Last Updated: February 2019
Known as one of the best national parks to hike in South America, Torres del Paine presents some unique hiking opportunities that are not necessarily the most physically challenging, but visually they are extremely rewarding.
Among the hikes you can do in the park, you’ll find the three most popular known as the W, O, and Q. Each letter refers to the overall shape the trail takes, and all of them overlap with the most hiked part of all trails, the W.
If you’re interested in doing this hike, please take a look at this map before continuing, as I’ll make some references to it and mention the campsites and “refugios” you see here. (You can click the image to enlarge)
When Is The Hiking Season
The hiking season goes from September until April (their summer), with the months of January and February considered as the high season (the rest is “normal season”).
Have in mind that the trails are more crowded and food and accommodation is more expensive during high season. It is not possible to hike during their winter.
How to Get to Torres Del Paine
The best and most common way to reach the park is by taking the 7:30 am or 7:50 am bus from Puerto Natales. It costs 15,000 Chilean Pesos roundtrip. You should save your return ticket in a dry place inside your backpack.
Before the hike, stay at least one or two days in Puerto Natales to prepare yourself for the hike.
Buy groceries, get any last minute equipment, and get the free “Hiking in Torres del Paine” orientation given at Base Camp/Erratic Rock every day at 3:00 pm. Make sure you don’t miss that orientation as it helps a lot.
What You’ll See in the W and What to Expect
There are four main sights or highlights in the W. On the easternmost leg of the W you have the Towers (the icon of the national park), where most hikers go to see the sunrise. In the center leg, you have the Cuernos and the French Valley.
On the westernmost leg, you have Grey Glacier. Yes, there are more things to see along the way, but those are the “it” things.
On a daily basis, you will be hiking from four to eight hours, so you should plan your days to reach every campsite before dark. Also, you should expect the worst weather, but hope for the best.
It is highly possible you might walk for hours, if not days, under heavy rain, snow, hail, and strong winds from all directions. (I had all, except for hail)
The hike intensity is not hard, in fact, most of it is relatively easy for someone in decent shape. There are some challenging uphills, though, like the one before the Towers and a few small ones along the W, but they can be done well if hiked slowly.
In Which Direction Should You Hike?
There is no best route or direction; you can do it as you wish to since any route combination will give you a great experience in the park.
Some people say it’s better to walk the W west to east since you will be facing the towers the entire time and finish with a downhill. Other people say to do it from east to west to see the towers first and go mostly downhill as you go to Cuernos.
I think it doesn’t matter in the end. I chose to do it east to west, with the Towers first, only because I had a better chance of good weather during my first days hiking, and so it was.
If you decide to start or finish at Refugio Paine Grande, you will have to pay for a ferry that costs 15,000 Chilean Pesos one way.
The ferry is scheduled alongside with the bus from/to Puerto Natales, so if you take the ferry to leave the park, the bus will be waiting for you at the other side of the lake to take you back to the city.
An important note on weather: While traditional weather forecasts might help give you an overall idea if there’s going to be good or bad weather, you should have in mind that Torres del Paine does have several micro-climates and they all change drastically several times a day.
I saw how a day went from beautiful sunshine to storm clouds in a matter of one hour; followed by snow. The weather is highly unpredictable; so don’t fully plan your hike based on the forecast you see in Puerto Natales.
Probably the most accurate weather forecasts are the ones you can see in each campsite, dedicated to each micro-climate, but even those might not necessarily be fully accurate.
So, when planning your hike, just think of the hiking experience and don’t think much of the weather. You have no control over that, and chances are you’ll have sucky weather at some point of your hike. It’s part of the experience.
Where to Stay
One of the beauties of the W is that you have a lot of flexibility on where to stay and you can choose to stay at a paid camping site, a free camping site, a refugio, or a combination of the previous.
Free Camping Sites
If you’re carrying your tent, sleeping bag, and camping equipment, you can choose to stay in a free or paid camping site. The free camping sites have no facilities, so everything depends on you (no bathrooms even). Everything you carry in, you must carry out with you, including trash.
Paid Camping Sites
A paid camping site, on the other hand, is good for people who have their camping equipment and just want to have the amenities of bathrooms, running water, and even cooked meals (paid separately).
Here you also have the benefit of getting rid of your trash as needed. Even if you have all your camping equipment, including a tent, you must pay for your spot or platform to place your tent.
Should you not have some camping equipment or nothing at all, you can rent it. This is convenient for people who want to camp but don’t want to carry a tent and sleeping bag all along the trail.
