Lessons learned on the Camino de Santiago

After finishing my walk along the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to share some of lessons I learned, which I hope may be helpful for people planning on walking the Way.

What’s in your backpack?

During the first day, two pilgrims commented on the size of my backpack as we walked from Burgos to Hontana, both saying that ideally a backpack should not be more than 10% of your body weight.  I did not know the weight of my backpack, but leaving my house near Sevilla, I had packed:

1 Sleeping bag (for below freezing temperatures), 2 extra jerseys (polartec), an extra pair of pants, 3 underwear, 4 socks, 1 sweatpants, 4 long-sleeve underarmour, 1 rain poncho, 2 quick dry towels, a bathroom kit, a medicine kit, a “super battery” for recharging my phone and Ipad, 1 liter water bottle, and my smartphone and Ipad with chargers.

At the end of the first day of walking, I left one of the jerseys, some of my shower kit, and one of the towels in the albergue at Hontana.  Four days later (with my knees hurting like  crazy), I further emptied my back pack, sending a box of my stuff to Sevilla from Ponferrada.  When I left Ponferrada, my backpack included:

1 Sleeping bag, 3 underwear, 3 socks, 1 sweatpant, 3 long-sleeve underarmour, 1 rain poncho, 1 quick dry towel, a reduced bathroom/medicine kit, 1/2 liter water bottle, and my smartphone and Ipad with chargers.

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This is what I sent home from Ponferrada

From Ponferrada to Santiago, I walked comfortably, and my knees did not bother me.  Since I had only the pants I was wearing for the second week, I ended up washing and drying my stuff most evenings at the albergues.  This was nice because many of the days I was walking in rain, so completely drying everything was a good preparation for the next day.

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My backpack at the end of the walk

This was probably the most important lesson I learned on the walk.  You need to reduce the weight you carry to as little as possible.  Walking distances day after day is very different than walking up a valley to a lake and camping, then walking back out after a couple of days.  The day after day walking will put stress on joints, muscles, tendons, etc. and you want to have as little extra weight as possible.

If I were to walk the Camino during the summer, I would probably go with the clothes on my back, a sleeping bag, and a reduced bathroom/medicine kit, and little else.  You always need a little room for food and I would plan on carrying two liters of water during some stretches during very hot days.

Layers of Clothing

I walked comfortably each day.  The conditions were diverse.  Several days when I started walking it was close to freezing and some of the afternoon temperatures may have approached 70° F (20° C).  During several days I walked extensively in cold rain.  But, I had the right layers of clothing.  I walked in a long sleeve underarmour, a polartec jersey and a heavy North Face wind breaker.  I could shed layers or add them, depending upon the conditions.  Also, depending upon the temperature, I had a stocking hat or a baseball cap that I wore on my head.  I managed to keep my core temperature very steady from morning to night.  I walked very comfortably, whether it was a climb, or whether it was raining steadily.  Having the right layers, I think is hugely important to the enjoyment of walking.

Pilgrim Footwear

I took special care in the selection of the boots for the trip.  I tried on at least 4 different pairs of boots, and finally I selected the boots that were the second most expensive at Decathalon (where,…. pssst… everything is made in China,… I think).  I was glad I had water proof boots on several occasions.  The boots had the right fit and I only had one small blister on a little toe, which I attribute more to very bulky wool socks that my Mom gave me, rather than the boots.  I quit wearing the wool socks, and instead walked in athletic, cotton socks.

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Boots from Decathalon (approximately $100 new)

If I were to make the trip during the summer or dry months, I would walk in a good set of running shoes probably.  I don’t think there is any reason to using hiking boots during the months of nice weather.  Foot comfort is elementary.

Bathroom & Medicine Kit for the Camino

I left with my normal bathroom kit, which included several 6 oz bottles of shower gel, conditioner and body lotion.  After the first week, I stripped my bathroom and medicine kit down to almost nothing.  I had a tooth brush, toothpaste, floss, 2 oz shower gel, antiperspirant, and cologne.  Everything was small because I could always buy new supplies as I needed them.

As far as medical supplies, I recommend iodine with a small syringe.  I was told the best way to care for blisters is inject a small amount of iodine into the blister.  I never had big blisters, so I never tried it.  I was a little nervous about packing around the syringe for fear of being labeled a dope addict, but nobody noticed.  I do understand that syringes have other uses other than to shoot up dope.  🙂

Also, I learned to take Ibuprofen  (600mg) when I went to bed at night.  This helped me sleep better, without the twisting, turning and the jumping associated with tired legs.  On the nights I did not take Ibuprofen, I would wake up about every two hours through the night.  The aches in my legs would wake me.

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My medicine kit

When my knees began to bother me, a pharmacist gave me a cream to apply on the painful area.  The cream was an anti-inflammatory treatment.  I really don’t know how well it worked because I lowered substantially, the amount of weight in my backpack at the same time I started using the cream. But in the end, my knees stopped bothering me so no argument here.  A camino friend (Even from China) had middle foot pain for several days and he also applied the same cream at another pharmacist’s suggestion.  And after several days, his foot no longer bothered him significantly.  So two thumbs up on the creme.

Bedbugs and ???

Several of the albergues I stayed in had bedbugs.   My Polish friend (the Black Knight), showed me where he had crushed bedbugs full of his blood.  He was an expert!!  And very full of information about how to combat the little creatures.

I heard on several occasions that bedbugs, athlete foot, and other communicable skin conditions, can get pretty bad on the camino especially during the summer months.  If I were going to walk the Way during the warmer months, I would definitely do some reading and researching on how best to avoid these types of problems.  It may involve using some foot powder, carry flip flops, and I believe there are certain sorts of sleeping bag inserts that deter bedbugs.  In any case, somebody planning for the Camino should understand that these elements may be part of the landscape.

Timing and Camino Routes

There are five main routes that pass through Spain to Santiago de Compostela.  The North route, French route, English route, Portuguese route, and the Southern route (Camino de la Plata).  The English and Portuguese routes are relatively short.  The French route has the most developed infrastructure in terms of places to stay, places to eat, etc.  The North route is the most physically demanding because of all the hills.

I decided to walk the French route because I knew that in January/February, it would be the best bet for finding open alberques in each village.  The other routes are less traveled, and there may be stretches where no albergues are open during these months, and you would instead have to stay at hotels.

There is a flow to the number of pilgrims on the routes.  From December to the end of February, there are few pilgrims on the Way.  The number starts picking up in March, and by mid-April most albergues, hostals, rural houses, restaurants etc are open on all the routes.  May is the month where the most travelers are usually recorded.  It could be mayhem at some moments, I can imagine.  June is a heavy month, July and August drop significantly because of the heat, and then the number of pilgrims again rise during September, October and November.

I heard that this past November there was a record number of pilgrms walking, for that month.  Also, I heard that at one point last year, there were more pilgrims walking the northern route, than there were places to stay.  So I imagine, some pilgrims had to sleep outside someplace and probably had limited access to showers, toilets, etc.

Long story short, anyone planning on walking the Camino de Santiago should take into consideration the volume of pilgrims that will be sharing the experience.

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Well, these are some of the lessons I learned on my walk.   Thanks for reading.   Steve

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