One of the things you hear often once you arrive in Patagonia on either side Chile or Argentina and are making your way down is…
“Are you going to do The W?”
You are asked over and over again and if you bump into people who are making their way up Patagonia you hear their stories and it just sounds amazing. The thing is though before arriving down there I knew it was something I wanted to do, but didn’t really know what it was. I had read about it in the Lonely Planet guide South America on a Shoestring and it seemed amazing. The one problem I had though is that I had no clue how to do it? Like seriously it seemed so hard to actually plan it. I spent countless hours searching online for a guide to tell me exactly how to plan the damn thing, but nothing. As I searched just found articles on what to bring or general information. I honestly wanted someone to hold my hand and walk me through the entire process of planning it.
I was about to give up on it and not do it, because I just couldn’t figure it out. Lucky for me though no joke as I was walking back from hiking in El Chalten on the streets someone yelled my name, I turned around and it was two of my friends I made while hiking in Puerto Varas. They had just arrived from doing The W and we went to dinner and they literally walked me through everything. I took notes and as soon as I arrived in El Calafate and after seeing Glacier Perito Moreno I spent my time booking everything for the W. Before I knew it I arrived in Puerto Natalas and still had no clue what I was doing. I needed to make sure I had everything for 5 days of camping and hiking in a national park. I somehow though managed to get everything together and I took off and did The W. I have shared with you already what it’s really like to hike The W in Torres del Paine National Park and now I want to help you plan it. I am literally going to hold your hand and walk you through some of the important things you need to know to plan The W in Torres del Paine National Park.
What is Torres del Paine National Park?
“Torres del Paine National Park is a national park encompassing mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers in southern Chilean Patagonia. The Cordillera del Paine is the centerpiece of the park. It lies in a transition area between the Magellanic subpolar forests and the Patagonian Steppes. The park is located 112 km (70 mi) north of Puerto Natales and 312 km (194 mi) north of Punta Arenas.” – Wikipedia
What is The W?
The W is a 75km+ (47 miles) trail that makes the shape of a W in Torres del Paine National Park. On average it takes 5 days and 4 nights to complete The W circuit. You also have two other circuits The O and The Q those make the shape of well you guessed it an O and a Q. Those hikes take a few more days and because I didn’t do those I will not be writing about those.
Along the trail you will find different Refugios and Camp Sites. Refugios are paid camp sites that provide the basic necessities that you may need during your hike. They offer showers, actual bathrooms, little stores with food and supplies. Camps are the free camps that allow you to camp for free, but you are on your own. They supply is a small kitchen area for you to cook in and make shift bathrooms that are holes in the ground.
Maps of The W.
—Detailed map of the entire park. Click to enlarge.—
—This map shows more of The W. The 4 red dots are the 4 Refugios I stayed at.—
What direction should you do it in?
When doing The W you have two options you either go East to West or West to East. This is something that confused me so much because I had no clue what that meant. If you are only doing The W you can do it East to West (Torres del Paine first & Glacier Grey last) or West to East (Glacier Grey first & Torres del Paine last). It doesn’t matter what direction you do it in because tons of people are doing it each way. A lot of people do love to leave the towers for last, but either way is fine. Depending on how you do it though you will start in Torres Hotel (East to West) or Paine Grande (West to East). I did it East to West because that was the direction that the Refugios had availability for me to rent a tent and sleeping bag.
The Refugios go like this:
East to West – Chileno, Cuernos, Paine Grande, Grey.
West to East – Grey, Paine Grande, Cuernos, Chileno.
This is very important if you are going to be reserving a tent and sleeping bag or a dorm in the refugios when it’s time to actually book them. Of course if you are taking your own tent and sleeping bag you have the free camps Camp Torres (above Chileno) and Camp Italiano in the middle of the whole trail (between Paine Grande & Cuernos).
It gets a bit complicated, but look at both of the maps and you will understand what I am talking about.
The direction I hiked The W in detail.
I hiked The W from East to West and only stayed the night at Refugios.
Day 1: Torres Hotel to Chileno (6km) = 6km
Night 1: Refugio Chileno
Day2: Wake up at 3am to see the sunrise at the Torres Mirador from Chileno (8km) then from Chileno go to Cuernos (17km) = 25km
Night 2: Refugio Cuernos
Day 3: Leave Cuernos go to Italiano (6km) leave bag in Italiano hike up to the Britanico Mirador & back down (11km) then continue to Paine Grande (8km) = 25km
Night 3: Refugio Paine Grande
Day 4: Paine Grande to Glacier Grey (11km) = 11km
Night 4: Refugio Grey
Day 5: Refugio Grey back to Paine Grande (11km) to catch ferry to bus and home = 11km
If you are going to do West to East then you do the opposite. If you have all your gear you will be able to break some of the very long walks by staying at the free camps. If you don’t have all your gear and are renting from the Refugios you have no option, but to do it like this.
