The 80:20 Camino Rule (It’s not about the gear!)

May 15, 2024 in Uncategorized

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: I came across the 80:20 rule, also the Pareto principle, working in computers in the 80s but it applies to almost anything in life. It states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, and conversely 80% of the effort only yields 20% of the returns or benefits. Applying this to the Camino or indeed life in general, there is a fascination with gear and technology that takes up about 80% of social media posts about the Camino in particular but by my reckoning it only accounts for about 20% of the actual experience on the trail or the journey of life.

I’ve never seen a statistic on this but I reckon a generous estimate would be that gear accounts for less than 20% of the Camino experience. There are certain pieces of equipment that are crucial, e.g. footwear, backpack, hydration system, and other pieces that are less important. People often vary greatly in what they need and what they have learned are useful bits of kit (everyone has opinions on this!). The thing is, a lot of the important gear is only useful up to a point, it just has to be ‘good enough’ and after that the gains are fairly minimal i.e. gains of fractions of a percentage. One of my favourite stories is that pre-Camino I was testing a number of hi-tech hiking socks, synthetic, merino, etc., and on the morning of departure just grabbed two pairs without really looking. I walked the 12 day Portuguese route and enjoyed it, no real problem with blisters. In getting home I realised that one of the pairs I had used was a cheap €3 cotton pair! The thing was I didn’t notice the difference with the more expensive pair, it was minimal! On another Camino training hike my boots were killing me and I came across a discarded pair of sneakers on a farm that fitted perfectly and got me home (the Camino will provide!).

The problem with reading a lot of the Camino forums, often people can get the impression it’s “all about the gear”: the shoes, the breathable shirts, the hydration system, the apps for information on accommodation, distances and route. However, the reality is that the gear is not going to walk the Camino for you. To state the obvious, the Camino is all about the experience of being on the road, walking long distances, being in nature for long periods and facing yourself. The real magic is disconnecting from all but the most basic technology (boots and blister pads), getting back into your body and finding some priceless inner peace. I believe the central discovery is the deeply humanising one of being a pilgrim, a ‘transitory being’, and realising how little ‘stuff’ you need. Learning to see clearly or contemplating reality is that inner transformation which happens over time with walking, simple living and being in nature. Again the technology is incidental or secondary, it helps and facilitates but it’s not the central thing at all, despite all the hype.

Obviously, I believe it is the spiritual or mystical (I think the word ‘mystery’ is useful) aspect that is central, after all the Camino is a pilgrimage in its essence, a journey of transformation. It is no mere pious or superficial transformation though, it is a gritty, down-to-earth, humanising experience of challenging and often painful transformation on the road to freedom, ‘redemption’, recovery or rebirth. The Camino experience can be treated a physical journey on one level and I accept a lot of people take it in this way. However, at a deeper level it is about desire; people seeking a deeper connection with themselves, the natural world and looking for answers and guidance in their lives, often hoping for some kind of healing. People often set out as hikers and become pilgrims as they slowly make their way along, gradually (painfully at times) discovering limits, the humbling experience of being ‘embodied spirits’, and gaining insight on hurts in need of healing, and often uncovering a sense of meaning or purpose for their lives.

I remember another mountain walk where one guy who had brand new gear but no fitness or experience, fell over in the first hour and annoyed, stormed off the hike. The gear on its own doesn’t mean anything without someone in the right frame of mind and prepared physically, mentally and spiritually.

The problem with this excessive focus on equipment is:

  • It is very expensive and exclusive if followed through; it implies that you have to buy a load of expensive gear, whereas a more modest budget will also work just as well; it just needs to be ‘good enough’ and get the 20% or essentials right (footwear, hydration & backpack).
  • It is often driven by anxiety/fear and appears to give the illusion of control, as if all Camino issues can be solved with technology and gear. Rather, one thing that the Camino teaches above all others is that you have to let go of control, learn to trust and to live with uncertainty. This is at the heart of the magic of the Camino, there is a beautiful risk to it, you don’t know what’s going to happen and it’s better that you don’t.
  • It gives newcomers the wrong idea that it’s just a long hike, a sports challenge that you can plan and ‘buy’ for in advance, and diverts attention from the more important issues of psychological, spiritual and social challenges, the other 80%, which are by far the most central and inherent to the Camino.
  • It starts to become about consumerism, marketing and advertising. (I remember one pilgrim listing Aviator sunglasses as essential equipment).