Camino: Should You Travel Solo or in a Group?

Leslie Anna 13km from Santiago

When planning a pilgrimage, travelers, besides deciding what route to take and what to pack, are often faced with a choice of going for it alone or as a part of a group.

The forums are swirling with questions such as “I want to do the Camino, but I have nobody to go with, should I go alone?”, “I couldn’t agree on dates with my friends, but I still want to go, is it OK?”,  “Is it better to travel via an agency if I go alone?”, etc. Bottom line, everyone wants to know what is the better option.

I walked the Camino Frances from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Finisterre and, truth be told, I never doubted for a minute I wanted to do the whole journey alone. Was it better or worse than a group, I can’t really tell, but I can definitely offer a few pointers.

Traveling with a Partner or in a Group

On my way, I had the pleasure to meet a lot of couples, friends or families who have decided to walk together. In fact, there were a few solo travelers who paired up from the start. Rather than talking about that experience as better or worse, it is more accurate to call it simply different.

The Up-Sides

  • You are not all alone in a foreign country, and that can be quite a calming thought for many, especially if this is your first trip abroad.
  • It’s more practical regarding packing as you do not need to necessarily carry all the things you need yourself but instead distribute it evenly among the people with whom you are traveling.
  • Camino, no matter how long or short a route you decide to walk, is unlike any other trip you have ever taken. You are likely to get into deeper conversations and experience profound moments, which is an excellent way to cement friendships and relationships.  
  • When you go back home, you have someone to remind you it was real and reminisce with you when missing those long days of walking and nights full of deep conversations and red wine.

What to Watch Out For?

Camino to Compostela is not really a holiday. It has nothing to do with carelessly lying on the beach, drinking margaritas. Firstly, the Camino (usually) lasts longer. That means not every day you will wake up happy and eager to walk. There will be days full of pain (blisters, knees, muscles, sunburn, etc.), days when you are just plain tired, even miserable days of rain or unforgivable sun…

  • Everybody has their own rhythm. Don’t make the mistake of forcing others to adjust to your pace and do not feel bad if you cannot keep up. Just because you are traveling together, does not mean you need to be together at all times.
  • Be ready to compromise. Along the way, you might discover that your partner likes to wake up late while you want to get on the road before the sun goes up. You might have different preferences about albergues and so on. Camino can’t only strengthen but also test relationships. Your way is not the only way.
  • Don’t be worried to split up for certain stages if you feel like it. It’s a good way of getting a taste of how it would be to travel alone while keeping your ‘safety net.’
  • Even if you travel with your best friend or the love of your life you can come across a few surprises. In your everyday life, you rarely spend 24/7 together, so it is totally natural you will get annoyed or angry with each other. Don’t sweat it.
  • Don’t shut yourself in your own bubble. One of the most amazing aspects of the Camino is the serendipity of encounters and the richness of other people’s stories. Get out of your comfort zone and reach out. You will miss out if you only keep to the people you know. There is no other place on earth where it’s so easy to get to know people deeply in such a short period.

Should You Consider Agency?

Honestly?

It depends on what who you are and what you are looking for. If you have limited time and need your accommodation booked ahead it can be worthwhile. And, it is not such a bad choice when leading a large group (e.g. church group) as taking care of too many people can suck out all the fun out of the trip for the leader. It’s too much responsibility with too many variables.

Traveling Solo

As I mentioned before, for me there was never any other way but going solo. It was all I ever wanted. A few friends even told me they were thinking of going, too, one day and implied coming along with me. Very politely, I refused.

To me traveling alone is not a burden but an opportunity. When you are with your friends or family, you tend to focus on them and leave the rest of the world on the periphery. Being alone forces you out of your comfort zone. It forces you to pay attention to people, environments and, most importantly, yourself.

The Up-Sides

  • Freedom. You have the freedom to set your pace and pretty much write your own story. How often do you get this kind of liberty in your daily life?
  • Time for yourself. You will have plenty of time to reflect on your life and what you want from it as well as many opportunities to be exposed to different worldviews and life stories which can give you a new perspective.
  • It’s a real adventure.
  • On the Camino, there is an uncommon sense of camaraderie among pilgrims, so although you are alone, you are part of something bigger. Being alone and being lonely are two very different things and I don’t think you have to be afraid of the latter even when going alone. In fact, people tend to be more open, friendly and trusting on the pilgrimage, so it is likely you will feel more connected and understood than ever.
  • Doing it alone and succeeding will make you stronger and more confident.

What to Watch Out For?

