Walking The Camino De Santiago -> Paul’s Top 10 Tips
Walking Camino de Santiago was something Paul and his dad dreamt about for more than a year before it became a reality.
As all dreamers do they planned a ton before they went reading blog posts, collecting guide books and watching endless YouTube videos. It was all invaluable stuff which really helped them on the trail, but as all journeys go they also learned a ton more while they were actually doing it.
I wrote about some of the basics of their experience in my last post (so cool to see so many of you are thinking about doing the Camino too!), but I also promised you all a more detailed in-depth dive and today’s 3,600 word (!!) post is the result. It covers the all the top tips from their trip, as well as a few things they really wished they’d known before they started. It’s not comprehensive, but hopefully it’ll give those of you who are interested some practical & useful tips should you decide to do the walk one day yourselves.
A small contribution so our experiences can fuel your dreams…or at least that’s the idea 🙂 Enjoy!
1/ Avoid Summer. Consider Walking In Spring or Fall Instead
Interesting fact. According to the Pilgrims Office In Santiago, most folks actually complete the Camino in the summer months and I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it’s because that lines up best with vacation time (?), but IMO it’s not the most ideal time to go.
Not only is that the most crowded time on the trail (soooo many people!), but it’s also the harshest weather-wise. In the height of summer Northern Spain easily hovers around 30°C (~86°F) and can ramp up to 40°C (~104°F) during hot streaks, which seem to happen more and more often these days (this year was particularly bad!). When Paul and his dad walked the Camino they actually met several folk who had started walking the summer before, but were forced to drop out due to the heat. They subsequently come back in Spring to walk it under more reasonable temps, and were MUCH more comfortable.
In our opinion either Spring or Fall is a far better time to go. Not only are there far fewer people on the trail, but temps are much more reasonable. The only thing you may encounter more of is rain, although how much you get can vary quite a bit from year to year. Typically it’s not too bad and a worthy gamble for the advantage of much better overall temps.
Paul and his dad decided on a Spring hike, leaving mid-April and finishing end of May, and honestly that was just about perfect. Some mornings were cold, especially in then beginning (it even got below freezing a few days), but daytime temps were lovely, and they only encountered a few days of rain. A pretty ideal journey.
2/ Pack LIGHT (You Only Need ~10 lbs Of Stuff!!!)
Anyone who has ever backpacked will attest to the fact that every ounce of weight counts. When you’re walking 6-7 hours a day, everyday for weeks on end, the weight of your pack makes ALL the difference to how comfortable you feel!!
And the truth is, you really don’t need much.
The Camino De Santiago is not a remote back-country trail. You’ll be walking through real towns with real shops (pharmacies, doctors, restaurants, grocery stores etc.) and you’ll be staying at either albergues, hostels or hotels every night, so you don’t need to carry food or a tent.
All you really need are the following 11 basics:
- Clothing: stick to quick-drying fabrics and bring underwear, long underwear, T-shirts/shorts/pants, extra socks, a good lightweight jacket & rain gear*
- Hat & sunglasses, plus a neck gaitor/buff (super versatile & useful)
- Toiletries: bring the essentials, plus some basic foot & medical care stuff.*
- Quick-drying towel (see #3 below)
- Pair of sandals for the evenings (see #4 below)
- A sleeping bag liner for the albergue beds. The Friendly Swede makes a nice one.
- Earplugs are essential. We LOVE the Mack’s moldable silicone ones.
- Camp suds for washing clothes & clothes pegs for drying them.
- Your phone (which can even double as a camera if you’re OK with the quality of it) plus a LONG (get ~10 foot) charging cable & a multi-port USB charger w/ EU plug adapter (you’ll want to share those precious albergue plug connections with other pilgrims!).
- Day Stuff-Sack: The Osprey daytime stuff pack is a super-light (0.6 oz), super-compact (packs down to almost nothing!) day pack that ended up being an essential piece of kit for Paul and his dad on the trail. It was perfect for walking around town at night/on rest days, and replaced their main backpacks on days when they decided to ship those ahead with a service.
- Hiking poles: they’re worth it.
