The pilgrims of old had to make their own way towards Santiago de Compostela, walking from home, following local advice and directions as they moved from church to church, monastery to monastery, village to village hoping to find food, shelter and safety every day. It seems a scary prospect now, but luckily the modern pilgrim has choices when it comes to travel, food and accommodation. Still, the idea of setting out on such an adventure on your own can feel a bit overwhelming.
I remember the pre-camino jitters very well. When I decided to go, hardly any companies offered planning services or guided trips, so the thought never crossed my mind. The way to do it 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 also 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!
In the end my worry was replaced by excitement because I trusted 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.
If you want to walk the camino on your own, but feel worried about how to manage it, just remember: The more you know, the less worried you’ll be. Get yourself a guidebook, browse some forums, read some blogs, watch some videos on YouTube. Make some notes, write down some questions and start finding answers to them.
No matter how you choose to plan your camino, there are some things only you can do:
- Decide where you would like to go, how far, 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?
- Familiarise yourself with the route. Get a guidebook – it’s a great way to start the camino before your boots hit the ground. Make notes in the margins, or if you are planning to use a mobile phone app on the way, jot them down in a separate notebook or digitally. Read up on the advice on what to take and not to take. Pick out places you want to see, towns you want to stop in, albergues that sound good (like all the ones with pools), note stretches without services where you will need to take extra food and water. Get to know the sort of terrain you will be walking through.
- Choose your footwear and walking clothes, your pack, your rain gear. Consider the time of year, the terrain and temperatures. Do you need clothes that dry fast, breathe well, protect you from the sun? Or do you need warm layers and wind and rain protection? What will you need to sleep in?
- Do some real life training. How far can you comfortably walk in a day? Go for some walks on tarmac, paths, up and down hills; go for several walks on consecutive days to check out your fitness and stamina. Go for a walk in the rain, even if it’s no fun. Do your shoes give you blisters? Do you need poles? Does anything rub, leak, make you overheat or leave you cold? How much water do you need, what snacks keep you going? Will music give you extra energy, or do you prefer to listen to the sounds of nature? Spend a night in your liner or sleeping bag, will it keep you cool enough in the summer or warm enough in spring or autumn? Do your laundry in the sink after a walk and put the same clothes on again the next day. Do you have to change something?
- Pack, unpack, repack. Is your backpack comfortable with weight in it over time? Is it too heavy? Do you really need all that stuff? Is there room for everything, do you know what all the bells and whistles on your pack does?
- Learn some of the local language, if only to say hello, yes and no, please and thank you. It is practical, polite and makes meeting locals more enjoyable. No one will expect you to speak fluent Spanish, but you should also not expect anyone to speak your language fluently. There is always Google Translate if you want or need to communicate something, but learning a little language is always a good thing. How do you say good morning?
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 make that decision for you. 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 at an albergue. I tried and failed and adapted and made do.
In discovering how to keep yourself safe, warm, dry and relatively comfortable, in preparing to manage on your own, you will be boosting the confidence you need to walk your own camino. All you need now 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. 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 before you go, as well as getting a preview of a day’s walk the night before.
If you should get injured, or too tired, or your pack is too heavy, or if you are unable to carry what you want to take, there are companies on the way who will forward your pack for a small fee. The hospitalero/a or reception will help you arrange this on a daily basis. Personally I enjoy having all my kit and clothes with me at all times, so I can stop anytime, anywhere takes my fancy, but not if it is causing problems or injury! Some people, regardless of fitness, 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.
Chances are the camino will make you hungry, wet, cold, tired and sore – no amount of preparation can magic that away. But it will also give you joy, strength, freedom, friendship, change, humility, gratitude, and that makes it worth it!
They say you pack your fears. I think for some that is true, and I think realising that will help you avoid doing it. If you do some research before you go, you don’t need to pay someone to organise your camino for you, and you don’t need to bring a suitcase with several outfits. Pack as light as you can, and you’ll enjoy more freedom and flexibility, earn a deep sense of achievement, perhaps feel 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.
Pros: Full freedom and flexibility, being able to follow your heart, changing plans whenever you feel like it or need to without needing anyone else’s approval.
Cons: You have to deal with and fix any unforeseen problems, injuries or plan changes that pop up along the way yourself. It might feel lonely at times, or difficult, but you will find that people are willing to help if you let them.
To make the most of planning your own walk, make sure you pack light, prepare to be flexible, and do as much research as you need to before you go.