People are often surprised, reeeeally surprised, when I tell them most people walking the mystical road across Spain – El Camino – are over 50. And even more surprised when I tell them most of those are women.
The exception is during peak summer, when university students take their holidays.
No surprises there is an art to packing for pilgrimage – because the reality is when you walk 900 kms through a foreign land you have to carry everything you need on your back.
It is always always always women who approach me to ask about walking El Camino. There are many pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela; the most popular is the trail from St Jean Pied du Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain’s north western corner.
First, some facts: this pilgrim route is 900kms and takes most people 30-35 days. It is well marked by painted yellow arrows and scallop shells to lead you all the way. The trail takes you through farms and forests, villages, towns and cities. Within a day’s walk, there is always an albergue, or refugio, pilgrim refuges that offer dormitory accommodation for a small fee on a first in first served basis. For me, by far the best time of year to do this walk is late summer – this way you avoid the big crowds and you walk the turning season, summer to autumn (and because autumn is such a visible season, it is a visually spectacular time of year to walk).
Women at a turning point in their lives often look to El Camino for inspiration, almost as a rite of passage into the next stage of life . . . they are longing to do it – but are often concerned about doing it alone.
Here’s some comfort: just do it.
There are so many pilgrims on this particular road these days, you will never be alone if you don’t want to be. Pilgrims tend to walk in little bands, stretched out along the roads. There is always good company to be kept and it’s easy enough to walk a little ahead or behind if you’d like some time alone.
At the end of each night, the refugios are filled with laughing chatting newfound friends and companions, some cooking meals at the refuge, others heading out to small restaurants. Always they are keeping the company of strangers, people walking alone who have found companionship among others sharing an almost out of this world experience.
Because even though pilgrimage is a physical act, and it is the physical body that must bear the load, it is also a transformative experience. Pilgrimage has taught me discipline, presence, perseverance, motivation and acceptance. The lessons of the road changed my life forever.
Lesson #1 of the road: Keep going.
Pilgrimage teaches you to keep going – forward. It teaches that your only obligation is to this moment, right here beneath your feet; there is no ‘there’. Santiago de Compostela might be your destination, but it is irrelevant if you do not take the next step.
Lesson #2 of the road: This too will pass.
Everything, no matter how agonizing it appears to be, will pass. The weather is too hot? Keep going, it will pass. The weather is too cold? Keep going, it will pass. The weight on your shoulders is killing you? Keep going, it will pass. Your feet are tortured? Keep going, it will pass. Your spirits are miserable? Keep going, it will pass. You get the idea.
Pilgrimage teaches you to meet life, as it is, as you are.
“Pilgrimage is the art of ancient travel, a subpoena from the heart that defies all common sense. The pilgrim is not unlike a comet, burning off all that is futile and unnecessary until all that is left is the essential, unmalleable core. The pilgrim walks the Earth, walks the wheel, walks the turning seasons, surrendering all of who she is and all she thinks she knows and all she thinks she wants to the road and the weather.”
from My Pilgrim’s Heart
Now – how to pack for the road:
The first common mistake people make when preparing for a long walk is the size of their pack. I promise you, it will take all of 24 hours for you to start dumping what you thought you couldn’t live without. This is the beauty of pilgrimage – it helps us lighten life’s load. So to help you ‘think light’ right from the start, buy a small pack, just big enough to fit your sleeping bag with extra room around it; make sure it has pockets on the outside.
Feet are the bedrock and warranty of your pilgrimage – no happy feet, no happy walk. Your boots must be water resistant, ankle high and have a small heel. They must fit beautifully. Your socks must be warm, soft and comfortable – you will need 2-3 pairs. You must also pack a pair of light rubber flip flops, to protect your feet while showering. These, worn with your clean socks, double as slippers at the end of the day.
In a word or three: fine merino wool. It’s more expensive than ordinary materials, but the advantages are four-fold: you can wear the same day clothes for a month and they won’t stink; if you buy dark colours they won’t show the dirt; if you want to wash them out they will dry easily overnight; most importantly, they pack small and light. You can even buy fine wool underwear. For trousers, make sure they unzip as shorts, are loose enough to fit long johns underneath and have loads of zip pockets. You will also need a fleece jacket, which you wear each day wrapped around your waist or tied to the side of your pack; make sure it is soft and has zip pockets.
Aahhh, sleep. When buying your sleeping bag you want to find the balance between warmth, size and weight – just don’t forget its primary purpose is to keep you warm and snug. Your pyjamas will be a pair of long johns and a light merino wool top – both of which double as extra warmth under your clothes on cold days. Your jacket – remember it is soft fleece – doubles as your pillow. Your wallet and passport will be zipped inside its zip pockets.
First Aid and Personal Hygiene
Let’s keep this brief, because there is no point arguing beauty ‘necessities’: comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, small soap. Betadine, band-aids, Compeed (last I noticed can only be bought in Europe – is the Rolls Royce of blister protection). Travel towel, small and light.
Gadgets & Misc
You will need: peak cap with adjustable velcro strap (strap to the outside of your pack), pocket knife, rain poncho (to cover you and your pack), rain jacket/pants (bundle up small and light). Phone/charger – which will double as a camera (alternatively, leave the phone at home and take your camera). Water bottle (strapped to outside of pack).
Primary Pilgrimage Packing Principle
If it doesn’t fit in your small pack or in your pockets – it’s not coming with you!