Back in September, I completed one of the most challenging and satisfying experiences of my life. In a little over a month I walked from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small French town at the base of the Pyrenees, to Santiago de Compostela and onward to Finisterre on Spain’s Atlantic coast. These paths are part of a vast network of medieval pilgrim routes across Europe collectively known as the Camino de Santiago.
I’ll write more about the experience in the future, but wanted to devote one post solely to the gear I took — exactly what I chose to take and leave behind, and how well those choices worked over the course of my five week walk.
A few points before I start:
Note that this post is broken it up into several sections — if you’re only interested in a particular part, you can skip straight to it.
You can spend hours reading about Camino backpack options, only to come away more confused than you started. My decision was made much easier by the fact I already travelled with two backpacks, a Macpac Orient Express travel pack and a REI Traverse 30 litre daypack. I really didn’t want to buy another pack if I didn’t have to, so ideally it was going to be one or the other.
The Macpac is great, but it’s not designed for hiking, so I turned to the Traverse 30 instead. Moderately waterproof, with adjustable waist and shoulder straps, it held up to the task well. My only complaint was that it was slightly too short, which meant the base of the bag sometimes rubbed against the bottom of my back. It never became a major problem, but by the end of the walk I started stuffing a shirt between the bag and my back as a cushion.
I saw people with huge backpacks (usually big guys, often with camping equipment), but a comfortable, lightweight, well-made 30-50 litre hiking pack, with appropriate shoulder and waist straps, is ideal for most walkers. The key is to get plenty of practice with whatever you intend to use, well ahead of time and with as much weight as you intend to carry.
The people I met who were sending gear home from Pamplona or nursing shoulder injuries hadn’t done this, and were suffering for it. A bit more preparation would have resulted in less pain to both wallet and body.
The theory for the Camino is that your backpack and everything in it should be no more than ten percent of your bodyweight, and less is better. Mine weighed 7kg without water, and I wouldn’t have wanted to carry any more than that.
When it comes to clothing, picking the right shoes and socks is obviously very important, and as I discovered, underwear matters too. You don’t need to get carried away with the rest of your clothes, though — I took three sets, along with a few things to protect me from hot, cold and wet weather, and it was the right amount.
After much research, I chose a pair of Merrell Vertis Ventialor hiking shoes, purchased from Decathlon in Spain. Very similar to [amazon text=Merrell’s Moab Ventilator range&asin=B00D7CHAEW] elsewhere in the world, they were ideal for the Camino Frances. The soles had plenty of grip even on slippery rocks, and were comfortable enough to walk in for hours without pain. They were waterproof enough to keep the rain out, yet sufficiently breathable for my feet to not get too sweaty on hot days.
I’d worn the shoes most days for six months prior to starting, including that 200km Camino route I walked earlier in the year. You need to have well worn in shoes, and mine definitely were — probably a little too well, really, since the back and insoles were falling apart by the time I arrived in Finisterre.
Given I only got one small blister over the course of nearly 900km, though, I had nothing to complain about. In fact, before flying out of Santiago, I walked out to the Decathlon store and bought the exact same shoes to replace my mostly-destroyed ones.
I also took a pair of flip-flops (not shown) that I wore every evening, and in particularly dirty albergue showers. The last thing I wanted to do was put my hiking shoes back on after walking 25km+ in them each day. Comfortable alternate footwear was a must.
I used three of the cotton t-shirts I already owned, but it wasn’t a great choice. One of the cheap ones from H&M stretched to the point of being almost unwearable within the first two weeks, and I replaced it in Burgos. The thicker t-shirt survived the journey, but at the expense of taking a long time to dry after doing laundry — if I got in too late to dry it fully in the evening sun, it’d often still be damp in the morning.
With hindsight, I’d probably have taken two technical quick-dry running shirts [amazon text=like this&asin=B005460EX8], plus one of the cotton ones for wearing in the evenings or to bed on cold nights.
I knew that good socks were crucial for avoiding blisters, so I took three pairs of [amazon text=Icebreaker merino wool hiking socks&asin=B005GU0RKW], plus a pair of [amazon text=cotton ankle-length socks&asin=B00LUMZUHA]. I always wore two pairs — the cotton socks as an inner layer and a merino pair on the outside, unless the cotton ones hadn’t fully dried from the previous day’s washing.
