Hiking the Torres Del Paine W Trek self-guided was one of the most challenging and yet rewarding experiences of our lives. We completed the circuit as relatively novice hikers. If we did it, so can you! Here is our complete guide to taking on this breathtaking trail from start to finish.
In this article:
Torres Del Paine W Trek: a brief overview
Torres Del Paine National Park is situated in Chilean Patagonia, in the southern extremes of South America. Riddled with towering mountains, granite towers, pristine lakes and vast glaciers, it is a place of extraordinary natural beauty.
The W Trek is a hiking circuit that takes in some of the park’s most stunning features. Consistently ranked as one of the world’s greatest multi-day hiking trails, people travel thousands of miles for the challenge.
When we took on the Torres Del Paine W Trek at the beginning of the 2017/18 season, we were quite new to hiking. Due to the significant expense of organised tours and guides, we decided to attempt it self-guided. With careful research, planning and preparation, we completed the route successfully.
It was no easy feat, however. According to my Fitbit smartwatch, 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. Located near the end of the civilised world, it’s pretty cold, too.
Nor was it straightforward to plan, especially as novice hikers. Despite the popularity of the route, it’s surprisingly difficult to find accurate information, and much of the useful stuff out there is geared towards experienced trekkers. On top of that, the companies that run the campsites and maintain the park are notoriously uncommunicative.
With this in mind, we have compiled the following information to help you self-guide the W Trek just like we did. Everything is covered: how much it costs, how to train for it, prepare for it, pack for it, and ultimately, how to conquer it.
How long does it take to hike the W Trek?
There isn’t a specified amount of time to complete the W Trek. Elite hikers can do it in as little as two or three days. We managed it in four full days of hiking, with four nights’ camping and a morning return ferry on the fifth day.
But it’s ok to take longer, and many people stretch it over five or six days. It’s completely up to you. Have a look at the distances and terrains I describe below, and decide what you think will be comfortable for your experience and ability.
When is the best time to hike the W Trek?
The hiking season in Torres Del Paine runs from October to April. We did the W Trek in early season, at the end of October into the beginning of November.
With the exception of a drizzly first day, we were very lucky with the weather on our trek. If you visit at the beginning or end of the season it’s a bigger risk with the weather, but the route will be quieter.
High season from December to February will give you the best weather, but it will also be busy. So it’s up to you to make a call based on your own preferences.
Hiking gear: what to pack
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We had a tricky task in choosing the right clothing and equipment, as we weren’t just buying it for the W Trek. Everything we took we would need to carry and use during our entire one-year world travel. Unless we wanted to throw things away or pay a fortune to ship it home, that is.
It’s definitely a good idea to buy your main hiking gear before you travel to Patagonia. While there are a few budget hacks in the area (more on that below), in general it’s expensive. We would recommend you arrive prepared.
Three items are vital above all others: boots, jacket and bag. Sometimes you can get away with cutting costs, but if you go cheap for these you will probably regret it.
Good hiking boots are essential. 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 you should be fine.
I use Berghaus Men’s Explorer boots, while Lisa wears Salomon Women’s Ellipse 2. Take time to visit outdoor shops and ask expert staff for advice. It’s best to get boots slightly bigger than your usual size, as feet swell after walking, and hiking socks are thick.
A jacket for the W Trek needs to be waterproof and windproof to combat that above-mentioned temperamental weather. A 3-in-1 jacket 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 was also really useful for our general travelling.
As for the bag, I took my 70-litre Osprey Aether 70, and Lisa a smaller day backpack. A hiking bag needs 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 poles – vital for the constant ups and downs;
- 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 – important for keeping your feet dry and warm;
- A good 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 use a 3-person tunnel tent by Urberg, a new Scandinavian outdoor brand, 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 an expensive option.
Training for the W Trek from scratch
About four months before the W Trek, we hiked the Inca Trail in Peru, and so our initial training was for that. Our physical preparation began in London about six months before the Inca Trail and ten months before the W Trek.
At the time we were both working full-time jobs Monday to Friday, so we fit our training in when we could. To begin with, 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, we started exploring hiking spots in the UK, most notably the South Downs and the South West Coastal Path. This helped us to build up distances, experience camping overnight and expose ourselves to some more challenging terrain. The UK in February can be just as cold as Patagonia in October!
As the W Trek came a few months into our travels, it certainly helped that we did a lot of general walking on the trip. But we also included regular hiking along the way. In cities we did the recommended walks up to viewpoints. We also did a jungle hike in Brazil, as well as day treks around Bariloche, which we visited prior to Torres Del Paine.