These are pretty much hostels in the woods. Depending on the refugio, you might sleep in a dorm room with 6 to 8 more hikers, a dome-like room, or even a double bed cabin. All refugios have hot showers and are well heated during cold weather.
My personal experience: I stayed first in Refugio Chileno, followed by Refugio Cuernos on the second night, and Refugio Paine Grande on the third.
I considered staying an extra night in Refugio Grey, but I decided not to do it due to weather (but this last Refugio is commonly visited if you’re doing a 5 days/4 nights hike).
How to Book Your Accommodation and How Much it Costs
Booking your accommodation (with the exception of the free camps that need no reservation) is a bit annoying since you have to deal and plan with two different companies.
About a third of the W is inside a private property, run by Fantastico Sur, so every accommodation inside their land must be booked through their site or offices in Puerto Natales. The other accommodations are booked through Vertice Patagonia site or office in Puerto Natales.
Prices vary depending on what you need and the season. Do you only need to pay for a platform for your tent, or you also need a tent, sleeping bag, and mat? Do you only need a bed in a refugio, or you also need sheets and covers or a sleeping bag to stay warm on your bed? These are all charged separate, and their prices are outlined on each website.
One thing everyone has to pay is the park’s entrance fee which is 18,000 Chilean Pesos (about $28 at the time of writing). The rest will depend on how you decide to reach the park, hike and eat.
I spent $338 during the hike (including the bus, ferry, accommodation, and dinners I paid there) and $57 in groceries, some extra warm clothes, and hiking poles.
My total spending was $395, but you could do it much cheaper if you camp, or more expensive if you buy more meals or hike during the high season.
Important: Before booking on one site, have an idea of which direction you’ll be walking and check the availability of all your accommodations of interest on both sites.
Once you’re sure all of the refugios/campsites are available for your desired dates on both sites, then you can book. If booking in person in Puerto Natales, visit first both offices and then book.
What to Pack and How to Pack
You should only take the necessary. It is recommended to take only two sets of clothes, your hiking clothes for the day and your nightclothes.
I don’t like to wear the same clothes for 4/5 days, so I added a few more underwears and t-shirts, though I packed only two pants, as recommended.
Overall, I recommend not carrying more than 6 kilos (13.3 pounds) in your bag since you’ll be carrying it the entire trek. I used my 40 liters backpack and I had more than enough space for everything.
My packing list: (for staying in refugios)
- 1 hiking pants
- 1 long pants for the night
- 4 t-shirts
- 4 underwears
- 4 socks
- Warm jacket/clothes (preferably in layers)
- Waterproof jacket
- Basic toiletries
- Hiking shoes
- Cameras (with charger)
- iPhone (with charger)
- Hiking poles
- Small first aid kit (learn here how to make yours cheaply)
- Breakfast, lunch, and snacks for 4 days
- Ziplock bags to store electronics and essential documents (like my passport, which is needed in the refugios)
- Trash bags to compartmentalize my stuff and keep them dry
Things I didn’t pack but maybe you should:
- Cooking equipment and spices (if you’re planning to cook)
How to pack it:
Whether your backpack has a waterproof liner or not, don’t think of using it under bad weather.
Winds in Torres del Paine can be as strong as hurricane gusts, and they will easily turn your backpack’s waterproof liner into a parachute or cape and this will be you on the hike: (If you can’t see the .gif animation, it is Madonna falling down the stairs at the Brit Awards)
So, consider that your backpack will get wet. But, you can keep everything inside it dry by using plastic trash bags.
You’ll first place a big trash bag inside to store everything, but you’ll compartmentalize your clothes, food, and electronics or daily use items in three different bags that will be placed inside the big bag.
At the bottom goes the clothes bag, followed by the food bag, and topped with the daily stuff/electronics bag.
This method worked for me. I hiked for hours under the rain and constant wind, and none of my stuff got wet.
Dealing with Food
Depending on how much money you’d like to spend, you can either carry and cook all your meals or select to buy some meals in each campsite or refugio.
I chose to bring my breakfasts and lunches since those were easy for me to make and carry in my backpack (and because I believed the price charged for breakfasts and lunch boxes was a rip off).
I paid for dinners since I wanted to have a good warm meal a day, at least. Dinners are expensive, at $20+ a meal, but I think they are worth it since they are a three-course meal (no drinks included, except for water).
Should You Hike it Solo?
While it is not normally recommended to hike solo, it is more than fine to hike solo on the W. I did it solo, and I was fine.