  • Be sure to express yourself. Do not be polite at the cost of your preferences. I met a few pilgrims who “got stuck” with a group or with a partner they met on the Camino and did not know how to get out of it. All I can say is that this is a Camino, people come here for different reasons, and nobody will blame you for changing your opinion. I have done it, and I have seen others done it. Simply say: ‘Guys, that was fun, but I think I will split tomorrow. I need some time on my own.’
  • Don’t be shy to approach people. Pilgrims expect it. I met a couple of great friends simply by chatting them up on the road in the middle of nowhere.
  • Even if you are going into it by yourself and you seek solitude, do not push others away at all costs. Remember the wise quote from Into the Wild: “Happiness is only real when shared.”

Bottom Line

There is no better or worse way to do the Camino; there is only you and your quest. If you want to make the right decision, ask yourself what it is you expect to gain from this journey. Is it insight into your own life? Just an adventure? Spiritual journey? Just a different kind of hiking trip? Answering these questions will give you the answer you seek.

13 replies
  1. Joseph R. McGonagle
    Joseph R. McGonagle says:

    I have been planning to walk the Camino in 2018 and as that time gets closer by the day my apprehension grows. A friend of mine is also planning to join me. I was told by one who has walked it twice that even if you are with someone else you really are walking alone.

    Reply
    • Leslie
      Leslie says:

      I like walking with people and walking on my own. I am the type that likes a fair amount of time alone and I managed to find a good balance.

      Reply
  2. Marty Ryan
    Marty Ryan says:

    I also took the trip solo (Aug-Oct 2016), but on the Camino you really aren’t alone in the sense that you are off in a corner by yourself eating lunch or dinner or wandering lost on the trail all alone. I did take a wrong turn once but met up with a French man who had also made the same error and we found our way back together, even with language barrier. You can almost always match up with someone for a day or 2, or maybe a group and take breaks together and evening meals at albergues are always group affairs. And then there is the natural interaction that occurs in the dormitory or laundry area of the albergue. And when you get up in the morning there are always several others rising and departing at the same time, so again, “not alone” if heading out in the dark and need several eyes to spot the trail arrows and markers in early morning light. And you have a ready made “group for the day” if you want. And keep in mind these are people (your new day’s group) you probably had dinner with the night before or did laundry together or talked to in the dormitory, found common ground, so your level of comfort is increased each day. Furthermore, that “new group” you head out with are people you have probably been seeing along the trail for the past 3 or 4 days, so they are already familiar to you. All on the same journey. One would have to be a deliberate natural recluse to avoid the good will and companionship of others on the Camino. And I did see loners, but they almost always seemed to be as they were by choice, which was fine. If you have a day you want to be a “recluse”, which I occasionally opted for, then that is easy to achieve. The one advantage I found with being solo was that I often encountered “1 bed left” at the albergue I happened to enter that day. So I was fortunate on several occasions in that respect (my walking period was primarily month of September, so pressures for beds were probably lessened compared to early summer). There might well have been other options in most towns, but that would have meant more walking at the end of the day going from one albergue to the other. In those instances one might contemplate just moving on to the next town (another 5k?). Even if you “reserve ahead” (typically I might call ahead for next day’s room if it seemed necessary), they will hold your space for only so long (say, 3pm?), so if you roll in late you may miss that particular room. The albergue owners don’t want to miss out on a payment for the night when you don’t show up. I usually did not reserve ahead, but did try to get to my target destination by 1PM (after 6 or 7 hour walking day, normally getting up before 5:30 AM), so beds were almost always available at that time of day but if almost empty at 1:00, the dormitory would fill up quickly between 1-4. I quickly realized I didn’t want to be coming into my “target destination” at 4 or 5:00, at least not without a guaranteed reservation of some sort. I am an older (retired) male so “safety” was never a concern either, but I think single women, as always, probably need to be somewhat wary, but this is true nearly everywhere. In my home town there are areas I wouldn’t venture (even in a car), nor would my wife, but on the Camino, this was essentially a non-issue. All I had to think about was walking each day, lunch breaks, bathroom, and finding a bed in PM. Pretty basic. So when friends at home inquire about “safety” on the Camino I tell them I felt safer in Spain than on the X-side of our own home town (where I wouldn’t dare walk). Nevertheless I walked with a lot of single women of all ages, and none had any issues or problems that I was aware of. But I do not want to discount the added consideration women surely need to exercise nearly every day of their lives which we men don’t appreciate. I would suggest that in Spain (or at least on the Camino) these issues are surely diminished.

