How to Hike the W in Torres del Paine
So you’re going to Chile eh? Gonna visit the famed lands of Patagonia and bask in its mountainous splendor? Oh crap, this trip is super hard to plan - how do you figure out how to do the things?
Well, lucky for you, I already banged my head against a wall trying to plan a trek in Torres del Paine. Here’s what you need to know.
1) Do it. If you are in Chile and have the opportunity to get that far south, go to Torres del Paine and spend some days in Puerto Natales (the town outside of the park). It is super beautiful and a really unique hiking experience with the hut/camping system.
2) This isn’t your typical national park trip. While Torres del Paine is a Chilean national park, there are private companies within the park that own sections of the land. I still don’t really understand it. What this means is that you will have to pay to enter the park, a typical parks fee, but you also pay private companies for each of your campsites and you have to reserve those campsites ahead of time or you will have no where to stay. This is not a system you can game, dispersed camping is not a thing, trust me we looked. This makes planning difficult but hopefully this post can help! There are many tour companies selling super expensive guided trips, this is completely unnecessary on the W - don’t do it!
3) It is touristy - people travel from around the world to go to the park but it is touristy in the best way. As in you won’t feel like the trail is crowded but there are warm inside places to be at the campsites and (allegedly) warm showers. We didn’t take advantage of the showers because the idea of being wet and stepping outside into the frigid air was too much to handle.
We did this trek at the end of October and it was pretty cold. October is Spring in Chile so the season really ramps up November - February. We were able to get last minute reservations because we weren’t going during peak. If you are going during Patagonian summer, I recommend booking your campsites as far in advance as possible. More on booking below.
Step one is to figure out how many days you can dedicate to hiking in the park and which direction you want to hike it. You can start at Refugio Torres, which is what we did, or Refugio Grey. This hike typically takes 5 days.
The grand site everyone wants to see on this trek is Mirador de Las Torres - the amazing ridge line. If you start at Refugio Chileno, you will hike to see this on your first day upon arriving on the bus. You will throw your bags in your tent and hike on up. The trail was actually closed at the top because of a snow storm when Whitney and I hiked up there, but even the trail was beautiful. It was cold and snowy so we stopped at Refugio Chileno to eat our snacks and warm up.
Because Whitney and I only had 4 days to do this trek, we started at Refugio Torres and hiked up as far was we were allowed to Mirador de Las Torres the afternoon we arrived on the bus. The next day we hiked all the way to Refugio Paine Grande and skipped the middle part of the W. If you had the full 5 days, you would stay at Cuernos and do the hike up the middle of the W your second afternoon. We then hiked to Refugio Grey, dropped our packs in our tent and hiked up to Grey Glacier the 3rd afternoon. We slept at Refugio Grey that night and took the boat from there to the bus pick up. Our trip was super efficient, you could definitely stretch this trip out into another 2 nights if you had time and your feet would hurt less.
Okay so you know how many days you have and which direction you want to go - I liked the way we did it but either direction has pluses.
Step 2 is make your reservations. Like I said, camping is run by private companies and there are three options at all the Refugios.
1) You can hike with your own tent and just reserve a tent spot, this is obviously the cheapest (~$10 USD)
2) Reserve a tent. This is what we did and it was amazing. You don’t have to carry your tent, you don’t have to worry about renting one, you don’t have to set it up or tear it down. I loved it. I’m sure you can rent a tent in town for cheaper than the upgraded cost of reserving tented spots, but for us it was worth it. (~$20)
3) Stay in the Refugio. The Refugios are like backcountry hotels. I would say hostels but they are super nice. And very expensive. If I remember right the rooms were around $100/night and they made you buy a meal at the Refugio with your room at some of them.
Fantastico Sur runs Refugios Torre, Chileno, Los Cuernos, Seron, and Frances. They now have an online reservation system but honestly I would just call them. Definitely don’t send them an email- they will not return it. When you call them, prepare to speak in Spanish, this goes for both Refugio companies, many of the employees we encountered certainly spoke English but would only speak to us in Spanish so do your best to get in Spanish speaking mode early. If you are successful with the online reservation process, let me know! We didn’t have this option.
Vertice Patagonia runs Paine Grande and Grey.
There are campsites without Refugios but staying at the Refugios is pretty cool. You can go inside to warm up and see how the fancy people live.
Step 3 is plan your food and supplies. You will obviously need the things you need to backpack. All the warm clothes, sleeping bag and pad, food, headlamps, etc.
They say no cooking in the Refugios if you are a camper, but they gave us free hot water and didn’t mind us “cooking” our instant mashed potatoes and one place even gave us salt and pepper! We didn’t want to rent cooking stoves for this trip and were woefully unprepared because we planned the trek 3 days before we went. Our boat that was supposed to take us from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt canceled on us 4 days before we were supposed to leave. Enter panic mode. It actually worked out amazing because we got to go into the park which, stupidly, we weren’t planning on. We were staying near Punta Arenas so we booked a bus to Puerto Natales, stayed with some friends of the family we were living with, and booked our campsites the day we got to Puerto Natales at the Fantastico Sur and Vertice offices in town, and left on the trek the next morning. Not recommended, but apparently possible.
The best Refugio is Refugio Torres, it’s beautiful and the restaurant looked amazing. We sat in this Refugio playing cards, drinking boxed wine we lugged around the whole trek, and eating cookies for many hours. Refugio Grey has a really nice big indoor area for the campers so the camp scum doesn’t try to come inside the fancy building. It is really nice though.
This is a low risk backpacking trip. Didn’t pack enough food, buy some extremely overprice cup o noodles and twizzlers from any of the Refugios. You have to let them know a day ahead of time I think to get on the dinner list for the actual meal, but if you want to be fancy and pampered, you can literally just eat your meals at the Refugios and have a catered trek.
Whitney and I, frugal travelers that we are, took our under-prepared selves to the grocery store in Puerto Natales and bought cup o noodles, cheese, bread, dried mashed potatoes, salami, boxed wine, and easter bread and lived on that highly nutritious diet for four days. We didn’t die. We did eat an entire thing of butter in 4 days… didn’t die.
Step 4 is to get there and do the damn thing.
You will fly into Punta Arenas, a darling little coastal town known as “the end of the world.” There are some really good hipster coffee joints here. I am not joking.
You will buy a bus ticket to Puerto Natales (round trip if you know how long you want to be in the park and in Puerto Natales) at the bus station. You can just look it up in google maps to find a bus station. Upon arrival in Puerto Natales, buy your round trip bus ticket into and out of the park. Make sure you get the days right and which point will by your start point and which will be your end point. If you start with Grey, you will have to coordinate arriving on the bus with getting on the boat to the Refugio Grey. I am sure they have this figured out though. On your day to enter the park you will go back to the same bus station and hop on in with all the other happy tourists to pay to get into the park and get cleared to do so. You will have a safety talk and sign something.
Once you have your reservations at the Refugios, this becomes a straightforward process. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments and I will answer best I can!