Walking the Camino de Santiago: A Complete Guide

Posted on July 23, 2014 by

As a well-known long-distance trek, the Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrimage routes running across Europe, all leading to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Retracing its origins to the 9th century, Camino de Santiago, also known as “The Way of Saint James”, was an important pilgrimage route for the Christians. The Christian apostle Saint James was beheaded in Jerusalem in 42 AD and his remains were buried in Santiago de Compostela. When his tomb was discovered, Christians across Europe began to travel to see it. This journey  became one of the most important pilgrimages in the world.

These days, the Camino de Santiago is more of a personal journey than a religious pilgrimage. Millions walk it each year in search of direction and deeper meaning in life. For many of us, the Camino has the power to change your life and give you new perspectives.

It doesn’t take a great amount of planning or research to prepare for the Camino, but it’s always wise to read ahead and know what you’re in for. I’ve compiled a guide to give an overview of how it is like to walk the Camino, covering every aspect from budgeting to lodging. If I missed out something, please leave your question in a comment below.

Buen Camino!

A Camino de Santiago Guide

camino de santiago guide

Route

Various Camino routes begin in major European cities such as Paris, Lisbon, Geneva and Seville — the most popular is the Camino Francés, which covers almost 800km from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago. This route weaves through the Pyrenees mountains, across the width of northern Spain, into the mesetas and meadows of Galicia.

Other routes include:

  • Camino Portugués: 230km from Porto in Portugal
  • Camino Norte: 825km along the coast from Irun in northern Spain
  • Via de la Plata: 1000km from Seville in southern Spain
  • Camino Inglés: 110km from Ferrol in northern Spain

All routes on the Camino are well-signposted with yellow arrows, so all you need to do is just follow the arrows and they’ll lead you the right way. Sometimes things can a little confusing in cities, but just make sure you don’t walk too far without seeing an arrow.

camino de santiago guide - map

Length of Time

The entire Camino Francés takes around 30 days to complete, but the total length of time you’ll take depends on how fast you walk. You can also choose to start from any point on the Camino — it’s all up to you. To get the compostela (official certificate) at the end of the Camino, you just need to walk a minimum of 100km (many Spaniards start in Sarria for that reason). My friends and I only had two weeks to walk the Camino, so we decided to start from León, covering a total of 310km.

In the Middle Ages, many pilgrims — and even some today — began their spiritual voyage by just walking out their doors and heading for Santiago de Compostela. We met several Dutch travelers who started walking from their doorstep in Holland, taking a little more than three months to reach Santiago.

Most people walk around 20-25km ( 10-15miles ) a day, waking up early at 6am and walking all the way to late afternoon (you’ll be used to these hours by the second day). Again you should decide your own pace and not try to follow the crowd. It’s also important to include rest days in your plan and give yourself ample time to get to Santiago. I wished we had kept that in mind and scheduled in rest days so I could have let my knees recover before continuing on the trail. Regardless, keeping your schedule flexible is key.

For those who would like to see which route best suits you based on time:

  • 1 week: Camino Francés starting from Sarria
  • 2 weeks: Camino Portugués
  • 3 weeks: Camino Francés starting from Burgos
  • 4 weeks: Camino Francés
  • 5 weeks: Camino Francés and Camino Fisterra (continue on to Finisterre)

camino de santiago guide

When to Go

Most people advise against walking in summer due to the crowd and the intense heat. Before going on the Camino, I’d read about how busy it can get in summer and that albergues (dorms) run out of beds quickly. People would walk fast just to get to the albergue early and grab a bed. There were even cases of pilgrims getting into fights with the albergue volunteers just because they denied them entry. Click to read more about albergues.

We walked at the beginning of summer and we didn’t encounter any of these problems. It did get quite crowded on the trail especially after we passed Sarria, the 100km mark where many Spanish students and holidaymakers start their walk. But there was never any problem getting a bed in the municipal albergues. There was only once that the municipal albergue was full by the time I got there (and I’m a slow walker), but there are always plenty of private albergues in each town and these private ones only cost €2 to €4 more per bed.

As for the heat, I didn’t think it was unbearable. As compared to southern Spain, summer in the northern part of the country is actually quite pleasant, with average temperatures around 23 degrees Celsius and bright sunshine most of the time. Mornings can get quite chilly though, there was one day when we were in the mountains and it was probably close to 5 or 8 degrees Celsius. Even in that scenario, a light rain jacket is enough as you’ll have some body heat from walking.