    Reply
  3. Jennifer Rooks
    Jennifer Rooks says:

    I am walking from Salisbury to Canterbury where I will pick up the La vVia Francigena and walk to Besancon, half way to Rome. I am walking alone but may have a walker with me from time to time. I prefer to walk on my own as long as someone knows where I am I feel quite safe. My walk starts in September and finishes in November. Being alone makes it possible for me to walk where and when and what time I please. If I do not feel like walking one day I will probably stay in bed and recuperate. My walk, my rules.

    Reply
  4. IDA ESTIOKO
    IDA ESTIOKO says:

    I’m starting to have the jitters…..I’ve booked my ticket to go on 26 April 2017! Please if you have answers to
    my questions, I will be very grateful!!!

    1. Best way to get to Roncesvalles from Biarritz airport?
    2. Do you have a list of tried and tested albergues in every stage of the Camino Frances?
    3. Are there bus stations at each CF stage?
    4. Can you buy a flight ticket in Santiag (airpor?)
    5. Do you get your credential passport stamped twice in each stage?

    Reply
  5. Regina tvrdon
    Regina tvrdon says:

    June 2015 and September 2016 I walked camino on my own. I am from Ontario Canada and I planned and walked camino from SJPDP to Santiago. I only follow the sheet of paper with a map which was given to me when I registered myself in SJPDP. I did not had any problem walking alone and gave me freedom.
    My camino is big part of my life.I am addicted and passionate about it. It is calling me again. I will walk again on my own may be different route.

    Reply
  6. Lydia
    Lydia says:

    Super, a single woman can walk without hazard. I did, and met a lot of other single females. Watched out for the dogs….carry some rocks or a stick!

    Reply
  7. Maria
    Maria says:

    Some wonderful tips, I walked it alone, or at least started it alone and found out very quickly…I would never be alone. I like your tips and think due to the popularity and organisation of this Camino it is well walked. 8 days in I met my fiance. He is walking in America as I write and I am spending time teaching in Italy. Extraordinary and wonderful what life gives to us, especially when you are not expecting it.

    Reply
  8. Regina Tvrdon
    Regina Tvrdon says:

    My Camino exercise is itself rewarding form of prayer and thanksgiving. I walked twice Camino from SJPDP to Santiago. It took 30 days to walk in June 2015 and 35 days in September 2016. I walked alone. It was the extra ordinary event and most demanding thing I done in my life. Satisfying life achievement ever. I am looking forward to walk again. Pilgrimage is about integration, body,soul, faith and feet. It represents your life journey and I review mine.

    Reply
  9. John
    John says:

    After watching the movie “The Way” I wanted to do a Father-Son Camino. My son was all in until the reality het that he’d need to take 7 weeks off from work. Not happening. I then tried to recruit guys from my church, but one after another they fell out. Then one of them tried to hijack ‘my Camino’ into a “couples” trip. No way Jose’. Finally I looked at my wife and said “honey”? We both knew it was risky on many different levels (walking pace, fitness level, food tolerance, socialization, etc.). She did joing me for the French Way in 2014, and to her credit, did the entire 525 miles; however, it was a real strain on our marriage of 38 years. Our differences were magnified, and although time has healed most of the emotional wounds and we’ve retained mostly fond memories, I would strongly suggest against it. I started having cravings for going back and asked her if she was up for another, and she gave me one of those ‘you’ve got to be ******* kidding me’ looks. No worries, I really preferred to go by myself anyway, and solo I did on the Portuguese Coastal Way this April & May. I captured my Camino on http://www.jtcaminoblog.com. I’ll most certainly walk another Camino, and most certainly will do it solo again. The time for reflection (and in my case prayer) was beyond measurable value.

    BTW, I used an Irish based tour group called Camino Ways both times as I wanted a firm schedule, with booked inns each night and my main bag being ferried from inn to inn. Anyone who tries to tell me or any other pilgrim doing it this way that there Camino is not ‘authentic’, I would simply say ‘go away’, because the walk is the journey…not leaving at 4 am t insure you have a bunkbed shared with strangers snoring and communal showers. To each his/her own pilgrims, so keep your uppity comments to yourselves please. Hope these comments help.

    Reply
  10. Al Mitchera
    Al Mitchera says:

    Has anyone taken any of the routes in a wheelchair? Which route would be the most practical if in a wheelchair? Are any of the routes accessible for a wheelchair from end to end or will it be necessary to do certain sections of each route? In order to qualify for a certificate, can the mileage be from several routes?

    Reply

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