The Camino de Santiago’s history snakes its way through the centuries, just as its well-trodden trails do through Europe. The roots of “The Way of St. James” lie in different European countries and come together in the 780 kilometer path across northern Spain that links the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. Walkers, known as pilgrims, complete the Camino de Santiago for dozens of reasons: For spiritual reflection, to spend summer with a friend or to just to be together as a family.
While families of toddlers and young kids are a minority on the Camino, it is possible – even richly rewarding – to walk this famed trek as a family. Of course, as with any activity combining travel and children, planning is essential. Before lacing up their boots, parents looking to walk the Camino de Santiago with their kids need to decide which route to take, plan accommodation, decide how to transport their children, plan easy entertainment options for tired kiddies and identify essential packing items.
Which route to take?
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Pilgrims can choose from several routes in Spain, including an “epilogue” starting in Santiago de Compostela and passing Finisterre (the end of the known land in the Middle Ages) then Muxía. Of these, the 780 kilometer Camino Francés (starting on the French side of the Pyrenees at St Jean Pied de Port) is a perfect option for families, as it is the most transited trail with an ample network of albergues and constant presence of pilgrims. Though it takes around four weeks to hike in its entirety, the French Way can be easily broken into sections to suit families with very small children or little trekking experience. While walking, pilgrims find a strong sense of community and rapport and drink in the straw-hued Spanish countryside with its hills, farm houses, vineyards, meadows and a succession of cobblestoned towns with sun-soaked central plazas and bubbling fountains.
Where to stay?
A pilgrim’s standard option for lodging is an albergue: a community dwelling with shared dormitories, bathrooms and common rooms. Because of this sharedness, parents of toddlers should consider their child’s temperament when opting for an albergue. Will your child sleep well in such a communal space? And will your fellow pilgrims get some good shut eye sharing space with your toddler?
Standard albergues can quickly fill up and parents walking with young kids – after factoring in diaper changes, feeding, nursing, and time to stretch little legs – often arrive later than the majority of pilgrims. Consider boutique hotels, private albergues, hostels or pensiones (inexpensive hotels/motels), rented casa rurales (country houses), and camping as other accommodation options. In order to guarantee your bed, it’s wise to book these accommodations in advance, and essential in the case of renting a casa rural. Websites dedicated to planning the Camino de Santiago can help here. (Start researching at UR Camino, the Camino de Santiago Forum, Camino Adventures, Camino de Santiago Guide and Camino Guidebook.)
How to transport your children?
Your first decision will be whether to carry or push your youngsters. Front baby carriers will do for small infants, while hiking-specific backpacks work for larger babies and toddlers. Other pilgrims choose to push their children in off-road buggies, such as the Baby Jogger Summit XC buggy or carts/”chariots” such as the Croozer Kid.
There are pros and cons to each system. If you choose to backpack or front-carry your child, you will have far more walking freedom and can take the standard trail. However, for his/her own comfort your child should already be used to being carried this way for several hours a day. Remember also that your child will be more exposed to the elements and you’ll need to consider how to protect them from the wind and rain on rough weather days. If you choose to transport your children in a “chariot”, your child will have more freedom of movement and protection from the elements. Cart-pushing parents, however, must plan ahead for sections where the trail has become waterlogged or is too rocky or root-spangled to comfortably continue. In those cases, the road route, used by cyclist-pilgrims, is the best alternative. It’s a good idea idea to source a bike guide to the Camino and talk with cyclists along the way for tips on upcoming road conditions. Some chariot-pushing pilgrims also report modifying their carts with handbrakes (to ease descents) and ropes (to aid in ascents, allowing two adults to push/pull the cart).
Alongside your cart, front-carrier or baby backpack are your family’s belongings, which can quickly add weight. Pilgrims hoping for an extra spring in their step can opt for the luggage transfer service; paying 3 – 7€ for their backpacks to be delivered to the next albergue.
Keeping your kids engaged
Today on our 6th etapa we walked almost 19km and are now staying in Gernika (totally worth a visit btw). For the first time Villemo was a bit grumpy and didnt want to sit in the back pack at the beginning of the hike. She did so many tricks to be let down like saying her cheek hurt, dropping her Teddy or faking a poopy diaper 😂 we let her walk a little and later, after countless snacks and holding hands as we walked, she was just fine again, singing and playing goofy games with us. We love having her here and just like it could happen to us, she can have a down day, but it still amazes me how light hearted and great she is about everything. Bringing her here was definitely a decision we will always be thankful for ❤ My little pilegrino ❤ #Villemo #elskerelskerelsker❤️ #camino2017 #caminowithkids #noregrets #caminodelnorte #hikingwithkids
The simple bliss of walking through Spain’s northern countryside may be fuel enough for your kids. However, there’s plenty to try if they need an extra dose of entertainment.
Scavenger hunts are sources of endless fun for young kids. Use them to open little eyes and ears to their surroundings with a list of items to find each day (such as a leaf they’ve never seen before, a card with a particular village’s patron saint, a serviette with its café’s name on it or something that reminds them of home). Engage your tween with a daily one-sentence journal about their experience, daily photo challenge, or by allowing them to curate a family Instagram feed.
All kids will benefit from getting their feet wet in Spanish. Create a bingo game (cross off boxes for learning Spanish foods, writing a short phrase or greeting others in Spanish) or collect words to make a glossary of Camino-based vocabulary such as “hill,” “blister,” “pilgrim,” “walking stick” and “shell”. You could also tie in gratitude by playing “one thing that (I loved/made me happy/was challenging/yummy) today was…” at the end of each day.
Must-haves when traveling with kids
Hungry kids are crabby kids anywhere on Earth, but even more so when they’re physically active. Make sure your day packs are full of energizing snacks (trail mix, dried fruit, peanut butter, and apples) and don’t push on when lunchtime is looming. For baby logistics, many forum-frequenting pilgrims report that diapers are hard to find in packs of less than 50 and that splitting with another family or sending them on in a luggage transfer helped reduce backpack weight and bulk.
Blisters are the enemy of all pilgrims. A well-stocked first aid kit with good quality band-aids, blister packs and antiseptic ointment is crucial and will help ease niggles before they become a problem. To nip potential issues in the bud, ensure your entire family has several pairs of good, moisture-wicking socks, airs their feet and socks during rest stops and has broken in their walking shoes well before starting the trek.
Whether you choose to hike the whole Camino or a section along the way, your time as a family on the Camino de Santiago will be intense, challenging, awe-inspiring, and tremendously bonding. Enjoy every step – and let us be the first to wish you buen camino!
And check out this Youtube playlist from “Be Your Potential” a couple who walked through to Finisterre with their very young baby, vlogging about it the whole way.