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The Camino de Santiago is known as one of the world’s great hikes, and it earns a spot on many bucket lists with good reason. After hiking the Camino last year, I’ve compiled this list of essential tips for hiking the Camino de Santiago across Spain, including everything I wish I knew before setting out along “the Way.”
People have been walking the Camino de Santiago for centuries—its origin dates back to the Middle Ages when it gained popularity as a religious pilgrimage route. According to Christian legend, the remains of Saint James the Apostle were taken to Galicia and eventually enshrined in a church in the present-day city of Santiago de Compostela.
Fast forward to today, a few hundred thousand people from all over the world travel to Spain to hike the Camino every year. While there are many routes to get to Santiago, the most common is the Camino Frances, the “French Way.” This trek begins in the French Pyrenees and stretches 500 miles across the Iberian Peninsula to the northwest corner of Spain, taking a little over one month to complete.
If you’re wondering how to prepare for such a journey, you’re in the right place. Read on for 10 essential tips for hiking the Camino de Santiago.
You’ve likely heard this before, and you’ll hear it again here. Packing light is the best way to set yourself up for success on the Camino. Or depending on how you look at it, packing too much is a surefire way to sabotage your journey before you even take your first step.
Abide by the 10 percent rule—the weight of your backpack should not exceed 10 percent of your body weight. Keep in mind that the magic “10 percent” number includes your water for the day, so factor in a bit of wiggle room.
Aim to stay within the confines of a 36- to 40-liter backpack. This will allow just enough space to hold two hiking outfits, outerwear with layers, basic toiletries, plus extra room for the unpacking you’ll be doing each evening.
One of the unique things about the Camino de Santiago is its amazing infrastructure. Anything that you might find yourself needing along “the Way” can be purchased in the cities and towns you’ll pass through each day.
Also, unlike many other epic hikes around the world, there is no need to camp. Hikers sleep in albergues—the Camino’s version of a hostel—so leave the tent and sleeping bag at home.
Bring only the essentials, and replenish as you go.
Plan for some but not all
Many consider the true pilgrim experience is to simply walk until one feels like stopping, then figure out lodging for the night. While the beauty of the Camino lies in spontaneity, it doesn’t hurt to have a plan in place for the first few days while you’re still getting your bearings.
Book your albergues for the first few days of the Camino in advance—you’ll get tremendous peace of mind from knowing there is a bed reserved for you at the end of the day. The first few days are tough enough as it is.
That being said, leave flexibility in your schedule to account for rest days and cities you want to explore for more than just the night, or even in case you bump into Camino friends who are staying on somewhere. Allow yourself the freedom to pivot—if you have a week’s worth of reservations to modify, it takes away from the adventure.
Protect your feet at all costs
There’s an old military saying: “Proper foot care can win or lose wars.”
The same can be said for the Camino de Santiago—taking care of your feet is absolutely essential. While certain podiatry side effects of a 500-mile hike are inevitable, figure out what works for you before you set out. You’ll see hikers implementing all sorts of remedies to protect their feet, from Hogwarts-worthy spells to swapping out their socks at breakfast. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Tips for Foot Care on the Camino de Santiago
- Wear proper hiking shoes with a firm rubber sole. Break them in before you start—the first day of the trek is already too late to start this process.
- Feet often swell after hiking day after day, so purchase shoes with a bit of extra room or width.
- Wear two pairs of socks; the second pair offsets the friction.
- Keep your feet dry—ensure your shoes are waterproof and apply baby powder to your feet each morning for extra protection.
- Get a pedicure prior to the Camino. After the hike, it’s a given, but it is crucial for your feet to be in tip-top shape before you begin.
- Bring a pair of flip flops for evenings to give your feet a much-needed break from your hiking shoes.
Trekking poles aren’t just for German tourists
Apparently hiking poles are not only reserved for those Austrians who flew past you at Olympic speed on the Cinque Terre. Trekking poles are immensely helpful for hiking the Camino de Santiago, and whether you start out with them or acquire them along “the Way,” you’ll be happy to have them.
Regardless of how good of shape you’re in, the support and stability that trekking poles provide are essential for the month-long hike. You’ll notice the benefits not only in the ascents uphill but more importantly in the descents, which can be tough on your knees.
Carrying trekking poles can also prevent your hands from swelling. Two poles are recommended, or if you only use one be sure to switch up the hand you carry it with to avoid misalignment in your gait.
Don’t underestimate the training
At first glance, the Camino is just a walk. How hard could it possibly be?
Think again. Imagine walking a half marathon every day for thirty days straight, then add a 20-pound backpack into the mix. Training beforehand is crucial and should not be overlooked.
