anticipation & preparation: the camino de santiago

Don’t overthink. Remember, it’s YOUR Camino. The Camino will provide. You will be fine! Buen Camino! This is some of the advice and encouragement I hear repeatedly from pilgrims who have completed the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain.  On the various Facebook pages, books, and online Camino websites and forums, there seems a limitless amount of advice, often contradictory.  So, if it’s to be MY Camino, I am picking and choosing which advice I will heed, and which I will toss out.  What else is there to do?  🙂

I’m not good at following advice telling me not to overthink. My husband says if there is a bell curve of people planning to walk the Camino, I would be on the far extreme of over-preparation.  Though he might be right in some regards, I don’t agree with him totally. Physically, I’m afraid I’m under-prepared.

The Camino hasn’t been far from my mind over this entire year. In mid-July, I dreamed I was in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and everywhere I looked were impossibly tall mountains, bursting with flowers and tropical trees.  Paths wound their way up all of them.  I was quite overwhelmed and wondered which of the paths I should follow.  My first impulse was to pull out my camera to photograph the stunning scene. Suddenly I realized I had forgotten my camera, so I called my husband in a panic, asking him to mail it to me. Of course, it would take days to get to me.  I was devastated to have forgotten my camera and berated myself mercilessly for my forgetfulness!


There are multitudes of books you can read about the Camino, either personal accounts, advice on packing, guidebooks, or history books.  These are some that I have read or am in the process of reading.  The Brierley guidebook I will take along with me, tearing out the pages for that day’s walk and disposing of them after walking, lightening my load each day. 🙂

There are numerous online resources as well.

American Pilgrims on the Camino & Training:

Let the Camino train you. It’s just walking. Just put one foot in front of the other. Walk into your pack weight. Walk two days straight for 10-12 miles carrying your full pack. I’ve encountered this advice while preparing for the Camino.

In early December of 2017, on a 7.7 mile hike around Burke Lake, I met a great lady named Susan who walked the Camino. She introduced me to a group called the American Pilgrims on the Camino – Mid-Atlantic Chapter. The group is for anyone who has ever done the Camino or who wants to do the Camino.  After I met her, I signed up immediately for newsletters from this group.  Outside of the group, Susan and I have been in touch regularly and have walked together numerous times. She’s been one of my most valuable sources of information and encouragement.

To immerse myself in the Camino experience, I shared Spanish tapas with pilgrims and wanna-be pilgrims at a potluck for American Pilgrims on the Camino in early February.  I chatted with a lot of folks who were full of good advice.

I accompanied the Mid-Atlantic Pilgrims for a 10-mile walk in March starting from Arlington National Cemetery, past the Martin Luther King Memorial, up the National Mall and around the back of the U.S. Capitol, and then back down the Mall again to the Lincoln Memorial. I got a taste of what it’s like walking a long distance with other pilgrims walking at different paces. One man was especially helpful in telling me what a typical day on the Camino was like.  Another lady told me, as I carried a 5-lb backpack, that I should be walking into my pack weight.  In other words, I should carry the entire 15-lb from the beginning and then slowly increase my distance.  I didn’t follow this advice, although it might have been a good thing to do.


Martin Luther King Memorial on our 10-mile walk in D.C.

On June 9, I attended a shell ceremony with the group, where the leader read aloud an inspirational piece about the Camino and then bestowed blessings on us pilgrims, placing shells around our necks to accompany us on our journey.

Training: I was gung-ho in the early months.  I wonder if I should have just decided to do the Camino two months before doing it, instead of spending so many months training. Below are some photos of walks I did in June and July.

Below I’ve outlined my progress: “dedicated walking” means I went out for a purposeful walk aiming to cover a certain distance. Sometimes I carried an 11-lb pack; more often I didn’t.  The FitBit simply measured distance by how many steps I took over the course of each day. At least once a week, sometimes twice, I went to the gym to do upper body and lower body weights, from February to April. You can see how my training has slacked off, mainly due to right knee pain, caused by bursitis and osteoarthritis, that curtailed my training:

Month                                          “Dedicated” miles                        Fitbit miles

  • February:                                             68                                                 100
  • March:                                                103                                                 139
  • April:                                                     73                                                 114
  • May:                                                       71                                                157*
  • June:                                                      67                                                123**
  • July:                                                       62                                                 103
  • August:                                                 27                                                   58

*In May, I was in the Four Corners where the GPS on MapMyWalk didn’t always work.

** In June, I often carried an 11 lb. backpack and my right knee started causing me pain.

Overall, I’ve walked 471 miles in “dedicated” walking since February.  That’s less than the distance of the entire Camino’s 490 miles.  My Fitbit miles are higher, at 793 miles.  However, this walking is spread out over 7 months!  That’s quite different than compacting that same distance into 52 days.  As it turns out, I never did two days in a row of 10-12 miles carrying my full pack.

After I started having knee pain in June, I finally found a good orthopedic doctor in early August who administered a cortisone injection in my right knee, prescribed biweekly physical therapy sessions, and gave me the NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) Diclofenac, which is just a heavy dose of time-released ibuprofen.  Between all of this, my knee has been getting stronger, but I haven’t wanted to push it by training too much.  I’d rather be pain-free to start out, and simply Let the Camino train me!

So, now I either walk 3-5 miles OR ride the indoor bike for 30 minutes OR go to physical therapy.  I have to do sets of PT exercises 2x/day and ice 2x/day for 10 minutes. While I’m icing my knees for 10 minutes, I study a bit of Spanish using Spanish in 10 minutes a day by Kristine K. Kershul.  Yo quiero un vaso de vino!


