Exactly what clothes and equipment you need to take with you on the Way of Saint James will depend on factors like the weather and your personal needs. Most importantly, whether you will be carrying it around with you all day or opt have your luggage transferred between stages.
I went for the pampered pilgrim option of hotels and luggage transfers and was able to pack for various eventualities but however you’re transporting your gear, there are certain essentials you’ll need.
First and foremost, you need to look after your feet. If they hurt, your experience of the Way will be tainted by pain and potentially miserable. I saw some poor souls hobbling along in agony and thank my lucky stars that I didn’t get a single blister in over 400 kilometres.
Walking shoes for the Way
One thing I learned after experiencing wet feet, sore toes and tingling soles from walking 4 days on the Coastal Way of St. James was the importance of decent walking shoes so I bought new ones as soon as I got home.
I did consider getting walking boots but the terrain on the Portuguese Way isn’t rough enough to require heavy hiking boots and shoes tend to have more flexible soles.
Whether you choose boots or shoes, make sure they’re waterproof and preferably lightweight and breathable with good cushioning and aren’t too tight. If you’re walking in cooler weather, you may be wearing two pairs of socks and in hotter weather your feet are likely to swell.
I’ve got big feet anyway (size 42) and ended up buying a pair of men’s shoes in a 43 as even the men’s 42s were too snug a fit. They may not be pretty but they’ve stood up to the test of 15 days on the Way plus all the preparatory training and I love them for that.
Which walking socks?
Between Dori and I, we probably tried every combination of sock available on our 10-day walk. The days were fairly warm and I found my woollen walking socks made my feet too hot, although you can get ones that are designed for warmer weather.
Dori liked her double-layer walking socks but they take a long time to dry if you wash them on the Way.
Both of us got on well with the trail socks that have cushioning in places where blisters or hard skin usually form and mesh on the top. They dry fairly quickly and kept my feet cool and comfortable so I’ll be sticking to these in future.
I made sure to trim my toenails and give my feet a good scrub before setting off. Despite this, areas of hard skin formed on the side of my big toe and under my little toes after a few days so I needed to keep scrubbing them during the walk. A word of advice – check that your chosen scrubber works well before you set off. The one I took with me was metal and almost useless. Not a patch on a pumice stone or abrasive file.
Striking the right balance between having feet that are too soft or too hard is key so after a few days, when my heels were aching, I plastered them in Sudocreme before going to bed but put nothing on during the day. You can also get special foot cream to avoid or cure cracked heels.
I’ve heard mixed reports about using Vaseline on your feet for walking. I have two toes that tend to squash together and for cases like this, Vaseline or similar gels can help to reduce friction and avoid blisters.
On one of the days, I felt soreness at the base of my little toe and feared I had athlete’s foot. Luckily, I didn’t and a gel blister plaster provided enough relief for it not to become a problem. You may want to take some relevant treatment or preventative measures with you in case you’re prone to developing athlete’s foot.
I took one walking pole with me on the central route, which I found helpful for balance and rhythm. However, the first thing I did when I got home was to buy another one. I used two poles when I went back to do the remaining 5 stages of the Way and the difference is remarkable.
Using a pole with each step, I can really feel the propulsion forward and the work my upper body contributes. It’s easier to stand straight and I’m confident that I’m supporting my body evenly. My hips hardly hurt at all after 115 km and there was far less pressure on my back and knees.
You’ll need some rubber pole tip protectors for walking on tarmac otherwise the tapping sound will drive you crazy. The ones I’ve got have a flared tip, which was actually quite annoying, although they’ve worn into a slight curve now and are already easier to deal with. Next time, I think I’ll try the rounded ones that are designed for Nordic walking.
What to wear on the Way of Saint James
This will obviously depend on the time of year, the predicted weather and whether or not you have luggage transfers.
Your tops should be thin, lightweight, breathable and wick sweat away from the skin so you don’t end up with cold wet T-shirts clinging to your body. Make sure they’re quick-drying if you need to wash them along the Way.
Thin layers will provide insulation and keep you warm. You’ll also need a fleece for evenings and chilly mornings.
Again, your trousers or shorts should be lightweight and quick-drying in case you need to wash them or get caught in the rain. If you are expecting heavy rain, take a pair of waterproof trousers and a waterproof jacket or poncho. Trousers with zip-off legs help solve the shorts or trousers dilemma; I find ones that zip below the knee more comfortable (and flattering).
