It has been 2 and a half weeks since returning from my 31 days on the Camino de Santiago, a good time to reflect on the packing job I did. Since I made the trek in spring time from March 17th to April 18th, this guide will be most helpful for those pilgrims walking during spring and fall. That being said, much of the information is season indiscriminate so for those traveling in Summer or Winter, you will be able to glean some helpful info too!
Keep the weight down
The general rule of thumb for the Way of St. James is that one should not carry more than 10% of their body weight. I have little meniscus left in my right knee, so keeping the weight to a minimum was important. However, as I needed to blog in-situ (which included a DSLR camera and computer), cutting the weight posed a challenge. Initially, I wanted to bring my 4.5 pound Macbook, but considering that I only had 19.3 pounds (8.75 kg) to play with, I packed my IPad with bluetooth keyboard instead. I walked out the door with 20.2 pounds. I was very apprehensive that I packed too much.
At the beginning I stuffed 4 or 5 pounds of food and water in my bag. After a while I figured out that I really didn't need to carry much food outside of a small snack (an orange or some chocolate). There were so many towns along the way that I could stop at for a quick bite! With food and water, I was usually carrying between 21 and 22 pounds and that suit me just fine. I needn't have worried so much about carrying an extra pound or two. My advice: the 10% rule is a good guideline, but it seems ok to go a bit over the mark, especially during the spring or fall as you might find yourself needing different items in the beginning compared to the end.
Tip: At the local post office, you can pack up your stuff and send it to Lista-de-Correos, Travesia Fonseca s/n, 15780, Santiago de Compstela (they only hold it for 15 days). Some people even send fresh clothes ahead to Santiago.
This was taking on the first day of the Camino on the Pyrenees. The first day is one of the hardest physically, since you are climbing from 650 to 4,600 feet ( 200 to 1,400 meters) above sea level and then back down to 3,200 feet (1,000 meters). I was exhausted after the 17 miles (27.1 kilometers) and was happy to arrive in Roncesvalles.
What I packed (weight 20.2 lb. or 9.2 kg):
- Shampoo 3 oz
- Deodorant 3 0z Spray (Doubles as Febreeze)
- Toothpaste 2 0z and toothbrush
- Soap 2 oz
- SPF 30 Sunscreen 3 oz
- Tissue for after emergency tree fertilization
- Ear Plugs for the insufferable snorers
Accessories and Other Gear
- Sleeping Bag
- Osprey Aether 60 Backpack
- Sarong (as a pillow case and to sit on outside)
- Fleece hat and gloves
- Sandals (for wearing in the shower and in the evenings)
- Bottles of water on route (no sense in bringing a heavy canteen)
Electronics and Communication
- Camera - Cannon 60 D
- Bluetooth Keyboard
- Apple SD Card Reader
- 4 Memory cards of various size
- Smartphone with T- Mobil World Coverage
- Plaster or band aids
- Wound Dressings
- Anti Fungal Creme
- Paracetamol / Asprin
- Swiss Army Knife
- Needle and Thread
- Safety Pins
- Insurance Information
- Cash, Credit Cards
- Electronic Guidebook
- Pilgrim Passport
- Small Notebook
- Two E-guide books
I started with travel sized amounts of soap and shampoo in order to cut weight. After a while, it just became a hassle to buy new shampoo every 4 days, so I bought normal sized containers and never looked back.
One of the most important items for you to bring are ear plugs. If you are planning at staying at the Albergues (hostels) these will be your lifeline to a good night's sleep. It's simply an odds game. If you are sleeping in the same room with 8 or more people, one of them is likely to snore. I think there was only two out of 31 nights that someone wasn't snoring loudly near me.
Tip: try to avoid sleeping near old men and people that get really drunk. In my experience they are the worst snorers.
2) Layers and Weather
During the early spring, it's possible that you see clear skies and 60 to 70 degree fahrenheit weather (15 to 20 degrees celsius). But it's also possible that you see temperatures in the freezing range and even snow in the Pyrenees. If you are going during spring or Autumn, carrying multiple layers will allow you to adapt to different weather environments.
If the temperature was near freezing or I stopped for a long period of time, I used all 4 layers. That happened only once or twice. When it was a bit warmer, up to maybe 45 fahrenheit (7 celsius), I used 3 layers - technical shirt, mid layer and shell. That happened three or four times. When the temperature climbed a bit more, say up to 60 (15.5 celsius), I wore my technical shirt, fleece instead of the mid layer and shell. From 60 to 70 (15 to 20 celsius), I mostly wore my technical shirt and my shell. And when the days started to get above 70 (20 celsius), I was only wearing a T-shirt and shorts by that time.
