The W Trek Circuit – Torres Del Paine, Patagonia, Chile
Last December I crashed my friends’ honeymoon and hiked the W Trek Circuit in Torres Del Paine, Chile. Before hiking the W Trek, I really didn’t know what to expect or how to prepare. I tried googling to find out more about the hike, however I found there was not a lot of information out there and most of the blogs I found were written by men who looked like they did overnight hikes often, which was definitely NOT me. I enjoy hiking but I’ve never hiked with a pack before and the last time I’ve went camping was when I was 10 year old. I’m definitely more of a girly girl who really prefers to have a bathroom, shower and hair dryer so I was extremely hesitant about camping and going without all of those for 4 days! With the little information I found, I planned my trip with 2 goals – making sure my tent didn’t blow away and making sure my bag was as light as possible.
We did the trek on our own without a guide or tour and camped the entire time. However, there are several guided tours with eco dome accommodation along the way as well as hotels within the park if you want more a more luxurious trip and the below experience does not sound appealing at all. If I went back to Patagonia again I might take this option!
Getting to Torres Del Paine is a bit of an ordeal. You have to fly into Santiago, then transfer to Punta Arenas, then take a bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales and then another bus from Puerto Natales to Torres Del Paine. Due to the long days of traveling you’ll likely want to spend a night in either Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales (I spent a night in each) before departing for Torres Del Paine.
In addition to my flights, I booked 4 bus tickets in advance:
1. Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales
2. Puerto Natales to Torres Del Paine
3. Torres Del Pain to Puerto Natalas
4. Puerto Natalas to Punta Arenas (I flew out of Punta Arenas)
The link for the buses is below:
Tip – If you aren’t sure what time you will return, the tickets are flexible if there is room on the bus. We booked tickets out at 7pm but were able to leave on a 2pm bus with those tickets.
Booking campsites and Refugios
If you are planning on going in “high season” December-March and want to stay in Refugios (dorm style cabins with showers and washrooms) as opposed to camping, I highly recommend booking accommodation as soon as possible. I booked my accommodation at the end of August for December 26, 27 and 28 and all the refugios were full.
In addition, I found it impossible get in touch with the campsites as my emails all were unanswered so it would be best to be 100% set on your dates and accommodations when you book as it will be very hard to change.
Here are the links for all of the campsites I used:
Check out my packing list post for what I packed!
The W trek can be hiked either east to west (starting at the Torres) or west to east (starting at Glacier Grey). We chose to hike west to east. We also chose to do the hike in 4 days, 3 nights as opposed to 5 days, 4 nights which is the standard length of time. One of the blogs I had read said that it was possible to do this hike in 3 days and after doing the hike I really don’t think it’s possible to unless you’re extremely fit and even then it will be pretty rushed.
Day 1 – Puerto Natales – Paine Grande – Glacier Grey – Paine Grande (19km, approx 6 hours)
Day 1 we took the bus from Puerto Natales to the park entrance of Torres Del Paine. Everyone has to get off the bus and register in the park office and then either get on a bus to start the hike on east side of the trail (Torres) or take a catamaran to Paine Grande to start the hike on the west side. As this takes a few hours, its best to get on an early bus out of Puerto Natales. We took an 8:30 am bus.
Tip: At the end of the hike I really wanted to GTFO ASAP. The catamaran generally runs every 30 min – 1 hour but can be shut down due to extreme weather so if you hike east to west there’s a chance you’ll be stuck waiting for the catamaran to be able to sale or you’ll have to hike a few extra hours out. One of the reasons I chose to hike west to east!
Note that you will need to pay for the catamaran so make sure to have cash on you. I was not prepared for this and had to borrow from my friends, whoops!
The catamaran will take you right to the Paine Grande campsite/refugio. This campsite offers the option to rent a tent/sleeping bag or to stay in the refugio if you don’t want to bring your own camping gear or if you don’t want to camp at all. The winds in Patagonia are extremely strong so its recommended to put your tent as close to the hill as possible for shelter. We also used rocks to hold down our tents.
A lot of blogs I read said that they thought Paine Grande was the worst campsite, however it was my favourite for the following reasons:
-Very spacious, both in the refugio and the campground
-Store had the largest selection of food and items to purchase that I saw on the trek
After quickly setting up, we immediately started the hike from Paine Grande to Glacier Grey. The hike from Paine Grande to Refugio Grey is 11 km with the thrid mirador (viewpoint) being just past Refugio Grey. Since this section of the W is 22 km round trip, some people (especially those who do the hike in 5 days) opt to stay at Refugio Grey overnight to break this up.
The weather was constantly changing from hot to cold during the hike and I found I was always swapping layers on and off. I carried my fleece, down jacket, windbreaker and beanie in my day pack and definitely wore all of them at some point so would pack these in my day pack every time I hiked.
The wind was so strong at some points we couldn’t walk forward. The camera is shaking in all of my videos because the winds were so strong!
Tip – My one regret on this trek was not hiking past Refugio Grey to the third mirador, which has the the best view of glacier. We turned around after the second mirador as we didn’t want to tire ourselves out too much on the first day, but seeing photos from this mirador, I definitely think its worth the extra 3 km (6 round trip) to see it.
Day 2 – Paine Grande – Camp Italiano – French Valley (Mirador Frances) – Camp Italiano (13km, approx 5 hours)
For the middle part of the W, there are 3 different rest point options: Camp Italiano, Camp Francis and Refugio Cuernos. Camp Italiano (where I stayed) is the first stop which is not too far from Paine Grande. It is right in the middle of the W so you can take the trail to Mirador Frances straight from there.