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 Chaltén, a scenic mountain village surrounded by fantastic hiking routes. For inspiration, check out our El Chaltén trekking guide.
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.
In summary, here are some simple steps to follow:
- A few months before the W Trek, start light training with regular walking and one longer walk once a week;
- Once you’re comfortable, look for some hiking routes accessible to you, ideally two days with overnight camping;
- A few weeks before the W Trek, try a slightly longer multi-day hiking route (two or three nights);
- As the trek get closer, keep up regular daily walking and if you can, a couple of day hikes a week.
Final preparations: tips for food and packing
For everything you need to know about what to pack for the Torres Del Paine W Trek, see our Patagonia packing list.
Punta Arenas: a cheap option for stocking up
On our way up to Puerto Natales we stopped off for a day in Punta Arenas, the largest city in Chilean Patagonia. This proved to be a gem for stocking up for the trek. The city has a tax-free area called Zona Franca, a shoppers’ haven that is significantly 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.
Food for the W Trek
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.
Cable ties: a brilliant trekking life-hack
We bought a bag of cable ties on a whim, but they became an unexpected necessity. They can be a godsend if things break.
Cable ties came to our rescue when we had to pitch our tent on wooden platforms in the park’s campsites. They can also be handy for fixing your bag if you get any breakage when out in the wilderness.
Booking campsites for the W Trek
There are three different organisations that run the campsites. Camps Torres, Paso and Italiano are managed by CONAF, the park authority. You can book online with them here. All other campsites can be booked via the private agencies Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur.
Most people will tell you to book campsites a few weeks in advance for the W Trek. While that’s always a good idea, we did have the frustration of finding some sites half empty and advertising prices cheaper on the spot than we’d paid online.
If you’re doing the trek in early season like we did (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, 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 Grey Glacier 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.
We had received no communication about this from CONAF, the organisation that runs the free campsites. We booked to stay the fourth night at Paine Grande instead.
Where to stay in Puerto Natales before and after the W Trek
For the two nights immediately before the trek we stayed at Hostel Lili Patagonicos in Puerto Natales, which was superb. It was probably the best hostel we experienced during five months in South America.
The staff were brilliant in giving us advice and tips about the trek, and the beds were large and comfy. The breakfast was excellent, too. They even served it from 6am, which meant we could have some before getting our early morning bus into the park.
Accessing the W Trek: getting in and out of Torres Del Paine
During the hiking season from October to April, buses run twice daily from Puerto Natales main bus station into the national park. We took the 7:30am departure, but there is a second one at 2:30pm. The bus takes about two hours to reach Pudeto for a ferry to the west side of the circuit, or three to four hours to reach the CONAF administration office on the east side.
We bought our tickets two days in advance via our hostel for CLP 15,000 each (about GBP 18 at the time), including an open return. We went to the CONAF office to hike from east to west.
After being dropped at the office, you have to fill out a form, pay the park entry fee of CLP 21,000 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 CLP 3,000 (about GBP 4) to the start of the east-to-west trail.
To get back from the west side at the end, you can take a ferry from Paine Grande to the return bus pick-up point. The ferry costs CLP 18,000 per person (about GBP 22).
There is an option to walk five hours to a different pick-up point, to avoid the cost. However, it’s emphatically unlikely you will want to do this, and the ferry ride is a beautiful, relaxing end to the experience.
Our W Trek route: east to west
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.
In the end we were very pleased with our route of choice. The spectacular view of Grey Glacier at the west end was a rewarding finish to the three prongs of the W.
Our route for the east-to-west trail was as follows.
Day 1: Las Torres return hike from Camping Chileno
We entered the park by Hotel Las Torres around 10:30am. From here we walked to Camping Chileno, arriving around lunchtime, and pitched our tent for the night.
Like many of the campsites in the park, Chileno has wooden platforms for tent pitches. If you bring your own tent like we did (rather than paying for an on-site tent hire), it can be tricky to pitch. We got by with the help of our emergency cable ties.
The section from Hotel Las Torres to Chileno was probably the least scenic of the trail. However, there were still some lovely views of the valley, Lago Nordenskjöld in the distance and surrounding mountains.
After lunch, at about 2pm, we set off for the return hike to the famous towers of Las Torres. In total this took about five hours – we arrived back for dinner around 7pm.
