When you picture Patagonia, with its impressive mountain ranges and massive rock towers, you’re probably thinking of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. This park is the most visited hiking area in all of Patagonia, and hoards of trekkers come here each season to experience the unbelievable natural beauty of this park. The most popular trail here is called the W, although the Circuit (‘O’), and Q are longer options. And there are other treks in the park, but they’re less frequented because they don’t have such a concentrated line-up of awesome views like the W. And the best part is that this trail accessible to trekkers with loads of experience or none at all! The trek essentially winds around the mountains, on a well-worn path. So the elevation gain isn’t too bad, and it’s impossible to lose the path. There are also amenities available in the park, and tons of other hikers, so you won’t end up stranded without food and shelter at any point. I’m going to give you a comprehensive overview of hiking the W in Torres del Paine to help you prepare for your amazing hike in Patagonia, but I also recommend that you go to the free information session held at Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales every day at 3pm. They’ve been trekking here and leading tours for over a decade so they’re incredibly helpful in preparing you.
Okay let’s get started! Here’s your complete guide to hiking the W in Torres del Paine National Park!
Hiking the W in Torres del Paine
Patagonia is rather inhospitable in winter, so you can only go in the summer in January-March, or the shoulder season in December and April. For hiking the W in Torres del Paine, you should allot 5 days and 4 nights. You can opt for one less or one more, which I will explain at the end. The entry town to the park is Puerto Natales, Chile, and you’ll need one night at the front and back end of the trek here in town. (Book your hostel in advance because it’s a small town and there are lots of hikers visiting during peak season.) You can get to Puerto Natales by bus from El Calafate or Ushuaia, both of which have airports and are close-by in Argentina. (If you’re combining this hike with other destinations, bear in mind that buses come to Puerto Natales from many towns.) Budget one day on the front and back end for transport. That means we’re up to 9 days on the ground, not counting your flying days. Personally, I would also recommend a day or two in El Calafate or Ushuaia since you’re coming all this way! Here are some things you can do in El Calafate.
While Puerto Natales is the entry point for the park, it’s not exactly right next to it. The park is a 2.5 hour drive from town. Buses leave every morning at 7:30am. Book your ticket the day ahead, there are usually plenty of seats even in peak season. You have three drop-off options once you get to the park, and you’ll choose based on the direction and length of your hike. The bus stops first at Laguna Amarga, where everyone has to get out and show their passport, do some paperwork, and pay the park entry fee. You can stay at this entry, take the shuttle to Las Torres hotel, and hike the ‘W’ from east to west. Or get back on the bus, to Pudeto on Pehoe Lake. You can take a catamaran across the lake to Paine Grande to start your hike there, moving west to east. The third and final option is to get off at Administracion, which puts you at the end of the tail on the ‘Q’. Hiking the tail into the park is an option for adding one day to your ‘W’ hike, and at the end of the tail hike you are at Paine Grande.
Hiking by Day
I’m going to cover the trail west to east since that’s the way I hiked it, but it doesn’t matter which direction you go. I’m including how many hours it took me each day, the mileage and steps taken, and the elevation increase (1 floor is about 10ft increase in elevation), so you can get an idea of what to expect when hiking the W in Torres del Paine:
Day 1: Hike from Paine Grande to Camp Grey
Great views of Glacier Grey
3.75 hours / 11.1 miles / 23,400 steps / 66 floors
Day 2: Hike from Camp Grey to Camp Italiano
Views of Skottsberg Lake
6 hours / 16.4 miles / 35,100 steps / 186 floors
Day 3: Hike from Camp Italiano up and back in the Francis Valley
Then hike to Camp Cuernos
Valley has really great views
6 hours / 17.2 miles / 36,100 steps / 186 floors
Day 4: Hike from Camp Cuernos to Camp Torres
This is the hardest day
5.5 hours / 15.9 miles / 33,500 steps / 186 floors
Day 5: Sunrise hike up to Las Torres
Then hike out to Las Torres Hotel
The sunrise is beautiful and definitely worth it!