The merino socks were great. They were very comfortable, and my feet didn’t get too hot or sweaty. They took a little longer to dry than expected, but I just hung them off my backpack the next morning if necessary. One sock developed a hole in the heel by the end of the walk, as did both of the cotton socks, but to be fair, none of them were anywhere near new when I started out.
I’d highly recommend merino wool socks for anyone walking the Camino. They’re not cheap, but you only have one pair of feet to get you through the walk, and blisters can easily ruin the experience.
I took three pairs of quick-dry boxer briefs, and they were all a bit different. I had a brand-new pair from Under Armour, plus two well-worn Champion pairs. The underwear that was most comfortable and caused the least chafing was the [amazon text=grey Champion 6%22 inseam version&asin=B006LHME5A]. I suspect that was because it was longer than the other two pairs, and less prone to bunching up.
The other two were fine for the first 10-15km of each day, but would start to rub after that. In hindsight, I’d have bought [amazon text=6%22 versions&asin=B007TCLD8K] of the Under Armour instead of the 3″ version I took, or just gone with three pairs of the Champions.
Without any time to heal, the chafing eventually became a minor issue after a week or two. I hadn’t taken baby powder with me — I could easily have bought some from a pharmacy somewhere, but Vaseline kept the problem at bay well enough to get me through.
I took [amazon text=a pair of running shorts&search_link=1&title=New Balance running shorts], an ancient pair of hiking shorts and some quick-dry long pants — and only one of the three made it to the end. The shorts somehow developed an enormous rip down the front at the start of day three, and I had to replace them in Pamplona with an overpriced, ill-fitting pair.
I’d still recommend taking hiking shorts, though — just perhaps don’t start out with a pair quite as old as mine. They’re made for walking long distances, with plenty of pockets for stashing bits and pieces. [amazon text=Columbia&search_link=1&title=Columbia hiking shorts] has been making good ones for years.
The running shorts were only for emergency use, and I rarely wore them — which perhaps explains why I overlooked them while packing in the dark one morning and didn’t notice for a week. Of all the things I could have lost, they were probably the thing that mattered least.
I only wore the pants (not pictured) during the evening when I’d stopped walking, but was pleased I took them. In the mountains and towards the end of the hike, it was cold enough to need them once the sun went down. The pair I had didn’t convert to shorts, which didn’t bother me, but might be something to consider. Mine were knock-offs from Nepal, but again, [amazon text=Columbia&search_link=1&title=Columbia hiking pants] makes good ones.
I picked up a [amazon text=long-sleeved Icebreaker merino wool top&asin=B00AF65YVE] a couple of years ago, and it was an obvious choice for the Camino. It was thin but warm, weighed very little and handled being worn every day for a month without being washed. I did notice a small hole in the back by the end of the walk — whether that was due to wear and tear or getting caught on something, I don’t know.
There were a couple of early mornings when the temperature was barely above freezing, but wearing a second t-shirt under the merino top kept me warm until the sun came up. The rest of the time, putting it over a single t-shirt was fine.
The Icebreaker range comes in different styles and designs, so pick something that’s not completely ugly — you may want to go out at night in the larger cities without looking (entirely) like you just stepped off the trail.
The sun is harsh in Spain, especially in the afternoon. I saw people with all kinds of sun protection, but for me, a cap was fine as long as I put sunscreen on my neck and face. Mine was a cheap North Face knock-off — I liked it because the brim folded up, so it could be stuffed in a pocket when not in use.
It also came in handy when the rain set in. My poncho had a hood, and I put the cap on my head first to keep most of the rain off my face. It looked ridiculous, but given I resembled a drowned rat at that point anyway, fashion sense wasn’t a high priority.
I bought a cheap pair of sunglasses from Decathlon for the walk, mainly because I’d broken my other ones the week before. The only things I cared about was that they fitted properly and had adequate UV protection. They were fine in both regards.
The thick stems did leave a particularly attractive tan line along either side of my face after a while, so if you’re worried about that, maybe look for a pair with thinner stems.
Walkers on the Camino take one of two approaches to keeping dry in bad weather: a poncho that covers both them and their backpack, or a combination of a pack cover and rain jacket (and sometimes, rain pants). I opted for the poncho, because it took up less room, and was happy with the decision.
