Firstly, I’m no expert on the Camino; I’m not sure what qualifies you to be one if there is such a thing, but I’ve walked to Compostela three times, following the Camino Francés (the most popular of the routes), the Camino del Norte–Primitivo and the Camino Inglés, between 2016 and 2019. Whenever I’ve been asked for advice for doing the Camino, I’ve generally restricted it to two pieces. Firstly, walk rather than cycle. Cyclists tend to be focused on getting from A to B and not see as much of what’s around them. They also don’t meet people as much, as the longest they will spend with anyone outside their immediate group is usually an evening. One of the great attractions of the Camino is getting to know all manner of people over a period of time; I feel that cyclists miss out on that invaluable experience. Secondly, I always say make your own Camino; it’s unique to you, just as it is to every peregrino (‘pilgrim’). Stop if you want to. Forget about walking that extra ten kilometres you planned to do today if you find that you like the village you’re in now. Walk an extra five to accompany someone you’re chatting to if they’re planning to stop in the next one. Walk it all in one go or do it in sections over a decade. Whatever you do, do it your way.
That said, I’ve learned a few things over the years and what I offer here comes mainly from my own experiences. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide, nor do I intend to endorse or denigrate any product or service, commercial or otherwise. These are simply reflections on areas that I think are important, some of which might a give you food for thought. Any suggestions for additions to this list are appreciated.
- Foot care
- Sleeping soundly
- Walking poles
- Getting a credencial – your Camino ‘passport’
- Choosing a Camino route
- Guidebooks and Apps
- Respect and consideration
I was once told that the three things you should never skimp on are the things that keep you off the ground: the tyres of your car, the mattress you sleep on, and your footwear. It’s the latter that concern us here, and in deciding what footwear to bring, you need to take your potential circumstances into consideration. For example, if you plan to walk for a week on the centre of the Camino Francés (e.g. somewhere between Burgos and Léon) in the middle of August, the chances are you won’t really need a pair of boots. You’re unlikely to get rained on, and the terrain is fairly flat, so something waterproof and with high ankle support isn’t your biggest priority; a comfortable pair of trail shoes or trainers is all you would really need. However, if you were in Asturias on the Camino Primitivo, a pair of waterproof boots is a major advantage, regardless of the time of year.
Boots or shoes?
Whether you choose boots, trail shoes or trainers, remember that your feet will swell over the course of the day, so what feels like a snug fit when trying it on in a shop might actually be rather uncomfortable at the end of the day’s walking. My advice is to do your shoe shopping in the afternoon, after your feet have naturally swollen a bit from the day, and wear socks of the thickness that you plan to wear on the Camino. Choose a size that gives you a slight bit more room than you normally would want, but not too much (you don’t want to be bouncing around inside them). When mountaineering across the alps between Mt Blanc and Matterhorn last year (2019) I wore silicon tubes over each toe to protect them from blisters and consequently I needed a larger-than-normal boot. I normally take a size 42 shoe, so I went for a 43.5 boot, and it was just right. In favour of choosing boots over shoes, they give you the security of knowing that should the weather turn you won’t have instantly-soaked footwear (and wet footwear easily leads to blistering), and at least you have them should you want to do some hillwalking etc. in more temperate climates away from the Camino. For me, light waterproof boots are a must.
In terms of price, that’s very much up to you. I like to think of boots in terms of euro/km. I invested in a reasonably expensive pair of waterproof leather boots in 2016 (that were resoled once) and which are now at the end of their hiking life, but they’ve done me three Caminos (Francés, Norte/Primitivo and Inglés) and quite a few other hikes in that time, and I consider them a good investment given the thousands of kms they’ve done. That said, if you consider the Camino a once-off and are not looking toward a life of hiking afterwards, a cheaper pair might suffice, but try not to compromise on comfort for the sake of price.