Paul packed everything he needed for the Camino into a small Osprey Talon 22 Liter Pack whereas Paul’s dad went for the larger Osprey Stratos 36, plus they both brought along lightweight high-visibility rain covers. Paul’s pack weighed just over 10 lbs (without water) when fully packed. Nice, light and compact!!
*Note/ If you need specialized medical supplies or replacement gear you can always buy that along the way. Plenty to places to shop along the Camino.
3/ Consider Bringing a Proper Towel (or One Other Luxury Item)
Even when you’re backpacking, it’s nice to carry a bit of luxury with you.
Now this is obviously a bit of a personal thing but for Paul and his dad, the one item that they skimped on and really regretted was their towels. They both brought one of those mini-sized microfiber towels and although it was really easy to pack, they both absolutely hated it. Paul likened the towel to a mop that basically just moved water around on his body, but never actually dried him. He lived for the few nights he spent in hotels with a real towel. Oh, the sheer unbridled joy!!
So when he goes back on the trail this is the ONE gear change he’s absolutely going to make. He’s going to bring a proper towel! It’ll either be a small cotton towel (cotton for it’s superior drying qualities, but small enough so that it dries fairly fast and isn’t too heavy to carry around), or a FULL-sized microfiber towel (super light, but large enough to actually DRY him & wrap around his body).
We carry the Mountain Hardware Large Travel Towels in the motorhome, and IMO they are wonderful. Large, comfortable to use, and quick-drying so we never have any “musty” smell in the rig.
4/ Wear Light Shoes & Quality Socks (And Air Out Your Feet Often)
Your most valuable body-part on the Camino will be your feet. Keep them happy and you will be happy. Allow them to deteriorate and you will be miserable. Sounds simple right?
But keeping feet happy when you’re walking long distances is a tricky business….
When Paul and I were hard-core backpackers (around 25 years ago), we always walked in heavy hiking boots. All the backpacker magazines promoted them and it just seemed like the thing to do. You need the support right? But the problem is that we kept getting injured! I twisted my ankle all the time even in ultra-high/stiff boots and we both got terrible blisters which never seem to improve even when we had “broken in” our shoes over many, many miles. We tried many different pairs of boots, expensive ones with custom inserts and whatnot, but we always had the same sad results. It was sooo darn frustrating!
One year we finally had enough and decided to switch it up completely. We ditched our heavy boots for light trail-runners, combining them with quality wool socks and much lighter backpacks. Quite magically (or so it seemed) that solved ALL our problems!!! I stopped twisting my ankle and neither of us got blisters anymore. It was a total revelation!
So when it came to walking the Camino Paul had no hesitation. He wore a pair of lightweight Agility Synthesis Flex Sneakers, together with merino wool Danish Endurance Socks (he brought 3 pairs total with him) that he washed religiously at each stop. In addition he made sure to take off his shoes & socks every time he stopped for coffee, rest or food (airing out and drying your shoes/sock/feet at regular intervals throughout the day is KEY to blister prevention) and he switched to light sandals** every afternoon once his hiking for the day was done.
Thanks to all that, a light pack (see #2) and preventative use of Compeed (see #5) he never got a single blister walking on the Camino. Not a single one!!!
So our advice to you? Find a pair of trail runners that feel comfortable. Combine them with good quality, medium-thick hiking socks and remove them several times per day while you’re walking. If you have the right shoes & socks they should “break in” within a few days and will feel almost weightless on your feet. Give it a try!!
**Bring Sandals for night-time: Even with the best shoes, you’ll want a pair of sandals for the night-time. This allows your feet to air out even more and gives them a rest in a different type of shoe (different pressure points) between hikes. Paul bought his trusty Keen Clearwater CNX Sandals.
5/ Compeed Is Your Best Friend. Use It, Love It, Cherish It…..
An additional top-tip, one thing you’ll want to buy on the trail and use religiously every single day on your feet is Compeed Blister Care.
This is a product you’ll find everywhere on the Camino (in every pharmacy and every town) and it is magical stuff. WAY better than Moleskin or any other blister product you might ever have used. Trust me on this!
Plus it’s multi-purpose.
- It serves as blister prevention. Basically whenever you feel a “hot spot” on your foot, slap on a Compeed and you’ll be good to go.