The Arpenaz model I bought from Decathlon was ideal, because it’s sturdier than most others. That’s good for two reasons: it won’t tear or spring a leak so easily, and flaps around less when you get wind as well as rain. In my experience at least, that was most of the time. The downside is that it’s heavier, but it was worth the 290 grams to me.
If you’re right on the limit with the size of backpack your poncho will cover, buy the next size up — it’ll be easier to put on in a hurry, and there’s a better chance your bag will remain completely dry.
I was fortunate enough to only get rained on three times during my Camino, but when it did show up, it was heavy and for several hours. Neither my pack nor any part of me covered by the poncho ever got damp. Even though my face and everything below my knees were wet, it was only a minor discomfort rather than ruining my day.
If you don’t live near a Decathlon store, pick up something like [amazon text=this&asin=B0055FECT0] instead.
To organise my clothes, I used this [amazon text=Hoboroll stuff sack&asin=B008KOZ5YO]. It had five compartments inside, which I used to separate clean and dirty items, and compression straps to reduce the amount of space my clothes took up. Without it, I likely wouldn’t have been able to fit everything into my 30 litre pack.
You won’t need one if you’ve got plenty of extra room in your backpack — but if not, you’ll appreciate the space savings.
While most albergues will provide disposable or washable sheets and pillow cases, and some offer scratchy wool blankets as well, you’ll need to carry some bedding of your own for warmth and comfort.
There’s a lot of talk about bed bugs on the Camino, so I treated my liner, sleeping bag and the outside of my backpack with a [amazon text=permethrin&asin=B0009KMWES]-like spray recommended by a pharmacist in Madrid before I left. It did the job — I got very few bites during the night, and none were from bed bugs.
My silk liner is the oldest piece of travel gear I own. I must have had it for at least fifteen years, but it’s still going strong. I lost the proper bag for it years ago, but a ziploc also works fine.
I took it both to discourage bed bugs and mosquitos from biting me, since they don’t like silk, and to provide an option for hot dorms when my sleeping bag was too warm. I used every day it for the first week or so, as nights were very hot.
As I got closer to both the Atlantic and the end of September, the weather cooled and I used my sleeping bag instead — but I put the liner inside it when staying in dodgy albergues, to help ward off those bugs.
Quality silk liners aren’t cheap, but they’re a worthwhile investment, especially if you’re walking the Camino in late spring, summer or early autumn. When the time eventually comes to replace mine, it’ll be with one like [amazon text=this&asin=B001DX5O6I].
Given its size, I was unsure whether to take a sleeping bag. In the end I decided to, and was happy I did. Even though I had good weather, nights were chilly in the last half of my Camino. I could have probably got by using those scratchy wool blankets and sleeping in my clothes if necessary, but it would have still made for some cold, uncomfortable nights.
My model from Decathlon was marked as being comfortable down to ten degrees C, and bearable down to 5C. That was ideal for sleeping in albergues in September in northern Spain, so I’d suggest picking up [amazon text=something with similar specifications&asin=B00R5KUNNW] that’s as small and light as possible.
As you’re rarely more than a few kilometres from the nearest town on the Camino Frances, there’s no need to carry much in the way of food. On the odd occasion I knew there’d be more a few hours without somewhere to eat, I’d just ask a bar owner to make me a bocadillo (baugette/sandwich) to take away before setting out.
Breakfasts and dinners were sometimes available at albergues, but most of my meals were in bars, cafes and restaurants along the way. I found something to eat in all but the smallest villages, even on Sundays when much of Spain closes.
There was clean water in public fountains in almost every town and village, and bar and cafe owners were always happy to refill my bottle after I’d had food or a drink there.
This one litre, indestructible Camelbak water bottle was almost perfect for a walk like this. Its physical size sometimes made it hard to fit in a hand basin to refill, and the large mouth meant I needed to stop to take a drink if I didn’t want water all over my face, but they were both minor issues. That said, I’d ideally have taken one of the models with a “[amazon text=spout&asin=B00NTYHQT2]” or “[amazon text=chute&asin=B00G46CMRI]” lid.
A couple of weeks in, I managed to leave it behind outside a cafe (just before a 10km stretch with no towns or water, obviously). I bought a normal one litre plastic bottle of water to replace it for the rest of my Camino.
