Deciding what to bring on the Camino de Santiago can be extremely difficult. There are a number of factors to consider when creating your packing list. For one, the variation in climates. If walking all of the Camino Francés, you will pass through a medley of landscapes: lush, mountainous regions; desert plains; sprawling green farmland. Obviously, the time of year that you choose to do the Camino will dictate much of what you choose to bring. However, temperatures also fluctuate greatly within each region. Don’t forget that, though moving at a slow pace, pilgrims who complete the entire Camino will cross nearly 900km of ground, which is essentially the width of Spain. Thus, expect the surrounding environment to constantly be changing. Furthermore, as each day of walking begins before 8am and does not finish until well into the afternoon, you’ll notice a massive change in temperature just within each day. Some areas of the Camino yield particularly fickle and unpredictable weather (read: Galicia). Expect all sorts of conditions. During my time walking the Camino, I experienced days of heavy fog, dry heat, torrential rain, high winds, frigid mornings, and perfect sunshine. Thus, it’s easy to be tempted into packing a whole array of items in preparation for the varying conditions. Don’t do it. Don’t be tempted. Put that apple down.
If I could publish this post with a simple, four word response to the question of “what to pack,” it would read as such:
AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE.
Seriously. I can’t emphasize that enough. I did not meet a single soul while walking the Camino who wished they’d brought more things. When you’re carrying your backpack on your back for 8 hours a day, at a rate of 25+ kilometers per day for 35 days straight, you begin to despise each and every ounce weighing you down. Don’t believe me? Here’s the empirical evidence to prove it.
So, what should you bring? Here’s my list of suggestions.
Packing List for the Camino de Santiago:
- Boots — Every person you meet will suggest a different brand or style. The very first morning I started the Camino in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the man who owned the hostel at which we were staying told me that my boots were totally wrong. They provided ankle support, which he said would inevitably result in tendonitis and prevent me from ever reaching Santiago. Thanks dude. Because I could totally do something to change my boots in the 2o minutes left before starting my journey. With no other choice, I stuck with the boots I brought. And guess what? They were wonderful. I have weak ankles, and thus the ankle support really benefited me — especially when trekking down hill. I met many people who were wearing boots that had much more ankle support than mine, and many others whose boots had none at all (Mia, for example). Some people opted against using boots altogether, and instead wore sandals or their tennis shoes. Mia and I did this when we walked the 10 day stretch from Leon to Santiago the year before without problems, though I had to chuck them at the end and I certainly couldn’t imagine walking for a month in them — though again, to each their own. One other thing to keep in mind: make sure you wear in your boots before setting off on the trail. Blisters are almost inevitable, but you can avoid the worst of them by breaking in your shoes. Some people’s blisters became so bad that they were forced to walk in flip flops or slippers, which offer zero support and are really bad for you. Don’t let it come to that. For those who are interested, I walked in Keens and absolutely loved them— though I did buy gel inserts along the Camino for additional support and comfort.
- Backpack — Similar to choosing which boots to buy, the backpack that you settle on should be one that best fits your needs. I’d opt for something relatively small (less than 60L) and of light weight material. I used a Gregory Jade 60L backpack, which is the same backpack I’ve used for every trip for the last 4 years. No matter which backpack you ultimately settle on, be sure that it is sized for your body type (hiking backpacks come in various sizes depending on your height, weight, and the length of your torso) and also that all the straps are adjusted to fit you the right way (any store that sells backpacks should have an employee available to help show you how to properly use all those confusing straps). This is very important because if your backpack weighs too heavy on your hips or pulls too much at the shoulders, it can cause some serious problems.
- Rain cover for your backpack — I actually didn’t have one of these (and was forced to rely on makeshift trash bags), but I wish I had. As previously stated, the weather on Camino is totally unpredictable. No matter what time of year you walk, I can almost guarantee that it will rain at some point during your trip. Though trash bags and ponchos do offer quick protection against the rain, they don’t hold up very well for very long.
