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?

Burgos, Spain: You Get What you Need

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I stopped in Burgos for 2 nights to rest, re-group, and take some alone-time. I was tempted to join the public albergue in the centre of the city but after two very noisy nights on the camino trail, I needed some quiet time by myself. I picked out one of the private albergues recommended in Brierley’s guide-book (finally, I actually read it!) and perched myself in a quiet room near the grounds of the university.

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For the handsome price of €35 per night, this is what I received:

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It had a small private bathroom too, so I didn’t need to stand in line with 20 other people waiting for my turn in the showers – what bliss!

The room was a calm oasis after days of noise and tension. I lay on my bed (with sheets!) – and listened to the sounds of birds chirping in the ivy and flowers outside my window. It was a welcome change from the sound of washing machines and chatter.

Here, I had enough steady wi-fi to make calls home to Handsome Husband who was holding the fort without me.

Here, I slept solidly for hours on end.

Here, I was glad to take a break from walking and carrying my backpack, and give my feet a break.

I slept, I ate, I relished the quiet.

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Downtown, I browsed and wandered through the city, famous for its gothic cathedral. I ate alone, I sent postcards home, and contrary to what Brierley suggested, I welcomed the sights and sounds of the city. It wasn’t a shock to my system at all. Surprisingly, it was a source of revival.

In the city, I could come and go as I pleased. I could reclaim my independence. I could be anonymous for a day, while I browsed through tourist shops and city sights. Oddly enough, the city gave me a chance to rest, and I grabbed it with both hands.

And with 532km still to go, I would need all the rest I could get.

What did Burgos mean to you?

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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:

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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:

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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.

 

 

Some Weary Walking: Villatuerta to Los Arcos

Distance walked: 24.8km

My longest day’s walking so far.

The stretch from Villatuerta to Los Arcos was a sort of “make or break” day of walking.

The first half of the day was rather delightful. I stopped in Estella to buy new sunglasses and replace the pair I’d already broken. Helpful Husband will tell you this is a relatively common occurrence in life. I also bought some sort of anti-inflammatory cream for my aching feet. In my rudimentary Spanish, the pharmacy staff were endlessly patient and obliging. No doubt, they see thousands of limping, hobbling, sunburnt pilgrims like me passing through town every year, with little or no Spanish, but with immediate medical needs. This sunny morning, all I could do was point at my feet and say “Owwww” a lot. The three women stood behind the counter in their white coats, looking a little dubious.

Here we go, another pilgrim with sore feet and no Spanish.

Of course my feet hurt: that was to be expected. But specifically where, and how badly, and why?

Had I pulled something?

Had I stepped on something?

Had I fallen, strained, twisted, or sprained?

Oh, those were questions I couldn’t even begin to answer!

Already, I’d met people who were rubbing ibuprofen creams and gels into their legs, and popping ibuprofen pills to keep inflammation at bay. I didn’t like the idea of medicating myself to the point of numbness, but I looked at their pill-popping with a sort of starry-eyed fascination: the drugs looked good. And lots of people were able to walk faster than me, and go farther than me, so maybe if I drugged up I too would start making some headway. I thought the drugs could give me a speedy Camino.

So, when I was handed a tube of arnica cream I admit, I was a bit doubtful. I think I am in more pain than this. I’m really not sure this stuff is strong enough. But I was too shy to say “Ibuprofen” and instead, accepted the arnica cream with gratitude. I decided I’d give it a go. If it didn’t work, there’d be another pharmacy somewhere else within a couple of days walk.

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Lovely Estella

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For those who don’t know, about 3km outside of Estella, the Bodegas Irache has a famous wine fountain for pilgrims.

I didn’t know it was there, either.

My friends who’d walked Camino before me had mentioned something about free wine on tap, but I’d never thought to ask them where it was. A week into the trip, I’d stopped reading the text in my Brierley guidebook and only looked at the maps – mostly to confirm how far I’d have to walk for a coffee, a sandwich, and a bed. The rest of the details, I reasoned, would unfurl along the way.

So, what a delight then to find myself walking through vineyards at 9:30 in the morning, and to bump into Barb and Dave outside the gates of this famous fountain. I didn’t know to expect it that particular day, and certainly not at that hour of the morning. If anything, I probably expected a medieval, wooden wine barrel with a simple tap on the end, but what we found was altogether more commercial, with its stainless steel tap and a large museum next door. It’s a self-serve operation and the wine wasn’t that bad. While pilgrims are encouraged to drink in moderation, I could have easily poured out my bottle of water and replaced it with a bottle of wine. Imagine the hangover though, walking around in 30-something degree heat, and drinking wine along the way?! It would have certainly taken my mind off my aching feet 🙂

Looking at the website now, I’m informed there’s “a web cam pointing at the fountain where you can see pilgrims in real time.” I wonder if anyone spotted us that particular morning, huddled around, giggling and fidgeting as we lined up for our free vino. It felt like we were back at school again, skipping class, smoking behind the sheds, and doing something wonderfully bold. What a sweet novelty, and a very welcome break from talking about beds, feet, and kilometres covered.

Just over 6km later, I reached the small village of Villamayor de Monjardín. If you look at the map, you’ll see it has a population of 150, and 2 albergues – one with space enough for 22 people, the other with space enough for 25. You’ll also see that to walk from there to Los Arcos is another 10+ kilometres and there is nothing along the way – nowhere to stop for coffee, a bed, or a get-out clause.

