What We Learned Hiking the Camino de Santiago with a Baby
If you had asked me a few years ago if I planned to hike the Camino with a baby, I would have said no. But that’s exactly what we did last year, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
There is a LOT to be learned from a family Camino pilgrimage, but the main point I want to make is this: the Camino is for kids, too! It could potentially be a family’s greatest and most defining adventure. Was it hard? At times, definitely. Would we do it all over again? In a heartbeat.
If you’re a parent considering bringing your kid(s) on the Camino, you should read this. If you’re a solitary pilgrim who has no kids — or doesn’t even like kids — you should read this too. These lessons can be helpful for all prospective pilgrims (and alumni), because chances are, even if you’re not bringing your little ones on the Camino, you’ll run into others who are, and you’ll be better equipped to understand those crazy families and why they chose not to travel alone.
The Golden Rule: Stay Flexible and Have a Back-Up Plan.
When traveling with kids, always have a Plan B. We booked roundtrip flights to Spain a month in advance of our Sep./Oct. pilgrimage, but aside from that, we left our schedule open. We gave ourselves several extra days for bad weather or setbacks, which both happened. We made sure we had a back-up plan for emergencies in case there was a health or safety concern. We decided not to book albergues more than 24 hours in advance to give us added options. Sometimes it worked. Other times we found ourselves in a crowded monastery. But in ALL instances, we were welcomed in. At one albergue, they set mattresses on the floor for us. In another, they let us use the host’s storage room. As many pilgrims will tell you, “The Camino provides,” and I would go further and say that it provides even more when you travel with kids.
Very Few Pilgrims Bring Kids. And That’s Okay. Forge Your Own Path.
Chances are, you are in the small minority of pilgrims who have chosen to bring your kid(s) along. Some will embrace seeing a small peregrino. Others will question your motives and actions. Choose the high road and, like any good parent, listen—but do what’s best for your family.
If you feel comfortable pushing on to the next village, then push on. If your child throws a fit and you just need to stop for the day, then stop. We had a few very long days, and at least one entire day we spent putting around in Burgos. Do what you need to do to make it the best experience for your family, based on your values. And remember, if you get a weird look or stare of disbelief by a passing pilgrim or local, welcome it as a chance to share your family’s unique story. Share it!
Everyone’s “why” is different, and for me, it was a conviction: the Camino was something I wanted to do, and knew I needed to do it. I was also convinced we had a son with the right temperament for it.
The Biggest Determinant of Success = Your Child’s Temperament.
I can’t underscore enough how much this will influence a successful Camino. Does your child enjoy being outside all day, meeting new people and eating new and sometimes strange foods? Will your child be okay with sleeping in a new place every night? If you can say yes to all of the above, then by all means, bring them along. Also consider if they can handle being in a backpack or a stroller all day and/or walking for miles at a time.
Our son Hudson had just turned one year old before our Camino. He wasn’t walking yet, so we thought a hiking backpack would work great. We tried one out in our neighborhood, and he started crying and whining. We were concerned at first, but then we remembered how much Hudson liked being pushed in a stroller for hours during my husband’s weekly long runs. Ah yes, we thought—a stroller. Success! Our only modification: attaching our large backpack to the stroller. That way, we didn’t have to carry anything. We still haven’t come across anyone else who took this approach, but combined with my husband’s willingness to push the stroller, it worked for us.
Remember: It Will Be Tough.
Even though Hudson loved meeting people, playing at parks and experiencing new things, it was still tough and unpredictable at times. Going into it, you’ll be better off if you expect it to be hard.
What were some of our greatest challenges?
- Sleep – Sharing a bed with our son meant multiple wake ups each night. Another reason why we highly recommend getting a double room. More privacy for you and peace for others!
- Hills – Pushing a stroller up steep, uneven terrain is challenging. Add in our family’s 60lb. backpack, and it becomes VERY slow moving. Factor this in when you’re planning.
- Timing Naps – Sometimes we would hit our stride and then Hudson would fall asleep. Just remember it’s hard to plan naps on the go. Kids fall asleep when they fall asleep.
- Weather – Keeping in mind our Camino was in Sept./Oct., the hot afternoons and cold mornings were a challenge. Our son didn’t want to wear gloves, so we had to stuff blankets around his hands each day for them to stay cozy at dawn.
The Camino Changes Your Family. And That Change Can Be GOOD.
Hudson was active before the Camino, but now he’s a force of nature in the outdoors. He would spend all day outside if given the option. We think this is partly because of what we value as a family, but also largely inspired by his experience on the Camino.
Some people have asked us, “Why would you take your son if he won’t remember it?” Our answer: “Why wouldn’t we take him?” We love spending quality time together as a family, and you can’t get more solid bonding than spending 24-7 together for weeks at a time.
The Camino was life-giving to all of us. It expanded our idea of what’s possible for our family, sparked new ideas for long term international travel, and instilled a lifelong love of the Camino (we’re planning our 2nd Camino on the Portuguese route in 2019). It also helped us let go and focus on what matters. As Paulo Coehlo writes:
“Before a new chapter is begun, the old one has to be finished. Stop being who you were and change into who you are.”
The Camino changes you, and it can change your kids too. It can (and will) take you to great places and depths, both inside and out.
We hadn’t set out to hike the Camino with a little one; it just worked out that way. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. This quote from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button sums up my hope for any family braving the Camino with kids:
“I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
– Eric Roth