Camino Prep for Beginners: First Steps

Rainbow

Greetings, prospective peregrinos! 

(Language lesson #1: “pilgrim” in Spanish is “peregrino / peregrina”)

Your pilgrimage may seem like a long way away. But when preparing for a long walk in a distant land, it’s wise to plan well in advance, the better to prepare minds, feet, and bank accounts for the journey ahead. 

INSPIRATIONS

The first step of any journey is inspiration, the dreaming phase. Many of you may already know a lot about the Camino de Santiago, or you may know nothing at all. Allow me to add a few images and ideas to your dreams:

  1. Don’t Stop Walking — Part one of a fun how-to series by Andrew Suzuki. Well-shot and narrated with intelligence and wit.
  2. Strength and Weakness on the Camino — An inspirational story by a lovely Swiss pilgrim we met last spring.
  3. Six Ways to Santiago” — An amazing documentary by our friend Lydia Smith, and a more accurate picture of what this walk is really like than you’ll see in “The Way.” You can stream it on Amazon.

I find that learning gets me excited to experience a place. Consider signing up for a Spanish language course or history seminar. Order a book on Spain or the Camino and read it before you go. I like modern history, language, and food, so that’s what I studied. Choose what you love and dig deep: learning about Roman history, cathedral architecture, Galician mythology, or Iberian viticulture can all enrich your journey immeasurably.

Recommended reading:

  1. Spain in Mind — anthology of writing about Spain by the likes of Orwell, Hemingway, and e.e. cummings.
  2. Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past — A journalist travels the country and digs up those quiet histories many would rather forget. Focused on atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, this will explain a few of the anti-Fascist monuments you’ll encounter along The Way … and why there aren’t more such monuments.
  3. The Basque History of the World — It’s all about the Basques, ’bout the Basques, ’bout the Basques. Reading this will help you understand a ton of details you might not otherwise notice about Navarra: the ubiquity of ball courts in Basque villages, of the letter X in this inscrutable language with no known origin, of sheep, of “foral” city police departments, of ajoarriero, of men’s cooking clubs, and of salt cod (bacalao).
  4. A lot of folks loved Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage. It was not up my alley, but that’s just me.
Village in Navarra

Village in Navarra

PRACTICALITIES

Once you’ve gotten inspired (not a one-time event, by the way—inspiration is ongoing), it’s time to take practical steps. For Hal and me, that meant creating a dream-board, or whatever you want to call it, to keep us on task with saving money and training feet. He pasted some photos on a posterboard and drew some goals to meet. We wrote the number $12,000 on the board—the amount we wanted to save—and how much we’d need to put in savings every month to make that. We wrote down miles per week we wanted to walk, and how to work that figure up to several 15-mile walks in the final weeks of training. We researched gear and added photos of the brands of boots and packs we preferred. And so on.

used bootsBoots

Buy boots or shoes as soon as possible. This is your first purchase. You’ll want to break them in extremely well.

The shoes you choose should have a little extra room in the toe box. You don’t want your toes touching the ends of boots once the pack weight and long miles make your feet swell a half-size bigger. Also, find out early what the boots feel like when you walk a steep downhill. If your toes slide and hit the ends of the boots, YOU WILL SUFFER.

My boots were a half-size bigger than I usually wear, and my feet were extremely happy. *Also, you don’t have to have actual boots. Some people walk in running shoes. Whatever makes your feet happy is the correct choice. Also, you DO NOT need extremely heavy, rugged mountaineering boots.

For a full pack list of items and gear I carried on the Camino both times around, see The Things We Carried: A Camino Pack List.

Cash

Now’s the time to figure out how much money you’ll need—not only to travel on, but to cover expenses when you’re gone and to have a little bit of padding, in case you need money while you’re there, for a medical issue or a lost/destroyed/ineffectual piece of equipment. Now’s the time to start stashing money in savings on a schedule that will allow you to meet your savings goal. Just as a starting point for the average traveler, I’m guessing $4000 as an estimate for travel+gear+expenses. That is a fluid figure, so plus or minus. I’ve tried to err on the high side, except for the daily expense number—that assumes budget travel. (P.S. There are ATMs all over Spain. Don’t bring $1000 in cash.)

