Camino Christmas Wish List

As they say, “tis the season…” so I’m re-posting this and would love to hear your thoughts on Camino-related Christmas gifts! 🙂

I’ve been thinking about things I carried in my backpack when I walked 800km across France and Spain.

What to pack is every bit as important as what shoes to wear because all going well, you’re going to spend every day with each other – maybe for several weeks. You want to make sure the pack is light enough to carry it comfortably and yet, that you have the things you need for all types of weather and terrain. It’s a bit tricky to strike the right balance.

I’m compiling a list of all the things I carried in my backpack and will post it soon. I’ll also give details about the things I removed from the pack, the new things I bought along the way, and my reflections about what I would pack differently if I were to walk Camino again. I’ve learned a few things from my last walkabout!

In the meantime, I’ve created a sort of Camino Christmas wish list, for those of you wanting to buy Camino-themed Christmas presents. Whether you’re treating yourself or someone you love, I’m hoping you’ll find something to suit your budget in my list below. For those of you who’ve already walked Camino, please feel free to add your own suggestions and wish-list items – I’d love to see your suggestions!)

(A small word about product placement and advertising: My blog isn’t sponsored by anyone so if I mention specific products below, it’s because I have personal experience of them. I promise I’m not being paid or compensated in any way for mentioning specifics.)

So, here’s my recommendations for the Camino Christmas Wish List…

€10 or Less

  • Ear plugs: A pilgrim’s best friend if they’re staying in the hostels (albergues). Splash out and buy several pairs – they won’t go to waste!
  • Antiseptic Wipes: I received these as a gift (thanks Frederique!) and used them on my very first day. They’re light to carry and really handy to have when tending to cuts, grazes, and blisters.
  • Petroleum Jelly: Very handy in preventing blisters. Buy a small tin so it’s lightweight.
  • Large, Double Zip-Lock Freezer Bags: I used these to carry my toiletries, my sunscreen, and my smart phone. I used the Glad brand and in six weeks, they didn’t split, tear, or diminish in any way. Love them!
  • Compeed Plasters: As plasters go, these aren’t cheap but apparently they are cheaper in Europe than anywhere else. Friends elsewhere in the world might have a hard time finding them but they were the best plasters I used to prevent and treat blisters. Why? The padding on them was better than anything else I tried, and the glue was also superior – so they stayed in place and didn’t move around like cheaper varieties. Worth every penny.
  • Shower Gloves: Lightweight, quick-drying, and great for scrubbing away the sweat, muck, and grime at the end of a day’s walking.
  • Universal Sink Plug: For the pilgrim that has to hand wash their clothes every day in a sink, this little gift makes the task so much easier.
  • Scallop Shell: This is the symbol of the Camino and Saint James, and pilgrims often wear them on their backpacks to signify that they are on Camino. Maybe you’ll beat the budget and find one for free on your next outing to the beach 🙂

€50 or Less

  • Movie: The Way (starring Martin Sheen): For inspiration, watch it before you go. In remembrance, watch it after you return home. Either way, it’s a beautiful piece of work.
  • John Brierley’s Maps for Camino Francés: Lighter than the full guide-book, these maps are easy to follow and still include key information about the landscape and accommodation along the way.
  • Platypus Water Pouch: People seem to either love these or hate them. Personally, I loved being able to stay hydrated without having to take off my backpack each time I wanted a drink of water. I received mine as a gift (thanks Megan & John!) and loved it all the way.
  • Movie: St Jacques… le Macque: Many people told me about this while I walked but I haven’t seen it yet. This one’s on my wish list 🙂
  • Book: I’m Off Then (by German author, Hape Kerkeling, and translated into various languages): I received this as a gift from one of my Camino friends (thanks Marco!) and loved it from beginning to end.
  • Synthetic Travel Towel: They’re quick-drying, light, and take up very little space in the backpack. They come in various sizes, prices, and colours and are a lot more practical than cotton towels.

