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Treading Lightly: A Packing Guide for El Camino de Santiago

Camino Backpack“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

I’m a little neurotic.  When I decide to do something, I’m all in.  I started preparing almost a year before my actual Camino began.  I scoured over websites and guide books.  I went to sporting goods stores and tested sleeping bags and headlamps.  I read up on religious pilgrimages and hiking in general.

One thing I knew for sure: I needed a very light backpack and I didn’t want to carry more than ten percent of my body weight. Amongst all of my reading, there seemed to be a consensus that ten percent is the sweet spot to avoid pain and injury.  I later found this to be absolutely true.  The pilgrims that I encountered with giant, heavy packs had the worst blisters and were wearing knee braces by the time we arrived in Santo Domingo (around day eight or nine).

I set off to find the perfect backpack in October, nine months before I would actually be needing it.  I was a Girl Scout, “be prepared”.  I found a great backpack (it’s pictured above) at a store here in France that was actually designed for the Camino.  It is super light, approximately 500 grams (just over one pound) and has a ton of pockets, including one very large waterproof one on the outside and small zippered pouches on the padded waist straps.

Now, a short list of everything that I decided to put into my perfect backpack:

  • An all season sleeping bag (I bought nylon adjustable straps to affix it to the bottom of my backpack.)
  • A sheet or small blanket (I actually used an extra-large scarf/sarong as my cover at night.)
  • An LED headlamp (great for starting off before daybreak and for nighttime reading in albergues.)
  • A rain poncho that will cover a body and a backpack.
  • Two microfiber towels (they dry quickly, roll into neat little bundles and can really suck the moisture out of wet hair.)
  • A Swiss Army knife (So many little gadgets and you never know when you might need it.)
  • Zip lock plastic bags (For documents and toiletries)
  • A neck wallet (These things are the best.  After a day of hiking, I would throw down my backpack and take my essentials (cash, ID, credit card, camera and phone), shove them into this little guy and head out to get something to eat or to visit cathedrals.  And, worn across the torso, it looks like a cute little purse.  Aww. )
  • A guide book (I recommend the Michelin Guide.  It is thin and light and tells what each stopping point along the way has to offer as far as food, albergues, pharmacies, etc.  It is bare bones though.  No historical information, but fits nicely in the outside pocket of the aforementioned backpack.)
  • Flip Flops (absolutely necessary for the showers and after a long day of hiking.)
  • Water bottle (I used a Brita bottle with a built in filter that lasts up to ten gallons.  There are some areas in the middle of the Camino that do not have chlorinated water.)
  • Two changes of hiking clothes (I brought two pairs of nylon running shorts, two tank tops, two pairs of underwear, two bras and two pairs of socks.  I ended up borrowing a pair of leggings in Galicia because I did not account for cold weather in July.  I was hit so hard by an ice storm near O Cebreiro that if I hadn’t had those leggings, I would have frozen.  Thanks Anna!)
  • Lounge clothes (For me, it was nice to have something other than hiking clothes to put on at the end of the day and for sleeping.  I brought a pair of yoga pants, a long-sleeved henley and a pair of cotton shorts.  I bought a sundress along the way because I was totally sick of my limited wardrobe after a week.)
  • Toiletries (small bottles of shampoo and conditioner, contact solution, toothpaste and soap.  There are pharmacies in every medium to large city along the way, so there are plenty of opportunitites to refill or find something that you may have forgotten.  I learned quickly that a bottle of 2 in 1 shampoo/conditioner can also be used to wash clothes.  Three birds, one stone.)

Now, for the things that aren’t completely essential, but are certainly helpful:

  • A solar charger for my cell phone. icharge-eco-iphoneThese little guys clip onto the outside of your backpack and soak up sunshine all day.  Then, if you have an emergency battery charging situation, (“Hey, I listened to my playlists all day while walking and now, this albergue has no electric plug available.”) you can just use your handy solar charger.  Easy Peasy.
  • Ear plugs (these are almost an essential.  I bunked with so many snorers that sounded like they were sawing wood across the room.)
  • Melatonin (Praise the Lord or the Universe or Whoever for this sleep aid.  Especially if you are a light sleeper and/or are suffering jet lag.)
  • A paperback book (Yeah, you should probably be talking to people.  But sometimes, it’s nice to have something to do in the late afternoon or early evening to relax.  After you finish it, leave it at the albergue for someone else to enjoy.)
  • A collapsible hiking stick (Hiking sticks or poles aren’t completely necessary, but they sure make climbing a lot easier.  The collapsible ones fit snugly under the elastic cord of the backpack above.  I love my back pack.)
  • A velcro cell phone holder (This seems completely superficial and was a total last minute splurge, but it actually served a couple of important purposes.  Firstly, it secured my phone to the shoulder strap of my backpack, making it easily accessible for photos and music.  Secondly, the velcro secured nicely to the frame of nearly every bunk bed that I slept in the albergues, so I could set my alarm and it would be within arm’s reach in the early mornings.  Brilliant.)

So, the total weight of my Camino backpack when stuffed to near capacity?  Seven kilos.  A little more than ten percent of my weight, but not too bad.  Please keep in mind, though, that this is definitely a summer list.  Late autumn would certainly require more clothing and therefore more weight.

Did I leave anything out?  Please fell free to leave a comment about what you would add or subtract.  Everyday Camino is also on Facebook if you would like to leave a comment there or just “like” the page.

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