The above are just examples which may deviate by a couple degrees, the point is, with layering, you can adjust so that you always not too hot or too cold. A good article on how to layer by Backpacker magazine can be found here.
Changes of clothes
Packing three shirts, three pairs of socks and four pairs of underwear seemed to work out well. Every third day I would wash all my shirts and socks and three pairs of underwear. I would put on the fourth pair of undies, my shorts and the fleece while I was waiting for a shirt to dry. Laundry is free if you do it by hand, or around 6 to 8 euros if I washed and dried them with a machine (I would say about 50% of the Albergues have laundry facilities). I wish I would have brought another pair of socks though, since I was doubling up on them during the last 10 days of the Camino to reduce the pain in my heels (also good to reduce blisters). Sometimes, I went an extra day with one pair of socks since I couldn't be bothered with laundry every two days. In the summer, "stanky feet" is a bigger problem due to the heat and sweat. In the spring, it wasn't all that bad.
Rainproof outer shell
There is soo much that goes into choosing the right outer shell, that it really could be a whole article on its own. The gist of it is, you want something rain-proof, breathable, durable and light. The more of those a jacket gets right, the more it will cost. The guys who sold me a Mountain Hardwear Seraction Jacket said it had a really good ratio of breathability to water resistance. In general, I found this to be the case. I never had to wear a poncho, which can get really annoying when its either windy, because it can flap everywhere making a horrible flapping sound, or when its warm, since it seals in heat. The only negative of the jacket I found, is that along the zippers water can get in. That means kids, don't carry your cell phone in your pocket like I did. It can give your phone a case of rain-herpes. But outside of that, it worked great and I would recommend it to others.
There is also a really good breakdown and review of shells here. They recommend one of the following jackets after extensive testing:
Mid Layer Down Jacket
I was contemplating whether or not to buy a new mid layer, since I already had one from an old ski jacket. I came across a great deal at a local store for 50% off, and since it was three times lighter than my old jacket, I snapped it up. The Helium jacket by Peak Performance is super warm, super lightweight and super packable. It just isn't super stylish, but if you are wearing it underneath a shell, no one sees it anyways.
By far my favorite piece of clothing were my Millet technical pants. And I'm glad, because they were the only pair of pants I brought. They have this great material that is stretchy and soft and it didn't rub in any of the wrong places. Also, and this is only my personal opinion, they were the only pants that I didn't look like a total knob in and could pull off wearing outside of the Camino. Maybe I wouldn't wear them out to dinner, but I wouldn't have a problem wearing them for other non hiking activities.
Disclaimer: I bought the normal pants, not the zip off pants that turn into shorts as featured above. I saw many people with them on the Camino; the reason being that they could reduce the number of articles carried. I just didn't like the look as much as the non zip off pants and thus wouldn't have worn them outside of the camino. I am all for multiple uses.
Taking care of your feet throughout the journey seems to be a piece of advice that every pilgrim can agree upon. The most important feature about the footwear you choose to bring is that it shouldn't hurt your feet. Seems simple enough, but tons of people come to the Camino without trying out their equipment extensively before hand. That means more than one hike and preferably months before hand.
Some people even decide to bring boots or shoes that they have used for years. I met one Australian guy who had a pair of clunky, clog like shoes that he had had for five years. They didn't look the part, but he didn't have one blister while taking over one million steps along the Camino Frances. If you have an old pair of boots or shoes that are well broken in, and you know they don't cause stress in the wrong parts of your feet, they might be the best solution.
I had taken out the inserts to my boots to allow them to dry better. Unfortunately, I forgot to put them back in. I walked two days without them and I definitely started to feel the effects. On the third day, a fellow pilgrim helped cut out pseudo inserts from slippers until I could buy a new set. They might not have been pretty, but they did the trick. Being creative on the Camino helps to solve a lot of problems!
Tip: If your heel is hurting (usually along your achilles tendon), try putting on two pairs of socks. Often the boot is rubbing in just the wrong spot. By putting on another pair of socks, you can change the pressure point by just enough that it will often relieve the pain all together.
Tip: If compeed (moleskin) isn't help your blisters, try putting Vaseline all over your feet before you put your boots on. It can help reduce the friction that causes the blisters to form.
If you don't have a pair that are tried and true (like I did't), then you will obviously have to buy something. Before I left for the Camino, I did a bit of research on forums and blogs into the various footwear options:
- Sandals - During the summer, some people seem to enjoy the "wind between their toes" of sandals, however I scratched that idea, since I knew their might be snow on the Pyrenees (there was).
