Before we walked the Camino de Santiago in 2018, we wondered how easy it would be to find our way on the trail. Now that we have returned successfully (without getting lost), we wanted to share with you what you can expect when it comes to staying on the path to Santiago de Compostela.
Can you get lost walking the Camino de Santiago? While it is possible to temporarily lose the path while walking, most pilgrims successfully walk the Camino de Santiago without getting lost. The Camino path is well marked with yellow arrows to help you find your way. You can decrease your chances of getting lost by remaining in eyesight of other pilgrims, bringing a Camino guidebook and not walking in the fog.
Many first-time pilgrims are concerned about getting lost while walking the Camino de Santiago. This makes sense, as many people have a fear of getting lost. In modern times we rarely consider the possibility of getting lost because of the accessibility to the maps on our phones. There is something about walking in the countryside in a foreign country and not knowing if there will be cell service, that highlights our fear of losing the path.
You may have read a couple of stories online where people have taken a wrong turn on the Camino only to find themselves walking up to a worn down barn or to someone’s driveway. They then needed to ask for directions and turn around to find the last known part of the path.
The few stories you have encountered do not represent the majority of people’s experience walking the Camino. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make the pilgrimage successfully without losing their way. When we walked the Camino in 2018, we both personally found the way-marking system very easy to follow.
For the few that have reported losing the path, many regarded the experience as more of a nuisance or inconvenience than any serious matter and were able to easily return to the established Camino path. While losing your way can put extra strain on your body (by having to walk further to retrace your steps), most are able to recover from the experience quickly.
While it is unlikely that you will lose your way while walking the Camino, there are still precautions you can take to avoid getting lost. From our experience (and the experience of other pilgrims), here are 10 things that you can do to decrease your chances of getting lost on the Camino.
Tips on avoiding getting lost on the Camino
1) Know what way-markers look like on the Camino
You will encounter several different types of way-markers when walking the Camino de Santiago. In Spain, the most common marker is the yellow arrow. The local municipalities do a very good job in upkeeping the arrows along the route. You will see large statues, placards and arrows on the ground. Pilgrims also have painted arrows on bridges, buildings, and other areas to help find your way.
Sometimes you will come to a sign with big arrows and little arrows. The big arrow will point you to the main path, while the little arrow typically is an alternative (not very popular) path. Many times these arrows will have descriptions of the path next to them.
While yellow arrows are the most common way-marker in Spain, you may also come across other symbols such as scallop shells and signs. These are meant to reassure you that you are on the right path. You may also see arrows painted in different colors (typically white or blue), although these are more rare.
If you are beginning your Camino de Santiago in France, the most common way-marker is a red and white stripe. You will typically see these two stripes (bars) stacked up one on another, to help you know you are on the way. If you see a third stripe, it means that you need to turn to the right or left (it will be obvious which way to go when you approach the intersection).
In France, if you come across the symbol “x”, it means that you are going the wrong direction. Keep an eye out for these as they are used at the most common points of departure from the path.
The beauty of the arrow and scallop shell system is that they are used frequently and offer peace of mind that you are still on the right path. Our experience was that as soon as we felt that we hadn’t seen an arrow for a while, one would appear, reassuring us that we were still on the trail.
2) Pay attention (avoid distractions like listening to music)
Keeping alert is one of the best ways to avoid losing the path. By paying close attention to the way-markers, you will be assured that you didn’t take a wrong turn.
It is also important to remember unique details about the path so that if you take a wrong turn, you can retrace your steps to the last known point where you knew you were on the trail. Keeping an eye out for unique buildings, trees, rock formations, bridges and other natural way-markers will come in handy later if you need to retrace your steps.
Staying alert of the presence of other pilgrims will also help you find your way. There are times where you may find yourself walking alone, but for most of the time, there will be another pilgrim in view.
We found that when the route went through a city, it took more vigilance on our part to make sure we were on the right street. Depending on which Camino route you are on, the route may twist and turn throughout a city, in which case you will want to keep your eyes out for way-markers.
One part of paying attention is avoiding unnecessary distractions like listening to music. If you enjoy listening to music, reserve your listening time to the days where you have long straight stretches with very little turning.
3) Walk as part of a group
Walking as part of a group has several benefits for not losing your way. The main benefit is that you will have more sets of eyes keeping a lookout for arrows and other way-markers. Another main benefit is that if you get lost, you may have someone in the group who speaks Spanish, which will help you find the path again faster.
It can also be comforting getting lost with others as opposed to getting lost solo. Even if it takes you a while to rediscover the trail, you will have others to share the experience with, and will have quite the story to tell once you make it to your albergue that night!
