Things we wish we had known before embarking on our first Camino de Santiago

14 things we wish we had known before walking the Camino de Santiago

Sandra Rosenau Last Updated: Thursday 30 April 2020 Spain 5 Comments

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When we first thought about walking the Camino de Santiago, we didn’t know much at all. We had heard about it, and then watched a documentary with Paulo Coelho (who apparently decided to become a writer while walking the Camino) and the movie The Way with Martin Sheen.

We then researched and found a few good websites. But they mainly talked about the different routes, broken up into the usual 25-30km stages, what to pack, etc. Some of our questions were still left unanswered. Just before we started walking, we also found some Facebook groups, where people asked questions as they prepared for their Camino. By that time though, we were already packed and on our way.

If you are planning your first Camino and have (like us) gazillion questions about what to expect, today’s article is for you. Having done our first one (and very likely not the last), we have learned a few lessons, which we share with you here.

With a bit of preparation, this could be you very soon
With a bit of preparation, this could be you very soon

Lesson 1: Carry no more than 10% of your body weight

While we only carried 12 kilograms/26 pounds between us, I carried 9 kilograms / 20 pounds in my normal carry-on backpack. Paul’s Matador Daylite16 backpack only weighed 3 kilograms / 6 pounds due to his recent back surgery. It was doable, largely because we only averaged 10km/day, but it wasn’t the most comfortable.

If and when we do it again (assuming it would be without either one of us having an injury), we’d split the weight more evenly between us – the recommended backpack weight is 10% of your body weight – and use a proper hiking backpack.

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Deuter Futura 28 SL, Cranberry/Maroon
Osprey Talon 44 Men's Hiking Backpack
Deuter Unisex Adults’ ACT Trail PRO 32 SL Rucksack, Red (BlackBerry/Arctic), 24x36x45 Centimeters (W x H x L)
Osprey Exos 38 Men's Backpacking Backpack
Deuter Futura 28 SL, Cranberry/Maroon
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$171.86
$180.00
$91.17
Osprey Talon 44 Men's Hiking Backpack
Osprey Talon 44 Men's Hiking Backpack
$159.95
Deuter Unisex Adults’ ACT Trail PRO 32 SL Rucksack, Red (BlackBerry/Arctic), 24x36x45 Centimeters (W x H x L)
Deuter Unisex Adults’ ACT Trail PRO 32 SL Rucksack, Red (BlackBerry/Arctic), 24x36x45 Centimeters (W x H x L)
$171.86
Osprey Exos 38 Men's Backpacking Backpack
Osprey Exos 38 Men's Backpacking Backpack
$180.00
Deuter Futura 28 SL, Cranberry/Maroon
Deuter Futura 28 SL, Cranberry/Maroon
$91.17

Lesson 2: Mix up your accommodation to get a good night’s sleep

The best place to meet fellow pilgrims and make new friends are the albergues. However, sharing a room with heaps of other people doesn’t make for a great sleep: A lot of people snore (and often right next to you). Some pilgrims get up at the crack of dawn and wake everyone else: with crunching plastic bags, opening and closing noisy zippers, banging doors etc.

While earplugs help to some extent, having your own room and bathroom every once in a while will save your sanity.

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Where can I stay if I decide to walk the Camino de Santiago?

We walked the Camino Portugués and can recommend almost all the properties was stayed in. But which ones were they? Here is our list of recommended accommodations.

Albergues are great to socialise but sleeping with 50+ people in the same room doesn't make for a good night's sleep
Albergues are great to socialise but sleeping with 50+ people in the same room doesn't make for a good night's sleep

Lesson 3: Even a Camino on the cheap costs about EUR25 a day

You can do the Camino on the cheap by staying only in municipal albergues and self-catering every day. To do that, you’ll have to carry food with you, as there is not always a groceries shop (open) when you need one (refer lesson 5).

To give yourself a bit more wiggle room, budget at least EUR25/day: EUR10 for accommodation (in albergues), EUR10 for a pilgrim’s lunch plus EUR5 for a DIY dinner and breakfast. And don’t forget to budget for the day/s before you start/after you finish.

How much does it cost to walk the Camino de Santiago?

Would you like to walk the Camino de Santiago and wonder how much to budget? Check out how much it cost us to walk the Camino Portugués.

Lesson 4: Protecting the environment is not as easy as you think (but you can do your bit)

Speaking of self-catering: small traditional stores where they shave the ham off the bone or slice up the cheese for you without wrapping them in tons of plastic are hard to come by on the Camino. Most food you buy in shops along the way comes pre-packaged, sadly.

If you carry your own food, try and buy at markets (or those traditional stores) as much as you can and reduce plastic waste by bringing a reusable container, a lightweight chopping board and a spork. You can use the container also to bring home any leftovers if and when you dine out (tortilla makes for a nice breakfast the next morning).

