The Logistics of Hiking the Camino de Santiago
We just finished hiking the Portuguese Coastal route of the Camino de Santiago. Although there are many websites and videos out there to help you prepare, this article has the exact details and steps for how you can figure your logistics for your camino. We’ve got a tried-and-true formula to help you plan your logistics, regardless of which route or multi-day hike you plan.
Why Would You Walk When You Can Drive?
It was 5 years ago when I first heard about the pilgrimage walk to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in the northeast corner of Spain. I wondered why someone would walk for hundreds of kilometers, when they could just as easily take a train, a bus, a car, or whatever would get them there faster than a three mile-per-hour walk across the country.
I’ve always enjoyed hiking and backpacking in the wilderness. I was 16 when I completed my first multi-day backpacking trek through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. I remember the feeling of freedom as I followed the winding trails through the thick forest, listening to the birds, and watching out for wildlife (including an occasional bear!) It’s a right of passage to carry everything you need to survive on your back for a week. No need for hotels, microwave ovens, or any electricity for that matter. For me, it was the feeling of youth, freedom, and limitless possibilities.
Well, fast forward 45 years, and I had no interest in carrying my world on my back. I’ve “been there done that” in many ways, and now the idea of roughing it is waiting until 9:30 AM for a cappuccino. I have fond memories of sleeping in the wilderness, in a tent, or even just a hammock strung between two trees. I really don’t need to relive those experiences to prove I´m adventurous, or to suffer for the sake of proving that I can do it.
When Comfort Becomes a Requirement
I would call my current lifestyle “Comfortable Adventure.” I retired in June 2021 and at the same time, we sold our house and all our possessions (read this post for the whole story.) Chris and I travel full time now, each with a carry-on bag and a small backpack. Since leaving our house in Denver, Colorado, we´ve traveled to 11 countries and experienced an incredible journey of discovery while keeping our impact on the environment low.
Walking the Camino de Santiago was not my idea; that honor goes to Chris. She is the expert in long distance walking, having led thousands of hikers, through every possible weather condition, in the US, Scotland, and Mexico. For years she had been talking about walking the Camino with her girlfriends. Up until recently, I thought it was her adventure, and not really my thing.
But that changed in November, 2021 when Chris and I decided to take a 45-minute train from Vigo, Spain to Santiago de Compostela (see video.) She wanted to see “the finish line,” and learn more about the city and the Cathedral that pilgrims and adventure seekers have been walking to for hundreds of years. I was curious and interested as well, but the experience when I arrived at the Cathedral de Santiago got me hooked!
Hooked on the Camino
I watched first hand as trekkers arrived at the main square in Santiago, in front of a magnificent cathedral. I witnessed the joy of exhausted people celebrating their accomplishments. I immediately felt the challenge; this is something I needed to do myself. It was that day we decided to walk the Camino ourselves, and invite our friends to join us on this adventure.
At that time I had dozens of questions that needed to be answered if I was going to commit to a long-distance hike through unfamiliar countries. During our visit to Santiago, I learned about the Camino, and why pilgrims and adventurers would walk for days to get to Santiago. But walking it myself still seemed impossible. I had questions:
- What route should we walk?
- How many days will it take?
- How many kilometers can I walk each day?
- Where will we stay?
- How can I avoid schlepping my stuff with me on the trail?
- What will I need with me on the trail?
- Where will I get food?
All these questions generated feelings of self-doubt. It seemed all overwhelming. Not only did I not want to do a lot of research, but I wasn’t sure where to get the answers that I needed to plan my Camino experience. Was there any easier way? I figured it out with this tried-and-true, seven-step plan.
Start With How You’re Walking the Camino
Getting our questions answered was actually a lot easier than I expected. Thanks to a great network of friends and fellow trekking nomads, we started to create a solid plan. Chris and I talked about what we really wanted from this experience. We talked about the things that were important to us, and maybe some things that we were willing to compromise on.
Next, Decide on How Many Days You Have
First, decide the total amount of time (days) that you are willing to take from beginning to end. I learned that many people walk hundreds of miles from France, taking over 30 days to walk 500 miles (800 km). I did the math. Walking everyday for 30 days would mean walking about 17 miles (27 km) each day. EVERY DAY, with no breaks! Hello! That wasn’t going to work for me. I didn’t want to commit to 30 days of non-stop walking, but more importantly, I didn’t think my body would handle that many miles.
Third, Determine the Distance You Want to Cover
Next, determine the amount of distance you want to do. There are many reasons to walk the Camino, and one of them is to get the official “Compostela” at the end. The official minimum walking distance to receive the Compostela is 100 kilometers. After talking with some friends, we decided that we would walk 160 kilometers in total (100 miles.) That was a good compromise. More than the minimum, and a distance that seemed reasonable.
Fourth, Consider Your Daily Distance
Third, determine how many miles you’re willing to walk each day. It’s true that your body adapts to the distance, but you’ve got to have an idea of what you want to do. I wanted to challenge myself, but not push too hard. The plan we agreed on was to walk 10 miles per day which was a serious test, but not too much where we risked our health. In addition, Chris suggested that we build in some rest days, so we would have recuperation time, plus an opportunity to explore some of the beautiful small towns that dot the trail in Portugal and Spain. So in total, we decided to hike for 2 days, rest 1, and finish the 100-mile walk in 14 days.