I had [amazon text=this tiny roll-up water container&asin=B00BI9AM3C] as a backup, which held 700mls when unfurled. With the cooling weather and short distances between towns most days, I only used it a few times, mainly in the early part of the walk. I would have used it far more in summer, but it took up so little room when rolled to make it worth taking regardless.
I picked up a six-pack of snack bars so I’d always have something to eat if necessary — and only ate two of them the entire walk. They were worth taking, but I think that says something about just how easy it is to find food on this route.
There’s no shortage of pharmacies along the route, even in very small towns. As a result, I carried what I considered the bare minimum of first-aid equipment, knowing I’d be able to buy anything else I needed. I used everything I had, to the point where I bought extras of a couple of things when they ran out, but didn’t need anything extra.
I took a pack of ten 500mg Ibuprofen tablets in case of swelling or blisters, and used three of them — typically after a day of long, rocky downhill sections. 500mg is a standard strength in Spain, but [amazon text=higher than you’ll find in many other countries&asin=B001586E42] — take a few more tablets with you if that’s the case in your part of the world.
I used the [amazon text=vaseline&asin=B000052XQR] for blister protection during the first ten days of my walk, coating my soles, heels and between my toes every morning. Once my feet hardened up sufficiently, I stopped doing that… and used it to deal with minor chafing on my inner thighs instead.
A single tube lasted a couple of weeks, so I replaced it around the halfway mark.
Just in case something I ate or drank disagreed with me, I took a few tabs of [amazon text=Immodium&asin=B00MNSFMRI] to help me get to the next town. Thankfully, I didn’t need to use it.
I picked up this multi-purpose ointment in Australia a couple of years ago. It’s a combination antiseptic and pain relief, meant for treating insect bites, minor wounds and blisters. I put it on my blister now and then, but that was all I needed it for.
Bandaids were handy for both the occasional cut I picked up, and putting over blisters. I took [amazon text=a few medium and large sized waterproof ones&asin=B001GR52UE] — the waterproofing didn’t work all that well, but they were otherwise fine. I ran out in the final week, and just bought more from a pharmacy.
As gross as it sounds, I used the safety pin to pop my blister after a few days. There are many theories about the best way of treating blisters — I opted for leaving mine for a while since it wasn’t very painful, before eventually popping it, covering it in antiseptic ointment and putting a bandaid on it.
To sterilise the pin beforehand, I used the hand sanitizer I already had.
There’s a lot of talk about using [amazon text=Compeed&asin=B000MTF17Q], a “second skin” product, for blister treatment on the Camino. As it’s readily available in pharmacies in Spain, I decided to use some cheaper bandaid-type things with an embedded gel patch that I already had, and buy Compeed if I needed it. In the end I didn’t, but many other blister sufferers swore by it.
The plastic container is the same one I use for my slightly more comprehensive first aid kit while travelling. It used to live in my kitchen drawer, back when I had a house.
Like everything else, I tried to keep toiletries to a minimum while still remaining reasonably clean and un-stinky.
I bought a [amazon text=travel-sized container of shower gel&search_link=1&title=travel shower gel], which amazingly lasted me the entire walk. Several of the albergues provided some, and the gel I took was also quite thick, which helped me use less. I had a shaved head (at least when I started out), so I used it as shampoo as well.
In my experience, [amazon text=roll-on deodorant&search_link=1&title=roll-on deodorant] is smaller and lasts longer than spray or stick, so that’s what I took. It lasted the whole walk, but only just.
I bought a standard toothbrush, with [amazon text=a little plastic cover&asin=B000E3C6JQ] to make it slightly less gross in my toiletry bag. The toothpaste had a screw-on lid, so it wouldn’t go everywhere in my bag.
I took [amazon text=a small container of hand sanitizer&asin=B00ECKFHQ6/] in case of dodgy toilets and dirty hands. I saw some people using it before every meal, but I only took it out half a dozen times. It was useful for sterilizing my safety pin, mind you.
Hand-washing clothes was part of my routine most days. Although many albergues had washing machines, I used them sparingly — there was no real need to spend 3-5 euros a day to wash one change of clothes. I used the [amazon text=Trek and Travel version&asin=B002UOZT3M] on my walk in March, and it worked well. Tracking down an alternative in Spain before setting out was surprisingly difficult, but I eventually found some in a large Carrefour supermarket, and had no problem with it.
