Hiking El Camino is an ideal way to see the North of Spain, and might just change your life! Cat Gaa recently hiked El Camino, or The Way, and knows the importance of smart packing. Check out her tips to a successful walk.
By Cat Gaa
The weight scale at the Ryan Air counter of Santiago de Compostela’s Lavacolla airport read just 5.5 kilos (12 pounds). I did a fist pump, happy to have come in far under my allotted weight, but also thrilled to know that I, the perpetual over-packer, had achieved the impossible – I had prepared for a two-week hiking trip in under six kilos.
Planning and training are important components to a successful Camino de Santiago, but so is the packing. Special care should be taken with what you’re bringing, how you’re carrying it, and whether or not you really need it. You may find that, just as other pilgrims leave stones and personal items atop way markers, you might leave some unnecessary items behind on The Way.
How to Pack Your Bag
Packing for the Camino can be tricky, and you have to take into consideration the time of year you’ll be walking, how far you’re trekking, and the fact that Northern Galicia is one of the rainiest spots in Spain.
As a general rule, your bag should weight about 10% of your body weight. I stressed about trimming weight, including leaving tweezers behind and cutting tags off of clothing, until I got down to 7.2 kilos. This also included my DSLR camera and its gear, which I saw as necessary and not terribly heavy.
Pack your sleeping bag at the very bottom of the bag, and anything else that’s heavy against your back. Anything you’ll need to have at hand – aspirin, your pilgrim passport, money – should go near the top so that you’ll be able to have another person grab it without having to unload your bag.
The bag – My bag wasn’t the most important part of my trek, but it made a big difference. I’d suggest a 40-litre bag that’s got plenty of external pockets for your small essentials. The shoulder straps and hips straps should be padded, particularly if you’re a woman. I even went to a sporting goods store with my bag packed and had a shop assistant tighten and fit it on my back!
Footwear – You’ll be walking several hours – even up to eight – every day, so making sure you have adequate footwear is crucial. Look for shoes that have breathing capabilities and are waterproof. You’ll see pilgrims that wear tennis shoes, or even walking sandals with socks, so do a test-drive and choose what’s most comfortable for you. Be sure to break them in well – they will be both your best friend and your worst enemy (there is nothing worse than pulling them on first thing in the morning when your tootsies are still sore!).
You should also pack a pair of comfortable shoes for the hours when you’re not walking. I wore my trusty Reef sandals, which were thick soled with cloth thong straps, and they doubled as shower shoes.
Clothing – Be sure to plan well for bringing clothing, as the weather along the route can be unpredictable, and it even snowed in May in the Pyrenees! Since I began in late July, we didn’t take too much cold weather clothing, but do be sure the clothing has wicking to dry quickly and repel sweat. I brought three pairs of anti-blister socks, three pairs of underwear, three T-shirts, two tanks, a pair of shorts, a pair of pants that converted into shorts, pajamas, a jacket and a cotton dress to wear after walking. All were lightweight and breathable.
Gear – Of course, you’ll have to take a few more items. Look for a lightweight sleeping bag, a flashlight (preferably a headlamp), laundry soap or detergent packets, a quick-dry towel, a cotton bandana, and tons of medication.
I took a Compeed anti-run stick, Band-Aids, micropore athletic tape, allergy pills, ibuprofen, and a needle and thread to treat blisters. I had gotten five blisters by the third day, so I used everything I brought. But don’t fret – pharmacies along the way, denoted by a green cross, are equipped for pilgrims. I had to buy a knee brace, and my friend, some Vaseline for her feet.
As I mentioned, I brought my nice camera and its equipment. I also packed a poncho to fit over me and my bag, a notebook and three pens, my Kindle, and safety pins for hanging my laundry. In addition, I also tore the pages out of the Ciccerone guide to the Camino del Norte and bound them together with a butterfly clip, though I couldn’t bear to throw the pages away as we ticked kilometers off. And one more important item: a swimsuit, as the Camino del Norte spends plenty of days along the coast. We were able to swim in several towns and virgin beaches along the way!
What I wish I had brought…
Honestly, the only thing I wish I had brought were two aluminum walking poles. I did the Camino del Norte, a route along the northern coast of Spain that stretches from Irún to Santiago, and is rumored to be more physically challenging. There were moments where we literally had to thrash through dense vegetation or try and stay steady.
…and what I wish I hadn’t.
I think I did a pretty good job with packing my bag – I had sore shoulders infrequently, and I only threw out on pair of socks and two T-shirts made with wicking. I didn’t pack any moisturizers, make up or perfume, but made up for it with sunscreen, a huge bottle of anti-septic spray, and plenty of extra socks.
I also found my sleeping mat to be unnecessary, as we chose to pay a bit more to stay in a pension if the pilgrim inn was full. I kept carrying it around simply because I figured it would be useful back home for camping trips or stretching in my living room.
One thing you can’t forget? Your conch shell, the indisputable symbol of the pilgrim.
Cat Gaa walked 325 kilometers (200 miles) on the Northern Route to Santiago for charity in summer 2013. During the year, she lives and works in Seville and maintains a personal blog, Sunshine and Siestas. This was her first of hopefully many Caminos.