El Camino going off into the horizon

Why El Camino de Santiago is the Best Choice for Your First Thru-Hike

El Camino de Santiago leads thousands of hikers across Spain every year, dipping into the Pyrenees mountains, crossing Spain’s best wine-producing region, and visiting historic cities and rural towns before ending in Santiago de Compostela. In comparison to other long-distance hiking trails around the world, el Camino is relatively easier, making it the best option for a first-time thru-hike. Plus, spending a month in Europe hiking one of its best long-distance hiking trails sounds pretty great no matter your skill level, right?

A view of El Camino

I first heard of the Camino back in AP Spanish class in high school (thanks Sra. Mastandrea!). I had grown up hiking the White Mountains in New Hampshire with my family and in middle and high school I had hiked most of the 100-mile Wilderness with summer adventure groups. But even though I was fascinated by the Appalachian Trail, at that moment I didn’t have the technical skills or gear to do a wilderness hike on my own. So when I wrote down El Camino de Santiago in my planner that day in high school, the idea stayed with me. I ended up majoring in Spanish in college and decided to study abroad at the Universidad de Salamanca for a semester. Before I went, I dug out my high school planner, found the name of the hike (I had forgotten the name, but clearly not the idea) and started planning my trip.

I was studying in Salamanca for the spring semester so instead of buying my flight ticket home after classes ended in late May I bought my flight for July 3, giving me a month to do the Camino.  I thought that maybe one of my classmates there would want to do it with me but I resolved that I would hike it no matter what. It turned out that I set out to Roncesvalles alone but I found many friends on the way to Santiago. My Camino took exactly a month and though the Camino does have its flaws, it was a perfect introduction to long-distance hiking for me. Since El Camino, I’ve done about a 1/4th of the AT – from Springer to Damascus – and backpacking is at the top of my list of favorite summertime activities. I even worked as an Adventure Instructor one summer for the Appalachian Mountain Club and another as a Crew Leader building trails in Colorado.

So if you’re like me all those years ago, fascinated with the idea of long-distance hiking and backpacking but not really sure how to get started without getting eaten by a bear, I would say El Camino de Santiago is for you! Why?

1. It’s not as long or difficult as other thru-hikes

El Camino de Santiago “starts” in the Pyrenees mountains on the border of Spain and France and leads you across Spain, ending in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, a total of about 500 miles. I say “starts” because there is really no beginning to the Camino, or even one Camino. It is a pilgrimage trail that leads to St. Jame’s final resting place at the cathedral so people used to just leave from their houses and head to Santiago, slowly merging together on common routes. The most common of these routes is the Camino Francés and is generally what people refer to as El Camino. All in all it takes most people a month to complete the Camino, a lot less than most thru-hikes.

In terms of terrain, if you start in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the border, you will experience some mountainous terrain on your first day. However, if you start in Roncesvalles on the Spanish side you’ll have skipped the more difficult day though there are definitely still some ups and downs for the first week or two.

The initial changes in elevation are not overly strenuous and what follows is a long flat section called the maseta. Some people find this section boring and it is where you will find yourself walking more on pavement but it is also a great spot for expansive views.

Once you get to Galicia, the trail returns to rolling hills, but again, nothing too strenuous.

Pilgrims, or peregrinos, are definitely still afflicted by blisters and overuse injuries (I got a bit of Achille’s tendonitis after a couple days of intense mud) but you are not climbing the spines of North America like on the CDT, PCT or AT.

very muddy legs on El Camino

2. You can shower and sleep in a bed every night!

El Camino is not a wilderness hike. Its beginnings as a pilgrimage mean that the trail intentionally passes through every town it goes past. People in the Middle Ages didn’t do the hike with tents and sleeping bags, instead they relied on the hospitality of people who lived along the way who were willing to help out a peregrino. Eventually, a whole network of albergues sprang up along the Camino, offering shelter for tired pilgrims for a small fee. Nowadays, they cost a few Euros for the night once you present your pilgrim passport. There is a huge variety in the style and quality of the albergues but they usually have an open bunk room, lots of showers and even some wash sinks and clotheslines to wash and dry your clothes.

Honestly, I am not the kind of person who needs to take a daily shower, but I do appreciate washing off sweat and sunscreen after a long day hiking. The showers are not always hot but you are still able to bathe every day, which is not even a remote possibility on other thru-hikes. And you can follow up your shower by jumping into a bed at night. To be clear, sleeping in a room with up to one hundred other pilgrims can sometimes not lead to the best sleep (note: BRING EARPLUGS), but, you don’t have to worry about finding even ground, waking up in a puddle or having to poop in a hole of your own making.

