What to pack in your rucksack

What to take with you (and more helpful info) for beginners.

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My trusty rucksack

Context

I walked the Camino Francés (Spain) in October/November 2016, two thirds of the camino Via de la Plata / Sanabrés (Spain) in December 2016 and May 2017, and some of the Grande Randonnée (GR223) in Normandy, France, also in May 2017, so you will deduce that I have walked in temperatures ranging from 20 to 41 degrees, in a relatively small area of Europe.  I am under 5 foot tall (1.524 metres) and 7-and-a-half to 8-and-a-half stone (50-55 kilos). Take into account that I am female, just over 56 years old, and pretty fit with no injuries.

The basic recommendation is 10 percent of your weight, but given that many women’s weight varies according to time of month / day etc, and that you will undoubtedly lose weight as you walk, this is just a general guideline. It does not include water (1 to 2 litres depending on the weather and the route), nor food (only snacks are really necessary for a basic 6 hour walking day, except on a Sunday).

Let’s start with the rucksack itself

I took a 44 kilo one which is easily big enough.  Buy the strongest and lightest one you can afford, and you will need a cover for it. (Some people travel with nothing, or a laptop case with a toothbrush, but that’s extremely unusual.)

‘Each object a person carries represents a particular fear: of injury, of discomfort, of boredom, of attack. The “last vestige” of fear that even the most minimalist hikers have trouble shedding, he said, was starvation. As a result, most people ended up carrying “way the hell too much food”. He did not even carry so much as an emergency candy bar.’

M.J.Eberhardt, see below for link to Nimblewill Nomad.
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The iconic sculpture of a walking boot at Finnisterre, the ‘end of the world’, the end of the Camino Francés where many walkers ceremoniously burn their boots after the long trek as a symbol of what they have let go of and will not take home with them

The items you cannot do without

  1. Boots or shoes

The first time I walked long distance, I wore second hand boy’s boots which a kind friend gave to me because her son had grown out of them. I did have blisters for a week or so, but after that my feet got used to the walking and I was mostly fine. They got very wet very soon after it began to rain, and took a long time to dry.

For my second trip I bought light-weight, waterproof, Columbia shoes, and they were wonderful except that they went into holes after 3 months. Not a blister in sight.

When I went to colder climes, I wore heavy-duty Vibram (with gortex) boots, suitable for snow and big stones. One of the little metal bits on one side, which the lace goes around, broke off on the first day, but I was already many kilometres from the shop and when I phoned they said I had to bring it or send it in, even though I sent a copy of the receipt and a photo. The boots have been supportive and comfortable pretty much from the start, with the right socks (see below).

Foot cream: maybe antiseptic or anti-fungal, but definitely creamy cream is an absolute must. I was taught by my guardian angel of a companion on the Camino Francés to massage my feet every day before putting on my socks and shoes, and to do it again and air them well at night or when I stopped along the way. Vital!

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There are water fountains in some villages (not wells as above!) and a good guide book will tell you where. Make sure it was published recently

Plasters (for blisters): preferably the special ones for all parts of your feet (heel, toes, balls), and I recommend the brand ones as the others come off after one day. A needle and thread – yes you heard right. Here’s why: thread the cotton through the needle and pierce the blister carefully with the needle. Draw the thread through the blister releasing the fluid (sorry!) and leave it there, removing the needle. Then tie a small knot and it should remain for a few days. The build-up of the fluid is the painful part, and this way that drains away whilst the skin remains almost in tact, allowing a new layer to grow underneath with the minimum of discomfort.

2. ID cards and money

You will probably need a passport and/or identity card, a health card (to get free treatment in the EU, make sure it is up-to-date. NB now we have left the EU, this will change but there are no guidelines as yet – see gov.uk website), and money.

You may want one credit or bank card for emergencies (see below). I took a post office money card which, once I had worked out how to do it, I was able to quickly top up on my phone with euros. I also used it in big supermarkets and to pay for things over the phone/by internet like travel tickets.

Paypal is also very useful if you have money (especially euros) in your account. Once again you can pay in £s or other currency.