So how does one prepare for a 500-mile walk, while balancing the time constraints of daily life?
Walk any and everywhere, even to places that you think are too far away. If you work up to walking eight to 10 miles per day, you’ll be well-equipped to handle the heavy mileage of the Camino.
Never pass a water fountain
Never pass a water fountain without stopping. Or a bathroom for that matter. You never know how far away the next one will be.
While we found provisions listed in the guidebook and on the Camino apps helpful and mostly accurate, there were several occasions when we found ourselves walking much further than anticipated before reaching a town or restaurant. When you see a good spot for a break, stop.
Speaking of water, skip a traditional water bottle and use a hydration bladder that slides into your backpack. A hands-free water source is more convenient, as you’ll avoid removing it frequently from your (probably likely packed-to-the-brim) backpack.
Prepare for all seasons
Regardless of which time of year you walk the Camino de Santiago, it’s wise to be prepared for all four seasons.
Spain is home to many diverse climates, and as you’ll be walking across the entire Iberian Peninsula you’re bound to encounter a little bit of everything.
Prepare for colder temperatures in the mountains, hot and dry conditions in the meseta, and cool, moody mornings as fog rolls in over the hills of Galicia.
The Best Time to Walk the Camino de Santiago
Spring: With pleasant temperatures and lighter crowds, spring is a lovely time to hike the Camino … just be sure you are prepared for some rain.
Summer: Following the busy European holiday season, June through August are the most popular months to hike the Camino de Santiago. Expect long, hot days and don’t forget long-sleeve shirts and a wide-brimmed hat for sun protection.
Fall: Autumn is an incredible time to hike the Camino. You’ll find warm, dry days, fewer crowds than the summer months and you might even catch the leaves changing as you trek across the country.
Winter: If you’re braving the Camino de Santiago in the winter, bravo! Only the most hard-core pilgrims hike between December and March. Expect cold, rainy days with many albergues closed up for the season. It can still be done, but be sure to book lodging in advance and research conditions in the Pyrenees—it might not be possible to start in France.
Start your days early
Have you ever regretted waking up early? On the Camino, the early bird certainly does get the worm.
While a 4 a.m. alarm clock is by no means necessary, it’s wise to log the majority of your mileage during the most enjoyable hours of the day. By starting early, you’ll catch both the cooler temperatures and get less sun exposure.
Aim to set out between 6 and 7 a.m., walk for a few hours, then stop for a breakfast break. By setting out early, you’ll arrive at your daily destination in time to enjoy a long, leisurely lunchtime meal that the Spanish are so famous for.
Also, remember that you are in Spain—everyone takes an afternoon siesta. Even in many of the larger cities the Camino routes pass through, it’s common to find many restaurants, businesses, and even hotels closed for a few hours during the late afternoon. You’ll want to arrive prior to this siesta period.
Ignore the pilgrim snobs
One of the best things about hiking the Camino de Santiago is the camaraderie that forms from the people you meet along “the Way.” I challenge you to find a more interesting, diverse group of people anywhere.
That being said, you’re bound to encounter a type of traveler that I like to call a “pilgrim snob.” This is a fellow hiker who seems to have memorized John Brierley’s guidebook verbatim, has seen the movie The Way more times than one can count, and firmly believes that you’re only a “true pilgrim” once you’ve shared a room with 49 other snoring, smelly hikers.
At the end of the day, it’s your trip. Don’t let potential criticisms from others influence taking care of yourself.
So what you if take a bus because you picked up a stomach bug. It’s also okay to bail on the albergue and check yourself into a nice hotel once in a while to keep your sanity. It doesn’t make you any less of a pilgrim, and you’re still walking to the same place.
Preparation for the Camino is crucial, but so is exhibiting patience and assuming positive intent towards your fellow hikers.
More importantly, never, ever, under any circumstances be a pilgrim snob. You never know what kind of day someone is having, whose blisters are too painful to wear shoes, or who had a terrible night’s sleep … even if they did cut you in line for breakfast.
It’s the journey, not the destination.
After walking across an entire country, nothing feels better than finally arriving to your destination—the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. However, it’s important not to be so laser-focused on getting there that you forget to enjoy yourself.
Build-in time for misadventure and enjoy the ride.
You never know: Once you arrive in Santiago, you might even decide to keep walking.
The Camino de Santiago is a truly life-changing experience, and no two journeys are the same. Have you hiked the Camino? What is your best piece of advice for a hiker setting out on the trek?
By Meredith Fulford
Meredith is a Florida-based blogger who shares stories, guides and insights from her travels on her Instagram and blog, the Longest Weekend. She loves airports, good wine, writing, and exploring new places from a carry-on suitcase.