Via Francigena Planning Tools
I know how time-consuming and mind boggling it can be searching for information to answer your questions and to help you plan your trip especially if you are unfamiliar with long-distance walking and the countries and areas you are visiting. So here are the key resources that helped me and my tips to help you plan your trip.
I used all three volumes of the Lightfoot Guides covering the whole route. The first two covering Canterbury to Besancon and then Besancon to Vercelli were particularly useful. Italy was very well signed so I didn't need to use the third guide as much.
Whilst I walked the whole Via Francigena route from beginning to end as one stage after I was made redundant from my job, many pilgrims break it up into smaller stages depending on how much time they have available.
Some pilgrims walk the Via Francigena in 2 to 3 stages, others choose to walk 2 weeks at a time whilst others choose to walk a particular stage of the route. For example, starting in Martigny to cross the famed Great Saint Bernard Pass then walking down to Rome, or starting in Tuscany or even just 100 kilometres from Rome to gain the pilgrim certificate.
I used Pocket Earth Offline Maps and LOVED it. If you have an iPad or iPad mini or iPhone with Wi-Fi/data then you can use the GPS functionality when you are offline. You will need Wi-Fi access or 3G/4G access from time to time so you can download the maps as you can't store all of them at once. I imported a GPS route which meant I could see the trail and track my movement along it if I needed to. I highly recommend this app for hiking VF or at home.
This is my full listing of all the accommodation I stayed in including addresses, contact details, indicative prices and some commentary.
Connect with other Pilgrims
The following forums were indispensable as I planned my trip and asked questions along the way.
You will need to have a Facebook or Yahoo account to access these and you will need your membership approved for the Yahoo forum.
Get a Pilgrim Credential
I joined the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome and had my pilgrim credential posted to me. You will need to show a pilgrim credential to stay at many of the religious accommodation along the route. If you don't have time to get one before you go then you will be able to pick one up along the way.
Joining the confraternity also gives you access to their accommodation listing from their members only listing.
Get informed - Blogs, books & podcasts
These are the blogs that I found most useful as I prepared to walk and even when I was walking:
I also read the following books that provided some insight about the Italian portion of the route:
The following two books about spiritual journey of pilgrimage were invaluable preparation and helped me to transition to life back home:
Dave Whitson of The Camino Podcast interviewed myself and Paul Chinn, who co-authored the Lightfoot Guides to the Via Francigena with his wife for Episode 19 The Via Francigena. Paul talks about the route, its history and condition whilst I reflect on my personal experience.
Get the right gear
If you are unfamiliar with long-distance walking/hiking as I was, then it will take some research, asking questions in the forums above and shops and trying things out to find out what is right for you.
Please remember I walked during autumn so the temperature started warm and ended really cold so I packed accordingly. If you are walking during summer there are a number of items you are unlikely to need such as layers for warmth and possibly even a sleeping bag as a sleeping bag liner may be enough.
I purchased quite a few things from wildearth.com.au - great prices, reliable, hassle-free exchange.
My must haves:
The right footwear for your feet - there is no one pair of shoes or boots that is right for everyone. Some people will swear by shoes, others boots. Some will say leather is the best, others will say goretex is fine. I've even heard of some pilgrims walking in sports sandals. At the end of the day you need to find the pair of shoes or boots that your feet feel best in. Here are my tips when buying:
- Make sure that the thickness of the sole is appropriate for the load that you are carrying.
- Test the shoes indoors at home before you officially break them in as you might discover parts that dig in or hurt your feet that you didn't notice in the store. If you have doubts, take them back. Your footwear is the most important piece of equipment you will take with you.
- Buy 1 to 2 sizes too big. Stomp down a ramp and make sure your toes don't hit the ends or you'll be in for a world of pain on the trail and probably lose some toe nails along the way.
- Consider visiting a sports podiatrist for a footwear assessment as they may be able to make recommendations or adjustments to customise the boot for your specific foot issues.
- Wear them in before you go. Leather will take longer to break in than synthetic. Don't buy the shoes just days before you go.
45 litre backpack — This is another really important purchase. It's not about how much you spend but ensuring you get the right fit for your torso length, hips and posture. Buy it from a professional hiking place where they can help you work out the right fit. If it doesn't feel comfortable on in the store, don't buy it. It's not going to get better on the trail with weight. They no longer make the one I used for the Via Francigena. I purchased a Berghaus Freeflow Biofit 40 litre backpack for my Jerusalem trip as it had a special design that takes it slightly away from my back for better air circulation and the backlength was adjustable for my torso length. The 45 litre backpack was the right size for me given what I packed and the season I was walking. A lot of other pilgrims seem to go for the 38 litre maximum.
Roman Palm 1 compact sleeping bag weighing 800 grams. It has a comfort rating of 10 degrees celsius and I had to use 2 extra blankets in monasteries and convents that didn't have heating on in November as I am a cold sleeper. If you aren't planning on sleeping at monasteries, convents and communal pilgrim housing then you may be able to get away without a sleeping bag. If you're walking in summer a sleeping bag liner may be sufficient. Most pilgrim accommodation has blankets available if needed.