It’s all very well having nice boots but if you’re wearing a pair of nasty socks inside them you might as well have wrapped yourself in sandpaper. Outdoors shops sell a whole variety of sock types nowadays promising all sorts of wonders. Some seem like gimmicks, some might work, and some it depends on the person. For example, many swear by ‘guaranteed blister-free 1000-mile socks’; I tried them and my feet were shredded within two days. Personally, I try to stick to socks made from merino wool; a little bit more expensive but find me someone with severely blistered feet who wouldn’t hand over the cash difference on the spot for the sake of relief. One problem with socks is that if you’re bandaging toes, using Compeed (a kind of rubber sticking plaster) etc., it often leaves glue gunk stuck to the insides of the sock. Best to try to remove this as soon as possible to prevent it hardening on and creating an uneven surface that can actually cause future blisters. I take three pairs of socks, following the ‘wear one, one in the wash, one spare’ rule.
Sandals and flipflops/thongs
I carry a pair of walking sandals with me, so I have something to wear in the evening that will allow my feet air after a long day, and still allow me to wander around a bit if necessary. The flipflops I keep for hygiene purposes i.e. when going to the showers. It might seem a bit excessive to have both and you could probably get away with one or the other. Just remember when wearing sandals or flipflops/thongs that your skin can still burn in the long evenings, leading to potentially painful walking the next day and beyond. [return to Contents]
2. Foot care
I heard one woman say that her biggest regret on the Camino was getting a pedicure beforehand — it had removed all the hard skin leaving her feet vulnerable to blistering! Blisters are caused by a combination of friction and moisture. Your skin rubs against a surface (namely your sock) which in turn rubs against your footwear. In response, your skin creates a moisture bubble on its surface to protect it. If you do get blisters you will hear every sort of advice regarding caring from them, methods of draining etc. I’m not in a position to offer medical advice, but my own practice is never to puncture or burst a blister, as breaking the skin seems to me to be an invite to infection which can potentially be much more painful and troublesome.
Preparation is important and by the end of the Camino Francés I was spending a good 30 minutes a morning and more preparing my feet for the day ahead, but my situation was more extreme than most and a bit of a running joke among some. I would recommend doing your preparation in the mornings rather than the night before, as your feet will be drier in the mornings. I use a combination of micropore tape and Compeed in advance to cover areas I know from experience are prone to blistering. Again, I don’t skimp on it; I’ve found that generic/own-brand versions of Compeed tend to disintegrate within a day, but the original brand does generally hold. Recently I started using silicone tubes (intended for corns) cut to size as sheaths for individual toes, and these have proved a godsend. Their only downsides, as far as I can see, is that every now and then one slips off and I have to take off my boot and reattach it, and of course I have to wear a slightly larger boot to accommodate the extra space they fill out; the relief they’ve given me vastly outweighs these disadvantages. Pharmacies abound in Spain, so getting more supplies of Compeed etc. is rarely a problem, but it’s always good to keep some on you in case you’re stuck between villages/towns or someone else needs some. [return to Contents]
3. Sleeping soundly
Most Camino accommodation is dormitory style, in hostels known as albergues. These come in all sorts, from purpose-built hostels, to a spare set of rooms in someone’s house, to school gyms with mattresses laid out during the school holidays. Most have bunkbeds with basic mattress and pillow of artificial rubber and disposable paper covers. Some people find it difficult to sleep in new environments and have anxieties about sharing dorm rooms with strangers. These concerns are natural but not insurmountable, and some basic pieces of equipment can help.
Firstly, you may wish to invest in ear plugs and an eye mask. A mask is really only necessary if you’re particularly sensitive to light, but ear plugs are pretty vital as you’ll probably have at least one snorer in your room. Fortunately, you can usually get a packet of three pairs for only a couple of euros in most chemists or in airports if you forget them. Other sleeping equipment such as sleeping bags or sleeping bag liners really depend on when and where you are travelling. I take a cotton sleeping bag liner with me rather than a sleeping bag, as it’s lighter and much less bulky. In summer months it’s usually all I’ve needed; the one or two times I’ve felt chilly a quick dip into my rucksack for a t-shirt usually sufficed. If I were walking in winter, it would be a different story. Also, a small light is highly advisable; I use a hiking head torch that has white- and red-light settings. Using the red light indoors after lights out is a good way not to disturb your fellow peregrinos — and there’s nothing like disturbing someone’s sleep after a long day’s walk to make you unpopular!