Rough estimates:

  • plane tickets: $1200
  • train/bus tickets: $250
  • daily expenditures on the Camino: $35 x 33 days = $1155 (This assumes you stay only in albergues.)
  • daily expenditures in destination cities—hotels, etc: $60 x 3 = $180
  • shoes: $100-$170
  • pack: $150-$200
  • rain jacket/poncho: $120
  • miscellaneous clothing/gear you don’t already own: $2-400?

est. total: $3675

Castillan village

Training

Training is a matter of personal choice, and some people do no training at all. Here’s the thing: No matter what, the first week of walking is painful. It generally takes about 10 days for your body to harden and the soreness to subside. If you are walking for 30 days or more, you will probably start to feel somewhat normal after Logroño. But if you’re starting further on and only plan to walk 7-10 days, you won’t necessarily experience that normalcy plateau. That’s why doing the hard work of hardening your body before you leave will make your walk a much more pleasant experience.

Blisters, knee pain, and tendonitis can ruin a nice walk; if you can, toughen your feet back home. Besides, you may find that daily walks make you sane, give you energy, and make your days go better. Why not make walking part of the process of inspiration? Explore your city. Go to the woods. Start your pilgrimage in your own backyard.

If you have never done any significant exercising, the difficulty of walking 10-20 miles every day is very real. Walking that much—over mountains and through mud, with a pack on your back—can cause serious injury. Working up to this will help you immensely. There’s no downside.

Our method was this: Start by making 1-mile walks 3-5x week, at a comfortable pace. After a week or so, speed up. Then add mileage. By the end of the first month, make some of those walks 3 miles. By the end of month two, take at least two 5-mile walks ever week, in addition to the shorter ones. Keep adding miles, so that every week you do at least one long walk—and keep making those long walks longer.

A month before your trip, you should be doing the occasional 12-mile walk. Try to do 15 a couple of times by departure time. (It may sound crazy, but things change after 12 miles —15 feels different. You hit a wall.) And in the final weeks, do a couple of shorter hikes carrying your pack, then a longer one. This is how you’ll find out for sure whether you’re wearing the right boots, and whether your pack fits. You’ll also be highly motivated to take out any objects you don’t really need.

I know it’s hard to find the time, but it’s there somewhere. Also, don’t train so hard that you injure yourself before you ever leave home. Gve yourself at least a full week to rest before you head to St. Jean, or wherever you are starting your Camino.

More info:

For practical info on preparations, check out the American Pilgrims on the Camino FB page. If you have a Camino question about gear, weather, or any other detail, you can crowdsource an answer on this page. Take answers with a grain of salt, but gear & cost questions can be addressed pretty well there. You can also post questions in the comments section of this page.

Buen Camino! 

(Language lesson #2: “Buen Camino” in Spanish means, basically, “Happy trails!” It’s the common greeting all pilgrims exchange on the Way.)

You may also enjoy:

You Might Be a Pilgrim If — 56 Ways to Identify an American Post-Camino Peregrino in Withdrawal

A Pilgrim’s Progress — On The Way, a 5’3″ woman’s gotta learn to be big sometimes, especially when her Big Strong Man feels small.

Camino by the Numbers — The stats: miles walked, toenails sacrificed, tears shed.

Leaving Leon

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2 thoughts on “Camino Prep for Beginners: First Steps

  1. So great! I especially love the pre-reading suggestions. This is a step I skipped but I think would have really enriched my experience.

    I would only add take a pair of hard-core sandals (ha!, I know) to switch out from hiking shoes when you need to mix it up and avoid blisters in the same place. Go Chacos!

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