There are lots of cash machines on the Camino Francés and some on the other caminos. Banks are tricky because you have to be there when they are open and usually you will be walking during the morning and exhausted / too hot in the afternoon if they are open then, which they are not always. Be careful of charges! Bank ATMs which charge you a fee are quite a new thing in Spain. In one place there were 4 in the same street and each one charged me something different – from free to a great deal, so shop around.

Cash: The Spanish caminos are cheap compared with France – allow 10-15 euros per night if staying at a hostel; coffee and tea are 1 euro each; the pilgrim menu is 10-15 euros; and supermarkets are basically cheaper than the UK. You will probably visit the supermarket every day as you will not want to carry food unless you have to (except for Sundays when everything is shut), and they are mostly geared up to sell you one piece of fruit, one piece of fish, even eggs one at a time (watch the clever way they twist paper to make a carrying flute) which is really helpful.

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This albergue, a few days walk from Santiago on the Camino Sanabrés. It had no heating (December), no blankets, no utensils and no electricity! It was very unusual but not unheard of. Most guidebooks stipulate these details, but they are not always up to date if the hostel has changed hands, for example

Paying for hostels: By comparison France, Austria, Switzerland and Norway are really pricey, particularly accommodation. The ‘auberges de jeunesses’ (youth hostels) are the cheapest. If they are part of the Hostel International chain, think about getting a discount card which you can buy at the hostel. The ‘randonnee’ I walked in France was divided into stages but, in my experience, there were no cheap places to stay at the ends of those stages, not for backpackers. The price for hostels in Estonia are similar to Spain.

Useful tip

Make sure you reseacrh in advance if you intend to stay in a hostel or hotels in France and Norway.

Useful tips

Do not change money at the airport! It is very expensive, so take some currency with you from home. Neither should you use your ordinary bank debit or credit card unless you have checked before you go that you do not have to pay exorbitant charges for withdrawing money or paying in local currency. Many Spanish hostels will only accept cash.

3. Something to carry your important things in

I had a bum bag and liked it, but when it poured with rain everything got wet. My friend had a thick, flat plastic pouch round his neck, under the outer layer, and that was safe and stayed dry.

4. The ‘credential’, otherwise known as a pilgrim passport

This is a paper or card which you can have stamped at every stop (soemtimes you need two per day) which you can present to the authorities in Santiago de Compostella to get your certificate of completion, your ‘compostella’.

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My first credential or pilgrim passport

5. A smart phone

I would suggest that you get the best phone you possibly can. One that

  • fits in your pocket
  • has as much internet capacity as possible (in the UK see ‘3’ for international packages and beware other companies who offer similar but which are geared to ‘normal’ holidays so are only valid for a month at a time)
  • has the best camera you can afford (back up your photos eg with Google which is free and easy)
  • has a torch
  • has maps (also useful for bus and train times etc)
  • has lots of space for apps (think guidebook app instead of a heavy Lonely Planet book, or specialist maps, airplane boarding passes, bus and other tickets, booking Bla Bla cars or accommodation, getting you out of trouble, making contact with home (or rescuers, or even new lovers)
  • has a translation app
  • has the capacity for writing notes as long as it is backed up (I write notes as I walk because I would not remember if not, but have been known to delete by mistake which is terrible ). You think you will remember everything but you probably won’t and so a notebook and pen or phone version may be invaluable

and possibly

  • has Spanish or other language lessons on it eg Duolingo
  • is ‘big’ enough for downloading a film or book if you want.

A smaller, cheaper, old-style phone: I recommend you also take one of these, especially if you don’t have a contract on your smart phone which allows you to communicate outside your own country. You can buy a SIM card wherever you are and this will enable you to phone or text within that place. Also, if you lose it it isn’t the end of the world. The only problem I encountered was that one shop wanted a local address so my friend who lived there used his which caused problems when I wanted to top up. I suspect this wouldn’t always be the case.