Some blogs I read said that Camp Italiano was their favourite camp site, however if you are not used to camping, be aware that it is VERY rustic. There is no running water and you have to shower, brush your teeth, wash your dishes and drink water from the river . There is also only outhouses here. All of the other campsites have running water (including drinking water), regular toilets and showers. There is also not the option to rent tents or sleeping bags so you will need your own if you stay here. Camp Italiano is free though!
Yup, we showered in and drank from this.
If you’d prefer less rustic accommodations, there is Camp Frances ( a paid camp site) 30 minutes away that has more amenities (but no refugio) or Refugio Los Cuernos approx 2 hours further down.
Tip – Staying at Refugio Los Cuernos will even out day 2 and 3 (day 3 will be approx 8-9 hours from Camp Frances or Italiano as opposed to 6-7 from Los Cuernos). Since Camp Italiano is free, you could probably register there for a day and leave your gear there while you hike up to Mirador Frances and then pick it up and continue onto Los Cuernos. The hike up to Mirador Frances is fairly steep and not one that you would want to do with a pack.
The hike up to Mirador Frances is steeper than other parts of the hike, however I didn’t find it that bad as there were no packs. There are 2 miradors you can hike to, however the second one will be close if the winds are too high, which happened to us. It was at the top of mirador frances that we experienced the most extreme winds, I could barely stand up straight!
Day 3 – Camp Italiano to Refugio Chileno (22km, 9 hours)
Day 3 was probably one of the toughest, most physically demanding days of my life. One blog I read called this the worst day of his life but I don’t think I’d take it that far haha. What makes this the hardest day is that it’s the longest distance to hike with a pack. As mentioned above, if you stay at Refugio Cuernos instead of Camp Italiano or Frances, it will help even out day 2 and day 3 so day 3 might not seem as bad. This portion was also a LOT steeper than I expected which also made it hard given the distance. It can feel like its going on forever and the weather is constantly changing. We saw everything from sun to rain to extreme winds throughout the day so it was a lot of constantly taking layers on and off. There are also a lot of rivers to cross so your feet will get wet! The surroundings are beautiful through out this portion though which makes it seem not so long.
Once you make it the right hand corner of the W, there is a turn off where you can either go down to Hotel Torres or up to Refugio Chileno for the final portion of the W. There weren’t a lot of signs at this intersection once you started the climb up to Chileno so we had to ask for directions to stay on the right path. Luckily there were lots of other hikers around otherwise we probably would have made some wrong turns and hiked even longer! Once you turn up towards Chileno it gets extremely steep and windy as this area is less protected. Also there are a lot of horses coming up and down this path so the path is covered in horse poop. This section had some of my favourite scenery and a lot of good photo ops.
Tip: Another regret I had was being too miserable to take many photos here so I would definitely say to fight through the pain and take some photos!
This was the one photo I took during this gruelling section.
We decided to stay in the refugio at Chileno instead of camp, which made a huge difference as it was pouring rain all night! We also ordered a hot meal there so did not have to cook. A lot of blogs said they loved Refugio Chileno and thought it was the best refugio/campsite, however I found it very small compared to Grande Paine and the food options were also very limited in comparison. It was also much more expensive to stay there ($150USD vs $10 USD) as this campsite was run by a different company.
Day 4 – Hiking the Torres (approx 2 hours) and back to the bus station (approx 4 hours)
The final leg of the W trek is to hike to the Torres. We woke up at 4am to hike the Torres first thing in the morning. The maps show this portion as the steepest portion, however I found it to be one of the easiest as we hiked it with day packs and it was short, only about an hour or so up to the top. The steepness also felt comparable to hikes I had done in Canada so it was definitely not as difficult as people at the refugio made it out to be! The weather was craziest at this part though, as it started snowing and eventually turned into a bit of a blizzard at the top. Unfortunately when we got to the top it was fairly cloudy so we could barely see the Torres. We were lucky enough to get there before the snow really came down and spent about 15 minutes at the taking photos before booking it out of there! Gloves were definitely necessary as my fingers felt like they were going to fall off.
To hike back out to the bus stop, you have to hike back down the W to the turn off point where you could either go down to hotel torres or up to Refugio Chileno. The hike is mostly downhill but also pretty steep since its the same path we took up.
I was pretty miserable during the hike down as my pack was really hurting my shoulders at this point and my boots were giving me blisters all over my ankles.The view was really good climbing down though! I thought I was done when I reached Hotel Torres but there’s about an extra 15 minutes to the bus station – we just followed the crowds as this also wasn’t marked anywhere.
Once we got to the bus station we were done! A clear sign that we done – there were signs in the bathroom at the bus stop telling you to put the toilet paper into the toilet instead of telling you not! We hopped on the first bus that arrived as it wasn’t full and our tickets were good for any bus on that day and made our way back to the hotel for a hot shower and a massive meal.
Hand down the most difficult part of the trek for me was carrying my pack. There were several times I had to stop and take my pack off for a few minutes because it hurt my back so much and I felt like it really slowed me down. BUT I’m really small and still needed the same amount of gear as a bigger person and never got my pack properly fitted (I bought it because it was my favourite colours, whoops). So you might not find carrying the pack as difficult! I would definitely get a pack properly fitted if i was to do another overnight hike.
There is no cell service at all on the trail so prepare to be off the grid for a few days. Also stay safe and don’t get injured..you’re pretty much SOL if you do as there’s no park rangers and no way of calling for help unless someone else who can help you happens to stop by
I highly highly recommend the Altiplanico Hotel in Puerto Natales. They were the most accommodating hotel I have ever stayed at. They let us keep our bags there while we did the trek and I accidentally booked my room for the day I was making the booking, not the day I was actually going to be there. However when I told them I did this they said, no problem, we anticipated this when we saw there were 3 of you so we put an extra bed in your friends’ room. Also the dutchess potatoes there are amazing!