- It serves as blister repair. If you’re unlucky enough to develop a blister, slap on a Compeed and then leave it in place (do not remove it!) until the blister heals.
Paul used Compeed purely as prevention on the trail. Paul’s dad on the other hand, got some serious blisters on the hike (he wore heavier shoes, and didn’t air out his feet enough) so he used Compeed as a repair product. It worked awesome for both.
6/ Split Up The First Day’s Hike & Pre-Book Your First Night’s Stay (French Way)
If you’re following the French Way starting in St-Jean-Pied-De-Port, you’ll want to split up the first day’s hike & book the albergue for that first night too. It may be the only pre-booking you do***, but it’s a important one.
Everyone who walks the French Way agrees that the first few days are some of the hardest hiking they do. The trail from St-Jean-Pied-De-Port to Roncesvalles is steep and long, and it’s so much better if you split up that first ~25km leg two shorter hikes. Not only will it make the start of your Camino much easier, but it’ll give you extra time in the mountains which can be gorgeous if the weather is right. The only problems with this is that there are very few albergues and a very limited number beds on this stretch of the trail. So if you want to make this happen to HAVE to book well ahead of time!
Paul booked the albergue in Orisson on the very first day bookings opened up in Spring (three weeks before he was due to start hiking!), and even then his first choice was already booked out by the time he called in the afternoon. Thankfully there was a 2nd albergue with exactly two open bed slots that he managed to nab before it booked out too. A lucky break!
*** Holy Week Is Also Worth Pre-Booking! In April, Holy Week (Easter Week) is celebrated all across Spain. It is one of the biggest religious celebrations of the year and it’s super cool to experience, but it’s also crazy busy! LOTS of folks come to walk the Camino that week, so if you plan to be there during that time it’s really worth booking ahead, especially for the week-end!! Paul and his dad almost got caught out by this. On Easter Sunday they called all the albergues in the next 5 towns on the trail, only to find they were all completely booked out. Luckily they managed to nab a spot at a passing cafe. It was a very short hike that day, but at least had a place to stay.
7/ But Then Stay Flexible In Your Schedule
After your first night on the trail, you can be more flexible in your schedule and that’s what you should do.
You never know how you’re going to feel on the Camino. Some days will be tougher than others. Maybe you’ll get sick or injured and need to rest a while, or maybe you’ll feel good and want to push on. Or you might end up walking much slower than you think, fall behind and need to “catch up” on the trail by taking a train/bus or taxi to skip a few towns along the way (LOTS of folks end up doing this, by the way)****.
Either way it’s best stay flexible and just kinda go with the flow of you’re doing on a day-by-day basis.
When Paul and his dad walked the trail that’s exactly what they did. Paul would typically just book one night ahead and no more. So he’d see how they did on the trail that day, and based on that plan how many km they were going to walk the next day. Then he’d book the next albergue so they had a place ready to stay. That method worked out great, and apart from the one time they got caught out (on Easter Weekend) he had no problems finding spots this way.
****Skipping Ahead is Totally OK: You don’t need to walk the entire Camino to get your Compostela. Many folks chose to skip parts of it (for example the Meseta), or a few towns along the way. Technically you can “complete” the Camino as long as you do the last 100 km (by foot) or 200 km (by bike).
8/ Consider Private Albergues & Rooms
Albergues are a core part of the Camino experience. They’re specifically for pilgrims (you can’t stay there just as a tourist), they’re inexpensive and they’re everywhere. It makes so much sense to use them.
But staying in an albergue doesn’t mean you have to spend every night sleeping with 50 of your best pilgrim friends.
On the Camino you’ll find different types of albergues with different types of rooms. Municipal albergues are the most basic type, typically only offering large dorm-room-type settings with stacks of bunk beds. Private albergues usually offer more choices including smaller dorm-rooms, and semi-private or private rooms (very limited number of beds).
The Municipal albergues are obviously the cheapest but can get really uncomfortable, not just because of the noise levels (obviously good earplugs are a must), but also because if one person is sick, everyone gets sick. The latter is no fun at all and sadly Paul, his dad and Margaret found this out the hard way. They all got the “Camino Flu” not just once but twice on the trail, both times from staying in large communal rooms with someone who was coughing the whole night through. Ugh!
