So you’ve just seen the movie ‘The Way’ or heard about the Camino from a friend and now you’ve decided to add it to our bucket list. Where do you begin? Here’s a simple guide on how to organise your trip.
Please note this guide is specifically for the most popular route, the Camino Frances (i.e. The French Way), however much of the information can applied to the other Camino routes also.
BEFORE YOU START
Choosing your date
The busiest periods are the Summer months (June-August) mainly because of the warmer weather and generally people usually like to take time off during Summer. During these months there a few things to keep in mind:
– the days can be extrmely hot
– the paths can be crowded
– the accommodation is likely to be full very quickly which often means people will start walking very early (4am-5am) in order to make it to town to get a spot to sleep
My recommendation would be to consider the the shoulder months, especially September/October which is the months we chose to do it. The weather is still warm but not hot and there are much less people around. May is also a good option but the weather is a bit cooler. March/April is pretty cold with the high risk of snow in many areas.
The official starting point of the Camino de Santiago is a town called St Jean Pied de Port. There are no airports here however you can fly into nearby cities such as Bordeaux or Bayonne and catch a regional train from there.
Click here for more details regading the trains
A lot of people did zero training for this 800km journey, but as physiotherapists, we must advise a good amount of training to avoid injury. The minimum amount of training should involve 1-2 weekly walks of 15-20km with a 7-8kg backpack for 2 months plus additional lower limb strengthening exercises (eg. squats).
The usual recommendation is to carry no more than 10% of your body weight.
Your backpack should ideally have a few essential elements:
– sturdy waist strap
– chest strap
– ventilation for your back
– waterproof cover
This is the recommended way to pack your backpack
Here is an example packing list:
– compact sleeping bag
– 2 quick-dry t-shirts
– 1 cotton T-shirt
– 1 fleece jumper
– 1 waterproof jacket
– 1 pair waterproof overtrousers
– 1 pair tights
– 1 pair convertible hiking trousers
– 1 pair flip flops/sandals
– 3 pairs underwear
– 3 pairs if double-layer hiking socks
– toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, vaseline
– ear plugs and eyeshades
– small first aid kit: bandaids, antiseptic, compeed
– pocket knife
– drink bottle or Camelbak
– sturdy hiking shoes
– hiking scarf (buff)*
– hiking poles*
– head torch with extra batteries
– small camera and charger*
– mobile phone and charger *
– iPad mini*
There’s always a debate as to whether to bring a guidebook. We found it very useful, especially when we wanted to walk a longer or shorter day and wanted to know the upcoming terrain and how far the next town would be. The path is well marked with yellow arrows, however there are alternative paths which take you to historical sites which you will require the book for. We’d recommend John Brierley’s book which is the most commonly used one.
Definitely make sure you have travel insurance for this journey. There were dozens of injuries we saw along the trail so don’t take the risk. Main things to make sure of are that your insurance covers:
– minimum $10,000,000 medical cover
– trips over 31 days (lots of companies only cover you for trips less than 24 days)
If you can learn a bit of Spanish, it will definitely make your experience all the more enjoyable. Even if you use a few apps such as Duolingo or Memrise to help you learn the basics. Keep in mind that English is very limited in the small towns and the locals will appreciate you using their native tongue to communicate.
When you first arrive in St Jean Pied de Port, you must head to the Pilgrim’s office to register your details. There they will give you a current list of all the accommodation along the trail as well as a map for the first day. You will also be povided with you Pilgrim Passport (€2) which you will use to collect stamps from all the places you stay along hr Camino.
They will also be able to give you details on where to stay in town if you haven’t pre-booked anything. For a small donation, you can even buy a clamshell there which is not compulsory but many pilgrims wear it on their bags as a symbol of the Camino.
Check out the official Camino forum for tips from past pilgrims and questions from newbies. It is a fantastic resource and I can guarantee any question you might have has already been answered somewhere on the forum
The forum also offers FREE printable guides (such as elevation graphs) which you can access once you login (which is also free).
It may be worthwhile to download the following apps:
– Spain Offline Map – just open up a map of Spain in Google maps, type in ‘OK maps’ in the search bar, then press ENTER, this will download the entire map of Spain so if you get lost you can just turn on the GPS on your phone to locate yourself without using any data
– Spanish Dictionary
– Camino Pilgrim App
DURING THE CAMINO
The terrain is a bit of everything including: road, gravel, grass, stones and mud. Most days are flat or with slight rolling hills but there are about 3-4 days with steep inclines.
The journey from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago is roughly 800km. There is no set distance you must do each day, that all depends on you! Most people will usually go between 20-30km per day which can take anywhere between 20-40 days! There really is no hard and fast rule as to how long it should take you and how much you should be doing each day.
If you have not seen a yellow arrow after walking more than 10 mins, backtrack to the last arrow you saw. It is possible you missed a turn.
You can also ask the locals who will usually point you in the right direction.
If neither of those work, whip out your phone and activate your GPS and use the offline map.
Age groups vary significantly along the journey from 18 to 80! You will find yourself speaking to people from all over the world and making friends with those you wouldn’t normally. The majority of people we met travelled alone, some in couples and very few in groups of 3 or more.
