23 Feb 24

How difficult is the Camino de Santiago?

Sam McCrow Camino

Popular with hikers of all ages and backgrounds, the ancient Camino de Santiago trail is a pilgrimage through north-western Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the shrine and remains of the Apostle Saint James are believed to be resting. So how difficult is the Camino de Santiago? We are often asked that question, as well as what challenges to expect, and what preparation is required. Here’s what you should know before you go and how to choose the best trip for you.

Why do people walk the Camino de Santiago?

Also known as the Way of St James and the Camino Francés, it was traditionally walked by pilgrims seeking penance and enlightenment. Nowadays it’s far more common for travellers to be motivated by the physical challenge, the wealth of historic sites, and the vibrant Spanish food and culture (wine lovers adore the Camino!). Many people just walk (or cycle) the Camino for fun. You don’t have to be religious to follow this route – just a keen walker!

Hiker sitting on a wall on the Camino de Santiago with bronze statues of pilgrims in the background.

What is the terrain like on the Camino de Santiago?

Spanning 790km across rural Spain, the Camino de Santiago takes walkers through a diverse variety of landscapes, including the majestic rocky mountains of the Pyrenees (Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles), the undulating vineyards of La Rioja wine region (Roncesvalles to Logroño) the stark and vast plateau of the Meseta (Burgos to León), lush fertile countryside (León to Ponferrada) and the rugged Bierzo Valley (Ponferrada to O Cebreiro). The final stretch to the historic city of Santiago is characterised by dense forests and green rolling hills.

Hikers walking on a path with green overhanging branches on the Camino de Santiago.

What is the toughest part of the Camino?

One of the toughest days is the first day’s walk from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles (26km). You have two options over the Pyrenees mountains. Most walkers follow the Napoleon route, which involves an ascent of 1250m. It is a beautiful walk but can be challenging as you may be tired/jet lagged and this may be your first day on the trail. If you are feeling apprehensive about tackling this day we can tailor-make an itinerary where we split this day’s walk over 2 more manageable days. The alternate Valcarlos route to Roncesvalles stays closer to the road and may need to be taken in the event of bad weather. We receive many questions about this day. Read more about what to expect on the first steps of the Camino. From Roncesvalles, you’ll find generally moderate terrain with some flatter sections, some hilly sections and a few challenging climbs in between.  

Female hiker with hiking poles looking at the view while walking on the Napoleon Route over the Pyrenees mountains to Roncesvalles on the Camino de Santiago.

What is the highest elevation on the Camino?

At 1500m, the Cruz de Ferro (also known as the Iron Cross) is the highest point on the Camino. It comes just before a long descent into the village of Molinaseca, close to Ponferrada, and is one of the most symbolic points on the Camino. Many pilgrims leave a stone here which they’ve carried from their place of origin, a ritual that has been observed for centuries. Another notable ascent is the climb to O Cebreiro (1300m) in the Galician mountains. This pivotal and enchanting section of the Camino de Santiago is characterised by rugged terrain, rocky pathways and a steady increase in elevation. Mist and occasional rain can intensify the physical effort. The beautiful views from this high vantage point are worth every step. See this Camino altitude profile for more information.

Pilgrims at the Cruz de Ferro on the Camino de Santiago

Should I skip the Meseta?

The broad expanse of the Meseta between Burgos and León (220km) is flat, hot and shadeless. The landscape does have its own distinct beauty though, characterised by golden fields and big blue skies. After a few days it can become monotonous but the unbroken vistas encourage introspection as you traverse the seemingly endless paths lined with occasional small villages and Romanesque churches. The view out over the Meseta from the top of the Alto de Mostelares after Castrojeriz is one of the most iconic vistas on the entire Camino route. If you don’t have time to walk the full Camino, this could be the logical stretch to omit; however, many of our past Camino walkers list the Meseta as one of their highlights or even their favourite parts of their Camino experience. Read more about the Meseta.

Walker on the yellow plains of the Meseta on the Camino

How many days does it take to walk the Camino?

