I walked the Camino de Santiago in May and June of 2016. I did minimal planning before arriving in Spain and learned a few things along the way. What follows are some words of advice based on my experience. Some of these tips are practical while some are more philosophical.
- Wear trail running shoes or light-weight hiking shoes
This type of footwear is more comfortable than a pair of heavy hiking boots. I walked the Camino Frances, where the technical sections are short and the majority occur early in the journey. The people I saw experiencing problems with their feet had typically been wearing boots. I suggest wearing hiking boots only if you have a history of ankle injuries and are concerned about the possibility of reinjurying them. If you decide to wear boots, you should break them in before starting the Camino.
Carry less to enjoy more
You will enjoy the experience much more if you are not lugging around a heavy pack. I carried a 47 liter pack that was about two-thirds full. A pack of around 30 liters should be enough to carry what you need. A bigger pack cries out to be filled, and the extra items will wear you down as you carry them across the breadth of Spain. Plus, part of the reason to walk the Camino is to experience living with less. If you are physically unable to carry even a small pack, don’t let that stop you from walking the Camino. There are several services that deliver bags between albergues (pilgrim hostels) for a low cost. Check out JacoTrans or Caminofacil if you are interested in this option.
Be aware that May is now a busy time on the Camino Frances.
My initial research indicated that the busiest months to walk the Camino Frances are June through August. This is no longer the case. The locals I talked to said that May was now busier than the summer months. 250 pilgrims began their journey the day I walked out of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port. If you like being around people, great, but if you want a quieter experience, consider a different month to walk the Camino Frances. Another option is to walk one of the less frequented routes of the Camino de Santiago.
Consider carefully whether to book lodging ahead of time.
Pro: You can enjoy your day not worrying about where you will sleep that night. On more than one occasion, I saw pilgrims arriving in a town only to find there were no beds available. It is possible to book many albergues the day before your arrival or in the morning the day of.
Con: You miss out on the spontaneity of making decisions about how far to go and where to stay on the spur of the moment.
I booked ahead about half of the nights I was on the Camino. On a different route or at another time of year, I probably would not have booked ahead (see tip 3). If I do another camino, I will do less planning ahead. Having my lodging predetermined for the evening did not allow me to be fully with the experience by letting it take me where it would for the day. But, it was nice to have confirmed bookings in the major cities so I knew I would be staying in a convenient part of town. Reservations were also helpful for isolated villages with limited beds. Services I used to make bookings included bookings.com and pilgrimsonly.com.
Plan ahead for meals, especially on weekends
On a typical day, I would finish walking, famished, around 3 pm: when everything in Spain is closed. In the smaller villages on Sundays, it can be difficult to find anything open anytime of the day. Plan ahead and always have snacks on hand for those times when you want a bite to eat and everyone in the entire country is taking a nap.
Do even more meal planning if you are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc.
If you like meat, you are going to love Spain. If that’s not your thing, food can be a challenge. Plant-based eating is gaining in popularity and options became more plentiful closer to Santiago. Several albergues cater to vegetarians. Major towns and cities had health food stores where I would stock up. I used Happy Cow to find places and I recently found this list of vegan and vegetarian options on the Camino Frances. Spain is also a wonderful place if you like bread. Many days there would be a fresh baguette sticking out of the top of my pack. If gluten is a problem for you, major towns and cities have health food stores where you may find some gluten-free products.
Give yourself time to enjoy the journey
My camino took 38 days total. I hiked from Saint Jean to Santiago in 34 days taking one full day off. After spending two nights in Santiago, I walked the Camino Finisterre to the Atlantic Ocean. I did what I wanted to do in the time I had allowed myself, but it was a push the last week to make it. A few off days to enjoy the areas I passed through would have been nice.
You don’t need to be able to speak Spanish, but try and learn some anyway.
The Camino Frances receives thousands of visitors from around the world every year. Pilgrim specific signs and menus are often written in 3 to 4 languages. The locals you will interact with in restaurants and stores deal with people who do not speak their language on a consistent basis. However, it will enhance you experience if you make the effort to talk with locals and other pilgrims in their native language.
Expect the unexpected
You might meet the Australian who gives out hugs in a remote village in Galicia. You could find the fountain of wine. At the top of a mountain, an unmanned kiosk stocked with healthy foods will be waiting for you. Expect pains in parts of your body that you never knew existed. Expect that a church in the smallest of villages might leave you in more awe than the famous cathedrals of Burgos or León. Expect to see the best in people and to be humbled by the kindness of others.
Enjoy each step of the journey
No matter how much your feet hurt, or how much you miss your friends back home, remember, this is your camino and it will be only a memory much too soon.
For more pictures of my journey, please visit me on Instagram.