Here’s what to know before walking the Camino!
When you’re undertaking something as BIG as walking across Spain (or Portugal ?), you want to be as prepared as possible. Here are the most important things to know before walking the Camino de Santiago.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my post about Camino de Santiago preparation. These tips for hiking the Camino build upon the information I shared there.
While walking the Camino may seem straightforward, failure to prepare properly can result in injury, disappointment and—worst of all—not reaching Santiago de Compostela.
But, that’s not going to happen to you!
You, my friend, found this treasure trove of helpful things to know before walking the Camino de Santiago.
These are all the tips, tricks and insights I wish someone would have let me in on before I walked my first (and second!) Camino.
What do I need to know before walking the Camino?
You don’t just want to walk the Camino. You want to make the most of the experience.
In this post, I’m laying all my own Camino mistakes bare in the hope that you can learn from what I’ve done wrong.
Once you’re done reading, you will have the information you need to not only reach Santiago de Compostela but also enjoy the journey along the way.
If you’re planning on walking the Camino de Santiago in 2021, you need to know what guidelines are in place for COVID-19. This post details what to expect on the Camino during the coronavirus pandemic.
Camino Tip #1: Know How to Identify Bed Bugs
It doesn’t matter if you’re staying in municipal or private albergues: bed bugs can strike anywhere.
Heck, when I was on the Portuguese Camino, those little suckers shut down a convent.
Rather than putting your faith into a (most likely ineffective) spray, learn to identify bed bug infestations with your own two eyes.
When you get to your bunk at an albergue:
- Check the seams of your mattress
- Look for dark red/black residue
- NEVER put your backpack on the bed
When you get home from your Camino, put all your stuff (shoes, clothes, backpack, etc.) into a big garbage bag. Tie it up and let it sit for a month to kill any little camigos you might have brought home.
Camino Tip #2: Use the Two-Sock Method
Thanks to the two-sock method, I walked the entire Portuguese Camino without getting a single blister.
Every morning, before leaving the albergue, I’d apply globs and globs of Vaseline to my feet. Don’t forget between your toes!
Then, I’d pull on a thin pair of Injinji toe socks as my base layer. Next, I’d put on a pair of Balega hiking socks.
Not. A. Single. Blister.
Camino Tip #3: Look for Your People
If you’re nervous about setting out on the Camino alone, don’t be.
Especially on the most popular routes, you may actually need to make an effort to walk alone. To say the Camino is social would be an understatement.
That being said, don’t feel like you need to be best friends with everyone who strikes up a conversation with you.
I’m not advocating for blatant rudeness, but if you’re not vibing with someone, don’t be afraid to go your own way.
Every pilgrim wants to find their Camino family, so don’t be shy.
Ask a fellow pilgrim to grab a coffee. Cook dinner together. Split accommodation.
It may take some time, but once you find your people, that’s when the real fun starts.
Camino Tip #4: Be Smart About Walking in the Dark
You’ll hear lots of pilgrims talk about waking up before the sun rises to start walking.
If that’s something you want in on, make sure you’re properly equipped. I highly recommend a headlamp — your phone flashlight just isn’t going to cut it.
Additionally, have something reflective (tape, flasher) to put on your backpack so drivers can see you when you’re walking alongside the road.
Camino Tip #5: Choosing the Right Footwear
On my first Camino, I wore hiking boots and it was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
My second time around, I wore the Altra Women’s Torin 4 Road Running Shoe and could not have been happier.
The Camino de Santiago, especially the two most popular routes, doesn’t require hiking boots. Because of the changing terrain (dirt path, highway and cobblestone — just to name few), you’re better off going with lightweight, comfortable shoes.
While I loved my Altra shoes and will definitely wear them for my next Camino, many pilgrims swear by the brand Hoka Ona.
Camino Tip #6: Start Out Slow
Even if you’ve done Camino-specific training, the reality is you weren’t walking 15-miles per day (for weeks on end) with a fully-loaded pack.
Training, although good, can only prepare you so much for the Camino.
The fact is you’ll need to do the bulk of your training on the trail.
