Preparing for a long distance journey through a foreign land can be daunting. With this in mind, we compiled the following planning checklist, which is based on experience. Keep in mind that planning will probably require a few months at minimum; moreover, the more time you give yourself to plan, the less anxiety you will experience throughout the process. Ideally, you should begin planning 6-12 months before you embark on the Camino.
1- Consult your personal physician – If possible, get a physical exam to make sure you have no unknown health issues that might cause problems while on the Camino. At minimum, you should discuss your Camino plans with your doctor – he or she may want to point out some concerns or perhaps offer some advice on preparation.
2- Obtain an extra supply of prescription medications, if needed – While pharmacies appear frequently in the cities and towns along the Camino,
language and other barriers may make it difficult to obtain refills on prescription medications. A better option is to ask your doctor for an
additional supply of meds to take with you.
3- Decide if you want to “go it alone” or “go with friends” – The
Camino is generally safe and there are really no significant security concerns beyond those you would expect to encounter anywhere. Many pilgrims - including women- travel solo. Still others walk the Camino with friends or - as in the movie "The Way" make friends along the way.
4- Decide when to embark – The popularity of the Camino has increased exponentially during the last decade; therefore, you are likely to find pilgrims on the trail all year long. However, keep in mind that winter months will witness the fewest pilgrims and the trail can be extra challenging due to weather (i.e. ice and snow in several areas); also, many restaurants and accommodations may close in the wintertime, especially in the more rural areas. The summer months meanwhile witness the highest pilgrim volumes since this time of year coincides with summer vacations and college breaks. Be ware, the summer months can be very hot, especially on the treeless portions of the Camino - and because of increased pilgrim volumes, it can be difficult to find accommodations along the way. By contrast, the Spring and Fall months typically offer more hospitable weather and somewhat fewer pilgrims. I traveled the Camino Frances in April and was very happy – there were many pilgrims but it was not overcrowded. Additionally, the weather was still cool and the scenery was abloom.
5- Determine which Camino route is best for you – As the Camino has grown in popularity, several routes throughout Europe have re-emerged and are fit for travel. The most popular route (by a significant margin) continues to be the Camino Frances – a 500 mile stretch extending across Northern Spain, traditionally starting at St. Jean Pied de Port (France) or Roncevalles (Spain) and terminating in Santiago.The majority of pilgrims start somewhere along this route; still others begin at points on other routes that eventually converge with the Camino France. One benefit of the Camino Frances is that it is very pilgrim friendly – there is an abundance of places to eat, sleep, and purchase supplies. For a more detailed description of several popular Camino routes, visit the “Routes & Map” page of this site, or click here.
6- Decide your mode of travel – The overwhelming majority of pilgrims on the Camino (80%) travel by foot; however, some elect to make the journey by bicycle. A few even travel by horse or wheelchair! I traveled the 500 miles by foot.
7- Determine the distance you want to cover and approximately how much time you will need – Travel time and distances vary widely among pilgrims. Moreover, there is not a “right” or “wrong” starting point on the Camino – you can begin your journey from wherever you wish – you simply join the trail at that spot. If you want to walk the 500 mile stretch called the Camino Frances, you should budget 4-6 weeks (this stretch takes ~2 weeks by bicycle). I hiked the 500 miles in exactly 30 days, but it was a bit of a stretch physically. If you are in relatively good condition, you can expect to be able to cover an average of 10-15 miles per day. Keep in mind if you want to receive a compostela in Santiago (the official “certificate of completion” issued by the Cathedral in Santiago), you must walk at least the final 60 miles of the Camino into the city of Santiago. Finally, regardless of where you begin, you should add a couple of days before and after the journey to give you time to prepare and recuperate.
8- Determine where (i.e. in which city or town) to begin the Camino – Determining where to begin your Camino is primarily a function of where you want to end the Camino (Santiago? Somewhere else?) and the time you
need in order to get there.For the Camino Frances, the two most popular traditional starting points are the tiny villages of St. Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) and Roncevalles (on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees). Other popular starting points on the Camino Frances include the cities of Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, Ponferrada, and Astorga.Those who wish to walk the minimum distance required to obtain the compostela typically start the Camino in or around Sarria (approximately 128km from Santiago).
9- Determine how best to get to the starting point – Depending on your point of origin, you will typically require air, bus, and/or train travel to get you to your starting point. Larger cities are easier to get to than some of the smaller towns. I began the Camino in the small French village of St. Jean Pied de Port. To get there, I took a flight from the US to Paris, with a connecting flight to Biarritz. From Biarritz I took a bus to Bayonne where I picked up a local train to St. Jean. Any good guide book will help you decide how best to get to your starting point. For a list of guidebook suggestions, visit the “Books” section of this site, or click here.
10- Purchase necessary gear – Decide which items you want (or need) to take with you on the Camino and purchase them. For a list of suggested gear (and commentary), visit the “Gear List” page of this site, or click here.
