James Kuhle

James Kuhle

James Kuhle is a sports enthusiast, historian, and teacher. He enjoys budget traveling, being early for everything, and cracking shameless dad jokes.

Preface

The Camino de Santiago is a set of pilgrimages leading to the burial place of the apostle Saint James. St James is said to be buried in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in Northwestern Spain. In English the Camino is also known as “the Way of St. James.” It’s a journey that is taken for many reasons.

The following is a collection of thoughts, travel tips and anecdotes from budget traveler and historian James Kuhle. The hope of this article is to enhance your understanding of what the Camino truly is, and how to make the most out of it.

Basics of the Camino de Santiago

Why go on the Camino de Santiago?

There are a multitude of reasons why I chose to go on the Camino and join the many thousands of pilgrims that embark on this journey each year.   

  1. I love being outdoors and you have to love that in order to want to go on the Camino.
  2. I really enjoy meeting people who also really love to wander around. That’s quite literally most of what you do on the Camino: you’re just walking and wandering- hopefully in the right direction (they make it pretty easy).
  3. People go on the Camino specifically still for the reason it was made. It’s this spiritual pilgrimage that people travel and it often takes at least a month. People just use it as a time to reflect. Originally, it was to visit the tomb of St James of Santiago and so these people who do this are thinking about their faith, their spirituality and that’s usually one of the main reasons people go. So i thought it would be a really unique opportunity to do that myself, but also get to know people from different backgrounds who are also doing that. It’s just a good conversation starter too, and you can make really close friends. I think it is different from a lot of other travel itineraries because sometimes you go places because you just like to travel, you want to try a certain food or see a certain site, but for the Camino (for some people), you can start off on a deeper level already. So when you ask someone, “Why are you doing the Camino?” they may say something like, “Well, it’s a spiritual experience that I wanted to try” and boom, already you’re at a deeper level and we can connect in that way. I met a ton of people and it’s like a traveling family– you’re almost in a caravan of sorts– depending on how you choose to do  it.

What to bring on the Camino

While people have all different comfort levels, the following are the most basic things I think every person should bring in order to be prepared.

Hiking sandals

You’ll see a lot of things on the internet saying on one end, you need to be wearing hiking sandals– while on the other end, saying you need to be wearing hiking boots with these nice, breathable socks.

I wore hiking sandals I got from Decathlon, and I think that was the best decision I made on the Camino. First of all, it rained a couple days in, and I hate getting socks wet! Socks and shoes are also heavy and take up a lot of space. I don’t mind my feet getting wet.

Why hiking sandals vs. boots?

    1. No need to pack socks
    2. Sandals are more breathable
    3. Less chance of blisters
    4. Less to carry and pack
Duct Tape

You  never know what’s going to break on the Camino and if you don’t want to spend a lot of money replacing something, bring some good old fashioned duct tape. It’ll get you through it. If others need it too, you may become their favorite person.

Pack 10% of your weight

This is the goal. Every once in a while you’ll run into a laundry service, so you don’t need to bring that many pairs of clothes- I think I packed 4-5 shirts. The good news is, if you lose everything, you’d probably get by on the kindness of others. I was doing laundry one day with my friend, and he ended up putting all my shirts at the foot of my bed. I didn’t see them there for some reason, and the next day we were walking and it just hit me… “My laundry from yesterday!” My friend told me he put it by my bed but I didn’t see them! So I didn’t have any shirts, but it was okay, because he gave me a couple of his.

That’s the thing about the Camino: when things go wrong, someone will come alongside you to help you, because that tends to be the community that treks the Camino.

A week’s worth of clothing

Some staples in clothing may include the following:

  • Thin, athletic shirts
  • A few pairs of shorts or (not heavy) pants
  • One jacket or sweatshirt in case it gets cold at night (which, along the Northern coast of Spain in July, it didn’t really). Alternatively you can just bring layers and be fine. 
Earplugs

PEOPLE SNORE and it will keep you up! We had a snorer at probably 1 third of our “albergues” (hostels), and it was usually the same guy!! We even stayed an extra day in one place so that we wouldn’t keep following him to the next albergue. Lost a lot of sleep because of Esteban. ugh.

Poncho

This was one of the most helpful purchases I made! It covers your whole backpack and you, and it’s compact. I got mine for like $5 at Decathlon.

Seasons and paths

When to walk

If you’re able to choose when to go on the Camino, it’s best to go in either September/October or April/May. I went in July. On the Camino Del Norte, it was fine in the summer, but on the main path (the Camino Frances) it would be a lot hotter, especially in July. I would not recommend the Camino Frances in July due to both the weather and crowds. 

Camino del Norte

There’s an entire network of paths you can take on the Camino. After a lot of research, I decided to do the Camino del Norte, which is the furthest North and goes along the Northern coast of Spain. I chose that one for a couple different reasons:

  1. It’s more temperate than the Camino Frances.
  2. Views of the water were stunning, and I thought I would enjoy those views more than just flatlands. 
  3. I read it is consistently less densely populated than other paths, especially the Camino Frances. The Camino Frances is supposedly the original one, so most people gravitate toward that one. At one point near the end, they meet up. A lot of people that were on the Camino Frances said it was hot and over-crowded.