4.5 hours / 12.7 miles / 26,600 steps / 142 floors
In total, the stats of this hike are:
25.75 hours / 73.3 miles / 154,700 steps / 766 floors
And that’s the day-to-day itinerary for hiking the W in Torres del Paine. So you can see it’s a pretty tough hike, but if you’re in good shape then you can definitely do it. You’ll probably walk out of it with a bunch of blisters, sore ankles, a tired back, and a sunburn, but it’s a small price to pay for being able to hike in the presence of such magnificent natural beauty!
Now for your options of adding or subtracting a day. I added a day at the beginning to hike the tail of the ‘Q’ into Paine Grande, which I definitely recommend. It’s mostly flat so it’s a nice easy first day. And you are treated to sweeping views of the whole park which gets you excited about your trip! This day takes 4.5 hours, 12.5 miles, 30,600 steps, and 64 floors.
If you only have four days, you can shorten the hike. From Paine Grande, instead of hiking all the way to Camp Grey, just go halfway to the viewing point and then head back past Paine Grande and up to Italiano. This basically combines days 1 and 2.
Most trekkers carry their camping gear and camp at night when hiking the W in Torres del Paine. If for some reason this doesn’t appeal to you, you can stay at refugios along the way, which are dorm-style accommodations. You can get this with our without linens depending on if you carry your own sleeping bag. The prices reflect this difference. The only time you need to change the itinerary for this option is to stay at Camp Frances instead of Camp Italiano (30 minutes further). You don’t need to book these ahead if you’re paying for a full bed with linens (these are plentiful because they make more money from you this way), but if you want a simple bed consider booking these ahead of time at the Conaf office in town.
There are two free campsites, Italiano and Torres. They’re very popular because backpackers are penny pinchers. You need to make “reservations” ahead of time for these two camps, which is so silly because they’re not going to run out of forest space. But it’s the game they play with you and you can’t challenge them on the spot, so just play along and book ahead. Either book in town at Conaf or ask the folks at Paine Grande to radio ahead to Italiano for you, and then ask Italiano to radio ahead to Torres for you. Make sure you get a voucher to bring with you.
For the private campsites (all the others) you have to pay to camp. It doesn’t cost much, but just know you need cash with you. The private camps are nicer, of course. They have showers, proper bathrooms, and a mini convenience store. You don’t need to book ahead for these. They’re happy to take your money and let you camp wherever you can find a spot. The earlier you get there, the better your spot. You can make reservations in town at Conaf if you want.
If you somehow get bumped from the free camps, you have the private camps as backups as well. It’s not much further from Italiano to Frances (30 min), but it would be heart breaking to get up to Torres and not have a reservation. That’s an hour and a half of uphill to get there from the closest private camp, Chileno. Make sure you have your Torres reservation before making the trek up there.
Whatever campsite you’re at, you need your tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag. Or hammock and sleeping bag. I had no trouble from the rangers about using a hammock, but at Paine Grande there aren’t any trees. You can rent camping gear at any of the private campsites for the night, so that was my alternative at Paine Grande.
Some careless hikers in recent years have accidentally set fire to enormous sections of the park while hiking the W in Torres del Paine. So now there are really strict regulations about making fires in the park. You can only use a camp stove, and only in a designated cooking area. If you’re caught cooking elsewhere, smoking, making an open fire, etc. they’ll kick you out of the park and out of the country. Bring a camp stove and gas can (which you can buy in town before taking the bus to the park since you can’t take the gas can on an airplane).
You should plan to pack all the food you need for cooking, but if you forget something or are craving something, there are mini convenience stores at all the private campsites. There you can get beer, potato chips, snickers, trail mix, tuna, etc. The refugios also have restaurants, so you can buy a hot cooked meal if you want on any or all of the nights, however you choose.
Also note that all the water sources in the park (rivers, streaks, etc.) are totally pure glacial run-off, thus safe to drink!! You don’t need to boil or purify it, just fill your bottle and drink it. This helps alleviate the challenge of hydrating, and lightens the load you need to carry. The only stretch where you have a hard time finding water is from Torres Camp down to Torres Hotel, since it’s high up. Refill whenever you have a chance. While you would on a normal day need about 2L of water, you should drink no less that 4L per day on the trail. Therefore, aim to always carry 2L with you.
