This section, “ Planning Your Trip” and the following one, “What to Expect,” together address issues that need to be considered in planning your trip. The focus of this section is on the decisions to be made and actions to be taken before you depart. “What to Expect” addresses what you may encounter after arrival.
This section is primarily focused on those who travel by foot. However, the Camino is also used by people who travel by bicycle and on horseback.
In planning your trip, most people focus is normally on their main plan, which I will can Plan A. The rest of this discussion will be on Plan A. But, you need to consider two other plans, Plan B, what to do if you have a delay of one or more days because you have tendonitis or some other problem. Plan C, what to do if you have a problem so severe that you cannot complete the trip. If you are traveling with someone else, you also need to consider the possibility that one party will decide to drop out and the other to continue. I have seen all of these happen and thinking about them ahead of time is better than reacting to the situation.
Picking A Route
There are several, equally authentic, routes to Santiago. The principal routes within the Iberian Peninsula are discussed below. There are many others described in “Camino Routes”, which should help you select the one best suited to your situation.
Picking A Starting Point
There are three key considerations in choosing a starting point. They are your physical condition, the time you have available, and the difficulty of getting there.
Your physical condition, including the toughness of your feet, affects the distance you can reasonably expect to go in a day’s travel. Except for people in a very good state of training, a reasonable estimate for walking is about fifteen kilometers (nine miles) a day for the first few days. Eventually one can expect to be able to cover over thirty kilometers a day. In addition, people who are not in good condition should allow a couple of days of modest walking before tackling the most difficult stretches of the Camino. For planning purposes, the average person should think in terms of walking about 20 to 25 kilometers (12 to 15 miles) a day.
Your walking time available, which determines how far you can expect to walk, should incorporate time for problems and rest periods. You need to allow a day or two for the possibility of a problem. It would be very frustrating for someone to have to quit before reaching Santiago because not enough time was allowed to recover from an unforeseen accident that kept them from walking for a couple of days. In addition, your schedule should allow some down time for rest to allow your body to recover—this does not mean inactivity. There are several cities and towns along the Camino that warrant setting aside a day to sightsee and the reduced activity will allow your body to rest and recover.
Consider a woman who plans to fly to Madrid, departing home on a Saturday and needs to be back at work on Monday four weeks later, 30 days total. Her first day will be spent reaching the terminal for the trans-Atlantic leg with an evening departure. The next day will be arrival in Madrid and travel to the point of starting out on the Camino—that is if there were no flight delays or lost luggage to contend with. After arriving in Santiago she should plan to spend the day in seeing Santiago, obtaining the Compostela, and attending the service for the newly arrived pilgrims. Part of the next day will be required to travel to Madrid and the last day will be spent flying to the US. These five days are not available for walking the Camino, leaving 25 days to walk the Camino. Setting aside three days for rest also provides a margin for illness, leaving 22 days for actual walking. Using the planning estimate for distance covered per day, this corresponds to 440 to 550 kilometers. For her Burgos would be a good starting point.
Getting to the Starting Point
Some starting points are more difficult to reach than others. For an American flying into Europe, the easiest cities to reach are: Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon, and Paris. Other cities, such as Toulouse, Bayonne, etc. can be reached by internal flight connections. Once arriving in each city, one has to reach the starting point by train, bus, or taxi. A rental car is another alternative but one way rentals are expensive.
The French Route—Roncesvalles
Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port is a lovely town. To reach it from Paris or Madrid, one needs to take a train to Bayonne, France and then take a local train. Roncesvalles can be reached by taking the train to Pamplona and then a taxi or bus the rest of the way. It is the starting point for many Spaniards. The problem with starting from Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port is that the first stage, going over the mountains to Roncesvalles, is one of the most difficult on the entire French Route.
The French Route—Somport
A train runs to Canfranc-Estación from Madrid where one can take a taxi the ten kilometers to Somport pass. Although maps show a train line crossing the border there, it has been closed for many years and as of the spring of 2001, there are no plans by either country to fund the work needed to reopen the line. Approaching the Somport pass from the French side one can use the French railway system to reach Olorón from Paris or Toulouse, but from there one must either walk or take a bus to an intermediate town from which to start walking. Alternatively, one could pick up this route at any point on the route from Arles. Pau is another possible starting point for the Somport Pass.
The French Route—Puente de la Reina and beyond
Spanish cities easily reached by train from Madrid are Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, León, Astorga and Ponferrada.
The Paris—Madrid train line passes through San Sebastián, and Bilbao. Oviedo and Santander can also be reached by train from Madrid.
Via de la Plata
Seville is the starting point for the Via de la Plata and can be reached easily from Madrid by train, including the high speed AVE, or by air. Other cities on the route easily reached by train are Mérida, Caceres, Plasencia, Salamanca, Zamora, and Benavente.
