Women’s Packing list for Camino de Santiago

It feels like a decade ago since this walk.

As I start to tentatively fantasize about local backpacking adventures for the PNW summer (that is very far away) I looked back to what I packed for the Camino. It will probably be a very long while before it’s safe to travel, let alone walk a Camino again. But we can look at photos and research and daydream for now.

A lot of people will say you need a 40-65L pack for this walk. If you plan to camp, then sure. If you plan to stay in hostels/albergues along the way, no way do you need a pack that big. I packed everything into an Osprey Kyte 36L backpack. It’s a hideously ugly pink pack and totally comfortable. That baby and I were fused for 550 miles. Less is really more on this. Unless you’re camping, it shouldn’t be hard to keep the weight of your pack down. I didn’t obsess over weighing every ounce that I packed or rip out the pages of my guidebook as I walked. But carry the absolute least amount of shit possible. If you can stuff everything into a 30L pack — even better! Trust me, your knees will thank you.

I met one woman with a very small daypack who had walked the Camino several times and now carried “Half the weight for twice the price.” If you can afford lighter weight, fancier stuff, go for it. For the rest of us, I am a big advocate for taking what you already have.

I walked from mid-August through the end of September. Six weeks total from St Jean Pied de Port to Finisterre. It was blazing hot in August. September was really pleasant — cool at night and in the mornings — very cold on some of the rainy, mountain pass days — but otherwise sunny and grand.

Packing List:

  • Merrell’s trail running shoes
  • 3 shirts, all synthetic – 1 tank top, 1 t-shirt, 1 long sleeve
  • 3 pairs underwear (no cotton!) + 3 pairs of socks – 2 wool, 1 with wool exterior and polyester interior
  • 1 pair roll up pants
  • 1 pair stretchy polyester shorts
  • 1 sports bra
  • Lightweight Marmot rain jacket and pants
  • Long rimmed floppy hat
  • Flip Flops
  • Fleece jacket
  • Tiny microfiber towel
  • Tiny bag of toiletries (with first aid stuff)
  • Journal and pens
  • Brierley’s Guidebook
  • Lightweight sleeping bag
  • Phone + charger
  • Water bottle
  • Earplugs – for the love of god bring the best you can get. Roncadores (snorers) in the albergues will destroy your sanity otherwise.
  • Waterproof liner for the inside of backpack — it will rain, this will keep your stuff dry
  • Splurge item: a pillow case
  • Walking stick — I bought this for 10 euro in Spain. I will never, ever go on a long distance walk without one. It saved my knees so many times going downhill. My first day walking I foolishly didn’t buy one because I thought walking sticks were for old people with knee problems. And I was twenty-nine. Nope. Young and dumb. My knees SCREAMED at me on the steep descent to Roncesvalles on day one. I bought a walking stick the second I got there. SHUT YOUR EGO UP AND TAKE A WALKING STICK.

Things I bought when the weather turned cold in September:

Warm beanie hat, scarf, gloves, and leggings

I was always afraid of running out of snacks, because hiker hunger is real and I couldn’t seem to get enough in me. I carried far more food on a daily basis than was necessary. You’re passing through towns every few miles so there’s rarely a time when you’ll be far from a food source.

Snacks I carried too much of but love for walking through Spain:

  • Tuna, tuna, and more tuna. Tins of it are drenched in olive oil. Add a baguette and some fresh tomatoes and you got a right fine lunch.
  • A tiny bottle of olive oil — ridiculous to carry. But delicious on everything.
  • Dark chocolate. Duh.
  • Avellana (hazelnut) bars and juice boxes for breakfast snacks (Fruits of the Forest or OJ)
  • Tiny tangerines
  • Digestive biscuits — I was never without a roll of these in my pack. I grew up on them so I felt like my childhood from growing up in Madrid was also sustaining me. The best ones have a smear of milk chocolate on them. Great dunked in coffee. Or when you’re really cranky in the morning. Or when you need an afternoon push because it’s so rainy and cold and you just need something sweet to get you through.

Then there are hopes and fears that will add weight to your pack on a long distance walk, arguably more than the physical stuff we carry. But hopefully the fear part of that load lightens as you go. Stay safe and Buen Camino when the time comes one day!

Gâteau Basque

The only time I’ve ever had this cake, the real deal, was in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees.

Many of us are still in quarantine. We can’t travel, but our taste buds sure can. I dug through the internet for a recipe that would replicate the texture of the Gâteau Basque I had in St. Jean and this one did it. If food tastes like memories then, for me, this cake tastes like adventure and new beginnings and excitement and freedom. Which are all of the things many of us are craving right now.

This is why I love this cake: it’s not fluffy or frosted. It’s a shallow, thin cake with some kind of decadent filling. Often vanilla pastry cream, lemon cream, or cherry preserves. The texture of this cake is somewhere between a crumbly tart and cake. There’s this papery thin layer on top that I was determined to replicate. It’s kind of dense, kind of crumbly, very buttery. Oh yeah, and RIDICULOUSLY DELICIOUS.