Camelbak 3.0 litre hydration bladder - I filled it only with enough water for the distance I was walking which was a maximum of 2.2 litres for a 40 kilometre day. Some people prefer just to carry a water bottle and refill it as they go. However, I know my walking style and knew I wouldn't stop to drink often enough and would end up de-hydrated. The hydration bladder has a tube that I can drink from on demand. Whilst it meant I generally carried extra weight because I filled the water bladder in the morning before I left as it was too difficult to refill during the day (I would have to pull my gear out to do so then repack), I would definitely use it again.
Lightweight folding hiking poles - especially for the hills and uneven ground. I didn't use them until Switzerland and when I discovered how much they helped taking weight of feet and knees and with momentum and rhythm I used them all the time.
Waterproof Poncho - we have limited choice here in Australia but this did a good enough job. The cap is a little bit annoying as it falls down on your eyes but I tucked it in under the hood. More lightweight than having a rain jacket and rainproof pants.
Injinji toe socks - as part of a two sock strategy. Crew socks as first layer and good quality merino socks on top. I took two pairs.
Mountain Designs Vantage Merino Socks - Good quality merino is breathable and helps to regulate the temperature of your feet i.e. better for minimising blisters. I bought two pairs and although I lost one sock along the way I only got a hole in one of them near the end. They don't seem to make the particular style I used anymore.
Sea to Summit DryLite Microfibre towel - It feels like suede and it really does dry very quickly. I bought a medium size which was big enough (although not to wear from the shower to the bedroom.)
Merino t-shirts and leggings from MacPac and Icebreaker: 2 short-sleeve t-shirts, 1 long-sleeve t-shirt and 1 leggings to sleep in and layer for warmth. Merino is antibacterial so you can get away without washing it for more than a week without it smelling. It also regulates body heat so keeps you warm when it is cold and cool when it is hot. The ones I bought were no more than 150 g/m2 any higher and it was too scratchy for my skin.
Compact travel umbrella - useful for the rainier seasons (spring and autumn.) I tucked mine into my backpack chest strap and wedged it over the top of my bag so I could keep using my hiking poles. The umbrella helped to keep rain out of my face while I was walking and made walking through the rain more enjoyable and drier.
Sun cap and sunscreen - you spend everyday outdoors exposed to the U.V. light and you can get sunburned even when it's raining. On the suggestion of someone in a forum, I ditched my little travel bottle to help keep weight down. I regretted it for the first five days from Canterbury to Licques when it was 25 degrees + celsius and sunny and I got sunburn on sunburn. Take sunscreen!
First aid kit: You will find pharmacies along the way but there are some essentials you need with you for when you're in between towns including pain relief such paraetamol and anti-inflammatory ibuprofen or voltaren, tablets to stop stomach cramps and diarrhoea, small jar of white tiger balm (which is great for stopping itchy bites and also soothing aching muscles,) needles/thread for blisters, leukoplast adhesive outer bandage and a non-adhesive lining bandage for hotspots and blisters, small betadine antiseptic liquid, small scissors, tweezers.
Other things I packed:
- Bras X 2
- Underwear X 3
- Lightweight polar fleece zip up jacket
- Polar fleece mitten gloves — they were essentially fingerless gloves with a mitten pullover for when I wanted to cover my fingers. I loved the design but they weren't quite warm enough for the snow or frosty temperatures.
- Synthetic fill jacket — even when I was wearing all my layers, I wasn't warm enough in Italy in November. I purchased a light-weight water resistant duck down jacket for my next walk.
- Oakley Polarised Frogskin sunglasses — polarised is the best for spending so much time outdoors. The frames pull apart so it's really hard to break them.
- GoPro Hero 3 White to made video and my Canon G11 to take photos. Spare battery for each and spare memory cards. If you're not wanting high quality images then you can survive just with your smart phone camera.
- iPad Mini and keyboard case so I could blog and write along the way as well as store my guidebooks and accommodation listings.
- iPhone — I used mine mainly for photos to upload to my blog and the occasional phone call to book accommodation.
- Journal and pen — I am a writer so I take these everywhere anyway.
- Platypus 1.0 rollup water bottle in case my hydration water bladder died. I ended up using it a hot water bottle on the cold nights in November. So glad I packed it.
Things you don't need to take:
- Tent unless you are really keen on camping. I carried mine for two weeks and gave it away after using it only once in France.
- External battery charger e.g. mophie juice pack or similar solar powered device so you can recharge electronic devices while you are walking. Unless you are running a GPS app all day while you are walking, your electronics should survive from town to town. Charge them at night and turn them off when not in use or find a cafe during the day.
- Separate GPS device. I bought one and left it at home. It was really unintuitive and difficult to use and I discovered PocketEarth for my phone and iPad so I didn't need it.
- Sleeping mat - even the most simple of communal places have mattresses you can put on the floor. The worst case scenario you might find yourself in if unable to find accommodation is sleeping in the hall of a church and you could just sleep on top of your clothes. I did this when I camped one night and although uncomfortable I survived. It was only one night.
If you have any questions about what to take please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via my contact page.