Never camped or trekked? No worries! Everything you need to know to trek the W Patagonia
Having engaged in very little preparation for my Latin American journey, I would offer a token plan to anyone who asked. ‘I am going to trek the ‘W’ circuit in Patagonia’ I would confidently declare. The reality was however that I had not the faintest clue what was involved. In true ‘Chloe’ style my plan was to rock up unannounced and just get my trek on. I mean, how hard could it be right?
Torres Del Paine National Park is located in the South of Chile in the region of Patagonia. Spanning over 181,000 hectares the park is known for its unpredictable and extreme weather. Sudden rainstorms and gusts of winds up to 190km/hour suggests that some planning with regards to equipment and attire might be of some benefit.
The National Park is most accessible from Puerto Natales. The sole focus of this town is to prep you for trekking and camping. You can purchase or hire everything and anything that you possibly need to take with you. You can get to Puerto Natales by boat (Navimag from Puerto Montt), air (to Punta Arenas & then 3 hour bus) or by bus.
Erratic Rock Hostel offers a free introduction talk for trekkers each day at 3pm. The talk which runs for approximately 90 minutes covers everything you need to know to trek or camp for the first time. They also rent the necessary gear so in one short afternoon you can prep yourself to leave the following morning for the National Park.
You can hire gear at a number of places in Puerto Natales. Erratic Rock hire anything and everything you could possibly need and can store your belongings while you complete the trek.
Torres Del Paine National Park is a 2 hour bus ride from Puerto Natales (approx. 12 USD). Buses depart daily from 7:30-7:50am and need to be booked the day prior to departure. The buses will take you to the main entrance where fees are collected. You have the option to then change to a shuttle bus to take you to Las Torres where you can trek the W circuit from east to west. Alternatively you can stay on the original bus for another hour and instead arrive at Peduto. From there you can take the Catamaran each day at 12pm to Paine Grande where you can opt to trek from west to east. Trekking from west to east is slightly easier as you generally have the gale force winds behind you and additionally have a lighter pack towards the end of the trek for the more intense inclines.
There are three main accommodation options for your time in the National Park. You can choose between free camp sites, paid camp sites or the refugios which offer bunk bed arrangement in dorms.
Free camp sites: Offer toilets and a cooking shelter (outside). There are more free campsites along the trail than any other type of accommodation and this allows for the greatest flexibility. Additionally if you want to climb to see the sunrise behind Torres Del Paine from Base De Las Torres the closest campsite for this adventure is Campamento Torres – a free campsite (no other accommodation options)
Paid camp sites: You can opt to hire a tent/equipment from each paid campsite, however this does get pricey. The benefit of this is that you then don’t have to carry the equipment with you. You can also bring your own camping gear and hire a camping space for a small fee (approx. 7-10 USD/night/pp) which also allows you to use facilities such as showers and toilets.
Refugios: The most expensive but civilized option. You will need to book well in advance in peak season, but this allows you to trek without carrying any equipment or food. The meals and board vary in price and they can also provide you with a packed lunch for your day of hiking ahead (for a fee). There are less refugios than campsites, so it does limit the number of places you are able to stay.
When deciding between options, budget will play a large role. I suggest mapping out where you want to trek and check the accommodation options which allow for a feasible day of walking between sites. You may find that it is necessary to camp to be able to see all that you wish to as the campsites are more readily available. It is certainly feasible for someone with no experience to take their own camping equipment (hired prior to arrival) and carry this throughout the trek. Though this is slightly more challenging, it requires no more than a moderate level of fitness (and some seriously comfortable walking shoes)
Shorter treks or day trips
If you think 5 days of camping to complete the full W circuit isn’t exactly your cup of tea, there are plenty of other options for those wanting a glimpse of the park without the additional leg work.
You can opt to complete a smaller section of the trek and stay one or two nights in the refugios. As you will not be carrying a heavy pack, you should be able to cover a little more ground. The most beautiful walks in my opinion was that from Paine Grande to Los Cuernos (5 hour walk) with the option of staying at Los Cuernos Refugio and from Los Cuernos to Chileno Refugio (6 hours walk with shortcut). You could then take any more optional walks up the valleys using the refugios as your base.
Similarly you can do a day trip out to the National Park. However, given it takes a 4 hour round trip from Puerto Natales you would be much better off staying at least one night in the park.
If you are travelling solo and would like to hike with others, the great news is that the trek is incredibly social. Erratic Rock Hostel was a buzzing hub of travelers who would make the transition through preparation phase to trek phase to post trek celebrations! Every person staying at hostel is there to go to the National Park. You could easily engage with other hikers and meet people to share the experience with. There is a great sense of community amongst your fellow hikers.
A final note…
This trek can be anything you want it to be. It is your journey and you are able to choose exactly how you want to complete it. If you wish to camp and get down and dirty – more power to you! If you chose to do less days and stay in the refugios, this too is perfectly acceptable. There is no right or wrong way. However to you chose to tackle it, I guarantee you will witness some of the most incredible, jaw-dropping landscapes you have ever seen in your life. So remember to look and up enjoy!