Friday, January 25, 2013


This post is an excerpt from my new book, 'SLACKPACKING THE CAMINO FRANCES' published by LightFoot Guides and available from Pilgrimage Publications and most online book stores  
  ‘Slackpacking’ is a relatively new term used to describe any kind of multi-day trekking or hiking with support. Whether trekking with pack-horses in the Andes, donkeys in Peru, or employing Sherpa when hiking in the Himalaya, slackpacking has been the preferred mode of trekking for millennia.
It is thought that the term was first used to describe hikers doing the Appalachian Trail in the US with backup support and resupply. In contrast to the extreme hikers who trek long distances carrying heavy loads on their backs and sleeping outdoors, the slackpacker carries a daypack with basic necessities and transfers the rest of his or her baggage ahead. On many such treks rooms in hostels or hotels are pre-booked.
If you have been on a walking or trekking holiday with any company that offers multi-day walks with baggage transfer and accommodation booked, whether it is guided or guided, you have enjoyed a slackpacking experience.
Slackpacking the Camino with beds booked and baggage transferred doesn’t mean that you won’t get blisters, tendonitis, aching muscles and a funny tan! You will still hike up the same mountain paths, wobble down the same rocky descents, and struggle through the same boot-clinging mud and sludge with all the other pilgrims.
The main difference is that your daypack will only weigh about 3kg instead of the average 8kg and, knowing that you have a bed and a hot shower waiting for you at the end of the day means plenty of time for breakfast, to smell the wildflowers along the trail, enjoy a long leisurely lunch and wait for an interesting church or museum to open. It means that you don't have to join the race for beds or queue for a bunk-bed in a pilgrim dormitory.
 From the time the tomb of the apostle James the Greater was discovered in the 9th century, there has been a melting pot of people on the road to Santiago with as many different types of pilgrims in the Middle Ages as there are today.  Besides the hoards of poor, unemployed and penitential pilgrims foot-slogging thousands of miles to the tomb of the apostle, we read about lords and ladies with their entourages, kings and queens with their servants and slaves (who might have carried the lords and ladies in litters for much of the way!); ecclesiastic pilgrims – priests, bishops and even a couple of popes - accompanied by their servants and clerics, and knights travelling with their ladies with their large retinues. These pilgrims would have been hosted in the best monastic quarters, the finest inns, or in castles and palaces with the local royalty. 

Many pilgrims went on horseback; others had donkeys or mules to bear their loads. Most of the classic pilgrim stories that have come down to us were written by pilgrims on horseback. There are historical accounts of large caravans of pilgrims on the roads to Santiago – some with camels!
The majority of pilgrims did not walk alone but walked in groups for safety sake. In many countries, 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 long journey.

St Bona of Pisa, patron saint of travelers and specifically pilgrims, guides, couriers and flight attendants, led ten such groups of pilgrims from Italy to Santiago in the 12th century and was made an official pilgrim guide by the Knights of Santiago. 
From the end of the 15th century, anyone who could afford to was able to travel with the postal service – a service with horses and carts that were changed at regular staging posts. 
From the mid-17th century the ‘Grand Tour’ became popular and it was possible to travel in comfort with a ‘Cicerone’ (a knowledgeable tour guide) and travel agents known as ‘carters’ provided transport, accommodation and food on the road to Santiago. 
Slackpacking is becoming more and more popular as people who are not normally extreme hikers take to trekking the trails around the world. Some say that tour companies have 'commercialised' the Camino. That might be so, but it has also provided growth in many rurual industries such as bakeries, butcheries, markets etc that provide food for the 500 000 plus pilgrims that walk parts of the trails every year.

Pilgrimage has always had a commercial aspect from taxes collected to maintain roads and bridges, vendors providing goods and souvenirs, locals offering rooms, and tour guides offering safe passage to groups. The large pilgrim churches along the pilgrimage routes in France and Spain survived mainly on donations and bequests made by pilgrims.

Doing “The Way” your way
Everyone is entitled to do the Camino their way.  Some pilgrims like to walk alone, carrying everything they posses on their backs and staying only in pilgrim shelters. Others enjoy walking for long distances, starting in different countries and taking many months to walk to Santiago – often camping along the way.
Until the reanimation of the old pilgrimage trails in the late 1970s nearly every pilgrim to Santiago arrived there by bus or train. Many went with organised groups or tours, as they still do to other Christian shrines such as Jerusalem, Rome and Fatima or Lourdes. Very few people walk to these shrines.
Over 10 million pilgrims visited Santiago in 2010 (a Holy Year) and of those, only 2% (272 700) walked or cycled the route, the bulk covering the last 100 km. The great majority arrived there by plane, car, bus and train.
Perhaps you prefer not to walk alone for weeks carrying everything on your back, or rough it by staying in crowded pilgrim hostels.  You can choose to walk alone and take pot-luck on finding a room when you arrive in a village or town.  (Look out for signs  that advertise “Habitaciones/ Rooms/ Zimmer/ Chambre.)
Just remember, if you don’t have a place booked you will have to carry your backpack.