When you plan your walking for the day, this kind of thing becomes very relevant.

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By the time I reached the village, the sun had really started to swelter and I was beginning to flag. I had walked only 13.3km but the heat made those kilometres seem like more than they were. On top of that, my feet were getting the better of me. I thought I couldn’t really do much about them. Walking in hiking sandals had been great in many ways – the sandals gave my feet the space they needed to swell, without restriction. The sandals also helped regulate the temperature so they didn’t get too hot or sweaty, and I hadn’t developed any blisters.

So far, so good.

The problem was, they didn’t offer my feet a huge amount of support. Every step took a lot of flexing and gripping. I had an image of someone playing the piano, with their fingers stretching wide across the keyboard, flexing and reaching for the keys. My feet were doing something similar. On uneven ground, my feet had to flex to stay secure within the sandal, and then flex again to keep the sandal secure on the earth. I couldn’t afford to slip around, fall over, or lose my grip, especially on steep descents. So, apart from the fact that I’d scaled the Pyrenees and covered over 100km already (in their own right, those were great achievements for my poor paws), my feet were working extremely hard to stay secure in my choice of footwear. A pair of boots or hiking shoes would have done the work for me. But in my case, my feet were having to do all the work.

All the muscles in my feet were crying out for a break. I had pain:

across the tops of my feet

across my toes

up the backs of my heels

along my arches

and

on the undersides of both feet

Every step hurt, and the wise choice would have been to stop walking for the day, get a bed, and rest up for the afternoon.

I didn’t really consider it.

I stopped in the village and happily had a picnic with Barb and Dave, who generously shared fat, ripe tomatoes and crusty, fresh baguette with me. I bought a tin of tuna, swimming in olive oil, and dropped the whole tin onto the fresh bread. The combination of salty fish, juicy tomatoes, crusty bread, dripping in oil makes me salivate even now – that was probably one of the most delicious sandwiches I ate on all of Camino. We sat in the shade of the church, chatting and musing about life, relationships, and the road ahead. They’d booked into a private B&B for the night so had an afternoon of leisure awaiting them. I could have joined them and stopped walking for the day. At that hour, there were still available beds in one of the albergues, and I could have taken the afternoon to wash my clothes, have a nap, enjoy the cool shade, and join my friends for a beer.

I did consider it, but I didn’t give it enough consideration.

Instead, I decided to push ahead. I thought:

“Another 10km to Los Arcos is fine. It’s not that far. I’ll be there in 2-3 hours.”

And I strapped on my backpack, waved goodbye to Dave and Barb, and headed west.

This is what awaited me:

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The day was searing hot. Unbearably so.

About  half an hour outside the village I looked at the path ahead and couldn’t see a single person. I turned to look at the path behind me and it looked the very same. In every direction, I was alone and exposed to the relentless heat. Everyone else had already stopped walking for the day, or had stopped in the shade for a beer. They had done the right thing, while I felt like I was crossing the Sahara. There were no animals, there were no houses, and there was very little shade. I had a belly full of high-carb, high-protein food, and plenty of water, but I thought about turning back to the village.

Something in me said: This is madness.

Some other part of me said: No, there’s no going back. If you’re going to spend time walking, at least walk forwards.

So I kept going.

Damn Ego!

The minutes turned into hours as I trudged along in the heat, with increasingly sore feet, and making very slow progress. Fool, fool, fool, I should have turned back.

Eventually, three women caught up with me and it turned out, we knew each other from our night in Zabaldika. I was delighted to bump into them again and they kept me company on the long walk in the heat. By the time they’d passed through the previous village, the albergues were full and there was (seemingly) nowhere to stay. That’s how they’d decided to walk the remaining 10km to Los Arcos. Days later, I met a woman who came to the village even later that afternoon after walking 40-something kilometres, only to be told the same story. For her, walking the 10km to Los Arcos was unfeasible so she asked the locals for their advice.

Someone said: I have a spare garage: you can sleep there, if you like.

Someone else said: I can give you some cardboard and old sacks to put on the ground.

Some pilgrims who’d secured beds in the hostel said: We have camping mats and I don’t need them tonight: you’re welcome to use them.

And so, this woman joined 14 other pilgrims who’d made it as far as Villamayor de Monjardín, but couldn’t go any further, and slept on the ground in someone’s open garage. She admitted it wasn’t very comfortable and it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but they were safe and dry. She said it beat trying to walk the remaining 10km to Los Arcos.

I hadn’t walked even half the distance she’d walked that day but I could only agree: those 10km nearly broke me.

Mental note to self: Buy hiking shoes at the next available opportunity.

Arriving into town, I was beyond weary. Bumping into Kevin and Liz was a nice surprise but they confirmed what we already feared: all the albergues were full.

I bumped into a sprightly 70-year old from Australia whom I hadn’t seen in days and all she said was, “You’re late!

I didn’t realise it was a race.

I didn’t realise there was a timer on my every move.

I’d just spent 9 hours trying to walk some 25km and my feet were beyond repair – I didn’t appreciate her throwaway comment.

Still, we had bigger matters to tend to. The four of us walked from one albergue to the next, only to find that all of them were full. They’d even put down mats on the floors to accommodate extra pilgrims. There wasn’t space to budge.

Again, there was no room at any of the inns.

What would we do?

(And are my blog posts too long?)