What makes hiking the W in Torres del Paine challenging is the weather. In one day you should expect blistering sun through the hole in the ozone layer, pouring rain, winds strong enough to knock you over, snow, and anything else you can imagine. You need to be prepared for all types of weather. I was incredibly lucky that it was sunny every day of my hike, but the rain and winds were so bad in the three days following my hike that they were advising all hikers to not enter. I was prepared for all the weather anyway, and it made me way less stressed during my hike.
The recommended method for dealing with this is to have two sets of clothes, a hiking set and a camp set. The hiking set of clothes can get dirty and sweaty and wet and it doesn’t matter. You wear them only for those 5 or 6 hours you’re hiking. It should be lightweight, not cotton, and cover your arms and legs (from the sun). Then when you get to camp you have your comfy clothes, which are cleaner (and can be all cotton if you want!). Your rainproof clothes are for camp, when you need to be comfortable and dry for those other 18-19 hours. The guys at Erratic Rock have a very compelling explanation for this method, so you can hear more about it at that info session. You also want to waterproof everything in your bag by packing it into dry bags. I recommend dry-bagging by category, one for sleeping bag, one for clothes, one for food, etc. It’ll make your life way easier!
This is everything you will need for hiking the W in Torres del Paine, and I’ve included links to the products I have used during my month of trekking through Patagonia because I know that these products are entirely reliable. Any purchases you make through these links help to support Brittany from Boston, without adding any additional cost to you.
If you want or need other things for before and after the hike, for other parts of your trip, etc. then you can leave a bag of those things at your hostel in Puerto Natales. It’s therefore advisable that you book the same hostel for before and after your hike. And in this case, you may want to go with a bigger backpack, so that all of your travel gear can fit in one bag.
It’s also worth noting that you can rent lots of gear in Puerto Natales. So if you’re on a round-the-world trip and you just want the tent for this hike, you can easily rent one in town. You can also buy just about everything you need in town so don’t worry if you forget something!
Here’s what you need to pack for hiking the W in Torres del Paine:
- Backpack (capacity at least 65L)
- Waterproof backpack cover
- Dry bags for your stuff inside your backpack
- Waterproof fannypack for easy, safe access to your camera
- Sleeping bag (graded to 0°C) & dry compression sack
- Hammock, straps, & rain guard (Or tent & sleeping pad)
- Camp stove
- Gas can (Need only one, easy to buy in town)
- Mess kit & utensils
- Steel cup for boiling water
- Breakfast (oatmeal, something to put in the oatmeal like trail mix or crumbled cookies, instant coffee)
- Lunch (granola bars, apples, carrot sticks, trail mix, whatever is easy to eat as you go)
- Dinner (MRE’s, cup-of-soup, or pasta if you want to also bring a steel pot)
- Snacks (cookies, candy, whatever you want to have to treat yourself)
- Baby wipes & soap
- Large water bottle
- Hands-free hydration pack
- First aid kit
- Flashlight & headlamp
- Playing cards, iPod & headphones, a book, etc. for entertainment
- Hiking poles (optional, I don’t use them)
- Waterproof boots (or boots sprayed with waterproofer)
- Rain jacket & pants
- Fleece (for mine, same as rain jacket because they zip together)
- Thermals (because it gets cold at night)
- Long sleeve athletic shirt and long athletic pants
- Hat with a brim
- Hiking socks (2 pair)
- Hat, gloves, scarf
- Eye cover (there’s 16-18 hours of daylight in summer)
- Mini toiletries, including lotion, deodorant, chapstick, toothpaste
- Note: You do NOT need to buy a park map. You’re provided a really good map when you enter the park.
Okay I think that’s everything you need to know about hiking the W in Torres del Paine. There’s a lot of prep that goes into this trip, but don’t be discouraged. It’s totally worth it! All of this hiking and camping will challenge you, but you get to see some of the most amazing sights of your life, and they’re only accessible on this trail. And you meet awesome people on the trail and in camp! And you come out of the experience so much stronger for having done it! You can do it, I believe in you! If you have more questions about hiking the W in Torres del Paine that I didn’t cover, feel free to leave a comment and I’m happy to help you! What else do you want to know about hiking the W in Torres del Paine?
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