From doing some research, most say that the best time to do the Camino is in April-May and September-October.

camino de santiago guide

Physical Challenges

Whoever said the Camino is easy has got to be joking. I’ve seen even the fittest and most seasoned trekker/traveler crumble and suffer.

Walking around 25 km (15 miles) a day for 2-4 weeks is definitely a physical challenge because of the long walking distances and added load on your back. Regardless of your age, it’s common to suffer blisters, tendinitis and muscle pain. During the walk, I was suffered tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons) on both my knees and I also pulled the tendons on both my Achilles. It hurt to just move my limbs, so you can imagine how much pain I was in while walking. There was also a contagious stomach bug spreading around the Camino and I unfortunately caught it towards the end of the journey.

The Camino turned out to be the most physically challenging thing I’ve done to date and I’m really glad I pulled through it. If you’ve never hiked before, then it’s wise to start training at least six months before the Camino and to test out hiking long distances with a backpack. If you suffer from tendinitis on the Camino, the best thing to do is get some anti-inflammatory cream from the pharmacy, take some Ibuprofen and get a knee guard or in-soles. Icing the infected part can also help. If you catch the stomach bug, I recommend you take a day to rest, not only to recuperate but also to prevent spreading it to other pilgrims.

To stay healthy on the Camino, I recommend reading this useful article on how to prevent these health problems on the Camino.

camino de santiago guide

Mental Challenges

Before I went on the Camino, I kept wondering if I could do it — if I would have the determination to keep walking until the finishing line. I knew mental challenges were harder to overcome than the physical pain. But to my surprise, walking just became a daily routine that I eased into. Everyday, I woke up at 6am, packed and started walking. There was nothing on the agenda except to put one foot in front of another. Perhaps it’s because everyone was doing it, it didn’t feel like a chore or a challenge to just keep walking.

But for some pilgrims, there is another type of mental challenge to overcome — their own mind. Most of the pilgrims I met on the Camino came on their own and even those in a group chose to walk solo. In fact, many came on the Camino to do just that: spend some time with themselves, be alone with their own thoughts and do some serious thinking. That’s why the Camino can be an emotional journey — it forces you to confront yourself, your fears and insecurities. Many people I talked to said the Camino helped them to learn more about themselves and what they really want in life. I came out of it feeling blessed and very content with the life I have.

camino de santiago guide Language

It seems to surprise many pilgrims that English is not commonly spoken in Spain and along the Camino. I was constantly asked why waiters or volunteers at the albergue didn’t speak English and I was always acting as translator for everyone. As travelers, we can’t visit a country expecting everyone to speak our own language. I get annoyed whenever I hear people saying things like “English is a universal language”. It may be true that English is one of the most popular languages in the world, but that doesn’t mean everyone speaks it.

Have some respect for the locals and pick up a few Spanish phrases before coming to Spain. Words like ‘gracias’ (thank you), ‘por favor’ (please) and ‘comida’ (food) can go a long way. Even if you don’t know any Spanish words at all, be patient and use body language — that always does the trick!

camino de santiago guide

Social Life

One of my favorite things about the Camino experience is the friends you make along the way. It’s like a community on the Camino — you’re on the same trail for weeks, so it’s natural to meet and walk with the same people, therefore building friendships along the way. On the Camino, it’s easy to develop strong bonds and camaraderie with one another. We all look out for each other, and nobody leaves anyone behind. When I was injured and limping the whole way, so many people stopped to ask if I was ok and offered medication or advice. It warmed my heart and made me feel that no one is ever alone on the Camino.

Along the way, I met so many people from all over the world, each of them with a different story to tell. There were so many interesting characters along the way whom I’ll always remember: the humorous and wealthy Italian who was looking for some hardship on the trail, the lost Korean engineer seeking a new direction in life, the chirpy English doctor who loves challenges and the heart-broken Austrian hoping to get past her grief and move on in life. I don’t know if I’ve made any lifelong friends on the Camino, but what I do know is that I’ve learned something from each and every one of them.

camino de santiago guide

Lodging

There is a variety of lodging along the Camino — but the albergues (dorms) are the cheapest and most popular option. There is usually a municipal albergue in each town and a cluster of private albergues as well. These usually involve sleeping with a big group of people in one room, but by the second night, we already got used to it.

The municipal albergues are managed by the government and they are the biggest and cheapest, with €5 for a dorm bed. These are usually clean but basic and can range from 10 to 80 beds in a room. I was quite surprised by how well-maintained most of the municipal albergues were. Private albergues are usually smaller scale so you can expect to have less beds in each room. Prices range from €8 to €10 per bed. Everyone shares a common bathroom/toilet; most albergues have kitchens that you can use as well as washing and drying machines. Some albergues (especially the private ones) even have free WiFi.

