A question I always get about our walks is about what preparation we do before we go. The answer has varied greatly over the years. One year, we just decided to walk only about a month before departing. Getting flights was the only real “preparation” that year. Preperation for the rest of the walks varied but the following things are what we usually spend at least some time on, after we have decided in general where we want to walk:
Scheduling – Being retired helps out a lot here. We like walking in the Spring or Fall when the weather is cooler and the crowds smaller so we usually plan to walk just after the ADEX dive show in Singapore (early April) because we help White Manta Diving at the show. To estimate the days we need for the walk, I usually use the Gronze Camino website or some guidebook to look at suggested and possible stages. We aim to walk about 25km per day, every day. We will then add time for traveling to the start, another day to begin getting over jet lag, add about three days, more or less for resting, sightseeing and buffer at the end, then time to get to our flights.
Flights & transport – Most Caminos do not start in a major city. Flying from Singapore, we usually choose the cheapest way to get to the biggest city near the start or end that we can easily fly to and return from. Also included in the cost comparison is the costs getting to and from the gateway city at the beginning and end of the walk. This year, we will fly in and out of Paris, similar to our first Camino. Last year for the Norte / Primitivo, we found good flights through Frankfurt to Bilbao. For the Via Francigena, we flew to and from Milan. For the Camino Portugues, we used Lisbon as our arrival and departure point. The next step is to arrange train or bus tickets to the starting point, if needed, and back from the end point of our walk, if needed. We can deal with the local busses, metros, taxis etc. between airport, stations and town centers after we arrive. A fantastic website that helps me start the travel planning process is Rome2Rio.
Exercise – This aspect has varied the most. For our first Camino, we walked every day for several months, increasing distances from 5 to 22km to build up muscles. By our fourth Camino, we walked about 5km and climbed ten flights of stairs for three days. The Caminos are just walking. We don’t need much preparation but we do what we can because the more we do, the better we feel those first two weeks.
Gear – Most importantly, we make sure that we have broken in our boots. I have done more walking in preparation for a Camino to break in boots than I have to get muscles ready. Boots need about 100km on them before they are comfortable and your feet are ready for long walks. I also check the projected and historical weather at the Weather Channel and make sure we have appropriate gear. At least a month before our trip, I will re-waterproof our rain gear and make sure everything else is in good working order.
Research – I will do some research on-line to learn a bit about the trail and the towns we will go through but I don’t want to go overboard. I like to know where the highlights and interesting places are but if I do too much research, I won’t be surprised by anything on the walk and that would ruin some of the fun. For our first Camino, we were given two pieces of paper that included a list of albergues, distances from town to town and altitudes maps of the path. That was the preparation. Since then, I usually carry a guidebook from Brierley, Cicerone, or Lightfoot. The Confraternity of Saint James and The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome are also good sources of guides and information. There are also several forums and Facebook pages that can provide information although you have to take the good and the bad of social media at these sites which may not always be worth the hassle. These sites include: American Pilgrims on the Camino, Leslie’s Camino forum, Ivar’s Camino forum and Ivar’s Francigena forum.
Language – Do I have to speak the local language where we are walking? No, but at least some basics help a bit. Also, the more you can speak or understand the local language, the more enjoyable your experience will be. On the Camino Frances, Spanish is not needed at all. On some of the other routes we have walked, some levels of Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian have certainly helped. As a rule of thumb, the less populated the route is, the more I need to speak the language. On the quite routes, be prepared to be able to make a reservation for a bed over the phone. Whatever you do, learn at least how to say “please”, “thank you”, “good morning”, “good night”, “hello”, “goodbye”, etc. and use those words liberally. An excellent free source for learning any language is Duolingo.
Route – One important thing I have done before each of my last several walks is put the GPS tracks onto my phone. No matter how easy or hard the trail markers are to follow, I have found this step extremely helpful. I use a free app called “maps.me” along with the downloaded tracks from Wikilocs or a more official source. With the downloaded app, maps and trail, I can work in airplane mode and always know where I am in comparison to the trail. It helps when we accidentally or purposely wander off the trail. It also helps us find restaurants, bars, hotels, points of interest, etc. It can give turn by turn walking directions, if needed, to where we want to go, and includes all small walking trails as well as roads. Finally, it helps me figure out distances when we are deciding how much more to walk in the day.
Mental Preparation – This is a key step. We love walking Caminos but we do tend to look back at the ones we have done and remember only the good bits. In the month or so before a new one, I have to constantly remind Melanie and myself that the walks do have downsides as well. The jetlag, the sore legs, the sore shoulders, the blisters and chaffing, the heat, the cold, the burning sun, the soaking rain, the loneliness, the crowds, the few irritating pilgrims, the snoring, the mid-night farting, the hills, my knees, getting lost, getting misunderstood… and then there are bad things too. Ha! I never really worry about the bad stuff that could happen but if I don’t remind myself what could go wrong, I would be in for a rude awakening if and when something does go wrong. Every Camino is very different from each other so I remind myself of that too. We don’t try to re-live the first or the best one.