Everybody wants advice on how to do the walk. It’s tough. Requires motivation and a nature that forgives yourself if you feel like taking a couple of days extra rest. Competitive people might thrive on the challenge, but the path has its way of answering that Myers-Briggs personality type.
I wrote this to an editor who was worried about hiking with a partner in the Pyrenees. “About your decision to walk in France, I’d encourage you to go! You don’t have to be joined at the hip with your hiking companion. Take it easy if that’s your style and meet up later in the day, or a few days later. Better to enjoy yourself than blister your heels stomping to someone else’s pace.”
In general, keep the local culture in mind. I would not go walking in France or Spain with anyone who doesn’t understand that the region is all about the food, finding great meals, eating them with other people, learning about the local food sources and appreciating the farmers who produce the ingredients. Far as I know, there are no granola bar vending machines in the mountains on the route to Santiago.
You will find small markets and mini-marts in towns. And farms often sell their products — eggs, honey, vegetables, sausage, cheese — directly to passers-by or in weekly markets held in villages. You can’t carry enough food to provide the necessary calories, so count on eating meals at the hostels, gites or monasteries you encounter.
For the effort involved in walking rigorously every day, you need real food, not candy and energy bars! I carried cans of sardines, fruit, dry sausage, cheese, olives bread, nuts, and water or wine. I also saved leftovers from the previous night’s dinner — cold roast chicken or pheasant, bread and cooked vegetables.
At the start I carried a dozen Clif bars, and woofed them down. The local food was better, of course, so there was no need for me to carry dull protein-carb bars. There’s no reason to walk in France and Basque Country Spain if you don’t plan on eating local fare! It just doesn’t make sense.
Physically, there is no merit in hard charging through, particularly in the first 7-10 days or 2 weeks. Unless a person is already walking 15-25 miles a day, everyday, no reasonable human can take that punishment. Your feet, legs and back need time to adjust. Consider a milder schedule: three or four days’ walking, take a day off, three on, 2 off, 4 on, 1/2 day off and then get up and go every day.
It’s not a job, but towards the final week of my 7 weeks’ trek, I admit I had the urge to just get it done. Now I want to go back and walk more slowly, savoring the people and places that I may have walked through wrapped in my thoughts.
Detours and excursions on foot are problematic. A town 15 miles from the path is too far away to walk to and visit during one day unless you’ve already angled your route to include the diversion. Excursions on your rest days are easier by car, bus, or even train, if you are in the piedmont or less-difficult terrain where there are rail connections. You could also hitch-hike to points of interest that lie off the Camino.
Walking long distance is different than stringing day-hikes together. The cumulative foot pounding while carrying a pack, even a small one, cannot be underestimated. Age has little to do with it. The people I met having trouble with their feet were invariably decades younger than me, husky and intent on projecting a tough, vigorous image to other hikers. Body weight, pack size and weight, cadence, body fat ratios, boot weight — these and other factors made a difference.
So, start walking in the boots you plan to wear on the trail. Carry several liters of water to accustom your body to the weight of a pack. Track your daily mileage. Read up and practice proper outdoors etiquette related to camping, hygiene and cooking fires.
Prepare an appropriate first aid kit. You probably won’t need malaria antidotes, but you might need an elastic ankle or knee brace and moleskin to protect tender spots on your feet.
Study the maps and research the region. You’ll have a glorious time.