Even though I hiked on my own, I met a lot of people in each refugio and crossed paths with dozens of hikers along the way, so you are never really that alone to fear for your life at any moment.
Besides, the trail is well marked, so getting lost is nearly impossible (unless you get off the path, which you shouldn’t do anyway).
It is easy to meet other hikers and join them for the day if they are going in the same direction.
Beyond the W… Doing the O and Q
The W takes from 4 to 5 days, but the O and Q can take you from 8 to 12 days, depending on your pace and where you stay for the night.
Even though I said there’s no best way to do the W, there seems to be a general notion that the O (the circuit) and Q are “better” done counter-clockwise since it flows “better” in terms of uphills and downhills as you progress on the hike.
Here’s a quick rundown at how people seem to prefer doing the Q. You start the Q at its tail (in Refugio Posada Serrano) so you can get a panoramic view of the entire landscape in Torres Del Paine, including the famous Torres and the Cuernos.
Then, when you finish the tail and reach Paine Grande, you continue walking due east, to do two of the three legs of the W, and once done with the W, you continue the circuit heading north towards Serron Campsite, and finalizing at the third leg of the W – passing through Grey Glacier and ending in Paine Grande to take the ferry and bus back to Puerto Natales.
The O circuit is the same but without the tail, so you can start it at any point.
Other Important Things to Have in Mind
- Depending on the season, you might need to book your accommodation at least a week in advance since this trail is heavily trekked. I hiked it mid-march (normal season), and I was fine booking it the day before I started.
- Should you need to buy camping supplies and other trekking gear, have in mind that Puerto Natales is the base town for this hike, so everything is expensive there. Still, there’s the Salomon Store, which is relatively cheap. Erratic Rock rents some camping and hiking equipment for a daily rate though it is not cheap.
- Don’t push yourself beyond your limit.
- If you’re having a miserable time due to weather, consider your options and how safe it is to continue walking.
- Don’t be afraid to cut short your hike if you’re exhausted or if you think it’s not worth it doing a leg of the W due to bad weather. There are parts of the trail that get completely covered in fog and clouds, covering the entire landscape. So, if you’re hiking for the love of hiking, fine, but if you’re hiking to see the landscape (that is not visible in bad weather), consider your options.
- If it starts raining, don’t bother putting your rain jacket on, unless it looks like it’s going to rain for hours. Rain in Torres del Paine comes and goes quite often, so you’ll get dry soon after a short rain.
- It is highly probable that your feet will get wet whether you have Gore-Tex hiking boots or not. My priority was to have comfortable shoes, not necessarily dry shoes, so I hiked with comfortable Puma sneakers. All the other people wearing Gore-Tex boots got their feet just as wet as mine when the bad weather hit us.
Want to Know More Before Your Hike?
Every day at 3:00 pm there is a free talk at Erratic Rock/Base Camp in Puerto Natales. It is about 1:15 minutes long and it explains all I wrote here and much more.
Plus, you can ask experienced hikers specific questions about your hike plans and they will give you tips for your trip.
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Awesome guide! I actually kinda of hate hiking. BUT, if there was one hike I would make an exception for, I think it would be this one!
Thanks, Amanda! Trust me, here, even if you do just a day hike, you’re going to love the scenery!
Awesome guide to travel and thanks for sharing it.
Thanks for this great guide. The W is way up on my list of hikes I want to do. What a spectacular place. Good to hear that you can do it solo too.
You’re welcome, Dean!
Definitely, you can go solo all the way!
I agree, in hiking, you cannot always get a nice weather, you can always pray for one, but don’t expect your hike to be perfect all sunny the entire time.. and yes, getting a bad weather is part of the experience. Also, bad experiences lead to really good story to tell, and bunch of lessons being learned.
Totally agree with you. In fact, I think the day I had the worst weather made for the best story to tell! 😀
It is also possible to do shorter hikes that are less demanding. We did 2.5 days in Torres and liked our our experience. http://earthlychow.com/torres-del-paine-patagonia-in-2-12-days-cheap-and-comfortable-trekking-hints-preparation
Looks like good tips…hopefully they will be of use to me in a couple weeks. My main reason for commenting is to thank you for including the bit about not being afraid to cut the trek short…so thanks!
This is the best summary on the internet. Thank you.
Chile is an awesome country with beautiful landscapes, i travelled through the whole country, and it was an incredible trip!
if you want to visit Chile, you may rent a camper or motorhome in AndesCampers, a very friendly company, i did it and they have a lot of different routes and tips about Chile in their website, it was very useful information for my trip!
to visit Chile in a Campervan, the best site is http://www.andescampers.com, they were really helpful with me and my family! Torres del paine is really AWESOME!