Also bring a reusable water bottle. Tap water is potable in both Portugal and Spain (including the fountains you encounter along the Camino – unless they specifically say NO).

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Snack machines like this, we encountered only once on our Camino (thankfully)
Snack machines like this, we encountered only once on our Camino (thankfully)

More Camino de Santiago articles

Are you planning your first Camino de Santiago and have gazillion questions as to what to expect? Have a look at the lessons learnt from our first Camino.

Would you like to walk the Camino de Santiago and wonder how much to budget? Check out how much it cost us to walk the Camino Portugués.

You’d love to do the Camino but can’t or don’t want to average 30km/day? Read how to tailor the Camino Portugués to your needs.

You completed your Camino, now what? Here are five tips that help you digest your experience and gently re-enter life after your Camino.

Lesson 5: Grocery shops are not open around the clock

Especially if you self-cater your Camino, be aware that most grocery shops are closed from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, and over lunch. Dinner in Spain is usually not before 2000h, and simple bars/cafeterias often only serve bread-based meals: bocadillos (a baguette sandwich with cheese, ham etc) or tostadas (a toasted open sandwich).

Plan your (weekend) meals ahead and stop for a cooked pilgrim’s lunch along the way (which will tide you over until dinner, if not the next morning). Bring snacks (muesli bars and apples are great) as an emergency supply.

Interested in learning about Spain through entertainment? These inspiration travel movies will allow you to go on your own virtual tour around the world.

Lesson 6: A sleeping bag is not always needed

All private albergues (we stayed in) and some municipal albergues provide blankets and linen (at least on the Camino Portugués). Unless you plan to stay only/mostly in municipal albergues, you won’t need to bring a sleeping bag (just a liner) in Spring/Autumn. If you are getting cold easily just put on another layer of clothing or grab another blanket, which is easy as in Spring/Autumn albergues are never full.

Unfortunately, it's not always sunny when you walk... so come prepared
Unfortunately, it's not always sunny when you walk... so come prepared

Lesson 7: Galicia is juicy green for a reason… it’s called rain

It rains a lot in Galicia, at any time of the year. So, don’t skip on the rain cover, even in Summer. Bring a light-weight but sturdy rain poncho that covers you and your backpack. And count yourself lucky if you do get to Santiago without a drop of rain.

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Lesson 8: There are trade-offs in walking (less than) the average per day

Many pilgrims walk 25-30km/day. With breaks, that’s a whole day of walking (every day). While you cover a lot of ground, you don’t actually get to see more than what can be seen from the Camino. If you do it slower you have the time and energy to explore a bit more. Baiona, Redondela, Pontevedra, Combarro and Padrón are all worthy of your time – and that’s only the Galician part of the Camino Portugués.

If you do walk shorter distances each day though be aware that you will be meeting and walking with new people every day. And by the time you reach Santiago, most of your new friends will be (long) gone. As a compromise, you could mix shorter with longer days.

The friends we made in our first albergue had long finished when we arrived in Santiago.
The friends we made in our first albergue had long finished when we arrived in Santiago

Lesson 9: Get at least two stamps a day if you start in Galicia

If you start your Camino within Galicia, you need to get at least 2 stamps a day for your pilgrim’s credentials. We only discovered that requirement 25 kilometres before Santiago. We only got stamps at our nightly accommodation but wondered why cafes and churches offered them too. Fortunately, we started our Camino in Caminha, on the Portuguese side of the Minho river which separates Galicia from Portugal. Phew…

Lesson 10: Spring is a great season to walk the Camino

Spring is a nice time to walk: There are fewer pilgrims. Guesthouse and hotel accommodation is cheaper (a double room with own bathroom often costing the same as two dorm beds). The temperature is very pleasant for walking – not too hot/not too cold.

Doing the Camino in Spring though also has downsides: Fewer places are open (especially places where you can eat). And the weather can be pretty atrocious (refer lesson 7).

Which route to walk and when?

Are you concerned about how easy it is to secure a bed each night? Then you might want to know how busy it gets (on the different routes) throughout the year.

It may not come as a surprise that the number of pilgrims walking any of the routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is increasing year on year – by about 8% per annum in fact. 2019 is shaping up to be the busiest year yet: In the first four months alone, almost 17% more pilgrims arrived in Santiago compared to the same period last year.

The busiest route continues to be the Camino Frances, but the Camino Portugués (especially the Central route) is attracting the most significant growth (a whopping 23% pa over the last 5 years). While facilities are being added all the time, finding a bed during the Summer months can be a real issue. Best is to avoid those busy months and walk in Spring (or Autumn) instead.