The first week of walking is all about getting your body used to the idea it’s going to walk across Spain. You’re going to be excited and want to walk far, but I IMPLORE YOU to ease into it.
At least the first few days, do fewer miles than you plan on averaging. Your body will thank you for it.
Camino Tip #7: Adjust for Spanish Meal Times
If you’re coming from outside of Spain, chances are you’re not familiar with Spanish meal times.
In Spain, people generally eat lunch between 2-4 p.m. and dinner between 8-10 p.m. Outside of these hours, many restaurants don’t have their kitchens open.
Keep this in mind when you’re planning when and where you’re going to eat.
Personally, I didn’t want to be a hostage to Spanish meal times, so I made a point of ALWAYS having snacks on hand and preparing most of my dinners at the albergues.
Camino Tip #8: Don’t Eat A Lot at Lunch
I learned the hard way that it’s not a good idea to stuff yourself at lunch when you still have 10 km to get to the albergue.
Pilgrim’s menus seem like a great deal, and they are! But, sometimes, it’s better to order a la carte than order the pilgrim’s menu and over-eat.
Consider how much further you have to walk that day before you stuff your face.
Camino Tip #9: Know That Nothing Is Really Waterproof
…Except for plastic.
Feel free to spend hours scouring the web for the perfect “waterproof” gear, but you should know that, when you walk in the pouring rain for seven hours straight, nothing is waterproof.
Not the rain cover on your backpack. Not your fancy jacket. NOT. YOUR. SHOES.
Some things will stay dry longer than others (my Altra shoes and North Face rain jacket held up well), but at some point, you’re going to get wet.
That’s why I recommend you store everything inside your backpack in plastic bags.
On the very rainy Portuguese Camino, I double-bagged my sleeping bag and kept all my clothes in one giant Ziploc and my passport, wallet, credentials, headphones, etc. in another.
Camino Tip #10: Resist the Urge to Prepare for Anything
When it comes to packing for the Camino, remember that every ounce counts.
I know some Boy Scout somewhere will hate me for saying this, but resist the urge to prepare for anything.
Walking the Camino isn’t backcountry camping. You’ll be passing through lots of cities and towns, which means you can pick up anything you forgot or realize you need.
Camino Tip #11: Forget This “Real” Camino Nonsense
OOF, I really hate Camino snobs.
There are people who will try to tell you what the “real” Camino is. They’ll look down on anyone who does anything different.
I’m here to tell you the “real” Camino is the one you’re on.
Each pilgrim’s journey is unique, and it’s not a competition.
Regardless of what route you take, how many miles you do, what albergues you stay in and whether or not you carry your pack, if you walked the Camino de Santiago, you walked the “real” Camino.
Someone who feels the need to discount other people’s Caminos really missed the point.
Camino Tip #12: Some Nonessentials are Essential
While I’m all about packing light, there are a few nonessential items worth their weight.
Here are a few I’ve found particularly useful on the Camino:
- Compression pillow
- Collapsible Tupperware container
- Journal and pen
Of course, don’t just throw all these in your bag. Research your Camino packing list and decide which nonessential items you want to include.
Camino Tip #13: Get to Municipal Albergues Early
If you’re trying to save money and walk the Camino on a budget, you should plan on arriving at municipal albergues early in the afternoon.
Remember, it’s first come, first serve.
I walked the Portuguese Camino during the shoulder season and witnessed 80-bed dormitories filling up by 4 p.m.
The closer you get to Santiago de Compostela, the more important it will be to arrive at municipal albergues early.
You don’t want to end up like the guy I saw trying to sleep on a bench outside the municipal albergue in Pontevedra during a rainstorm.
Camino Tip #14: Don’t Forget It’s Supposed to be a Vacation
Walking the Camino is nothing like sipping piña coladas on the beach, but it’s still a vacation.
It will challenge you, but you shouldn’t resign yourself to being miserable the entire time.
If you want to sleep in one morning, sleep in. If the weather or an injury is making walking difficult, stop early.
