El Camino de Santiago with just the clothes on your back.
If you'll pardon my gushing for a moment, I'll get to the practical stuff once I have this out: El Camino de Santiago is just the best. If I had to pick 30 days of my life to re-live over and over again, it would be the month that we spent on the Camino Frances (the most popular route between St Jean Pied de Port, France and Santiago, Spain). It's my favorite cultural experience in the world, and I'm so glad it exists. If you're here, I'm guessing you have at least a vague sense of what it is, and if not the Wikipedia Camino article will get you up to speed better than I can. But if I had to summarize, I would call it a 500 mile purpose-driven long walk across northern Spain where cheap wine and beer and coffee and croissants rain down like manna from heaven as you wander through picturesque ancient villages. It's really my favorite thing in the world.
The best part of the Camino experience, in my opinion, is the community. That thin ribbon of Spanish land is populated by interesting, super supportive people of all shapes, colors, ages and nationalities who are there because they want to have a life changing experience - but not in a weird way. It's a rare place in the world where there's a strong sense that a large and diverse group of people are all in it together to help each other succeed and figure out how to accomplish a goal they set and sacrificed to achieve.
In the supportive spirit of the pilgrimage in Spain, I've been thinking about the one key to a successful trip for those who might find their way here who are contemplating it. I don't want to do another comprehensive write up (there are lots of those online), so I want to present the "if you could only write one blog post" principle that describes a successful approach in a nutshell.
I also realize that my readership isn't primarily composed of people contemplating el Camino de Santiago, but is almost exclusively an audience who are interested in various forms of outdoor travel and adventure. And as such, I've also been thinking about what gives the Camino its particular appeal for that crowd - my normal audience of travelers, athletes, and adventurers.
And I think I've got the principle that addresses both crowds:
The Camino is maybe the world's best ultralight epic, whether you're experienced or uninitiated.
I'm not trying to get cute here and using "packing light" as some kind of spiritual metaphor. I'm being completely literal, and saying that one of the best parts about the Camino is that you can dump pretty much everything and get walking, and have a great experience. If you're hiking in the Spring, Summer, or Fall, you can comfortably hike the entire route with a pack that weighs less than 10 pounds, including food and water.
The best way to understand the Camino is to consider its history as a pilgrimage route that was established, in large part, by people who would travel in poverty, reliant on the kindness of strangers, and without carrying much beyond the clothes on their back. As a result, the most popular established route moves frequently through villages with basic services, and even outside of villages, cafes, hostels (called Albergues or Refugios), pharmacies, vendors and restaurants have been established. As the route has gotten more popular (Covid has impacted things, but more than 300,000 received a credential designating that they hiked at least 100k of the trail in 2017 alone!), even more services have sprung up. Today, there is no point along the roughly 500 mile Camino Frances where one is required to walk more than 10 miles between albergues - and that is only one stretch in the middle, when most are already in shape for hiking. On average, food, water, shelter and pharmacies are available every 3 - 6 miles - or every 1 - 3 hours of walking. Additionally, Spain is a modern country, and the route passes directly through multiple large, modern cities - Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, Leon, and then Santiago - so pilgrims along the route have multiple opportunities to replace gear or purchase items that they wish they'd brought along.
For people looking for a wilderness experience, that populated characteristic can be disappointing, but that is what the modern Camino Frances is. (Good news! Other Camino routes offer different experiences if that's not what you're looking for!)
For the rest of us, it means that the Camino is an amazing, unique, 500 miles of the earth where you can have a month-long epic adventure without stressing about what to take.
On the Camino, you can take a deep breath, and empty your pack.
Although there are other pilgrimage routes, as far as I know the Camino genuinely doesn't have a direct analogue anywhere in the world. For that reason, I think, people tend to approach it as if it were something it's not: a long distance wilderness hiking trail. Both newbies and experienced long-distance hikers tend to overpack - assuming they'll be camping and cooking and pooping outside - and underestimate the amount of support they will receive along the way. As such, the vast majority of people drag along significantly more weight than they actually need. For first timers, this leads to much more suffering than is necessary, and for experienced hikers it leads to frustration that they can't operate according to their normal routines.
