All things considered, I’m not really much of a hiker. This time a year ago I owned no walking boots or poles, no outdoor jacket, no gore-tex gloves, basically no trekking gear at all, because, well, it wasn’t something I was into. I am active, sure – I love a bit of hockey – but walking up big hills? Not really my thing.
This all changed when we started planning our year’s travel and did some research into Patagonia. Wow – the pictures looked amazing, and it would fit perfectly into our route at the tail-end of the South America leg before flying over to Australasia. But it would also mean a little more rigorous preparation than we had envisaged…
So, fast-forward to five days ago and somehow there I was, triumphantly completing the final steps of Chilean Patagonia’s W Trek in my wet-and-muddied Berghaus boots. The trail, which winds through the stunning peaks and lagoons of Torres del Paine National Park, is a bucket-list route for hikers the world over.
It is no easy feat. According to my trusty Fitbit watch, in four days of hiking I covered 123.72 kilometres, walked 168,330 steps and climbed 1,279 floors. Then there’s the weather: Patagonia has a reputation for ferocious winds, and Torres del Paine gets 700mm of rain a year on average. Located near the southern end of the civilised world, it’s pretty cold, too.
Nor was it easy to plan, especially as newcomers to this level of trekking seeking to take it on self-guided (using a tour company or guide costs an utter fortune). Despite the popularity of the route, it’s surprisingly difficult to find good, accurate information online, and a lot of the useful stuff out there is geared towards enthusiasts who have been doing this kind of thing for years. On top of that, the companies that run the campsites and maintain the park are notoriously uncommunicative.
With all this in mind, in the words that follow I attempt to give a novice’s perspective of the W Trek: how to train for it, prepare for it, pack for it, and ultimately, how to conquer it.
Where to start with trekking gear?
We had a tricky task in choosing the right clothing and equipment, as we weren’t just getting it for the W Trek – everything we took we would need to carry and use during our entire travels. If we had simply been shopping for a Patagonia trip, as many do, we could have bought more bespoke gear.
Three items are of vital importance above all others: boots, jacket and bag. For some things you can get away with cutting costs, but if you go cheap for these three, you are likely to regret it.
A lot of time on the W Trek is spent wading through streams, mud pools and rivers, so your feet need to be well protected. If you spend over GBP 100 and get a recognised brand such as Salomon or Berghaus, you should be fine, but take time to visit outdoor shops and ask expert staff for advice. It’s best to get 0.5 above your usual size, as feet swell after walking, and hiking socks are thick.
For the jacket, a 3-in-1 was the perfect option both for us. This basically combines an inner fleece with an outer shell, which you can wear separately or together to suit the conditions. The flexibility has been really useful for our general travelling. A jacket for the W Trek needs to be waterproof and windproof to combat that above-mentioned temperamental weather.
As for the bag, I took my 70-litre Osprey Aether 70 – which is still going strong after nearly five months of travel – and Lisa a 40-litre backpack with straps for the tent. I’m no expert, but essentials are for a bag to be light, strong, and well fitted to your back, so try several on if you can. It’s useful to have a bag with lots of compartments so you can easily access what you need, and look out for a good waist strap and a hole for your water dispenser pipe.
Aside from the ‘magic three’, we also needed:
- Decent quality gloves, plus a neck scarf and warm hat – temperatures go well below freezing, especially in early season when we did it.
- Walking sticks – vital for the constant ups and downs. This was the one piece of equipment that appeared to be cheaper to buy in Patagonia than in the UK.
- Light t-shirts – it’s vital to keep the weight down when you need to carry all of your gear around the trek.
- Hiking socks – also important for keeping your feet dry and warm
- Tent – while most of the campsites in the park are reasonably sheltered, you still need something that can handle a lot of strong winds. We got a trekking tent by Urberg, a new Scandinavian outdoor brand, for GBP 180, and it’s been brilliant – tents of similar quality from more established brands cost three times as much.
If you don’t want to lug all this stuff around your travels you can hire most of it from Puerto Natales (the small city near Torres del Paine), but it’s expensive.
Some thoughts on training from scratch
We began our physical preparation back in London in January. Every Sunday we took a train to somewhere a few kilometres from our flat and walked back, going a bit further each time. After a few weeks of that, we started going out to hiking spots in the UK, most notably the South Downs and the Cornish Coastal Path, to build up distance expose ourselves to some more challenging terrain.
We started our travels in June, and it certainly helped that we do a lot of general walking on the trip. But we’ve also included quite a bit of hiking along the way, not least the full Inca Trail back in July, which was a major challenge in itself. In cities we’ve taken the recommended walks up to viewpoints, we’ve done jungle hikes, and we did some more serious trails around Bariloche in northern Patagonia in September.
A week before taking on the W Trek we flew down to Ushuaia – the world’s southernmost city – which turned out to be the perfect final preparation. Here, we took beautiful day hikes around Tierra del Fuego National Park and Glaciar Martial. Another option would have been to travel to Torres del Paine from the north via El Chalten, a scenic mountain village surrounded by fantastic hiking routes.
As with any big physical challenge the principle is simple – start small and build it up. Just before we started the trek, we overheard some guys who had just returned from the circuit talking about someone in their group as “all the gear, no idea” – we hoped we had done enough not to fall into that category.
Preparation, food and packing: tips and life-hacks
On our way up to Puerto Natales we stopped off for a day in Punta Arenas, the largest Chilean city in Patagonia. This proved to be a gem for stocking up for the trek, as the city has a tax-free area called Zona Franca, a shoppers’ haven that is drastically cheaper than anywhere else in the region. We spent a good few hours here grabbing trekking food, useful gadgets and the last few bits and bobs of equipment we needed.
