After selecting your Camino footwear, your Camino backpack will be the next most important gear choice you make for a pilgrimage to Santiago. This pack will be your home as you make your way along the trail, and will hold everything you have in your possession. If you pick the wrong pack and/or pack too much, you’ll struggle through the miles with chaffed shoulders, a tired back, and irritated hips. I’ve put together a few helpful tips to assist you in selecting the right backpack and to help you avoid the fate of pilgrims hitting The Way with the wrong pack.
- Pack light! When I ask fellow pilgrims what they learned and/or what they would do differently, the number one response is ‘I would bring less stuff!”. If you pack too much stuff and bring a heavy load, no backpack can help you. Pack light and only bring the essentials.
- Get fitted: Once you’ve decided on a pack (or a few packs), go to REI and get yourself fitted for the correct size. If your pack is only available online, make sure to measure your torso and hips to order the correct sizing option. Play with the hip belt, shoulder straps, load lifters, etc, to get the perfect fit for your body shape.
- Train, train, and train some more: Once you’ve been fitted and have purchased the perfect pack, your journey is ready to begin. Load up your pack with your target base weight and get a few months of training hikes in. Make sure your shoulders, hips, and back are comfortable. If you’re going to have problems with your pack, you want to make sure they happen before you hit The Way.
- Think Small: When putting your pack list together (see mine), aim for a total weight of around 20-25lbs, and a base weight (without footwear and worn clothing) of around 15 lbs. This will allow you to move light and comfortable.
- Think Strategically: Don’t pack what you can buy along the way. Snacks, drinks, and food can all be purchased multiple times a day, so don’t stock up. Basic toiletries and first aid can also be purchased at least every other day, so keep your kit to the basics. Clothes can be washed by hand daily, so two pair of each item is enough for most.
- Nothing trumps training and fitness. It doesn’t matter how much time and money you spend picking up the perfect gear. If you’re not in shape physically and mentally, your odds of completing a pilgrimage walk will go down dramatically.
Given these trail conditions, I suggest pilgrims target packs in the 20-40L capacity range. If you’re packing light, 25L will be more than enough. It’s nice to have a little more space to carry snacks, drinks, and to have your pack purchase be a backpacking option in your post-Camino life. To those that think that sounds like small pack, there are many thru-hikers on trails like the JMT, PCT, CDT, and AT that manage, and they carry tents, water filtration, bear canisters, and more.
What I Look For
Many aspiring pilgrims (like me) do a lot of their shopping and gear prospecting online. When looking a backpacks and footwear this can present some real challenges, since it is much better to try these items on in person. To help address this challenge, I’ve put together a list of things to look out for when viewing photos, spec sheets, and backpack descriptions.
- Lightweight: Don’t look at anything over 3lbs, and aim for under 2lbs
- Breathable: Wearing a backpack all day on the hot meseta can be challenge if the pack doesn’t ventilate well on the back panel
- Proper Fit: Make sure to measure your torso and waist to get the right pack size length and hip belt size. Women should also look for gender specific packs
- Durable: Lightweight packs are great, but can lack durability. Make sure to read reviews to ensure the pack will last.
- Comfortable: Look for padded shoulder straps, load lifters, and a comfortable hip belt
- Availability: It’s important to be able to try on a backpack before buying it. For this reason I suggest going to stores like REI where you can try a pack on, or ordering online from places with easy return policies like Amazon or Zappos.