Sunday, September 09, 2012



The Backpack Myth

I feel really sorry for our modern day walking pilgrims.  Unlike their medieval counterparts who left their material baggage at home and carried only the barest of necessities, today’s pilgrims feel compelled to carry a change of clothing as well as laundry wash, pegs and a wash line; extra shoes and socks, or sandals, waterproof rain gear, fleece jackets and sleeping bags.  They carry toiletries, medicines and a first aid kit.  Many have a computer, tablet or smart phone with internet access and GPS. Most pilgrims have a camera and need chargers for their equipment. To carry all of this stuff they need to have a backpack.

Not only do they have to endure the weight of heavy backpacks they often have a smaller bag around their waist to carry other modern conveniences like credit cards, money cards and cash, as well as important documents like their passport, return air ticket, guide books and itineraries.  As a result, they often suffer tendonitis, stress fractures, blisters and back ache and, in some cases, have to cut short their pilgrimage. 
The worst thing about all of this is that pilgrims have been led to believe that this is a normal part of the pilgrimage tradition and that without their full backpacks they will be judged as less than worthy, un-authentic pilgrims, or will have a less meaningful Camino.  (Cyclists and those on horseback are exempt from this guilt trip as they don't have to carry backpacks.)  Medieval pilgrims would have been amazed to see today's pilgrims slogging across the Camino with huge packs on their backs!

Don't despair if you can't or don't want to carry a pack every day.  Saint James won’t judge you; the Pope won’t judge you, and when you arrive at the pearly gates St Paul won’t judge you.  The Pilgrim Office in Santiago won't judge you either because they don’t care how your backpack reaches Santiago. You can send your pack ahead in a stretch limo and you will still earn the Compostela, as long as you have walked or ridden the required mileage to Santiago.  It is only the pilgrim fundamentalists who will judge you!  It is they who have this unwritten rule about carrying a backpack.

In fact, there are only three rules for walking the Camino as a ‘pilgrim’.

1.    If you want to stay in the pilgrims shelters – private or traditional – you will need to have a pilgrim passport or ‘Credencial’.


2.   Credenciales are for pilgrims who walk, cycle or horseback ride the Camino to Santiago.

3.   If you want the Compostela, you have to walk the last 100km, cycle or ride the last 200km to Santiago with a religious/spiritual motive.  If you profess to walking for any other reason, you can request a different certificate;

That's it - no other rules.  Nothing about having to walk a certain distance each day, or having to walk 800km, 1200km, 5000km; nothing about having to sleep in the most basic pilgrim hostels or eating frugal meals, and nothing at all about having to carry a backpack.

NB:  Although there is no rule about carrying a backpack, a few traditional pilgrim albergues won’t accept a pilgrim who doesn’t have a backpack.  A friend whose pack didn’t arrive with him on a flight from South Africa was refused entry to the Church albergue of Jesus y Maria in Pamplona because he didn’t have his backpack.  (I wondered what Jesus y Maria would have thought about that!)  He eventually found a bed at the Paderborn albergue run by the German confraternity.  So if you decide to send your pack ahead and walk with just a day-pack, aim for the private albergues.  On the other hand, the albergue in Grañon doesn't turn away any pilgrim - even if they arrive in a bus with no credencial.  This basic albergue in the bell tower of a church, with vinyl covered mattresses on the floors, is one of the most popular on the Camino.

When pilgrim 'refugios' were first mooted at the 1987 conference in Jaca to cater for the 'pilgrim revolution' predicted by Don Elias Valiña Sampedro (father of the modern Camino) the idea was that only pilgrims should stay in the refugios.  The idea was never that pilgrims should only stay in the refugios foregoing all the established hospitality B and B's, pensions, hostales etc.  The only way to tell between a pilgrim and a tourist was the credencial and the backpack. A few albergues won’t accept you if you have sent your backpack ahead – that is their prerogative.  But, there really is no rule about having to carry a backpack. 

So where did this myth begin? It's not a tradition and it doesn't come from medieval pilgrims - they didn't carry backpacks.  The only medieval pilgrim who carried a heavy load was the criminal - sent on a long journey lugging a large load as punishment. Walking to Santiago was enough.  Only the purist would weigh themselves down with a hair shirt or extra load.

Many historical and cultural books and websites on the Camino have photographs of statues, sculptures, stained glass windows and other works of art depicting pilgrims from the early 12th century to around the 18th century.  I have never seen an example of a pilgrim carrying a large backpack - have you?  If you have, please send me the source!


Other Modern Myths:
There are medieval myths and modern myths about the Camino.  Modern myths include those that quote the numbers of people that walked the pilgrimage roads to Santiago in the middle ages - ranging from 500 000 to 1 million pilgrims a year, depending on which website you read.  That would represent half the population of Europe in the 14th century.

There is the one that claims that Goethe said, “Europe was built on the roads to Santiago”.  The Goethe Foundation states that there is no evidence that this is a quote from Goethe, but like all urban legends, once it was written and repeated ad infinitum by successive writers, it ended up in the annals of fact.