Lastly, walking as part of a group offers more resources in the case of getting lost. Someone will most likely have a guidebook or an app. Someone will have a cell phone. Someone may have food or water that can be shared with others (in the event that you lose your way during meal time).
4) Choose a popular route, especially if this is your first Camino
Even if you are an experienced backpacker, if this is your first Camino pilgrimage, we highly recommend choosing to walk one of the three main routes: Camino Frances (French Way), Camino Portugues (Portuguese Way) or Camino del Norte (Northern Way). The reason you will want to consider one of these routes is that they have the best infrastructure (including way-marking systems) for assisting pilgrims in finding their way.
According to the Pilgrim’s Office, almost 85% of pilgrims walked either the Camino Frances, Camino Portugues or Camino del Norte in 2018. With an overwhelming majority of pilgrims choosing to walk these routes, you will have a better chance of not getting lost, since the way-marking system is excellent on each.
If you are still considering which route to pick, we wrote a post covering the three most popular routes in detail, you can find it here.
5) Pack a Camino guidebook or download an app
While many pilgrims successfully walk the Camino without the aid of guidebooks or apps (because the way-marking systems are very good overall), it can be wise to bring one along just in case. You might not need them, but you will most likely feel better having them with you.
The most popular option is the Brierley guidebook. There are different guidebooks for different Camino routes. We used the one for the Camino Frances. Each book has detailed maps for each portion of the trail. When the route goes through a city, there is typically a blown up picture of the city, showing you which streets to proceed on.
We got along just fine with the Brierley guidebook.
There are also two apps that you may want to consider, one is the Buen Camino app, and the other is the Wise Pilgrim app. We have not used either of these apps, but many pilgrims recommend them in the forums. The Buen Camino app also works offline as well.
A third option for electronic maps is Maps.me where you can download the maps onto your phone and use them offline. You will want to set all of the maps up (including the specific route you are walking) before using it offline.
6) Look at your route map before setting out for the day
Having a guidebook or app with you will help in case of getting lost, but to further decrease your chances of losing the way, look at the map for the day before setting out. You will get an idea of what general direction you are walking in, and if there are any cities coming up that you need to be extra vigilant in.
If you are walking a Coastal route, you can take a look at the map so that you know where the ocean is in relation to your trail. For example, on the Portuguese Coastal route, you will want to keep the sea to your left. On the Camino del Norte, you will want to keep the sea to your right.
A quick look at the map will also give you reasonable expectations on what you will encounter on the trail that day. Most maps have elevation guides which will help you anticipate if you are going to be walking uphill, downhill or both. This will also help you pace yourself and know when to take breaks.
7) Don’t walk the Camino in winter or in heavy fog
Walking in the winter presents challenges for finding your way on the Camino. There are times that it may snow, which can cover up any way-markers that are on the ground. Snow can also stick to the side of signs or buildings, making it more difficult to find your way. If you do walk the Camino in the winter, do not walk on days with heavy snowstorms. It is much safer to wait out the storm and walk the following day.
Fog can also increase the chances of getting lost. There are times where heavy fog can set in (usually in the mornings or with a bad storm), and if the weather is severe enough, you will want to wait out the fog before walking again. Keep an eye on the weather forecast for each day.
If you decide that you want to walk the Camino in the winter, make sure to check out our complete guide to walking a winter Camino, you can find it here.
8) When in doubt, follow the most worn (or wide) Camino path
There are portions of the Camino trail that feel like, well, a trail. As with any trail, there will be other roads/trails that naturally hook up to the main path. For the most part, you will want to continue walking on the most worn and widest portion of the trail.
9) Learn some basic Spanish before leaving
While it is relatively easy to find your way back to the trail even if you don’t know Spanish (simply by asking “Camino”? with a puzzled look on your face will get the point across), knowing some simple Spanish beforehand will help you stay on the trail, as well as help you find the trail again if you took a wrong turn.
We wrote an entire post with basic, helpful Spanish words and phrases that you may find useful, you can find it here.
10) Bring a cell phone
While bringing a cell phone will not prevent you from getting lost on the Camino, it will be very helpful if you do get lost and need to call for help. If you have an emergency in Spain, dial 112.
What to do if you think you are lost on the Camino
If you think that you have taken a wrong turn, there are several things you can do to find out if you are on the right path.
As mentioned earlier, many people are afraid of getting lost when walking the Camino. From our experience, as well as the experience of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, there is nothing to be afraid of. By using common sense and following the tips we mentioned in this post, you will increase your chances of staying on the path, and ultimately end your pilgrimage in Santiago de Compostela.
For many pilgrims, the Camino represents the journey of life. If we get lost, we ask for help, open up ourselves to the care of others, retrace our steps, and ultimately find the path again. Just as in life, it is possible to get lost, but this does not mean we don’t take the journey.