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10 First-Timer’s Tips for the Camino de Santiago

Doing the Camino de Santiago is an epic quest, an adventure and an opportunity to boldly bust outside of your comfort zone. But wandering past those comfortable borders can cause some folks no small amount of trepidation. 

Don’t let those concerns stop you from walking the Camino de Santiago. And while you should listen to your friends and family, don’t let their concerns and trepidation stop you either. 

Santiago de Compostela cathedral hiker arrival
Success…arriving at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

This article addresses common first-timer questions with planning tips for walking the Camino de Santiago. 

These 10 Camino de Santiago tips are culled from my own experience as a three-peat pilgrim, but also crowd-sourced from my Camino friends and the broader community of pilgrims. 

Way marker Camino Primitivo. With forest path
A typical way marker on the Camino.

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1. How to Avoid Getting Lost on the Camino

800 years ago Saint Frances walked a Camino pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. He didn’t get lost, and neither will you. Well, it’s easy to get a tiny bit off course, but it’s very difficult to get profoundly lost on the Camino. On my multiple Caminos, I’ve never gotten off track for more than a few blocks, unless it was to deliberately detour for historic sites or food. 

The way marking is particularly obvious on the oldest and most popular routes, such as the Frances, Portguese, Primitivo and Ingles. 

The Way is well marked with a series of way markers. They vary depending upon region, but will be a mix of: concrete bollards with yellow arrows and shell symbols, spray painted arrows, shell symbols embedded into the sidewalk or pavement, blue and yellow street signs and the occasional bit of street art and sculpture. 

The shell symbol characterizes a miracle performed by St James, but it’s also a metaphor for the many Camino routes that converge in Santiago. So, the point on the apex of the shell symbol also “points” you in the correct direction. 

So, if you stay alert, you’ll find The Way while walking the Camino de Santiago. That said, navigating busy city streets can get tricky, so pay extra attention there. The locals are also very nice about pointing you in the right direction if you have a clueless look on your face.

Camino de Santiago Finesterre trail marker
The guides can help you decide which route to take when given an option. This one is the spilt point between the routes to FInesterre and Muxia.

2. How to use Apps or Guides on the Camino

Guides and apps are helpful for planning your Camino, and continue to be helpful while you’re actually walking it. Per above, it can be useful to have an app or guidebook as a reference for keeping yourself on the right trail. The apps allow you to save maps for offline use. The guides tend to have written instruction. 

Both guides and apps can also point you to suggested lodging and recommend sites of historical and religious significance which are worth checking out. 

Some people prefer apps (better for navigation) and some prefer guides (better for historical context). I actually like having both. We have articles that review the best Camino apps and the most useful Camino guides, look at both and then make your decision about what to take.

Either way, you should plan to bring a data enabled phone. This will not only help with wayfinding, but also booking ahead for accommodation and staying in touch with your new friends.

Camino de Santiago Hospitales route Primitivo. Hiker in mountains

3. Can I Do the Camino Alone?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Sure, the Camino is a physical challenge, but most people do it seeking an answer to something and to give themselves time to ruminate. Perhaps they want to have a conversation with their God. Or they are asking “now what” because they’ve just retired, are between jobs, graduated college, gotten divorced or have emptied the nest. 

If this is you, going solo will give you plenty of me-time for that rumination. We have a whole article on doing the Camino solo. It offers yet more reasons why it’s so great, has some inspirational stories from other pilgrims, and will help you craft gentle pushback if you have friends and family who are discouraging you from doing it (this is especially relevant for women.)

And, even if you go alone, you will seldom be lonely if you engage with other pilgrims along the way. It’s not the least bit weird to simply join a group for coffee or a meal, or to walk a ways with someone and hear their story. 

Spain Camino de Santiago backpacks
My 35 litre pack is the pink one in the middle.

4. Get By With Very Little on the Camino

One of our key Camino de Santiago tips is that you can get by with far less stuff than you think. You do not need to pack your walk-in closet. 2-3 days worth of tragically practical hiking clothes, a very small amount of toiletries, a sleep sack and your phone will just about do it. 

The simple life is quite liberating…even if by the end, you’ll want to burn your socks. 

Use our trail-tested packing list to get your gear together. 

Camino de Santiago albergue in Vilar de Cas with bunkbeds and a backpack
This swank albergue held me a bed via a WhatsApp message.

5. Should I Pre-Book my Camino Lodging?

It’s wise to pre-book the first night at your start point. This will give you piece of mind and smooth out any pre-game jitters and jet lag. Also, since all roads lead to Santiago de Compostela, it gets very busy there. So, it’s wise to pre-book Santiago once you know when you’ll be arriving. 

But beyond that, there are two camps regarding Camino planning and pre-booking. Some people like the assurance of knowing that they have a bed for the night (especially if they don’t want to do the albergue hostels and prefer private lodging). 

Others like the flexibility of being able to play it by ear, using their mind and body as their guide. 

I’m more in the latter camp. I’m very much a planner, but part of the journey for me is to let go of my over-planning nature and take the trail as it comes. 

There is such a thing as doing too much Camino planning. If you find that you do want to pre-book, I very strongly advice against doing it more than a few days in advance. What if you need an unexpected rest day? You don’t want to be un-doing weeks worth of reservations…or feel forced to forge on when you really shouldn’t.

If you are doing the popular Frances or Portguese trails or going in the July/August high season, things do get busy. You can mitigate bed concerns by doing one or more of these three things:

  • Stay in municipal or parish albergues. These simpler, cheaper hostels do not take reservations and they will work to find you a bed. 
  • WhatsApp or call private albergues one day ahead (or even the day of) and ask them to hold you a bed. Most will do so on your word. 
  • Stay off-stage. The apps and guidebooks recommend specific stages for completing the Camino in a certain amount of time. Many pilgrims slavishly follow the stages, which creates choke points. If you stay off-stage by varying your pace, it will not only be more tranquilo, but you’ll discover some cool little towns.

Use our guide for what it’s like to stay in albergues to learn more about lodging on the Camino.

Camino Primitivo Fatima chapel
Impromptu lunch stop at this tiny little chapel on the Primitivo route.

6. Listen to Your Body

Regarding that slavish adherence to the guidebooks, just don’t. This is your Camino. Your pace matters a lot for having a good experience— mentally and physically. 

If you want to take a long lunch, detour to a pretty chapel, do a super-short day or stop and smell the roses, then you must listen to yourself. 

Camino de Santiago Corcubion view. Finesterre route with hiker
The view of Corcubion on the Finestere route.

7. Can I Portage my Bag?

Yes, the most popular Camino routes (and even some of the less popular ones) have systems for bag portage. You can use Correos (the Spanish postal system), Camino Facil, Jacotrans and others.

Some, like Correos, allow you to create an account, which you can simply update with the next day’s destination. And, particularly on the Frances, most albergues will simply have envelopes for the providers, which you can load with that day’s destination and a ~6 euro fee. 

Portaging is not a binary choice. You can do this for your whole Camino, or just for certain days. 

In addition, if you are on part of a longer trip, you can use the post office to ship larger luggage ahead to Santiago. Correos will store it for you or you can use the services of Casa Ivar. Ivar also runs the very useful Camino community forum

Camino Primitivo cows on path
Watch out for wandering cows!

8. Tips for Staying Safe on the Camino

Spain is a safe, friendly country. But like in your own hometown, shit can happen. Every year, there are reports of petty crime, sexual harassment and other more serious crimes. I’ve never experienced those things myself, but it pays to stay alert. 

But crime shouldn’t be your only safety concern. Everyday traffic and tripping hazards are also something to pay attention to. Here are a few tips while walking the Camino:

  1. Wear a whistle. I have a whistle attached to my backpack strap. This helps guard against dogs, creepy dudes, and can be an alert to others if you injure yourself. 
  2. Walk into oncoming traffic. There are sections of the Camino which will force you onto a road, sometimes without much shoulder. When this happens, you should always walk into the oncoming traffic, so that you can see what’s coming at you. 
  3. Do a scan of your environment. Every time you get up to leave a cafe or lodging, do a gear check: phone, wallet, passport, pack and poles. 
  4. After checking into your albergue for the night, keep your wallet, phone and passport on your person if you go out wandering.
Camino Primitivo stream bed with beer. soaking feet in stream
Re-hydrating with some beer and cooling down the feet after a long day.

9. Tips for Staying Healthy on the Camino

Even though the Camino is a slow stroll across Spain, it’s a LONG slow stroll. The day after day pounding can and will take a toll on your body. Here a are few tips for keeping your health in check:

  1. Trail-test your shoes. The feet take a beating on the Camino and you want to make sure that your shoe and sock combo will treat you right. We have an article that has footcare tips and recommends popular Camino shoes. Check it out and then do your own trial runs to find out what works for you. 
  2. Take care of blister hotspots immediately. Carry a small first aid kit with bandages, blister packs (like Compeed) and tape. The instant you feel a hotspot, stop immediately and tape it. 
  3. Develop a stretching routine that will smooth out your tight bits. This can help you keep back pain, shin splints and sore muscles under control. 
  4. Pay very careful attention to your nutrition. Make sure that you are getting the right mix of protein (to build muscle) and carbs (to fuel your hiking). I usually carry at least 1,000 calories of nuts, fruit, cheese and candy to make a meal on the fly. 
  5. Don’t be afraid to visit a medical clinic if you feel that you have more serious injury or medical situation. The clinics are friendly and cheap.
Camino de Santiago Finesterre mile marker 0. with woman hiker
Hey, if I can make it to Finesterre (Lands End), then you can too!

10. What if I’m Too (Fat, Old, Out of Shape)

Welcome to my world. I’m a great walker but am on the older side and am definitely tubby. 19% of pilgrims who register for their Compostela are over 60! If we can do it, you can do it. 

So if you are planning to walk the Camino soon, it’s time to start thinking about a training plan. We’ve got a guide with training tips and a 12-week training plan to help you get started. 

Santiago de Compostela cathedral in the morning light

More Inspiration and Camino tips. 

Have a great pilgrimage…and Buen Camino!

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