€50 or More

  • Walking Poles: Again, people either love them or hate them, but I wouldn’t have gone for even a week without mine. They align your posture and provide balance, which does make a difference on steep or slippery ground. They vary in price so it’s a personal choice but I would encourage you to buy lightweight and sturdy ones.
  • Backpack: Picking a backpack can be like picking a pair of shoes, which I wrote about here. I don’t recommend you buy a backpack for someone unless they’ve specified exactly which one they want, but perhaps you could chip in towards the overall cost ’cause those things can be pricey. Again, I recommend lightweight and sturdy.
  • Gift Voucher: Before I left for Camino, my work colleagues clubbed together and bought me a gift voucher for an outdoor shop. With it, I purchased a new raincoat and lightweight hiking pants, and I couldn’t have been happier. If you don’t know what to buy, but you know your recipient will need a few bits and pieces, then a gift voucher for their store of choice is a great idea. And if, like me, they manage to bag a few bargains in the sale, then even better!
  • Plane or Train Tickets: Okay, so I know this might seem like a really lavish one but bear with me for a minute. Every year, thousands and thousands of people make their way from all around the world to walk the Camino across France and Spain. Getting to “the starting point” (wherever it may be) can be pricey. You might not want to buy a first-class airplane ticket all the way from Australia, but you might be able to pay for a short inter-European flight, or a train ticket within Spain. The pilgrim-to-be can tell you what their intended route is, but with many pilgrims transferring through Madrid, Paris, Dublin, and Amsterdam, there’s plenty of opportunity to contribute towards the travel costs.

So there you have it: my Camino Christmas Wish List of goodies – either for yourself or some other pilgrim.

What would you add to your Camino Christmas Wish List?

A voucher for the Parador hotels?

A Spanish phrase book?

or

Bionic legs and feet?!

Do tell – I’m all ears! 🙂

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?

Camino Packing List

This post is long overdue but here we go!

Planning to walk Camino is an exercise in lightweight packing and de-cluttering. I wanted to walk 800km over a 6 week period and I would need to carry all my clothing, toiletries, and medical supplies on my back during that time. Packing a light pack makes the long walking a lot easier.

I was advised to carry no more than 10% of my body weight in my backpack. I was advised to carry no more than 10kg but to really aim for 6-7kg. I was advised to weigh out every item of gear before I packed it, and to omit anything that didn’t have at least a dual role. After years of hiking and camping, I thought I had a pretty good handle on packing a backpack. Turns out, I didn’t have *that* good a handle on it because I am used to packing for wind, rain, and cold conditions – and Spain was hot and dry. I found it difficult to resist packing backup clothing and rain gear.

I packed my backpack the evening before I flew out to France.

Last minute packing at its best!

I didn’t test out my gear before I packed it. I didn’t do practice walks with my backpack for weeks in advance. I didn’t know what it all weighed when it was packed away and sitting on my shoulders. I didn’t have time to organise all of this before I left.

The night before I flew to France, I sat on the floor of my spare room with gear all around me – deciding what to bring and pulling labels off my new purchases. I’m sure this last minute frenzy is sweat-inducing for many people but my philosophy was this:

I am going to get this gear list wrong in some way – just because I’ve never done this before and the future weather conditions are unknown. So, I will pack as sensibly as I can but I will allow myself to replace or remove gear along the way if I need to. And I allow myself to figure it out as I go along.

If I do say so myself, that flexibility around my gear gave me great freedom and it allowed me to relax. I didn’t have to get it all perfectly right. I didn’t have to have all the answers in advance. I could make it up as I went along.

So what *did* I pack?

My Camino Packing List – What I Brought to France/Spain:

The Backpack:

  • 45L North Face backpack
  • 1 pair Leki hiking poles
  • 1 white sports sock to cover the hiking poles when I checked my bag in at the airport
  • Scallop shell hanging on outside of pack, gifted to me (Thanks Jen!)
  • Nite ize buglit flashlight attached to shoulder strap of backpack (Thanks Katie & Jon!)