Thanks so much for this! It’s really useful. I’m all excited to do the W now!
The park is awesome, many natural landscapes and attractions.
The O and W circuit aren´t really hard working, you just have to know the trail.
If you don´t have many experience with trekking and haven´t studied the park (distances, attractions and difficulty in each trail) I recommend you go with a company, I recommend you Throughout Chile, they work into all country and are really professional!
The park is awesome, many natural landscapes and attractions.
The O and W circuit aren´t really hard working, you just have to know the trail.
Thanks for the all the info. great to hear some simple but great information. I am thinking of doing this trek in Feb around 11 Feb – 17 Feb. I am just concerned about booking hostels, I am not sure what & how I want to do it, hate having set plans. But wondering whats the best place to book these hostels & whether I have to book way in advance or can I book when I get there. Also, wondering if I can do some of the sections e.g. The grey Glaciar, & the towers as day hikes and return to hostel base somewhere at the start of the trek or Puerto Natales. is that a possibility? as I am not keen on doing the whole trek which seems like a loop. Any information on this would be really appreciated.
Hi Ricky –
Thanks! I know you can do the Towers as a day hike as there were a few hikers doing it like that when I was there. Actually, I looked briefly and saw that Viator has this one day tour to the towers.
I believe you might be able to do the glacier as a day hike too, but don’t quote me here. To reach the glacier area you need to take a ferry, so not sure if the ferry times are optimal for day hikers. You’re going near the end of the season, so it might not be too crowded, which could make it possible to book things last minute. I did mine around the same time and I booked the whole hike in Puerto Natales the day before I started.
I’d recommend hopping on various tour shops once you get to Puerto Natales as I’m sure they’ll be able to hook you with any day tour day have available, even if last minute.
Thank you so much for laying out which Refugios you stayed in during your hike! I had done some research on my own, and actually wrote down the same ones you did (although I think we are going to go West-East so we’d be the opposite order), but it’s so reassuring to see that I did it right (It’s hard to find information online!).
About how long did you hike each day? Also- were the refugios safe/clean/nice for what they are?
Thanks so much!
Hi Ariell –
Yes, the refugios were clean, warm, nice, and safe. Lots of travelers there too, so they are good too to socialize. Regarding hiking hours, I’m a fast hiker, so I hiked between 5 to 7 hours per day, but, I’d say most people took between 6 to 9 hours at a more leisure pace and with breaks. It all depends on how long you like to spend at the stops, your pace, and how many breaks you take.
Thank you for the info. I am meeting friends that are on a 2 year bike trek from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to the tip of Argentina! We plan to meet and backpack and I’ve been looking for info regarding Patagonia. You’ve given excellent info. Is there a map or guidebook regarding this area that you would recommend purchasing prior to arrival?
I’m not sure about maps of the area you should purchase as I didn’t get any outside the free Torres del Paine trail maps that you can get when you make a reservation (or by just visiting their websites or shops, even). For me, that map was more than enough to get enough info on the trails.
I am trying to plan a hike doing the W. I was wondering if Refugio Paine Grande the same as the Shelter Paine Grande? Thats all that is coming up for me on the Vertice Patagonia site. Also, Is this the only refugio that must be booked through Vertice? It seems as all other accommodations are found through Fantastico Sur?
Hi Steph –
Yes, Refugio and Shelter are the same (Refugio is Shelter in Spanish). The Refugios/Shelters you book on each site depend on the route you take. Just book the refugios wherever you see them (Fantastico Sur/Vertice). Just make sure you’re booking the right one, for the right date, so check all the dates and availability first before making the first booking to know if you should do the W east to west or west to east.
I invite you visit the cordillera huayhuash excelent area for trekking 4 , 6 , 8 , 10 , the full huayhuash trek is 12 days with optional climb to diablo mudo 5350m. easy climb
We planning on doing the W circuit in October!
Is this a good time?
Also should I book accommodation now or wait until we arrive in Chile in September?
Hi Roisin –
You will be early in the season, so you should expect a few cold nights and maybe some unpredictable weather too. I believe it is still not the “high season,” so you might be ok booking there. But, I would still recommend booking online, at least a few weeks ahead, as many of the accommodations and campsites fill up rather quickly. I was lucky I got my spots in each accommodation last minute during the low season, but I literally got some of the last spots available.