- Sleeping bag — This is ESSENTIAL. Albergues are not like hostels where you’ll likely be provided a set of clean sheets for your dormitory bed. Nope. At most, you can expect a plastic mattress, a disposable cover to go over said mattress, and perhaps a wool blanket if it’s particularly cold outside. You NEED a sleeping bag. Mia and I didn’t realize this the first time around, and thus arrived in Leon empty handed. This was stupid and resulted in my first encounter with bed bugs — though if you’ve been reading my blog, then you know that I had additional encounters even with a sleep sack. The most important thing to consider when purchasing a sleeping bag? It’s size. Be sure that it is teeny tiny. When rolled up, it should essentially be able to fit in your hand. Mia and I purchased these sleepsacks, and I’ve been extremely happy with mine thus far. It’s a Spanish brand so I’d never heard of it before, but has proven to work well. Very light weight and breathable.
- Water bottle — There are many places to fill up along the way.
- Multifiber, quick-dry towel — This badboy will come in handy time and time again. Don’t bring a normal towel as that would be far too large and heavy. Instead, something like this is light, compact, and will dry very quickly,
- Waterproof jacket — A light weight, waterproof jacket is essential in combatting an unsuspecting rain storm. Just be sure it’s waterproof rather than water resistant — that one word makes a world of difference.
- Light weight jacket — Even when walking in early July, there were days that were particularly chilly. I brought a zip-up fleece with me and it was a lifesaver.
- 2 pairs of socks — When walking in boots, it’s best to pair them with thick, hiking boots to prevent blisters. Most people use wool socks, though I’m allergic so I settled for some soft, cotton ones instead. After each day, wash the used pair in a sink (most albergues offer some sort of rudimentary laundry room where you can do this) and then set them out to dry. Having 2 pairs rather than one is nice just in case that first pair doesn’t dry overnight. Having more than 2 pairs would break the biggest rule of walking the Camino: less is more.
- 3 pairs of underwear — Follow the same format as with the socks. I know I said less is more, but in the case of underwear, it’s nice to have an emergency pair.
- 1 dryfit shirt — This is the shirt you will walk in. I prefer dryfit material because it drys quicker (hence the name), which comes in handy when you’re sweating like a horse in heat. Again, wash daily after every use. Or don’t. Pilgrims aren’t the cleanest people you’ll meet. And the best part of that? No one cares!
- 1 pair walking shorts/1 pair walking pants — Ideally, you’d get the kind of pants that zip off at the knees so you can adjust according to the temperature, but the fashion fairy wouldn’t let me buy these. Thus, I settled for some Lululemon brand, capri length yoga pants and a pair of elastic shorts instead. Both worked well for me, though I wished I’d brought some full length pants instead during some of those chilly morning. Also, I wished they were waterproof.
- Pyjamas — Anything light and clean that you can sleep in day in and day out. For those of you who prefer to sleep au natural — or even just pants-less — I’d highly suggest you reconsider during your time on Camino. You’ll be sleeping in rooms of up to 100 other people, and though you may be comfortable with that, I can guarantee that some of the other people in the room won’t be. There are no quips with people changing in front of each other, but I’d advice against spending an entire evening in your little, white undies. For sanity’s sake.
- Safety pins — Light weight and takes up no space, safety pins come in handy for a variety of reasons. You can use them to pop blisters (may sound gross, but you’ll be thankful when you have them — just be sure to sterilize them first) or to hang wet, recently washed clothes from your backpack while you walk so you can do some drying on the go.
- Sunscreen — Even if you’re walking under heavy cloud coverage, it’s important to protect yourself from the sun as you’ll be spending over a month outdoors in the elements.
- Toiletries — Stick to the bare minimum. I can assure you that no one wears make up on the Camino, and that anyone who spends more than 10 minutes in the shower is sure to get yelled at by the next anxiously awaiting pilgrim. Also, try to use small, sample sizes. It will cut down on weight and space — and if you run out, there’s nothing you can’t buy along the way.