Raingear:

  • 1 lightweight Columbia rain jacket
  • 1 pair lightweight North Face rain pants

Footwear:

  • Chaco hiking sandals for 10 days then swapped to Salomon hiking shoes. (I didn’t buy the Gore Tex variety because they felt too heavy & the weather/ ground were dry)
  • 3 pairs medium weight hiking socks (2 pairs of 1000 Mile Socks & 1 pair Bridgedale wool)
  • 1 pair of Crocs (with holes!) to wear in the evenings & in the shower. Unlike flip flops, I could wear socks with them (how sexy!)
  • Custom fitted arch supports

Clothing:

  • 1 pair of Columbia hiking shorts for day use
  • 1 pair of North Face long pants for evenings (not the zip-away ones)
  • 2 wick-away t-shirts (synthetic, quick-drying)
  • 1 cotton t-shirt for evenings and bed
  • 1 Lowe Alpine fleece sweater (a really ugly one too that I’ve had for 10+ years & I didn’t mind it getting more scruffy. The fashionista in me sometimes regretted that it was *so* ugly and I felt self-conscious about looking so rough – but it was warm, dried quickly, and worked as expected so I can’t really fault it)
  • 1 fleece hat
  • 1 REI sun hat (thanks Jen!)
  • 1 quick-dry sports bra
  • 4 pairs underwear
  • 1 cotton pashmina
  • 1 pair of sunglasses, which I broke along the way so I bought more
  • 1 extra-large travel towel (the size of a regular bath towel)
  • Bandana (it hid all my bad hair days!)

Tech:                                                                                         

  • 1 wristwatch with leather strap
  • iPhone
  • iPhone charger
  • Earphones
  • Travel adaptor

Sleeping gear: (thanks Jen!)

  •  Sea2Summit pyrethrin-treated sleeping bag liner
  • Homemade blanket of silk fabric and Primaloft

Paperwork:

  •  Printed email confirmation for outbound flight to France
  • 1 money belt to go around my waist
  • Passport
  • Pilgrim Passport (compostella)
  • John Brierley’s guide book from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago
  • John Brierley’s guide book from Santiago to Finisterre
  • Cash
  • Debit card & credit cards
  • Hardback A5 journal & 2 pens
  • Lightweight fabric crossover bag (Thanks Jen!)
  • Lightweight money purse big enough for credit cards & cash
  • Medical information printed in different languages & laminated

Food & Drink:

  • Plastic spoon/fork thing with a serrated edge (it was meant to act as a knife but it couldn’t cut butter!)
  • 1 lightweight 1L plastic sports bottle
  • 1 collapsible Platypus hydration system (Thanks Megan & John!)

Toiletries:

  • 1 large double zip lock bag to hold everything (durable, see-through, lots of space)
  • Synthetic face cloth for my face (advertised as useful for cleaning my kitchen or car!)
  • Sunscreen (I used SPF 50 & SPF 30 in generous doses
  • Travel size shower gel (filled up as I went along)
  • Travel size foot cream (Thanks Edel!)
  • Travel size face wash (Thanks Edel!)
  • Shower gloves
  • 2 disposable razors
  • Female sanitary supplies (& bought more along the way)
  • Small tin of vaseline for my feet
  • Normal size toothbrush
  • Half tube of normal size toothpaste
  • Dental floss
  • Roll-on deodorant
  • Plastic hairbrush
  • Hair ties (I never counted how many)
  • 10 packs of foam earplugs
  • 10 clothes pegs
  • Lip balm

(I saw safety pins listed on other peoples’ packing lists but I couldn’t figure out why, so I didn’t bring any. Turns out, if you need to dry your laundry on your backpack while you walk, then safety pins are more secure than clothes pegs).

First Aid:

  • Band Aids (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Sterile wipes (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Dr. Scholl blister plasters (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Nail scissors
  • Mefix blister wrap (a gift (thanks Jen!) but I never figured out how to use it)
  • Compeed plasters – various shapes and sizes
  • Antiseptic cream (small)
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Antihistamines (never used)
  • Paracetamol (useful when I got a cold)
  • Antacid tablets (never used)
  • Immodium (never used)

Miscellaneous:

  • Several small Ziploc bags
  • 2 large double lock Ziploc bags (for toiletries and keeping my paperwork dry – amazing!)
  • Several plastic bags to wrap my clothes in
  • Keychain REI temperature gauge with mini compass (lost along the way, sorry Jen!)
  • 1 small glass rock to leave at Cruz de Ferro

Things I acquired along the way:

