Camino Challenge: Preparing for Camino de Santiago

Before I walked the 500-mile Camino Francés, my good friend Jen told me “You can’t prepare for camino”. In essence, I think she was telling me that so much happens on camino (internally and externally) that you can’t possibly prepare for it all. At the time, however, I took her words a bit more literally. I planned my trip in just 4-5 weeks, so it suited me to hear that I couldn’t prepare because I didn’t have time to!

I didn’t do much preparation for my camino. There are pluses and minuses to that but given the circumstances in which I decided to walk, I couldn’t have planned it any better. And I wouldn’t have had the transformative experience I did have, if I’d plotted it all in advance.

But I learned that there *are* some things you can do to make things easier. And honestly, walking 500 miles is often hard, so knowing how to make your life a bit easier can be the difference between being utterly miserable, or not.

So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts on how to prepare for camino. I wonder whether you’ll agree!

  • Take some time to reflect on why you want to walk.

Doing the camino” is really popular right now and many people treat it as something on a “bucket list” that needs to be checked off. Others treat it as a physical challenge like a triathlon or marathon. Rightly or wrongly, this attitude creates a whole load of competitive thinking as people race to walk more quickly, or farther, than the people beside them. Take some time to reflect on why you’re there, or what you’d like to get from the experience – it will help you focus your attentions on your needs and your experience, and buffer you from some of the “group-think”.

  • Learn how to take care of your feet.

Really. Walking long distances every day cause the feet to swell by a shoe size or more. Go up a size when you buy your footwear. And know that one size up may not be enough – so be prepared to buy new shoes along the way if you need to.

You also need to know that two things cause blisters: moisture and friction. Do everything you can to minimise both of these things and you increase your odds of being blister-free. For the worst-case scenario, learn how to treat blisters so they don’t get infected. Blisters are not your friend so don’t invite them in the first place and don’t let them hang around!

On a related note, I didn’t realise until afterwards that carrying a backpack affects your posture. Walking long distances affects your energy levels. Bad posture and tiredness affect how you walk and how much pressure is on your feet. Tendons and ligaments get strained and swollen. Learn how to take care of your feet with ice packs, taping, massage, etc. *My* knowledge in this area was rudimentary. Next time, I’ll do my research in advance!

  • Research the weather forecast for your planned route and season – it dictates your packing list.

I say this because *I* live on a coast where wind and rain are a year-round reality. When *I* go hiking and camping, I need waterproof and windproof gear. All of my previous training in hiking and backpacking told me to bring thick wool socks, boots, a raincoat, and rain pants. However, the Spanish weather forecast told me that the route had been rain-free for weeks, so I knew the ground would be hard and dry underfoot. This meant lighter footwear, lighter socks, and less clothing.

Research the weather forecast for the time you intend to walk and for the weeks beforehand. Knowing how wet/dry it’s been can help you plan your gear.

  • Bring less “stuff” and bring more money.

“Stuff” will literally weigh you down but extra cash allows you to avail of an unscheduled dental visit, a private room when the hostel is full, or a new poncho in the unexpected thunder storm. Plus, carrying cash and cards is lighter than carrying gear!

  • The lighter your pack, the better.

Really. Lots of people obsess about the weight of their packed bag – and rightly so. I carried too much water and my pack often weighed 10kg, which was far too heavy for long distance. Choose lightweight gear, bring the bare minimum, and don’t get talked into carrying 4 litres of water, like I did!

  • Get active.

For most people, this means doing training hikes for weeks in advance but it’s not the only way to prepare the body. Unless you already walk 25km every day, you can’t prepare your body for walking 25km every day. But training hikes do help and being active in other ways still helps build physical strength – so get off the couch and get moving.

  • Learn some Spanish.

Anyone can learn 5-10 key phrases and it’s a small mark of respect to at least start a conversation in Spanish. It’s not rocket science. Don’t be the ass who insists on speaking English all the time: learn some Spanish (with a smile) and you’ll find transactions easier.

  • Learn some stretches.

This one was a massive benefit to me. I stretched at every rest stop and every evening when I finished walking. I imagine some people thought I did it to look sporty but I didn’t care: stretching stopped me from seizing up and getting injured. I did every yoga pose and physiotherapy pose I could think of – hamstrings, calf muscles, shoulders, and hips. Highly recommended.

  • Don’t compare yourself to others.