The current main Portuguese Route starts in Porto, which can be reached by train or a short air shuttle flight from Lisbon (Lisboa), the natural entry point for someone from the United States. Historically the principal route started in Lisbon and passed through Porto. There are several cities and towns along the Lisbon-Porto-Santiago route that can be reached by train from Lisbon, a key one being Coimbra.
When To Go
All traveler’s accounts of the Camino de Santiago mention the weather and it needs serious consideration. The Camino includes several high mountain passes—how high, and how many, depends on the route taken, but one can count on cold wet weather during the winter in any case. Many mountain passes are closed with snow in winter and most refugios are not open. At the other extreme, summer can be very hot and dry and there are many portions of the Camino that will require walking many miles in full sun. Despite this, there are pilgrims who complete the trip during every month of the year.
EL CAMINO SANTIAGO WEATHER Is a good source of links to the climate and weather for various routes on the camino.
The peak periods for Europeans making the pilgrimage coincide with the vacation and school holiday periods. Thus, July and August find the most people on the Camino and the accommodations most difficult to obtain.
Año Jubilar or Jubilee Years are years in which the 25th of July occurs on a Sunday. During such a year, Catholics can receive the jubilee indulgence. For this reason there are many more pilgrims than other years. Many will go for the minimum distance. The last Jubilee years were in 1993, 1999, 2004 and 2010. The next one will be in 2021.
The Trip to the Start
In planning your trip, particularily selecting clothing, take into consideration what you will wear enroute. If you plan to tack on a visit to Paris, Madrid, or some other location, and do not wish to wear the clothes you use on the camino, you will be faced with the problem of storing them. One possibility is to make reservations to stay at an inn or hotel in or around Santiago where you can mail the clothing to pick up on arrival.
The Return Home
Santiago is prepared for one-way travelers at the airport, train and bus stations. Good connections are available to other European cities via all modes of transportation. A few travelers even follow medieval traditions and walk back the way they came.
One cost of walking back is that the people doing so are traveling against the flow and have only brief encounters with those on the way to Santiago. When I encountered a pilgrim on the Camino returning from Santiago, it was only a fleeting look, with no real contact, because we were both intent on our destinations—it was also because of the determined look on their faces. I regret now that I did not stop to chat for a few minutes.
Basic Travel Precautions
There are several basic precautions that all travelers should observe and they are part of ones preparations. I will include them here for reference and to emphasize their importance.
Protect and Backup
People who use computers know the importance of protecting and backing up data. The same needs to be done with several items you will be traveling with. At a minimum you will travel with a passport, airline tickets and money (cash, travelers checks, or credit/debit cards).
Do not expose yourself to unnecessary risk by carrying credit cards you will not need on the trip. For example, your U.S. gas cards cannot be used in Spain.
Make a copy of your passport and keep it separate from your passport. It will make it easier to get a replacement if yours is lost or stolen.
Have a list of all credit/debit cards and the numbers to call to report their loss. Keep this separate from the cards.
Emergency Telephone Number
The most common European emergency number is 112. 112 is valid in Spain and Portugal. A traveller visiting a foreign country with a mobile phone does not have to know the local emergency numbers, however. The mobile phone and the SIM card have a preprogrammed list of emergency numbers. When the user tries to set up a call using an emergency number known by a GSM or 3G phone, the special emergency call setup takes place. The actual number is not even transmitted into the network, but the network redirects the emergency call to the local emergency desk. Most GSM mobile phones can dial emergency calls even when the phone keyboard is locked, the phone is without a SIM card, or an emergency number is entered instead of the PIN.
Emergency Contact information
You should have a pocket-sized card that has the names, relationship, and phone numbers of those persons who should be contacted in the event of an emergency when you are unable to provide that information. Have one in your wallet and another in your backpack. Make sure one of the contacts has a medical power of attorney to act in your behalf.
Carry a copy of your prescriptions. It will facilitate replacement, and, if necessary, will help you explain to a doctor what medication you are taking.
For minor medical problems, health care in Europe is not a problem. However, local hospitals are not accustomed to dealing with American insurance companies. Travelers who need to be hospitalized may be asked to put up a sizable cash deposit. This is especially important for older travelers covered by Medicare; Medicare does not pay for any medical care outside the United States.
Another consideration is medical evacuation coverage if the traveler wants to return to the United States for treatment but cannot fly on a commercial carrier (the airlines won't take anyone whose condition is unstable), it can cost as much as $40,000 to be medevac'd. Or, as one recent traveler without medevac coverage found out, his only other option was to have major heart surgery in Spain.
Several companies provide medical insurance for travelers, at a cost of about $6 per day (and up, depending on age); among them are:
Trav-Med-MEDEX Assistance: 800-723 5309
Wallach & Company: 800-237-6615, is a broker for this type of insurance
US Embassy Contact Information
You should know how to contact the US Embassy in the event of a problem. Located in Madrid, the Embassy is open 9 - 6 on weekdays with someone available by phone 24 hours a day for emergencies. The phone number is 91587 2200. There is also a consular agency in A Coruña. Its number (open workdays only) is 98121 3233.
