07/07/2011 01:34 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2011

A Student's Guide to Backpacking: San Fermin

The city and surrounding area of Pamplona, nestled deep in the northern Spanish mountains, seems like it would be a very tranquil, small town any of the other 51 weeks of the year.

Thankfully, this is not one of those weeks. This is San Fermin.

For those of you, like myself, with dreams of living the prose of Hemingway, partying with over a million people and - perhaps - emulating daredevils past, there are some considerations to take before setting off for Pamplona.


The Running of the Bulls -- There will always be more reasons not to participate in the Running that there will be reasons to do so. Before stepping into the ring, imagine yourself getting gored. Imagine tripping and slamming your face into cobblestone. And then imagine yourself getting gored again. Watch videos of previous runs. If, after all of that, you still want to run... do it all over again. Encierro is not something to be taken lightly. People die. If you're drunk, don't do it. If you're not in decent shape, don't do it. If you think you may be too scared to function, don't do it. You won't just be taking a chance with your life, but the lives of two thousand other runners as well.

Pickpockets and Mugging -- Millions of drunken partygoers, many of whom are tourists, will attract pickpockets and -- without fail -- thousands of people will fall victim to these opportunistic criminals. The number one rule to avoid getting pickpocketed is to remain aware of your surroundings. You're going to be drunk. In fact, if you're not drunk at San Fermin, you're doing it wrong. Don't get so drunk to forget that you used to have a wallet in your pants, though. Next, keep small amounts of cash on your person and remove all ID, credit cards etc. You're not going to get carded during San Fermin, you don't need any of your identification, it's just one more thing to lose to a thief. Also, consider clipping a money clip to the inside of your pants, shorts or even underwear. A pickpocket reaching in there would almost certainly be noticed. Finally, to avoid any mugging, travel in groups. There will typically be large groups of tourists drinking at literally every hour of the day throughout the festival, so "help" shouldn't be too far away, but avoid traveling alone at night if possible.


Drinking - Many, many people will have wineskins: leather sacks capable of holding anywhere between 0.5-2.0 liters of wine. There are some cheaper wineskins and some that are more expensive, but you get what you pay for. Drinking all day can be an expensive affair if you don't have your own strategic reserves waiting to be tapped, so my advice would be to invest in a Las Tres Z.Z.Z. wineskin. You can find them in souvenir shops in Barcelona, Madrid and Pamplona and - in all reality - they do make wonderful souvenirs once their San Fermin-related purpose has been served.

Sleeping and Storage - If you, like many attendees, don't have a place to sleep at night, the park is a favorite. However, sleeping at a park with your backpack full of clothes, shoes and potentially expensive electronics is just asking for trouble. Luckily, a consigna, or baggage service, sits near the park waiting to hold on to partygoers' bags for a nominal fee. This is especially handy if you plan to run with the bulls, as the police don't allow anyone in with a bag on.


Dress Up - Hundreds of thousands of tourists, Spanish and foreign alike, descend upon Pamplona every year and - every year - most people have the good sense to dress in the traditional garb of the festival: white shirt and pants, blood red sash and bandanna. Don't be one of the few only half-dressed. Spanish flea markets are a great place to find white pants at low prices (€5-9) and sashes and bandanas can be purchased all over Pamplona. (If you need me to tell you where to get a white shirt, you shouldn't be going to San Fermin.)

Drinking - Everyone knows their limits, but sometimes people seem to get carried away and drink themselves under the table. Well, think about it this way. You've paid a lot of money to come to Spain for this festival. That one, last drink might sound great now, but would you like to waste that precious money by spending a night of San Fermin throwing up in an alley?

San Fermin is arguably the most famous annual festival in modern history. Many of those that attend, including myself, have dreamt of doing so since childhood. Don't let a lack of preparation and common sense ruin what can otherwise be one of the best weeks of your life.

Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!