To stay in the albergues, you just walk in, present your passport, and pay. You can’t call ahead to make reservations but there are usually a couple options in town. If one town is completely full, the absolute worst thing that could happen is that you end up walking a few more miles to the next town. If you’re willing to spend a bit more money, there are also plenty of places to stay that are more like standard hotels, with your own private room and bathroom. However, the albergues are by far your cheapest option and a great spot to meet other pilgrims.

3. Your pack can be soooo light

Because you aren’t camping on El Camino, you don’t have to carry a tent and sleeping pad, which can make up some serious weight in your pack on wilderness hikes. The other things that usually weigh you down on long-distance hikes are food and water. However, on the Camino, you are passing through towns pretty much every few hours, all of which have water spouts, cafes that will sell you a bocadillo (sandwich) or restaurants that serve a standard meal specifically for pilgrims. I tended to eat a bocadillo for lunch and then, once I got to the albergue, would team up with other pilgrims to make dinner together in the kitchen. The pilgrim meals I mentioned are not ridiculously expensive but I was on a tight budget and was hiking with a group that included a few Italians so our home-made meals were delicious. I would normally grab something small for breakfast from the store where we bought dinner supplies but I pretty much never carried food in my pack.

It is still very possible, and even probable, that you will pack too much and get rid of some things along the way. In fact, I think my pack was about as big on el Camino as it was on my AT section hike. But the difference here is that you can get away with some heavier pieces of gear (my rain jacket was definitely not at all lightweight) and not suffer with a hugely weighted down pack since you don’t have those other heavier pieces of gear. As much as you try to prepare beforehand, there’s really nothing like walking day after day with your pack on to really teach you what is essential.

4. El Camino is a social trail

Like I mentioned, I did el Camino solo but I was not truly alone that much on the trail. A phenomena on every popular long-distance hike is that you end up seeing the same people night after night since you’re hiking at the same speed. After a while, it becomes a purposeful decision to all hike to the same spot each night and even to hike together during the day.

The really interesting thing about the Camino is that your trail family will probably be an international mix since people come from all over (though mostly from Europe and North America) to hike El Camino. Hiking with people from all over the world makes for an interesting mix of languages as well. For about the first half of the trail I was with a group that would normally speak a mixture of Spanish and English (with a little German, French and Italian thrown in too). There were even some people who couldn’t communicate directly with each other because of the language barrier but formed a close bond just the same.

Side note:

Speaking of language, people usually ask me if you need to speak Spanish to hike el Camino. The answer is no but you will make your life a lot easier if you know some basic phrases. The Spanish don’t necessarily love speaking in English even if they know it and you won’t need to worry about relying on another pilgrim if you need something out of the ordinary. I would recommend using something like Babbel (I like the format and the way they teach in this one) before you head out and then just bring a small dictionary or phrase book with you just in case.

The two men in the middle didn’t have a common language to speak together (middle left was Québécois and spoke English and French while the man to the middle right was Italian and spoke Italian and Spanish). They were great friends just the same.

Around the halfway mark our group started to break off due to time constrictions and other things so I ended up walking alone more (which I actually love) and making new friends. However, I did hike more or less until the end with one person from the group – an Italian fisherman named Cristiano. I would speak Spanish and he would speak Itañol (a mix of Italian and Español) but we ended up understanding each other pretty well for the most part.

5. No judgement for newbies

Most of the people on El Camino de Santiago are new to long-distance hiking and even backpacking so you don’t need to worry about any judgement coming from other pilgrims if you packed too much or make some other beginner mistake. Even seasoned pilgrims who have hiked El Camino over and over again are receptive and welcoming to new pilgrims. I know that the outdoor backcountry culture can be a bit intimidating when you’re new – not just because of the technical knowledge you need but also the intensity some people display regarding pack weight or ultra-lightweight gear. But that intensity generally won’t be found on the Camino, just pretty chill vibes.

This couple thought it would be fun to bring their dog along but it turned out its little legs made him tired really quickly so they ended up carrying him every day, alternating between their packs and a stick they both held one end of with a bag in the middle where their dog inside. They were clearly pretty fit people so they were able to handle it but I’m sure holding a stick between them all day got a little annoying.