The Camino de Santiago may have gotten its start as a religious pilgrimage, but you don’t need to be a martyr.
If you’re not enjoying yourself (at least some of the time), take stock of the situation and make an adjustment.
Camino Tip #15: Embrace the Grunge
Do yourself a favor and abandon any ideas you have about staying clean on the Camino.
If you’re serious about packing light, then you need to accept the fact you’re going to be a little grungy.
When I stayed at an albergue with a washer and dryer, I took advantage of it. Otherwise, I wore the same clothes day after day.
I know that sounds gross, but everyone’s a little stinky, so no one is going to call you out.
Camino Tip #16: Don’t Let “Yeah Buts” Stop You
Yeah, but I’m too old. Yeah, but I’m too fat. Yeah, but I’ve never walked that far before.
Please don’t let any of that mierda hold you back from walking the Camino.
Over the course of my two Caminos, I’ve seen nearly every type of person out on the trail.
Plus-size pilgrims. Moms pushing strollers along rocky paths. Pilgrims who could be my great-great-grandparents.
Whatever “yeah but” is holding you back from walking the Camino, just forget it. Chances are someone who’s had those same thoughts as you has already made it to Santiago de Compostela.
Camino Tip #17: Make Sure Your Backpack Fits
For many people, the Camino is their first long-distance hiking experience.
Just as important as it is to have the RIGHT gear, it’s critical to have the RIGHT fit.
Always start with loosened straps. When you’re fitting your backpack, here’s the sequence of adjustments:
- Hip belt
- Tighten it over your hips. This fit is very important because it carries most of the weight.
- Shoulder straps
- Pull down on the end of the strap. These keep the weight of your pack forward and tight to your back.
- Load lifters
- These are ideally set at 45 degrees. Tighten these just enough to ease some of the pressure off your shoulders.
- Sternum strap
- This brings your shoulder straps inward to relieve some of the pulling.
Camino Tip #18: Document Your Journey
Even if you’re not a writer, you should make an effort to journal on the Camino.
Years later, I still read back on the entries I wrote about my first Camino. When I couldn’t figure out what the Camino meant to me, they helped me process the experience.
If you’re too tired to write, consider recording a voice note each day on your phone. You can transcribe it later.
Other great ways to document your journey are video and photos.
Camino Tip #19: Be Prepared for Bad Days
Walking the Portuguese Camino was, hands down, one of the best experiences of my life.
But, I’d be lying if I told you it was rainbows and butterflies.
There were some bad days.
Tears were shed, curses were shouted and, at one point when I was laid up in a random budget hotel in Nigran, I wondered if I was even going to be able to finish.
What got me through the bad days?
Well, before I even set foot on the Camino, I spent time thinking about how I’d handle adversity on the trail.
If you think you can walk across two countries without a single bad thing happening, you’re kidding yourself. It’s important to acknowledge there are going to be bad days so you’re not surprised when they happen.
Camino Tip #20: Don’t Underestimate How Tired You’ll Be
I’ll never forget arriving at the municipal albergue in Negreira, laying down on the bed, putting my arm over my face and immediately falling asleep.
Just absolute exhaustion. I’d never been so tired in my life.
Before I did my first Camino in 2016, I had this actual thought: It’s JUST walking. HA!
In case you’ve had that same thought yourself, I’m here to tell you walking is serious business.
The Camino is, by far, the most mentally and physically exhausting thing I’ve ever done.
Don’t underestimate how tired you’ll be after a day of walking. You’re not going to have the energy to wash your face let alone sightsee.
Camino Tip #21: Carry Cash
Even though most places along the Camino accept credit cards, it’ still a good idea to always have cash on you.
Spanish restaurants are known for their delicious food — not their speedy service.
When you stop somewhere, you want to be able to leave when you’re ready. Instead of wasting time waiting to pay with a credit card, have cash ready that you can just leave on the table.
You’ll also want to carry cash to pay for municipal albergues. They usually don’t accept credit cards.