Most albergues have sleeping times of approximately 10pm to 6am. They will often close the doors and turn out the lights at a specified time, to ensure that everyone can get a decent night’s sleep and get up for a good start to the next day’s walking. Lastly, don’t be afraid to book into a pension (B&B) with a private room every now and again if you’ve had a run of nights with poor and/or limited sleep. [return to Contents]
The problem with a backpack is the natural urge to fill it. Backpacks are measured by litre capacity; buy a 40L backpack and you’ll fill it, buy a 60L backpack and you’ll fill it… Your backpack is going to be one of your closest companions, clinging to you for at least six hours a day, so choosing a suitable one is worth spending a little time on.
The single most important thing your backpack should have is an adequate padded waist strap. In some respects, ‘backpack’ is a bit of a misnomer because most of the weight will be taken by your hips, thanks to the waist strap. The shoulder and chest straps are really just there to stop it from bouncing around. A padded waste strap will not only enable you to take the weight, but do so with relative comfort. The second most important thing is to get a backpack with a ventilation system. I have a North Face rucksack that has an arched cage/frame built in, which prevents the pack from touching my back and allows air to circulate. Some backpacks have foam ridges for this purpose, but honestly, I don’t think they’re much use as there’s still a considerable body of material in contact with you. The only other necessity is a rain cover. Everything else is just a bonus (e.g. webbing at the front, range of internal and external pockets etc.).
Remember, while packing before you leave home, leave some space in your rucksack — you’ll need some on the Camino when you buy bottles of water, food etc. Also be sure to weigh it before you go. If you think it’s heavy now, or even just ok, remember that it’ll be at least two kilogrammes heaver on the Camino when you put a litre of water and some food into it. And of course, it’ll feel even heavier by the end of the day. Fortunately, Spain has an excellent postal service, so it’s quite easy to post things back home, or even onward where you can collect them at subsequent post offices. If carrying everything in a pack isn’t to your liking, there are also cheap luggage transfer services that run between Camino towns and villages and you can send a large bag with them and simply walk with a smaller day pack. Ask at your albergue about carrier services. [return to Contents]
5. Walking poles
Walking poles, trekking poles, or sticks (Spanish bastones) are an important piece of kit and you shouldn’t be without them. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who carry them hanging from their backpacks but don’t use them, as if they were somehow going to get worn out or stop working from overuse! Like the waist strap of your rucksack, the primary function of walking poles is to take some of the weight and for anyone with joint pain (e.g. knees) they are a particular bonus (and of course they may help you prevent joint pain when walking for extended periods). Whether, uphill, downhill or on the flat they are useful. As you climb you use your upper body strength to propel yourself upwards through them; as you go downhill, they enable you to remain balanced.
Most modern walking poles are telescopic, and I usually adjust mine depending on the steepness of the incline — a little longer for going downhill and a little shorter for climbs. You’ll find some useful tips on the website of Mountaineering Ireland for using poles. [return to Contents]
6. Getting a credencial – your Camino ‘passport’
The credencial is a small document that every peregrino needs in order to avail of the network of albergues (hostels) on the Camino and to obtain the compostela (certificate of completion) upon reaching Santiago de Compostela. At each albergue you will be asked for it (and often some form of ID too), where it will be stamped with the albergue’s unique stamp (sello) and dated. Tourist offices, churches, bars, cafes etc. will often have their own stamp too and will stamp your credencial as a memento of your passing through.
Not only does the credencial enable you to access the albergues along the way (in France and Portugal too), but it’s also necessary at the end. If you go to the pilgrim office in Santiago de Compostela and ask for your compostela they will request to see your credencial to verify that you have actually travelled by foot/bike/donkey on the Camino. In order to qualify for the compostela, you must have walked at least the last 100km or cycled the last 200km, and it is recommended you get at least two stamps a day.