Booking in advance is not necessary, most albergues don’t even allow you to reserve a bed in advance. Some say that it gets crowded in summer and albergues may run out of beds by the time you get there, but there are always private albergues around so there’s nothing to worry about. Like I mentioned above, I only encountered that once and even then the private albergue proved to be a great alternative.

In most towns, you can also find pensiones (guesthouses) and hotels with private rooms. The only time I stayed at a pension was in Pedrouzo when I caught the stomach bug and had diarrhoea and stomach cramps. In Santiago we also chose to stay in a hotel just to treat ourselves. Prices can vary largely, from €40 to €80 for a double room.

camino de santiago guide

Food

I was surprised by how easy it is to find pharmacies, supermarkets, albergues and cafeterias along the Camino — pilgrims definitely are spoiled in that sense. Even if you do walk long stretches in the countryside without seeing anyone, you’re almost guaranteed to find a bar in every village or town you come across. There is no shortage of food on the trail, but you’ll notice that most bars serve the same things. Many people I met complained about food in these bars (especially the vegetarians who definitely have limited options!) but it’s important to know that these are basic pilgrim meals and they don’t set the standards for normal Spanish food (which is SO good!).

Here’s a look at what’s usually on offer at most bars along the Camino:

Breakfast: Our days began at 6.30am most of the time, so bars wouldn’t be opened then. To start off the day, we usually had muesli bars or fruit cake and banana to give ourselves some energy. Then around 9am, we would stop for coffee or cola-cao hot chocolate and my favorite tomato toast tostada con tomate.

Lunch: At the beginning, we bought things from the supermarket and ate lunch along the way, but we soon got sick of having bread with canned tuna or salami and cheese. The snacks also added weight to our backpacks. Eventually, we got into the habit of stopping for bocadillo (large baguette sandwiches that cost around €4-5) or Spanish omelette, tortilla española, at cafeterias. There was one time when we found the best paella I’ve ever had (it was at Las Herrerias) and had a hefty lunch, which kept me going longer than usual.

Dinner: Most restaurants offer a menu de peregrino, three-course set lunch/dinner for pilgrims which costs around €7 to €10 and comes with wine/beer and dessert. The first course is  usually a salad, pasta or soup (caldo gallego) and the second course ranges from meat stews to grilled pork chop or fish. It’s great value for money and is sure to fill you up.

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Budget

This is one of the best parts of the Camino — it is easy to do it on a tight budget as food and lodging are very cheap for pilgrims.

Some students budget around €15 a day with food and lodging included, but this is only if you cook your own meals or picnic along the way and stay at albergues only. We cooked our own meals twice and it was more for the fun of it than anything else. We also opted to stay at municipal albergues most of the time, mainly because they were big so we had higher chances of seeing our friends.

For most people, I would recommend having a budget of €30 a day. That’s how much I spent on a daily basis and it includes breakfast at a bar, snacks and drinks, a simple lunch, dinner and lodging. I also spent quite a bit at the pharmacy for my knee guards and in soles. Here’s a brief break down of the average prices of each item:

  • Breakfast €3
  • Lunch €8
  • Dinner €12
  • Albergue €5

TOTAL €28 camino de santiago guide

Packing

As you’ll be carrying your pack with you for more than six hours/day, it’s important to pack as light as possible. Excessive weight will add pressure to your knees and heels and increase the chances of having injuries. All the guides I’ve found say that the optimal weight is 10% of your body weight. Anything between 5 and 8 kg would be ideal.

I started out with a pack that weighed 7kg but the added snacks and medical supplies made it slightly heavier along the way. I had to throw away a fleece and my sunscreen but other than that, I was carrying just the bare essentials. I will be sharing my Camino packing list (and what gear to carry) later on, but meanwhile here are some important tips.

The two most important gear to consider is your backpack. Your backpack should have a well-fitted hip belt that transfers all the weight to your hips rather than your shoulders. It’s wise to choose one with a Camelbak hydration bag compartment for easy access to your water. I always opt for front-loading backpacks (with a zip across the entire length of the pack) rather than top-loading as it’s much easier to find your belongings.