There are two aspects to money for planning a trip—How much should I plan to spend and How do I safely carry that with me?
All expenses will be paid for with euros, symbol €. As of July 2011, the exchange rate is 1 € costs 1.42 US dollars.
Albergue costs range from donations to 5 to 12 euros per person per night. The higher fees were for private albergues but were also for smaller, and thus less crowded, dormitories. Small hotels with private rooms ran from 30 to 60 euros and up.
Pilgrim menus (three courses, bread, water and wine) ranged from 8 to 10 euros. There are often fancier menus available for more. Breakfasts, consisting of coffee and toast or sweet breads ran from 3 to 6 euros. Water, cokes, and beer are the same - running from 1.20 to 1.50 euros. Fresh squeezed orange juice was 1.50 to 2 euros.
Prices for food and albergues increased closer to Santiago, particularly those within the last 100 kilometers.
Estimated Daily Expenses
The daily expenses shown above can be cut somewhat but will easily increase for those who decide to sleep in places other than refugios or eat more lavish meals. A room in a modest pension will range from 30 to 60 € and up; one in a four star hotel could run 300 € or more. Dinner in a modest restaurant can cost 18 to 25 €, while an outstanding meal in a very good restaurant, with wine, could run 100 €.
Carrying and Replenishing Money
As you can see above, most of your expenses are small and will be made under circumstances where you will pay in cash. I have travelled in Europe and elsewhere since 1984 and find that travelers checks are more trouble than they are worth. Automated Teller Machines (ATM) are available in all but the smallest towns. Most are part of the Cirrus and PLUS networks and will accept your U.S. bank card (also known as check card, ATM card or debit card) and provide local currency with a favorable exchange rate. Most machines offer a variety of languages, including English, to use during the transaction. However, recent changes within the banking and credit card industry may result in additional fees. This is dependent on the bank. You should check with the bank issuing your card as to what fees are involved with your use of it overseas.
There is an additional complication that I recently (March 2011) became aware of. For increased security, European Banks now issue debit and credit cards that carry an embedded chip. Businesses have switched over to using machines that use these. As part of their anti-fraud measures, you are seldom asked to give an employee your card for them to swipe. If you are at a restaurant, your waiter will bring a portable card reader to your table with the amount of your bill already entered. You cannot add a tip to the total. Your card is swiped and you will be asked to OK the total and enter a PIN. Note: The PIN for this is not the Cash Back PIN. If you have a normal US credit/debit card without a chip, you do not have a PIN. Since I did not have a PIN, I just hit the OK with no PIN entered. It usually worked. In other places that did not work and I had to switch to cash. Here are links to more information about this issue. Smart Card Chip and PIN JP Morgan & Wells Fargo Announcement
If you have any questions about your ATM card, check with your bank in advance of your departure from home. Ensure you know how to contact them if you encounter problems using your card. Use your card before you leave home and again shortly after arrival, even if you do not need the money, solely to verify that everything works as advertised. In this way, if there is a problem, you can correct it before you find yourself in financial extremis.
For credit cards, it is important to let your bank know that you will be traveling in Spain, especially if you do don't often leave the country. They may assume the card is being used fraudulently and block further use until you call. This can present serious problems and cause unnecessary worry.
If you encounter problems, do not panic. Over the years in traveling overseas, I have occasionally encountered problems with one ATM only to find that another had no problems or the next day the same machine would work fine. In one instance when I could not wait, my problem was resolved when I entered the bank and talked to a teller. He was able to use my card to withdraw funds for me. There was no additional fee involved.
You do not need to exchange money before you leave the US. Currency exchange counters exist at the airport and in city centers. There are ATM machines in the airports, train stations, and all shopping centers and shopping areas. They are safe to use as long as you do not place yourself in a vulnerable position while you are withdrawing money from the ATM. i.e., do not make a withdrawal from a sidewalk machine without having someone else to see who is watching you.
If you use an alphabetic PIN, translate the letters into numbers before you go. ATM key pads will only display numbers, and few European telephone keypads include letters to help you remember how to convert ANNE to 2663. If you are used to remembering the PIN by the physical positions of the number buttons, there is another problem. In some instances, the key pads are rearranged more like those on a computer than a telephone, i.e., the top row is 789 vice 123.
In addition, “plastic money” works very well in Europe. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, and Visa credit cards are widely accepted. As far as hotels, stores and shops and other retail businesses go, you can expect to encounter only a few places that work on a cash only basis. However, hostals, restaurants and small businesses in small towns and villages may be used to working on a cash basis and will not accept credit cards.
