Going it alone

These days it seems that more and more travellers on the caminos of Spain are paying companies to arrange their walking stages, accommodation and even meals. Some go on trips where they carry a small daypack with water, snacks and a raincoat, get dropped by coach to walk the scenic bits, then get picked up again and whisked off to multiple star hotels off the trail, where their luggage is waiting for them, to freshen up and have a meal.

Tour operator coach waiting at Cruz de Ferro

I am conflicted about this. I know it’s none of my business how someone else chooses to do their camino – a slogan that’s becoming very popular lately – but I happen to think it’s a shame. For the pilgrims. In my opinion, a lot of them will be missing out on valuable experiences by doing this.

My first concern here is the pilgrim and what they want from – and learn from – the experience. Anyone who has seen the film The Way knows that all four characters have set out on their own, without bag transport, support vehicles, laminated schedules, prebooked beds etc. The would-be pilgrim is fascinated and wants to experience and take part in this. They might be anxious about travelling alone, about travelling in a different country, not knowing the language, not having done anything like it before, anxious about getting lost, not finding a bed, not making themselves understood, not finding help if something should happen. So they look into companies that offer expertise, support, security, and that would allow them to take more stuff and do less preparation.

I remember the pre-camino jitters very well. In those days hardly any companies offered trips like these, so the thought never crossed my mind. The way to do it – the way it was done back then – was to try on shoes and backpacks until you found some that felt comfortable, pack as light as you could and read the guidebook beforehand to prepare. So that’s what I did. I even joined an online forum where I could learn from the experienced pilgrims, ask questions and in time contribute myself. I found the support and security there, with other pilgrims, before I even got on the flight to Spain.

I learned that the camino starts long before you set foot on it. It starts when you begin planning what to take – the bare minimum – and with that comes reflections on what you need versus what you want. You might want to take that lovely warm jacket, but it’s quite heavy, so in the end you take a lightweight fleece and a shell rain jacket instead because it will serve you better. Everything you take, you have to carry. Every day, every step of the way. That thought focuses the mind! On my first long walk I got the shoes wrong (too small for hot swollen feet), so I had to walk in my sandals for a few days until I could find a shop and buy another pair. I got the pack right and I was grateful for it every day. I should have taken a sleeping bag – I wasn’t aware I slept cold because I have always had a bed and a duvet to keep me warm – so I bought one in Burgos. I didn’t need the spork and cup and plastic plate because I always ate out with other pilgrims, so I left them. I tried and failed and adapted and made do.

Reading the guidebook was another way to start the camino before it started. I bought a good guidebook and read it, cover to cover. I made notes in a separate notebook, I highlighted parts of the guidebook. I read up on the advice on what to take and not to take. I picked out places I wanted to see, towns I wanted to stop in, albergues that sounded good (and all the ones with pools), noted stretches without services where I would need to take extra food and water. A lot of the anxiety melted away by travelling the camino in my mind before I got there and preparing myself for what I would encounter. I did make one reservation – at Orisson, which has only 28 beds and at the time was the only way to cut the steep first stage from St Jean to Roncesvalles in two, and I was glad I did. (These days there is a mountain shuttle which picks you up about halfway, takes you back down to St Jean and pops you back up again the next morning.)

The beauty of doing it that way was that the anxiety faded from my mind and was replaced by excitement. In the end I knew my kit would cover most conditions – hot, cold, windy, wet. I knew more or less where I was going when, I knew how the albergue system worked, approximately how much money I’d need, how many days-ish it would take. I knew I could carry my pack pretty easily. This would give me the freedom and flexibility to play it by ear, stop when I was tired, walk further if I wanted to, follow a new friend’s lead or stake out my own course. I stayed in albergues with the other pilgrims and took a private room when I was too tired or just wanted a treat.

Oh, I still got hungry, wet, cold, tired and sore – nobody can organise that away. But I also experienced joy, strength, freedom, friendship, change, humility, gratitude – and nobody can arrange that either.

I suppose my concern is: How can you learn anything new if you don’t do something different? How can you experience change if you try to keep everything the same? How can you do the camino your way if you let someone else plan it? No amount of creature comforts can keep you in your comfort zone on the camino. I can’t even imagine trying to immerse myself in the pilgrim experience while being locked into an itinerary that might not suit me, my mood or fitness level, and also having to play catch-up with my luggage – never mind knowing it is left unsupervised at both ends every day!

