I walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in summer/autumn 2001. The stretch I covered was from Leon to Santiago (a bit more than 300km, IIRC). At the time I thought it would be useful to make some of the experience I gained during the trip available on the web. For whatever reason, I have been very slow getting even this short page finished, but have decided to make it available "as-is". Hopefully you will get some help/info from it. I haven’t posted links, as many of the links I used may no longer be in existence. In particular, the single most useful link I found (which was once at http://www.helsinki.fi/%7Ealahelma/santiago.html ) is no longer active. As the disclaimer at the bottom says, I cannot take responsibility for harm/loss/inconvenience caused by this information. I offer it in good faith, but have no way to ensure it is correct or appropriate for you to follow these tips.
Some Tips for Pilgrims
The single point that caused me most unease when coming closer to my departure was whether or not it would be possible to obtain a pilgrim pass in Leon. Some webpages seemed to indicate that pilgrim passports could only be obtained at the "start" of the pilgrimage (i.e. near the French/Spanish border), while others indicated that they could be obtained in larger towns along the way. In advance of my trip I obtained passports for my self and my brother from The Irish Society of the Friends of St James, which set my mind at ease. In any case, to hopefully put your mind at ease, the experience of people I met was that it was very simple to obtain pilgrim passports along the way (certainly in Leon, where an English couple we met obtained their passports). A letter of introduction from your local priest/parish may be handy, but was not necessarily required. Also, you could almost make your own. The staff/helpers we encountered at refugios did not ever seem to have seen Irish passports before, and there were a few other varieties floating around too. PLEASE NOTE: I do not recommend making your own!
Before the walk, what footwear to use was a major dilemma for me. I bought "waterproof/breathable" hiking boots, which were pretty comfortable and gave good support to feet and ankles, but they made my feet perspire very heavily. In the end, I wore a pair of Asics Gel trainers (GEL-1060). These were very comfortable and worked well on the walk. The only problem with the trainers was that the soles were a little bit softer than I would have liked, so my feet got very tired from walking on lots of little stones all day. I had expected this from what I had read about choosing hiking boots. On a plus point, though, I got no blisters at all. Personally I would prefer to have tired aching feet than blistered feet. My brother wore a pair of Timberland shoes he found in a sale at a good price. These also had quite soft/pliant soles, but he did not get blisters either.
Although both of us had good experiences with trainers/shoes, this should not put you off buying boots. At the end of the day, a sprained ankle is more likely to stop you walking than a blister, and to prevent that, the ankle support of a decent boot is your best bet. When choosing boots, do not go for waterproof models (unless you plan to walk in winter) and try to get a boot with as much fabric as possible in the upper. My trainers were so well ventilated (being mostly polyester fabric) that they did not even develop an odour during the walk. The only smell the really acquired was a faint whiff of earth from the track!
Socks were another piece of equipment I spent a lot of time pondering. In the end, I used two pairs at a time. One pair of thick 80% lambs-wool/ 20% nylon knitted socks, and one pair of thin dress socks which were 80% merino wool, balance nylon (the kind of socks you would wear inside good shoes). This combination worked well for me. Wool socks are pretty easy to dry, and they breathe well. I would change the socks every second day. I don’t think there is really any magic formula regarding socks. My brother got on just as well as me, and he wore all sorts of socks (including cotton dress and sports socks). One interesting tip I got from a Norwegian couple we met was to use ladies "pop-socks" (basically tights that only come above the ankle) as an inner sock inside heavy hiking socks. Apparently it is what the Norwegian army uses.
The distance you want to walk each day depends strongly on your personal preferences, fitness, and also on the geography of the route (surfaces, inclines, and frequency of refugios). We found that 20km was a very short walk. After 27 or 30 km walks we felt like we had a hard day of walking done. 40km is long and means you will arrive at the refugio very late (relatively speaking) as you will get slower the longer you walk (unless you are terribly fit). The end result is that the day you are most exhausted (After your 40 km (almost literal) marathon), will conclude with the night you have to sleep on the floor! The stages you walk will vary in length, but we averaged a bit less than 30km per day (completing the 300km in 11 days of walking).
