Walking the Camino is without a doubt an extraordinary experience – but what about walking the Camino de Santiago with children?
An escape, an adventure in time where too many things are planned out and controlled. But it’s not always easy to get away, especially if you are taking care of more than yourself. Perhaps you have been dreaming about this
Once you have children it’s not always easy to get away. Perhaps you have been dreaming about this pilgrimage for years but couldn’t bring yourself to leave your child or children behind, and the idea of taking them along seemed unrealistic.
But is it?
Many pilgrims set out on the road alone, looking for a solitary spiritual journey but that’s not the only way to do it. While today children on the Camino are still a rare occurrence, it’s not impossible, and I assure you it has been done before.
Kids are intricate and diverse, so we can’t put everyone in the same pot. Different age mean different rules.
I know what you are thinking but yes, you can!
Naturally, you need to think it through, but it’s not as hard as you might think.
Transport. Your little one will not be able to walk 15-20 km a day, that’s why you need a way to carry your child that will work well with you. (Or as you can see in the photo above turn yourself into a human mule. This was a couple I met on the Camino in 2006.)
If you are traveling with a baby, you can opt for a baby wrap or baby carrier (backpack or front). It’s a relatively comfortable way and should not make walking too difficult. They are not that expensive, and many of them are designed so you baby can fall asleep or stay awake without feeling uncomfortable.
The other options are a hiking stroller or an adjusted chariot carrier which is perfect for toddlers who are no longer that light and are significantly more active and fidgety. When selecting one, focus on the quality of suspension and sturdiness. Also, it is better to opt for a stroller or chariot with a reclining seat as this way your child can nap during the day.
Entertainment. If your baby is long passed the phase where sleep and food are the best entertainment options, you need to stock up on supplies. Popular options on the forums include taking along an iPad filled with fun or educational games, or multiple coloring books. They are both light and easy to pack, you can get more coloring books along the way if you run out. Or take anything you know will make your little one happy and occupied during the day.
Accommodation. The opinions regarding accommodation differ. Whether you decide to stay in albergues or private accommodation options, is up to you. Nobody will kick you out from anywhere just because you have a baby. However, children might find it difficult to fall asleep in crowded albergues despite the lights going out at 10 pm, because people wake up and go to sleep at different times, talk, turn on headlights to look for things and cough or make other loud bodily noises. While it’s possible, it’s not the most comfortable of choices.
The majority of pilgrims traveling with children prefer to book their places, (at least), one day in advance. Looking for a place to sleep tired after a long day of walking can be extremely frustrating for you and your baby. It’s good to know exactly where you are walking and knowing a bed is waiting there for you.
If you are on a budget and hotel is not an option, take extra time to research and locate smaller albergues, refugios or hostels and book them in advance to ensure your place. Sleeping in a room with 10 people as opposed to 40 makes a hell of a difference. However, if money is not the issue, go ahead and stay in small hotels or houses in the countryside known as “Casas Rurales.” To get the best of both worlds, you can alternate between private and pilgrim accommodation because some of the albergues are quite lovely.
Backpacks. Packing lightly for one person is challenging packing lightly for an extra little creature is even more so. Just because they are small, it doesn’t mean they need fewer things. Thankfully, there is a backpack transport service along the Camino.
Whether it’s too much to carry or you simply want to enjoy the day of walking fully focused on your little one, you can always pay to have your backpacks transferred to your next destination. Simply, leave your backpacks in your albergue or hotel with an envelope containing the payment (3-7 €). When you arrive at the next one, (which you booked in advance), it will be waiting at your next stop.
With older kids, you need to adjust your narrative a bit. They are capable of understanding the concept of this journey and will have a lot of questions, so you need to start preparing them way ahead.
Psychological preparation. With young kids, you really need to sell the story. Explain them the meaning, the history of the pilgrimage, even sell it as an epic adventure quest. The important thing is that the kids understand what the trip entails as well as why they are doing it. Kids are smart and full of energy, with the right motivation, they can probably do better than you. It’s imperative to keep their spirits up.
Physical preparation. While you still might want to consider using a chariot for a six years old, kids of this age will be OK walking the pilgrimage on their own.
However, walking a little bit and walking day after day is very different. Therefore, make sure your kids are in a good physical condition, you don’t want them to be in pain for one reason or another. For example, if you are not used to going hiking as a family before you book anything, organize a few one-day hikes to see how they will do and if they enjoy it. Slowly build their confidence and physical strength. It’s also a great opportunity to break in their hiking shoes and avoid painful blisters on the Camino.
On the road. Your worst enemy on the road will be short attention span. If you want to avoid the ‘Are we there yet?’ scenario, break down your day into smaller sections. For example, break the 15 km for the day into three little sub-stages each marked by a break or a family game, give your children little tasks to do along the way. Encourage them to observe animals, plants, and people, tell them about the country’s history and culture, let them talk with other pilgrims. The beauty of the pilgrimage is also in the strange sense of community which can enrich the experience. Plus, this way the walk will not seem that long.
Teenagers are their own species, no doubt about it. The Camino can be an excellent way to find some common ground, have a little unorthodox adventure.
Like with younger kids, motivation and physical preparation are also crucial. However, you don’t need to go overboard with trying to entertain them.
Before you go. If they have never heard of Camino before, introduce the concept, let them do their research, let them be part of the planning and decision about stages and distances you will be taking. If they are interested, make them feel like a partner, rather than just someone tagging along.
On the road. If there is one advice worthy of mentioning it’s giving them a bit of space. Trying to control them too much can result in conflicts. If they want to walk at their pace, let them. The Camino is all about “finding your way,” plus, it’s incredibly safe. Make sure they have the name of the next town and hostel where you’ll be staying and a phone to call you in case something happens.
Everything else. Regarding everything else, traveling with a teenager is not much different than traveling with an adult. There is no need to book accommodation in advance or undergo any significant preparations.
I hope I persuaded you. It can be done. Why not, after all? It will be a great family memory. Plus traveling with a baby will make you a Camino celebrity, and the stories about you will reach the ears of many pilgrims.
My advice is, whatever your circumstances, do not give up. The Camino is worth it, and you can do it. How do I know? In Finisterre, I met a single mom with her precious two-year-old daughter. She walked the entire Camino del Norte with a self-made improvised chariot, carried her own backpack and stayed in the cheapest albergues. She was one of the tiniest women I ever met in my life, yet there she stood. She did it, and so can you.