9 Things I Wish I Brought On The Camino (And One Thing I'm Glad I Did)
In April 2019, I set off on one of the longest trips of my life. I'm no stranger to travel or spending time abroad. In fact, by the time I had graduated high school, I had already lived in 4 countries. In college, I spent a semester studying in Northern Ireland. In my adult life, I've traveled the globe for work and fun, from Australia to Haiti and several trips to Italy, Ireland, and the UK. But I had never been to Spain before, let alone spent 40 days in Europe. But that's what I was about to do when I left home April 17 to walk the Camino Frances, a 780km ancient pilgrimage that traverses the width of Spain.
I've always been a planner and devoured all the information I could get about the Camino. But even with all the preplanning, these are the things I wish I brought with me. If you ask 10 pilgrims advice for packing for the Camino, you'll get 11 opinions. Everyone has their "Best way," and some are all too happy to tell you about it. An important refrain I learned is "do your own Camino." Find what works for you. With that in mind, here are some packing tips from what I learned from my Camino during the Spring of 2019. It might not all apply to your Camino.
Love it or dismiss it as a hoax, I find EmergenC helpful in my diet when I'm traveling or when my body is under stress. I actually brought some EmergenC ProBiotic sachets with me, with the idea of helping my gut adapt to a new diet, but I didn't bring enough to last me through an illness.
On a trip of this magnitude and stress level, the question is when not if you're going to get sick. Walking 20-25km a day puts a lot of strain on your body, and living so closely with fellow pilgrims puts you in contact with a lot of germs. Not to mention that in large swaths of the Camino, the toilets in the bars or albergues don't have soap or paper towels. (I'm looking at you Meseta!) Even with carefully hand sanitizing before meals or eating food, it's hard not to come into contact with germs.
I actually started my trip coming down with a cold that turned into a respiratory infection requiring two visits to the Burgos hospital and two 5 day courses of antibiotics. Around the halfway point to the end, almost everyone I met had some sort of cough or sore throat. "The Pilgrim Cough" it was jokingly called.
Fresh fruit and veggies have to be intentionally sought out on the Camino, so having a supplement like EmergenC is a great way to get more vitamins in your diet. There are farmacias all along the way, and I bought some effervescent vitamin tablets, but they were expensive and bulky compared to bringing EmergenC.
2. Fiber Supplements
While this may be getting into TMI territory for some, let's face it, everyone poops. Except when you're eating nothing but cheese, white bread and meat day after day. I seriously struggled to find fibrous foods in Spain. There are several garbanzo bean dishes, and lentil soup was common, but unless you ordered the ensalada mixta with your Pilgrims Menu, you could easily make it through the day eating no vegetables or fruit.
I brought about a weeks supply of fiber gummies from Target to help get me "over the hump" of air travel and airport food, but they were no match for the abundance of delicious Spanish cheese and fresh, white bread.
In some ways, one could consider this a blessing (See earlier about toilets not having soap or towels, or even TP many times). But if regularity is important to you, plan on bringing some kind of fiber supplement. I didn't actually check the farmacias for this, but I'm sure it's possible to find along the way if you don't want to be carrying an entire months supply of fiber.
3. Binder Clips
I wish I brought more binder clips. I brought a total of 3 clothes pins and one binder clip with me. I figured I'd need to hang my shirt, underwear, and socks (by doubling up with one clip) every day. My one binder clip could be used for my pants when I washed them. The problem with that was I often needed the binder clip to keep my various bags of snacks closed up. I was workable, I would take the clip off my bag of peanuts or whatever, and then reseal it in the morning, but it was annoying. If I had just 2 or three more clips, I could have kept my snacks secured and have extra clips for bigger laundry days. They're light and small, and you can leave them clipped to the outside of your backpack to take up less room. They're also great for clipping wet socks to your pack if they don't dry out overnight!
My goal for my pack was to stay under 15lbs. As such, I tried to do away with as much redundancy as possible. I decided not to bring a headlamp because "my phone is a flashlight!" And yes, it is, but its a pain. Trying to dig through your pack at night or packing up at 6am with only one hand while the other hand holds your phone is annoying. Also, sometimes it's not possible to charge your phone close to your bed. This means you have to makes trips across the room to get your flashlight and get it charging again before going to bed. I even own a very lovely Black Diamond headlamp I could have brought. I regret not bringing it. I would recommend the smallest, lightest headlamp you can find. You're not in the backcountry, you don't need anything water or shockproof. A headlamp is also great for reading books in bed (not necessary if you use a tablet for reading like me) and it also saves the battery on your phone.
5. Travel sized laundry detergent
This wasn't the worst thing not to have. I got away without having it the whole Camino, and my clothes never got stinky. Some albergues have bar soap, or laundry powder (which was for the paid washing machines, but I would sometimes "borrow" a pinch) but many do not. I would have to use my liquid body wash to wash my clothes, and this gave me some anxiety as I didn't want to run out of soap in the shower! Something like Sea To Summit sized soap from REI would have been helpful to have. I never saw small, toiletry sized bottles of laundry soap. They might be available at Decathlon, but who wants to spend their afternoons looking for soap when you could be drinking wine?
