Prior to my departure for Spain, I had seven years to research the Camino de Santiago. I read memoirs, practical guidebooks, cultural guides, and even art history guides. All of the books I own on the Camino have had at least one read through; some have had four or five. I became obsessed with knowing all I can about this dream adventure.
However, reading and researching something is entirely different from the knowledge you gain from actually experiencing it. So with that said, I’d like to share the top five things I learned from hiking the Camino de Santiago.
- Invest in some hiking poles and use these every day you’re on the trail. It doesn’t matter what terrain you’re on — use them. They propel you, they support you, they make you more efficient and lead to a better day of hiking. I nearly passed out on my first day because I didn’t use my poles and overexerted myself. There’s a reason why St. James is pictured with a hiking staff — because he knew how important they are.
- Bring a good guidebook with you. I swear by John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago because it’s informative and helpful. He provides you with distances between towns, cafes and accommodation, elevation levels and even local history and cultural descriptions on the various towns you walk through. I will say that you can, without a doubt, hike the Camino without a guidebook seeing how the way is so well marked. However, if you need to know how many hostel beds are available in the town you’re hiking to twenty-five kilometers away (which is something you may have to worry about during high season), or when the next washroom/coffee/lunch break is, then this book is for you.
- Regardless of the season, layers of clothing are necessary. Mornings can be chilly and damp, by midday you’re sweltering, and once night comes and you’re settled in and showered, you’ll be back in cooler climes. Without fail I started everyday with a t-shirt, sweater, and light jacket on top and a pair of convertible pants on the bottom. By lunch I’d be in just the t-shirt and the bottoms of my pants would be zipped off. Be prepared for all sorts of temperatures, all of which can be experienced in just one day.
- If you’re a writer or like to keep a journal, bring a small notebook with you while you hike to record your thoughts and experiences. I had one with me but I was so caught up with everything that I didn’t write down one word. Now it’s one of my biggest regrets because I’d love to be able to reminisce about those little, daily details that I would have written down as I experienced them — most of which are lost now when I try to look back and remember it all.
- Whenever you stop for a break at a café or restaurant, always, always, always do the following two things: 1. Replenish your water bottle. 2. Go to the bathroom. I barely drink any water during the day in my “regular” life, but on the Camino I forced myself to drink as much as I physically could. I honestly noticed a difference once I got into the habit of drinking a few liters a day — everything just feels better. Of course, a side effect of this water intake will be having to constantly relieve yourself of all that liquid, so unless you’re comfortable with going behind a bush, make use of the toilets along the way (Perdone, dónde está el baño?).
So there you have it! I hope these tips help you if you’re preparing to make your own pilgrimage across Spain. There are so many things I’ve learned from this experience that if you were to get me talking about my journey, I’d need at least a few hours of your time. However, these are the things that stand out the most for me — especially the hiking poles. Plus, you can always pretend you’re downhill skiing with them if you’re feeling particularly silly and/or bored (functional and entertaining!).
This post marks the end of my Camino de Santiago writing. I feel like I’ve finished a chapter of my life! It’s very bittersweet, to be honest. I don’t think I’ll ever be absolutely done with the Camino (I’d still like to do the Portuguese Way and the Coastal Route), but for now I’m hanging up my Camino gear and will be looking forward to new trips and adventures — like the two trips I’ve already got in the works 😉
If anyone has any questions about the Camino, please feel free to contact me. I’d love to hear from you!