March 13, 2007

Prepare for a Pilgrimage

Having done both long distance backpacking trips and a pilgrimage, I can tell you that they are both different, but also similar. For any extended trip, the more preparation made both mentally and physically not only increases the chances of completing the trek, but also increases the overall enjoyment of the journey.

General Itinerary:
500-miles/802km Camino Frances Santiago
188-miles/303km Vézelay Route to St Foy-la-Grande
096-miles/154km St Foy-la-Grande to Santes
235-miles/378km Sur le Chemin de Saint-Jacques
115-miles/185km Mont Sainte Michel to Cherbourg
028-miles/047km Pilgrim's Trail to Winchester
034-miles/055km St Swithun's Way to Farnham
110-miles/190km North Downs Way to Canterbury
1180-miles/1900km Via Francigena to Rome
~2500-miles/4000km total

Like almost any trip, gathering information not only gives you valuable facts but also brings your mind into exploring before you even leave home. In this day and age, the internet has definitely made the world a smaller place by making available obscure information readily available. Not only have I found websites on particular areas/routes, but also found books/maps only available in isolated locations. There is no such thing as too much information, but also don't get upset if there are gaps. That's when you 'really' become the explorer, setting out on a journey into the unknown. And hopefully when you return, will help others on similar journeys.

Below are a list of guidebooks I obtained and internet sites used planning the 'Triple Gem' pilgrimage from Santiago to Canterbury to Rome:


The Way of St James: Pyrenees-Santiago by Alison Raju
Let's Go: Spain

Pilgrim Guide: Historic Vezelay Route by Chassain
Le Guide du Chemin Vendeen vers Compostelle
Le chemin du Mont-Saint-Michel
Let's Go: France

Pilgrim's Trail by Hampshire County Council
St Swithun's Way by Hampshire County Council
North Downs Way: Farnham to Dover by John Curtin
Let's Go: Britain

La Via Francigena Guide de Londres au Grand St-Bernard
Let's Go: France

La Via Francigena Guide dal Gran San Bernaardo a Roma
Let's Go: Italy

Internet Resources:

The Confraternity of Saint James
Planner: Camino de Santiago
Santiago de Compostela Today
Canadian Company of Pilgrims
Tourism in Spain
Notes from Spain blog/podcast

Amis de St-Jacques de la Voie de Vézelay (in french)
SlowTravel: France
l'Association Bretonne (in french) (in french)
Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (in french) (in french)
l'Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel (in french)
France map

Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome
Pilgrim's Trail
St Swithun's Way
North Downs Way
Via Francigena
The Ramblers Association
Long Distance Walkers Association

Switzerland Tourism

International Association Via Francigena
Confraternita di San Jacopo di Compostella (in italian)
Associazione Europea delle Vie Francigene
La Via Francigena
Tourism in Italy
SlowTravel: Italy

Rick Steve's Europe European Pilgrimages
Via-Francigena Yahoo Group
The Roads to Santiago
European Pilgrimage Routes project
European Ramblers Association
Nuestros Senderos - Our Footpaths

Via Francigena Pilgrims
Enrico Brizzi da Canterbury a Roma (in italian)
Walking to Jerusalem Pilgrimage for Peace
AmAWalker blog
On the Way to Santiago

Physical Preparation:

Really the only way to prepare for a long walk is to go on a long walk. So, the aim of preparing for a pilgrimage is to do the best we can to get our body and mind ready for the task at hand, doing everything we can to reduce injuries and to give us a good base upon which to build on when we 'actually' start the walk.

So, the best course of action is to be in as good of general health as possible before starting out. If you need to loose weight, start now - your body will thank you later. Your aim is to get stronger, become more flexible, and increase your heart and lung capacity. Variety of activities not only gives you a better overall health, it also reduces the chances of injury. So, run, bike, swim, weight lift, yoga, tai chi and of course, walk.

But the most important physical change you need is to strengthen the knee and ankle joints. I don't care if you are an elite athlete, your joints are not prepared for the extra weight of carrying a backpack over miles of terrain. I've seen many young people zoom past me doing 20-30 miles their first days on the trail, only to go home with knees swollen the size of basketballs or ankles so sore they could barely walk. A great cardiovascular system can actually be a hinderance mentally.

Ligaments and tendons are the slowest adapting components in the body, but they will adapt. Start walking with a light backpack, gradually adding more weight as you get closer to your departure date. And also plan for short easy days the first week or two on the trail/route. All this allows your body to grow and adapt to new circumstances. I can't stress this enough - slow wins this race. That guy who looks like a couch potato that you flew by might just pass you later when you get injured. Think about it, think about it often.

Gear Selection:

The other way to decrease your chances of injury is to decrease the weight you're carrying. Take a hard look at everything in your backpack and decide if it is essential. Are you going to use it everyday? Is it for unforeseen circumstances? Can it be purchased along the way if needed? Do you really need that many clothes/shoes/whatever? Can you use something for several uses? Each trip I take, my gear weight gets smaller and smaller. Partly its because of advances in lightweight backpacking gear, but also because I have learned that I can live comfortably on less.

The bottom line is that if you do your both your mental and physical 'homework' before hitting the trail, not only have you assured yourself of successfully completing the trek, but you've laid the groundwork to make it an enjoyable trip that should provide good memories for the future.