This packing list has been heavily worked over and refined over twenty years of trail-trial-and-error on over a dozen caminos across France and Spain, learning from each pilgrimage in freezing and sweltering conditions as well as delightfully moderate and pleasant ones.
Some of the things I take are tailored to my very personal top reasons for walking: to explore and learn on an inner and outer journey, as well as to share my experience as a travel writer. Essentials for me are a journal (paper notebook or electronic, such as an iPad mini with Bluetooth keyboard) and a camera.
A helpful editing and filtering aid to lighten your pack is to gather all that you plan to take and step back and ask of each item, “Am I taking it because I am afraid something will happen where I will need this, or am I taking it because I will likely actually use it every day?”
Most pilgrims over-pack by packing in their unexamined fears. Find out why you fear the stuff
that might happen and release it to a lighter load. More hard stuff can happen if you carry too much unnecessary weight. This is a pilgrimage, after all, where trusting the road, your own abilities, and the kindness of strangers (with good street smarts always engaged) is part and parcel of the attraction for doing it.
1 pair of well-worn and fitted hiking shoes or cross-trainers
1 pair of after-walking shoes that can double as slippers (or shower sandals, if you want) in the afternoon and evening.
3-4 socks, at least three of them blister-preventing and the fourth for added warmth and comfort both on the hike and in the evening at your lodging. Socks are important and you need to factor in that one or two pairs may be wet at the same time, from washing, from a heavy rain, or from accidentally stepping into a puddle where you may change socks a couple times in one day. You always want to have one pair of dry socks in your pack.
2 pairs of quick-dry hiking pants, one that can be rolled up and serve as shorts or capris.
3 t-shirts (1-2 short-sleeve and 1-2 long-sleeve: select the shirts best for the season and for layering so that all three can be worn over each other if needed).
1 warm but lightweight sweater or fleece. (I am partial to a good cashmere sweater because it feels really good and is warmer and lighter than most fleece and actually translates well from hiking to dinner. It also offers immediate warmth and softness while on warmer days isn’t cloyingly warm either and is also a nice variation to the usual trekker’s attire. It also dries quickly and endures well, making the price tag worth it for quality. It also can make you feel a little more elegant at dinner, not a small thing after days and then weeks on the trail where you still go to a communal sit-down dinner at night!)
1 rain jacket that also doubles as an extra layer for wind or added warmth even when there is no rain.
Add 1 warm jacket if you are walking in winter. This is unnecessary in other seasons when the sweater/fleece and rain jacket over t-shirts will suffice for warmth and flexible layering.
2-3 pairs of quick drying underwear.
1-2 bras for women, ideally sports-style bras and if you can, no underwire.
A good sun hat for spring to fall. A headband for spring and fall. A warm cap for winter.
Sunscreen for long sunny days, even in winter (at high altitudes in the mountains and on the high plateau, the meseta).
If you plan to stay in pilgrim dormitories and hostels rather than private inns and hotels, you will want a light-weight sleeping bag geared to the season you’ll walk. I carry a 3-season ultra light weight sleeping bag plus a sleeping bag sheet that serves as extra warmth in my sleeping bag or as the only sleeping linen I need on warm nights. It also serves as a layer between me and all the humanity that has slept on my bunk before me. (And, it is a courtesy to all the humanity that will sleep on it after me…nothing like the Camino reminds you that you are a link in a chain of a long ongoing ancestry.)
A small first aid kit such as the smallest you can buy at places such as REI, EMS, or Decathalon (in France and Spain). I tuck into this little kit a tube of arnica cream and an herbal salve for bumps and bruises that I find effective (my favorite is Second Aid, available on Etsy). All the items in your small first aid kit can be replaced on the Camino as you use them, such as adhesive bandages and ibuprofen. Very often cafes and small groceries have little first aid packets at the counter geared just for the pilgrims’ needs.
A small head lamp with a good light (and batteries that don’t burn out quickly) for the occasional late trail day or need to get up to use the WC in an unfamiliar and dark piglrim’s hostel. (But turn it on after you pass everyone’s beds and are in the hall so that you don’t wake them….And on that theme, try to avoid opening your pack and rustling through plastic bags when everyone is asleep; it is a very irritating sound to the sleeping pilgrim! See more on etiquette here!)
A traveler’s towel or a cotton bandana that doubles as towel and headgear and dries quickly. I’ve been amazed at how well a bandana actually works for drying the whole body and then air-drying within minutes.
A shoestring with several safety pins attached that become a clothes line you can hang at the hostel or attach to your pack as you walk to let your clothes finish drying. Having and extra shoelace and pins also double for other repairs or needs.
A journal in the form of a notebook or a small tablet with a keyboard.
A pen and a pencil (pens get lost and dry up, but for some reason, pencils never do either).
A guidebook with good maps.
A small and accurate compass.
A list of Spanish words and phrases—essential for a deeper and more enjoyable experience with the local culture—that you make up yourself, even if you copy it out form the guidebook. Something about writing a foreign word or phrase with your own hand makes it get absorbed better into your memory.
A camera with extra memory cards.
Once on the ground, you will want to have water and food in your pack, enough to tie you over between meals, or in low season times or more remote stretches, to cover a meal or two. Fountains to fill up on potable water are reasonably abundant along the Camino Francés but less so on other Camino routes. It is always a good idea to have a half to whole liter of back-up water on you at all times, just in case. Water is very important considering how much you are exerting your body over several hours a day. I have even learned that by keeping my body well-hydrated, I avoid a lot of aching muscle and joint problems as well as excess fatigue.