The W Trek in Torres del Paine, Chile was one of the greatest treks I’ve ever been on. It captures the essence of Patagonia and is one of the premier hikes in all of South America.
During my research beforehand, I found some bits of info here and there but nothing very comprehensive. By the time we arrived in Puerto Natales, we only had a very general idea of what we needed for the trek and ended up scrambling to get everything in order. To save you that trouble, I’m going to write down everything you need for the W trek right here, right now.
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The Basics of the Trek
The W trek is typically a 4 to 5 day trek that goes from East to West or vice versa. Depending on where you start, you’ll either see the actual Torres (towers in English) on your first or last day. You’ll see the same stuff regardless of which direction you go.
However, there is one reason to consider direction: dealing with the finicky Patagonia weather. If the sky is clear when you get there, it’s best to start at Hosteria Las Torres in the east and see the Torres on your first day. If it’s pouring, you’re probably better off starting at Refugio Paine Grande and crossing your fingers that it will clear by the time you reach the Torres. Any sort of rain will make it nearly impossible to see the Torres as they’ll be hidden in the fog and clouds.
We met several people on the hike who did not see them at all!
Completing the whole W usually takes 5 days and 4 nights.We went from the east to the west and finished early at Refugio Paine Grande, without going up to Glacier Gray. So for us, we spent 4 days and 3 nights on the trails.
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What You’ll Need
Depending on your style and budget, you can either choose to camp & cook or stay in the refugios and buy meals. Prices in the refugios can be fairly high ($50+/night, $15 for a meal) and spots are hard to come by during busy season (Nov – Feb). If you’re going this route, you’ll only need your clothes.
Since we opted to go for the camp and cook route, we needed to be completely self sufficient. Luckily, there are plenty of places in Puerto Natales that rent gear. People recommend going to the Erratic Rock for pre-trip information. We didn’t and found that most places were very helpful.
For two people, this is what we ended up getting for ~$60/person, or ~$20/night:
- 1 waterproof, 2 person tent – make sure this is in good condition as it’ll likely rain
- 2 sleeping bags, rated -10C – it gets cold at night, especially at the higher camps
- 2 sleeping pads – campsites are decent but the ground isn’t always guaranteed to be even
- 1 cooking set that contained a skillet, bowl, pot, utensils, and sponge (similar to http://amzn.to/1cXUnvP)
- 1 small propane tank with burner
For essential clothes/gear, make sure you bring at least:
- headlamp – don’t go camping without this, there are no lights in the camps
- waterproof jacket – invaluable when you are caught in the rain
- water proof pants – alternatively, you can man up like myself and wear basketball shorts while hiking
- comfortable hiking or running shoes – waterproof hiking shoes were definitely something I wish I had
- extra socks – your socks will get wet and nasty
- clothes to change into at night – sweatshirts/sweatpants to wear around camp
- gloves/beanie – it gets cold and the gloves are invaluable when you are packing a cold and wet tent
- flip flops – your feet will thank you at night
- hiking poles – optional but apparently they help a ton
Misc. things I found very useful:
- match/lighter – you gotta light up the propane somehow
- lots of garbage bags – keeps your stuff dry, keeps your stuff clean
- toilet paper – bring a few rolls, not all campsites have public TP
- wet wipes/anti-bacterial gel – you get stinky and dirty, have something to clean yourself with
Food is really up to the individual but generally speaking, make sure it is light and high energy. The main supermarket in Puerto Natales (Unimarc) does NOT have any special camping, dehydrated foods such as Mountain Packs. I didn’t check the specialty stores in town but I would assume they don’t have them or if they do, sell them incredibly overpriced. I would recommend to stick to the basics like pastas, breads, nuts, fruits, canned goods, and some cured meats.
As for water, the good news is that you don’t need to worry about water! All the rivers and streams are perfectly safe to drink out of, even if there’s sediment. Just bring a refillable bottle and you are good to go.
Oh, and don’t forget the whiskey.
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Details of the Days
During the summer season (Nov – Feb), the sun rises around 5am and doesn’t set until 10-11pm meaning you’ll almost always be hiking in daylight. This allows you to really take your time and set a pace that you are comfortable with. Below are quick summaries of each the days we hiked.
Day 1 – Start to Torres (~9km, 5.5hrs): Because we were fully loaded down with all our food and unused to hiking with heavy packs, this was probably one of the hardest days. There is a lot of uphill and downhill with many areas exposed to the stinging Patagonian wind that can literally blow you over.
We took the bus to Hosteria Las Torres, stopped at Refugio Chileno along the way to make lunch, and then continued the rest of the way to Camp Torres. After setting up camps, we hiked the hour or so to see the Torres and came down in the late afternoon.
Day 2 – Camp Torres to Refugio Cuernos (~15km, 7 hrs): I had my alarm clock set to 4:00am so we could catch the sunrise at the Torres. Instead of clear skies like the previous day, we woke up to pouring rain. We ditched the sunrise idea, slept a bit longer, and finally dragged ourselves out to pack up our soaked tent into our damp bags.
The rain continued falling and we seriously considered bailing on the entire trek. However, as we made our way out of the valley the rain tapered off and then in the distance, we saw a burst of sunshine through a gap in the clouds. Our spirits rejuvenated by this beacon of hope, we decided to continue on.
Day 2 ended up being the longest of the trek but also had some of the best views. As the clouds cleared up, we witnessed magnificent views of Lago Nordenskjold to the south of our path. The way was mostly flat and we crossed numerous rivers and small streams. By the time we reached Refugio Cuernos, we were pretty wiped but definitely glad we had continued on.
Day 3 – Refugio Cuernos to Camp Italiano and the Mirador (~6km, 3 hrs): A fairly easy day compared to the previous, we made our way to Camp Italiano and then the mirador in Valle Frances. At the top was one of the best views in the park: a massive glacier covered mountain overlooking a lake in front and behind you, the back side of the Torres.
Day 4 – Camp Italiano to Refugio Paine Grande and out (~8km, 2.5 hrs): We woke up early and finished off the trek with a relatively easy hike to Refugio Paine Grande. We then took the catamaran across Lago Pehoe, waited for our bus, and made our way back to Puerto Natales.
In hindsight, I wish we had gone up north and seen Glacier Gray but I don’t think it was possible at the time. About a day prior, my left knee started hurting and by the time we reached Paine Grande, I was limping pretty badly. We also had run out of food and would’ve needed to make a round trip and spend the night at Paine Grande. Combined with the fact that we were pretty tired at this point, choosing to leave the park ended up being a pretty easy decision.
On the way to Paine Grande, we passed through a large patch of burned and dead forest thanks to an idiot Israeli arsonist. Remarkably, this was one of the only places in the park that we witnessed human destruction. The Chilean government has done a remarkable job of conservation and education within the park. There are steep fines for violating park rules which I think has done a great job in helping preserve the pristine condition of Torres del Paine.
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Tough but beautiful, unpredictable yet accessible, the Torres del Paine W Trek is one of the great adventures in South America. Glaciers, mountains, lakes and rivers dot the windswept landscape and you truly get a sense of the vastness of Patagonia. It is a once-in-a-lifetime trip and should be experienced by everyone who enjoys the outdoors.
If you’re ever in Patagonia, make sure to go to Torres del Paine, even if you don’t do the trek. The sights there are something you’ll never forget in your life.