Staying in Touch with Home
You can send mail home from any town or village. Stamps can be purchased from the post office, which are called Correos. They use yellow for the public boxes and the signs indicating their location. As in most countries, the postal system has a long tradition of postal savings which has evolved into a bank, and you will often find a bank associated with the post office, indicated by Caja Postal. This can be confusing to the unaware. Often you may find it more convenient to buy stamps from an estanco (tobacconist).
If someone wishes to send mail to you and you do not have a more definitive address, have them mail it to you addressed care of the Lista de Correos and the town. You can then collect the mail at the main post office of that town.
Because of the increased use of cell phones throughout Spain, public telephones are gradually disappearing although they still exist. There are two types of public telephones in Spain. Every bar, cafe, or restaurant will have a green colored public telephone. These phones require .50, 1 and 2 euro coins and do not accept the telephone cards available at kiosks or post offices. The telephones that accept telephone cards are mounted vertically, normally in booths (cabinas). They are operated by Telefonica, the national telephone system. Such phones can be found in busy public places like airports and shopping centers and theaters or telephone booths in plazas. They will have instructions in English on the phone.
Telephone cards (tarjetas de telefono) can be bought at news kiosks and estancos (tobacconists). The telephone cards can be used for international calls or calling within Spain.
You can also use a US calling card to call the United States. Be sure to obtain the overseas access numbers of interest before you leave as you may have difficulty finding them after your arrival. Your family should understand that you may not be able to call them at a specified hour because you may have to use an outside phone and stand in line to use it. Even if you have an internet based calling system such as Skype, it may not always be available where you will want to call from.
Having an 800 number at home will not work as a way to stay in touch. US toll-free numbers are toll free only when called from within the US and Canada. Thus if you call an 800 number from Spain, it will cost just as much as if it were a regular number.
Larger cities and towns will have “cybercafes” or other commercial places where you can pay to access the internet and check your email. Many albergues will have computers with coin-operated access to the internet. Cybercafes can be most easily found by asking a student who will in many cases help lead you to the place, practicing their English in the process. To use a cybercafe to check your email, you will need to have established a internet browser mail account, such as Hotmail, Yahoo mail, etc., before you left home. Even then, you can only check the accounts for which you have set up the internet account to access. If you plan to do this, check everything out before you leave to make sure you have completed all the steps.
If it is important to stay in touch, establish a back-up account that is also set up to read mail at your primary account. This is in case you have a problem logging on to your primary account for some reason. You have to be able to receive a message from the system operator to address the problem. Also ensure your address book is up to date.
Operating hours vary widely, from open 24 hours to less than eight hours per day. Costs do vary widely, from 1.50€/hour to 1€/half-hour. Some places have a minimum and others only charge for the time you are at the terminal. Some cybercafes may be very noisy because of a students playing games over the internet. Do not expect a smoke free environment. Expect that the keyboards will be arranged differently and the operating system and thus commands will be in a foreign language.
The key combination for “@” is not shift-2 but alt-graphic-8.
What To (and Not To) Pack
The first thing that an American needs to realize when planning to walk the Camino de Santiago is that it is not a wilderness trail. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, the Camino will pass through villages and towns every few miles, as well as farm yards and pastures. Pilgrims normally stay inside a hostal—not outdoors. There will be an opportunity to take a shower every night, normally with hot water. There will be places to buy coffee and other refreshments as well as meals. If you wish to prepare your own meals, there are rudimentary kitchens in most refugios.
General Rules and Guiding Principles
You will carry everything on your back for miles. Minimize weight!
You will be in the open and will travel every day, regardless of the weather. Be prepared for heat, cold, rain, wind and sun.
This is not a trip through the wilderness. You can replenish supplies. Carry basics and replenish consumables on the road.
A basic planning decision is whether to buy meals or cook meals. Cooking involves planning and weight. Buying involves money. See Buying and cooking your own under What to expect for more information if you are thinking about cooking.
For help and reference, I have included a Camino Packing List that you can download, print and markup.
First Aid Kit
Standard First Aid kits have extraneous items but are convenient because of compartmentalization, instructions and lots of useful items. Buy but customize. Alternatively, buy a sturdy zippered bag and use small plastic bags and containers to separate items.
Need stuff for innards: diarrhea and constipation
anti-inflammatory painkiller (motrin, ibuprofen)
sun screen (and hat, sun glasses)
bugs are not a significant problem; however some type of repellent is handy
care for feet is a major factor: blister kit, moleskin, athletes foot, wet feet
damage to nails
scratches, abrasions, scrapes, bruises, minor cuts
tube of lubricant, such as petroleum jelly, to counter chafing and chapping
Clothing and Gear
The basic rule is: two sets: one to wear, one to wash and dry; anything else is luxury. You will need to wash and dry clothes every day unless you intend to repeat the medieval experience.—if you do, don’t expect others to be very friendly. Light-weight, fast-dry clothes are essential. Layer clothes; adjust the layers to stay warm or cool. You will dress and change with minimal privacy. Have appropriate clothing.