Typically, it takes an average of 41 days to walk the full Camino, which includes a handful of recommended rest days. It’s fair to say not everyone has 6 weeks spare to walk the Camino. You can easily choose a section that aligns with your time constraints, fitness levels and personal interests. Whether it’s focusing on shorter daily distances, selecting specific regions of interest, or incorporating rest days, we can help you tailor your Camino pilgrimage to meet your unique needs. This flexibility is one of the reasons this route appeals to so many walkers. Regardless of how many days you walk, you will still experience a glowing sense of achievement along with the legendary camaraderie that the Camino is known for. Returning to walk subsequent stages (or a different route) is very common among Camino walkers.Hiker next to a sign on the Camino de Santiago showing zero kilometres.

Which stage of the Camino de Santiago should I walk?

The Camino begins in France with a border crossing in the Pyrenees and ends 790km later at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-west Spain. The route is broken down into 5 sections, and there are pros and cons of each stage. We have summarised what to expect from each of the 5 sections on the Camino.

The Full Camino (41 days) is the longest option and covers all 5 stages. If you only have 2 weeks to spend on the Camino, consider our Camino Highlights trip. It covers the whole Camino over 15 days by incorporating train travel between Pamplona and Burgos, Burgos and León and also León and Sarria. Since you are still walking the last 100km, you will receive your compostela certificate. Tourists in a narrow street adorned with red and green flags in St Jean de Pied Port, a town at the foothills of the Pyrenees.

If you want to experience some of the most picturesque and iconic scenery and towns, then look no further than the first section from St Jean Pied de Port to Logroño through Basque country. It is also the Camino’s food and wine region. Alternatively Stage 4 León to O Cebreiro is another favourite. The first day of walking is to Astorga, a quintessential Camino town and a culinary connoisseur’s dream. It’s packed with some of the best restaurants on the Camino and wonderful attractions including ornate churches, a palace designed by Gaudi, and even a chocolate factory!

The final stage from Sarria to Santiago (115km) is by far the most popular and social section of the Camino, and it also ticks the box for the minimum number of kilometres you need to walk to obtain a Compostela, or certificate of completion. The last pitstop of the epic Camino pilgrimage is the charming Santiago de Compostela, a lively city with magnificent works of art, stunning architecture, and the famous cathedral that beckons pilgrims on their final approach. Many pilgrims continue their journey to Cape Finisterre (6 days), which is a wonderful walk in its own right or can be added to an existing Camino pilgrimage.

Two hikers walking through the vast landscape of the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Can I combine cycling and walking on the Camino?

If you want to mix up the Camino, you can travel the full length of the Camino in 35 days with a mix of cycling and walking on our Full Camino: walk and cycle trip. This option requires some mountain biking skills. If you are less certain of your fitness level and ability to ride long distances, there is an e-bike option from Leon to Santiago, although cycling skills are still necessary. If you are cycling parts of the Camino, we recommend you prepare well in advance and find some dirt trails and hilly terrain to train on. It is also important that you know how to do your own basic bike maintenance in case of punctures or other issues while you are out on the trail.

Two cyclists with panniers riding on a dirt path towards a hilltop town on the Camino de Santiago

How long does it take to walk from Sarria to Santiago?

You can walk the final 100km of the Camino fromSarria to Santiago in 9 days. If you are seeking a more leisurely walk, check out our Sarria to Santiago 11 day walk. We can easily tailor-make a slower walk from 12 to 14 days, with shorter walking distances each day. We also offer a Sarria to Santiago Women’s Parador trip and a Sarria to Santiago group trip, which enables you to travel in a small group with like-minded travellers while still giving you the freedom of self-guided travel.

A quieter alternative is the 9-day Camino Primitivo. This walk (109km) starts from the ancient and less-visited city of Lugo. You will still qualify for your Compostela when you reach the Praza Obradoiro in the heart of Santiago de Compostela.
Two hikers with walking poles and scallop shells on a cobbled street in a town on the Camino de Santiago.

How easy is it to navigate my way along the Camino?

The Camino is a well-worn path and very well marked with yellow arrows and other markers featuring the famous scallop shell of the Way of St James. It’s nearly impossible to get lost. For peace of mind you can use our bespoke navigation app, which will show you exactly where you’re at, with no wandering off the route! 

Group of hikers walking through medieval streets in a town on Spain's Camino de Santiago.

What fitness level is required for the Camino de Santiago?