I should have bought two containers at the time, though — it was equally hard to get once I was walking, and I had to buy a less-effective powdered version once the liquid ran out.
The sunscreen I took was [amazon text=small, light and had an SPF of 50+&asin=B00JE3E028], so I never got burned even when I was out in the sun for ten hours. It was also super-thick, which meant one tiny bottle lasted me the entire walk.
I didn’t plan to shave on the Camino, but took a razor just in case my beard got too itchy. It didn’t.
I threw in [amazon text=a pack of wet wipes&asin=B00QQP7KPQ] to deal with things like cleaning my hands and face, mopping up spills and if really necessary, to use as toilet paper. I only ended up using a couple of them, so could probably have done without — or at least found a smaller pack.
My existing toiletry bag was pretty battered, but fine for the Camino. Almost any type would do, [amazon text=so long as it has a fabric loop or plastic hook&asin=B00ZNS25Z2] to hang it up in albergue showers. Having a hook on the bag was useful, as I often needed to hang it over the cubicle door due to there being no other way to keep it off the floor.
I’m still in two minds as to what the hardest part of the Camino was — walking 25+ kilometres every day for a month, or dealing with the snorers, farters, and early risers in the albergues every night. Something to block out light and sound was vital if I wanted to get any sleep.
I always travel with [amazon text=earplugs like these&asin=B000NP79YM], but as they were getting old, I made the mistake of buying new ones from a pharmacy in Spain before I left. The previous ones came from a hardware store and worked great, but neither the silicone nor foam ones from the pharmacy blocked out anywhere near enough noise. The end result? Several sleepless nights when the snorers were out in force.
Lesson learned: take several pairs of the best earplugs you can find, and test them out first. I’d suggest steering away from those aimed at travellers — check out earplugs designed for heavy machinery and air shows instead!
I didn’t wear my eye mask every night, but kept it to hand to deal with people who insisted on turning the light on when everyone else was asleep. I got mine from an airline toiletry pack years ago, but [amazon text=they’re cheap to buy&asin=B00DPAB38A] if you don’t already have one.
When it came to tech, I wanted to take as little as possible to both remain in the moment and keep the weight down. Here’s how it worked out.
This [amazon default_cc=uk&asin[uk]=B003WVP7X4&text=multi-USB charger&localise=0] made me pretty popular in the albergues, especially the ones that didn’t have enough power sockets for everyone (ie, most of them). I could charge up whatever I needed to, and still have a socket or two left over for others to use. I was very glad I took it.
I used my [amazon text=Suunto Ambit 3 Sport watch&asin=B00LVNANAW] to track how far I walked each day, along with my pace and when I started and finished. Combined with my guidebook app, it was extremely useful to know how far I had to go to the next town — especially since the distance markers and signs on the track were often hilariously inaccurate.
I also (shockingly) used it to tell the time, and to set an alarm — it was quieter than the one on my phone, and meant I could turn my phone off at night. It wasn’t essential, and I wouldn’t have purchased one just for the Camino, but I got plenty of use out of it.
Even though I was able to find a power socket somewhere in every albergue, I wasn’t always able to leave my phone plugged in long enough to fully charge it. That’s when my [amazon text=portable battery&asin=B00PHCZ5Q0] came in handy — I could charge my phone while eating dinner, or overnight, without having to leave it unattended and often out of sight.
My Google Nexus 5 gave me a scare about a week into the walk, when it decided to start rebooting continually. Given it was my camera, guidebook, map and entertainment rolled into one, having it die on me would have been a problem. Fortunately I’d had this issue once before, and knew that if I kept smacking the rear of it often enough (no joke), it would eventually fix itself.
It took a few hours, and a smack so hard I broke a couple of the internal plastic clips, but in the end the aggressive approach paid off and I had no further problems.
I’d been concerned about battery life, but keeping the phone in flight mode whenever I was walking dealt with that easily. The photos I took turned out just fine, and I posted one per day on my Facebook page, starting here if you’re interested. I’d bought a Spanish SIM card and data package, which let me make calls, check maps etc as needed pretty much anywhere. Surprisingly, there was wi-fi in about 90% of the albergues I stayed in, along with most bars and cafes.