  • 1 travel adapter plug for my phone
  • 1 rain cover for my backpack
  • 1 pair of Salomon hiking shoes
  • 1 bright orange Altus poncho
  • 1 lightweight fleece jacket
  • 1 pair of fleece-lined leopard print leggings (saucy!) (in anticipation of cold mountains but I never wore them)
  • 1 wick-away t-shirt to replace the one I accidently destroyed (Thanks Fred!)
  • 1 cotton Tommy Hilfiger sequin t-shirt
  • New sunglasses
  • Sink plug (thanks Don!)
  • Strong plastic shower gel bottle (thanks Don!)
  • Anti-inflammatory gel
  • Anti-inflammatory tablets
  • 1 new A5 journal
  • 1 pocket book called “Daily Strength”, handed out for free when I arrived in Roncesvalles
  • 1 pair of earrings

Things I sent home (and why):

  • Rain pants – My first 3 days of walking were exceptionally hot & I figured I wouldn’t need them for the rest of the trip. It was a risky decision but it worked out.
  • Long sleeve thermal top – too hot to wear (again, a risk that worked out)
  • Fabric money belt – awkward to wear under my shorts *and* the waist strap of the backpack. It got sweaty and grimy and was very uncomfortable.
  • My hiking sandals – only after I finished with them and had transferred to the hiking shoes. They weighed 1kg and were too heavy to carry just for the fun of it.
  • Old phone charger. I thought it *would* work in Spain but it didn’t, so I sent it home to use again on some other future vacation
  • Used pages from my guidebook. I read (in the guidebook, incidentally) that I could lighten my pack by tearing out the pages for towns I’d already passed through. I did this for a while & sent the pages home so I could read them again in the future. (and we all know this didn’t happen!)

Things I should have sent home, binned, or given away (and why):

  • Mefix blister wrap. I never figured out how to use this (even after repeated Googling) and I carried the weight of it all 800km. Silly, silly, stupid.
  • My rain coat. I carried a raincoat *and* a poncho and didn’t really need both. The poncho was good in mild but wet weather. The rain coat was good in cold/windy, wet weather. I had very little of either and could have omitted some weight by choosing only one of these items.
  • The rain cover for my backpack. My poncho had a special flap to cover the backpack so I didn’t need an extra cover as well. I guess I was paranoid about getting wet (cold, sick, and covered in blisters) but I could have taken this out.
  • My first journal. I filled the pages with writing but continued to carry it in my backpack – afraid of losing it if I posted it home in the mail. It was a heavy luxury to carry.
  • Custom made orthotic insoles – I couldn’t find a pair of hiking shoes that these fit into so I couldn’t use them. Really, if I wasn’t wearing them on my feet there was no point in having them.
  • Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt – I hardly wore it & it only added to the weight
  • Travel size foot cream – I hardly ever used it & Vaseline would have done the same job
  • 1 white sports sock to cover the hiking poles. Really, it was ridiculous that I even carried this!

What I loved (and why):

  • Nite ize buglit flashlight – powerful light, very portable, very light
  • Columbia hiking shorts – lightweight, quick-drying, very comfortable
  • Altus poncho –even though I hardly used this, it covered everything (including my pack) but allowed lots of air to circulate in around my legs & torso – very important in mild weather.
  • Wick-away t-shirts. I know some people think all this high-tech gear is a load of overpriced marketing nonsense but I felt quite comfortable in 35 degree heat because of these t-shirts. Star buy.
  • Salomon shoes – cushioned, light, and tremendously durable
  • 1000 Mile Socks – They have a blister-free guarantee or your money back. Highly recommended.
  • My €2 shower gloves – magically scrubbed away the day’s sweat, grime, and sunscreen – in seconds!
  • Sleeping bag liner – much lighter than a sleeping bag, comfortable, quiet, and not a bed bug in sight! Highly recommended.
  • My cotton pashmina. This was a last-minute grab as I left to catch my plane for France. The morning was dark, cold, and raining, and I wanted some emotional comfort for my trip (so the scarf was a “blankie” of sorts). I used this every day as:
    • A pillow case
    • An eye mask to block out the light caused by roommates
    • A wrap around my shoulders to keep me warm
    • A wrap around my waist when dashing to the bathroom in the middle of the night & needed some modesty!
  • My Platypus hydration system. People either love or hate these things but I’m definitely in the former camp. I loved being able to drink water while I walked, without having to take off my backpack or stretch around for a water bottle. Genius.
  • Compeed plasters – I used these whenever I got a “hot spot” on my feet and remained blister-free for most of the trip. The reason they are so great is because they are more cushioned than other varieties and the glue on them stays stuck to the skin so they don’t dislodge with long distance walking. Worth the money.
  • My €2 plastic nailbrush – I used this to clean my Chaco sandals, my Crocs, and my clothes. Just like the shower gloves, this removed grime and sweat quickly – loved it.