Do you go all out or rent gear from the Refugios?
When doing The W you have many options. You can go all out or rent gear from the Refugios for you not to have to carry everything. By going all out I mean you are going to be bringing everything you need for the 5 day hike with you. This includes breakfast, lunch and dinner for 4 nights and 5 days including your gas stove for hot dinner meals and utensils. You will also be bringing your own tent and sleeping bag that you will have to set up each night upon arrival at the camp. Camping at the Camp sites is free, but if you want to camp at the Refugios and use their services you have to pay a small fee. You will be able to rent all your gear from many of the gear stores in Puerto Natales if you don’t bring your own from home.
Renting gear from the Refugios is a bit expensive, but another option for those that are doing it alone like I did and don’t want to carry everything. I rented a tent and sleeping from each of the 4 Refugios. You can also rent a mat, but honestly you can rent those for cheap in town or see if the hostel has one to let you borrow for free and carry it with you because it weights nothing. I also paid for dinner for 3 of the nights (on night 3 I had tuna and got drunk). I did this because I did not want to carry everything I needed for the hike including a tent, sleeping bag and dinner. If I carried dinner it meant I also had to carry a stove and all my utensils. I had been trying to meet up with people so I didn’t do it alone, but it just never happened. In the end I knew I was going to have to do it alone or not at all and because I had never done anything like this I decided to rent the tent and sleeping bag along with dinners at each of the Refugios.
I personally think it’s the best decision I made. It was so nice to not have to carry all that weight and it was even more amazing when I arrived at the camp after a long day of hiking and my tent was already set up for me to just crawl in and rest.
How to make reservations for the Refugios.
The park is owned/controlled by two companies Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia. You will reserve on Fanstastico Sur for Refugio Chileno and Refugio Cuernos. You will reserve on Vertice Patagonia for Refugio Paine Grande and Refugio Grey. On each you will need to reserve a platform or camp ground, the sleeping bag, and the tent. For dinner you only have to reserve in advance and online for Fantastico Sur (Refugio Chileno and Refugio Cuernos). For Vertice Patagonia (Refugio Paine Grande and Refugio Grey) you reserve upon arrival if you want. That was a good thing because on my 3rd night I didn’t want to waste a lot of money and decided to have a can of tuna for dinner and get drunk instead. I will explain prices later.
Before you book anything be sure you go through both websites at the same time and reserve everything you need for each night. Once you see that everything is available for the nights you want go ahead and make the reservations. I had to start a day later because on the day I wanted to start one of the Refugios did not have a tent available. So it’s important to go through both websites at the same time and make the reservations to see if they are available and then book.
What do you bring?
I honestly had never done anything like this and honestly had no clue what to bring. I also felt a bit stupid asking people what I should bring so I just winged it and brought what I thought I would eat and gear I thought I would use.
GEAR… because I was renting the tent and sleeping bag at each Refugio I did not need to worry about renting that in town. If you are renting tent and sleeping bag that can be rented easily in Puerto Natales along with all your cooking supplies. I bought 2 walking sticks because it was cheaper than renting them and then I later sold them to someone in the hostel when I got back (so almost free). I used my actual 40L backpack for the hike so I didn’t need to rent a backpack. I knew I needed to bring my own mat because I did not rent that from the Refugios and was lucky to see that my hostel had many laying around and asked if I could borrow it and bring it back when I was done and they said yes. That’s about all the gear you need.
CLOTHES… this was a tricky one I honestly had no real hiking clothes, but was able to do with what I had. I took 3 pair of underwear, 3 pair of socks, 3 t shirts, one pair of yoga pants (my hiking pants), pair of blue jeans and my pjs (shorts and a tee). I used the same yoga pants all 5 days for hiking. I used a one pair of underwear for 2 days and then another for 3 days. The 3rd of everything I would use as my clean outfit that I used after I arrived at the camp and was just going to be in the camp. Yes I know this sounds crazy, but honestly everyone you meet is honestly wearing the same clothes over and over again. You do not need more than that for the basics. I would air everything out as soon as I arrived at the camp and with all the wind that blows through the park trust me everything freshens up by the morning. I also brought a wind jacket, an Under Armour thermal long-sleeve turtle neck, and a beanie. I used the beanie often to cover my ears from the wind. I used the thermal shirt only once when I woke up early to see the sunrise at the towers. Nothing I brought was really hiking gear and I survived. I was actually going to buy wind pants, but then said I’ll go with my yoga pants. They are cotton and well when you are out there the wind is always blowing so if it did rain after it was done the wind would dry them fast. The one thing I didn’t bring that I highly recommend is GLOVES… when I was up at the towers waiting for the sun to come out I honestly thought my hands were going to fall off. It was so cold and a pair of gloves would have helped.