Butterfly at Manasssas National Battlefield – First Manassas Trail

Packing and gear

Packing and gear – my packing list is too long and complicated to list here, so I created a separate page: packing list for el camino 2018.  I will revise it over the next week as I try to reduce my pack weight from 16 lb to 14 lb.  The general rule of thumb is that pilgrims should carry no more than 10% of their body weight. When I return, I’ll update it, after I know what I didn’t use and what I wished I’d had.


As my hair is so often the bane of my existence, and since I’ve heard there are no hair dryers provided in albergues, or pilgrim hostels, I got my hair cut shorter and will have it straightened before I leave.  It will still look like hell without a hair dryer, but I’m carrying a hat to mitigate the horrid mess it will be.

Travel Insurance

I don’t always buy trip insurance when I travel, but in this case, I figured it might be wise because of my knee and because of the daily physical exertion and strain.  However, I hemmed and hawed and took my sweet time about it.  When I finally decided to go for it, it was more than two weeks after I bought my plane ticket, and I had seen a doctor about my knee in the interim.  I was told my knee is now considered a pre-existing condition and thus any knee-related problem would not be covered.  It would have been okay if I’d bought it less than two weeks after my ticket.  So after hemming and hawing some more, I went ahead, because it covers any medical emergency that isn’t related to my right knee – sickness, a broken bone, a death in the family, etc.  Because of the duration of my trip, it was quite expensive: $289!  This seemed like highway robbery, but the dirty deed is done now.

Getting to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port – It’s part of the journey…

Since Mike will meet me in Portugal on October 26 and we’ll fly back home together from Lisbon on November 6, it made sense for me to get a round trip ticket to Lisbon.  This is not the usual starting point for most people doing the Camino Frances.  I wasn’t sure how I would get from Lisbon to St. Jean Pied-de-Port (SJPP) in France, so I posted the question on the Facebook Camino page, an invaluable resource.  A Portuguese man suggested I take the overnight train (with sleeping compartments) from Lisbon to Hendaye on the French border.  Then, I’m to take another train to Bayonne, and then another to St. Jean.  I’ve booked the TrenHotel from Lisbon, leaving at 9:30 pm on September 1; the man assured me I’d be able to get the next stage tickets at the Hendaye station.  I hope he’s right.  I have to trust that the Camino will provide!  It will be a very long day for me in Lisbon, because I arrive at 10:30 a.m. and the train doesn’t leave until 9:30 p.m.  I guess I won’t be able to sleep until I get on that train!

I’m booked to stay in Beilari when I finally reach SJPP on September 2.  I’ll stay two nights and embark on my walk on September 4.  I have reserved a bed at Refuge Orisson about 1/3 of the way over the Pyrenees for that night, so I have to wait that extra day in SJPP.

After that, until I meet Mike in Braga on October 26, nothing else is planned except walking, washing my clothes, eating, sleeping.  Repeat, repeatedly.  One step, one day at a time.

You carry your fears. It is said that the bigger your backpack, the more fears you are carrying.  I admit I do have some fears.  Since I’ve been reading so much, I’ve heard of so many things that can go wrong.  Here are my biggest fears and how I hope to deal with them:

  • Dogs.  I’m carrying a whistle and my hiking poles, and will try my best to remain calm if I encounter any vicious dogs.
  • Being a woman alone. Being harassed by anyone or being the victim of a crime.  I’ve heard any problems are rare. I just need to be vigilant and pay attention.  And I have my whistle.
  • Bed bugs. Spray my sleeping bag and backpack with Permethrin.  Deal with them if I encounter them.
  • Thunderstorms with laser-sharp lightning strikes.  Get down low and hope it passes quickly.
  • Not finding a bed at the end of the day.  Hire a taxi and go to the next town.
  • Having an accident on the trail and being unable to get help. Be careful, slow and steady and pay attention.
  • Getting lost. Again, go slow and pay attention.

Flexibility & Faith

Overall, I must have faith that all will be okay.  Flexibility is key. If I’m in pain or feel I need a rest day, I’ll take one. If I can’t complete the whole thing, I’ll complete what I can.  If I’m close, but not quite able to complete it, I can always take a bus to Sarria and complete the last 100km to get the Compostela, or the certificate of completion.

Journal and intentions

I have no intention of writing any kind of memoir on my pilgrimage for two reasons:

  1. There are already multitudes of personal pilgrimage accounts out there, so unless I have something truly inspirational or earth-shattering to share, I don’t plan to add my story.
  2. I have too many other unfinished projects.

However, I have set some intentions for myself.


my creative intentions



I won’t be blogging during my pilgrimage, but I aim to post photos and tidbits along the way on Instagram: cathybirdsong


“ANTICIPATION & PREPARATION” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about anticipation & preparation for a particular destination (not journeys in general). If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.

Include the link in the comments below by Thursday, August 30 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  If you link after August 30, I will not be able to include your link in my next post, so please feel free to add your link to that post as soon as it publishes (since I’m leaving for the Camino on August 31).

My next anticipation & preparation post is scheduled to post on Friday, September 28.  If you’d like, you can use the hashtag #wanderessence.

This will be an ongoing invitation, on the 4th Friday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂  If you’d like to read more about the topic, see: journeys: anticipation & preparation.

I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!