Fifth, Pick Your Route
Finally, you’ll want to decide which route you’ll want to take. There are dozens of trails that all lead to Santiago de Compostela. The most popular is the Camino Frances, or the French way, that starts in France and moves westward across northern Spain. But we weren’t interested in walking the most popular route, so for a number of reasons we decided to walk the Camino Portuguese that starts in Portugal and moves north. There are actually a number of routes from Portugal, so we further decided that the Coastal route was our favorite, combined with the Central Route (they meet in Redondela, Spain) that gave us the best of both routes in one Camino experience. Plus, it’s one of the prettiest routes with miles and miles of ocean views.
Sixth, Where Will You Stay?
We had to decide what type of accommodations we wanted to stay in along the way. Many people stay in Albergues. These are usually inexpensive dormitory or hostel-type accommodations, where you share rooms with strangers, and you don’t have a private bathroom. One of the reasons that albergues are popular is because you don’t necessarily have to reserve a spot in advance. So walkers can walk all day, and when they decide to stop, an albergue is usually within a couple of kilometers. It makes the logistics easier, but requires that hikers carry all they need with them in their backpacks. Not only did we not want to sleep in dorms, we didn’t want to carry our stuff on our backs. See my comfort needs above!
What we really wanted was small comfortable hotels where we could relax and rest our feet. We had some criteria for choosing our accommodations:
- Queen bed – A queen bed is often called a double bed in Europe, so at minimum we wanted a double room, which meant a room for 2 people. In some cases they specified a queen bed. On a couple of nights we got two twin beds that we pushed together.
- Private bathroom. Non-negotiable. We did not want to share a bathroom or a shower with anyone else and the room had to have a private bathroom
- Close to the center of town and close to the trail. This is just common sense. If we’ve already walked 12 miles, we didn’t want to add an extra mile out of our way to get to the hotel. In only one instance was I not able to find a hotel that was close to the trail. In this case we wound up having to walk straight up a hill for over a mile to get to our hotel. But in my opinion the place turned out to be worth the extra hike.
- Also close to a grocery store and restaurants. Most days we needed to stock up on snacks (including fresh fruit) for the next day. We also needed to eat dinner and get something for the next day’s breakfast (see below).
- Affordable. We didn’t have a specific budget, however I looked for hotels that were under $75 per night. Based on US prices, you wouldn’t think that hotels could be that cheap, but in Europe, and especially in the small towns along the Camino, I didn’t have a problem finding accommodations that fit our needs.
- Breakfast at the hotel. In most cases, breakfast was included in our room rate but there were a couple of problems. First, breakfast was usually served after 7:30 AM, and we wanted to be well along on the trail by then, and secondly, since Chris and I ate vegan (or vegetarian), a ham sandwich (typical breakfast of Spain) wasn’t going to work. If I had to plan all over again, I would not have made hotel-breakfast one of our criteria.
Seventh, How Will You Carry Your Stuff?
We never once thought about carrying 40 pound backpacks like many other pilgrims. We always knew that we wanted to pay for a portage service that would move our worldly possessions between hotels. These logistics were some of the hardest things to determine. We needed to figure out our starting point, where we were going to stay every night for 10 nights, and how we were going to get our luggage moved from one town to the next. At first it seemed like an unsolvable puzzle, or maybe like a Rubik’s cube, because one decision affected every other decision.
Getting the Portage Logistics Done
The tools I used to solve this puzzle were Google Maps, Booking.com, and various Camino Maps that showed the trail routes. I also should have used Alltrails.com for planning, but I didn’t use their maps until we were on the trail.
But my favorite tool was a website from a portage company that Chris found called Camino-Facil. This is a luggage transport service with a wonderful tool on their site that helped me build my route and choose my hotel. The interface looked like this.
First I used Google Maps to determine our starting point; Viana do Castelo, Portugal. According to Google Maps, from Viana do Castelo we were 105 miles walking distance to Santiago de Compostela. It wasn’t until we were on the trail that we realized the Google Maps route had us walking the shortest possible distance along the road, but in reality the Camino is mostly on trails and does not follow the shortest route. So what we thought was 105 miles, actually turned into 125 miles by my estimation (Chris said we walked 150 miles according to her Garmin.)
From our starting point, I used various trail maps to get an idea of hotel stopping points that were 10 miles apart, then I used the Camino-facil website to enter the next leg of the walk. It gave me a list of the hotels they porter to/from in each location. Booking.com helped me search for hotels that matched the porter’s list, and then I narrowed my choices based on our criteria above. Once I decided on the hotel, I used Booking.com to make the reservation.
One day at a time, I repeated the process until I had all ten days of walking (plus 4 rest days) figured out. I used a spreadsheet to organize my results. It showed the date, where we stayed, how many miles we walked that day, and other notes to help me track our accommodations. I also plugged the addresses of each hotel into my Google Calendar, so when we got close, I could navigate directly to the hotel from the Camino trail.
I actually used a different porter service than Camino-Facil for the portage. I didn’t get a good feeling about the way they calculated the fees. Therefore, I actually used a company called Pilbeo, who I highly recommend. They were flawless in their pickup and drop off of all our worldly possessions for about $6 per bag each move. I was worried at first, walking out of the hotel the first day, leaving my luggage and computers in the lobby. But I had nothing to worry about. The service was wonderful and after the first day I was at peace knowing my luggage and its contents would be at the next hotel when we arrived.
Book It Today
I hope this guide gave you some ideas for your Camino planning. What started out as a Rubik’s Cube of decisions, turned into a well planned and very organized Camino experience. Before Chris and I finished our first Camino de Santiago, we started talking about our next one. Now that I know how to plan one long-distance walk, I look forward to planning the next one.
P.S. If you need more information about hiking the Camino, we’ve got several things to offer you.
If you want more Camino content,
Click here for Gear for the Camino.
Click here for our video about Hiking the Camino, Nomad Style video.
Click here for logistics about the Camino.