The First Guide Book:  It is repeatedly claimed that the Codex Calixtinus with the Liber Sancti Jacobi was the first guide book written for pilgrims to Santiago.  Think for one moment about that.  Look at the size of the book in the wrapping.  That is the Codex found in the garage of the cathedral electrician who stole it a few years ago.  It is a monstrous book, far to heavy for any pilgrim to carry with them. 

Think about the value of a codex, painstakingly written by hand, only a few copies made of the original.  Think about literacy in the 12th century.  How many pilgrims could read?  There are many theories about the Codex.  One is that it was written for the Duke of Acquitane who was planning a pilgrimage to Santiago.  The guide was rediscovered in 1886 by P. Fidel Fita after it had been lost for 750 years. 

Types of pilgrims:  Another myth is that all pilgrims were poor, mendicant, penitential miscreants footslogging alone to Santiago with nothing but the rags on their backs.  The fact is that there were as many different types of pilgrim then as there are today, maybe more.  There were lords and ladies with their entourages, kings and queens with their servants and slaves, ecclesiastic pilgrims journeying with their clerics, knights travelling with their ladies. Servants would walk ahead and secure the best accommodation and source the best eateries for their masters.
Some poor wretches had to carry the lords and ladies in litters much of the way.  Many pilgrims went on horseback; others had donkeys or mules to bear their loads. There are historical accounts of caravans of pilgrims on the roads to Santiago. Most of the classic pilgrim stories that have come down to us were written by pilgrims on horseback - like the Codex Calixtinus and the diary of the 17th century pilgrim, Domenico Laffi. 

Yes, there were more ordinary pilgrims than wealthy pilgrims.  Some were penitential pilgrims, others were paupers and vagabonds, but there were also adventurers, merchants, artists, stone masons and craftsmen, musicians, and travellers who were merely interested in visiting new lands.  The majority of pilgrims did not walk alone but walked in groups for safety sake. 

You should not walk with a group: (This only applies to pilgrims to Santiago.  If you are planning on a pilgrimage to Rome, Guadalupe or the Holy Land, you can go with an organised group).  
Most large towns and cities had guilds that organised guided group walks to Santiago.  It was much safer to travel this way and, like the tour groups of today, pilgrims walked with like-minded people and supported each other on the journey. 
St Bona of Pisa led 10 such groups of pilgrims from Italy to Santiago in the 12th century and was made an official pilgrim guide by the Knights of Santiago.

Those that could afford it had their baggage transported on horseback, donkeys, mules, carts, carriages and so on.  They probably delighted in shopping along the way for exotic items of clothing and souvenirs to take home to their friends and families.  The rest of the raggle-taggle carried no more than a bundle over their shoulder or a scrip – a type of satchel strapped across their torso - in which they might have just enough money for their sorry needs, a letter of safe-passage from their church and a scrap of bread to have with their gruel or broth at night.  No self-respecting pilgrim would have risked carrying a large backpack bulging with his worldly possessions.  Such gross displays of material wealth would have seemed obscene to his fellow pilgrims and tantalising to the robbers on the way.

  Today, the modern day pilgrim has no option but to carry this heavy load unless he can afford to have some of it transported each day.  Many pilgrims who can afford it do this walk with a small daypack containing their necessities for the day, their rain gear, a jacket, first-aid kit, food and water, a guide-book, camera, and maybe sandals to change into when they reach their overnight stop.  The rest of their stuff is sent ahead each day by baggage transfer companies.

Pilgrim fundamentalist accuse them of ‘cheating’.  Cheating whom?? 
A recent post on a Forum commented that people who send stuff ahead should not have beds in the albergues:  “they should keep beds vacant for the pilgrims who have exhausted themselves carrying their possessions.”  Why - that is their choice?  

One pilgrim remarked, "I saw many pilgrims with small backpacks.  I carried 12 kg and walked at least 30 km every day." 
Why?  Why did they do that, and why do they infer that they are more worthy than those with smaller packs or who walk shorter distances?
It is entirely up to you how many possessions you carry on the Camino. You can’t expect special treatment just because your pack is over sized and you are exhausted at the end of the day.  You won’t earn extra Brownie points with the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago either.  Besides the Compostela certificate, there are no rewards for walking the Camino.  (If you are a Catholic you can earn an indulgence just by visiting the cathedral and fulfilling laid down requirements but you don't have to walk there.)

Walking a pilgrimage for a reward (a heavenly reward) was a Catholic, medieval invention, intended for an illiterate and superstitious population.  By the time of the Reformation the whole concept had been challenged and debated to death – and caused not only a split in the church but Religious Wars and the slaughter of thousands.  Pilgrimage for reward became an unsavoury concept connected as it was to the sale of indulgences, the trade in false relics and the fraud and corruption that went with it. 

I am not a mendicant pilgrim.