The best way to avoid all of this is to stay in private albergues in semi-private or private rooms. They are a bit pricier and you’ll likely have to book ahead to get them (again, one night ahead of time is usually sufficient), but they are SO much more comfortable and your best bet to stay healthy on the trail.
Paul has already said that if he goes back on the Camino, these are the only types of rooms he’ll use.
9/ Plan For A Break Every Now & Then
Planning rest days into your hike is super important. Not only do you physically need a rest every now and then, but there might be places you want to stop and sightsee along the way, plus it’s good to have this flexibility built into your schedule in case of injury, illness or some other unexpected event.
Unfortunately, this requires some extra planning.
Albergues typically only allow one night stays and require you to be out by ~8 am every morning (the only exception is private rooms, which sometimes allow multi-night stays). So if you want to rest a bit longer somewhere booking a hostel/hotel or renting a flat for a few days is the best way to go. Unfortunately these are often popular (lots of non-pilgrim tourists come to visit the Camino too) so you’ll need a little extra planning to make this happen.
Paul scheduled 7 rest days into his Camino trek (basically one rest day every week, plus a few extra for good measure), and he targeted the larger cities (Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, Santiago De Compostella) to do them in. To plan for this he would book a few hostel/hotel rooms around a week ahead of time on booking.com, making sure to chose super-flexible cancellation terms (cancellation allowed up to the night before) to allow for schedule changes along the way. This worked out great, and everyone was really happy for the luxury of a hotel stay every now and then.
Why not rest MORE? Walking long distances is an odd thing. You might think that the idea of longer rest periods sounds really nice, but it actually makes the walk harder. Resting up for a day or two can be really helpful, but more than that and your body just kinda shuts down and doesn’t want to get going again. It’s the strangest thing! When you start hiking long distances like this, you’ll actually do best if you keep walking on a regular basis, even if it’s less km per day. So definitely plan for rest days, but not too many.
10/ Read Camino Guide-Books & Download Some Apps
Paul’s last top-tip is to make sure you have the right info to help you along on the trek.
The Camino is a pretty well-marked trail, but there are still places where you can get off-track or lost, and when you’ve got ~800 km of hiking to do, that’s not something you really want to to. Plus although there are plenty of places to stay, not all albergues rate the same. Some are much nicer than others, and it’s really useful to have some guides to help with this choice.
Paul and his dad read several good guide books before they went on their trip (A Pilgrims Guide To the Camino De Santiago by John Brierley was particularly helpful), but they didn’t want the extra weight of carrying books on the trail. Plus they really wanted some kind of GPS tracking that they could use on their phones to make sure they stayed on track and didn’t get lost along the way.
Luckily there are several excellent apps which completely cover this including detailed trail info, GPS tracking, albergue ratings, costs and everything else. Paul particularly liked Wisely + ($4.99 on Android & Apple) & Trailsmart ($5.99 for each half-section of the Camino Frances, on Andriod & Apple), both of which he used extensively the entire way.
Lastly there are a few good websites to help you plan your trip:
- Camino Ways: https://caminoways.com/walking-the-camino-all-you-need
- Follow the Camino: https://followthecamino.com/
- Camino Adventures: https://www.caminoadventures.com/camino-frances/
Wait, What About Training??? Don’t I Need To Train?
I didn’t include anything about training for the Camino in our top tips, not because it isn’t important but more because it’s really just kinda common sense.
Folks of all ages, size, weight and all ability levels walk the Camino. You don’t have to be super-fit to do it! But I do think you’ll have a much more pleasant experience (and a greater chance of success) by training a bit beforehand.
Paul and his dad started ~4 months before with shorter daily hikes, increasing their distance and time to longer hikes in the last month. They stopped all training about a week before they went on the trail. The training helped them choose the right footwear & gear (no better way to test everything) and made a huge difference on the trek itself. It was well worth it!
That’s it for our top tips!! Hope you enjoyed it, and if you decide to undertake this trek, may your journey be everything you imagined and more!
Have you walked the Camino De Santiago? Do you have any tips you want to add? If so we’d love to hear them. Please do share below!!