Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Packing for the Camino

Before embarking on my big walk in Spain I researched just about every possible aspect of the journey. Equipment, accommodation, food, first aid requirements, simcards, essential Spanish words and phrases - you name it, I read up about it. Now, almost five months after my arrival in Santiago, I can tell you that even though the basic requirements are the same for everyone, you will have to tailormake your packing list to your very own needs!
Let's face it - this guy and his owner obviously had very different packing requirements than I did!
I encountered this lucky pooch on the square in front of the cathedral in Santiago. I'll admit that I stopped for a rest  in a wheelbarrow en route as well but I wasn't lucky enough to have someone offer to push it for me!
So, back to the packing. My 35l backpack was definitely big enough. My problem was that I stuffed too many things in there! All the sites I visited suggested that one's pack should weigh about 10% of your body weight. For me that amounted to about 6kg. In reality, I arrived in Spain with a bag that weighed about 12kg.
What can I say? I'm a woman. I don't know how to pack. I'll admit it. If there's a twelve step plan for recovering over-packers, I probably need to sign up! The turning point for me came when my blistered feet simply could not deal with all that weight on my back anymore.
At some point I had to take stock. I packed everything out on my bed one evening and decided to take out what I really could live without. That's how it came about that I had a little green parcel waiting for me in my hotel room in Santiago when I arrived there on the 11th of July. A gift weighing almost 3kg, sent by myself, with love, to myself. And if I have to be really honest, I probably could have added more to the little box that I sealed with such a heavy heart in the tiny post office in Navarette!
I didn't need a second pair of sandals, nor did I need extra cream, suntan lotion or a make-up bag filled with little bits and pieces that I never touched at all! I certainly could do without extra notebooks, pens and my beloved little travel pillow! And even though the heart shaped stone that I picked up along the way was very dear to me, I had to take the chance that it would arrive safely in Santiago, as that extra weight was wearing me down!
So this is what my bag eventually looked like - weighing 9kg. Less than what I started with but I have vowed that the most my bag will ever weigh again is 7kg. If I can manage with less than that - even better!
It can't be stressed enough that your backpack should weigh as little as possible. You have to keep in mind that you are literally carrying it for 800km. You will be walking in a country that has pharmacies and grocery stores. Trust me  - any items that you might have forgotten at home WILL be available in one of the shops! And even if you can't find it, the general sense of caring that prevails on the Camino that you hear people talking about, really exists. I had people hand me creams, plasters, books, telephones (when mine wouldn't connect), food, water - you name it! Nothing ever had price tags on and these things were always offered with kindness and with no expectations of receiving anything in return.
The picture above illustrates how you can use any available space to store things in - an upside down croc makes a good spot to put something in that you would like to reach easily - no need to open zippers and spend valuable time searching for it in the backpack!
One of the best packing tips I can share with you if you are planning to walk for the first time is to pack everything in seperate sealable plastic bags. This way everything stays organised and dry, should your pack get wet. I was caught in unexpected downpours many a time and had to scramble to cover the backpack. The last thing you want to deal with is wet clothing.  In Galicia it was wet for days on end and getting just the normal washing to dry was a challenge. Remember that you won't have much of a relief backup wardrobe in that precious bag!
What you see above is the contents of my backpack spread out on my bed during one of my repacking sessions! Luckily these become less frequent as the days go by as you soon get to learn where everything is. Develop a system very quickly and STICK to it! That way you don't have to unpack the entire bag everytime you are looking for something.
I have to confess that in the beginning I suspected someone of helping himself to the contents of my pack. I was really angry and could not believe that someone walking the Camino could take something from a fellow pilgrim. I still hang my head in shame when I think of the day - probably about two weeks after the item went missing - when I discovered it again. Packed safely, by myself, in the little side pocket on the inside of my pack.
As these things happened to me I took time to digest and soon realised that I was being taught valuable lessons! Lessons about life, about trusting people, about not always casting first impressions in stone, about honesty, about humility - this list is probably longer than any packing list could be!
The little pack above was an example of a gift given to me on the Camino. By the time I got to Granon my feet were really hurting and carrying my heavy pack was definitely not helping. This lightweight daypack was inexpensive but folded up in a little square and the pilgrim who so generously gave it to me had two other packs. Having this light bag meant that I
could send my heavier pack to the next destination with a courier company and for at least one day I could walk with what I needed for that day only. This basically meant lunch, water, first aid goodies and a lightweight rain jacket. It made life on the road so much easier when my feet were really blistered - I made use of this company for four of the 35 days that I walked.
