A kinder, gentler start to the Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago is 800km long pilgrimage through northern Spain. It takes most people 30-35 days to complete. That’s 20-30 km of walking every day.

There is no right or wrong way to walk the Camino. Some people walk every step in one trip. Some people walk it in pieces over many years. Some people carry their own packs. Some send them ahead in a van. Some ride bikes!

As long as you are being respectful and considerate, I think it’s OK to do it your own way. Don’t worry about anyone else.

One problem is that many people forget to be kind to themselves.

For almost all of us, the Camino is the most difficult physical challenge we have had in our lives.

By the second or third day, you start to see the knee braces and ice packs come out. A few weeks in, busses fill up with limping pilgrims.

I should know, I was one of these limping pilgrims in 2015. I walked too far, too often. And the resulting knee injury caused me to go home early.

Sunset on the Camino

But there is another way. For my second Camino, I was determined to take better care of myself.

I arrived in Spain to start my Camino unexpectedly exhausted. I was 2 months into a solo trip and had just finished a challenging meditation course.

Instead of bailing on the Camino or powering through with my original plans, I decided to change course and take it easy.

Going for a walk after dinner at Orisson

Instead of fear and suffering, my first four days were full of joy, companionship and beauty.

I feel like I’ve got the energy to keep going.

Here are a few things that worked for me.

1) Have a restful first night in St Jean Pied de Port


There are many beautiful places to stay in St Jean Pied de Port, the conventional start of the Camino Frances. I strongly suggest you reserve yourself a bed in Beilari.

This hostel is full of love. I know that sounds cheesy, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it.

You’ll share communal, home cooked dinner. You play an ice breaker games that coach you into truly connecting with others.

And then after dinner, you’re locked in at 10 pm. Alarm clocks are not allowed. They wake you up at 6:15 am for breakfast.

These strict rules may seem strict, if you’re sitting in your own home right now. But you have yet to experience the annoyance of one nervous person setting their alarm for 5 am, letting it go off for 20 minutes and then crinkling plastic bags as they get ready.

Beilari is doing their best to help people build good, respectful Camino habits. And get a good night’s sleep!

Weekend spots can book up months in advance. But shifting your start a day or so will let you grab a last minute reservation. Or just show up and see if someone cancelled.

2) Take two days to walk from St Jean to Roncesvalles

Beautiful weather in the Pyrenees

The first stage is notoriously hard. Not just long, but steep. And very the fickle mountain weather in the Pyrenees can often be very cold, foggy and rainy.

There are very limited places to stay between Saint Jean and Roncesvalles. And many people feel pressure and desire to push through the “entire” first day.

But waking 25km with a backpack through the mountains is no joke.

Watching sun set over the Pyrenees with a new friend

The best place to stay is a small albergue in Orisson. It also has a communal dinner. They also book up far in advance.

I made my plans two days before I started, so Orisson was full. The owners offered me a spot in their other place, Kayola. It is a 15 min walk away from Orisson. I took the spot and walked to Orisson for the communal dinner and breakfast.

My back up plan was going to be to use Express Burricot, a shuttle service based in St Jean.

You walk to a specific spot halfway up the mountain. They pick you up and take you back to St Jean for the night. Then the next morning, they drive you back where you left off. You then finish your walk to Roncesvalles.

3) Ship your bag ahead BEFORE you are injured

I walked three of my first days carrying a liter of water, a raincoat and money.

After my first short day, I knew something was wrong. An old injury was flaring up and it could get really bad.

I needed to walk without my bag. Or quit walking.

So I spent some money to use a luggage transfer service. Then I did it two more days.

Now I’m on day 5. I’m carrying my stuff. And I feel fantastic. My chronic pain has settled down.

Last time I was too proud to ship my bag. And confused about how it worked. But it’s honestly not that complicated. Just ask at your albergue when you arrive and is as good as done. No phone or internet required.

Some people took time out of their day to tell me that they would never ship their bag. They were going to carry their stuff the “whole” way.

I would have felt ashamed last time, or maybe not done it again. But now I just feel bad for them. What a funny thing to worry about!

4) Pack way less stuff

My 30L bag is only about 60% full. It gives me space for my snacks, water and sometimes carrying my walking shoes.

Some of this is me buying expensive, lightweight stuff like my backpack. However, most of this just me making do with less.

Your comfort while walking is so much more important than having a extra t-shirt or a book.

And remember that most Camino packing lists are written people who haven’t actually walked yet! Or by outdoors stores that want you to buy all their stuff.

If you are already walking and have realized your bag is too heavy, you have options. You can mail things to yourself from any post office (Correos). You can send it home or to Santiago. The post office will hold it for you in Santiago. There are several other luggage transfer services that do something similar. It doesn’t cost too much!

5) Don’t create misery for yourself of others

Learning to respond to challenges is certainly one of the ways you grow. But you don’t need to create misery.

No matter what you do, blisters and sore knees will come. So will hunger. And sunburn. And wet shoes. And nights where you don’t get enough sleep.

Choose to be kind and take care of yourself and others, whenever you can.

A vending machine full of blister and knee care

6) Being in a hurry is a state of mind

Stop to pet all the cats on the Camino

Most people have a set amount of days for the Camino.

So they plan to go as far as they can in that time, as quickly as possible. Or at least this is what I did in 2015. Which landed me in a Spanish hospital with a knee brace. Uggggh.

It honestly does not matter how far you walk. Pet all the cats. Go to Mass. Check out the churches in each town. Say hello to people. Share a bottle of wine at lunch with a friend. Walk all day. Walk a few hours.

Remember there is nothing inherently better about covering more ground in less time.

Give yourself plenty of time to do what you want to do. Maybe you will start in Burgos instead of Pamplona. Or end in Leon instead of Santiago.

Maybe you’ll need to take a bus sometimes to keep up with friends, as you heal from an injury.

When people ask me if I am headed to Santiago, I say that I’m walking in that direction. Let’s see what happens. Quite a change from last year. And I’m much happier for it.

Buen Camino!

Pamplona. Day 3. Or 5. Or 1. You do your own Camino.

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8 thoughts on “A kinder, gentler start to the Camino de Santiago

  1. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying your journey. Thanks for sharing it. Interesting, entertaining, and informative!

  2. I just stumbled across this on the Camino page- such a good read for me right now. I’m stuck in bed in Logroño with an ankle injury- a week of no walking. Thank you for the reminder to take it slow and easy and that there is no “one way” to do the Camino.

  3. Love. I start on june 20. You are speaking my language. I’m planning on 10 miles / day and a bus if I need to. Going to enjoy myself.

  4. I love your philosophy on this, sounds like you are taking time to smell the roses! I’m hoping to walk the camino next year but have a back injury that will surely flare up… that you for your wisdom. “I’m heading in that direction” I can see being my mantra… buen camino!

  5. Hello Jess, very interesting account of el Camino. By living in Vancouver Island, I assume hiking is essential. My husband and I camped in Kluani National Park, in Yukon Territory and we loved it. I wonder if you would be able to share your packing list for el Camino, I would love to do el camino del Norte, sometime next year, and I am sewing and choosing very light t shirts, shorts an so on. Thank you again for your post I enjoy it. We love Canada, we live in the Mojave Desert, California.

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