The credencial generally comes in two forms: a folding sheet and booklet. Some people like the sheet format, as it allows them to see all their stamps at a glance, and some even frame it at the end. Personally, I prefer the book format because I like to use the facing pages as a diary. You can get a credencial (sheet or book format) from the Camino Society Ireland office in James’s St, Dublin for €10. Your first stamp will be St. James’ Gate, which I’ve found is a good starting point for conversations, owing to a certain other Irish product from that part of Dublin… [return to Contents]
7. Choosing a Camino route
When most people think of ‘doing the Camino’ they are actually thinking of the Camino Francés (‘French Way’), which was the route traditionally taken by pilgrims coming overland from France, from the twelfth century onwards. It runs from the Pyrenees, through the cities of Pamplona, Burgos and Léon, to Santiago de Compostela, and is by far the most popular route today. There are, however, other routes. Examples include, the Camino del Norte, which mainly runs along the northern coast of Spain, Camino Primitivo (‘Original Way’ (Primitive meaning ‘first’, rather than ‘basic’)), beginning at Oviedo, Camino Inglés (‘English Way’) which was the route favoured by English and Irish peregrinos in the later middle ages, and the Camino Portugués (‘Portuguese Way’).
It’s worth taking a little time to think which you would rather try, or perhaps which to try first! Each has its pluses and minuses, while some features might be either depending on your point of view. For example, the Camino Francés is certainly the busiest, which might not suit people looking for some solitude. But it does have a better infrastructure (e.g. more and more frequent albergues) and more opportunities to meet a wide variety of people. In contrast the Camino del Norte is less busy and has lovely coastal walks and beautiful green countryside, but has less albergues, meaning that you have to plan your day’s walking more carefully than you would on the Camino Francés, in order to ensure you have a bed for the night. [back to Contents]
8. Guidebooks and Apps
The Camino Francés is so well way-marked (with yellow arrows and scallop-shell symbols) that you could actually follow it without any additional guide. However, guidebooks and apps are useful for a number of reasons, including helping you locate accommodation and consider what there is to see along the way. My first guidebook was John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago (updated almost yearly) and I found it extremely useful for all of the above. In addition, the bespoke maps are excellently designed for walkers and the clear directions made it easy to follow. For the first few days I followed it rigidly until I grew to trust the arrows (or rather grew to trust myself) and after that I increasingly used it to only to tell me a little bit more about the landscape and surroundings and to plan what I wanted to see over the course of a day. On the Camino del Norte and Primitivo, I had The Northern Caminos published by Cicerone, and I have to say that I was not overly impressed with it, and given the choice I would choose one of Brierley’s books any day. Camino Ninja is a free app that seems to be getting a good reputation too. A range of guides can be purchased from the Camino Society Ireland shop and they have also produced their own free-to-download Introduction Booklet.
My experience of using apps is limited, but they have the obvious advantage of not weighing anything so using a couple at a time is as easy as having one, they are potentially updated much quicker than a guide book, and you can download one any time and in any place. Some are free to download, and some cost a few euros. The Wise Pilgrim app seems to have a reasonable following and previously when walking with my friend Zoe she used the Wise Pilgrim app and I used Brierley’s books, and combined we had everything we needed. Books and apps are very useful but try not to be a slave to their recommendations; they offer suggestions, but it is still your Camino. [back to Contents]
9. Respect and Consideration
They say, turistas manden; peregrinos agradecen: ‘tourists demand, pilgrims ask’, a simple but effective epitome of the peregrino mentality.
Imagine there was a pathway outside your house. Would you discard plastic bottles on it? Would you drop used tissues on it? Would you drop your trousers and take a shit on it, not even bothering to move a metre off the path into the undergrowth? Yes, it does occasionally happen! When walking through the countryside follow the simple formula of take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footsteps.
In albergues (hostels) the etiquette is usually fairly simple, as are many of the most important things in life. Taking off your boots at the entrance and not putting your rucksack on the beds are universals. Respecting the quite of others is also important, not just at night but remember during the afternoon some people might be having a siesta in the dorms. Some albergues may have a list of house rules posted; take a little time to read them. Albergues are often run by volunteers who may be giving up their annual vacation to help you on yours, so remember… turistas manden; peregrinos agradecen. Simple choices you make are important too. For example, if you are left to choose your own bunk, try to take the top bunk rather than the bottom one, as someone with mobility problems or other issues might not be able to climb a bunk ladder. Pack your bag the night before, even if only roughly, so that you can take it away from the sleeping area quickly and quietly in the morning without disturbing those still asleep.
Don’t worry you’ll get the hang of it. Buen Camino! [return to Contents]