For food, we had booked two of our four camping nights full board (meaning we would get dinner, breakfast and a lunch pack), but for the rest of it we were self-catered. For our ‘main meal’ on self-catered days, we took tuna packs, lentils, beans and some tinned veg to mix up together. To keep the weight down, we bought zip-lock bags to decant the food into from tins – this really helped with packing space, too.
For breakfasts, we brought porridge and milk powder, so we just needed to add water and stir. We also found some light fruit purée packets to give it a bit of flavour and us some extra energy.
Finally, and most importantly, trekking snacks. We made a separate bag of ‘trail mix’ for each day – a concoction of nuts, dried fruit, chocolate M&Ms and jelly sweets. Dipping into this every half hour or so kept us going. We also took some cookies, wafers and mini cereal bars.
One thing we bought on a whim, but became an unexpected necessity – a bag of cable ties. They can be a godsend if things break, and they came to our rescue when we had to pitch our tent on wooden platforms in the park’s campsites.
For the two nights immediately before the trek we stayed at Lili Patagonicos in Puerto Natales, which was superb – probably the best hostel we’ve experienced during four months in South America. The staff were brilliant in giving us advice and tips about the trek, the beds were large and comfy, and the breakfast was excellent – they even served it from 6am, which meant we could have some before getting our early morning buses.
You can trek the W in either direction, and neither route seemed to be more popular than the other, but we decided upon east-to-west.
Our itinerary worked out roughly as follows:
- Day one: arrive at Hotel Las Torres around 10am (see below for transport info). Walk to Camping Chileno, arriving around lunchtime, and pitch our tent for the night. Leave camp around 2pm to hike up to the famous towers, returning to camp by 7pm for dinner.
- Day two: enjoy the breakfast provided, pack down the tent and set off around 9am. Hike all day to reach Camping Frances around early evening, stopping along the way for lunch and breaks in front of the stunning green waters of Lago Nordenskjöld. Set up camp for the night and have our tuna and beans dinner.
- Day three: get up early, eat some porridge, pack down and set off by 7:30am. Drop our bags at Camping Italiano so we can walk light up to Mirador Britá Arrive back at Italiano around 2pm, collect our bags and hike to Paine Grande. Arrive there around 6pm, set up camp and enjoy dinner provided.
- Day four: eat the breakfast provided and set off by 8:30am with lightly packed day bags, leaving our tent at Camping Paine Grande. Hike to Glaciar Grey, reaching the lookout by mid-morning and the refugio around lunchtime. Walk up to the close viewpoint and eat lunch in front of the glacier, then make the return hike to Paine Grande, arriving back early evening.
- Day five: take our time, eat some porridge, pack everything down, and make our way to the ferry in time for the 11:30am departure.
Everyone tells you to book campsites a few weeks in advance, and while that’s always a good idea, we did have the frustration of finding some half empty and advertising prices cheaper on the spot than we’d paid online. If you’re doing the trek in early season like us (October / early November), you can probably get away with booking the bigger open-field campsites, like Paine Grande and Grey, when you arrive. For the smaller campsites with wooden platforms, like Chileno and Frances, definitely book well ahead.
You may find yourselves having to rework your plans anyway. We had booked to stay our fourth night at Campamento Paso, a few hours’ hike north of Glaciar Grey on the west side, and planned to spend a fifth day hiking back to Paine Grande. But while we were on the trek we heard that Paso was closed, and we had received no communication from CONAF, the organisation that runs the free campsites.
Navigating the distances in the park can be quite challenging when the information provided along the route are often misleading or contradictory. On the second day, for example, we passed a sign saying we were 11km from Camping Frances, and then another sign telling us the same two hours later. This kind of confusion was presented regularly, and can be soul-destroying when you’re carrying a heavy load and think you’re nearly at your destination.
All you can do is keep going – the route described above is manageable, and to contrast incidents like the 11km signs, you will sometimes arrive earlier then expected. If you make early starts, you will have plenty of time to go at your own pace and have breaks.
We ended up very pleased with our route of choice. The reward of the spectacular views of Glaciar Grey at the end of the east-to-west route is a great way to finish the three prongs of the W.
Getting in and out of Torres del Paine
Buses into the national park leave Puerto Natales bus terminal at 7:30am every morning (and possibly more frequently in higher season). We bought our tickets two days in advance via our hostel for 15,000 CLP each (about GBP 18), including an open return.
The bus drops you at the park entry where you have to fill out a form, pay the entry fee of 21,000 CLP per person (about GBP 25), and watch a video explaining the park rules. Then, to avoid an unnecessary extra 7 km hiking, you can take a shuttle bus for 3000 CLP (about GBP 4) to the start of the east-to-west trail.
To get back from the west side at the end, you need to take a ferry to the return bus pick-up point. The ferry costs 18000 CLP per person (about GBP 22). There is an option to walk five hours to a different pick-up point to avoid the cost, but it’s emphatically unlikely you will want to do this, and the ferry ride is very nice.
You can do it!
We were terrified of the W trek, and slept little the night before we started. But we found that you don’t need to be an elite trekker to do it. Read up, seek advice, get prepared – you’ll be fine.
One final tip – if you complete it, you will likely want to celebrate a little. You can’t do better than some barbecued Chilean Lamb with craft beer at El Asador Patagonico in Puerto Natales. And then maybe a couple of pisco sours at the pub across the square – you’ve deserved it.