The route is not particularly strenuous (overall). Whether you intend to walk the full Camino or smaller sections, your walk will be more enjoyable if you have conditioned your feet and body to walking the same distances and terrain as your daily stages on the Camino. Pounding the trail day after day can take a toll on your body, causing blisters, stress fractures and shin splints. Muscle soreness is a given, but with proper training, you can prevent some injuries that could force you off the trail. 

There is also a significant mental toughness required for long days of trekking. On a multi-day trek you have to get up, put on your boots and step out into rain, hail or shine. You need to accept that at some stage you might feel tired, sore and cranky, but it will pass. Coping with physical discomfort and making it through each day will be easier if you have a positive attitude, sense of humour and commitment to your end goal. Each day is unique and you need to be emotionally flexible with challenges, tolerant of the things you cannot change, and confident in your abilities.

Our guide to getting walking fit for the Camino has lots more information. Also read our tips about how to avoid getting blisters.

Ensure you pack a small medical kit that includes bandages, blister band aids, disinfectant, and gels or tablets to help with muscle pain. There are many shops from where you can purchase items along the way; however, it is always good to have the basics in your daypack.Male hiker with a blue backpack facing the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela after completing his pilgrimage walk.

Are there taxis or public transport options on the Camino?

If you find that you are unable to walk a full day’s distance it might be possible to rustle up a taxi if you can walk to the nearest town or village. This is not always possible especially in rural areas where transport can be scarce or non-existent (except for cases of medical emergencies). Occasionally there may be a bus service (or more rarely a train) in some sections between stages. Your hotel will usually be able to advise you of the local transport options and schedules. 

Group of hikers walking through the Meseta on the Camino de Santiago on a sunny day.

What should I wear when walking the Camino de Santiago?

Generally speaking, hiking boots are the best choice for the Camino, but the answer may depend to an extent on what month you are walking and which sections. If you are walking in the warmer summer months then you may consider a pair of outdoor trainers as an alternative – though bear in mind that you may not have the same ankle support and stability.  

Another important consideration is your socks – you will have to adapt the choice of materials according to the season you walk in. Avoid cheap cotton socks: once they get wet they stay wet and can make your feet stink and lead to fungus problems. Purpose-made hiking socks made with either synthetics or wool (merino is best) are the way to go.

Pack clothing that is quick-drying and breathable, and choose items that are well worn to prevent chafe or rubbing. Think comfort over fashion! If you are going to be in Europe for a longer period, then you can transfer an additional bag to your end destination. 

Check out our blog on what to wear when walking the Camino and see also information about weather on the Camino to plan your packing list accordingly. We include daily luggage transfers on all walking days, so you only need to carry a small daypack with essential items.

Three hikers dressed in wet weather gear on the Camino de Santiago.

Is it safe to walk the Camino if I’m a solo traveller?

With basic common sense and safety precautions, the Camino trail is considered to be safe for solo travel. For anyone nervous about walking alone, it’s important to remember the trail is widely used by fellow pilgrims who are never far away. Walking with groups of strangers and sharing stories is one of the greatest allures of the experience. 

If you have ever walked the Camino, you may have seen the National Police patrolling or even the Guardia Civil on horseback. They offer personal assistance on the Camino and give specific advice to pilgrims. You can download the AlertCops app to communicate any alert or emergency from your mobile device in real time. Your positioning is automatically sent to police operational centres and you will be quickly located and attended to.

We have expert local staff on the ground in Spain who can provide assistance and support while you are walking the Camino. Female hiker wearing a hat and carrying a Camino scallop shell

Things to remember

Be prepared. Bring the proper gear and come with a willingness to tackle the challenges and enjoy the rewards of the journey. Successfully walking the Camino de Santiago isn’t solely about physical fitness. You’ll find people of diverse fitness levels completing the walk. Above all, it’s the camaraderie, cultural experiences and sense of achievement mentally and physically that contribute to the journey – plus a great dose of history and wonderful food and wine.

Need even more inspiration to step foot on the Camino? Read about the experiences of Queenslanders Emma and Ross on their 41 days on the Camino. 

Two hikers in Galicia on the Camino de Santiago

View our walks

RAW Travel is the No.1 choice for Australians walking the Camino. Our dedicated Camino Team has first-hand experience of the routes. We can help you with expert advice and resources to plan your trip. View all our Camino walks.

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