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 high season (the rest is “normal season”). Have in mind that the trails are more crowded and food and accomodation 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 7:30am or 7:50am 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 3:00pm. 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 the 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 separate). Here you also have the benefit of getting rid of your trash as needed. Even if you have all your camping equipment, including 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 the 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
- Breakfast, lunch, and snacks for 4 days
- Zip lock 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 of). 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 anyways).
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 or 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 of 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 probably 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 3:00pm 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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