In general, the refugios we stayed at were nice and functional. The nicest of all the ones we stayed in was at Rabanal (the one run by the Confraternity of St. James). Costs were low, with most refugios basically free but inviting a small donation if you could afford it. A few hundred Pesetas (couple of euro) donation would be appropriate. One night, in Sarria, (after a very long day’s walk) we had the option of sleeping on the refugio floor, or seeking out a bed elsewhere (the lady in the refugio gave us directions). It was a very wise move to look for private accommodation as we got a lovely room at a cost of just 1000 Pesetas per bed. I would recommend in general trying to find hostal accommodation rather than sleeping on the floor, as you will get a much better night’s sleep and feel better the next day.
The main priority is to get by with the minimum possible. I used 2 T-shirts, 4 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of trousers, 1 outdoor shirt, 1 fleece jumper, 2 pairs of briefs, 2 pairs of boxer shorts, 1 pair of football shorts, 1 waterproof poncho. The main thing that could have probably been omitted was the second trousers. However, there was one day that I would have had to walk in damp trousers if I had not had the second pair.
Fabrics are very important. Do not bring jeans or anything made from cotton. Cotton takes a long time to dry and is pretty heavy (VERY heavy when wet). Thin formal shirts in cotton or polyester-cotton are probably OK as they are so light and dry in no time. They give little warmth, but do at least keep the sun off. The main trousers and shirt I used were both made from 100% nylon, which does not hold much water. That said, it still takes a while for the waist-band/collar to dry. The briefs were 100% polyester which is practical, but not exactly the most comfortable. The T-Shirts were 100% lyocell, which is a fabric made from wood pulp. These were excellent, really soft and comfortable, and they dried in no time at all after washing. Not sure how much warmth they would have but that was not really much of an issue. I would have bought Lyocell underwear before i left if I had known how good the T-Shirts would be.
Some things you should consider bringing:
Sharp knife (like a steak knife)
Flashlight (one per person, for navigating in the dark, and for packing your bags in the dark).
Toilet paper, we used a Boots pack of interleaved toilet tissue.
Moleskin for your feet. Be careful if you use anything between your toes however as that can cause blisters.
Second skin blister plasters. Try to get both large and small ones. Large ones are good for the soles of your feet or heels. Small ones will be required for toes (and no, you cannot cut larger ones to make smaller ones!).
Length of cut-to-size band-aid style bandage.
Needle and thread (just one colour, look for "button and carpet thread" as it is very very strong).
Duct tape, you never know when you will need it!
Sun screen. I would recommend the Parasol brand (only needs one application per day).
Medicines (paracetamol/aspirin, diarrhoea tablets, anti-histamines, antiseptic cream)
Hiking pole. Much better than using a wooden stick. Weighs about 250g, adjustable, and not particularly expensive (probably about 30 euro for a basic one). Improves balance, and allows you to take strain off a foot/leg if it seems to be getting tired or sore.
Camp towel. These are special polyester towels that are very compact and super-absorbent. Cost is about 15 Euro, IIRC, and you should probably get the medium size (small is very small, large is unnecessary). Though not the nicest to use, these towels save on weight/space and dry out again very rapidly.
Cleaning products. Try to bring a cleaning product you can use both to clean yourself and your clothes. We used sachets of shampoo, which were not ideal. A bar of soap might work ok (you will be handwashing your clothes).
The one thing I really missed having on the walk was a command of the Spanish language. English is not widely spoken along the way, and a little Spanish would really have helped a lot (the couple of words I did have were indispensable). Additionally, the majority of pilgrims are Spanish, so knowing the language is a big help in socialising with your fellow travellers. A wide range of nationalities participate in the walk so you should have an opportunity to practice your French, German, Portuguese, Italian also. If you don’t have time to learn the language, bring a pocket dictionary (it is better than nothing) and remember to bring it with you when you go out to eat!
If you start a stage in Leon, I think it is worth while not stopping in Villadangos (which is what we did). Instead, continue to the next town (I forget the name at the moment, i will check it later, it has a famous bridge), which is much nicer and has a pleasant and unusually styled Refugio (we called into it to get our passports stamped).
I would like to thank some of the people who made my pilgrimage so rewarding and enjoyable. First of all, my brother and camino-buddy Simon, who shared the time with me so equably. My cousin John was incredibly generous both with his advice, and with his outdoor equipment. And of course, the many fellow pilgrims we met on the road, in particular Nick and Viv, Rolf and Tullen.