What does one carry on a pilgrimage across Europe?
According to a scale of questionable accuracy in Aubrac, my pack, with water, weighed about 10 kilograms, or 22 pounds. That’s way more than what most ultralight backpackers would recommend, but it was never so much that I couldn’t carry it. My luxuries were small and carefully considered.
I started researching and collecting things for the trip at least 6 months before we left, and discovered that minimal living can get expensive fast. I relied on thrift stores and Amazon clearance sales as much as REI, and there were definitely compromises made when it came to cost vs. weight. For instance, I lusted after the 13-ounce Sea to Summit Traveler bag, but the 2-pound REI Travel Sack was $140 less. Was a pound really worth $140? I decided not.
Here’s what I ended up bringing:
- Backpack: Gregory Jade 38L. Great fit for my narrow shoulders, more than enough room for everything I carried.
- Sleeping Bag: REI Travel Sack, rated for 50 degrees. We started walking in April, when the air was still chilly at night and I appreciated a sleeping bag. By June we would have been okay with just lightweight sheet sacks.
- ThermaRest travel pillow, explained elsewhere
- Quick-dry travel towel, 24×48”
- 1 Nalgene-style water bottle, .75 liters (Eric carried two, so we had two liters of water between us, which was always more than enough.)
Guidebooks: (all reviewed here)
- Alison Raju’s The Way of St. James Vol 1: Le Puy to the Pyrenees
- Miam Miam Dodo GR65
- John Brierly’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago
- John Brierly’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Finisterre
- Merrell trail running sneakers, traded in mid-trip for Salomon hiking sneakers and high-arch inserts. Since I threw all of these shoes away, I don’t remember the specific styles.
- Teva Terra Fi Lite sandals. (I splurged on the thicker soles and better support, with the idea that these would be both shower shoes and backup hiking shoes. Instead, I discovered that my dry and quick-to-crack feet don’t walk well in sandals for long distance. Next time I’d still bring Tevas—comfortable, versatile, waterproof—but I’d pick the lightest-weight ones possible.)
- SmartWool long-sleeved zip jacket (the warmest single layer I had)
- SmartWool vest (a last-minute addition and the most versatile thing I brought. I love vests.)
- Long-sleeved merino blend half-zip shirt (became my hiking shirt every day)
- Long-sleeved BugsAway mesh shirt for sun/bug protection (I used this a few times, but could have done without it.)
- 1 sleeveless sport shirt (good for a base layer and hiking shirt)
- 1 short-sleeved merino wool T-shirt (loved this; should have had two of these)
- 1 long tank top (intended to be another base layer; became my nod toward modesty when sleeping in rooms full of people)
- 2 pair of hiking pants (a sturdier pair from Kuhl, which also had more pockets, became the “hiking” pair, day after day after day; a thinner pair of Columbia pants became the “after-walking” pants for afternoons and evenings)
- 1 pair merino wool leggings (for long underwear and sleepwear)
- 1 lightweight travel skirt (I never felt like I needed to “dress up,” but this was nice for hot summer afternoons)
- 2 pair thin SmartWool socks (one sock had serious holes by the end of the trip)
- 2 pair thick hiking SmartWool socks (I lost one pair about two weeks into the trip)
- 3 pair of underwear
- 2 lightweight, quick-dry sports bras
- Patagonia rain shell
- Nylon hat for sun and rain protection
- 1 Buff merino scarf
- 1 Buff headband
- 1 Buff thin scarf (I don’t remember why I packed this, since I already had a scarf and a headband. But it ended up fitting nicely in a waist pocket of my pack and served as a much-needed handkerchief when hiking in the cold made my nose run. So if you’re using this post to craft your ow packing list, bring a handkerchief.)
- Sunglasses (plus case)
- Digital watch with alarm
- 3 mesh laundry-style bags for organizing clothes (Benefits: you can see through them to know what’s inside, and there’s no crinkly noises to bother other pilgrims; I had one bag for dirty laundry, one bag with my “after shower” clothes packed and ready to take to the bathroom, and one bag for everything else.)