Shirts and Trousers
I strongly recommend convertible trousers and shirts designed to roll up the sleeves. if you are buying new clothes for this, get both the same but in different colors. Both of these items commonly have multiple pockets. If the trousers/shirts are the same, they will have similar pockets and you can develop habits concerning what goes where.
Think “light” but you will need something to wear while your boots are airing at the end of the day. I used sandals but they did not protect me from the cold and water on some days. I have also used the Vibram Toed shoes but learned that they don't work well if you have a bandage over a blister
Get the best money can buy - light, warm if needed but with ventilation to release the heat your body will generate by walking. There are two ways to go. One is with a poncho that covers you and your backpack. The other is with a rain jacket that you wear with your back pack secured over it, and a rain cover for the back pack. You need a combination capable of keeping you and your backpack dry in a strong wind. There are drawbacks to both. I used a poncho during my first trip and found it protected my upper body and the backpack but was useless from my waistline down. It was easy to don and remove while standing, a very useful attribute in warm weather with frequent showers interspersed with sunshine. A rain jacket or anorak under the backpack is more complicated to don and remove, requiring a dry spot to place your backpack for the transition. However it is useful when you have stopped in a town and wish to explore.
Rain Gear Labeling. Water-repellent means that the fabric has been finished with a water-repellent chemical. While drops will roll off, in a downpour, water will eventually soak in. Water-resistant fabrics have a coating that will protect you in a light to moderate rain. Waterproof fabrics should stop all water from getting through, but this is incompatible with breathing to let moisture out.
My friend from the Netherlands had the best poncho I saw. It was lightweight, breathable and long, covering his backpack and reaching down to below his knees.
Consider gaiters to protect your shoes from water entry from the top.
They will preserve your sanity, whether in refugios or in pensiones. There are a lot of snorers on the Camino, and windows in hotels are usually open for fresh air, which admits sounds from the surroundings, including barking dogs and other animal noises. A friend ignored my advice, thinking to herself that she could sleep through anything. After two sleepless nights buying ear plugs became her highest priority the third day.
A product that comes in a tube is wonderful. If you cannot find it before you go, such a product, Norit Viaje, is available in Spain. There are similar products sold in stores that sell camping gear in the US. Label your container to help it get returned if someone else decides to use it or you forget it in the rush.
Most places have lines to hang clothes to dry but an extra one is always useful. Also bring something to fasten articles of clothing to your backpack so they can dry as you walk if necessary. I made up a couple of short nylon cords which were cut short, ends fused and one end pre-tied in a loop. They were useful in drying a wet towel while I walked in one instance and a pair of shoes in another. The cord doesn't take up much space nor weigh a lot, so take more than you think you will need. I took plastic clothes pins the last trip. I noticed some people who used large safety pins which I thought was very good idea because they didn't take much space and weighed nothing. In addition, for bulky socks, the sock was never doubled over which helps drying.
Remember that towels need to dry also, so get a quick drying one. You will be traveling every day, wet clothes or not. If your towel is not dry when you set off in the morning, you face drying it as you walk or drying off at the next stop with a cold damp towel.
Consider a microfiber robe. When you shower, you will have a very small, supposedly dry, space outside of the wet area of the shower. It will have one hook, possibly two, to hold the clothes you are wearing when you enter and the clothes you will wear when you leave, plus your towel and then there is your bottle of shampoo and whatever else you may need. During my last trip, I decided it would have been much easier if I had a robe to undress under in the dorm area, with a pocket to carry my shampoo. All it would need is one hook and I could dry off after showering, put on the robe and complete dressing in clean clothes under my robe in a completely dry area of the dorm.
A miniature flashlight comes in very handy when you need to go to the bathroom in a strange place in the middle of the night.
Shoes or Boots
The most important purchasing decision for your comfort and the overall success of your journey is the shoes you buy. People wear a wide variety, including what appeared to me to be sturdy running shoes. However, I strongly recommend lightweight waterproof boots that provide ankle support. You should expect to walk in rain and on uneven terrain.
Almost as important as the boots, they need to keep your feet dry and also will need to dry overnight. Get self-wicking socks to promote the removal of moisture from your feet.
Buy one as light as possible but sized for what you will carry. I found a capacity of 3,500 cubic inches was adequate for my needs. Be sure to get one that fits properly and rides on your hips. Have a professional help you adjust it to your body. Remember you will be wearing it for hours at a time. The effect and stress on your body is different from wearing a shoulder supported back pack with a load of books for short periods of time.