The guidebook app I chose, Camino de Santigo Guide, turned out to be excellent — especially after the update it got halfway through my walk. It had everything I needed, from distances between towns to services, number of albergue beds in each place, basic maps and points of interest, and was super-easy to use.
It also included many new albergues that weren’t listed in the paper books others were carrying, and the short reviews of each albergue were pretty accurate. For three bucks (and no extra weight), I couldn’t have asked for more.
All of the cables worked fine, and having an extra-long USB cable was useful in albergues with sockets halfway up the walls.
I didn’t expect to use [amazon text=my earphones&asin=B004PNZFZ8] very often, but they got a regular workout. I’d sometimes lie on my bunk and relax for an hour after a long day’s walking, and it was great to be able to listen to music or a podcast while I did.
Especially during the long, flat days on the meseta, if I was walking by myself I’d also put on some music to match my mood — slow and reflective some times, upbeat at others. It made the tiredness and sore feet much easier to ignore, at least for an hour or two!
I tried not to get too carried away with “extras”, as they all took up space and room. Here’s what made the cut.
It’s very rare to be provided with towels in albergues, so you’ll need to take your own. I saw a few people carrying full-size bath towels, which looked comfortable, but also very large and heavy.
You can get quick-dry microfiber travel towels of various sizes — I opted for [amazon text=the smallest one&asin=B0093O1E2M], about the size of a tea towel. It took a little longer to pat myself dry than normal, but on the upside, the towel dried quickly and took up no room in my backpack.
Since I already had a mid-sized dry bag, I took it with me. The plan was to use it for my electronics if I got caught in heavy rain, but my poncho kept everything so dry there was no need for it. I could have left it at home.
I took a half-roll of toilet paper in a ziploc bag, in case I got caught short somewhere there was no toilet or paper. In the end, I didn’t need it — but it was comforting to know it was in my bag if required.
Much like the dry bag for electronics, I intended to use a garbage bag to line the inside of my backpack if I knew I’d be walking in the rain all day. As it turned out, my poncho kept everything dry even after hours of rain, so I didn’t use it.
I bought a pack of [amazon text=medium sized (3 litre) ziploc bags&asin=B00I9JK8GU] before I left, to store things like my snacks, pilgrim credential and passport. Since I had a few left over, I took them with me. I used one to store some laundry powder, and gave a couple away to other people who needed them.
I had [amazon text=a Moleskine journal&asin=8862930062] already, and took it and a couple of pens along to record the trip. Surprisingly for me, I even managed to do so.
Rather than buying a fancy clothesline from an outdoor store, I found a place that sold climbing and other rope by length, and bought a couple of metres. I used it to hang damp clothes off my pack while walking, as well as to make an impromptu clothes line at night or on wet days. It worked well, and took up no room in my bag.
I also picked up some wooden pegs, which I used almost every day — most lines and drying racks at albergues didn’t have enough pegs for everyone, and windy days could easily have seen my clothes disappearing over the fence.
I’ve travelled with a little Leatherman Kick for years, and it’s been very handy. On the Camino, though, I only used it occasionally — to chop up fruit, cut a large bandaid down to size and open a bottle. The pliers and screwdrivers weren’t needed. Unfortunately this model doesn’t exist any more — the [amazon text=Wingman&asin=B005DI0XM4] is probably the closest equivalent.
As it turned out, there were only a couple of things that I didn’t take but kinda wish I had. The Camino is a great excuse to leave your normal life behind for a month or two, and that included material possessions.
I own [amazon text=a small sewing kit&asin=B00LWHT5EC], but couldn’t find it before I left. While it wouldn’t have had a hope of repairing the massive tear in my original pair of shorts, it could have patched up the hole that materialised 600km later in the replacement pair. Then again, the guy I was walking with that day offered to sew them up for me (thanks Wayne!), so maybe I didn’t really need that sewing kit at all.
I figured I’d be able to get away with just using the Kindle app on my phone instead of taking [amazon text=the physical device&asin=B00OQVZDJM], and that’s what I did. It worked, but the problem wasn’t the actual reading of books — it was the difficulty of keeping my phone charged while doing so.
