Camino de Santiago: Packing and Training Tips

Camino, Santiago, Compostela, trekking, hiking, pilgrimage, Spain, yellow arrow, kilometer marker, travel, photo, Olympus

The Camino de Santiago has become a very popular destination/experience for many around the world, especially after the movie “The Way” hit the movies screens (maybe home flat screens is more appropriate).  People of all ages and nationalities gravitate to this, as did I and a group I traveled with last summer to hike the Camino.  I wrote about each of our 7 days in a series of posts but I’d thought I’d devote some time to sharing about the preparation.  By now means is this an exhaustive treatise on each of the topics but it should give you a good high-level understanding on training and gear.  Hope you find it helpful and feel free to ask questions or suggest your own tips via the comments!

Camino de Santiago, Spain, trekking, hiking, path, Palas del Rei, Samsung

Dirt path going between farms

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Another church we passed this day

Training – or how to get ready

The Camino is not Everest Base Camp or Mt. Kilimanjaro but that does not mean it is easy.  The challenges posed by the Camino are different than an epic climb.  While in some hikes, altitude is a factor, that is not the case in the Camino.  The mountains or hills faced will not compare to hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or getting to Uhuru Peak in Mt. Kilimanjaro.  But if you walk more than the minimum distance required to get the Compostela (the famous certificate granted to provide pilgrims with proof that they did indeed make it to Santiago de Compostela), you will need to prepare for some good climbs – and the corresponding downhills (always fun on the delicate knees of a hiker…).

Another factor to consider is that how strenuous the day is depends on how much ground you plan to cover each day.  If you are young (read: in your 20s or early 30s), you likely think you can attack the Camino and do over 20 miles a day, perhaps 30.  That’s crazy talk.  Yes, you physically may be able to but a couple of things:

1.  After a couple of days of pushing this way, your body will let you know how crazy that was.  I have heard the horror stories.  Don’t be over-ambitious.

2.  More importantly, you are missing the point of the Camino.  Yes, getting to the destination is the “aim,” but the point is to be on a journey, a pilgrimage (whether spiritual or emotional).  Moving at the speed of sound renders this experience as just checking an item off the bucket list (which if it is all it is for you, then fast speed might as well be your friend because you will get bored not seeing it as an experience for such a long way).

The final factor to keep in mind is that while there may not be tons of steep hills nor altitude, this hike puts a lot of stress on your feet.  When I climbed Kilimanjaro, the distances walked on a given day were well in the single-digits in terms of miles (maybe it got to double digits in kilometer-land).  Yes, it was difficult due to low oxygen and steepness but it was not brutal on my feet.  Don’t get me wrong, when I would arrive at camp, I was desperate to take off my boots!  But the Camino is much more unforgiving when it comes to your feet.  They tale a beating, so make sure they keep on ticking.

Gear – or what to bring

Before I get into gear, clearly whether you are carrying all your stuff on your back or not makes a big difference.  Yes, there is an option to NOT carry it all yourself from place to place!  Now, that may not be your style and all that, and that’s OK.  But, for some, it is the way to go and so it was for me 🙂

Regardless of how you do it, I will still issue the same warning:  don’t over-pack.  You will be amazed at how little you can get by with – a lot less than you think.  And worst comes to worst, you can go to a local store along the way and buy what you need…  But I also say that because going on this journey, in my view, is about changing some parameters about our lives to develop new insights, clear our heads, have new experiences, and hopefully be renewed in whatever way you may need to.  So, with all that said, here are some things that I deemed important to take along my Camino…

Feet

    • Good walking shoes or boots.  Without good shoes that you have broken in BEFORE the Camino, you will be in trouble.  Don’t be cheap about this item.  Cheap out on the camera or other items but not on this, my friends!  These could be boots or walking shoes.  The former gives you better ankle protection.  The latter may feel more comfortable.  You may want both to alternate.  After many days of wearing the same show, you may long for a different pair…  Up to you (as are all the tips I share here!).  But I would definitely say, get waterproof in case it rains.

    • Along with the shoes, go non-cotton socks.  What good is a pair of proper and broken in walking shoes if you are going to just slap on cotton socks?  Cotton socks are an invitation for blisters and the painful fun that means for the few days after you develop them.  Wool socks and, ideally, liners complete the most important focus of your gear list:  your feet.

