In 2012, I was at a crossroads in my spiritual life: After fifteen years of wondering if the Catholic Church was still the place for me, I decided it was time to make a decision. In order to give myself time and space to think about it, I embarked on a walk across the Spanish countryside on a pilgrimage trail carved by millions of footsteps over the last thousand years: the Camino de Santiago.
A person can begin the Camino (sometimes called the Way) from hundreds of starting points across Europe and walk for just one week or for many months. Most set out with the intention of reaching the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, whether at the end of the their walk or after walking consecutive portions of the trail over many years.
My first experience on the Camino was so transformative that I have now walked it three times in the last four years. Planning a journey on the Camino de Santiago can be overwhelming, so I’ve created a list of the 10 things to know before taking your own pilgrimage.
1. Start Walking
Wearing the shoes and socks you’ll be using on the journey, walk every day. Most smartphones track how far you walk (if you have location tracking turned on). Look at your numbers for the past few days. If you walk two miles per day already, set a goal to walk three miles each day for the next week. Increase each week. Two weeks before you leave, wear your pack on your daily walks. And don’t forget to climb some hills!
2. Know Thyself
Many who walk the Camino take the most popular route, the Camino Francés, and begin their journey in the tiny town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. But be forewarned: The first day’s walk from there is the hardest on the entire Camino — a 24 km (15 mile) walk climbing 1200 meters (3937 feet) before a steep descent.
If you are not physically prepared, you could sustain injuries that will haunt you for the rest of your journey. Break up that first day by spending a night at the Refuge Orisson (reservations are imperative), or consider beginning your journey further along the route.
3. Plan for Travel Days
On my first Camino, it took me 24 hours to get from New York City to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port — via two planes, a bus and a train. When planning your trip, be sure to factor in how long it will take to get to your starting point and how long it will take to get from Santiago (the end of the Camino) to your departing city.
4. Plan for Rest Days
You might need them to take a break or heal from injuries, or you might not need them at all. But building in rest days gives you the option to take a day or more off from walking, which can make a difference in your physical ability to finish the journey.
5. Pack Light
Your pack should weigh less than 10% of your body weight, and if you can’t think of three uses for something, you don’t need it. For example, my hat prevented sunburn on my face, kept the rain off my head and kept me warm on cooler days.
6. Keep It Simple
You’ll be surprised at how little you really need on this journey. There’s no need to buy expensive hiking gear. On my first Camino, much of what I brought was gear I borrowed from friends or bought used.
I do recommend buying new hiking shoes (boots are not necessary) and walking in them for at least a month prior to your trip. And if you don’t already have a good-fitting backpack that’s 40 liters or smaller, buy that new as well. (Most outdoor gear stores will help you find the correct fit for your body type.)
7. Trust the Camino to Provide
Worried you may need that pair of shorts you decided not to bring? Don’t let your fears load your pack. Whatever you need, you can get on the trail — in the next town, from another pilgrim or from the proprietor of the place where you’re staying.
I broke out with an itchy skin rash on a Sunday and was walking through small towns that didn’t have a doctor, let alone an open pharmacy. I asked around and a fellow traveler told me he had left many of his medical supplies in a previous town in order to lighten his pack, but he had kept one Benadryl, which he gave to me without hesitation.
8. Let It Go
This is a good motto not only when it comes to packing, but also when it comes to carrying your pack. If you have any hesitation about your ability to walk the Camino, feel strain on your back or legs while on the trail or sustain an injury, there are at least four companies who transport packs from one location to another on the Camino Francés. The proprietors of every overnight accommodation can help you get set up with one of these services.
9. Get Help When You Need it
Don’t fear seeking medical help for injuries and illnesses. Physician visits and many prescriptions cost significantly less in Spain than in the United States. And you might not even need a doctor — walk into any pharmacy in Spain and the pharmacist can often figure out what’s wrong and give you what you need.
10. Do It Your Way
There is no “right” way to walk the Camino. Don’t think you can walk the whole route? Plan a shorter trip. Too tired to continue one day? Catch a bus. And be ready to change your plans as needed.
A “successful” Camino can mean different things to different people — and your idea of success may change over the course of your walk. I met one man who had limited time to walk the route. He taxed his body early in the journey with long days of walking, which resulted in injuries. He tried to keep pushing on, but he finally realized there was a lesson in this for him: Life doesn’t always turn out as planned.
He listened to his body and his heart and decided he would make it to Santiago another year. He slowed his pace and healed his body. He saw more sights and met more people than he would have had he been rushing, and he enjoyed his journey. Do whatever it will take to make your trip a success.