Since power sockets were rare and usually nowhere near my bed, if I wanted to charge and read at the same time, I had to sit or stand beside the wall somewhere else in the dorm room, or out in the corridor. I’d much rather have been lying on the grass outside with a Kindle or physical book, thanks all the same.
It wasn’t a show-stopper, but in hindsight, I’d probably find room for the Kindle. Physical books wouldn’t require charging and would be harder to break, but getting good English-language replacements once I’d finished them would have been a challenge.
I’m not going to go into every possible thing I could have taken but chose not to — this post is long enough already — but there are three items worth mentioning.
Walking poles were everywhere along the Camino — everything from a straight tree branch to high-tech, lightweight metal versions. It seemed like at least half the other walkers carried one, but I decided not to. I’ve never used them while hiking in the past, and figured that like many other things, I could pick them up easily enough if the need arose. For me, it never did.
There were probably about three times that I wouldn’t have minded having one, all on steep downhill sections — but for me, they didn’t justify carrying a stick in one or both hands for nearly 900km. Listening to the tapping of other people’s poles on hard surfaces was irritating enough, so I definitely didn’t need to listen to my own.
I debated long and hard with myself about taking my camera, and in the end I’m pleased I didn’t. Although the camera on my phone wasn’t as good, it was fine for the daytime landscape shots I was mostly taking. My Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera isn’t particularly large, but it’s too big to fit in a pocket, which meant there was no good way to keep it accessible without buying yet more dedicated gear. Add to that the extra weight of the charger and cable, and it wasn’t worth it.
If I owned something like the [amazon text=Sony RX 100 IV&asin=B00ZDWGM34/] — a small point-and-shoot that takes exceptional shots and charges via USB — I’d likely have taken it with me. Anything bigger, however? I couldn’t justify it.
There are many guidebooks to the Camino Frances, but among English speakers, the most popular is Brierley’s [amazon text=A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago&asin=1844096491]. I considered buying it for a while, but instead opted for the app mentioned above. That turned out to be a great choice, for many reasons.
Firstly, I didn’t need to spend $19 and carry a heavy book with me. Secondly, the app was much more up to date than even the most recent version of Brierley’s guide — in fact, it received a substantial update halfway through my walk.
Finally, and most importantly, not having the same guide as everyone else was very freeing. The book breaks the Camino Frances up into 33 daily sections, and many people choose to follow those recommendations to the letter. As a result, some of the smaller villages and albergues fill up quickly, as everyone on ‘the Brierley route’ stops in the same place.
The app didn’t do this, leaving it to me to decide how far I wanted to walk each day based on the terrain, weather, energy levels and wherever I liked the look of. It felt very liberating to sit in a bar at night, watching others spend hours poring over their book and calling ahead to book accommodation for the next day, knowing I’d just figure it out as I went along instead.
Not needing to plan or book ahead was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the walk for me.
So, 34 days and 867km later, what did I learn about the gear I did and didn’t take on the Camino Frances? In short, I discovered something I probably knew all along: less is more. Beyond a bare minimum of stuff, the smaller and lighter your backpack is, the more enjoyable your Camino will be.
Climbing up and down mountains or hiking 40km in the sun is much easier when you’ve only got a few kilos on your back. With the next town or village never more than half a day away, almost anything you want can be purchased when and if you need it — take smaller amounts of the “essentials”, and leave all the “maybes” at home.
I also realised that you don’t need huge amounts of dedicated technical gear, or to spend large sums of money on what you’re carrying. I already owned most of the clothing and equipment I took with me, and none of the few extra things I purchased cost more than about fifty bucks. As a result a few things weren’t ideal, but they still did the job — I completed the Camino at a reasonably fast pace, with my only injuries being one blister and minor chafing, and had an incredible time doing it.
So, the final word. Do your research, pick your equipment and buy whatever you need, but don’t obsess over it, and know you don’t need to look like a walking REI catalogue to finish and enjoy your Camino experience. The less gear you carry, the happier you’ll be — and every dollar or two you save on it will pay for another glass of wine at the end of a long day on the trail.
If you’ve got any comments or questions about gear for walking the Camino Frances, leave them below — I’m happy to answer anything I can.
Also, if you found this useful and would like to help me out, please consider using the links in this post when purchasing from Amazon. You’ll pay the same price, and I’ll get a few dollars to put towards my next Camino!