—All the food I brought for 5 days worth of breakfast and lunch.—
FOOD… this is another thing I had no clue what to bring, but I managed with what I brought. Because I was going to be having dinner at each of the camps I did not need to worry about any hot meals or dinner. I had to bring enough for 5 days worth of breakfast and lunch. For breakfast I bought a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread along with some banana chips to put in it. Even though by the 4th day you will be tired of it, but it honestly gets you by and holds you over very well. Instead of a loaf of bread I’d highly recommend just bringing enough pita bread. It was much easier to handle. For lunch I bought ham and cheese to have sandwiches the first two days. I ended up leaving it in the hostel on my way to the bus that morning so didn’t have it. I also bought 3 cans of tuna for lunch on the last 3 days. The key to surviving is a lot of snacks, because if you snack all day you really don’t need a lunch and can make it through until you arrive for dinner. For snacks I brought a lot of dry fruit, a lot of cookies, a lot of peanut mixes and small chocolate bars. Yes bring lots of chocolate. They are a high source of energy and sugar and well you are going to be burning it all off so indulge while you can. I additionally brought a can of hot sauce to have with my sandwiches that I never had and the tuna. I was so happy I brought it when I was out there. So if you know you like something with your meals bring it. Oh & as for water all you have to do is bring a small bottle of water because all the water from the streams and rivers is drinkable and you can refill and drink along the way.
As for all the stuff you have that you don’t need the good thing is that in most hostels you will be able to rent a locker and leave all the things you are not going to use behind. You want to take the least amount of stuff with you because each thing is additional weight and you have to carry it for 5 days.
How much does it cost to do The W?
Okay so one of the things about doing The W is that it’s not cheap at all. In general the entire region of Patagonia is one of the most expensive regions in South America because how remote everything is down there. I tried my best to track everything I spent for doing The W and in total it cost me about $350. This total only includes money I spent for the hike. This does not include the cost of the hostel stay before and after the hike along with other expenses there.
The cheapest way to do The W is to rent all your gear and buy all your food in Puerto Natales and take advantage of the free camps too. It was more expensive for me because I decided to rent the tent and sleeping bag from the Refugios along with buying dinner at each. On average the camping spot cost $10 a night, the tent cost $16 a night, the sleeping bag cost $10 a night, and dinner about $25 a meal. These prices are averages and of course they can increase over time. You can find the actual prices of each in the sites above for each company. So that adds up fast, but honestly I would say it’s money well spent saving you the energy of having much less to carry during your hike. If you are on a budget backpacking through South America I would set aside $500 for hiking The W to be on the safe side. Do NOT skip this because it is expensive, this was honestly one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
I think I covered the most important questions above, but now I am just going to list other randoms things that will help you during your hike.
- Attend the FREE orientation at the bar called BASE CAMP in Puerto Natales (everyday at 3pm).
- I highly recommend staying at The Singing Lamb Backpackers Hostel.
- Plan to be offline for 5 days (no WiFi in the park).
- Wake up early to see the sunrise at Torres del Paine.
- Do not take a poncho, umbrella or backpack cover (wind is harsh).
- Buy roundtrip bus ticket to and from Puerto Natales for the park.
- Bring a small bottle of water.
- Wrap everything in your backpack in individual plastic bags and then line your entire bag inside with a trash bag. Brings extras of all too.
- Bring only the electronics you will use (for me was iPod and camera).
- Bring flips flops for you to use once you arrive at the camp site.
- Don’t forget your basic toiletries.
- Bring a pair of gloves.
- Bring a small bottle of liquor if you drink. You will thank me later.
- Bring your passport if you made any reservations.
- Bring $75 -100 cash so you could buy things if you want at the stores.
- Bring your journal… write in it each night before you go to sleep.
- Be ready to deal with all 4 seasons in the span of 5 days.
- Arrive with no expectations because everyones hike is so different.
Over 3000 words later I think I have covered it all. Okay I know I can’t cover it all. Part of the fun of doing The W is not know what the hell you are doing. Honestly, I just went with the flow and figured things out here and there and even when I arrived at the park I was not sure what I was doing. I wrote this detailed explanation of how to plan The W, because I hope this can help people not give up and do it.
Seriously I will say this again this was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I shared with y’all my journal entires I wrote during my hike… it is what it is. It’s going to be the best of times and the worst. You are going to want to give up and at the same time have days where you are not going to give up. You are going to push yourself through situations you never thought you would have to face. Then in the end when it’s all said in done you are going to feel so proud of yourself for finishing it. I feel like this is one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. Like I honestly want to put this on my resume and tell the world I DID IT… lol!!!
So anyway I hope this helps and as always if you need anything or have any questions leave a comment below or message me. Y’all know I will reply when I can. Ahh I am jealous of everyone who is going to do this, because ahh it’s just beautiful. I want to go back one day and do The Q… yeah I know crazy, but you will too… trust me.