6. It’s easy to bail out in case of emergency

The fact that you are eating in restaurants, using toilets, and drinking potable water means that your chances of getting sick are pretty low. However, if you do get sick or even roll an ankle, the benefit of not being in the backcountry is that you can bail out pretty easily. I ended up getting giardia with about a week and a bit to go on the Camino and though I mostly toughed it out, I had to take a bus for a couple days. The albergues will not allow you to stay there during the day so you can find a hotel to rest in or advance in a bus.

El Camino leading in to a small Spanish town

One of the days I decided to tough it out was also one of those rare all uphill days on El Camino. I was weak and dehydrated from being sick so at one point in the day I got really lightheaded and had to hang out on the side of the trail to avoid passing out. Some kind pilgrim coming by noticed that I was clearly not ok and ended up carrying my pack for me into the next town, where I stopped for the day. So although it’s never a bad idea to be prepared with first aid knowledge, there’s no need to be a Wilderness First Responder to start this hike.

7. You’re constantly cheered on

Every day on the Camino you’ll hear the typical greeting from all you pass, “Buen camino peregrin@!” (which means “Have a good walk pilgrim!”). Townspeople will say hello and are kind to the pilgrims that pass through. Pilgrims will end up using the same greeting amongst each other and generally, everyone is really supportive of each other. You won’t come across trail magic as on the North American long-distance trails but general support and enthusiasm for all the hikers is around you constantly.

8. Wine

So wine may not necessarily make the Camino a good first long-distance hike but it does make it really enjoyable! Some people joke that the Camino could be called El Camino del vino since you are walking through the best wine-producing region in Spain – La Rioja. And let’s be honest here, I’m not one to turn my nose up at Spanish wine even if it’s not from La Rioja. On most long-distance trails your alcohol options are limited to a flask due to weight but on the Camino you are literally surrounded by amazing wine everyday. Or, if beer is more your thing, you can finish your day with a clara, a light beer with some lemon juice or lemon soda mixed in (it’s so refreshing after a day spent under the hot Spanish summer sun).

At one point on El Camino there is even a wine fountain! The town fills it up every morning and you are welcome to drink as much as you’d like when you pass by. My group went by the fountain at around 9am so needless to say we didn’t make it as far that day as we had originally planned…

9. No navigation skills needed

Like the Appalachian Trail has white blazes, the Camino has yellow arrows. You do need to be prepared with a guidebook of the trail which will tell you distances from town to town and what sort of terrain to expect but as far as whether to take a left or right, the arrows will show you the way. Of course, it is not impossible to get lost on the Camino but if you do, you will probably run into someone before too long who will point out where you should be going. So don’t worry about not being able to read a compass or a topo map, you’ll be ok here.

10. Learn the ropes without the risks

Basically, all of these reasons come down to the fact that the Camino is a great place to experience long-distance hiking without as many of the risks as hiking one of the wilderness scenic trails in the U.S. I remember my first rainy day on the Camino so clearly, I was standing at the door of the albergue all ready to go for the day but waiting to see if the rain would subside before getting started. It did not let up and I eventually came to the realization that, unlike a day hike, I could not wait any longer, I had to hike in the rain that day. Plus, I had to learn how to be semi positive about it if I wanted to enjoy my day. I remember looking at the cows grazing in the rain, trying to channel their ambivalent attitude regarding getting wet.

Cows grazing in the Spanish countryside

Besides getting wet, you will experience intense fatigue, painful sore feet, probably some sort of heat stroke and will have to grapple with the internal question of “What the heck am I doing here?” But you will also experience a quiet joy when noticing the sun rise over a foggy landscape, the pleasure of taking off your boots after a hard day, belly laughs with other pilgrims over food that has never tasted as good in your life and the unbelievable sense of accomplishment and pride in what your body can handle. People choose to hike for weeks or months at a time in order to experience those extreme lows and highs, push themselves to the brink physically and emotionally and to reacquaint their body and mind with the slower pace of life you can find without cars, phone notifications and work deadlines.

Fog lifts in the morning over the Spanish countryside

It does a person immeasurable good to set out on a long, difficult journey and to look back at the end, knowing the hardships they faced and overcame. If you are craving those feelings, then get out there and start hiking. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the logistics or skills needed for other trails, then buy a plane ticket to Spain and do El Camino for your first thru-hike. But whatever trail you pick, buen camino, peregrino.

A pilgrim in front of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

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