1. Cash is King
Rural Spain is a society of cash, card machines are not a thing, and if you don’t have Euros on you it makes it very difficult to do anything. Many albergues won’t take a card, likewise small grocery stores and even restaurants in the rural villages won’t take anything other than cash. Or if they take card there is normally a minimum spend. I would recommend getting out around 200 Euros at a time that will last you a few days between large towns where you can find cash machines. Which is another important thing to note. Not all towns have cash points or banks. Download the free Camino pilgrim app onto your phone and it will give you a list of the services in each town. Likewise, if you start in St Jean Pied de Port (I can’t vouch for anywhere else) at the pilgrims office, you get given a list with all the towns along the route and their services.
2. You Will Overpack
This is almost a given, the recommended weight of your pack for anyone who isn’t an experienced pack carrier is 10% of your body weight. So if you weigh 65kgs that’s 6.5kgs and if you are 100kg that 10kg for your pack. REMEMBER this includes your water and snacks. It is almost a given you will go over this despite your best efforts. The Camino saying goes ‘you pack your fears.’ It doesn’t matter how many blogs and advice columns you read, you will still bring too much. YOU DON’T NEED IT! Don’t bring a pillow, I only found one albergue without a pillow along the ENTIRE trip. Don’t take six changes of clothes and four pairs of shoes. Bring three changes of clothes MAX! One for wearing one dirty if it rains and you can’t get them washed, and one you’re wearing. OR one clean, one on, one that isn’t hiking clothes, because you will at some point want to not be wearing traveller’s clothes. DO bring something warm, one jersey and one light pair of pants of thermals is enough, if you’re walking in the height of summer you probably don’t even need that. I will create a packing list in another post.
3. Break In Your Shoes
On the note of what to bring; shoes. The arguably most important piece of equipment for El Camino. It is SOOOOOOOO important to have good shoes, and to have broken them in. DO NOT and I repeat DO NOT buy brand new shoes for the Camino. You are better wearing your travel worn hikers then buying new shoes. They need to be comfortable. But also don’t skimp on the blister plasters, even those who had no blisters for the first few weeks, by the end had a couple of small ones as their shoes really started to wear. You can if you want to send another pair of broken in shoes ahead of you if you really want to avoid this. Still, a few small blisters is easier than a whole foot pad worth of blister (saw it happen multiple times!) And a whole host of foot and knee problems that can be the end of your Camino before you have even begun. Be sensible, if you have a history of ankle issues wear shoes with ankle support (from experience I should’ve done this). This is a hike. There is a lot of uneven footing, and though it can be done in sandals, (like our friend Brian) or trainers, if you know you have issues make sure you allow for it.
4. Ear Plugs
You don’t have to like them normally but they will save you many a sleepless night if you have them. Get a big packet like THESE and stash them in your backpack, then it won’t matter if you lose some and it’ll drown out the reverberations of the old guy who sounds like a freight train full of pots. Likewise, if you struggle to sleep with light, bring an eye mask.
5. Drink More Water!
If you have been following my Camino diaries, you will have heard me say this before and for a more detailed reason click HERE to jump to the blog post all about it. For those who haven’t. Dehydration causes walk ending problems, whether from heat stroke or tendinitis. It’s recommended to drink 4-6 litres per day. Bring a water bottle or water bladder that can hold at least 500 ml, there are fountain’s all along the path but some sections are further apart than others. One day in the Maseta is an 18 km gap between towns.
6. Learn Some Spanish
Just because thousands of people walk this route does not mean everyone speaks English. The last 100kms there is a much larger proportion of English speakers but on the whole, especially in the smaller towns you are lucky if anyone speaks more than one or two words. Learn how to say ‘please’ (por favor) ‘thankyou’ (gracias) and ‘where is the bathroom?’ (donde eres el bano) at the very least. Being able to order food and know how much money to hand over is also recommended, but being polite goes along way.
7. Bed Bugs Will Happen
You might not get them yourself, but someone you meet will. With everyone moving on so quickly they are easy to spread and hard to eradicate completely from the albergues. If you see them, report them immediately!!! But it’s best to take precautions. Try to keep all your stuff together, get some bed bug spray and dose your bed and yourself if needed before sleeping, and as an added protection I would recommend a sleeping bag liner. The silk ones are relatively cheap and pack down to almost nothing. Also bring clothes and bedding that can go through a hot wash and dry. The easiest way to remove bed bugs if you get them is with extreme heat, stick it all through the washer and dryer.
8. Let The Camino Provide
This is a Camino proverb; “The Camino shall provide.” And if you have been following my diary blog you will know exactly that happens. People are open, generous and kind-natured if only you let them. The Camino instils a sense of community among the masses, if you need something and you are open and willing it will find its way to you. Whether that be a café right when you need a bite to eat and a coffee, or a warm jersey that someone decided they don’t need anymore. Be open, generous and gracious and the Camino shall return it tenfold.
9. Experience Spanish Culture And Food
Spain has an amazing culture of food and wine. We found the people to be friendly and enjoyable. Every region is slightly different, and as you move across the Camino trail from the independent Basque region, (who don’t speak Spanish, Basque is another language entirely.) To the sun-baked Rioja region, where beer is expensive but wine is abundance, to the contrast of Galicia, where beer is also in abundance. You will find many delicacies unique to each region and all worth trying! I will note if you are a vegetarian or vegan be prepared, Spain, especially where the Camino Frances trail runs is meat and bread and cheese. Vegetables can be scarce, not impossible, but this would be a much more difficult trip culinary wise for those that don’t eat meat. Likewise, do (as a pilgrim) cook some of your own meals, you will not only save money. But meals cooked as a group is a great way to socialise, have less waste and enjoy a different side of the Camino experience.
10. Walk Your Own Camino
Finally, arguably the most important advice I can give is this; this is your journey, no one else can experience it for you. So do it YOUR way. Take your time, be open-minded and walk your own Camino. It’s your memories forever after, and your experience to take away many people in their lives may only get to see the Camino trail once, make it worthwhile and make it yours. If you have the ability, and don’t have a time limit, don’t book ahead, don’t have a return flight or if you have a time limit, give yourself as much time as possible. On our trip the only nights we booked ahead were those in hotels. Having the ability to stay wherever we wanted was liberating, it’s part of the wonder of the Camino, “where are we going today?” Well off we go into the wilderness to find out! (This is coming from someone with travel anxiety!) But likewise, your journey walk it your way! The point is the Camino is a journey, not just a hike and you will hear every pilgrim you meet that has walked the way tell you to slow down. But you won’t, and you won’t understand until you get to the last 100 kms and realise you only have a few days left. Take your time, have a rest day, go explore that town and pray in that church or climb that hill to see the castle. You may only ever do this journey once, make the most of your experience. You are not weak or inadequate for taking two or three or ten more days to complete the walk than your fellow peers. This is YOUR Camino!