In November 2012, I walked 264 km from Astorga to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 13 days with my sister-in-law. I’m already thinking about the next time – a longer route. Here is a
summary report collection of random thoughts practical comments on the Camino!
Fitness: As a middle aged person (assuming a very long life), moderately fit but NOT athletic, I didn’t know how it would be. I knew I could comfortably walk 15-20 km, even with a backpack, but I never tried it day after day after day. However, we walked 15-25 km each day for 13 days. I would happily have continued for another 264 km. Of course, a minor injury or flareup of old injury could easily have happened and interferred with the schedule.
Backpack and contents: Osprey Talon 33 backpack – perfect. In the small/medium size, it weighs 820 g and only holds 31 L, but that was enough. I followed the guideline of carrying no more than 10% of my body weight, which was about 6 kg. Once you include the backpack itself, a sleeping bag and rain gear, there is not much room or weight allowance left. But weight is extremely important and each extra kilogram can causes significant distress. Suffice it to say that minimalist is the way to go. My packing list will be posted here once I find time to review and revise it. In summary, I had 3 layers on top (base, medium, warm), 2 on bottom (long johns and light weight pants), plus rain pants and jacket, one change of base layer (top and bottom), and 2 spare underpants and socks. That’s it. I had another medium layer shirt which I didn’t use; next time I’ll trade it for a t-shirt plus safari-style overshirt. Would consider a second pair of light-weight pants, but in fact my rain pants served as my emergency change. Don’t take anything more!
Walking sticks: I used Black Diamond walking poles that weigh only 260 g, fold up to 14″ length (like a white cane) and fit easily into any backpack. I never walked with poles before and felt silly at first, but they are the norm on the Camino. Some people say you must train in advance, but I tried them twice for 20 minutes, with half-an-hour of research on YouTube, and that was enough. Once on the Camino, you learn fast! When I watch video clips of me walking with them, it looks silly – as if I am gently but uselessly tapping them on the ground. At the same time, though, I look like I am walking very comfortably and lightly – almost dancing along. I believe that they transfered a minor amount of weight from my legs to my upper body, and also encouraged a nice symmetrical regular gait that helped my endurance a lot. However, I don’t plan to use them for regular walking around home – I don’t want to become dependent on them.
Boots: Salomon hiking boots fit me like gloves and they were perfect. No blisters in 300 km. I found, days before departure, that they were not fully waterproof in spite of the GoreTex. However, they fit me so well that I didn’t complain and I would take them again.
Sleeping bag: It is necessary during the cooler season, unless you definitely plan to always stay in the slightly more expensive private accommodations. We only used ours on 3 of the 13 nights, but I would take it again. I used a lightweight Hotcore polyfill bag , the T100.
Navigation: Piece of cake. I took the John Brierley guide with detailed information for each day – total kilometers, distances on paths/roads/highways, elevation profiles, lists of places to stay, etc. With that in hand, we just followed the yellow arrows to Santiago. When there was any uncertainty, we’d wait a few minutes until someone else passed by and we followed them. Worked OK. (But I still am mildly obsessive about knowing where I am on the map.)
Bedbugs: Yes, we encountered them, briefly it seems. On arrival home I put all washables straight into the washer and then a double dose of hot dryer. Most non-washables including my backpack and paper goods went into the deep freezer for a week at -18C. I carefully examined and wiped down other items such as electronics and toiletries. This is another reason to carry minimal stuff, as it makes decontamination much simpler.
Spanish: My Spanish is pretty good, which certainly enhanced my enjoyment. However, many people did it with virtually no Spanish. .
Alone or with Companions: Most people seemed to be walking independently, but often not alone. The Camino is as social an event as you choose. People walk together for an hour or a day or longer, then alone or with others, only to meet up 3 days later in a coffee shop or albergue (hostal), or in the cathedral square in Santiago. It would be hard to find a place en route where you could stop and not have other pilgrims passing within 10 minutes. More often, a dozen would pass within 10 minutes. The route crosses roads often, villages are found every 5 km or so, and taxis are available by phone. Going with my sister-in-law gave us lots of talk time to catch up on each other and our families, and it allowed us to get private rooms for a reasonable price (being shared). On the other hand, we were so busy chatting that perhaps we didn’t get the contemplation time that a long walk can provide. Traveling in a pair or group changes and limits the way you interact with other pilgrims. I think I would like to try it on my own next time, at least for part of the trip.
More information: If you are interested, the best place to start learning about the Camino de Santiago is this internet forum.