There are many courier companies en route and the one that I used, Jacotrans, did a great job. The cost was either 6 or 7euros per time, depending on the route.
As you will know by now from my previous posts, I did not do much cooking for myself. Those who preferred preparing their own meals however, often complained that they battled to find all the utensils that they needed in the albergues. My friend Eddie insists that these two pieces of gold that he is holding up in the picture below were essential and as he is one of the best cooks I know, I'll put that on my list if I ever choose to cook for myself in future whilst on the Camino.
As for the basic packing list for the camino - if you google those key words you will find pages full of suggestions on as many sites, so I won't list every single item here.
The following are things that I will never travel without again and they will be packed before anything else when I set of on my next Camino adventure in 2013.
- A s-shaped iron hook. This can be bought at one of the many stores stocking Camino goodies in St Jean or you'd probably find it at most hardware stores. This works great in the showers where there are no hooks - I used mine all the time. I always had a little (sealable) bag with my valuables, a toiletry bag and my towel with me when I went to shower so the s-hook came in handy, even if there was a hook, I could always use another!
- A pair of crocs. If you are unfortunate enough to get blisters, these are invaluable. I walked more than 30km in them one day, they were real lifesavers when I could not get my feet in my
walking shoes.
- Friars Balsem. Inexpensive and available at pharmacies - the BEST medicine for treating blisters. It stings like anything when you apply it but it dries up the blisters quicker than anything I know.
- A pen with ink that won't run if your notebook gets wet. This happened to me and some of my notes are somewhat smudged now.
- A lightweight headlamp with good quality, long lasting batteries. Essential for going to the bathroom in the dark and reading at night.
- Safety pins. Take a few different sizes, I found a whole host of uses for them and was able to hand them out as people needed it to repair things, secure bandages etc. 
- A needle and thread. To repair things but also to thread through blisters. ESSENTIAL!
- A lighter. To burn the needle in case you have to use it on blisters.
- A watch. It helps to have something to tell the time by, especially if you're walking long stretches in the countryside.
- A good water bottle - look for something that can keep fluids cold for as long as possible - when walking on the meseta where distances are long and shade scarce, such a bottle is worth gold.
- At least 6 pairs of socks. 3 Thinner inners and three outers. As wonderful as 1000 mile socks are, they take long to dry, so I won't take them again.
- A Spanish simcard. Try and get this before you start walking as it took me about a week before I actually found an open Vodafone shop. Shops open late and often close for lunch, so I had to wait until my walking schedule coincided with that of an open shop! Not all villages have Vodafone shops, so that made it a challenge. I had a Samsung Galaxy and as it was still under guarantee, I was told by the supplier that in order for the guarantee to remain valid, I was not allowed to put a simcard of any company other than Vodafone in the device. Also, make sure that your phone is able to connect to wifi as there are many cafes and bars offering free 'wee-fee' along the route - even in the smallest villages! I really appreciated that as it meant that I could connect with my family - for free! I highly suggest that you load Skype on your phone and link up with your friends or family who are following your journey at home. When I was finally able to get that sorted on my phone it was one of the highlights of my trip - not only speaking to them, but actually being able to see them as well was such a treat! A site such as www.voibuster.com allows you to make free calls from a pc - I spoke to my family in South Africa for ages at a little cafe one day - the owner very kindly made the offer and I gladly accepted!
- Small locks. I just always felt it was a safe and sensible option to lock my backpack when I had to leave it in an albergue, guest house or hotel.
- A lightweight sleeping bag is essential as far as I'm concerned. I loved being able to sleep in my own bag, whether they had blankets or not. In hotels or guest houses I would use the sheets etc. provided, but in albergues I preferred my own sleeping bag by far!
- A good quality, lightweight rain jacket with hood is a must have! I loved the one I bought at home and I know it will travel with me for many years. Make sure that it is windproof - that really helped me in a storm that we were caught in whilst crossing the Pyrenees. There is a difference between 'wind resistant' and 'windproof'!
These are some of the main things that come to mind right now, as I think of more items I will certainly mention them in future posts. 
In summary, looking at this next photograph, I have to wonder if I'm not meant to walk my next Camino with a donkey as companion. Not only will I be able to hitch a ride if my feet play up, I will be able to pack for all occassions...