- 1 set of clean clothes — Bring something that you can wear during the hours between washing your walking clothes and putting on your pyjamas. It needn’t be particularly nice, but something versatile that you’d be comfortable wearing at dinner, to a pub, or while lounging around the albergue. Don’t bring anything that wrinkles easily, and avoid jeans as the material is far too heavy.
- Swiss Army Knife — I found a basic Swiss Army Knife to be crucial. The blade was great for cutting up some bread and cheese for a little snack on the trail; the tweezers and scissors worked well to tend to minor injuries; and the corkscrew…well, I made good use out of that.
- Headlamp — I didn’t bring one, but I wish I did. As you start so early each morning, it’s likely you’ll be walking in the dark for at least a few different times throughout your pilgrimage…and often the roads that you’ll be walking down are not very well lit at all. Headlamps are also great when you can’t sleep, but would like to do a little extra reading while everyone else does.
- Map or book on Camino — You don’t need anything that is too detailed or fancy. Rather, just something that will give you distances between towns, expected increases and decreases in elevation, and the number of albergues (if any) in each town. Mia and I used this — a super small, and rudimentary guidebook that we purchased for 5 euros in Bilbao. I would HIGHLY recommend this.
- Seasonal gear — A beanie and gloves if you’re walking in the spring or fall. Mornings can be quite chilly, and though hoods and pockets often work just as well, it’s nice to have a little extra layer of warmth. A visor or hat can be useful if walking in the summer, as the sun get to be rather intense — though I was fine with just sunglasses. When walking in October, I wished I had brought a long-sleeve dryfit shirt to layer. Also, be sure to adjust the thickness of your water-resistant jacket to match the time of year at which you’re walking. A super light rain shell should suffice during the summer, but otherwise it’s probably best to bring something of a slightly heavier material.
Other things to consider?
- Medical kit — Though it may be a good idea to throw a few Bandaids and some Neosporin in your bag, I promise there will be no shortage of pharmacy shops along the way that specifically cater to injured pilgrims. For example, I brought Moleskin bandages with me, but didn’t find them very effective. I then purchased Compeed bandages to cover my blisters — a brand I had never heard of or seen in the US — and they worked like magic. Also, remember that you will be walking with a community of pilgrims who will (more likely than not) gladly share any medicines or remedies they have on hand.
- Poles — Some people swear by walking poles, while others can’t stand them. I tend to eb on the side of the latter, though if you prefer poles, then certainly bring them. Similarly, many pilgrims buy the traditional wooden walking sticks to use throughout their journey, while others just pick up a wooden stick along the way.
- Book or journal — Obviously, you want to keep your bag as light as possible. However, there is quite a bit of down time at night and it’s nice to settle in and do some reading or journaling. I didn’t bring a book the first time I walked Camino as I thought it’d be too heavy, but then seriously regretted it.
- Camera — Some people brought large and really nice cameras, while others used tiny point and shoots. All the pictures I took while walking Camino were done with my iPhone in order to save space — and because the quality of the iPhone camera is incredible.Regardless of what you’re shooting with, definitely bring a camera. The number of picture perfect moments is infinite.
- Something personal to leave at the cross — About 70km after Leon, you’ll reach the highest point of the entire Camino. Standing tall and isolated at this spot is a large cross. The tradition is for people to leave an item of sentimental value at the cross. If you’d like to participate (and I’d suggest you do, even if you’ve no religious affiliations like myself) then be sure to bring something small and special that you wouldn’t mind parting with.
The thing to keep in mind while packing for the Camino de Santiago is that, though you pass through some rather small towns, you’ll also be walking through a number of major cities. Anything that you may have forgotten to pack can be purchased along the way. Don’t stress, just enjoy. Buen Camino!