You will need sun and rain protection for your head. I generally do not like hats in but found one to be essential on the camino. I bought one with a band to keep it from flying off in the wind and with flaps to protect my ears. Although on my second trip I had a hood on my rain jacket, I did not like the reduced field of view and preferred to use my hat. I have seen others use a wide variety including a Japanese man with a conical Asian straw hat.
If you wear glasses, you need to protect them and have someplace to store them. You will need also to shift between sunglasses and normal glasses. In normal life, I never had a problem with a softpack. However, I strongly recommend using a lightweight hard glasses case. Before you leave, in the comfort of your home, figure out where you can attach your glasses case to your backpack where your sunglasses are accessible for quick changes.
Use internal mesh or stuff bags to help separate items inside your back pack. Plastic bags of assorted sizes are also useful for further separation. Do not make the mistake of having too many small bags inside your backpack.
A roll of toilet paper is essential for use where there is none. It should be packed at the top of your backpack where it is easily accessible and protected from water by a plastic bag.
Since you will sleep inside, you do not need a sleeping bag to provide much warmth. A bag suitable for outdoors in the cold will be hot and weigh more than necessary. The REI Traveler Sack +55 is one example. Others are available
Most pilgrims carry a staff. You can buy one on the Camino but you may prefer to buy a modern light weight extendable walking pole or stick before you go. I found mine to be very useful when walking in steep or slippery terrain. I used it several times to help me when I had to duck or bend to bypass obstructing bushes when there was limited dry ground to traverse a section of path which was mostly water and mud.
A small sewing kit is useful but not essential for repairs to clothing.
Since refugios generally have thin mattresses, a sleeping mat is not needed, unless you plan to be traveling at the peak of the season when refugios may be full. If you want one, try sleeping on it at home a couple of nights to see if it is really worth its weight.
A scallop shell is the symbol of pilgrims to Santiago and you will want one sooner or later to fasten to your back pack or clothing. Depending on where you live in the US, it may be very difficult to get one before you depart. However, they are frequently available in shops along the French Route.
A GPS (Global Positioning System) unit is unnecessary and, except for possible use on an unmarked route, would be more trouble than it is worth. The various caminos are sufficiently waymarked that thousands of people follow them without problems every year.
Power would be an additional problem. A solar power unit and adaptor would be awkward and add weight. Replacement batteries of adequate quality are difficult to find except in larger cities and towns. Using rechargeable batteries means carrying a 220 volt charger and having a place to plug it in when you stop at night.
Some people believe in traveling simply and consider a camera an unnecessary distraction from the intent of the camino. It does add weight and is a distraction but it offers a way to record aspects of the camino to bring back home and refer to the rest of your life. A camera on the camino should be lightweight and inexpensive. Whether it is 35mm or APS is immaterial since replacement film and developing is inexpensive and readily available for both. I strongly recommend a camera with a zoom. There will be many aspects where a zoom is needed to capture the detail you want. See “Photo Developing” in "What to Expect" for additional considerations.
An important consideration is ready access while you have your pack on. I missed several shots and never tried to take others because it took too long to get my camera out. In 30 seconds a scene can change completely and no longer be interesting.
Learning Another Language
If you have not studied Spanish, French or Portuguese before, it is probably not worth the effort to do so at this time. This site contains some useful words and phrases in a section, “Getting Along in Spain” that can be studied beforehand but are intended to be referred to during the trip. For food terms in Spain, there is an excellent book, Passport's Food and Wine Guides: Spain. If you plan to travel the Portuguese Route, we have compiled a brief glossary of Portuguese Food Terms.
If, on the other hand, you have studied one of these languages before but feel very rusty, I strongly suggest buying one of the books written in Spanish, French or Portuguese listed in the section “Reference Information.” The books are very informative and the words used in describing the Camino are the words you will encounter during your trip. It may be painful at first but as you progress your reading speed will improve and you will find yourself remembering more than you thought possible. Knowing the local language will open up an important dimension of the Camino and increase your pleasure.
For those who have the time, and the money, another approach is to look into attending one of the many schools that teach Spanish, or French, or Portuguese, as appropriate. One highly recommended program is that of the University of Salamanca—there are others. This University was founded in 1218 and offers several courses of varying length (1, 2, 3 weeks and longer) all through the year for students of all ages. One of the benefits of a program such as this is total immersion: staying with a family and speaking Spanish all day. If you are interested in the Via de la Plata, Salamanca could be a good starting point since it is on that ancient route. For more information, check out the University of Salamanca web site. There are pages in English. Additional contact information can be found in “Cursos Internacionales, Universidad de Salamanca” on Reference Information. There are also course given at the University of Madrid, which is at the focal point of the Spanish transportation system.
One of the people I met on the Camino had started in The Netherlands. He said that before and after he returned he had been asked many times how to prepare for such a long journey. His response was often a disingenuous, “You can’t.” His point was that you cannot foresee everything and must remain flexible in your approach and how you deal with problems. In reality you can do a lot to prepare yourself physically beforehand.
