When you carry everything you need on your back for a month it becomes pretty apparent rather quickly what items you do or don’t need.
Based on a recommendation I found online I made sure my pack weighed no more than 10% of my body weight. For me, that was 7kg including water, and more-or-less had everything I needed.
It’s also worth pointing out that I am a male of small/average build in my 30s and began the French Camino in early September. Obviously, this list doesn’t apply to all body shapes or genders.
Let’s start with the Top 5 items I found most valuable:
1) A good bag: Most pilgrims seemed to use either a Decathlon or Osprey branded bag. I chose a 30L Osprey Skarab and it was fantastic!
When looking for a bag it’s important to find something with good adjustment in the straps and a good waist strap. These help to reduce the load on your shoulders and aid in being able to move the weight when one position becomes too much. Mine has pockets in the waist strap which was ideal for keeping my phone and money handy. The bag also has a built-in rain cover. A rain cover is an absolute necessity unless you enjoy wet undies and soggy socks.
I attached a couple of cheap carabiners to the shoulder straps too, which kept items like my drink bottle, headlamp and snood handy. You don’t need to break the bank on a bag, but do get something of reasonable quality. I got it on sale for about £60. And lastly, I promise you will never need more than a 35L during this time of year. This size also means you can take it as carry on for an extra saving!
2) Ear Plugs and Eye Mask: This combo is a godsend. The hostels (also known as Albergues) can be rather intimate, sleeping on average 10 people in a room, but sometimes as many as 200. Earplugs ensure the symphony of snoring and heavy breathing don’t keep you up till all hours and as accommodation can be limited in some segments it’s not uncommon to hear rustling and chatter and pilgrims awake at 4 am to arrive at the next stop first, or to avoid the heat. My personal favorite earplugs were these gel ones, as they mold to your ears blocking out a large percentage of the noise.
Once the noise is blocked out, it’s great to block the light too, especially if not everyone wants to sleep at the same time. This is where the eye mask comes in, no matter what time of the day or night you can get some rest, especially if you are a light sleeper like myself.
3) Shoes: Contrary to popular belief, you really don’t need hiking boots. They are heavy, stiff, don’t breath and really there are only a handful of days where they are of use. Most of the Camino is well kept rendering boots somewhat of an overkill. Instead, I opted for Asics running shoes (something like these) with a nice thick sole to dampen the stones where necessary. They were breathable, durable, didn’t’ take much to break in, and most importantly they dry quickly meaning fewer blisters! I also took a pair of Tevas, they have a rugged sole and are a nice rest for your feet on those hot/wet/flat days, without compromising safety.
4) A lightweight snood: I know it seems odd for a top 5, but it was such an asset. In the cold I could cover my face and ears from the wind, in the heat, I could cover my neck, when I wanted to rest I could cover my eyes, and best of all, if I wasn’t in the mood for talking, I could cover my face, leaving just my eyes and be left alone. Something so universal is super handy.
5) A paperback notebook and pen: You’re traveling for a long time, and I don’t know about you but my memory isn’t that great, so it’s nice to take time at the end of each day to jot a few things down, such as your route, the folks you met that day (It’s nice to look back and see how these brief passings flourish into friendships), some thoughts, or a highlight or two. I also used the stamps from each Albergue in mine to help remind me as to where I’d stayed. You don’t need to write much, but your future self will appreciate it.
6)(I know I said five, but it’s my blog).
Mobile Phone: It goes without saying but a mobile phone is invaluable. Not just for music or podcasts on those days that just don’t seem to end, but also to keep in touch with travelers you meet along the way, even if it’s just to plan where to stop for meals or a glass of vino.
Navigating your way can be really tricky, especially when leaving large cities as the markers can be sparse, there was a number of times I got well and truly lost, costing me hours in backtracking. I highly recommend the Buen Camino app, with a GPS map of all the Caminos, handy tips and advice on places to stay, this app is game-changing. Obviously stopping and asking for directions is the preferred option, but as I found, sometimes things get lost in translation, so it’s always handy to check.
I also recommend downloading the podcast Coffee Break Spanish as its a great way to learn the language and you will have plenty of time while you’re walking.
The rest of my packing list in no particular order:
Travel Towel: Quick-drying, lightweight. Sports socks (3 pairs): they dry faster and have padding. I used cycling socks. Silk sleeping bag liner: Lightweight and keeps bed bugs out.
Rope and <6 pegs: Great for makeshift washing line either in a hostel or off your backpack.
A bit of toilet paper in a zip lock bag: Don’t get caught out.
Sewing kit: handy for repairs and popping blisters.
Long-Sleeve Merino: drys fast, doesn’t smell, use as an extra layer in the cold.
Light Jumper: Good for layering, nice to keep warm with layering.
Packable parker raincoat/windbreaker: keep the rain off, and when its cold layer up then zip up to keep the wind out.
Antibacterial hand soap: Use as body soap and to hand wash clothes.
Bandage: You’ll probably sprain something. Get a reusable cloth one, not adhesive.
Exercise shorts: Pretty much lived in these, even in the rain.
Thermal leggings: Under shorts on those colder days.
Loose lightweight pants: Just something comfy for the evenings. I used Elephant pants.
Pillowcase: It’s nice to have your own.
Headlamp: For early starts etc
Cap: Keep the sun off, or rain out.
Singlet: For relaxing
Nail clippers: for obvious reasons, but also a handy tool.
Sunglasses: Save your eyes, prevent wrinkles.
Toothbrush: You’re a pilgrim, not a savage.
Deodorant: As above.
Hand sanitizer: Can’t always trust there will be soap. I also used it to sterilize needles (not that I can confirm the science behind that…)
Sunscreen: I gets hot. Passport: Well, yeah.
Universal power adaptor: If you aren’t from Europe.
Travel battery pack: You can’t always find a power socket.
Water bottle: One you can hang from a carabiner for easy access. This was great.
Snack bars: You can’t always find food when you need it. You can restock along the way.
Ibuprofen: I never take pills, but on the Camino, I made an exception. You can buy them cheap/strong in Spain.
A bum bag: Saves you from carrying your bag during evening strolls.
Things you DON’T need:
A big book: I consider myself a pretty avid reader but on the Camino there just isn’t really time. Downtime is spent either showering, cleaning, exploring, socializing, or eating.
Fancy clothes: No pilgrims dress up to go out to the local bars, save yourself the weight, plus it’ll just get crumpled in your bag.
Compeed (The blister pads): This stuff seemed to do more hard than good (occasionally leading to infection). Instead, I chose to stick a bandage over the bad blisters during the day or pop them with a needle. Some people leave the thread in to help them seep, but I chose not to.
What I would consider next time: Only one thing I would reconsider and that’s either a warmer jumper or a lightweight sleeping bag. There were a few nights when I did get quite cold in the hostels, but obviously, I survived. I hope all this helps, and best of luck. It’s an amazing experience.
“The most difficult thing is to act, the rest is merely tenacity” – Amilia Earheart