levels went through the roof.
Tip # 9 - Take more than one bank card with you and make sure you know how to cancel them
I lost my main debit card one evening when I took cash out of an ATM. I was very pleased that it was easy to cancel on the bank's app on my phone, and that I had another one with me to use instead. I don't suppose it's impossible to have a replacement card delivered to Spain, but it certainly won't be easy or immediate.
Tip # 10 - Remember that your rucksack is valuable too
It contains everything in it that you need for your journey. If you can, don't leave it outside cafes unguarded. Although thefts seem to be rare, the loss of your rucksack would be one seriously major headache.
Tip # 11 - Learn some Spanish before you go
Not everyone speaks English, and neither should they have to. For the first time ever, I learnt enough Spanish to be able to hold basic conversations, and I'm glad I did. I hadn't even arrived at my starting point before I took the wrong train and had to sweet-talk the conductor into
a) not fining me for accidentally sitting in first class
b) not fining me for being on the wrong train and
c) helping me to work out how to reach my intended destination. Thank you, Pimsleur!
Tip # 12 - Consider your diet
As I neared the end of England's 1,000km South West Coast Path, I thought it was sheer exhaustion that was making my heart pound and my lungs gasp for breath. Every few paces uphill, I had to stop to take a breather. It was only a couple of weeks later that I discovered that I was severely anaemic. When you exercise more, your body needs more nutrients including iron, not just more calories. When walking the Camino, I ate well and took a multivitamin and iron tablet in case I didn't get what I needed from my diet.
Tip # 13 - Keep your bag light
There's a reason that I gained the trail name of #SnowLight. I knew the weight of everything new that I bought for the trip. Why was my sheet sleeping bag made from silk, and why was it white? Because it was the lightest option available to me when I bought it. I haven't yet taken to cutting my toothbrush in half to reduce the weight of my pack, but I do believe that a heavier-than-necessary pack impairs enjoyment. One of my Camino family disagreed with me on this point, until he walked for a day with a lighter pack.
If you'd like to know what I took with me, check out my YouTube video - and I'll be posting a blog with my packing list soon - watch this space.
Tip # 14 - Remember this is your Camino.
You are walking for yourself, not anyone else. You don't have to walk long days if you don't want to. You don't have to race. You don't have to carry your full pack - there are transport services you can access from every hostel. You don't have to walk every day. And you don't have to walk it all at once. Of course, you can also do all of those things if you want to. Do what's right for you, and ignore anyone who suggests that you are not doing it 'properly'. This is a pilgrimage, not a penance. Which brings me to my next tip...
Tip # 15 - Consider the Camino as more than just a long-distance walk
You don't have to be a Christian to benefit from walking the Camino. Walking for days or weeks on end gives you plenty of time for reflection. Take cues from signs on the way, consider the questions that might be posed in your guidebook (we used Brierley's excellent guidebook, which includes daily reflections), think about what burden you want to leave behind at the Cruz de Ferro, or consider whatever is important to you. Leave the frustrations and busyness of home behind as much as you can so that you can spend time and energy considering these important things.
Tip # 16 - Talk to fellow pilgrims
Make friends and open your heart to possibility. I thought I would be walking in a group of three. When I joined my friends, we were a group of five. By the time we reached Santiago, we were a group of six walking and staying together. We met up with other friends we made along the way in the evenings, and there were others who we just bumped into from time to time. We all helped each other practically and spiritually.
Tip # 17 - Take time to reflect and adjust on your return
If the Camino has been a spiritual journey for you rather than just a long-distance walk, it will be difficult to slot straight back into your 'normal' life when you arrive home. Make sure that you carve out some time for further reflection. It can be hard on those people close to you when you return - they will have missed you and want to spend time with you. They might find it difficult to accept the changes you want to make to your life. Be gentle with each other and give yourselves time to adjust.
Please tell me what else you'd like to know about walking the Camino in the comments below. I will do my very best to answer all your questions.
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