The first hour or so of the hike to the towers passes through lush woodland, before you reach the start of the ascent. The final section is a tough climb of about 400 metres, but it’s worth it for that classic image at the top. The three towers rise imposingly above a blue-green lagoon.
Unfortunately for us, cloudy weather obscured the peaks from view, but it was still an awesome scene. We stopped for a rest, snacks and photos before making back to Chileno.
Day 2: Camping Chileno to Camping Frances
Our destination for the second day was Camping Frances; a long, strenuous all-day hike from Chileno. Once you emerge onto the edge of Lago Nordenskjöld, however, the views are stunning all the way.
After enjoying breakfast, we set off about 9am. We stopped several times during the day by the stunning waters of the lake to conserve our energy and eat snacks.
It was early evening by the time we reached the campsite. We set up for the night on a wooden platform pitch and got an early night, in preparation for another long day.
Day 3: ascend to Mirador Británico and hike to Paine Grande
I found the third day to be the most testing and difficult by far. We ate some porridge and set off at 7:30am.
The hike to Mirador Británico is effectively the middle prong of the W. At Camping Italiano, the beginning point of the ascent, you can leave your bags with a ranger at the campsite office. This makes the hike much more manageable.
It’s a tough hike up to the viewpoint, with rough terrain and some steep sections. On the way up we saw (and heard!) ice crashing off the mountain face away in the distance. It was amazing to behold.
The final view at the top is a spectacular panorama of the granite towers and snow-capped peaks, with Lago Nordenskjöld shimmering like a blue-green mirror in the distance.
From the top, it’s a long slog back down and onwards to Camping Paine Grande. We arrived a the campsite around 6pm, thoroughly exhausted.
We had full board for the first night, so the three-course meal washed down with a beer was extremely welcome. One day to go.
Day 4: return hike to Grey Glacier
Our final day of hiking complete the W Trek circuit. In a long day’s effort, we made the return hike to Grey Glacier.
We set off at 8:30am with lightly packed day bags, leaving unnecessary heavy stuff behind. By mid-morning we reached the first lookout, and we made it to Refugio Grey by lunchtime.
From here it was short walk to a close-up viewpoint of the glacier. Part of the South Patagonian Ice Field – the world’s largest ice field outside of Antarctica – it was an incredible sight. We ate our lunch here and savoured the moment, before heading back towards Paine Grande.
We arrived back by early evening, victorious but shattered.
Day 5: return ferry and bus to Puerto Natales
We enjoyed a relaxing morning at the campsite before taking the 11:30am ferry to the bus pickup point at Pudeto. There was an earlier ferry at around 8am, but we realised too late, and besides it was nice to have a rest.
All that was left was to appreciate a final glimpse of the park’s astonishing scenery as the ferry carried us away.
Coping with mental and physical endurance on the W Trek
Navigating the distances throughout the W Trek 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 we took was ultimately manageable, and to balance incidents like the misleading 11km signs, sometimes we arrived earlier than expected.
To make it as easy as possible to get through the day, make early starts. This will allow you plenty of time to go at your own pace and have breaks.
What we spent on the W Trek
We spent £462 in total on costs directly associated with the W Trek. This includes campsites, food and drink, park fees, and transport in and out of the park.
It does not include hiking gear, equipment, or our costs for staying in Puerto Natales either side of the trek. For reference, our hostel in Puerto Natales was CLP 12,000 (around GBP 14) each per night.
Our costs for the W Trek were distributed as follows:
It’s remarkable that our two full-board food packages at Camping Chileno and Paine Grande amounted to nearly half our total spending. However, we still see this as a necessity, because it would have been too much for us to carry any more of our own food. If you’re feeling stronger, this is a potential way to make the trek cheaper.
Celebrating the achievement in style
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.
Further reading on Patagonia
If you’re heading to Patagonia, take a look at our Patagonia itinerary and travel guide for help with planning your trip. For practical guidance, see our articles on how much a Patagonia trip costs and getting around Patagonia by bus.
For inspiration on trekking, we’ve picked out these six Patagonia hiking trips to consider for your itinerary.
For insights into specific destinations and hiking trails in Patagonia, take a look at these articles:
- 11 awesome things to do in Ushuaia, Argentina
- El Chaltén trekking guide: Laguna de los Tres
- Camping El Chaltén: a guide to free sites
- 15 awesome things to do in Bariloche, Argentina
- Trekking Bariloche in a day: the Cerro Llao Llao trail
- Trekking El Bolsón: Cerro Piltriquitrón day hike
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