This is going to be a somewhat mixed bag. It’s all the result of (sometimes bitter) experience. Some of it will refer specifically to the Camino Francés; some to pilgrimage in general; some to any kind of long-distance walk. Pick and mix, as you feel moved. I may come back to this and add bits as I remember them.
– I think pretty much everyone reading this will already have worked this out, but it’s still top-of-the-list important, so I’m still putting it down. Know at least a bit of the language of every country you’re going to pass through. That tiny bit of consideration makes the people you meet that much more likely to want to help you. Even if it’s just to order a cup of coffee. And yes, there are still places where people don’t speak English, and yes, there will come a time when you need to ask for help.
– Rest days are important. It’s horribly tempting just to press on, because yes, I know that I can easily walk another 10km before dinner, but before you know it, it’s 30km through waist-deep snow, and you’re exhausted. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) Keeping on doing that day after day ruins your feet and your knees. There is no shame in walking only 5km in a day. Or 1km. Or not walking at all.
– You can get away without earplugs, so long as you’re always the first one to bed and are a sound sleeper. But there are people who snore at a quite remarkable volume.
– Look after your feet. My own personal routine went like this: in the evening, wash, dry, talc, sleep. In the morning, vaseline, let it soak in, socks, boots. Liner socks + hiking socks. Well-fitting boots. I didn’t get a single blister until I was actually in Santiago de Compostela, and spent too long wandering around in sandals that didn’t quite fit.
– If you have a pair of telescopic walking poles, people will mock you, but it’s worth it.
– Looking back on it, waterproof trousers would probably have been a good investment, particularly in the snow. The problem was not so much walking through it, as melted snow running off my [waterproof] rucksack cover and soaking me from the waist down.
– It’s quite nice to have a map, for moral support, but once you’re well into Spain you can just follow the waymarkings.
– Do practice walks. Do practice walks with a heavy rucksack, because that’s the part that’s wearing: it’s not the walking (well, it is the walking, but you know what I mean) but the carrying.
– Speaking of heavy rucksacks, make yours as light as possible. You do not need: razors, deodorant, bivvy bags, books, inflatable mattresses, binoculars, makeup.
– I always set out with 2l of water, which was probably too much – I only finished that on a couple of days, and I’m pretty sure we passed fountains on those days. Do take water, though.
– You will end up stinking, but so will everybody else you meet. Just don’t take clothes you’re particularly fond of, and shower whenever you get the chance.
– This is a useful diagram depicting the stuff you actually need.
– You’ll be doing a lot of laundry by hand. Safety pins are good for attaching socks, pants, etc, to the back of a rucksack to dry along the way. Not if it’s raining, though, obviously.
– Hi-tech fabrics tend to be beautifully light, but may not dry very fast. Try it out at home.
– Soap is soap. We ended up using cheapo shampoo for hair, body, and clothes – though be careful if you have sensitive skin, of course.
– Useful things: a credit card and a mobile phone.
– There is always somewhere to sleep. There was only one day in seven weeks where we had to walk on to another village to find a bed.
– The Confraternity of Saint James are very useful people.
– Compeed is fantastic stuff, but do NOT repeat NOT put it on blisters that have burst. The result is painful.
– Don’t leave your walking boots too close to an open fire, no matter how sodden they be.
– I had a navy blue Guernsey sweater. While this was relatively heavy, most days I was wearing it, so didn’t notice. Most importantly, I didn’t have to wash it once.
– Take as few valuables as possible, and keep them with you. There are no safes.