- Bought along the way: 1 straw sun hat
- REI shower case (the built-in hook was an important benefit in most shower stalls, which rarely had sufficient—or any—ways to hang clothes or supplies).
- Soap in a quick-dry mesh bag (standard Dove, which we used for cleaning bodies and clothes; the mesh bag helped with scrubbing)
- Travel-sized folding toothbrush
- Travel-sized toothpaste (had to replace this before the end of the trip)
- 3 cheap, disposable razors (one for each month; needless to say, I wasn’t shaving my legs often)
- Travel-size hairbrush
- Deodorant (3 oz. travel size)
- Conditioner (3 oz. travel size; I used bar soap to wash my hair, but I wasn’t prepared to deal with the crazy frizz that would happen if I didn’t put some kind of product into my short curls. Don’t judge.)
- Hair styling lotion (3 oz. travel size. See above about judging. I used these sparingly, and they lasted the whole three months, with some to spare.)
- Q-Tips (I didn’t count how many, but it was a limited number that we used occasionally as a luxury.)
- Safety pins. (These are NOT a luxury. We used safety pins for everything: clothespins on outside lines, ways to attach still-wet clothes or other gear to our packs, ways to fix damaged clothes, etc.)
- A few spare hair elastics
- Eyeliner pencil (A luxury, but really, does this even weigh enough to matter?)
- Nail file
- Toenail clippers
- Bottle of Ibuprofen tablets (Needed to replace this several times over the course of the trip, and then we discovered the wonders of Ibuprofen GEL, but that’s another post for another day.)
- Bought along the way: trekking poles (bought in France; lost them three weeks later in Spain, but I was glad to have them in the windy Pyrenees); super-concentrated lotion for cracked feet
- Camino credentials (the first one issued by American Pilgrims of the Camino, which I filled in France, and a second issued by the pilgrim office in in St. Jean Pied de Port)
- Small billfold to carry cash, debit card
- Small nylon cross-body purse to keep cash/passport/credentials, offering some rain/water protection. I mostly left this in my backpack, but it was easy to pull out when we stopped in cafes/churches/places where we left the packs outside.
- Camera (Canon PowerShot Elph, which fit in a pocket and took stunning pics)
- 1 set titanium travel silverware (which we used maybe once)
- Cell phone (which was almost never on in Europe, but the Kindle app came in handy for reading)
- Journal and pen
- 3 paperback books: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and The Fifth Column, and Paul Harding’s Tinkers. (I’d finished them all within 3 weeks)
- MP3 player (I only ended up using this on airplanes and trains, and could have lived without it)
- Chargers and European outlet adapters
- Variety of Zip-Loc style plastic bags (for storing food, keeping books and electronics dry)
- Tall kitchen trash bags (to use as liners inside the backpack on rainy days. Between this and the rain cover on the outside of my pack, everything stayed dry even in the worst downpours.)
Eric’s packing list was similar to mine, except without all of the luxuries. That man has figured minimalism out: two pair of pants (that easily rolled up when the weather warmed), 3 T-shirts, 1 sweater, 1 rain jacket, some socks and underwear. One Buff scarf. Sunglasses. Minimal walking shoes that horrified the French, who were convinced he couldn’t go so far without better footwear. Minimal sandals. A bar of soap and a toothbrush. One book. I think that’s it.
He carried most of our food, and some of our shared supplies:
- First aid kit: Band-Aids (which we never used), moleskin bandages (which we did), antibiotic ointment, tweezers, needles and thread (for blisters), disposable lighter (for sterilizing needles; in hindsight, alcohol wipes would have been better), athletic tape
- Parachute cord to use as a spare laundry line (we only used this once, and could have left it at home)
- GPS Spot and extra batteries, to appease the people at home
- Bought along the way (since the airlines won’t let us carry them): Pocket knife (actually, he went through 3 pocket knives on the trip until he found the right one (an Opinel); small scissors
I may be missing something. If you have questions, or your own recommendations, please share in the Comments!