How Far Should I Walk on My First Day?

My husband Wick and I enjoyed the view and a rest after the steep climb to Refugio Orisson on a cold, rainy day in mid-May.     Crossing the Pyrenees is one of our favorite stretches of the Camino, but the next day it snowed on us on the way to Roncesvalles!

My husband Wick and I enjoyed the view and a rest after the steep climb to Refugio Orisson on a cold, rainy day in mid-May. Crossing the Pyrenees is one of our favorite stretches of the Camino, but the next day it snowed on us on the way to Roncesvalles!

How far should I walk on my first day? We get this question a lot from future pilgrims making plans to walk the Camino Francés from St. Jean Pied-de-Port over the Pyrenees. “Should I plan to walk all the way over the Pyrenees the first day from SJPP to Roncesvalles? Or should I stop for the night in Orisson? It doesn’t seem very far to go if I stop over.”

Crossing the Pyrenees is one of the most challenging physical activities pilgrims undertake, and even if you have trained at home most people we talk to agree with us that nothing can really prepare you for the first few days of walking the Camino. Take the long view into consideration and recognize that after one VERY challenging day, you will get up the next morning (after only a few hours recovery time) and set out for more hours of walking. And the day after that, and the next, and so on. Many overuse injuries occur in the first few days on the Camino, often because pilgrims try to adhere to an itinerary set forth in a guidebook, or because they think they “should be able to do it.” 

A blog by Hunter Van Wagenen addresses learning the Camino lesson of listening to your body, and I commend that to you. Consider the travel process pilgrims go through to begin walking. Those of us traveling from the USA or another far-flung location to get to SJPP face fatigue from our journey to St. Jean, as well as the accompanying jet lag which combine to take a toll on us before we even get onto the Camino. If you can, take a day or two to recover from your travel and acclimate before setting out on the Camino.  

As a Camino “newbie” you can learn a lot from talking to other pilgrims gathering in SJPP. Lightening your backpack may be something you are convicted to do, and we cover how to send belongings ahead to Santiago in our Guidebook, and another blog. You will also have the opportunity to walk up and down the streets of this pretty mountain village with your gear, which might reveal weaknesses to address before tackling the challenge of getting over the Pyrenees. If you realize your pack may be too heavy for you to carry over the mountains, consider using a pack transport service for these days. Our Guidebook contains these details, too.

Another point to consider is that you will be seeing some of the most beautiful landscapes the planet, and seizing the opportunity to take in this beauty as you walk is beneficial. In other words, “What’s your rush?” As a photography enthusiast, enjoying travel and new places comes through the lens of my camera as I record what I am seeing. Even if you don’t take a single picture, we suggest not rushing through the crossing. 

On separate Caminos we have walked all the way to Roncesvalles in one day (a total distance of about 25k, with an ascent of nearly 1500m to Col de Lepoeder at the peak, then a steep descent for the final 5k to Roncesvalles), and we have stopped over in Orisson for the excellent pilgrim meal served family style, and to sleep. We have talked to many, many seasoned pilgrims about this, too. From our experience and casual survey we recommend breaking for the night at Orisson. Yes, we know Orisson is only 8k from St. Jean. But look at the elevation change on a map and you will start to understand why we advise breaking the crossing into two days. The walk to Orisson is steep, and in those few kilometers you ascend almost 1000m. 

We realize that by suggesting you stop for the night in Orisson, we are in effect recommending the albergue there, since there is only one choice. Refugio Orisson (i.e., the French auberge to Spain’s albergue) is a favorite with many pilgrims. That said, we acknowledge that on any given day, even good places we recommend highly might fail to impress. But we have had very good experiences with the comfort of the accommodations (albeit albergue style), and the evening meal is remarkable. This family-run private auberge prepares delicious food, and sets the stage for good interaction among the 30+ guests at one big seating. The view of the Pyrenees foothills from their deck is incomparable, and gives you a glimpse of more to come the following day. We recommend reservations. http://www.refuge-orisson.com/en/

Whether you choose to go all the way to Roncesvalles or stopover in Orisson, we wish you a Buen Camino!

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Wick and Helen Van Wagenen first walked the Camino in 2007, and God has used every part of their experience to shape their lives since then. They are grateful for the opportunities to make many more trips to research routes, test gear, and volunteer along The Way. The Van Wagenens and their family and teammates continue walking the Camino, and enjoy helping others make the trip of a lifetime. You can contact them at Info@CaminoProvisions.com.