A Complete Guide to Walking the Camino de Santiago (Frances)

The Camino Frances is a 500 mile walk from France into Spain—the final destination is Santiago de Compostela. But it’s more than a destination; the pilgrimage is a weeks-long journey. Curious? Here’s everything you need to know.

Walking the Camino de Santiago

In May 2017, my 13-year-old niece and I left St. Jean Pied de Port. We planned to walk 500 miles of the Camino Frances, the most popular route of the Camino de Santiago, ending in Santiago de Compostela 36 days later. We planned for months, we bought a lot of light-weight hiking gear, and we set off. We had obstacles—mental and physical—but we arrived in Santiago, and it was a joyous and rewarding moment.

If you’re planning to walk the Camino, this page shares every single piece of information that I gathered from the far reaches of the internet. It shares our first-hand observations and advice, as well as details on the albergues and guesthouses that we loved the most along the route. We opted for a mid-range budget (we booked private double rooms most nights) and we often stuck to the recommended timeline for hiking the route, although we deviated from that timeline when it recommended walking more than 26 km. There’s no right or wrong way to walk the Camino, but there are mindsets, advisements, and gear that you can bring to grease the wheels of a successful trip. We share our Camino in the hopes that the information will help you walk yours.

Essential Pre-Trip Planning Information

First and foremost, you do not need extensive pre-planning to walk the Camino—the Camino Frances is a popular route and the most common starting points all have gear stores, registration offices, and accommodation options. What’s more, pilgrims are guaranteed to find a night’s sleep no matter how busy the season. If the albergues are full, churches and schools open for the night to offer pilgrims a place to sleep.

That said, if you plan a mid-range trip, or if you’re on an incredibly tight budget, or if you simply like to be prepared, a little extra planning takes you a long way.

Plan your walking dates.

The weather along the Camino greatly affects your trip, and high season for walkers runs throughout the summer months June, July, and August. It’s during these months that the Camino bustles with walkers, particularly as you get closer to Santiago. May and September are shoulder season for hiking and many pilgrims start or finish during these months, which allows for an ideal mix of good weather and lighter crowds on the trail. That said, there’s no single answer to the “best season to hike the Camino.” The weather along 500 miles swings wildly throughout the weeks, so personal preferences come into play—do you handle heat or cold better? Do you have, or are you willing to bring, rain gear? This will impact your decision on when to hike it.

If you start in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, snow in the Pyrenees in the spring and late fall constrain your trip—the snow makes some places impassable, and at the very least necessitates cold-weather gear and preparations. On the flip side, mid-summer weather along some stretches is scorching hot and you will have to wake at dawn to beat the heat. But both extremes are doable. Fewer albergues stay open for the off-season, and it would be a much less social Camino—my niece and I loved stopping for morning coffees to chat with other pilgrims. Hiking in the far shoulder and off-season would change that aspect of your walk.

Research it: Guide to Weather on the Camino—this page has a truly fantastic map allowing you to hover over various points along the Camino see a visual display of seasonal weather patterns. Invaluable when planning a route that works for you.

Plan your starting point.

St. Jean Pied de Port is a popular starting point as it’s a nearly even 500 miles (800 km) from Santiago and the town is well-equipped to process pilgrims and provide them with all they need to walk the Camino. My niece and I chose this starting point for that reason—it felt right to have such a solid accomplishment of 500 miles under our belts—and we both wanted to walk through the Pyrenees (which were as beautiful as we had hoped).

Madrid however, also offers excellent coordination and services if you’re only hiking the Spanish portion of the Camino. My niece and I met pilgrims starting in Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Burgos, León, and Sarria. Many pilgrims also walk the Camino in sections, so buses and trains run to almost every town along the route.

Getting there: Arriving in St. Jean, however, is a bit of a headache for those flying internationally. My niece and I ended up booking flights into Paris’ Charles de Gualle (CDG) airport, then we switched to the train right at the airport and spent 9+ hours training south. I bought our tickets on RailEurope and our route was: CDG to Bordeaux, Bordeaux to Bayonne, Bayonne to St. Jean. Although we looked into flights from Paris to Biarritz or Pau, this option would have required switching airports over to Orly, and the timing of the one daily flight didn’t match with our international flights. As it was, by the time we boarded the final train to St. Jean out of Bayonne station, we had already essentially begun our Camino since other pilgrims filled the train car in a bustle of excitement. If you’re starting in the Spanish cities, many pilgrims I met found flights into Madrid airport and then booked a local train (or bus if you’re on a budget) for the rest of the journey.

Research it: I used these links to plan our flights and trains to start our Camino.

Book your first night’s accommodation.

During high season it is absolutely essential that you book your accommodation in advance. My niece and I arrived in late May and 95% of the places were fully booked 10 days out from the start of our walk. We found a shared room in a hostel, and it was absolutely lovely. But it was slim pickings. We had planned to stay in a private room, but there were none available inside the city (and you really want to be inside the city as it’s a great vibe.

Book your second night if you plan to split your walk over the Pyreness. We stayed in Orisson our first night on the Camino and it was truly wonderful. Refuge Orisson has limited beds and spots book up fast, so if you plan to take it easy your first days by splitting your walk to Roncesvalles into two days you must email the albergue as far in advance as possible (minimum two weeks, longer in high season).

If you are staying in Roncesvalles, you should book ahead if you are on a mid-range budget as private rooms book fast (we stayed at La Posada de Roncesvalles). The municipal albergue has plenty of space without reservation for budget pilgrims, and private albergues tend to fill quickly, but are also quite affordable if you can get a spot. Casa Sabrina was a favorite with travelers and pilgrims wait there to eat, drink, chat until the 2pm check-in time; reserve in advance if you want to sleep there.