Hardening Your Feet and Softening Your Boots
Avoiding blisters is one of the most important things you can do. NEVER, but NEVER, start out with a new pair of shoes. When buying your boots/shoes, seek assistance from a sales representative who has long distance hiking experience. Ensure your shoes fit properly by trying them on and testing them out more than you would for normal shoes. An important check is how they fit when walking downhill. A good sporting goods store will have a ramp for people to try shoes going uphill and down. Improper fit when going downhill means that a person’s toe nails will be under pressure. In the course of several days, they will be overstressed, turn black as a result of blood beneath the toe nail (hematoma), and eventually fall off. This is not a major problem but can be avoided by proper fit and keeping your nails pared.
Once having bought your shoes, “wear them in” and get your feet toughened by walking a lot. Start out slowly, but over a period of several weeks or a month, try to put at least fifty miles on your shoes. Ensure that the fit is the same by wearing the same socks that you intend to wear on the Camino. It is also important to gradually get used to wearing the pack and carrying the weight you will be bearing. Use a substitute weight if you are starting out before you have bought everything.
Avoid Repetitive Strain Injury
Repetitive Strain Injury, tendonitis, a common hazard of inexperienced hikers, also occurs in experienced ones. It can be avoided by strengthening and conditioning the muscles and ligaments associated with the ankle and by warming up before you start. Remember, with a loaded backpack your body will be supporting much more weight than normal and the ankles are the major point of flexure in supporting that weight. In addition, the Camino does not consist of an even, consistent walking surface. You will be walking over rough, uneven terrain; often under wet and slippery conditions. Preparatory walking on pavement with weight will help but it is not enough. Some of your walks should be made on trails, the rougher the better. Cobblestone streets or rocky paths are great. In addition, you should do ankle and foot flexing exercises. Consider consulting a doctor or physical therapist to identify a set of strength building and warm up exercises appropriate for you. Then, once on the Camino, build up your speed and distance gradually, don’t walk too much too soon.
If you listen to your body, this will happen naturally. I found that many mornings on the Camino parts of my body would start off complaining but after an hour they settled in and did not bother me. Pay attention to pains that continue after an hour.
Drinking enough water is an aspect that you need to address from the beginning, before you go. During your walks develop a habit of drinking more water.
Every breath you exhale contains water that is being given off by your body. In addition, your body gives off water through your pores, even if the air is so dry that it evaporates immediately and you are not aware of it. The rate at which this occurs increases during physical activity, such as walking the Camino. Your body needs moisture. As it loses it, your tissues become less elastic, increasing the risk of repetitive strain injury. You will lose energy faster. You are more likely to have headaches. Doctors recommend that you drink at least two liters of water per day in normal activity. When you are engaged in physical activity your need increases, and even more so in hot weather. Even MILD dehydration will slow down one’s metabolism as much as 3%. Lack of water is a major trigger of daytime fatigue.
Drinking water only when you are thirsty is not enough. Your body needs water before you sense that need as a thirst. Start out any walk by drinking plenty of water beforehand and drinking more at every rest break. If you do become dehydrated, use something to replace the minerals lost, even if only eating a small packet of sugar with a pinch of salt and washing it down with water.
Evaluate Your Gear
During the period before you leave home, in conjunction with walking to break in your boots, wear your backpack and try to use all parts of your equipment. Take advantage of bad weather combining wind and rain to evaluate your rain gear. Walk at least an hour with your backpack and then shower, dry off with your towel, and change into dry clothes from your backpack. Wash your clothes, see how well you can rig your line and hang your clothes, and how quickly they dry when hanging on a line.
Evaluate Your Capability
Develop a rough sense of how fast you walk by timing yourself when walking with a full pack at a comfortable pace. Develop a feel for how you slow down when you are tired. I found it very useful to have a sense of how fast I walked. It helped me estimate how soon I would reach a point whether it be where I expected to get food or a refugio. It was also nice to know that in my case, in 12 minutes I would cover another kilometer. In making a decision to walk a particularly long distance one day, knowing my pace helped me to estimate when I would arrive and whether it was feasible to make the attempt.
If you are not in excellent shape, consider wearing a watch that will allow you to check your pulse rate. Learn your proper aerobic training rate and try to spend a good amount of time in it. When on the Camino, check it from time to time so you do not exceed your limits.
Travel By Bicycle
Bicycling pilgrims can travel on touring bikes or mountain bikes. Many portions of the path followed by walkers cannot be traversed using touring bikes, and riders must follow alternative routes that pass through the same villages and towns, using local dirt roads or those paved with asphalt but generally with little traffic. These parallel the route used by walkers but stick to surfaces suitable for such bikes. Mountain bikers follow the camino and cohabit with walkers throughout the trip, even along portions where the average walker is astounded to see someone riding a bike.
