Pilgrims planning on walking the Camino, the 800-kilometer pilgrimage walk through France and northwestern Spain, have a lot of homework before they begin: travel guides, packing lists, and booking flights, to name some.

Pope Francis declared 2016 a Holy Year of Mercy, meaning even more pilgrims will join the 100,000 expected to flock to Santiago de Compostela this year.

The following tips are based on the author’s experience of the final 100 kilometers from Sarria to Santiago in July 2016. These few details will be important for anyone planning to do the walk this year. With the increased numbers of pilgrims this year, it’s vital to be prepared for the reality of the Camino.

DO book hostels in advance

While many pilgrims enjoy the spontaneity of the walk and want the freedom of stopping off where they like, it’s worth booking hostels early because of the increased crowds, or at least planning on getting an early start in the mornings to beat those crowds. Some pilgrims have to keep walking on to the next town because every hostel is booked up by the time they get there. At 25 kilometers in for the day, that is just about the worst news possible.

There are small cafes along the trail for bathroom and coffee breaks. | Gaby Galvin

There are small cafes along the trail for bathroom and coffee breaks. | Gaby Galvin

DO be realistic about what you can accomplish

Most people can’t just pick up and walk 800 kilometers in five weeks. If you know you want to walk the entire Camino, give yourself a few months to prepare. There are plenty of apps and devices, like a FitBit, that will help track your steps and help you prepare. Walking 25 to 30 kilometers multiple days in a row takes its toll on anyone, so knowing when to take breaks or how much of the Camino you can realistically complete will save you a lot of anguish. 

DON’T keep counting down the kilometers

First off, this defeats the purpose of the walk – although cliche, it’s not about the destination, but the journey. More practically, constantly checking the signs will only make the day go by slower and depress you when you realize you still have another 10 kilometers left between you and a cold shower.

DO pack Vaseline and bandages

Walking stick? Check. Refillable water bottle? Yup. But don’t forget about how serious the blisters would be, even when just walking the last 100 kilometers. Vaseline and bandages will save your feet and keep you from agonizing over each step. You can also prepare for the Camino by hardening your feet in the months leading up to it.

DON’T expect a lot of peace and quiet

Yes, the Camino is a time of reflection for many. But with the sheer magnitude of pilgrims on the trail, you won’t be walking alone for long. People tend to settle into a steady pace, though, so while you may be walking in throngs of people when setting off in the morning, you’ll be able to find some solitude as the day goes on and people spread out more.

Pilgrim passports document your progress. | Maria Alessandri

Pilgrim passports document your progress. | Maria Alessandri

DON’T over pack

This includes water; there are plenty of places to fill up, and lugging around a huge bottle adds unnecessary weight. You really don’t need more than a couple pairs of shorts and t-shirts. The lighter your backpack, the less your shoulders will ache, and the easier it will be to finish those last few kilometers every day.

DO give yourself some time to enjoy Santiago

You did just walk all this way to see it, so there’s no need to rush home when you complete the walk. The last day is pretty short, so it’s best to head out early and make it in time for the pilgrim mass. Then make your way over to the Oficina do Peregrino to receive your Compostela, or certification of completing the Camino. The town itself is beautiful, so spend some time exploring and treat yourself to a glass of sangria.

It’s important to be prepared, but if you go into the walk with an open heart and an open mind, you’ll find it’s one of the best things you can do. As they say on the trail, Buen Camino!