Unless you’re unlucky enough to be doing the Camino in weeks of solid rain, you’ll need some form of sun protection as there are many unshaded kilometres ahead of you.
Choose a sun hat that won’t get blown off your head in a breeze – the adjustable chin strap and headband on mine came in very handy.
I always carry sunglasses with me in Portugal, even in winter, and I think you should too.
Unless you have very dark skin, I’d use sun screen that offers at least factor 50 protection and don’t forget to reapply if you’re out all day and sweating a lot.
Guide book and information
The central Portuguese Camino de Santiago is well marked and the coastal route is mostly clear (with one or two nasty exceptions!). If you go through a tour operator to arrange luggage transfers and hotels*, you will probably get a ‘roadbook’ with descriptions of the stages, places of interest and clarification of confusing directions. A good roadbook will also suggest rest stops and places where you can get refreshments and supplies.
I also used John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide To The Camino Portugués which is essential if you haven’t got a roadbook or accommodation lined up and nice to have to complement other information. Cafés on and close to the Way are listed, as are accommodation options.
The stage maps are clear and helpful; they show the main route and possible detours if you have time to explore. I particularly like the elevation profile with cafés marked. Can you tell where my priorities lie?
The book covers both the coastal and central Portuguese routes to Santiago de Compostela although there is nothing more than maps and bare bones information about facilities for the coastal routes in the 2016 edition.
Choose one that has cushioning for your back and adjustable straps for your shoulders, waist/hips and chest. Upper and side pockets will help you store things you want easy access to.
I noticed lots of people using camel packs – refillable water bags with a tube that comes over your shoulder, making it much easier to drink on the go and stay hydrated. Although not an essential piece of equipment, I bought one and used it on my most recent excursions. Luckily for me, my daypack has a front section and a hole for headphones that the tube fits through.
Don’t be tempted to overload your pack
If you’re carrying everything with you each day, the total weight of your pack and its contents should not exceed 10% of your body weight, including the water you need for the day.
Practice walking with a loaded pack before you start the Caminho to see how you get on and remove anything that’s not vital.
Packing list for the Way of Saint James
- ID card or passport
- Health card/insurance details
- Transport documents/tickets
- Credit card
- Cash (Euros)
- Walking shoes or boots (waterproof, breathable, lightweight)
- Comfortable sandals/flip-flops (to give your feet a rest)
- 2 pairs of lightweight trousers (zip-off long trousers provide more flexibility)
- 2-3 lightweight, quick-drying tops (ideally ones that wick moisture away from the skin)
- 3 pairs of walking socks
- 3 pairs of underpants (+ 2 bras for women)
- Something to wear in bed (especially if staying in albergues)
- Poncho (+ waterproof jacket and trousers if you know you will be walking in the rain)
- Hat (suitable for the weather)
- Painkillers (ibuprofen/paracetamol) and any other essential medication
- Blister and normal plasters
- Antiseptic wipes/cream
- Toiletries (bring the bare minimum unless you have luggage transfer)
- Needle and thread (helps drain blisters as well as mend clothes)
- Safety pins (you can pin your wet socks to your pack while you walk)
- Tissues (and toilet paper for albergues)
- Mobile phone/camera and charger/batteries
- Pen (and notebook)
- Sleepsheet/sleeping bag if staying in albergues
- Towel if staying in albergues (microfibre ones save space and weight)
Nice to have, especially if you have luggage transfers
- 2 walking poles with detachable rubber tips
- daypack/small bag for essentials when exploring
- knee supports (just in case)
- camel pack/water bottle (you can buy water en route if not)
- foldable foam seat (so you can sit on wet stones/benches)
- guide book
- book or Kindle
- torch (perhaps more useful in albergues – some have curfews and lights out at 10 pm)
- penknife/small scissors (not if flying with hand luggage only!)
- knife, fork, spoon and plate (if planning on preparing your own food)
- clothes pegs/clothes hanger for drying clothes
- alarm clock (if not on your phone)
- extra set of clothes for evenings
- Portuguese and Spanish phrasebooks/apps
- hairdryer if staying in basic accommodation – good for drying damp clothes
BEFORE YOU GO...
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