I left my job as a Humanitarian Adviser in DFID to become her full time carer to accompany her on her end of life journey. In all twenty years of being a humanitarian aid worker in plenty of tough situations around the world, this was the hardest mission I have ever done but it was also an immense honour.
Following my mum’s passing, my 500 mile pilgrimage from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain was truly transformative. I fully expected to walk with and in my grief all of the way but found unexpected joy and surprises and strong friendships as well.
When I reached Santiago, I didn’t want to stop walking so I picked up my backpack again and strode off out of the Praza do Obradoiro and onwards to Finisterre and then Muxia on the coast. I wrote about my experiences in this travel blog and, in fact, this was the reason I began writing this blog in the first place.
Once a pilgrim, always a pilgrim!
For some mystical reason el Camino de Santiago keeps calling me back. If the Camino has called you then do listen to that call and prepare to go!
Reflecting on all three pilgrimages that I have made so far, I have distilled down some of the advice I have gleaned along the Way to five top tips, which may be useful to you. Here they are:
5 top tips for walking el Camino de Santiago
1) Give yourself plenty of time
To walk the length of the Camino Frances from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela or if you wish to walk the Camino Portuguès from Lisbon to Santiago you need to take at least 30 days and some of those days will be very long. For example, the guidebook to the Camino Frances by John Brierley allows 33 days to walk the Camino Frances and still, most of these stages require a pilgrim to walk at least 20 km per day.
To truly absorb every magic drop from your transformative pilgrimage, give yourself the time to fully inhabit every moment of your walk from daybreak to nightfall. You have nothing to prove and you walk for yourself.
I would suggest that when you make your travel arrangements you book a one-way flight to a hub near your starting point or travel to the beginning by other means, in order to avoid being trapped into a fixed schedule, where you have to reach Santiago by a certain date. Do not rush your journey and do not be pulled along by someone else’s schedule.
However, if you only have a short window of time and want to squeeze in your Camino into your limited number of annual leave days or between various family commitments and, therefore, have to schedule your return, then divide up the Camino route you have chosen into sections so that you can come back and complete the full journey at another time. Many people do this and they sometimes take two, three or even more years to complete their pilgrimage.
Take the pressure off yourself and relax into the journey. Give yourself the freedom to pause and linger a while instead of racing off to the next destination. You won’t regret it!
2) Pack as lightly as possible
You have probably read this before, but it is true. Being a pilgrim usually means carrying all you need with you in a backpack. I have walked three Caminos now and for my first one I over packed as my backpack weighed 11 kg and 12 kg with a full litre of water on board. I struggled in my first week with back and neck pain carrying this load and although I got used to it and became fitter and stronger as my journey progressed, I chose not to repeat this experience for my next one.
I carried 10 kg on the Camino Portuguès, which was still way too heavy and 9 kg when I returned to the Camino Frances last year. You can have a good laugh it my naïve packing lists by clicking on From peregrines to peregrina: a Camino packing list and Preparing to walk the Camino Portuguès and an essential kit list
I have heard from several pilgrims that packing less than 10% of your own body weight is a good rule of thumb. However, pack your backpack and walk with it a few days before you go. Then, take out some stuff and then take out some more. Honestly, you don’t need as much as you think you do and this is a great way to practice decluttering your life!
Some pilgrims choose to ship their packs ahead at each stage and this can be especially beneficial if you have back problems or other health issues that make carrying a load for hours on end tricky at best or almost impossible at worst. However, if you don’t have any of these issues and still choose to ship your pack ahead then the disadvantage to this is you have to choose your destination ahead and then make it there at the end of the day. Whereas, if you carry your belongings with you, you have freedom to stop and stay at a place wherever you want and this is a magical aspect of the Camino.
3) Choose the right footwear
I decided to choose a good pair of trail running shoes instead of hiking boots. Trail runners are lightweight, they usually have good grips on the soles to cope with any terrain and they dry out quickly if they get wet and don’t rub up blisters or ankle sores like hiking boots do. I complement them with buying a good pair of ironman-style sports inner soles and sports socks (the ones that have good padding around the toes and heels).
In three Caminos (i.e. over 1,500 miles) I have not had any blisters or shin splints and yet on each one I saw pilgrims suffering with an array of problems owing to heavy hiking boots and plenty of discarded pairs of hiking boots strewn by the side of the trail. I have used trailrunners by Saucony on my first Camino, Saloman on my second and Asics on my third and I must admit that I have since gone back to Saucony as I have found them to be the most comfortable and I am preparing for my next Camino, which will most likely be the Camino del Norte.
To supplement the footwear, do include some Compede blister plasters (or similar) and muscle tape in your first aid kit, just in case. If you don’t need to use them, then you can share them with pilgrims who do.
4) Choose the right rainwear
It is useful to carry waterproofs for the odd day of rain (or snow if you happen to walk in the winter). However, from my experience it is better to use an all-in-one rain poncho like those produced by Altus or Vaude, that fits over your body, as well as the backpack on your back instead of a cagoule and a separate rain cover for the pack.
The all-in-one keeps everything dry and is quick to put on and take off. With the others, you are fiddling with two items and the rain covers for the pack aren’t that effective because rain drips between your cagoule and the backpack and can soak into it, where the raincover is open. So save yourself the trouble. And besides, rain ponchos are incredibly stylish as this photo above clearly shows….
5) Follow your intuition
A wonderful aspect about the Camino de Santiago, whichever route you choose, is that it enables us to get back in touch with the simple pleasures in life, to detach from rigid schedules, expectations and demands of everyday life back home, and re-discover and connect with what it is to be human and a member of the wider, family of living beings on our beautiful planet by being totally immersed in nature for much of the walk.
Allow your own intuition to guide you along the journey. If you feel prompted to linger in a place for a few hours, while other pilgrims race ahead, then do so. Do not let other people dictate the pace and progress of your walk. Even if you are walking with friends or other family members then agree to walk your own walk with grace and listen to the small voice inside.
Perhaps that voice is guiding you to take one of the detours to visit an ancient church or shrine, or one of the rural routes that lets you climb a mountain and wander through groves of spreading, sweet chestnut trees. Alternatively, your intuition prompts you to strike up a conversation with a pilgrim and your become friends for life.
Maybe you receive messages from the other realms from the sun, moon, stars, trees, flowers and animals along the way. You never know what blessing, experience or encounter awaits you.
Be alert, listen and then act.
Expect every day to be an adventure!
I hope you enjoyed this post. Feel free to share the link or comment below, especially if you found this article useful or if you have any questions about the Camino. Don’t forget to follow this blog by clicking on the blue follow button.
Thanks for reading.
Peace, love and light,