Preparing to Walk the “El Camino”
May 25, 2018 / By Nate Wisan
It was October of 2010, and I was visiting my then girlfriend in Granada, Spain. Over a dinner with some of her friends, someone mentioned there were some nice pilgrimages in Spain. Not being Catholic, when I hear the word pilgrimage I automatically think hiking. I determined to someday come back and complete one or two of these gentle hiking. (In all fairness, I assumed they were gentle. And you know what happens when we assume.)
Time passed faster than I thought was possible, and it wasn’t until mid 2017 that I again heard about the pilgrimage. Two of my friends were taking two weeks off work in order to hike a section of the trail.
Two weeks to hike a section of the trail, I thought, how long is this gentle hike?
That’s when I got serious about researching the hike. Turns out there are over 12 different routes that all terminate in Santiago de Compostela—the official ending place of the pilgrimage, and shortened to “Santiago”. The official name of the pilgrimage is El Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James). The routes start in various cities and countries! One can start in Portugal, Spain, France, or wherever they live. In fact, while hiking the route I met a woman who had first hiked from Poland to Rome, and then to Santiago, Spain. She was hiking back to Poland when I met her. She wasn’t the only person doing this. I also met a German man who had been diagnosed with cancer the previous year, so he hiked from Germany to Santiago, and was then going to hike back to Germany. Amazing!
But I digress. Back to researching the hike.
I knew next to nothing about the hike, so I pulled up Google and started researching exactly what this Camino was. (Camino is simply the Spanish word for a walk.)
Of the twelve various routes, the French Route is the most popular. It starts on the French side of the Pyrenees mountain range, and then crosses into Spain. The total hike is 500-miles (799km) long, and the guidebooks suggest doing it in 45 days. Something like 186,000 people start this route yearly. It’s quite popular!
At the time I was researching this I was working overseas on a 6-month contract. I would return to the U.S. in December of 2017, so I planned the trip for late winter and early spring of 2018. I found a one-way ticket to Paris from Los Angeles, and it only cost $159 USD through Wowairlines. From Paris I would take a combination of train and bus to get to the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port where the hike began.
With my flight booked, and the realization that I was actually going to attempt a 500-mile hike, it was time to start training. My overseas job had been quite sedentary, as I was chained to a desk most days. Also, the fact that I wanted to do the Camino in only 18 days (27 days less than the experts advised), complicated matters.
500-miles divided by 18 days comes out to 27.7 miles a day. That meant I would have to walk more than marathon-distance every day…oh, I forgot to mention, I had never walked or run a marathon distance before. But I wasn’t too worried. I would be wearing trail running shoes, and I was an avid runner. How hard could it be? Hard! It would turn out to be very hard!
This article isn’t about the actual hike, rather the preparation for the hike. Therefore, I won’t discuss what happened when I tried to walk a marathon every day for 18 days. Let’s just say shin splints and foot pain stretched my 18 day hike into 24 days, but I did complete it!
The next few paragraphs will discuss the basic gear, clothing, and fitness preparation that allowed me to complete the 500-mile hike.
Buy Quality Gear
In future posts I will write a gear review and post a YouTube video as well. For the time being a simple mantra should cover your gear choices. Buy the highest quality and lowest weight items you can afford. While walking the Camino only 2 of my 24 days of hiking were without rain, falling snow, hours of hail, or gusting 35mph wind. Good quality waterproof jacket and pants are a must, as is a backpack with a waterproof covering, or using a custom made waterproof inner lining. Buy the best, your body and gear will thank you.
Train Prior to Starting the Walk
From an informal survey I conducted while walking the Camino, most people had walked an average of 20-miles a week before they started the Camino. Some had hiked with their full packs in order to figure out weight distribution and where they might get hot spots on their feet.
I highly recommend getting off the couch and going for a walk at least 3-4 times a week before you tackle something as daunting as a 500-mile hike. A little preparation goes a long way.
Shoes, Not Boots
I chose to use non-waterproof trail running shoes. Basically, your average tennis shoe, but with a little more grip on the bottom. Many fellow hikers were decked out in expensive hiking boots that required weeks of breaking in before they were trail ready. If you don’t have much time to prepare for the hike, or if you are carrying less than 30lbs in your pack (mine was 14lbs) and don’t need the ankle support boots provide, then I would serious recommend going with trail running shoes. They are lighter, dry faster, cost less than boots, and are often trail-ready right out of the box. I might suggest going with a pair of waterproof trail shoes though, as my non-waterproof shoes left my feet soaked on several occasions when the sky poured buckets of rain.
A Positive Attitude
This may seem like a strange thing to add when preparing for a long hike, but it is the one thing that will provide the highest chance of you completing the route. The hike, although beautiful, can be monotonous. The daily routine is wake up, eat breakfast, hike, eat lunch, hike, find hostel, eat dinner, go to bed. Rinse and repeat day after day. A positive attitude will keep one foot following the next, and it won’t be long until you realize you’ve made it to the end.
Although not necessarily something to do with preparation, most people care about this. The majority of hostels, even in the remotest corner of Spain, have WiFi. Don’t panic, you’ll still be able to keep up on Facebook and Instagram even when 50-miles away from a major city. I guess modern pilgrimages don’t lack all the comforts of home.
Future posts will cover how to get to the starting point of the route, my favorite towns, recommended hostels, gear, and so much more. Until then, keep traveling!