What I would change next time round:

  • Backpack – The size was good but the item itself weighed 1.5kg when empty. Frankly, that’s too heavy.
  • Hiking poles – They’re 10+ years old and a bit heavier than the new varieties. I’d try to get lighter ones.
  • Arch support for my shoes. I use arch support in my daily life but didn’t use any on camino (because I bought my shoes along the way and my custom-made insoles didn’t fit). Painful decision.
  • Pack 2 sports bras
  • If I were walking Camino Francés (in particular), I’d bring Brierley’s maps but not the full guide book. Everything was so well sign posted & I didn’t read all his extra material, so the maps alone would have been sufficient.
  • I’d carry less water each day. Someone convinced me to carry 4 litres while crossing the Meseta – that’s 4kg of weight – madness!

What do you think?

Following an Impulse in Epinosa del Camino

I left the small village of Villambistia in the early morning darkness, and walked 1.7km to the next village – Epinosa del Camino. There, I found a small café bar that was brightly lit and open for business. Within: hot coffee, and freshly-toasted baguette with butter and jam.

Hmmmm….Camino breakfast…:-)

The Canadian ladies I’d met the day before joined me and somehow we organised to buy each other’s breakfast as a small treat. Our meal cost only a few Euro but it was a small token of friendship in the dark morning, in this tiny village of only 36 inhabitants. How amazing that this village was half the size of Villambistia but was the one with a café bar open for business at 6.30am, while Villambistia slept on.

The women and I had crossed paths several times in the preceeding 10 days – staying in some of the same hostels or passing each other on the trail. I’d witnessed one of them tend to blisters and black toenails because her hiking boots crippled her feet. I also witnessed her replace those $200 hiking boots with a pair of light running shoes, and abandon the boots in an albergue along the way. After the change of footwear, there was no stopping her!

These women had been endlessly warm and kind to me, supportive and encouraging. I hope I was the same with them. We laughed together and swapped stories about our lives and reasons for walking this ancient trail. I assumed our paths would continue to cross – over and back, all the way to Santiago. It wasn’t our pattern to pay for each other’s food and I didn’t really know them that well, but something overcame all of us that morning and we wanted to pay each other’s bill. Perhaps we somehow knew our paths were about to diverge. We toasted the morning by raising our glasses of hot coffee in clinking unison, and delighted in the baskets of fresh hot toast. Dave arrived minutes later and greeted us all with warm enthusiasm and hugs. Barb followed closely behind on the trail, and he ordered breakfast for both of them while he waited.

The ladies and I finished eating, bade Dave a Buen Camino, and made our way outside.

We strapped on our backpacks, grabbed our walking poles in hand, and started the day’s walking in earnest.

We must have walked at different paces or maybe someone stopped to lace up their shoes while the other went on ahead. Whatever the reason, we drifted apart later that day and lost each other on the trail.

I never saw them again.

And although our mutual friends kept me posted on their progress, our paths stopped crisscrossing. I missed out on knowing how their 800km journey unfolded, and who they were by the time they arrived in Santiago. I missed out on the closure that comes with saying “So Long and Farewell”, or so I thought.

Before walking Camino, I found it heart-wrenching to have my friendships drift, or get lost, in the ebb and flow of life. I fought hard to retain connections, despite everyone’s increasingly busy lives, and our distance across time zones and continents. I didn’t like to let things drift. I didn’t like to lose good people from my life. I worked hard to maintain them but struggled with losing them all the same, and with feeling bereft by their absence.

I took it all to heart and imagined a cold life, empty of friendship and laughter. (Bit of a drama queen!)

In the most gentle and glorious way, Camino knocked some of these hurting edges from my heart. I made friends all the way through my 500-mile journey:

I met some of them on my very first day while I travelled to St. Jean Pied de Port – before I even started walking.