 

“Do your own Camino”

“Do your own Camino” is one of the many taglines of the experience. It’s important to listen to your body and go at your own pace. And on a long trek like this one, it’s all the more important to pace yourself. The following are some important things to know and take advice from, while maintaining the important note that you should always do your own Camino.

When to begin your day: An anecdote

On my first day on the Camino, I think I walked for nine hours… it was about 55,000 steps! I don’t recommend that! I was so excited, and thought I was ready to go hard, but after one day of walking 55,000 steps in 8-9 hours, I got to my hostel and crashed. I woke up around 9-10am and was, of course, very sore. 

There were only three other people at this particular hostel too, so at this point I had no idea that the thing to do was get up super early and go. So I woke up around 9:30-10, strolled around a bit and decided, “Oh, I guess I’ll start walking…” It was about 11 o’clock by the time I left the town. 

Bad idea for many reasons.

Reason the first: The next place I arrived at was PACKED. Luckily I still had a place to sleep because someone pulled a mattress out of some random guest house around the corner and let me crash on the floor in the corner of a loft… and that’s because I left late and got there late!

The next morning everyone was waking up between 5-6am and beginning to walk. I thought, “What in the world is going on right now?” That’s when I realized, “Oh…I think I’m doing this all wrong.”  

Secondly, the weather: While you don’t have to get up that early, that is when it’s crisp, calm and cool outside. That tends to be the most enjoyable time to carry a heavy pack and not tire as easily. Keep in mind that everyone else is waking up at that time too: it’ll get loud in the hostel. Also, you need a place to stay the next night. It’s not like it’s really a “race” but if all those people are going ahead, the hostels may be packed and have no room for you.

It was then I began to relish in the uncomfortable: getting up early, carrying a heavy backpack, and hiking around…I enjoy that! For me, that was the moment when I got into the rhythm that the majority was in, and that worked for me.

Walking the Camino

Pace Yourself

While there’s not a right or wrong way to do the Camino, I’m glad I picked up on the fact that getting walking earlier was better. You do you, but it’s worth it for the reasons I mentioned above:

  • for getting a place to stay,
  • to get the majority of walking done before the heat of the day,
  • to avoid being woken up before you wish to be when in a packed hostel

But it all comes back to “Do your own Camino.” If you want to wake up at noon, it’s totally fine! 

It is also important to know that if you only do 3-4 hours a day, you aren’t failing. Your body will tell you, and you just need to listen to it. For some, this may mean three hours a day, for others it may be 10 hours… but you have to consider what rate you want to travel at, if that is conducive to your well being, and feel it out. Be willing to change your plans accordingly…

 

Camino Speeds

  1. Speedy Camino: One of the people i met did a speed version of  it– they basically jogged it for a couple days with military packs. That I do not recommend for absolutely anyone except perhaps the military! You can do it, but it’s intense.
  2. Chill Camino: You can walk for a day, and stay in the next town for two days. That’s actually what many people do  because you have to rest after walking for eight hours or so.
  3. Steady Camino: What I did was actually a fusion of the two. I walked almost everyday. I definitely took a rest day or two, or came to a town and thought, “Hey, I really like this area or town or these people I’m traveling with… so I’ll stay an extra day.” 

 

Typical day for most pilgrims

  • 5:30-6am: Wake up, get your things together, and get walking before it gets too hot
  • 2-4pm: Stop walking at your next location, before it gets too hot. Chill, hang out in the early evening with everyone
  • Go to bed at a reasonable hour so you can get up and do the same thing the next day.

Daily costs

  • Hostels: some hostels have a set price of 8-10 or so Euro a day. Some are on a donation basis, so you can give whatever you can that day. They realize some people will not give anything, but other times people may give 20 Euro. So that is sometimes flexible.
  • Food: some things are very cheap– fruit, bread, sandwich meat, etc. You can bet on spending 5-15 Euro breakfast and lunch. I highly recommend getting the Menu Peregrino every dinner, for 8-11 Euro, This would add up to 15-25 Euro/day on food per person. Looking forward to enjoying a good meal with friends will be the thing that keeps you going in the heat of the day when you’re exhausted. 
Camino Wall

Tips to have the best Camino experience

I think you need to hold your plans loosely when you do the Camino because you’re going to run into people or places that you love and just wanna be in. The only unfortunate thing with holding plans loosely is when other people traveling behind you book ahead in the hostel  you’re staying in; then you can’t stay at the hostel an extra day– or have to find somewhere else to sleep. I didn’t like that because I felt it took away from the spirit of the Camino where you’re just going day by day. So that may happen; it may not.

If I could do the Camino all over again, I would hold my plans a little more loosely. And really, that means maybe having five or so flexible days. It’s best to not plan your arrival into Santiago a day or two before your airplane ticket… just in case you want to stay in another location an extra day, enjoy Santiago more, or sprain your ankle and need rest. One of my favorite experiences was staying in Santiago for a few days more than I planned, because every day there is a new crop of pilgrims that arrive! You never know what’s going to happen if you’re able to be flexible, and that’s a good thing.