Plan it:

  • Booking.com: My niece and I used Booking.com for the vast majority of our guesthouse bookings along the way and it’s the best option for mid-range travelers who will be securing private rooms along the way.
  • Airbnb: Has some great options in St. Jean, and we used this to find apartments for our days off on the Camino since we really wanted a place with a kitchen every once in a while.

Decide on your guidebook or app strategy.

The Camino has grown in popularity over the past few years and smart-devices are a common sighting. Most travelers walk with their smartphone since many guesthouses and albergues have free WiFi. This means using a Camino app is a great way to lighten your pack. But the guidebooks are incredibly packed with information and require no competition for wall outlets each evening.

The Best Apps for the Camino Frances
All Camino apps work offline. Most Camino apps include the route information (included a GPS dot of your location along the path), albergue listings and contact information, food and shops in each town, altitude information, and more. Some even include pilgrims actively reviewing places, meaning you may have more up-to-date details on accommodation and shops.

  • Camino Francés (Apple, Android): We used this Wise Pilgrim app, which is a highly respected company run by a guy who knows every footstep of each of the Caminos and offers solid, thorough advice. These apps started as guidebooks more than a decade back, and he has kept up with the times and offers apps and guides now. It’s not as fancy looking as some apps, but it never let us down. It was never glitchy, had little pieces of history on important spots, I liked the pilgrim feedback on some places, and it worked well for our needs.
  • I met people using other apps like TrekRight: Camino Francés (Apple) eCamino (Apple, Android), and Buen Camino (Apple, Android)—the first is a bit pricey but loved by women we walked with for a few weeks; the second doesn’t have the best ratings online, but they would do the trick if you are just looking for something free to supplement your paper guidebook; the third is well-rated but I never met people using it so have no firsthand feedback. Camino Pilgrim – Frances is only available on Android but very popular.

The Best Guidebooks for the Camino Frances
Along with all of the information in an app, guidebooks provide rich historical information and allow you to easily bookmark places you want to see along the way.

How to Choose Your Camino Backpack

Using a lightweight backpack will make all the difference when you are walking. Although I deeply love the backpack that I used for a decade of round the world travel, it isn’t designed as a long-distance hiking pack so I upgraded my backpack for the Camino. After extensive research through all of the Camino forums, I decided to use Osprey packs for both me and my niece. The Osprey Talon 22L or 33L widely recommended in the Camino forums for those going ultra lightweight as it’s just a terrific internal frame pack with lightweight material and enough hooks and such to ease your hike. I loved the look of this pack, but I decided the women’s Osprey Tempest fit my needs and I liked the adjustable back on my Tempest that ensure it fit my tall, thin frame (I have a problem buying medium packs because although they are tall enough, sometimes the waist-straps do not cinch tight enough).

I found a great deal on the Osprey Tempest 40L, and opted for that size since I would need to carry some of my niece’s items (kids should not carry more than 10% to 20% of their body weight depending on age, fitness, etc). We found an excellent child’s size Osprey pack on sale at our local outdoors store, and although it was larger than we had planned, the fit was most important and it fit her like a dream—by far better than any pack and any other brand we had tried. Both packs allowed for water bladders and loved having water accessible that way on our trek—far superior to a water bottle in the pocket of the pack on your back. Neither of us ever completely filled our packs, so the additional space wasn’t an issue.

Popular: Osprey Talon 33L

lightweight camino backpack

My Osprey Tempest 40L (M)

backpack for females hiking the Camino

My Niece’s Osprey Ace 50L

camino for kids

Elements of a Good Camino Pack

  • It’s under 45L (I cannot imagine a situation where you will want or need to carry more than that).
  • Waterproof or with a built-in rain cover.
  • Space for a water bladder or an external pocket that fits your water bottle. 
  • A few hooks or compression straps to hold walking poles, shoes, etc.
  • Bottom or side zippers to access things in your pack without completely unpacking.
  • It has a “brain” on top for easy access to daily essentials (money, sunscreen, pilgrim’s passport, snacks, etc).
  • Wide, comfortable waist belt (bonus points for pockets on the waist-belt, that’s where I stored a bag of nuts and my chapstick).
  • Mesh on the outside for jack/scarf/etc (not essential, but handy since the weather can change quickly).

Packing List for Female + Teen Pilgrims

Packing well is nearly as important as choosing the right shoes and backpack. All three elements can make or break your ability to finish your Camino without injury. We bought several items that were the exact same thing in different colors for the items that were really essentials. Other than that, we raided our closets so that we were only splurging on clothes and gear that would really be noticeably beneficial to our walk.

We have different exercise styles, so I tend to favor workout shorts and a tank, whereas she likes those thin/spandex workout pants. I also run cold and can never seem to stay warm, so I packed two extra cold-weather items, which I needed and there was only once that she was chilly and could have used an extra layer. There’s no wrong answer here, so long as you’re comfortable and the clothes are versatile, then you should be good! We hiked from May into June, so we faced cool to cold evenings and scorching hot days—it’s why we brought three outfits instead of the recommended two, and it really was needed since the weather started in the low 50s F and by the end the temperature was well over 95 F almost every day (that’s 10 C to over 35 C). That made layers of paramount importance. Both being very fair-skinned, we also splurged on expensive, lightweight sun shielding jackets that were, by far, our best investments. Here’s what we packed:

My Female Camino Pack List

Shoes and socks

My Niece’s Teen Packing List for the Camino

Shoes and socks

How to Plan Your Route + Walking Days

Our Favorite Places to Stay

Budget & Advice

Additional Resources & Tips

Final Thoughts

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