Summer is on the horizon and we know many of you have some awesome travel plans! Last year we walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain and it was truly incredible. We used to daydream about it as roomies at Trinity University and we finally got the chance to make it a reality. Today we’re going to share our experience with y’all and offer some tips and tricks if you decide to make the journey yourself!
There’s so much to talk about so we’re going to break this blog post into two sections. It’s Christie here with the first one!
First off, it is your Camino.
Everyone has a completely unique experience on the Camino. We traveled together all day every day and we each walked away with a different perspective. Ultimately, take all advice with a grain of salt and realize that your time will be unlike anyone else’s time. Everyone walks for a different reason and will encounter their own challenges and blessings.
There are oodles of different routes and we walked the Camino Frances, which is one of the most popular ones. Between my teaching schedule, Kassie finishing her PhD, and the launch of our Kickstarter we couldn’t commit to the entire 30 day trip so we decided to take advantage of the window of time we actually had!
We flew into Madrid, then took a short flight to Biarritz, then a train ride to the start of the route at St. Jean Pied de Port (this charming little market town), which is actually just inside France. On the first day of walking you travel through the Pyrenees Mountains and cross the border into Spain. Each day we walked about 10-15 miles (our longest day was 17). We took a rest day about halfway through the trip but spent most of our time walking.
We have a detailed and printable packing list for y’all at the bottom of this post -- but I’m going to highlight a few items that are worth more explanation.
I thought I packed light and still brought too much. As a chronic over-packer, I only half-way listened to the advice to bring as little as possible. I ended up faring alright, but looking back I realize how many superfluous items I ultimately brought.
Bringing a small sleeping sack or liner instead of a full on sleeping bag worked really well. It was warm in July and a lot of times I ended up sleeping on top of it. It rolled up tightly during the day and didn’t take up much space.
My scarf! (featured in the above photo) I wrapped it around my legs to attend Mass, put it over my shoulders when it was cold, used it as a pillow/blanket, used it as a curtain when we were in the bunks by tucking it into the mattress above me -- it was so handy! It folded up super small and didn’t add any weight or bulk to my pack. I bought mine at the Gap years ago but I’m sure it would be easy to find something similar!
For clothes I pretty much rotated through the same 2 outfits. I would walk all day in one outfit, hand wash it at the albergue using Dr. Bronner's soap (can also be used as your shampoo & body wash -- but make sure not to get this stuff in your eyes!), and change into the clean outfit which I would also sleep in and then walk in the next morning. Since we traveled in the summer our clothes dried quickly so the next morning I would just pack the clean set and repeat the process that evening. I took these Lululemon shorts and in my opinion they are worth every single penny. I've had these for years and have done crossfit workouts, mud runs, zip lining -- you name it, and they've always held up and been crazy comfortable. I rotated between 2 dry fit shirts, brought one set of yoga pants for the flight (which I was really glad to have), and I ended up buying one tank top near the end of the trip.
A small quick dry towel. Most albergues (hostels) will provide a pillow but you need to have your own towel and something to go on your bed. Since we traveled during the summer my towel was already dry by the morning. I would hang it over my bunkbed and use it as a curtain like I did with my scarf. This was one of the best items I brought!
My trail running shoes -- super lightweight and I had no blisters with them (although I always preemptively took care of blisters and would air my feet out during the day). I recommend going to REI and having them help you pick out a pair that fits your feet just right. Also, try to get them a couple months ahead of time so you can break them in.
I bought a pair of collapsable and light-weight hiking poles from REI and they really helped to take the strain off your knees and steady you on the downhill sections. Here’s the tricky thing though -- depending on your airline you may or may not be able to carry them on the plane so you have to decide whether you are willing to risk checking your bag (which is the only thing you will be carrying at this point and any delays could set you back). Per my friend Jessica's recommendation, we decided not to risk losing our packs and instead bought a cheap gym bag to check the poles through to Spain and then left the bag with our albergue host the first night. It might seem wasteful, but it was worth our peace of mind and not losing everything we had packed.
The not so good:
The backpack I brought was just alright. It was small but didn’t have much hip support so there was a lot of weight on my shoulders. If I went again I would make sure to have better hip straps. It wasn’t the worst, but I could have been more comfortable with something else.
I brought an adapter, outlet converter, and a small rechargeable phone battery (which I never used) and it ended up being way overkill. It could have been handy for a different type of Euro trip but for the Camino you really don't want all that bulk. Next time I would get a small adapter and leave the rest at home. Almost everywhere you stay will have outlets and my phone only died a couple times on the trip and it wasn't a big deal. Less is more on the Camino!
I have chronic migraines and food allergies and I was so worried about getting sick that I brought this emergency kit of medicine. I would do this again but just 1-2 day’s worth -- just enough to get you to the nearest town and stock up (unless of course it’s a prescription). It’s surprising how much each little item starts to add up in your pack and I realized half way into our trip that I didn’t need all this stuff! You can pretty much buy anything you need along the way. The Camino is so well traveled so if its a fairly common item then leave it at home. (General rule of thumb -- if you’re on the fence about needing it and it’s something replaceable -- then leave it at home.)
