When my partner asked me whether I would consider walking the Camino de Santiago with him, I said yes straight away. Despite my quick and certain response, what I actually thought was ‘that will never happen’. Whilst I didn’t know the details of the walk, I was aware that it was long – very long. As I rewound my boyfriend’s Camino based ramblings in my head, a figure of five hundred miles surfaced from the deep. There was no way I was going to be able to walk that far! I struggled to make it up a set of stairs without gasping for air! After saying yes to ‘the big walk’, I put the Camino business out of my mind. He couldn’t be serious. A few weeks later and upon realising that he actually planned for us to make the trip, I thought I should probably find out what I had agreed to.
I did what all millennials in doubt do and headed to the internet. With the help of trusty Google, I was able to find online forums documenting the experiences of other pilgrims and a history of the hike. Initially, the Camino de Santiago came into existence to serve as a network of Catholic pilgrimage routes, all bound to arrive in the city of Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, there are nine pilgrimage routes that are recognised by the church. The most popular of these are the French, Portuguese, Northern, and Finisterre way. However, a pilgrim can start their Camino journey from anywhere in the world, providing they join one of the prescribed routes eventually. All of these trails lead to the famous Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, where it is said the relics of Saint James are held. In 1993, UNESCO declared the routes as World Heritage Sites which brought the trek into mainstream consciousness. As the Camino’s appeal boomed, the religious influence dampened and in 2017 over half of pilgrims cited that they did the pilgrimage for spiritual and cultural reasons as opposed to religious.
In June this year, we embarked on our Camino journey and took the French way beginning in St. Jean. This route totals nearly five hundred miles. Considering I agreed to the undertaking on a whim, I was surprised by how much the Camino taught me, both about myself and others. This is why there has never been a better time for you to walk the way.
Historically, women were not allowed to do the pilgrimage
For many women in the Middle Ages, walking the Way of St. James was pretty much off limits. It was believed that a journey of this nature would pose a risk to the morals of women and tempt them into sinful behaviour. In modern times and as religious ideas have become more progressive, these barriers no longer prevent women from taking on the journey.
Many hiking brands are catering specifically to women’s bodies
As the popularity of hiking amongst female communities continues to rise, many big brands have tapped into this huge potential market. Osprey are just one major brand who are now creating backpacks which cater specifically to women. The main way in which these differ from men’s rucksacks is that they feature a short torso range as well as narrower and shorter shoulder straps. These small changes are monumental in helping women find a bag to suit their shape and increase their comfort during hikes. During my Camino journey, I was shocked to discover just how little weight my shoulders and back needed to take. Through the use of the hip and chest straps provided on my hiking pack, I was able to distribute the weight of my bag evenly, making it more comfortable to carry.
There are dedicated women-only Camino tours
If you are somebody who has been toying with the idea of the Camino de Santiago for a while but can’t find a travel buddy, fear no more! As the Camino has moved away from its traditional roots, it has officially cemented its status as a long distance hiking trail. Owing to the social nature of the trek and the budget hostels that scatter the routes, it is probably one of the best hikes for first-timers. The popularity of the Camino de Santiago, as well as its reputation for camaraderie, has led tour companies to listen to demand and introduce tailored tours specifically for women. Whilst a tour isn’t necessary to do the Camino, they can be helpful if you are nervous about beginning the journey. For more information on these, check out Wild Women Expeditions and Raw Travel.
It is a good trek to do solo
Certain routes of the Camino de Santiago, in particular, the French and the Portuguese ways, are very popular with visitors so they are great trails to do for your first long-distance hike. Having the support of your fellow walkers is hugely comforting and you will be amazed how quickly you bond and grow your Camino family. Unlike some of the long distance US wilderness hikes, the Camino winds through towns and cities which means help is never far if you become injured along the way. The availability of support on the trail mean it is definitely one of the safer hikes for solo female travellers to take on.
The number of women walking the Camino is roughly equal to the number of men now
According to the Official Pilgrim Office statistics, the percentage of women who completed the Camino de Santiago in 2017 was 49%. Considering that historically women were warned against doing the Camino, it is encouraging to see that there has been so much progress within the pilgrim demographics. As the Camino is growing in popularity with female hikers, you will also get the chance to meet some of these inspirational, kick-ass women from all over the globe. I was lucky enough to meet some incredible people during my journey including a German girl who had couch surfed solo across Africa and a middle-aged woman who had suffered mercury poisoning for years before she even found out! Having the opportunity to meet these kinds of amazing people is hugely humbling and really serves to put your own experiences in perspective.
You can do it at any age (and people do)!
Many people think that travel (and especially travel of a physical nature) is something that has an age limit. This is simply not true. Age does not need to stop anyone, especially women who are finding more opportunities to get involved in travel now than previously in their lives. During my own Camino journey I saw countless women over forty who were doing the trek and even met a lady in her sixties who had done the Camino every year for the past two decades!
It is a journey into yourself
Perhaps the biggest selling point of the Camino de Santiago and the most important reason for doing it is the mission of self-discovery that you will embark on at the same time. Although the reason for walking the way is traditionally religious, the hike now connects with people for all sorts of different reasons. Whether you need some time out to make an important decision or just want some time to reflect, I guarantee you there is no better way to do this than walking through the picturesque Spanish countryside.
It is true that when they say many people on the Camino are ‘walking something off’ and I felt like I was in the minority because I didn’t have any trauma to process on the journey. Despite this, I found that I didn’t need one big event to focus on. The time to think left me questioning everything I had ever assumed and thought about myself. It started with something as little as ‘what if my P.E. teachers could see me now?’, (I was always that gawky kid who was picked last in sports) to ‘I must be so much stronger than I thought for being able to do this journey’. The Camino taught me that whilst many do not have a question in mind, answers may find them all the same.
What are you waiting for?
Before I embarked on my Camino journey, I was not a hiker and had just agreed to walk the way on a whim. You will always think that you need more money, more training and more time to get fit. For some people, these excuses will allow them to sit in their comfort zone and prevent them from stepping out of their front door. Do not let yourself be one of these people. When I made my first footprint on the Camino, I definitely felt like I needed to be fitter and more prepared for the emotional challenge of what was to come. Despite this, I jumped in feet first because I knew it was the only way I would make the leap. What’re 500 miles to a gutsy girl traveller anyway?
Sheree Hooker runs Winging the World.