You can book your accommodation ahead of time and have your backpack transferred each day.  Or you might prefer to walk with like-minded people in an organized group. You can book guided and unguided tours on the Camino. 
If you are pressed for time you can choose to walk a section of the trail, then get a bus or taxi further down the route. Many people don’t have five or six weeks to spare, meaning that they have to take a taxi or a bus to a few places.

Many historical books, movies and websites on the Camino show statues, sculptures, stained glass windows and other works of art depicting pilgrims from the early 12th century to around the 18th century.   The majority of foot pilgrims wore a long, dark robe, carried a simple a shoulder bag called a ‘scrip’, a gourd for water and a staff.

Pilgrims who could afford it went on horseback and they were able to take extra changes in clothing and a few other comforts. 

The one thing you won’t see in books or film are  medieval pilgrims carrying a backpack!  A pilgrim from the middle ages would be astonished to see today's pilgrims slogging across the Camino with huge packs containing their material baggage on their backs. 

But, those were different times and modern pilgrims are expected to bathe and change and wash their clothes so most pilgrims carry extra clothing, washing soaps and toiletries and need a back-pack to carry their gear. 

Most walking Camino pilgrims only need a small capacity pack to carry their clothing, medication and toiletries.  If you intend sending your backpack ahead you could manage with a day-pack whilst walking but ensure that it is comfortable and secure.
In your pack you will carry a rain jacket or poncho, a jacket or fleece, a sitting plastic in case you decide to picnic on the side of the path or sit on a mossy wall, your first aid kit, snacks and drinks.  I also recommend carrying your sandals so that you can change into them when you arrive at your hotel.
It is better to use a regular backpack, with padded shoulder straps, sternum strap and waist belt rather than a flimsy day pack with thin straps and no support that will swing around on your back as you go up and down hills.
If you do not want to carry a heavy backpack every day – or are unable to walk long distances over difficult terrain – you can still do the Camino by having your pack (and yourself) transported by taxi or transport services on most of the Camino routes. Remember, you only need to walk the last 100 km to Santiago to earn the Compostela certificate, and the pilgrims’ office doesn’t care how your backpack arrives there!   
In order to transfer luggage, you must have pre-booked accommodation along the way. This means that you will not be allowed to stay in the traditional ‘donation’ pilgrim albergues that do not allow pre-booking or vehicle back-up. However, many private albergues do allow pilgrims to book rooms and have their backpacks transported along the route. Have a look at the private albergues lists here:

Hotels usually have contact details of local taxis and luggage transfer service. Charges are from €7 per bag per stage. The bag should not weigh more than 12kg and a stage is up to 25km.  The cost is half of that in Galicia (€3) where the number of pilgrims is much higher.  If you are walking with buddy or in a group, you can share a large shopping bag to send your excess stuff ahead.  This helps to keep down the cost.


When and Where to start walking         
Towns that are easily reached where you can start your Camino        
Credencial del Peregrino – Pilgrims’ Passport                                                
Best Time to walk a Camino                                  
Weather Tables                                           
   May and June                                          
   September and October                           
Where to start and how to get there           
     Starting at Jean                                     
     Route Napoleon or through Val Carlos    
     Starting at Roncesvalles                         
     Starting at Pamplona                             
     Starting at Burgos                                 
     Starting at Leon                                     
     Starting at Astorga                                
     Staring at Ponferrada                             
     Starting at O Cebreiro                            
     Starting at Sarria                                   
Getting back home                                      

Different types of Accommodation                  
Reserving rooms online                                           
Booking hotel rooms                                   
Booking rooms in hostels                   
Luggage Transfers and Camino Tour Companies
Companies that transfer luggage                
Posting luggage ahead                               
Camino Tour Companies                    

Walking stages and itineraries                        
Itinerary 1:   10km to 15km daily stages             
Itinerary 2:   15km to 20km daily stages             
Itinerary  3:   20km to 25km daily stages             
Itinerary 4:   The last 100km for not-so-able pilgrims.
17-day, 5km to 8km daily stages      

Detours on the Camino Frances
Appendices on Camino Lingo, Transport details and contacts for trains, buses, taxis in each region.