There are several options along the trail depending on your budget:
– Municipals: government-run dorm rooms, usually the cheapest and most basic. Mostly between €5-10 pp
– Albergues: privately owned dorm rooms, offer slightly more comfort and can have 1-2 private rooms. Between €7-15 pp
–Casas, B & B’s, Hotels: privately run accommodation offering private rooms. Prices are usually €15+ per room.
Some places offer a simple breakfast of bread and jam, others even offer a communal dinner as long as you help out with the preparation. We found staying in municipals and albergues the most fun and inexpensive way as you form a sense or community with your fellow pilgrims and you end up cooking for each other.
Generally you can’t book ahead except for Orisson which is the first town on the trail – you must book this if you choose to stay there as it is the only accommodation there.
They are mostly bunk beds in the dorms and surprisingly comfortable.
There are regular stories of bed bug outbreaks along the trail, but the staff at the accommodation are usually very quick to address this. A few things to keep in mind:
– don’t place bags on beds
– inspect the edging of the bed for what looks like brown dust
– pre-treat your sleeping bag and backpack with permethrin
Most are relatively clean, not all are warm. Occasionally there may be communal showers but this only occcured twice on our journey
Toilets are not that frequent along the trail unless you are passing through towns. We often had to just use nature.
There are plenty of supermercados along the way if you want to make your own food, but also cafes and restaurants conveniently located at well known rest stops. Keep in mind that there is siesta in the middle of the day so they may not always be open. Also a lot of things are closed on Sundays, so you may need to pre-buy things on Saturday to carry with you.
There’s usually a drinking fountain in most towns, occasionally marked with ‘agua potable.’ People either carry a water bladder or water bottle. We preferred a water bottle purely cause its much easier to refill and clean.
The Camino is generally safe to walk alone as many pilgrims do however during the Summer months there have been reports of local men exposing themselves to women in isolated portions and some attempted abductions along the highway paths. These occurrences are rare however always remain vigilant if you are on your own. We felt safe the entire journey. More recently there has been increased Guardia Civil (Spanish Police) presence along the trail.
If for some reason you cannot or do not want to carry your pack for the day, you can arrange with your accommodation to ship it ahead to the next town for you, usually at a fee of €5-7 per bag.
There is WiFi available in most towns and in a lot of the albergues. There is also mobile reception in most areas. If you don’t have a phone, some towns have payphones you can use.
We went the entire way with only 1 blister between the 2 of us. Apparently blisters are the most common reason people don’t finish the Camino. A few ways that we found to prevent then were:
– wearing double layered hiking socks
– applying Vaseline to the feet, especially between the toes in the morning and at the lunch break
– anytime we felt a bit of rubbing on the feet, we stopped straight away to inspect and applied a bandaid over the area to prevent a blister from forming
No matter what time of year it is, you can have 4 seasons in one day. So be prepared for the extreme heat and the extreme cold.
Some of the albergues have laundries. There are also laundromats in some of the big downs. Most people rinse and wash some of their clothes in the basin and hang over the bed at night to dry. If it hasn’t dried by the morning, hang it over your bag whilst you are walking.
The most common injury we saw on the trail was knee pain. Unfortunately this occurred after the first day with the steep descent into Roncesvalles. Most injuries occur due overloading (putting too much pressure on a certain area) so a few things to help include:
– using hiking poles
– eunsuring your bag isn’t too heavy (throw out things along the way)
– change up the way you tackle steps and inclines – avoid doing the exact same movement each time (eg. turn your foot out going down one step, turn it in the next, keep it neutral the next). Keeping your movements variable means that you don’t have pressure building up on the same part of joints/tendons
– regular rest – even if its just for 5-10 minutes
– go at your own pace – don’t feel pressured to walk at someone else’s pace as this can cause an injury
Here is a post I wrote on the official Camino forum which covers this topic a little more in depth:
A Physiotherapist’s guide to Injury Prevention and Management on the Camino
Transport between towns
If you are injured, pressed for time or just don’t feel like walking, there are usually buses or taxis available to get you there. There seems to always be a stigma of not being a ‘true pilgrim’ but there really shouldn’t be, everyone is on their own Camino and there are no set rules about how the path should be taken .
Most medium-big towns will have cash machines. Always make sure you have cash on you as credit cards are NOT widely accepted. France and Spain use Euros.
Check out our blog on Tips to get the best Currency Exchange rate
AFTER THE CAMINO
After you’ve checked in to what I presume would be a luxurious hotel, head down to the Pilgrim’s office with your real passport and your Pilgrim’s passport where you will be issued with your Compostela for free. If you want it to include the distance you walked, you can pay an extra fee.
Assuming your final destination is Santiago you have a few options to get back home. The most common options are:
– Fly to London or Madrid then take your onwards connecting flight
– take a train to Madrid
I personally wouldn’t book any of these flights/trains until you’re about a week a way from finishing.
Continuing on to Finisterre
If you have the time we would definitely suggest taking another 4-5 days to walk to the ‘end of the world’. This trail is just as well marked. You can get a list of accommodation and a basic map from the Tourist Information office in Santiago. Once you arrive in Finisterre, be sure you head to the lighthouse to see the most beautiful sunset in the world.
So that’s it, you’re ready to go! Get excited for the most incredible experience of your life. You will learn more about yourself than you ever thought you could. You will make life long friends and create everlasting memories.
If you would like to read more about our journey on the Camino, check out our entries on Poonann’s on the Camino.
Good luck and Buen Camino
Ann & Jason xo