Although it is possible to rent bicycles in Spain, you are better off to bring your own. You can ship your bike as checked luggage on your flight and clearing customs on arrival will not be a big problem. The fees involved and rules for shipping your bike vary with the airline, so this should be checked into early in your planning and could affect your decision as to which airline to fly. After arriving at your European air terminal, you can use local mass transportation to get to the location where you intend to start. In addition, there are several tours available which offer rental bikes for a supplemental fee.
Whereas a walker can cover 20 to 25 km per day, a bicycle rider can cover much greater distances, 60 to 75 km.
Getting Ready: Conditioning
Start training three or four months in advance. It is preferable to condition yourself on your bike but workouts in the gym are also useful, particularly if you are going to make an early spring departure. Remember that once you start out, you will not have the option to stay off the road if the weather is bad, so do the same in your work-up phase. Make a schedule and stick to it, regardless of the weather. It will be a good test of your gear. A bicycle trip lasting a weekend to a week, requiring you to totally depend on what you are carrying is recommended to help condition you and to evaluate your gear. Leave some time afterwards so you can buy replacement gear if something proves unsatisfactory. If possible, practice over different terrain, including steep hills, mountains, and roads in poor condition, using a loaded bike to the maximum practible extent.
Getting Ready: Gear
Check out more than one bike shop and talk to employees knowledgeable in touring before making a purchase decision on your bike and its gear. Chose one of good quality and minimize the weight. Use extra reflectors and ensure you have working lights for travel during rainy and overcast conditions or in case you find it essential to travel during twilight. Rearview mirrors are a must. You will need front and rear saddlebags, and should plan to distribute the loading so that the weight is balanced to both sides, fore and aft. Because of the weight, a high quality dependable braking system is essential. You will need wider tires because of the rough conditions of parts of the route. Because of the weight and the hills/mountains you will be crossing, use gearing that provides 10 to 18 speeds. You will probably find a small handlebar bag convenient for small, frequently used items. A frame-mounted water bottle is also essential.
Last but not least is the seat. Make sure you and your seat are compatible. If you decide to part company during the trip, it will be expensive, take time and will only be made after reaching a point where the discomfort reached an unbearable point. If it gives you discomfort during the conditioning period, it will not get better on the Camino.
Above all, remember it will be your muscles that have to power you and everything for the hundreds (200 as a minimum) of kilometers you will be traveling.
Everyone will have their own preferences but the ones below are generally accepted as the quintessential requirements. If you are traveling with others, weight and volume can be reduced by sharing items among the group but replication prevents problems if a unique item is lost or a person drops out of the group.
Tire repairs: pump, spare tire or inner tube, patches, rubber solution, sand paper, tire lever
Mechanical repairs: brake liners, spare spokes, brake and gear wires, chain links, adjustable wrench/multipurpose tool, lubricant
Clothing and such
For safety, select clothing that will make you easy to spot when cycling along the roads. Like walkers, bikers also need clothing that dries quickly and should think in terms of two sets of clothing, what you are wearing and what you just washed.
Hard soled shoes
Protective headgear, including provision for protection of your face and neck from the sun.
Shirts that absorb sweat and vent it
Pants designed to minize chaffing at inseams and the inside of the thighs
First aid kit similar to that recommended for walkers, with emphasis shifted from care of feet to care of chaffing and abrasions/cuts resulting from falls.
Plastic bags to protect your clothing and other items from the water that will inevitably get inside your panniers.
See the comments for walkers concerning the following items you will need:
Transporting Your Bike
Getting your bike undamaged to your trans-Atlantic destination is a major aspect. Your airline will have bike cartons but also a local bike shop should have them or can get them for you, and that may be more convenient. You will have to rely on the airline for the return flight.
However your bike will be shipped, boxed or bagged, for your own protection take precautions so that it will arrive in good condition at the other end. Take extra steps to protect breakable items within the carton. The damage resulting from poor handling may be the airline's responsibility but preventing it by packing your bike carefully will take less time than effecting repairs and result in a more pleasant trip. Make sure you use the tools you will have on your trip to do any disassembly required to prepare it for packing..
If you are not already an experienced bicycle tourist, read a general book on bicycle touring. You can also read articles on this in bicycle magazines or search online.
Traveling By Horseback
At one point I was going to have a full section addressing travel by horseback. However, because of the difficulties of shipping horses internationally, there are very few potential travelers who will travel from the US to travel the Camino by themselves on horseback. If you wish to travel by horseback, you need to contact one of the busineses that organizes camino travel by horseback (a caballo). Here are a few links to help you get started:
Hipica Rabadeira (In Spanish)
El Camino de Santiago a Caballo This is a more general site listing riding clubs where one can rent horses for riding on the Camino.