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You could take a wooden walking stick with a hooked handle and carry a carrier bag like this gentleman, if that suits you

A charger:  I have had a great deal of luck with people lending or giving me a spare charger, and not much in buying cheap ones. You can charge your phone at all albergues (hostels) but if it is busy there will be a great deal of competition for the sockets, and although they are often by the beds they can also be in the kitchen or hallway instead. This means that you either need to stand beside the phone or trust that no-one will steal it – I didn’t hear of anyone having their phone stolen.

Useful tip

In Madrid you can get phone accessories in vending machines so you do not have to wait for shops to open. The quality seems to be good.

Useful tip

Always set a password or pass pattern on your phone, so that others cannot open it.

Useful tip

You can charge your phone while waiting at bus stations. The sockets are at elbow height in the semi-outdoor parts of the buildings. You can also charge and get wifi on all intercity Spanish buses (eg Alsa).

An adaptor for 2-pin plugs: depending on where you are coming from and are travelling to, there are expensive international adaptors which are good if you are going all around the world, otherwise it is cheaper to get a 3-to-2 pin. You will only need one if you only have one gadget!

6. A wrap

I would not be without this large pink piece of cloth which doubles as a scarf, something to sit on, something to wear when visiting churches or at the Mass in Santiago out of respect, a pillow, a cover-up…invaluable.

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7. A sleeping bag or sheet

It depends on the time of year you will be walking and where. In the summer on the Spanish caminos you will not need a sleeping bag, but do take a sheet bag (I doubled over a single sheet lengthways and sewed the edges together), or buy a silk one. They stop you getting bitten in the hostels and keep you warm in the early hours or if the windows are open. In the late Autumn you will need a proper sleeping bag and if you can afford it, get a light-weight but warm one as they pack very small.

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Old-fashioned, heavy and bulky
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My home-made sheet sleeping bag

8. Towel

A light-weight travel towel dries really easily and is worth investing in if possible.

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It even has its own little bag

9. A torch

A head torch is very useful if you walk in the dark – you might want to leave before sun-up in summer to avoid the heat of the day, and it leaves your hands free. You might manage with a phone torch to avoid the weight, but then you have to use one hand to carry it.

Useful tip

You can buy replacement batteries easily, so don’t take them with you from home as they are very heavy. Or you could use an eco- wind-up one.

10. Camera

One person I know buys a cheap one before every trip so as not to carry a big heavy one or risk losing it or having it stolen. I would rather have one piece of equipment, so my preference is to get a phone with the best camera I can afford, but of course real cameras are better quality.

11. Pockets in my shorts

One for water, one for phone and toilet paper. If you choose to have a water bottle attached to your rucksack with a tube to souk on, you would have a pocket free (see below). If you wear shorts without pockets, well, you decide, but if you take as many photos as me you will be wanting to have the camera on-hand.

Useful tip

When you are on the path you will not want to keep taking your rucksack on and off unless you really have to, because it is unwieldy. You would have to undo and do up, and then probably readjust all the straps, and you will want your hands free for the baton(s), or to swing your arms to keep the circulation going, or to hold hands with someone special.

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There are not always places to rest or go to the toilet

12. Poles, batons or walking sticks

I walked the whole Camino Francés without one. Then I was gifted one and used it for the more tricky terrain at the end of the Via de la Plata / Sanabrés and was very glad to have it. BUT. Then I lost it and although I bought another one for the next trip, I also lost that one. SO…

Useful tip

Tie your baton(s) to your rucksack or boots when you stop, and at night so you do not leave them anywhere. I bought a children’s one from Go Outdoors for £5 which was fantastic, but then again, I am very short. Be careful! Most customs security will not let you take batons through. It is no problem if you pack them and pay extra to put your rucksack in the hold (in which case it is probably a good idea to put the whole thing in a big, durable, plastic bag and seal it firmly, to avoid the pockets and dangly bits getting damaged).

13. A map or guide book

Well, it depends! The Camino Francés is very well signposted and whatever time of year you walk it there will be plenty of other people to help you find your way. Some people use theirs for a record, write notes in it and keep it for posterity. Others ceremoniously tear out the pages each night, as a sign of completion and to lighten their load. It is useful for albergues and other places to stay, and many are very well researched and have lots of interesting information in them. On the other hand there are also fantastic apps (Gronze for example).