Camino Frances Statistics
Camino Portuguese Statistics
Note: Above graphs show the number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago each month (Source: Pilgrims Office Santiago de Compostela)

Lesson 11: No pain no gain… just keep going

Expect to hurt. At least to some degree and at some stage. That’s normal. Just take one day at a time and continue walking (even if just a few kilometres a day). Only stop if you really have to. Keeping that in mind, make sure you leave enough time for (a) rest day/s.

Lesson 12: Test your fitness and your gear

Speaking of pain: We met quite a few fellow pilgrims who did training walks (with and without their backpacks) for months before commencing their Camino. We didn’t. But then, we walk (almost) every day with our carry-on backpacks anyway. We also walk in the same shoes (almost) every day (and wear merino socks). As a result, we didn’t have any blisters whatsoever, and we don’t think they would have magically appeared had we doubled our daily distance.

If your lifestyle is more nascent, and you drive everywhere, definitely get used to walking more (with weight on your back) before you embark on your Camino. You could, for example, carry your groceries home in your Camino backpack instead of taking the car.

Also, get some good merino socks and walk a lot in the shoes you’re going to wear. We found our Salomons to be the best allrounders for the terrain (and weather) on our Camino.

If you're not used to walking (with weight) regularly make sure you practice before your Camino.
If you're not used to walking (with weight) regularly make sure you practice before your Camino.

Lesson 13: Don’t be an easy target… protect your stuff

We’ve heard of fellow pilgrims who got robbed while sleeping in their albergue. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen, sadly. With some pilgrims leaving early, the thieves are long gone by the time you discover that your money or other valuables have disappeared.

Don’t assume that everyone staying in your albergue is a fellow pilgrim. If there are no lockers (which is generally the case in municipal albergues), make it hard for others to access your money/valuables: lock your backpacks with a small padlock, attach them to your bedpost, take valuables with you when you go out.

Lesson 14: Don’t leave too soon…soak it up

Stay an extra day more. You deserve it. Or do what Martin Sheen did in The Way. Don’t stop walking…

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Have you walked the Camino de Santiago? What other tips can you give to a first timer? If it’s your first time, are there any specific questions we can help you with? Please leave a comment below or send us an email.

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Are you planning your first Camino de Santiago and have gazillion questions as to what to expect? This article is for you.
Are you planning your first Camino de Santiago and have gazillion questions as to what to expect? This article is for you.
Are you planning your first Camino de Santiago and have gazillion questions as to what to expect? This article is for you.

Comments 5

  1. Great tips!

    And speaking of tips…how about using poles? I didn’t really use them before I did the Camino and now after two Caminos, I use them all the time, even here at home in the Colorado mountains. And you know all those benefits…balance takes the pressure off knees to an extent, keeps arms moving (hate those puffy hands when they hang all day). They are a really good option in keeping people walking as we age. My mom who is 81 did not want to use them as she thought they made her look old until she saw much younger people than me using them. And many young bucks on the Camino ended up buying them somewhere along the way. Oh, and don’t leave them in Spain. What a crummy way to leave the country by leaving them there for someone else to deal with! Love my poles and would never leave them behind. 🙂

  2. Hi, Sandra and Paul. Thank you very much for these helpful suggestions! I agree, especially, with your recommendation that Padrón on the Camino Portugués is well worth spending extra time in: To me, the pedrón, or mooring stone, which lends this town its name and which is kept beneath a locked door below the altar of the parish church of Santiago de Padrón, is an absolute must-see!

    There is one tip, however, that I feel needs clarification because it could be misleading and, as such, has the potential to lead to great disappointment. It is this:

    Lesson 9: Get at least two stamps a day if you start in Galicia
    If you start your Camino within Galicia, you need to get at least 2 stamps a day for your pilgrim’s credentials.

    It actually doesn’t much matter where you START your Camino — that could be within the minimum 100 (or 200; see below) km mark, or 800 km, or a 2,000 km distance away — but once you ARRIVE within 100 km of Santiago de Compostela (if walking or riding a horse; it’s 200 km if riding a bicycle), that is when you must start collecting at least two stamps per day (rather than the heretofore one) in your Credencial if you wish to be awarded the document called a “Compostela”. Often, pilgrims do get confused and don’t collect that second daily stamp once they hit the 100 (or 200) km mark because they think, since they’d started more than 100 (or 200) km away — for instance, in Lisbon — that the rule doesn’t apply to them. But it definitely does. The volunteers in the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela, while retaining some flexibility, have the right to deny the Compostela to any pilgrim who does not follow this rule.

    For the complete list of rules about the awarding of the Compostela, here is the link to the official Web site of the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela. If anyone should have further questions, they should refer to this official site.

    https://oficinadelperegrino.com/en/pilgrimage/the-compostela/

    Thank you, Sandra and Paul, for giving me the opportunity to suggest that this tip be clarified!

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