11- Determine an overall budget – Your budget requirements depend in part on how austerely you wish to live while hiking the Camino. The Camino can be quite an expensive or an inexpensive journey depending on your preference. Those wishing to incur minimal costs will likely choose to sleep all or most night in a refugio (communal dormitories, which are open to pilgrims only) – or perhaps pitch a tent in one of many camping sites along the way. Most refugios are basic but include a bunk bed and offer use of shower and bathroom facilities as well as a kitchen where you can prepare a meal for yourself (after purchasing groceries at a nearby store). The average cost of a night in a refugio is typically $10-$15. If you prefer to dine out, you will typically find an abundance of restaurants and cafes situated near
the refugio – most offer a “Pilgrim’s Menu,” which typically includes a simple
three course meal with bread and wine for about $10-$15. Likewise, if the thought of sharing a dormitory room with 30+ people does not appeal to you, the Camino offers an abundance of quaint hotels and pensione. As for my own experience, I typically stayed in refugios, but did indulge in a hotel once or twice per week. I always dined out with others, since I was too tired to cook.
12- Purchase a guide book – There are several good guidebooks on the market and it’s a good idea to buy one. I choose a very simply guidebook called the Camino Frances, which I purchased from the Confraternity of St. James. It was very inexpensive and was all I needed. Refer to our “Books” page for more information on guidebooks, or click here.
13- Obtain a credential – A credential – also known as the “pilgrim’s passport” is a document which entitles you access to the network of refugios on the Camino. It also serves as “proof” that you’ve walked the Camino. It is customary to obtain a stamp each day (usually from a refugio or sometimes a café) that signifies your presence at a particular location on a particular date – the stamps become an audit trail of sorts. If you want to receive a compostela, you will need to present your credential and stamps to the Cathedral in Santiago. Credentials are available from a number of Camino related organizations and can be obtained in advance by mail for a nominal fee. You may also wait until you arrive to your starting point – credentials are offered by many refugios as well. I obtained my credential from the Pilgrim’s Office in St. Jean Pied de Port. For a partial list of organizations that offer credentials by mail, refer to the “Organizations” page of this site or click here.
14- Read one or more memoirs of past pilgrims – This is optional of course, but you may find it helpful to read about the Camino experiences of others, which is a good way to prepare for your own journey. For a suggested reading list, refer to the “Books” section of this site or click here. You can also visit the “Travelogue” page of this site to read excerpts from my journal.
15- Practice walking – In order to prepare physically for the Camino, you should attempt to walk as much as possible, along varied terrain (e.g. hills, flat), and in varied weather conditions (including the rain). For best results, walk with your backpack on and filled with all of the things you will take - and wear the same gear you will wear on the Camino (e.g. shoes, socks, underwear, etc). Doing this will give your body a chance to adjust to the strain well in advance of your trip. Also, by sampling equipment and clothes early, you can make adjustments if something does not fit or feel right.
16- Obtain a government issued passport (if needed) – If you are a US citizen, you will need a US Passport in order to travel to Europe. If you do not have a passport, order one as soon as possible since processing times can take months. If you already have a passport, check the expiration date to make sure it will be valid during your trip.
17- Determine how you will communicate with friends and family while on the Camino – Many people want to keep in touch with friends and family back home while on the Camino. Now days, the best way to do this is by taking your personal cell phone with you. Check with your provider to determine international roaming rates and options. Make sure to pack a charger or adapter that can be used in Spain. Also- speaking form experience- if you have a data plan, consider purchasing a MB limit from your carrier. This will help prevent you from accidentally running up a huge cell bill. Alternatives to cell phone include using a prepaid phone card / public phones in Spain and using internet cafes along the way.
18- Make travel arrangements – Once you have decided on a schedule and starting point, purchase at least your airfare (bus and train tickets if needed are easy to purchase on location). If you are arriving to a larger city, you might also want to book a hotel room for the first night of your arrival. I arrived to my starting point (St. Jean Pied de Port) on a Wednesday (early afternoon) and was able to find a place to stay shortly after I got there. Once on the Camino, there is usually no need to make advanced reservations – you simply locate accommodations each day.
19- Attempt to learn basic Spanish – Deep knowledge of Spanish is not necessary for the Camino; nevertheless, knowledge of basic phrases and vocabulary can help enhance your experience – especially at dinnertime. Consider enrolling in a night course or continuing education class at a local college. Additionally, language tapes and CDs are often available at your local library. Any effort you make in learning even the tiniest bit of Spanish will pay off.
20- Make a photocopy your passport, credit cards, and other relevant documentation – Leaving a copy of critical documents and credit cards with friends or family will be a life saver in case you loose any of these things while on the Camino – you can simply call home and get a copy faxed to you. In addition scan a copy and email it to yourself- this way you can find an internet cafe and download the list from your email box.
I hope you find this checklist helpful in planning your Camino. If you have
questions or feedback on this page, please e-mail me at email@example.com.
Check out our Gear List page for more.