Because of the extensive network of albergues, cafes, bars, restaurants, and pharmacies along the Camino Frances, the list of things you will never need during the main hiking season between April and November is long and heavy. It includes a tent (it's harder to find a spot to legally camp than to just go to the closest albergue), a sleeping mat (they all have mattresses), cooking gear (cheap restaurants and cafes are everywhere - although you could make use of this if you want to as many albergues don't have cooking supplies), fire starting equipment, more than 2 changes of clothes (every albergue has laundry facilities), a pillow (all the places we stayed had them), space for more than a half-day of food and water (assuming you aren't vegan, which is a pretty big challenge in much of Spain), and a water treatment system (potable water is available even more frequently than other services. We only carried more than a half liter on a few occasions.)
And if you're planning to hike between June and August, you also probably don't need a sleeping bag (most albergues have sheets and blankets, and in any case most every night will be hotter than you can stand even without covers) or a heavy coat.
Our Camino packing list, verified to work.
The list of things you will need is short and light. So short and light, in fact, that we packed in a half-hour the night before our flight out. The only items we purchased specially for the trip were our backpacks - 17 liter Solomon running packs - and our jackets - Patagonia Houdinis that weigh next to nothing and added enough warmth and rain protection to get by on our hot and sunny June/July itinerary.
This was our packing list (which includes the clothes on our backs). Our pack weight was around 5 lbs, we used everything, and were completely comfortable the entire way:
One pair of pants
One pair of shorts
Two pairs of socks
Two pairs of underwear
Swiss Army knife
A wind shell jacket
A silk sleeping bag liner
A small flashlight
A couple of water bottles
A travel towel
A pair of trail running shoes
A plastic bag to store the stuff you don't want to get wet in the rain.
The list of things you might want that we didn't (especially if you're travelling in Spring or Autumn):
A pair of hiking poles (as much to keep blood flowing to your arms as out of any other necessity)
A decent rain coat (A cheap and light Frogg Toggs set is completely functional and is my recommendation.)
A pair of long underwear
A smart phone with camera and wifi
A light sleeping bag
A warm coat - puffy jacket or similar
Seriously, it's a good idea not to take anything on the Camino
For first time pilgrims planning their trip, I might sound like a madman who is trying to set you up for failure. But honestly, I am not an ultra-light ideologue by nature, and I wouldn't knowingly give you bad advice. Our genuine experience is that there is very little risk that you will not have enough gear on the Camino. And, even if you do, it will cause you very little inconvenience or discomfort because it is so easy to replace or supplement gear, particularly if you're starting at St. Jean and hiking the traditional route. Carrying too much on the Camino is much more of a pain to deal with than bringing too little. Spend a lot of time figuring out your shoes (and this article is a decent place to start for advice), and find underwear and clothes that won't chafe across long days in a dry environment, and beyond that don't stress about anything. If you want to take something "just in case", leave it home. You won't regret it.
For experienced adventurers thinking that a month long outing where you don't even need a heavy coat is too cheap an experience, I'm not going to lie - the Camino is no Continental Divide thru-hike or Antarctic expedition. But who cares? The Camino Frances is a pilgrimage in Spain that people undertake for a variety of reasons, and the simplicity of packing allows people to focus on that rather than logistics. Simplicity, and reliance on others, I think, is a significant and meaningful part of the Camino experience. And anyway, embrace it - all of the endless food and beer and warm showers that you dream about on normal long outings in the wilderness is a reality on the Camino. It's an epic adventurer's vision of heaven if you ask me.
If you ended up here because of outdoor adventure, check out my book The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. If you ended up here because of religious pilgrimage, check out I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation.