By Dani Turner
“Help me name my Camino book!” Marion Doyle posts on twitter next to a link. In 120 characters or less, she uses this website as a tool to reach out to her 300 plus followers. 500 plus people like her Facebook page called “Train for the Camino.” Many others discover her via her blog on trainforthecamino.com, which is Google’s second result when you search “training for the Camino.” While her book has taken the backseat as she studies to become a certified yoga instructor, Doyle is currently working on a practical guide to this specific pilgrimage. She began posting in the summer of 2013 and left for the Camino the next summer. She spent about a year training for this journey and updated her internet followers every step of the way. Minute planning details such as the type of walking sticks she purchased or the snacks she ate while training were explained, sometimes in great detail. It may be surprising but a year is a normal amount of preparation time for a pilgrimage of this scale, and many pilgrims-in-training look to blogs like trainforthecamino.com for advice and pointers.
In his 1973 paper The Center Out There: Pilgrim’s Goal Victor Turner says that “whenever we have satisfactory documents or oral narratives of the personal experiences and observations of pilgrims and detached investigators, we can envisage the social process involving a particular group of pilgrims during their preparations for departure” (Turner, 192). He notices the difference “between social life as it is lived in localized, relatively stable, structured systems of social relation” and the process of pilgrimage (Turner, 192). Before they depart, pilgrims prepare to leave the normalcy and routine of their everyday life and the society in which they live. Turner believes that pilgrimages “remov[e] the participants from their preoccupation with small group[s], convention ridden, routinized daily life and plac[es] them into another context of existence- the activities and feelings of the larger community” (Turner, 193). This is the pilgrim’s goal.
Turner also discusses the Hindu Vakaris pilgrimage- a spontaneous pilgrimage. This concept, a “spontaneous pilgrimage” is a rare concept in our modern world. Twenty-first century pilgrims spend months or even years training and preparing for their journeys. Their progress and planning is shared on blogs, discussed in chatrooms, and posted in the FAQ sections of websites. This training and preparation makes the pilgrimage into a goal in itself. So, while Turner wrote about the ‘Pilgrim’s Goal,’ many modern pilgrims have a pilgrimage goal that they have invested time, effort, energy, and money into in the hopes of achieving. This training and preparation can be so extensive that pilgrimage can become a facet of everyday life.
El Camino de Santiago de Compostela or The Way of St. James is a system of roads across Spain and Europe which all lead to Santiago de Compostela. Ever since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have walked these routes to the tomb of the apostle St. James. The city has been declared a world heritage sites and the journey to Santiago is one of the most famous pilgrimages in Europe. Every year, tens of thousands of pilgrims walk the over five-hundred mile Camino. These are “people from all over the world with all kinds of motivations: sport, culture, religion, nature, adventure etc.” (How to Train for the Camino De Santiago?)
There are many different routes to get to Santiago de Compestela, such as The French Way (in Spanish: Camino de Santiago Frances), The Northern Way (in Spanish: Camino de Santiago del Norte), The Silver Way (Via de la Plata), The Primitive Way or Original Way (Camino de Santiago Primitivo), and The Portuguese Way (Camino de Santiago Portugues). An integral aspect of preparation for the Camino is selecting the path you will take while considering time, money, distance, and transportation. Pilgrims must decide when during the year they want to walk the Camino. According to some bloggers, Spring to Autumn, April through mid-October, is the best time. July and August tend to be very hot and crowded.
Pilgrims also have to consider transportation to their starting point. The earlier one books their plane, bus, or train the less it will cost. Most journeys to the popular starting points involve at least one transfer. There are numerous websites outlining different options to get a person to their pilgrimage. Additionally, pilgrims usually plan their transportation back from Santiago. The Camino takes most people about five weeks to complete, so a plane ticket back to their home ensures that the pilgrim will stay on schedule.
A pilgrim does not need a lot of money to walk the Camino, but funds can make the journey easier. In addition to being able to pay for better goods along the way to Santiago, pilgrims with money can also buy themselves the best supplies. This means that they are less likely to be slowed down by fatigue or injury. The cost of a bed per night in an albergue for pilgrims (camino’s hostels) is between five and ten euros. Some pilgrims save money by camping, although weather does not always permit this choice. The website “How To Train For the Camino De Santiago” says that a daily budget of between twenty-five to forty euros is usually enough.
Many pilgrims plan to save money by ordering food off of special pilgrim menus. However, others use plan to use hostel facilities to prepare their own meals. Online, one can find restaurant recommendations for every step of the Camino journey. Some pilgrims plan where they will eat for every meal months before they depart. Planning your meals is important for health and fitness since the Camino is a physical challenge. It is important for pilgrims to “keep their energy levels up …by keeping healthy snacks around” (Trainforthecamino.com). High protein, high fiber foods are recommended.
Most sources agree that your backpack should be ten percent of your body weight.
Pack a sleeping bag, a good one, some nights may be cold even in summer, especially if you
sleep outside, so have one that keeps you comfortable as low as 5 degrees Celsius – i.e. 1 kilo.
It is also useful to bring a camping mat for the sleeping bag. Then pack two or three cotton
t-shirts, two comfortable light trousers (maybe one shorts), a jumper (for the nights), three pairs
of thick socks, underwear at your discretion, a good pair of boots or trainers (they don’t have to
be boots until the ankles, the important thing is to have a thick sole. Each boot shouldn’t weigh…
more than 500 gr.), a pair of light flip-flops for the evenings, shampoo (not a litre! 100ml is fine,
if you finish it you can buy more.), and other basic toiletries as required, sun protection (the
sun is very strong in summer!), thread and needle for the blisters, maybe some magnesium tablets
for your joints and bones and some basic first aid products.
There is debate online about the necessity of guide books. Many claim that the Camino is extremely well marked and they should not add any more weight to their pack by bringing a book along. Every Camino blog has a recommended packing list with the weight of every item included. For a five week foot pilgrimage, under or over packing can be a serious problem. Some pilgrims send luggage ahead. “The most popular way to do this (in fact many pilgrims overloaded usually have to send things ahead in the middle of el Camino de Santiago) is via the Spanish National Post (CORREOS). You could send your suitcases as a “Paquete Azul” (Blue Packet), it is quite cheap and safe. You can send it to you (To: your name) to a local post office in Santiago de Compostela, they keep it for 2 weeks and during that period of time you can pick it up… Also private companies of packet delivery, i.e. MRW, keep the packet in their office about 15 days” (How to Train for the Camino De Santiago?) ).
The most important items a pilgrim can pack are a pair of the perfect hiking boots and the right walking sticks or poles. The best poles are light weight and have shock absorbers to relieve stress in the wrist and elbows. These sticks are especially helpful when testing out the depth of snow. Camino bloggers sing the praises of these sticks, pointing out that they
“Improve…your balance and provides extra stability on any terrain by increasing to 3-4 points
of contact with the ground. This is especially useful on uneven terrains such as a creek crossing.
Having improved balance and stability also gives you increased confidence on rocky, slippery,
[Poles] reduce stress and load on joints by engaging your muscles (abdominals, pectorals, biceps, etc.) to
preserve the knee and hip joints. This helps reduce fatigue and provide a healthier full-body
[Poles also] redistribute the weight and load of your backpack, head and torso from your knees, hips and back to the poles, abdominals, arms and shoulder muscles. This redistribution of load helps to
reduce fatigue and ensures more equal distribution of the weight and load across the body. This
can reduce the load and weight on key joints by almost 30%”
An important document a pilgrim needs to pack on the Camino is pilgrims’ credential or credencial del peregrine. These can be purchased for one euro at most hostels. “The function of the pilgrims credential or pilgrims passport is to record the places where you have passed and… [so] it [can] be stamped with the albergue’s logo or stamp by the hospitalero in every albergue you sleep in. Besides, nearly every bar, hostel or associations along el Camino will have their own stamp for you to help yourself and stamp it in you credential” (How to Train for the Camino De Santiago?). According to some bloggers, the credential is a means of proving that you really walked the Camino rather than driving it. “The pilgrim’s credential is also necessary to obtain a Compostela in Santiago’s cathedral. La Compostela is a diploma that the Catholic Church issues to honor the pilgrims who have walked the Camino. Your name will be printed in Latin. To get it you must have done at least the last 100km of the Camino on foot or by horse or the last 200km if you are cycling. You will get a different color depending on whether you have done the pilgrimage with a Christian meaning – ‘devotionis affectu, voti vel pietatis causa’ or for other reasons” (How to Train for the Camino De Santiago?).
Many pilgrims plan on stopping and resting in specific villages and hostels. Some of these hostels are small while others are very large; their size varies according to the importance and popularity of the village. “They are usually modest but clean and with hospitaleros (the Spanish word for the hostel staff) sometimes doing voluntary work, always willing to help you or to talk or eat with you. Their price varies between 5 and 10 euros, and some of them don’t have a fixed price but they only ask a donation or contribution” (How to Train for the Camino De Santiago?). It is especially important to plan where you will stay if you are traveling during the winter since many hostels close between December and March.
Some bloggers said that they had been studying Spanish for months in preparation for the Camino. They used apps such as “earworm” daily to feel confident travelling around the country. Some blogs recommend that “if your command of Spanish is still not very good, prepare in advance some phrases that you think you might need, e.g. ‘Will this door be locked in the morning?’, ‘Where do I leave the key to the albergue?’” (The Pilgrimage Routes to Santiago De Compostela in Pictures). On the other hand, another website about the pilgrimage stated that a knowledge of Spanish is not necessary for a pilgrim and one can usually find a local who speaks basic English. The website said that “el Camino is a very international environment (more than 50% of the pilgrims are non-Spanish) and everybody help[s] each other so if at some point you are stuck with the language you won’t have a problem” (How to Train for the Camino De Santiago?).
These blogs and informational websites usually have a forum on which pilgrimage-planners can discuss issues that have come up in their preparations. Popular subjects and questions involve dogs and children. Bringing along a pet or child requires extra planning on the part of the pilgrim. Parents must identify flat routes on which they can roll a stroller or transport a baby-carrier. They must also plan to begin their days early so that they can arrive at their daily destination before the sun is at its hottest. Parents do not want to worry about a child getting heat stroke. Finding hostels with separate rooms for families can also be difficult and therefore requires the pilgrim to do a lot of research before departing. Finally, a pilgrim with a family must account for the slower pace of a child, if the child is walking, or the slower pace of an adult carrying a child. Pet owners must plan ahead and do extra research on hostels as well. Some allow pets indoors, others allow pets in the courtyard, and many do not allow pets at all. Pet owners are advised to travel with a tent and sleeping bag since it is difficult to predict a hostel’s pet policy. On one site, a blogger told a pilgrim that he had “seen pilgrims that had to leave their dogs behind because the trail was too hard for the dogs. This happens when the dogs are small size[d] dogs. A small dog may be able to walk 20-30 km in a day but when they have to keep on walking for 30 days they may be exhausted, so please, evaluate the possibilities of your dog as well as yours” (How to Train for the Camino De Santiago?). The blogger then went on to assure that larger dogs can usually handle the pilgrimage and often walk faster than their human companions.
While preparation was discussed on every Camino website I visited, the blogs tended to focus on training for they physical challenge of the pilgrimage. Many pilgrims train for months, if not years, before leaving for the Camino. A popular way to train is taking practice hikes. A pilgrims-in-training begins by taking multiple hikes a week. After a few months, they add things like a 5-10 kg backpack, walking poles, and hiking boots. They increase the distance they walk daily and hike up hills and mountains in all sorts of weather conditions. The goal is to increase their endurance.
Doyle said she “focused on completing a Yoga Instructor training course to ensure [that she] had enough stretching, toning, and strengthening poses for [her] walking muscles. By deep diving into a yoga education [she] was able to improve [her] understanding of anatomy and yoga technique, and work on the specific muscles [she] need[ed] for walking long distances” (Trainforthecamino.com). Dolye spent time before leaving assessing her fitness and training levels in order to estimate how far she could handle walking every day.
Along with fitness training, no blog neglected to mention foot health. Doyle also wrote
I have been practicing this foot therapy for 3 months and I have experienced noticeable improvement
in my foot health, including flexibility, range of motion of my toes and relief of foot soreness and cramps… I am taking the time to be good to my feet. It has been a long winter in heavy boots and
socks and my feet need dedicated exercise and massage to remove the tension, strain and tenderness
that has accumulated. Yoga is a great way to take care of your feet. Your feet will get a healthy
workout in many yoga postures. Being barefoot and focusing on balancing weight distribution
and body alignment is just the start”
Websites suggested, in addition to finding very good hiking boots and socks, soaking feet in ice water or an herbal bath, getting pedicures and taking special care of toenails, and investing in a moisturizing and healing herbal foot balm. And, if any foot injury occurs, deal with it as soon as possible before it becomes a major problem. “Be good to your feet and they will give the necessary and improved support for being your body’s foundation and prime mobility tool on the Camino de Santiago” (Trainforthecamino.com).
Very few blogs or sites discussed the actual Santiago de Compostela. They all were more focused on preparations for the journey than the journey or site itself. One could claim that a pilgrimage begins when preparations begin, but does that apply when preparations begin fifteen months in advance? Turner believes that “daily, relatively sedentary, life in village, town, city, and fields, is lived at one pole; the rare bout of nomadism that is the pilgrimage journey over many roads and hills constitutes the other pole” (Turner, 195). However, if pilgrimage begins with preparation, a pilgrim exists within both poles at once for an extended period of time. What would Turner think about training that begins so far in advance of a pilgrimage that the training becomes part of “daily, relatively sedentary, life” (Turner, 195)? In his interview with our class, Simon Coleman agreed that pilgrimage is not necessarily separate from everyday life. Many modern pilgrims spend so long preparing that these preparations become part of their daily routine and create significant lifestyle changes.
“How to Train for the Camino De Santiago?” Camino De Santiago. Accessed May 06, 2015. https://www.caminodesantiago.me/how-to-train-for-the-camino-de-santiago/.
“The Pilgrimage Routes to Santiago De Compostela in Pictures.” The Camino to Santiago De Compostela. Accessed May 06, 2015. http://santiago-compostela.net/toptips.html.
“Simon Coleman.” Online interview by author. April 22, 2015.
“Trainforthecamino.com.” Trainforthecaminocom. Accessed May 06, 2015. http://trainforthecamino.com/.
“Training for Pilgrimage.” Training for Pilgrimage. Accessed May 06, 2015. http://trainingforpilgrimage.blogspot.com/.
Turner, Victor. “The Center out There: Pilgrim’s Goal.” History of Religions 12, no. 3 (1973): 191. doi:10.1086/462677.