  • Now, if the socks and shoes don’t do it and a blister seems imminent (sometimes blisters just develop…), that is an important moment to take action one final time to prevent the blister from materializing. At that point, you want to protect the spot where you are beginning to feel the burning (which is exactly what you feel BEFORE the blister arrives). The simplest and cheapest solution is to place a small piece of duct tape on that spot on your foot. Yes, stop, take footwear off and apply the small patch of duct tape – don’t wait.  So duct tape is a must-carry on any hike with the added side benefit that you can repair other things with it as needed. But don’t carry the roll, for goodness’ sake! Wrap duct tape on a pencil or on your hiking pole and you will save space and weight.
  • In case things go too far and you develop a blister, a blister repair kit is a good idea to bring along.  I was the beneficiary of a fellow’s trekker blister “repair” kit coming down Kilimanjaro and became a believer.  I don’t recall the brand I used on the Camino but the item below is the one I bought for my next hike in Patagonia.

Clothing

Now we can get past all things feet.  From a clothing standpoint, the usual advice applies here.

    • Layers.  The weather can vary and some high spots can get very cold.  And depending on the time of year, it could get quite warm during the day.  So plan to have layers which help manage the changes you may experience throughout the day.
    • Waterproof.  At some point, you may encounter rain so you want proper rain gear which might as well also serve as wind-breaking gear.  In terms of things to wear, make sure it is really waterproof (Gore-Tex). Waterproof also refers to protecting the contents of your backpack, whether by placing a bag over your backpack or putting the contents of your backpack in plastic bags.  Your choice!
    • Wicking.  Since you may not be carrying one-for-every-day in the underwear category and to help your skin remain “un-irritated”, wicking underwear is a good idea.  It removes humidity before sweat covers your skin which prevents bad odors.  And, hence, should you decide to wear them more than once between washings, then at least you know you will not smell!  Because my hike was only 7 days, I had underwear for every day but I still used wicking underwear for the comfort of not developing chaffing, etc.

  • Temperatures.  Plan for a range of temperatures.  This ties to the layers bit but also realize that, at night when you are not hiking, you may want to sit outdoors and it may get chilly at night, even in the summer depending on the weather system on a given day in your area.  So some light jacket in the summer may be appropriate for the evenings; perhaps more substantial at other times of the year.
  • Comfort.  Be sure the materials you wear are comfortable to you.  During 6-8 hours of hiking, you want to be comfortable not itching or something else.  When you get to the next town, you WILL want those walking shoes off and will love slipping into some flip flops, sandals or running shoes or whatever other comfortable footwear you like.  Bring only one of those, no need to overdo it, but allow yourself this luxury!  (Flip flops could be handy to shower in communal showers if that’s your accommodation style!)

Miscellaneous

    • Hunger avoidance devices (read: snacks).  You will not hungry on this trek!  Plenty of places to stop and get a snack or a meal at very reasonable prices.  Carrying two boxes of protein or granola bars is wasted weight and space and, more importantly, keeping you from sampling local foods and snacks.  So, just carry what you buy locally or just stop along the way!
    • A camera!  You can certainly opt for a different kind of travel if you are not drawn to capturing memories in this manner.  Journaling, for example, may be a better way for some.  For yours truly, though, the imagery of a place not only captures my attention but is also a way I use to be able to share what I experience.  Along with this go the requisite battery charger or extra batteries and an appropriate number of SD cards 🙂  I do like the wifi SD card which allows me to transfer photos out of my SD card onto another device (good for backup or to clear memory on the SD card).
    • Toiletries and accessories.  Yep, you know what this list is about (toothbrush, deodorant, etc.) so no need to detail it nor give you too much advice.  But I will call out some things…  First, bring travel-sized items.  Second, see how much stuff you can live without.  Do you really need a hair dryer?  (No judgment implied!)  Finally, some items I will recommend…  Some hand lotion/moisturizer is a good idea.  Chapstick is a must.  And some antibacterial liquid (e.g., Purell) is also a must along with some wipies (no need to bring more than a handful per day, if that many).
    • First aid.  There are kits out there but I just go with common sense and practical.  There are drug stores and stuff in the towns you will pass so no need to overdo it.  Some band-aids, some anti-diarrhea meds in case you can’t make it to them town (no one had troubles of this sort in our group), some anti-inflammatory in case something hurts (knees, for example), and the like should make a good kit.  As a packing tip, I used the ziploc bags that are half of the regular sandwich bag to pack meds so I didn’t have to carry bottles which can occupy more space.  Whether you want to get Cipro (digestive system antibiotic), Ambien (to sleep) or anything else, it is up to you.  I took none of those meds (though I take Cipro when I go to some destinations).  Of course, if you are taking prescription drugs, bring those and write down somewhere the main ingredient (vs. the medication name) should something happen and you need to get some locally – the main ingredient is what you need.
    • Night light.  If you will be sleeping in shared accommodations, this comes in handy to minimize disrupting others’ sleep and/or preventing you from tripping in the middle of the night as you make a night run to the restroom 🙂  I prefer headlamps like this one so I can be “hands-free”; please don’t make me explain why 🙂

