On the Camino de Santiago—or any other long-distance trek—bragging rights belong to the person who has the least.
I understood this in principle before I left for my six-week, 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino Frances in the spring of 2018; but after my very first day—24 kilometers (about 15 miles) climbing over the Pyrenees—I understood it from experience.
Some of the earliest and best books on walking the Camino, such as Elyn Alva’s Following the Milky Way, or Kevin Codd’s To the Field of Stars chronicle theirs and others’ tedious struggles with heavy packs and the injury and pain they suffered. Alva walked to Santiago in 1982, not prepared at all for the weight of her pack and the distance she would have to walk with it. She continually recounts—in painful repetition—a plague of aches, pains and injuries that came largely from an overloaded pack.
Books have been written about what to carry on the Camino; I had two of these on my bookshelf at home, one of which is called, To Walk Far, Carry Less, (by Jean-Christie Ashmore) the title of which sums it all up. The message? Go with less, less, less.
Carrying too much weight—and the ailments that go with it—is entirely unnecessary. For a modest investment, any modern pilgrim can outfit her or himself with adequate amounts of lightweight gear, and combined with the abundance of guidance about what to carry in books and online forums, there is no need to carry more than ten percent of body weight. Even so, during my six-week walk, I was repeatedly surprised to encounter people with overloaded packs, and their dilemma of what to get rid of.
My own pack when full—minus water—weighed just over seven kilos (16 pounds), just over ten percent of my body weight. Knowing the temptation to pack too much, I deliberately chose a smaller pack—its volume was 38 liters—an “ultralight,” weighing just under a kilo empty. This forced me to keep the contents of my pack light, since I was going to carry it the whole way. Two weeks before I left I did a “dry-run” packing of my gear, weighing each object down to the gram, recording it on a spreadsheet as I stowed it inside my bag. I had thought I had the bare minimum, but when I totaled it I was shocked: 10 kilos or 22 pounds. I put the pack on and thought about what it would feel like after four or five hours of walking. Clearly, I was going to have to trim down.
I pulled everything out and sorted it again. Gone went the extra shirt and sweater, extra underclothes, my winter cap, and my heavy rain jacket. I reluctantly swapped my Chaco sandals for my Birkenstocks, saving half a kilo. I sorted through and eliminated smaller items, such as spare charging cables and batteries, handkerchiefs, and a sizeable writing journal. Satisfied that I had reduced things as much as I could, I deleted them from the spreadsheet and looked afresh at the total: seven kilos (16 pounds.) I had reached my target weight! And I knew that if I still needed something, I could purchase it in Spain.
As I trained and gradually increased my walking distance in the weeks leading up to my departure, I also found another thing happening: I was dropping the weight of my “engine,” losing eight pounds.5 While in Spain, I lost another seven. My experience is that the weight of the pack has a far greater effect on the feet, knees and hips, than it does on the back. Many of the foot problems people develop (including blisters) are exacerbated by issues of weight. Considering that I walked approximately 1.25 million steps, I was glad my pack was as light as it was.
I had been inspired months before I left by an “ultralight” backpacker, named Clint Bunting, aka “Lint,” who is known to take as little as eight pounds on long-distance trips. He says, (to paraphrase him), “People pack their fears. Whatever they’re scared of, is what they overpack for. If they’re scared of being cold, they pack a lot of extra layers…If they’re scared of bugs, they pack bug spray…If they’re afraid of being hungry, they pack more food…” In essence, it’s our fears that weigh us down, not just on the Camino, but in all of life. Free from fear, all of our loads, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual, lighten themselves. Along the Way, I learned that I could borrow from fellow pilgrims and that I could lend and give just as freely. So many of the fears we have in life are more in our mind than in reality.
The free sharing is part the bond of community that the pilgrimage creates. I recall at least three times I found myself, mid-afternoon, taking a break and feeling very hungry. In each case, there weren’t cafés or shops open in villages I had passed through, or maybe I’d just misjudged when and where I would be able to stop and buy something. In each case, I came across pilgrim companions who were more than happy to share with me whatever it was they had. It was this act of receiving that struck me more than anything else: I find it harder to receive than to give, because being “needy” affects my ego. I also found this free give-and-take made it easy for me to share something I might consider precious (hard-to-find) and to not worry. This is a principle of life and something that I need a daily reminder about.
It is now nearly two years since I walked the Camino Frances, but the lessons I learned about packing light inform how I live at home. Currently in a process of de-cluttering our house, I ask myself questions that I learned from packing light:
• When was the last time I used this?
• Will I ever need it?
• Is this something I can do without?
Also, if I want to buy something for myself, I put the item on a list, with the price. Most things sit on that list a long time. I recall again the people I met in Spain who struggled with getting rid of things; I recall the ease of packing everything I owned in a 16-pound pack and heading off in the early morning, free of any great concern.
That’s the way I still want to live.
This is adapted from the chapter “We Pack Our Fears” in my book, The Walk of a Lifetime.