- Cross Trainers / Hiking shoes with no ankle support - Seem to be quite popular as I saw quite a few on route. The problem is that they don't provide any ankle support, and with rocky terrain and traveling 30 days non stop, I thought that my legs might eventually get tired and foot placement might suffer.
- Heavy duty hiking boots - I decided against them due to the weight. The cost benefit analysis going on in my brain said that the extra support wasn't worth the extra weight. (If I was doing the primitivo, where the terrain is a bit harder, I think I would have opted for a heavier boot.)
- Hiking boots - That left me with normal hiking boots with ankle support. Any boot you choose should be either gore-tex or leather that is treated with wax or some type of water resistant material. Gore-tex may be more water resistant, but during hotter months, they don't breathe as much and you feet may "overheat". As for the leather shoes, they breath better, however overtime the stitches can loosen and become more porous, allowing water to seep in.
Whatever you buy, ask the store if you can try them out in your house for a couple of days and return them if they don't fit well. I did this and brought back a pair that was too narrow.
In the end, I bought hiking boots from Hanwag with high ankle support (Model Kharta but I couldn't find it online. I did find the Lhasa Hiking Boots which are very similar). They are made out of yak leather - yes yak leather - and they are like slipping on a firm marshmellow that envelops your feet. I might have bought a half a size to big, so they rubbed a little bit on my right ankle (which is bigger than my left) which caused a bit of pain on the achilles, but compared to most people, my feet were like polished stones.
I found the discussion on footwear here helpful: http://www.galiciaguide.com/Walking-shoes.html
3) Accessories and Other Gear
Although not quite as important as your layers are during the spring, accessories and gear can make life unpleasant if you get them wrong. For example, an ill-fitting backpack can cause undue strain on not only your back and legs, but on your feet as well. A missing sunhat can be uncomfortable especially during the summer if you have no sunglasses.
You may notice that I didn't include a head lamp in my packing list. This was to cut weight and save costs. The light from a cell phone works just fine when you need to get up at night to go to the bathroom. I will admit that packing in the morning could have been slightly improved with a headlamp, although I still don't think its such a huge advantage, at least not one I would pay for.
I have an old McKinley Sleeping bag Season 1 that did the trick. It’s a bit heavy, so if I was buying a new one, I would get one that is lightweight, but also season 1. Most pilgrims say that you don't need anything warmer than that since you are sleeping inside Albergues every night. In the summer, some people only use a silk liner. A breakdown on what to look for in Sleeping bags can be found here and what pilgrims say about them here.
One of the main purposes of a sleeping bag is to keep you off the mattresses which sometimes contain bed bugs. This is more of a summer problem and I only met one person that had gotten bit by the little buggers during springtime.
I got a fairly good pair of Fizan walking poles that are really lightweight and collapsable. I wanted them to absorb some of the shock of walking from my knees. It seems to have done the trick, since I had no knee pain the entire Camino. In terms of physical exertion, I noticed their benefit during climbs up hill; it really made it much easier. However, in the flats and downhill, I didn't notice a big difference.
I would recommend walking sticks for people with knee or hip problems or anybody that is a bit older. I saw tons of people walking with just one stick, but one is definitely not as helpful as two, and if you don't remember to switch the side that you use the stick on, you may develop problems on the other side because your balance is out of whack. So I would say if you go for one stick, you might as well get two.
Additionally, another pilgrim that was having knee problems decided to buy sticks along route and was impressed on how much they helped. If you are up in the air on them, you can always find them along the way.
From what I read on forums during my research before the camino, comfort is very important in a backpack. After all, you will be lugging it around for 4 to 8 hours a day for 30 days straight, so you want one that fits you well. Some may look great on paper, but when you put them on, they just don't feel right. For that reason, I didn't want to buy anything from the internet sight unseen.
Below was the criteria I used to determine if a bag was a good fit for me:
- The bag fit comfortably for a tall cat like me. At 190 cm or (6'3), some of the bags didn't fit comfortably along my hips, in fact some didn't even reach my hip. The same can be true for very short people as well.
- I am notoriously a bad packer. Most bags require you to go through the top of the bag to gain access to the contents at the bottom of it. I wanted a bag with a U-shaped opening on the front of it, so I wouldn't have to rip things out to get to a particular piece of equipment.
- Was light (enough) yet sturdy and could accommodate larger loads for future expeditions where a tent would be necessary. Some people on forums stated a three pound limit, but I felt like that was arbitrary. A better guide is 10% of your body weight when the bag is filled.
- For some reason I tend to sweat more than the average human being, so any feature that would reduce the moisture build up was a welcome addition in my book.
