Top 10 tips for the Camino: Break in your boots, avoid cotton and pack Vaseline to bust those blisters
Walking the Camino? Hiking holiday expert Bronagh Carroll shares her top 10 tips for world's best walk
Have you thought about doing a Camino? Have you also had concerns? "Will I be able to walk that far?" "Am I fit enough?"
Don't worry. There's a Camino for everyone and, after walking and guiding over some 2,500km in Spain and Portugal, I have more than a little advice to share.
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1. Before your Trip
First up, the Camino involves both physical and mental effort, but anybody with a bit of preparation and determination can do it.
If you're not doing any exercise now, start by walking three to four times a week, building your distance up slowly with short walks mid-week (start at 30mins) and a long walk at the weekend (start at one hour). Gradually extend this, walking on a mix of tarmac and trail and on flat and hilly/mountainous terrain.
The duration of training depends on the distance you plan to walk. If you plan on 100km, for example, schedule six to eight weeks of pre-training. And don't forget to stretch before and after!
2. What to Pack
If you're forwarding luggage between accommodations each morning, you'll need a day bag to carry on the trail. This should be around 30-35 litres in size, with a rain cover and hip belt, and packed with items like snacks, drinks, sunscreen, hat, waterproof jacket/poncho, along with your wallet, passport, phone, phone charger and adapter. A reusable bottle is essential to stay hydrated, ideally at least 0.75 to 1-litre in size.
3. Footwear & Socks
I recommend trail runners as they are light, breathable and have extra grip for walking up and down hills. You can wear hiking boots if you prefer, but they're not absolutely necessary. Whatever you choose, make sure they're comfy and fit properly.
Make sure any new footwear is 'worn in' for your Camino, and don't forget socks - they should be breathable and padded.
Walking poles are helpful when walking up and down hills and provide balance on muddy and slippery surfaces. When buying them, make sure you have the correct set for the terrain and the correct length for your height (to check, stand with your elbow bent at 90 degrees and adjust the pole length so the grip fits into your hands at this level).
Foldable poles are useful, as they fit in your backpack for travel.
4. What to wear
The clothes you bring will depend on the route and time of year. Layers will prepare you for all weather conditions - include a base layer (thermal top and leggings), a mid-layer (fleece and hiking trousers, which ideally zip off to shorts) and an outer layer (waterproof jacket or poncho). Also include a couple of T-shirts.
All clothes should be breathable, but avoid cotton at all costs - it soaks up and holds on to moisture, meaning you quickly become damp, clammy and cold.
5. Setting out
First up, apply Vaseline on your feet and between your toes - it helps to protect against blisters (the bane of many on the Camino).
Take a moment to stretch, start walking at a slow pace until you warm up and then maintain a moderate and continuous pace. Take a rest every 1.5-2 hours and before significant hills, if possible.
Change socks midway through your day's walk to reduce the build-up of moisture between toes, avoid walking in the hottest part of the day (3-5pm in Spain) and apply sunscreen regularly.
Drink frequently, too - at least 1.5l to 2l per day is recommended to prevent dehydration.
6. The ups and downs
Before walking a steep hill, ensure you are warmed up. Shorten your steps, lean only slightly forward and keep your torso over your hips and knees. Don't raise those knees too high - if you feel they are, shorten your step further.
Walk at a pace where you can still talk and, if using poles, shorten their length by 5-10cm. On steep hills, zig-zag across the slope to reduce the steepness.
Walking downhill, your stride will naturally elongate, so shorten your steps or slow down if you're going too fast. Don't lean back, keep a straight posture with your torso over your hips and knees, or lean very slightly forward for stability, keeping knees bent. On very steep slopes or sections with loose surfaces, zig-zag down to help control speed.
7. In the evenings
Stretch after each walking day and rest for 45mins - I usually need about an hour to recover. Evenings are a good time to plan the following day. Make sure you know where the next section of your Camino enters and exits villages, towns or cities. Note the total distance, topography and location of cafés where you plan to take breaks.
Evenings are also the time to stock up on snacks and drinks in the local supermarket - isotonic drinks help to replenish mineral salts and avoid muscle fatigue, while good, light, high-energy snacks range from bananas, apples, oranges and berries to dried fruit, nuts, chocolate and cereal/energy bars. Remember to buy extra supplies for days where there are limited services or long distances along your trail.
And charge your phone!
8. Tips to prevent blisters
Unfortunately, there is no infallible remedy for preventing blisters. Applying generous amounts of Vaseline in the morning can help reduce the friction of rubbing skin, however. Another popular trick is to apply surgical spirits with cotton wool on your feet daily for a couple of weeks before the Camino and at night during the Camino - it has the effect of hardening skin.
9. Solo travellers
Can you walk the Camino on your own as a female?
Of course you can. Lots of pilgrims walk on their own. It gives you the freedom to choose your start time, go at your own pace, decide when to have breaks and whether to walk alone or to chat with other pilgrims you meet along the way.
The French or Portuguese Ways tend to be good choices for solo women walkers, as there are more people on those routes.
Walk in the mornings when there are more pilgrims out (afternoons can be quieter), try to keep other walkers within sight ahead or behind at all times, and - as in everyday life - stay alert, ensure your phone is charged and carry a charger and adaptor.
10. In Santiago de Compostela
If you're one of the first 10 people to collect a Compostela in the Pilgrims Office each day, you will get a free lunch in the five-star Parador Hotel.
The bad news? You'll have to queue from as early as 6.30am to be in with a chance. Long queues to collect certificates are common, particularly in the busy summer months. To reduce your wait time, queue early or late (the Pilgrim Office opens from 8am to 8pm).
Elsewhere, there's a Pilgrim's House Welcome Centre located at Rua Nova 19 in Santiago. This is a place to meet other pilgrims, chat about your experience and take time to reflect. Rua Franco has the best tapas and pintxo bars - in summer, this narrow, cobblestoned street is buzzing with locals and pilgrims both indoors and out, making it the perfect place to celebrate.
Bronagh Carroll is co-founder of Magic Hill Holidays, an Irish Camino specialist. For a free Camino Guide or to learn more about its low-cost trips in Spain and Portugal, call 01 442-8921 or visit magichillholidays.com.