Embarking on an 800 kilometre (500 mile) walk across northern Spain is enough to create worries in any of us.
Am I fit enough? What gear should I take? Where will I sleep?
What will I do if something goes wrong? Will I cope walking alone?
All legitimate concerns and after-all good preparation for such an undertaking is important. But tying yourself up in knots over-researching is not good for the nerves. So here are some not-so-typical tips to help alleviate any first-timer's worries.
1. Lean on your Camino Family
Who knew there is this big Camino family out there who want to help you? We didn't before we started preparing for our Camino. Stumbling on the Camino de Santiago forum was a godsend. All manner of questions have been asked and answered here giving you peace of mind that you are not the only one with that off-the-wall question.
The family vibes continue if you spend your first night at Beilari in St. Jean Pied de Port. Joseph and Elizabeth host a delicious vegetarian communal dinner with get-to-know-you games. Sound painful? Well, it wasn't, it was perfect for focusing your thoughts on why you are about to do this. Joseph created something that first night which lingered throughout our 37-day journey. In fact longer, for us, life-long friends bonded from shared highs and lows.
2. Trust the Brierley Bible
A lot has already been written about John Brierley’s Camino guides, and rightfully so. Pitched as the 'practical and mystical manuals for the modern day pilgrim' they are right on the money for guiding you step by step through your Camino journey.
This book is all you need to plan your days, where to eat, where to sleep, what to see. Everything. Painless and stress-free.
3. Timings can Make or Break it
Timings can make or break your Camino experience. What time of year you walk, even the time of day you walk.
Summer can be as busy as hell, which may be right up your street. But be prepared for competition for a bed for the night, and a noisier walk as pilgrims chatter away along the trails. It will be darn hot too, but probably rain free.
The best option, in my opinion, is either Spring or Autumn both of which are quieter people-wise and cooler too. You do need to prepare for chilly morning starts, warm afternoons and the occasional risk of rain. We got lucky with our mid-September start, only getting two short showers. Barely worth getting out the rain gear.
I also recommend getting your butt out of bed early each morning. The earlier you start the more peaceful the trails. You get to experience the sun rising and usually get the pick of the bunks and clean showers at your next hostel. Particularly important the closer you get to Santiago when the number of pilgrims increases considerably.
4. Stop Chasing the Perfect Gear List
As a Camino virgin, you will find yourself pouring over every packing list you can find, trying to perfect your gear list. You will spend days looking at ponchos versus backpack covers, sleeping bags versus fleece blankets and sneakers versus hiking boots.
My advice, don't sweat it. You will be just fine. Yes, you need some key items, but they don't need to be fancy or expensive. Less is more for sure when you have to carry it day after day.
Just make sure your backpack and boots/shoes fit well and are comfortable. Practice with them on day hikes before you leave. Invest in good quality socks and carry a small first aid/feet care kit. A headtorch is handy for those pre-dawn starts and walking poles takes the pressure of the joints and improve your endurance. See our full packing list here.
5. Keep your Feet Fantastic
Nothing really prepares you for the toll that walking 20-odd kilometres a day, day after day takes on your feet. You will feel your fitness improve, lungs and heart getting stronger, but your feet just get more and more grumpy with the daily toil.
Daily foot care helps to mitigate some of the issues. Rubbing Vaseline into our feet before heading out helped keep blisters at bay with the odd exception. Washing and moisturising in the evening helped too. Our friend Ann swore by her Wrightsocks. She endorses their magical properties for keeping her feet blister free.
But the single best thing I found was some Camino specific yoga stretches you can do from your bunk bed. Two exercises in particular were as painful as they were effective in stretching out the tops and bottoms of my feet. I don't think I would have made it to the end without doing this torture at the beginning and end of each day.
6. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
As with all of life, everything is not perfect. Your time on the Camino will be no different. For us, the good outweighed the bad and the ugly ten-fold. We loved the people we met, often our paths intertwining for days on end. Some have now become good friends. We loved the daily routine of walk, eat, sleep. The simplicity of it all is refreshing. We loved the actual walking with all it beauty, challenges, and rewards.
The bad, well maybe not bad, but different was the last 100 kilometres. Quite a different experience than the previous 700. Busier, yes of course, but also a different type of pilgrim. Larger groups, often noisier and less considerate. It took a lot of zen will-power to zone it out, that and starting super early in the morning.
The ugly (and preventable) was the litter and graffiti. A personal bug-bear of ours sadly scarred the Camino landscape. In particular, the fairly new kilometre markers which had been defaced, often by the same person - we all know who you are Julius! As for the loo paper - pick it up ladies, ziplock bag it and bin it. It's not difficult. Anti-bac hand sanitizer is your friend.
7. When Things Go Wrong
Your Camino experience is unlikely to be a total walk in the park. Things can, and do go wrong. Adapting and rolling with the punches is the best approach.
On a small scale, watch out for Sunday nights. Despite the numerous hungry cash-carrying pilgrims heading through the towns looking for a feed, most restaurants and supermarkets close on Sundays. So plan ahead and don't get stuck like we did, in the middle of nowhere, famished after a 22 km hike with only nuts and a pot noodle for dinner.
On a slightly larger scale, I had to suck up my pride and adapt. After 10 days, just as we were about to hit the Meseta, my achilles started to give me grief. Each day it got progressively worse with my pace dropping to about 2 km an hour. Gutted at the thought of not being able to finish, I took a curve ball option and decided to bike the Meseta, whilst Steve continued to walk. It added a new dimension to my Camino, giving my feet a rest but creating aches and pains in new places! It was fun and challenging despite the supposed flatness of the Meseta. I also got a couple of rest days in León waiting for Steve to catch up. By then my achilles problem had eased off, and the chance of finishing the Camino seemed possible again.
My advice, don't beat yourself up if you need to adapt - hire the bike, ship your pack, take the bus. Do what you need to do. It's not a competition, with anyone else or yourself.
8. Emotional Rollercoaster
One thing that is hard to prepare for is the emotional rollercoaster you may feel as you walk day after day. Camino wisdom has it that you will go through three stages as you progress along the trail - physical, emotional, and spiritual. No doubt it is different for everyone, but for me, it was physical, physical, physical! It is hard to stop your brain dwelling on every little ache, pain or niggle. Every. Single. Day. In the end, I just accepted this for what it was, which allowed me to focus on everything else around me. The undulating countryside, the farming villages, the bustling cities.
That said, I did have the odd emotional experience. Usually when walking alone along the alternative tracks. Solitude has a way of allowing our deepest thoughts to surface for consideration. It's good to get yourself some alone time, even if you are walking with a friend or partner.
As for the spiritual side, this only hit home as we limped into the plaza in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on day 37. A heady mix of emotions collectively shared by grinning pilgrims sunning themselves in little groups scattered across the square. Intoxicating.
Whatever your journey brings, keep your mind and heart open. Walking the Camino de Santiago will be one of the best things you have ever done. Your will find yourself dreaming of going back again to enjoy the simplicity of walk, eat, sleep, day after day.
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