Today pilgrims once again trek the pilgrimage trails to Santiago de Compostela.  Are they mendicants?   99.9% are not.  I am a pretty average pilgrim.  I'm not wealthy but it costs me at least €800 to fly to Europe from South Africa.  I need to budget between €30 and €40 a day whilst on the Camino (another €600) plus the hiking gear, boots, clothing, pack, sleeping bag etc.  So I am not a poverty stricken pilgrim.
I am not a Catholic penitential pilgrim.

How many pilgrims walk because they hope to earn time off purgatory and earn a place in heaven?  Not many.  Purgatory is a foreign concept to most non-Catholics and even modern Catholics are not that familiar with it.  According to it was invented in the early 12th Century: “One of the first documents to mention purgatorium was a letter from the Benedictine Nicholas of Saint Albans to the Cistercian Peter of Celle in 1176”.   
Martin Luther wrote:  Nor have we anything in Scripture concerning Purgatory. It too was certainly fabricated by goblins.” Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper as found in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings.

I do not walk the Camino for rewards.

Do pilgrims believe that they will earn some sort of reward by walking the Camino?  And, if they do, will the reward be greater if they carry a backpack the whole way?  Once again, I doubt it – so I don’t understand why they have allowed themselves to be duped by the backpack myth.  Perhaps the pilgrims who walk with no reward in mind is the ones to be most admired.  They face all the hardships of a long trek far from their homes with no enticing reward in sight!
I do not judge my fellow pilgrims.

I don't believe that pilgrims who do not carry backpacks or who carry small packs and send their excess stuff ahead are less worthy than those who choose to carry a heavy backpack.  I do not believe that they are any less of a pilgrim, any less worthy, or that their Camino will somehow be diminished because they prefer not to carry all their possessions on their back every day on the Camino.

You are a pilgrim to Santiago - with or without a backpack.  What is in your heart is much more important than what is on your back -  don't let anyone tell you differently!

For more myths read:  


  1. Sil, it has been interesting making some comparisons between my walks in 2008 and again this year in 2012. It seems that in the intervening years there has been an 'explosion' in Spain in the numbers of people using baggage services. Carrying my own pack on the CF I quite often felt like I was in a minority and the eccentric!
    Thanks for this post. I think you have set out your point of view very plainly and have provided people with a thorough context to think more about 'baggage'.

  2. "Today, the modern day pilgrim has no option but to carry this heavy load unless he can afford to have some of it transported each day" dear sil, this isn't true, you neither have to carry a heavy bag nor forward it. i use a 25l OMMbackback, total weight 4-6 kg depending on the amount of food and water. it's easy and pilgrimage is also about getting rid of surplus stuff in one's lives and this might start with learning to be content with only a sleeping bag and a few clothes (&a kindle;-)) for 5 weeks :-) love

  3. Another fabulous post, Sil. Just as I am preparing my backpack :-)

  4. Verena - I love my 32L OMM pack, it weighs about 600g and when it is full, only about 5kg. But, you and I are experienced peregrinos and I always feel those new peregrinos struggling under the weight of their heavy packs, too afraid to send stuff ahead because they will be judged 'unworthy'.

  5. Kiwi-Margaret: I love my backpack but when leading groups I send extra stuff ahead in a shopping bag and wear my backpack. Sometimes it only weighs about 3kg and that is a great weight to carry. Why should I carry 10kg if I don't have to!!

  6. I know when I walked in 2010, I was told I wasn't a "true pilgrim" because I took the bus a few times to give my feet rest from the tendonitis and plantar fasciitis I had acquired. Heaven forbid if I had sent my bag ahead! I knew an Ecuadorian woman who felt "guilty" because she was sending her bag ahead. This coming walk, my pack will be much lighter since I am just doing the Camino this time, not a RTW trip. And you know what? I don't give a rip what anyone tells me about whether I am a true pilgrim or not! Judge not, lest ye be judged. WYOW. HYOH.

  7. Spammers please note. I do not add comments from people trying to promote their companies on my blog. Its a waste of your time and mine.

  8. Another fabulous post, Sil. Just as I am preparing my backpack :-)

  9. What a great post! I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for sharing this valuable information with us. I have bookmarked this site and will be sure to check for updates. Keep up the good work!

  10. You are right in your own way.but i think the modern day pilgrim has no other option

  11. Modern day pilgrims don't have an option but those who choose to use transport services to send their packs ahead should not be made to feel like 2nd class pilgrims! My point is that there are no Brownie points for carry a pack,and it is not a requirement for earning a Compostela. What is in your heart is more important than what is on your back.

  12. This post is very helpful for me.thank you very much for this post.Really really nice post.

  13. Excellent post. I love Santiago de Compostela and its historic monuments. Enojy Spain

  14. Kaixo9:18 pm

    This past June (2012) I met the twins - two wonderful retired women from South Africa. Their backpacks were enormous and several days out of SJPdP they were feeling the effects. I prayed for them to send their backpacks ahead with a service in the hopes they would be able to continue their journey. I saw them for the last time in Belorado, they arrived very late in the afternoon exhausted and had terrible heat rashes. I do not know if they made it to Santiago. Without the heavy burden of their backpacks, they would have have for sure.