As for the other caminos in Spain or elsewhere, I would say get a book or app, but you will manage, especially if you speak some of the local language. Remember, people love to help, even if they do not really know or understand you, so be prepared to be sent in the wrong direction sometimes!

Useful tip

Even if you don’t wear your jeans to walk in, your whole rucksack may get soaking wet and then you will still have to dry them and they take days to dry.

Useful tip

Do not wear wet socks!

14. Clothes and …

  • 2 x knickers or boxers (cotton, easy-dry material)
  • 2 x bras if you wear them – it is nicer not to, many don’t
  • 3 x socks – double layer ones come highly recommended, but they are expensive. Or wear one lovely soft, easy-dry pair underneath with a second pair on top which won’t need washing every night. You will need others in case your usual ones are still wet in the morning, and another pair if it is cooler in the evenings or for bed
  • 1 x easy-dry T shirt and one other light top for evening that doesn’t need ironing and doesn’t crease
  • 1 x fleece, preferably light, but warm, with a hood to avoid the need for a warm hat. Note that walking by the coast along a linear walk (eg along the Normandy coast or the Camino del Norte) means that there could be a strong breeze in one ear day after day after day
  • 1 x sun hat or cap (it is better to have a hat so that the back of your neck as well as your ears and face are in shade). Also a warm hat if you do not have a hood
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There are different sorts of head gear to choose from
  • 1 x light, easy-wash and -dry trousers if you don’t want to get sun burn, bitten or scratched
  • 1 x other pair of trousers – not jeans as they are normally heavy when they are dry and even heavier if wet
  • A belt because you will get smaller!
  • 1 x rain trousers and 1 x rain poncho / jacket. Make sure they are not just for light showers because if it rains all day everything will be wet through. Hopefully they will pack up very small
  • Gloves: you might not need them, but they are very small and light. I did wear them in the mornings in late November / December in Spain, and once at night
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Your specs and/or contact lenses and cleaning fluids if you use them. Sun glasses (whatever time of year)
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There can be a hard frost when you are high up in late November eg Galicia in northern Spain, so gloves and a hood will come in handy

Useful reminder

If you are arriving by air and planning to take your rucksack on the plane, you can only take 100 ml per tube, bottle or pot, and all that has to fit in one very small plastic bag which seals, about the size of a small freezer bag. This includes all sorts of foodstuffs such as marmite and tahini which are hard to buy in some European countries. Neither can you take sharp things, so this also goes for nail clippers or scissors, pen knife and body-hair razor.

You may also want – the non-essentials

  • a cream for between the buttocks /thighs or in the groin. All that chaffing…!
  • Sun tan lotion
  • Toilet paper or tissues
  • Condoms
  • The ‘pill’ if you are pre-menopausal and that’s what you usually use
  • Hair ties are very small and light and you will probably want to keep your hair off your face if it’s hot
  • Panty liners, sanitary towels etc. You can buy certain brands along the way
  • Find a joint shampoo / conditioner / soap (there is rarely soap in hostels). Nowadays you can get solid blocks of these things which saves on the 100ml bottles but they are quite heavy
  • A carrier bag or a small, light rucksack for shopping/evening or sightseeing when the big one is in the hostel but you still need something
  • A notebook and pen If you are not using your phone. And /or a sketch pad and pencil

First aid

Antiseptic, sprain and bruise cream. I recommend natural calendula for cuts and rashes which also covers sun burn, and arnica (bruises, bumps), or Rescue Remedy cream for the same as arnica plus bites. Rescue Remedy for emergencies for you and others. Mosquito stuff. Any medications you usually take (order more before you leave home), and bring a repeat prescription just in case.

Utensils and food stuffs

A pan which doubles as a carrying pot, a tupperware for left-overs and freshness (bread, soft fruit, opened packets of biscuits, chocolate which might melt), knife/fork/spoon, salt/pepper/spices, water bottle(s), and green tea bags (obviously!).

