Ever since deciding I would walk the Camino, I’ve been thinking about the backpack. Everything I take I’ll be carrying on my back…for 500 miles give or take. My immediate thoughts zipped back to the only other time I went on a backpacking trip. That was nearly 15 years ago and just a short distance. I’m talking about 5 miles! It made such an impression on me that I wrote about it in my second book Standing Stark. Here’s an excerpt.
…Every item that went into the pack, or hung from it, involved a mindful decision on my part toward my later comfort. Even so, when we arrived at the place where we finally left the car and I put the full weight of the pack on my back for the first time, I wondered how I would ever make it with the load. I nearly fell over backwards. It took many adjustments before I felt I could carry the weight of my baggage.
Descending the long and rocky, twisting trail, I found I had to be very focused on placing my feet to keep myself upright. After what seemed like an age, we finally reached relatively flat ground and trudged along a path. But it had been a couple of years since my companion had been in the area. Since that time, something natural, or not so natural, had caused the trail he knew so well to disappear. It had been rerouted. He wasn’t exactly sure where we were, although he thought we were going the right way. I had been blindly following him — trusting, if you will — while the majority of my attention was taken up with the increasingly uncomfortable burden on my back. I was becoming slightly on edge at the lack of clear direction. Then I became alarmed!
When we rounded what passed for the trail, I realized that if we were to go farther we would have to cross what looked to me like a river with nothing more than irregularly placed stones to step on to the other side…I tried to calculate my path, one stone to the other. All looked perilous to me. I took a step and felt myself becoming even more unbalanced, the heaviness of my burden wanting me to fall backwards and be “swept” away. In the middle of the “river,” I couldn’t move…
This lesser traveled path being what it was, we actually had to cross waters like that two additional times before we came to the campsite he had in mind. Over a particularly dicey crossing, my companion took both of our packs with him at once so that I could make my way in slightly less fear. Needless to say, I felt enormous relief to reach our resting place of a few days…
…Eventually, we had to leave and head home. This time, though, the pack seemed lighter to me and somehow more stable. While the food we had carried in was indeed absent, there was something else that had not been present that made the pack seem more a part of me — confidence…
That experience became a metaphor to me about overcoming fear and beginning to trust in my body’s intelligence. So when I’m thinking about the backpack now—after that first thought—it’s not related to fear. But it’s certainly about what is to go into the pack. That earlier time we were carrying things I won’t have to carry this time: food, tent and other camping accessories. Still, we’ll be walking every day for over a month, aside from a few breaks. And the recommendations I’ve read say: Don’t carry more than 10% of your body weight.
I am taking the pint-sized sleeping bag I take on my Mexico journeys. It weighs 3 pounds. Add an extra pair of hiking shoes, the weight goes up. (It hadn’t occurred to me that my shoes would wear out with daily use until Oscar, my Camino companion, mentioned it.) That doesn’t leave much more if I abide by the recommendations. Every ounce counts. Or pay the consequences.
I started doing online research and entered foreign territory. All the gadgets and high tech gear. Then Janet Harvey, a dedicated hiker and traveler in my programs, told me about Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail in the mid-1950s. She carried a denim bag over her shoulder, wore sneakers, brought a shower curtain in case of rain and slept on piles of leaves if there wasn’t other shelter… for 2050 miles. And we’re only doing 500.
I told Oscar we should just forget all the stuff retailers are lobbying hikers to buy and strike out like Grandma Gatewood, an inspiring role model to me. However, I did remember the main issue I had before was an ill-fitting backpack and invested in one that feels quite light and comfortable. The same with shoes. After switching brands and styles a few times, I’m very happy with my Ahnus. I did decide my iPad Air and slip-in-the-pocket camera were necessities to document the journey in words and images, keep in touch periodically, consult the Camino guidebook and read for relaxation.
The big quandary was about rain gear: poncho with built-in pack cover or rain jacket with separate pack cover. Everyone has an opinion on that controversy. The online forums are full of them, just about split down the middle. We’re likely to run into every sort of weather this time of year. Checking the weather today for St-Jean-Pied-de-Port where we’ll start showed storms to partly cloudy over the next week at least with temps between 60-74F.
I wasn’t going to bring a shower curtain like Grandma Gatewood did, and these specialized ponchos can be quite expensive. I bought into the arguments for the poncho and finally found one from Canada that didn’t break the bank. However, it weighs 4 pounds. Something I didn’t pay attention to when I bought it. With it, my pack is at 13 pounds. That’s with no clothing or toiletries. So after—again—going back and forth, I’m jettisoning that poncho and will use the rain jacket that has served me just fine in all my other travels. And the Deuter backpack comes with a rain cover, which I thought was considerate of the maker.
I’m only telling you all this to convey the level of research and decision-making that has gone into this packing process for me this time. I travel quite frequently but not like this. If I take things I don’t really need, they normally just languish in my suitcase.
This is an exercise in what truly matters to me and basic necessities. Anything else I can do without…and that can go anywhere. It’s good to be reminded.
First lesson of the Camino.