    • Backpack.  Please, whatever you do, do not bring a Swiss Army backpack (well-designed as they are for the frequent traveler) or, even worse, your college backpack.  You will be likely carrying more weight than you are used to and your back and shoulders will appreciate you bringing a backpack with a waist strap and a chest strap to help distribute the impact of the load  on your upper body.  Plus be sure the main straps and perhaps the backpack have some padding where they will touch your body.  It is many days of carrying it so be good to yourself.  And size does matters, when it comes to backpacks – will the size you get be able to fit all that you will carry on your back every day?  Remember, if you want the convenience, there are services that every day pick up your luggage and deliver it to the next place you will stay (if you know in advance).  With this option, you only carry what you need during your walk.  Bottom line:  figure out how much you need the backpack to carry (don’t forget to account for the water!) and then choose a size.

  • Backpack cover.  Along with this, have something ready to cover your backpack if it rains.  Trust me, no matter what they say, water will get in if it rains enough (e.g., think of the zippers).  You can buy a backpack cover (some backpacks come with it) or, save money and bring a nice size, good quality trash bag or maybe even just a cheap poncho.  You can also help prevent your stuff getting wet by packing the in large ziplocs and the place within your backpack. You are on the go and it may not always be easy or practical to get stuff dry.

Alright, there is likely more to be said and advice to be given.  I will likely made some edits in the future but feel free to share your thoughts, ask questions, etc.

Buen Camino!

Want to see what every day was like?  Click on the day and read on!  Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6 and Day 7

7 Items You Won’t See Me without while Hiking Kilimanjaro

If things go well, I will trekking in Tanzania soon – hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa.  I am excited about the upcoming hike as I am doing it with Trekking for Kids, with whom I hiked in Romania in the summer of 2012.  Our hike will help a local orphanage with capital improvements to the infrastructure and, therefore, improve the standard of living for the children who live there.

I do have certain anxiety about how well prepared I will be in terms of level of fitness and about how altitude may affect me.  But for everything else, research and planning has helped me ensure I have everything else I need for the hike!  Here are the seven items you will not see me without (should you see me!) while I hike “Kili”…

The things that will keep me warm

One of the most important things to know about Kilimanjaro is that you go through five (5) distinct climate zones as you pursue this mountain.  This means you need to be prepared for the range of climate conditions across these 5 zones.  Pack for cold and pack for warm.  Of course, as the hike goes higher, I am told to expect VERY cold temperatures.  The challenge with this, for me, will be getting out of the sleeping bags in the cold mornings!!

Of course, using layers is how I will handle the variations in temperatures that I will go through during the hike.  Let me share my three most important items to stay warm:

#1 – My outermost layer is a hardshell exterior (see below for picture) to provide me protection from the wind and from water.  The Arcteryx piece I chose is of top quality and its design is perfect for the conditions of the hike, especially its versatility as it can serve in warmer and colder temperatures as a barrier to water.  It uses Gore-Tex and delivers a very lightweight piece – important as I will want to go as light as possible!  Some features that I liked about this model were the under-arm zippers in case extra ventilation is needed, and the hoodie.  Mine is orange, for the record.

#2 – For the second layer from the outside, I needed to choose something to keep me warm and, again, be light enough (begin to see a pattern?!).  I chose an REI Revelcloud jacket which can also serve as a barrier to water for times when I may not want to wear the outer layer.  At higher altitude, I will use both.  It can help withstand winds of up to 50 mph!   This particular jacket uses Primaloft, a synthetic material that emulates down but is not bulky and able to be compacted into the little bag it comes with.   Also, its design eliminates shoulder seams which will help with range of motion, especially good since I will likely be wearing multiple layers and too many seams can become an annoyance.   (I cannot find the item any more in the REI website; likely a new model is being rolled out – I bought mine at a great discount sale!  Below I share a link to what seems to be a similar item for this layer.)  I have to admit that I have been wearing this jacket when the weather has gotten cold as the material is very soft and it just feels good.  🙂

After trying several layers on, it became clear the outer ones described above should be a size larger than I would normally wear if not putting on several layers.  At colder times, I will be wearing two under layers:  a smart wool one and then perhaps a thinner one next to my skin (helping withdraw moisture from my skin).   I will likely not wear as many layers on my legs as I do on my torso.  Hiking pants with a thin layer (like long johns) under them should suffice.  Says he…

#3 – After discussing clothing, let me share how everyone stays warm at night.  <Sleeping bag enters the stage left of center>  Instead of buying a sub-zero-rated sleeping bag that I may not use too often, I chose to go for one rated for zero degree (that I may get to re-use in other hikes that do not go as high and cold) and get a liner with something akin to thermonuclear for its rating.  (Do some reading on the ratings ahead of time so you know how to read the sleeping bag specs.)  I also wanted to make sure I used something that would pack relatively light.