My rugged travelling saucepan

Rain

Talking about rain, I happened to have a newspaper in the bottom of my rucksack (quite heavy in the scheme of things, but fortuitous). The day it rained I found that it had soaked up the worst, whereas my friend’s things all got very wet. Lucky me!

‘Shaving down one’s pack weight, he said, was a process of sloughing off one’s fears.’ 

M.J.Eberhardt, see below for Nimblewill Nomad link.

The thing I forgot and wish I hadn’t

A small plastic bottle to fill with delicious Spanish olive oil.

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A swimming pool in the hostel in Fuente de Cantos, Via de la Plata

And you will probably be happy to have these with you

  • Earplugs. Some dormitories are vast and in busy periods they are therefore noisy
  • One of those half-moon, blow-up cushions for plane / bus / car journeys when you might want to shut your eyes. And some like an eye mask
  • Clothes pegs – very light and easy to find little tiny spaces for
  • A corkscrew (or just buy screw-top wine and ring-pull beer), and a cup
  • A swimming costume – there were several times I wanted one. Even when I remembered it on my second trip, I sent it back and then wished I hadn’t, so now I always take it with a cap and goggles. I needed the cap when I unexpectedly went to a goregous municipal spa on the Via de la Plata one day, and I needed the goggles when I was in the sea in Greece because the tropical fish are astonishingDSC_0036_18.jpg

Think very carefully if you really need these

  • A book or kindle: It depends on you. Both weigh quite a bit and personally I have not read much while on the road or seen others read. Many hostels have shelves of free books which you can borrow from, read and then swap for another further along the route.

Please note I have no experience of tablets or other phone alternatives, but do try to keep the number of appliances to a minimum.

  • A wrist watch: your phone will probably do, and your tissues / flesh swells as you walk, plus there’s the sun and sweat. I found it was a nuisance.
  • Same with jewellery, especially rings – they all came off and then had to be stored carefully to make sure they didn’t get lost
  • Make-up, hair straighteners, drier etc – I would say unnecessarily bulky and inappropriate, but you know your self – if you need these things you might prefer to be in a private hostel as they have more amenitities for a slightly higher price
  • 1 x long skirt for walking: stops you getting your legs burned but I would recommend that you wear light shorts or boxers underneath. You will have to hitch it up for steep climbing eg Galicia on the Camino Francés
  • A coat, jeans, woollen jumper or cardi: they are all heavy and hot (even if the weather isn’t great, you will get very hot when walking), they get sodden and are then extremely hard to dry, plus bulky in the rucksack
  • Washing powder or liquid for clothes: you can easily use soap. And a clothes line, although string might be useful and is light and easily stored

Useful tip

You can send things home relatively cheaply, many people do: I met an English man who had bought his guitar to Spain with him, and he was on the way to the post office to send it home!

Useful tip

Before you go, write down what you know of your itinerary, especially if you will be in the wild or possibly without phone signal. Leave it with someone – just in case something happens and they need to know where you are.

Useful tip

Don’t get attached to your belongings! You will probably leave things in the fridge, or forget them in cafés, or want to swap them for a bottle of wine. They are only ‘things.’ Walking the caminos can help you with a sense of perspective!

Finally

Always remember that you will not be very far from shops most of the time. Do some research of your route before you leave, but the caminos in Spain and the Grande Randonnées in France are near civilisation, at least every few day,s so you can buy most things. You will be surprised what you can do without, source from other walkers, substitute, or find lying around.

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A typical Spanish drinking fountain – isn’t it beautiful!

Links

Nimblewill Nomad  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/03/hiking-walking-nimblewill-nomad-mj-eberhart

There is loads of good advice here:  https://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/threads/

Bottle holders range from £2 for a simple device you can hang your bottle on to £55 for a hydration vest (rather hot I should think).

Julia’s video of a useful bit of rucksack equipment: https://www.facebook.com/groups/278641215924452/permalink/321123008342939/

Walking shoes/boots:  http://www.independent.co.uk/extras/indybest/travel/hiking/best-hiking-boots-for-women-wide-feet-under-100-gore-tex-a6837471.html

http://mountain-sanctuary.co.uk/category/travel-blog/