I made friends on the last night before I arrived into Santiago.

And everywhere in between, I met people who became friends.

Some of them were friends for a matter of hours, while others are friends I hope to know for many years.

The two Canadian women fell somewhere in between.

When we met, I had no way of knowing whether they would be in my life for a matter of minutes or for decades, but we followed the connection with warm kindness. That morning in Epinosa del Camino, our paths began to divide though we didn’t consciously know it at the time. Whatever the reason, we fell out of each other’s orbit and never saw each other again.

There is a certain bittersweet sadness to that.

I thought I didn’t get to say goodbye or thanks for all of their kindness. I thought I didn’t get to wish them well with the rest of their lives.

But I am happy that I followed the impulse to buy their breakfast that morning. I’m happy that some unconscious inclination took over and prompted us into a moment of celebration. We didn’t know why we wanted to buy each other’s breakfast, but we followed the impulse all the same. We just felt like it.

Afterwards, I looked back and realised:

Ah…that was the moment of closure. That was the morning we got to say Thank You and Buen Camino. That was how we got to say Goodbye.

So, I walked the rest of my journey without realising that our paths had already diverged. I walked on towards the western horizon without realising that our friendship had come to a gentle conclusion.

By the time I realised these things, I also realised that we had said goodbye already. So there was no reason to feel sad loss at their absence.

For me, Camino presented this lesson to me day after day. People entered and left my life on a daily, and even hourly basis. The ebb and flow was constant. I started out feeling rattled by the loss of so many people in my life. By the time I reached Santiago, I knew how to let go. After walking 500 miles, I was able to allow the natural ebb and flow, and not feel the sadness.

Sometimes the friendship lasts a few hours or days. Sometimes it lasts years or decades. Either way, there is a natural beginning and a natural end. Camino helped me understand this and come to terms with it, so I don’t carry the same sadness in my heart any more. Instead, I carry a quiet gladness that we ever met and that we had a chance to say goodbye.

Camino Footwear: Do my feet look big in this?

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision.

Every year, hundreds of pilgrims log on to online forums to discuss this very thing – along with the weight of their backpacks and how to prevent blisters. First timers like me want to know what they should wear on their feet.

Boots or walking shoes?

How heavy or light?

Waterproof or not?

Should you wear the pair you’ve owned forever or invest in a new pair?

Everyone wants to talk about footwear.

 

A lot of people thought I was crazy to walk in hiking sandals.

Maybe I was.

In terms of footwear, I already owned a pair of 3-season, GORE-TEX, leather hiking boots from a German company called Han Wag. They were sturdy and reliable on wet, unsteady ground. I loved those boots. I thought about bringing them with me but they were too heavy and strong for gravel trails. They were also too warm for walking in September and October.

I crossed them off my list.

Next, I had a pair of hiking shoes from a company called Keen. I’d had the shoes for years and they were well broken in, but they scraped my heels after just a few hours’ wear. If I wore them more than one day at a time, they gave me blisters. There was no way I could walk 800km in them.

I crossed them off my list, too.

The only other thing I had left were a pair of hiking sandals from a company called Chaco. I’d had them even longer than the Keens. Parts of the straps were starting to fray, and if I wore them in the rain they sometimes sliced my skin, which hurt. On the plus side, they had pretty good arch support and they would keep my feet cool. The week I started walking in France, the temperatures were in the mid-30s (Celsius). I needed to keep my feet cool for as long as possible, and minimise the risk of developing blisters.

The sandals were the most likely contender.

Honestly, I tried to figure out a more sensible option before I departed for France, but it just didn’t work out. I planned my Camino in just a month, while at the same time resigning from my job. My days were busy, my weekends were packed, and I had a head full of ‘to do’ lists. I didn’t have much time to find a new pair of shoes and I had almost no time to break them in before departure.

A small aside: ordinarily, I’m supposed to wear custom-made orthotic insoles in my shoes. It’s something to do with having overly flexible feet. I’m not flat-footed and I don’t have fallen arches, but apparently I’m somewhere on the scale towards being double-jointed. So, my joints and ligaments are just a bit too stretchy and when I go walking long distances, it can affect my gait, my knees, hips, and overall alignment. I like to walk long distances but I don’t like having sore knees. So, some years back, I was fitted out for a very practical pair of insoles to keep my feet in a steady position within my shoes. They aren’t sexy and they make shopping for shoes rather tricky.