Gâteau Basque Recipe

The dough recipe adapted from here.

Dough

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour + 1/8 cup
  • 1/2 cup almond flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 stick + 1 tbsp unsalted, soft butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tsp almond extract

In one bowl whisk flour, baking powder, salt. In a standing mixer (or a large bowl) fitted with a paddle, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks and then whole egg along with almond extract. Beat until thoroughly mixed. On low speed add the flour mixture and almond flour.

Form into two disks. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.

Lemon Curd Filling

Thank you, Ina Garten, for this recipe.

  • 3 lemons
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 pound unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice (about 3 or 4 lemons)
  • 1/8 tsp salt

Optional: A handful of raspberries, fresh or frozen, to add later during cake assembly

Cream the butter and beat in the sugar. Add zest of three lemons. Add the eggs, one at a time, and then the lemon juice and salt. Mix until just combined.

Transfer to a two quart saucepan and cook over low heat 10 -20 minutes, until thickened, stirring constantly. If the mixture looks grainy whisk it the whole time. The lemon curd thickens around 170 degrees or just below a simmer. Remove from heat and cool then refrigerate several hours. It will thicken up a lot more when it cools.

Assemble the cake

Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease an 8-inch cake pan or tart pan with removable bottom. Cut out a circle of parchment or wax paper to line the bottom of the pan and grease that too if you are using a regular cake pan.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the first disk of dough to a 1/4-inch thickness and cut out an 8 inch round. Use the scraps with the second disk. Slide the round onto a lightly floured baking sheet and refrigerate until firm, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, roll the second disk out to a little over 1/4-inch thickness. It should be bigger than the 8inch pan. Transfer it to an 8-inch pan. Lightly press the dough onto the bottom and up the side of the pan. Trim off the excess and refrigerate the tart shell until firm, about 10 minutes.

Pour in the lemon curd. Dot the top of the curd with a handful of fresh or frozen raspberries. Place the 8-inch disk on top of the curd and seal the edges. Trim the edges. Brush with egg wash. Using a fork, lightly skewer the top to make a diamond pattern.

Place on a baking sheet and bake on the lower third of the oven for 20 minutes. Then transfer to the top third of the oven about 40 minutes longer until golden brown on top. Let it cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack. Enjoy warm or room temperature.

Excess dough can be made into cookies! Roll them out to 1/4 inch thickness and bake at 350 about 20 minutes or golden.

St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Imagine you’re here while you eat.

Getting to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port from Madrid

Ink sketch of St Jean

A few summers ago I took a train ride from Madrid followed by a nauseating bus ride through switchbacks in the Pyrenees to here: St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. A ridiculously cute, charming French village snuggled into the mountains and popular starting point for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. It was evening and I should have looked for a place to sleep but my first order of business was to find a slice of Gâteau Basque—A light, thin buttery crust filled with lemon cream and a few raspberries. (My nausea from the bus ride was immediately replaced with squealing, happy tastebuds.) Then I sat on this stoop here, eating cake for dinner, waiting for the Pilgrim Office to reopen from their dinner break, thinking this was the best damn start to the long walk ahead.

You can’t spit without seeing a bakery in St. Jean. Highly recommend getting a slice (or two) the evening before you begin the Camino, if you plan on beginning your walk at dawn. Since there is only one reliable stop for food between St Jean and Roncesvalles (the bar at Orisson) a slice of Gâteau Basque for snack/second breakfast is pretty great.

How to get to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port from Madrid

I took the train from Madrid’s Atocha station to Pamplona. It was 3 hours, around 50 € if booked on the same day (you could save money by booking ahead on Renfe’s website.) From the Pamplona train station you can walk to the bus station (Estación de Autobuses de Pamplona) or take a taxi. It’s about 2.5 km (1.5 miles).

I arrived during late afternoon, siesta time, and the streets were basically empty. As a solo woman I felt perfectly safe walking from the train to the bus station during the day. (Might as well walk since you’re about to embark on a 500 mile journey on foot anyway, right?) From there catch the bus to St. Jean. (Cost around 20 €) It also passes through Roncesvalles, which can feel a little weird to drive through a town you’re going to walk back to the next day.

If you have a smartphone it’s a good idea to download an offline Google map of Pamplona so you have walking directions between stations, without using data on your phone.

Side note: The bus only runs direct to St Jean in the busier months of Spring — Summer. Check the ALSA bus website for times. I took the bus in August.

Also: I’ve heard about the horrendous crowds of pilgrims beginning in St Jean and the lack of beds in Roncesvalles since one of the big albergues closed. Why not begin your walk in Pamplona instead?

Streets of Pamplona