Camino Tip #22: Learn (At Least) a Little Spanish
While you definitely don’t need to be fluent in Spanish (or Portuguese) to walk the Camino, just knowing a little of the local language can go a long way.
Especially since you’re walking through small towns and villages, don’t expect people to know English.
I recommend knowing greetings, how to read a menu/order food and directions.
For that last one, make sure you know both how to ask as well as basic proficiency in direction-vocabulary (right, left, straight, etc.) for when the person you’re asking gives you a response
Google Translate can also help you out.
I’ve witnessed full conversations between people just using the app and passing a single phone back and forth. Make sure you have data on your phone to be able to utilize this helpful tool!
Camino Tip #23: Drink the Tap Water
The tap water in both Spain and Portugal is safe to drink.
Instead of relying on bottled water, drink from the tap.
Lots of restaurants and bars along the Camino will be willing to fill up your water bottle for you. Just ask after you’ve paid the bill.
Camino Tip #24: Give Yourself Time to Process the Experience
I wish I could tell you you’re going to get to Santiago de Compostela, look up at the cathedral and find exactly what you’re looking for.
Everyone who decides to walk the Camino de Santiago is looking for something.
Peace of mind. A challenge. Community. An escape.
There’s a chance you just read that and are thinking, “Oh, not me, Alex.”
You ARE looking for something. You might not know what it is yet, but you are.
There are people (the Amazon Kindle bookstore is full of them) who find what they’re looking for on the Camino. Epiphanies happen (I like what this Forbes contributor has to say), but they’re not as common as eBook authors would have you believe.
For both my Caminos, I didn’t arrive in Santiago de Compostela, look up at the cathedral and feel like a different person.
It took time to process my experience and realize what it meant to me.
You might get to Santiago and think, “That’s it?” I’m here to tell you that it’s not.
It can take weeks, months and, even, years to fully understand how the Camino affected you.
Personally, I love that. The Camino is the gift that keeps on giving.
But, if you’re walking the Camino to find answers, just know clarity isn’t on-call.
Camino Tip #25: Realize There’s More to the Camino Than Finishing
Plot twist: I wrote this post to help you get to Santiago de Compostela, and now, I’m telling you there’s more to the Camino than finishing.
It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.Ralph Waldo Emerson
When you set out on the Camino, you do so with the intention of finishing. By all means, go after that goal with everything you’ve got. I know I did.
But, I caution you against getting so caught up in reaching Santiago that you forget to live in the moment. That’s where all the best stuff is happening.
As good as it felt to get to Santiago de Compostela, the moments that had the greatest impact on me took place miles away from the cathedral.
When I reflect on the Camino, I think about:
- The profound friendships I formed
- The kindness of strangers
- Digging deep and pushing past what I thought my limits were
- Drinking wine at 10 a.m.
- Laughing so hard I had to stop walking to catch my breath
- Trying to talk in Russian accents for hours after we met a hot guy from Siberia at one of the albergues
- Dancing down the trail in my ridiculous red poncho
I think about how, four months after my dad died, it felt so good to be so happy.
I wish I could promise that if you follow every tip in this post you’ll get to Santiago.
But, things happen.
I’m not saying that to discourage you. It’s just a reminder that nothing in life is guaranteed.
With that understanding, I hope you’ll embrace each and every day on the Camino.
More Things to Know Before Walking the Camino de Santiago
- How to Prepare for the Camino de Santiago Like a Pro
- Budget Hacks for Doing the Camino Cheap
- Answers to 13 FAQs About the Camino de Santiago
- What You Do & Don’t Need to Pack for the Camino
Final Thoughts on What to Know Before Walking the Camino
Whew, I know I just threw a lot at you, but these are the things I believe every aspiring pilgrim should know before walking the Camino de Santiago.
I may not know you personally (not yet!), but I know you can do this.
You can walk the Camino de Santiago. You can make it to Santiago de Compostela.
Hopefully, these Camino de Santiago tips will help you make the most of your journey.
Don’t forget to bookmark this post or pin it for later so you have these Camino tips when you need them.
If you have any questions about the Camino de Santiago, feel free to leave a comment below.