Unpopular opinion, but I think Tevas are overrated. I brought some with me on the trip thinking that I might take a break from my trail running shoes or in case of blisters but I never used them and they just added tons of weight to my pack. Next time I’ll bring some lightweight flip flops for when we are at the albergue.
Food Allergies! I’ve been gluten free/grain free for about 10 years now. Almost every website I read said not to bring food on the trip but to buy everything along the way. I followed that advice and was very very hungry. They eat a lot of bread in Spain. In the bigger cities there were more options but the charm of the Camino is walking through these tiny little Spanish towns that are less populated. Next time I would bring some more protein bars for breakfast or lunch since dinner was generally a little easier. Also, thanks to Kassie I found out that the Spanish tortilla served for breakfast in most cafes was naturally gluten free (mostly egg, potato, and cheese -- but always double check) and that became a staple in my diet on our trip. Again, it wasn’t the absolute worst, I survived to tell the tale, but now I know to plan a little more for next time. At least the wine was gluten free ;)
I recently went on my first silent retreat and my spiritual director told me that she typically spends the week leading up to the retreat praying specifically for it. I think the same could be said for the Camino. Before we left I was running around trying to get things ready for our Kickstarter launch and taking care of to-do lists. The first couple of days on the Camino were almost like a detox. I was so used to moving quickly and being on my phone a lot that spending hours just walking in nature started to drive me a little mad. In hindsight, I would start praying for the trip, praying for those I meet, and inviting the Holy Spirit into the trip much earlier on. We have a downloadable prayer card for you at the end of this post if you want to focus your prayers on the Camino.
We both are in a fairly good shape which helped us on the Camino. However, nothing quite prepares you for what’s ahead. It’s a unique combination of physical and mental toughness that you can’t truly prepare for ahead of time. That being said, a decent level of fitness is recommended. Some basic cardio, leg strength, and core strength will help you during your walk. Also, if something is hurting, chafing, throbbing or whatever -- try to take care of it as early on as possible. Adding in some stretching to your morning and evenings can alleviate a lot of minor aches and pains (and you will definitely have them at some point). If you need to slow down, just do it. It's better to let something rest (body or soul) and enjoy your Camino rather than be miserable the whole time. Surrendering your expectations and schedule is a helpful mindset.
There were so many special moments on the trip that it's really hard to describe. I think my favorite thing was the opportunity to travel by foot and see how the landscape changed from rural to city life. We move so fast and Houston is so sprawling that I pretty much drive everywhere (and people drive fast here). It's a completely different experience to discover a country just by walking. This was my first time seeing Spain and I felt like I really got to see the country and experience all its little wonders. Every little town we walked through was just so delightful. It's fascinating to see how other people around the world live. In Spain the pace is so much slower and it's a good reminder that the way we operate in the U.S. is not the only way -- constantly rushing and trying to achieve more. There's something to be said for slowing down and creating a new rhythm in your days, which is exactly what happened on the Camino. The first couple days were hard, but after a week we had established a rhythm and felt more conditioned to the climate of walking miles and miles every day. It was interesting to see the way your body and mind adapt to a new environment and new challenges. Also, having to carry everything on your back really makes you assess how much you truly need -- and it's honestly not that much. The Camino felt like a mirror in the sense that it was constantly allowing me to reflect on my habits and what I accept as normal parts of my life.
The earliest you can start your day the best! We tried to start walking around 6 am most days and got to see the sunrise which is a pretty incredible way to start the day.
After an hour or so of walking you can stop for breakfast & coffee. It's best to get the bulk of your walking done earlier in the day to avoid the heat.
Try stopping every 2-3 hours just to get your pack off, take your shoes off to air out your feet (thanks Michaela!), and get some water/food. It’s tempting to power through, but chunking the walk into smaller pieces makes it more enjoyable and will preserve energy & stamina.
Never pass up a bathroom.
Always follow the actual markers of the Camino. Sometimes there are arrows spray painted on the grass or concrete (not the sea shell markers) -- use caution and confirm that it's the right way with your map.
Totally obvious -- but drink TONS of water.
Pay attention to little markers along the way where you can get an extra stamp for your Pilgrims Passport.
Keep in mind that the first few days may be hard, but you will adapt to the pace and rhythm.
- We have a printable packing list for you HERE -- keep in mind that we traveled during July so we packed for hot summer temperatures, you may need to adjust if you are going during a cooler time.
- We also have a prayer card HERE to print off and take with you (and even pass out to others along the way!)
Overwhelmed yet?! The biggest part is showing up and being open to where the journey will take you (cliche but still relevant). Ultimately your experience will be entirely your own but it will certainly be a trip that you never forget!
We'll be back soon with Part II written by Kassie!