- I wanted the most comfortable bag possible. The shoulder and hip straps should be of good quality, so that they don't dig into the wrong parts and are durable enough to take a lot of activity.
- Rain cover.
- A plus for any bag that could provide quick access to my DSLR camera.
Based on the above, I narrowed my search down to two candidates: the Deuter Futura Vario 50+10 and the Osprey Aether 60. They both claim to weigh 4 pounds 14 oz and carry comparable loads, albeit the Deuter extends from 50 to 60 L and the Osprey compacts from 60 to 50 with tension straps. If I didn't want the bag to be versatile for other hiking expeditions, I would have opted for a lighter and less spacious bag, but I am a fan of versatility and multiple uses. If you want really lightweight bags, here is a good review.
On Amazon, the Deuter is about 60 bucks cheaper, but at the store here in Europe, they were within 10 euros of each other. I liked that the Deuter had a suspension that keeps the pack completely off my back allowing for maximum air flow. In the summer, I might have been swayed by this feature, but the other features of the Osprey were just too compelling. For one thing, the Osprey was the most comfortable bag I tried on. And I tried on bags for over 4 hours. For retailers that have a Osrpey modling oven, the hip belt can even be molded to your body, thereby providing a tailored fit. Secondly, the top pouch of the Osprey bag unclips from the rest of the body allowing you to use this as an oversized fanny pack. Ok Fannypacks are not cool, but if you want to have access to your 2.5 pound camera without having to take your entire bag off and dig through it, it's worth the geek factor in my book. Lastly and ironically, when compared to the previous statement, I liked the look of the bag better. It just is much cooler than the Deuter. Plus its made in 'merica and not Deutschland. Got to go with the home team on this one.
It was important for me to be able to blog every day, so I had to carry a lot of electronic gear with me. For example, I needed to get a SD Connection Kit to upload the photos I was taking on my Canon 60d to the iPad. With most smart phones you can take pictures and upload to Facebook seamlessly.
With the wordpress app for the iPad I was able to quickly create posts without using a laptop, saving me 3 pounds in the process. I was somewhat concerned about Wifi on the Camino, but over the last 12 months, the increase in Wifi over the entire Camino Frances has been substantial and I needn't have worried. Every town that I went to had at least one spot with Wifi connection and I was able to up load a post every day for 31 days.
Although my Canon 60D weighs about 2.5 pounds with the 18 X 135 lens, it was not an option to leave it at home. Overall, I was really happy with its performance. Its not a full frame (that would be really heavy), but still takes great pictures. If I had the scratch I would invest in a new mirrorless DSLR, which can weigh half as much. The only drawback with them, is that they are not very good (yet) for shooting fast moving targets, but on the Camino, that really doesn't matter. Things tend to go very slow there.
Of all of the first aid items listed, I would say the Ibuprofen, Compeed (Moleskin), sunscreen and the Swiss Army knife where the most important. Ibuprofen is probably better than aspirin as it also helps with inflammation. Compeed is really a glorious invention and can really reduce the amount of agitation to open blisters on your feet. The reason for sunscreen is pretty evident I think, and the swiss army knife is good for cutting off pieces of chorizo and cheese.
I never used the needle and thread or safety pins and only rarely used the wound dressing to help with blisters. I would say those could be left at home.
Most of these items are self evident, but I would just like to make a comment or two on the Guide Books. In order to cut weight, I downloaded an Ebook (actually two) instead of physically carrying one. The Ebooks I downloaded were Camino de Santiago: A Guide to Walking the Camino Francés by Robert Hamilton and the Walking Guide to the Camino de Santiago History Culture Architecture from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela and Finisterre by Gerald Kelly.
Although both books were a bit flawed (both of their kilometer distances were occasionally incorrect by up to a couple of kilometers), taken together they complimented each other well. Hamiliton splits up his chapters into different stages - 32 in all - and gives information on accommodation, elevation changes and a bit of historical background on each of the Towns you will pass along the way. One negative about Hamiliton's book is that it lacks detailed maps, which if you want to take some detours is slightly annoying (if you follow the main route, detailed maps are not necessary, since the Camino is well marked with yellow arrows guiding the way). Kelly's guidebook on the other hand provides more detailed maps and a more comprehensive review on culture and history.
If they made an E-Version of A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierly, I would have definitely bought it. The maps are much more extensive and there are some helpful spanish phrases included as well. But what really makes the book great are the musings of the author who in addition to giving a description of the physical path, provides a paragraph on the mystic path. The mystic path descriptions are really quite funny. I got a kick out of them when I was able to thumb through a fellow pilgrims copy.