Luggage waiting to be transported to the next accommodation

Let me hasten to add that where people are unable to carry the kit they need, no one should ever look down on anyone who had their pack forwarded. And I would never advocate injuring yourself by carrying too much, in fact my point is the opposite! Some might develop back or joint problems when they start walking 20+ kms every day, and going pack-free (or weeding out the contents of the pack, or walking shorter stages) is the sensible thing to do.

But why do some people feel the need to have so much stuff with them? Is it need, want, or fear? What life lessons will they learn from packing a suitcase full of might-needs and evening outfits? What will they learn from walking from A to predetermined B? Do they pay good money for someone to soothe their anxiety and provide the confidence and know-how they could (and maybe should) build up in themselves? Do they feel they get value for money? Do they feel part of the pilgrim community? Part of a group? Or part of a package? Have they traded their freedom to change, for a false sense of security? If they had it all to do again, would they do the same? Some, like David, found the camino through a group tour, returned to walk it his own way with only the pack on his back, and he is still going back at least once a year.

Trust me, no pilgrim needs to book a tour or a package deal to walk the camino. You don’t need to have an extra suitcase full of clothes – pilgrims never used to. Imagine if you took control of the worry, the money and the plan: The more you know, the less worried you’ll be. You can spend the money you save on kit, accommodation and treats for your journey. And if you plan an itinerary that suits you, you really can make it your camino, your way. Don’t let anyone else plan your camino for you – take a deep breath and do it yourself! The companies will still be there if you decide you want them.

Get yourself a guidebook, browse some forums, read some blogs, watch some videos on YouTube. Make some notes, write down some questions and start answering them:

Where would you like to go, and when? How long have you got? Where would you like to start/walk/end up? How would you travel to the starting point, would it be a good idea to prebook the first night’s accommodation? What shoes and clothes will you need? What do you need to buy or replace?

Go for some walks on tarmac, paths, up and down hills; go for several walks on consecutive days to check out your fitness, your shoes, your pack, your rain gear. Does anything rub, leak, make you overheat or leave you cold? Do you need clothes that dry faster, breathe better, protect you from the sun? Have you slept in your liner or sleeping bag, will it keep you cool enough in the summer or warm enough in spring or autumn? Is your backpack comfortable with weight in it over time? Do your shoes give you blisters? How far can you walk in a day?

Find the answers one by one, or the best answer you can provide. Only you know which pack feels good, what weight you can carry, how far you can walk in a day, or if you should take a poncho or rain jacket and trousers. No one else can determine this for you. No company can provide you with a perfect packing list, but you can use lists in books or online as a starting point. And in discovering how to keep yourself warm, dry and comfortable, you are preparing to manage on your own and boosting the confidence you need to walk your own camino. Now all you need is a bed for the night.

These days it’s easy to reserve a bed through booking.com or other accommodation sites, so you don’t have to call and speak Spanish if you want to be sure you have a place to sleep. A guidebook or app, or a useful planning website, will list a variety of accommodation, some of it on a first come, first served basis. Or if you want to, you can stay in hotels every night. You can use Google Translate to help you communicate in other languages. Just about every albergue offers pack forwarding on a day-to-day basis, in case you want a day (or a whole camino) without your pack. There are camino guidebook and map apps for your smartphone so you can navigate the trail safely, as well as old school painted yellow arrows to follow. And there are still good old paper guidebooks to read and make notes in and use for planning before you go, as well as getting a preview of a day’s walk the night before.

They say you pack your fears. I think that is true, and I think realising that will help you avoid doing it. Pack for freedom and joy instead, plan for flexibility and allow yourself to experience a deep sense of achievement, of being perhaps stronger and more self-reliant than you have ever been, with the option to change your plans and with a wide network of other pilgrims supporting you every step of the way. You’ll really never walk alone.

4 thoughts on “Going it alone

    1. Thank you! Each to their own of course but I do think the freedom and flexibility of a DIY or PIBE (Play It By Ear) camino is well worth the experience.

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