The shape of the sleeping bag matters a good bit – something that had not occurred to me prior to researching the matter.  But it makes perfect sense that at very cold settings, you want to maximize heat retention.  Models whose width tapers down as it moves from head to feet are the best – they are called “mummy”-shaped as that is what they look like.  The less air inside, the less cold inside when you get it in that will need your body heat to warm up.  Therefore, more heat stays with you.  (That thermodynamics course in college is paying off – finally!)  This sleeping bag’s 2-way zippers will also make the job of closing and opening it up easier – nice feature!

 

My knee’s best friends – hiking poles!

#4 – I have learned that hiking poles are my knees’ BFFs.  They help with stability but, more importantly, they have a mission of protecting my knees from too much wear-and-tear, especially while descending.  I decided to take advantage of a sale to get a great pair that have anti-shock features.  I am sure people will have different opinions but hikers that I know well (and trust) said they would be worth the extra expense.  The weight of the poles is also something to consider so an aluminum shaft was perfect.

After deciding on the anti-shock and the weight, the next consideration was the grip or handle.  This is a matter of personal preference.  I chose a round cork top (that unscrews to also serve as a camera mount!) with a long foam cover under the top for the different grip I will want.  The locking mechanism can matter – some are easier to lock.  The ones I got use twist-lock for ease of adjusting since I will be wearing gloves a good bit.  Oh, and I bought rubber tips to use.  I share both the one I ended up getting and another I considered.   The one I got from REI.  What sold me on the REI one was the handle.

 

Big priority – stay hydrated!

#5 – Hydration will be key to my well-being during this hike (pretty much true of any hike).  Carrying a bottle and dealing with pulling it out when I want to drink is a little bit of a nuisance.  This will especially be true on this hike when I may be wearing gloves a lot.  A camelbak is perfect as it allows easy access to water at any point without having to stop or slow down.  Additionally, I have learned that I drink water on a more frequent basis by sipping because it is easy with a camelbak tube versus gulping water more spaced out whenever I decide to pull a water bottle out.  Sipping has another added benefit:  because I don’t take in water in bigger gulps, I need fewer nature stops – who’s with me?? 🙂

My camelbak bag is inserted into my backpack (designed for this).  I may be buy something to protect the tube coming out of the backpack to prevent it from freezing when it is very cold.   Of course, making sure I have safe-to-drink water is a big priority.  Steripen or something similar will be crucial so consider it item #5.5!


Oh, and someone suggested a hot water bottle that you fill in with hot water before zipping up the sleeping bag to help keep you warm AND to have non-freezing cold water when you wake up to drink!  Now, does that go in this section or on the first section about keeping warm??

Finally, show me the way…

#6 – No, my final item is not my boots but that’s not because they are not important.  Please be sure to find comfortable boots, that are water resistant, and then be very sure to break them in through practice hikes!!  Blisters are your worst enemy.  Back to #6… my headlight.  The ascent to Kili’s summit starts around midnight so this will be an essential item to go up.  Why does it start at this weird hour?  Because you want to be up there to see the first morning light!!  However, this headlamp will also be important so I can see at nighttime before I head to “bed” and in case I wake up in the middle of the night and need to relieve myself, something I hope I don’t have to do often!

OK, one more thing (I did say 7 in the title…)

#7 – Duct tape.  Duct tape can serve MANY purposes.  If anything breaks, you can likely fix it.  But also, should you start developing blisters, apply some small strips of duct tape to protect the spot and prevent a full-blown blister.  They are THE last thing a hiker needs!

Well, a few more things…

I hope this has been a helpful list.  There are many other things to consider as you prep for a hike like this and I would be remiss if I don’t list some here just to be sure:  a backpack that feels comfortable (and that has both waist and chest front straps), sunblock, chapstick, snacks, wipies (!), underwear that takes moisture away from your skin, sunglasses, warm hat, gloves, ear plugs (because you never know who may be sleeping next to you!), a hot water bottle (will feel nice inside that sleeping bag!), and finally:  a camera for all the great shots you will want to take!

Bottom line:  do your research and be prepared – it will make the experience much more memorable!  Stay tuned for my updates from my hike of Kilimanjaro!

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