The camino is all sorts of things all at once but it’s not always what you expect, want, or were told it would be. There were times I walked a happy 6km per hour and times I walked a depressed 2km per hour. Both times, I did my best. My “best” was something that changed every day.

I compared myself to others and berated myself for being slow, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed.

Turns out, lots of other people were slow, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed, too – go figure!

It’s easy to find people who are having more fun, who are more fit, or who have more money for pampering treats. There is always someone faster and there is always someone slower – literally, as well as figuratively. Comparing yourself to others is a lose-lose situation – one that’s best avoided.

Next time I walk, I want to get my footwear and foot care sorted in advance. I should have worn my customized insoles and spared myself the agonizing tendonitis and swollen ligaments. Next time, getting that stuff organized in advance is number one on my list of preparations (ideally with a foot specialist who understands long distance hiking or running).

After that, I’d plan my rest days in advance and book private rooms with crisp, clean sheets and luxurious hot baths. I didn’t do that enough last time round…I know better for next time!

But what about you? How did you prepare for camino or how would you prepare? What points would you add? What points do you disagree with? And do you think it’s possible to prepare at all?

2 thoughts on “Camino Challenge: Preparing for Camino de Santiago

  1. Hi this is a great post- very thoughtful. I think it’s one that is very valid and should be considered by anyone who is planning to walk the Camino.
    Now, just a bit of bragging… I did the entire Camino with out a single blister, not a single tight muscle, no body aches, at all! Pretty blessed I’d say. I’m a 55y.o woman carting at least 25 extra #’s, I have full paralysis of my right arm- so why!
    Like many of your suggestions, that I wholeheartedly agree with.
    *Foot care- So important! What I noticed was those poor souls who endured walking day after day with blisters- they mostly got them day 1 or 2. My added advice to your moisture & friction comment; don’t race day 1, 2, 3- take your time- too fast or too long are 2 very proven causes of blisters, at the onset.
    Additionally, use Vaseline every day while combining with double merino wool socks- I believe this is why I had 0 blisters.

    *Stretching every day- absolutely, and like you at times I felt a little like I was standing out ( I was surprised at how very few ppl actually did stretch after a day of walking)

    *Get physically ready! I actually backed up my routine- where it’s always been easy to go out for a 2-3 hr walk, I wasn’t sure I could do it every day, so in preparing for the Camino, I went slower and reverted to shorter distances and gradually built up;
    Week 1: I walk 1 hr- 5 days, take 1 day off, then for the 7th day I would walk hills & stairs 1 hr-
    I repeated this 7 day cycle by increasing it by 1/2 hr each week. Until I was walking
    4 & 1/2 hrs – after ~9 weeks.

    * Time for comfort-Like you state: I did give myself lots of time to enjoy the wonderful cities of Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, and I planned ahead and booked comfy rooms. And relaxed and rested my body for an extra day here and there.

    *Massage: there a few albergues where they have massage therapists, where I received the best!!!!!!!! Body treatments, donativo- and so worth it: (albergue verde in Hospital de’ Obriga) ( casa Austria ??? )

    * This is so personal, I shouldn’t be advising anyone, because we all have our own journeys- but if you’ve the time- don’t skip the masaeta- so many pilgrims are told, there’s nothing to see- just take a bus to Leon. I disagree, and promise you you may regret it???

    *Test Drive your gear- everything from shoes, to clothing. I brought an excellent ski jacket-( one of those extra lite weight down filled that flood into a little packet- but it didn’t breath and so it would become totally soaked and so would the arms of my clothing( the mornings were cool). I wanted to burn that Damn jacket

    * ABSOLUTELY Go Light in weight! Yes you’ll tire of wearing the same shirts and having to do washing by hand every night- but your body will thank you. I personally had only 100% merino wool everything- it’s super light weight and fantastic in ALL weather.

    Anyway- your advice is fantastic, I hope you don’t mind me adding my 2 bits.

    reading your blogs has me desiring another long walk! Thank you for sharing!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Suzanne,
    Thank you for reading & posting! It’s taken me waaay too long to respond but I’m here now!
    Thanks for adding your tips & tricks below…you have some great bits in there. I especially like your comment about pacing oneself, especially in the early days.
    *SO* true.
    It can be difficult because at the beginning, everyone is full of energy and enthusiasm, and the desire to prove oneself can be strong. And like you, I met many people who suffered from extreme blisters, detached toe nails, and pulled muscles from pushing themselves too hard.
    I guess there’s a lesson for life in there!


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