So, when it came time to look for Camino footwear I was looking for something:

Durable

Comfortable

Lightweight

Possibly waterproof

Affordable

Supportive

Blister-free

Cushioned

Trustworthy

and

Orthotic-friendly

 

I’m not joking when I say I found only one pair of hiking shoes that accommodated my orthotics properly. They were waterproof, sturdy, and trustworthy. They were relatively comfortable but heavy. They also looked remedial and made me look more club-footed than I wanted.

The shoes were ugly and ‘too much’ commitment when I was under time pressure.

So, I started Camino in my Chaco sandals and I wore them for the first 154km to Viana. All things considered, I think that was pretty good going – especially since those kilometres had included the ascent and descent over the Pyrenees. I knew my shoes weren’t perfect but I was open to buying another pair if necessary.

I don’t need to be perfect: I’m willing to change and I will figure this out as I go along.

The benefits of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. I’d already broken them in
  2. They kept my feet cool
  3. They allowed my feet to swell without giving me blisters or chafing

The downside of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. They had no cushioning
  2. They had limited support
  3. The straps cut into my skin a bit, even when dry, which hurt. I wore socks to minimise the abrasion and keep my feet clean. That was one of many fashion disasters 🙂

In the evenings, I wore a pair of newly purchased Crocs:

IMG_1116

The plus side:

They were really light

The holes allowed air into my feet

I could wear them in public showers and they drained out pretty quickly

 

The minus side:

They were bulky and took up quite a bit of space in my backpack

The occasionally scraped the skin off my toes. Ouch. But this was because the skin on my feet grew softer over time, from wearing shoes and socks every day. Not exactly the Crocs’ fault.

 

Why didn’t I wear flip-flops?

I thought I might need to wear socks in the evening and if I did, they would fit better in a pair of Crocs than in a pair of flip-flops.

The few times that I did wear socks, the Crocs allowed me to do so without having a thong thingie between my toes. That would have been another level of fashion disaster!

Flip flops seemed to be more popular but one woman told me that the thong between her toes gave her chafing and blisters. Like me, the skin on her feet had grown soft over time and the flip-flops seemed to dig in and cause problems.

I’m sure there’s some way around that.

 

Would I recommend walking the Camino in hiking sandals?

Not really.

They served me well in the first few days – particularly in the heat – but by the time I’d reached Viana my feet were horribly sore from over-stretching and flexing. I needed better support and structure. That said, by the time I’d reached Viana, my feet had swelled so much that I needed shoes that were a full size bigger than normal. I wouldn’t have known that if I’d bought my footwear before departure.

A lot of people thought I was crazy to buy shoes on Camino and break them in while I walked.

Maybe I was.

But I was delighted to find an outdoor gear shop in Viana, and deeply grateful to have a range of shoes available to me. I tried on everything in the shop – with my hiking socks and swollen feet, and in the end chose these, a pair from a company called Solomon:

IMG_1038

The upside:

LOADS of cushioning – they were like walking on springy mattresses!

Great support

Lightweight

Breathable

Non-remedial in appearance 🙂

 

The downside:

They didn’t accommodate my orthotics

They weren’t waterproof (time would tell whether that was an issue)

 

When I walked out of Viana in them the next morning, I knew a transformation had taken place. My first week or so of Camino had been painful and had taken a lot out of me. I thought I was being soft or whiney. I didn’t like that about myself, and thought I should shut up complaining. No one else seemed to be whinging, even though many people had nasty blisters by then. I’d come away without a single blister to date: what was I complaining about?!

When I put on the new shoes, I realised that the walking was instantly easier. No more screaming tendons, no more overly stretched ligaments – my feet felt comfortable and supported for the first time. Comparing the two sets of shoes:

Walking in the sandals felt like walking on cement in my bare feet

Walking in the shoes felt like bouncing on mini trampolines

It just goes to show: getting the right footwear makes all the difference.

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision but you don’t necessarily have to get the perfect gear before you depart: you can buy footwear along the way and break it in as you go.