For those who do not want to carry your pack the entire way, there are also transport services available that are will help send your backpack to your next destination. Prices range from €3 to €7 per day. All you need to do is call them up, add a luggage tag from the company (which you can get from private albergues or restaurants) and leave it at your agreed drop-off spot. Note that they are not allowed to pick up or drop off bags at municipal albergues (perhaps because it goes against the principles of the Camino), but the company will let you know the nearest place to do so. I used Xacotrans (only €3 per day) twice to transport my backpack when my tendinitis got serious and I was very happy with their service.

 camino de santiago guide

Guidebooks

Most people on the trail used the paperback book, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago” by John Brierley. The book didn’t have an electronic version, so I downloaded “Camino de Santiago: A Guide to Walking the Camino Francés” by Robert Hamilton on my Kindle instead. While it provided quite a bit of background info on the Camino, it didn’t offer enough practical details on each stage of the walk (there wasn’t even info on the distance from one village to the next). I would recommend it for some pre-trip reading but not to use it on the road.

I depended on my Camino apps most of the time. The most useful one I found was the Eroski’s Camino de Santiago app, which is only in Spanish. It provided details on each stage of the walk and information on albergues in each town. The only useful and free app available in English was the Way of St James tourist guide by SEGITTUR. It’s quite brief and general though.

Good luck with the planning! Buen Camino!

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

7 Responses to “Walking the Camino de Santiago: A Complete Guide”

  1. Leah Dempsey September 15, 2016 4:36 am #

    Nellie, I so appreciate all the information you provided – from recommendations to take a day off to packing lists – thank you! My daughter (20) and I have two weeks to walk the Camino. We will start in mid May – after she finishes exams.
    Should we walk the Frances – and back 10-15 miles/day away from Santiago? Any guidance you can provide would be of great benefit.

    • Nellie Huang October 5, 2016 8:33 am #

      hey Leah, you’re welcome! Glad you found this helpful! I walked the Camino Frances for two weeks as well – and there was only enough time to go from Leon to Santiago de Compostela. If you only have two weeks, I would recommend doing the same stretch of the Camino as I did. You’ll be able to experience walking into Santiago and the strong emotions that come with it. That said, I’ve heard SO many people say the most beautiful part of the trail is at the beginning, departing from Saint Jean in France. You can also walk the first part of Camino Frances and then take a bus to the last half and walk the remaining way there. Most people take at least three weeks to walk the entire trail from Saint Jean to Santiago.

      • Leah Dempsey May 9, 2017 11:59 pm #

        Nellie, thank you so much!! My daughter and I leave next week and rereading your wonderful information on everything – from what to pack (THANK YOU) to lodging – allowed me to relax and realize I have guidance from an expert and don’t have to reinvent the wheel!!
        I’m sending your packing list to my daughter.
        One thing we had not planned on bringing was sleeping bags – do you still feel those are important?
        We are going to hike about 15 miles per day – will there be places to stay at or about 15 miles or do we need to plot the hike each day to land in a place we can stay?
        Thank you again – you have made this trip so much easier!!! Leah

        • Nellie Huang May 12, 2017 1:46 pm #

          Leah, I’m glad you’ve found this post useful! I’m more than happy to help you plan your Camino! I hiked around 15 miles each day as well, sometimes more, and it was easy to find places to stay at. Almost every village or two has an albergue, and most of the time you’ll have choices (between the free ones and nicer ones that cost $5 or so). I walked in summer (July) and there were plenty of people walking the Camino too, so it was easy to plan your route as you go. I usually take a look at the map each morning and then decide my destination for the day. As for sleeping bags, I used mine everyday and it’s just good for hygiene (and sometimes the cold at night). The albergues and refugios don’t clean their sheets, so you would want to have your own sleeping bag to sleep in. Hope this helps!!! Buen Camino Leah!

  2. CHRISTINA BALTES June 9, 2017 2:01 am #

    can you tell me which backpack you used brand and size and if that worked well-=am female

    • Nellie Huang June 12, 2017 4:26 pm #

      hi Christina, I used the Decathlon Forclaz 40L hiking backpack: https://www.decathlon.co.uk/forclaz-40-air-hiking-backpack-red-id_8243262.html. It worked very well, was easy to take things out and was perfect for the trip. I think I could have used a smaller one if I wasn’t carrying a sleeping bag though. But because of the conditions of some refugios, a sleeping bag is kinda essential. The smaller pack you have, the more comfortable you will be on the trip.

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  1. How to Plan Your Next Adventure — Tackling the Basics | Graunchy.com - September 13, 2016

    […] or a luxury trip on board a cruise in Fiji. For those interested in multiple-day hiking, the Camino de Santiago in Spain or Peru’s Inca Trail can be great ways to experience the countries’ back roads. Setting a goal […]

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