My top 5 tips for packing for the Camino de Santiago

Me, at the top of a big hill, looking extremely pleased with myself for packing so light.

This morning a friend who is preparing to walk the Camino asked me what she should be doing in the last 10 days she has left to prepare.

Perhaps weirdly, my answer is: spend them packing.

Seriously, there’s not much you can do about fitness. My friend is pretty fit anyway, but if you’re doing the whole Camino, you’ll get fit along the way. It’s almost impossible for an ordinary person to prepare physically for walking 20 to 30 kilometres every day anyway. Just start slowly and increase your daily distance as you go, take rest days when you need them, and you’ll be fine. (And if you aren’t feeling fine, take a taxi or a bus. You shouldn’t be trying to prove anything.)

There’s also not a lot of travel planning you need to do beyond booking your plane ticket and your first one or two nights’ accommodation, both of which you should probably have done at least a couple of months before leaving.

So, the single thing you can do beforehand that will dramatically impact the quality of your Camino is to get your packing perfect. I started packing about two weeks before leaving and only just managed to get it (almost) right in time.

There are loads of Camino packing lists out there, and of course I’m going to give you mine, but these are my five top Camino packing tips:

1. Don’t carry more than 10% of your body weight

I’ve put this first, because it’s the most important. The 10% of body weight rule is the common wisdom around packing for the Camino, but to many it sounds insane, if not impossible. If you’re an average 60kg woman, this means you can only carry 6kgs (excluding water, but including your backpack). Surely you can’t survive for more than a month with only 6kgs of stuff? Actually, you can, and you should.

To help you keep weight down, it’s critical to limit the size of your pack. Women need nothing bigger than a 20-litre pack, while men should probably carry at most a 35-litre pack. Yes, really.

2. TAKE AT LEAST ONE TREKKING POLE

Even if you don’t normally walk with one, the stress it takes off your knees will add up over hundreds of miles and could make all the difference between comfort and agony. If you’re young and confident and do lots of hill hiking, just take the one. Older walkers, or people with dodgy knees should definitely take two.

You could buy one of those cute traditional wooden walking sticks when you arrive, but I’d vote for function over form. A decent trekking pole is lighter, has a more comfortable grip, has a proper spike at the bottom (for grip), has an adjustable wrist strap, and can telescope down so you can attach it to your pack when you don’t feel like using it.

3. GET YOUR SLEEPING STUFF RIGHT

My biggest conundrum was whether to take an ultra-compact silk liner or a lightweight down sleeping bag (which was twice the weight and four or five times bulkier). I consulted dozens of forums, none of which agreed.

In the end, after waking up in the middle of the night to fret about it, I wound up doing a test in which I tried to sleep only in my clothes and the liner. I realised that I needed something warmer and took the sleeping bag, which I didn’t regret once. Do this test this yourself in temperature conditions similar to those you expect during your walk.

4. YOUR SMARTPHONE IS THE ONLY TECH YOU NEED

Unless you’re planning to sell your Camino pics to Nat Geo, don’t bother taking a camera. Any smartphone with a decent camera (from an iPhone 4s or better) will do just fine. There are many huge advantages to this, for example:

  • It fits into your pocket so you can easily take it out without even breaking your stride.
  • You can put a protective cover and a tempered glass screenguard on it, so it’s virtually indestructible.
  • You get to post your photos on Facebook every day (there’s free WiFi everywhere)
  • You can upload them to the cloud for safekeeping, so even if your phone is lost or broken, you’ll still have all your photos
  • You only need to carry one charger and keep one thing charged (which is good, as plug points can be limited)
  • You have one less piece of expensive equipment to worry about

I took a camera which conked out one hour into my first day because it got some drizzle on it. I’m a keen photographer (clearly) so I thought this was the worst thing that could possibly happen – until I remembered I had my old iPhone. And, by the time my camera decided to work again a few days later, I’d realised that the iPhone was much more handy anyway and carried on using it.

You also shouldn’t bother taking a headlamp, guidebook, Kindle, iPad, iPod, laptop, notebook or any other related items. Use your phone as a torch. Download the Kindle app and read books on your phone. Edit your photos on your phone. Blog on your phone. Take notes on your phone. Watch videos on your phone. Listen to music on your phone. You get the picture…

5. KEEP YOUR PACK DRY

There’s no point in taking a raincoat on the Camino. When it rains on the plains in Spain, it mainly pours, and if you’re spending an entire day walking in the wet, nothing is going to keep you dry – or at least, nothing that’s going to fit into your teeny-tiny pack. So, rather focus on keeping the contents of your pack dry. That way, at the end of a day, you can at least change into warm dry clothes and curl up in a cozy sleeping bag.

Along with my pack’s built-in raincover, I used a 20-litre dry bag as a pack liner. All my clothes, sleeping bag and electronics were inside the dry bag, and everything else (toiletries, food, water, dirty laundry) was in ziploc bags shoved down the sides. As a bonus, the dry bag made unpacking a whole lot easier (as I could just reach in and yank it out) and doubled as a compression bag, which helped fit everything back into my pack.

A tip for the inevitable wet shoes: stuff them with dry newspapers overnight (change the newspaper once or twice if possible).

I hope this helps!

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