I started the Camino Frances April 20 and finished May 26. I was carefully watching the weather leading up to my trip and was planning on just bringing a rain poncho. I decided to go with the poncho vs. rain jacket and backpack cover because ultimately a poncho is going to keep your pack drier. With one item I could keep myself and my bag dry. Well, I really lucked out and only had 4 or 5 days where I needed to pull out my poncho. And the rain was never more than a sprinkle for a few hours, my socks never got wet!
What I didn't anticipate was the wind. All I packed for warmth was my Eddie Bauer Cloud Layer Pro fleece, one of my favorite laying pieces. While it was enough for the lower temperatures, it wasn't enough with the wind chill. The day after Pamplona, you pass over a ridge lined with windmills, and they built them there for a good reason. I was getting chilled to the bone and as a desperate measure, put my poncho on under my backpack to protect me from the wind. This worked OK, except now I was walking around in a non-breathable bag, and my own sweat was building up on the inside. After lunch, I switched to the poncho on the outside of my bag, but now I was like a walking sail. Finally, in Burgos, I made it to a Decathlon and found an extremely light and small windbreaker. Best 25 euros I spent. It did hurt to buy because I have a very nice REI rain shell at home I could have brought and used that money for wine instead. But I had weeks of walking left, and I didn't want to be miserable the whole time.
Similar to the windbreaker, I didn't really think about this going into the Camino. I hike a lot in California and have a pretty good idea of my cold tolerances for a given temperature. I was carefully watching the weather at Roncesvalles and using that as a barometer for what I should pack. I (wrongly) estimated that it would be coldest there and as I walked further into Spring, things would warm up. However, it actually got colder the further I got into Spain, and there were days on the Meseta I woke up to frost on the ground. I bought a pair of wool leggings on that same Decathlon trip, and they made such a massive difference on the cold, windy mornings.
8. Sleeping bag/quilt
I did a lot of research on this one and took my Sea To Summit Reactor liner with me as my sleeping "bag." I must have been reading peoples posts from summer trips though as it was NOT warm enough on many nights. Many of the albergues are old and not heated and even keeping my pants and fleece on I was pretty cold at night. Some days, however, I'd stay at an Albergue with no ventilation in the dorm rooms, and I'd end up sleeping on top of my liner because it was so hot. I treated my liner with permethrin as a bed bug deterrent, so I didn't like sleeping outside of it! I'd say about 50% of the albergues I stayed in didn't provide blankets. I also felt like I was rolling the dice with a blanket as you don't know who used it last or if it might be infested. I hoped sleeping in my treated liner would protect me, and as far as I know, it did.
I think the best strategy would be using a treated travel sheet over the mattress and a lightweight down quilt for warmth. That way if it's hot, you can kick the quilt off, but still be on a protected layer. And a quilt is lighter and more packable than a sleeping bag.
9. Massage ball
I would have killed for one of these. Day after day of hiking with a backpack results in knots and tightness in places you didn't know were possible. I'd stretch out at the end of almost every day, but my feet would still be sore, and I just wanted to roll them on a massage ball. I also had some knots in my back and shoulders that could have used rolling out against the wall. These balls are so pretty light, well worth the weight. If you don't mind sharing, you would also make a lot of friends if you loaned it out.
Bonus: I'm glad I brought my travel clothesline.
One blog I read recommended bringing a clipless clothesline. It sounded like a good idea and was very lightweight. However, it sat in my backpack for almost two weeks before getting used. Almost all albergues have plenty of drying lines or racks, and I never needed my own line. I first pulled it out in a pinch where I washed two days of laundry, and my grand total of 4 clips (see #3) wasn't enough to dry everything. I ended up twisting my clothesline around the existing line, and then by hanging my clothes on either side, I was able to get everything up to dry. There were a couple other days where I needed to wash two days of laundry, and by using a fence, I was able to string up an impromptu line. I probably could have just draped my clothes if I really needed to, but I was very thankful I lugged that stretchy piece of string with me the whole way.
In the end, I felt not a small amount of smug satisfaction in that I used everything I brought with me. In order to shave pounds off their bags, many pilgrims send packages home or onto Santiago with things they realize they don't need. However, I might have been a little *too* lean in my packing. I was definitely uncomfortable at times and ended up spending money to buy things I already owned at home.
Ultimately, the Camino is a very personal experience. This is what I needed, but it may or may not be what you need. If you already go backpacking, I think you have a massive advantage as you probably already know what your necessities are. If the Camino is going to be your first real backpacking experience, I recommend building your kit as soon as possible and doing a weekend trip with it. Take just your backpack and see how you get along with it for 2 days. Then, evaluate and adjust. The good news is Spain is a modern country. You're never more than a few days from a large town, and there are "pilgrim stores" with Camino essentials all along the way. It's not like you're not walking through the backcountry or anything.
If you’ve walked the Camino before, please leave a comment about what you wished you had brought with you!