In February 2019, my husband and I went on a 16 day trip to Torres del Paine, El Chalten and El Calafate for our honeymoon. Leading into this trip, I was concerned about overhyping myself and getting let down – and I’m happy to say that wasn’t the case. The trip and the experience far exceeded expectations!
But it also exceeded expectations on the planning and logistics – which can be surprisingly complicated despite being an adventure in one of the most remote parts of the world. I hope you find this post helpful in your own planning of your adventure in Torres del Paine.
Table of Contents
- Logistics & Planning
- Our 5-Day W Trek Itinerary
- Tips for Booking Reservations
- Packing: Gear and Food List
- Miscellaneous Topics
Logistics & Planning
The Importance of Reservations
If you are planning to hike and camp the W trek, you will need to have reservations for each night of your stay before your arrive at the park. Due to the growing popularity of the region, Torres del Paine NP now requires you to have your campsites and/or refugios booked. They will not allow you into the park otherwise. Which leads to…
When to Plan Your Trip
I was initially surprised by the amount of long-term planning that has to go into an adventure in one of the most rugged, weather-extreme parts of the world. We traveled in mid-February, towards the end of peak season, and started planning the March prior, almost 11 months beforehand.
Realistically, 7 – 8 months beforehand is a sweet spot to start planning if you are visiting during the peak summer months, and especially if you are booking during Christmas / New Years. Fantastico Sur and Vertice don’t open up bookings until around May (it varies each year, they play hard to get) and CONAF doesn’t allow you to book until 6 months prior to your intended stay date.
If you don’t have the opportunity to plan that far in advance, you can certainly still put together a plan for visiting Torres del Paine. You may have to hike longer on one of the days, or go in reverse (East to West) on the W trek.
When is the best time to visit Torres del Paine?
The park is fully operational from November through April. The peak months are during summertime in the southern hemisphere, typically December through February. We decided to come in at the tail end of peak, hoping that the weather would still be mild and that we would have a solid chance at clear visibility along most of our hike.
Be warned: though the temperatures are milder during the summertime, the winds are also stronger – we had gusts of over 105kmh or 60mph!
Lodging on the W Trail
If you are planning to hike the W Trek or the W Trail, one of the most popular options in the area, you’ve likely read about booking refugios and campsite. Lodging inside the park is operated by three organizations:
- CONAF – the official park org
- Fantastico Sur – a private operator
- Vertice Patagonia – another private operator
CONAF locations only provide campsites and basic amenities like toilets and an outdoor cooking shelter. In contrast, Fantastico Sur and Vertice locations will typically have two parts: the Refugio (indoor dorms) and the Campsites. These private campgrounds will usually have indoor cooking areas, which is great when it is 30 degrees and windy or raining outside.
Regardless of which route you decide to go, you will need to make reservations prior to entering the park. Torres del Paine does not allow dispersed camping – you must camp in a designated spot.
Option 1: Camping
To make things extra confusing, different sites in the park are operated by different organizations. The great thing about CONAF is that their campgrounds are free – but unfortunately, it is not possible to make a trip itinerary based only off their free campgrounds, as they are too spaced out. Thankfully, it is not too expensive to book one of the private campgrounds from Fantastico Sur and Vertice which range from $20 to $40 per night.
If you decide to camp, you will have to decide whether to bring your own gear (tent, sleeping bag, pad) or rent from the private campgrounds. We ultimately brought our own, since we had it and we were staying at Campamente Italiano, which does not offer rentals. The rental tents on-site need to be booked in advance, and are “permanently” set up on the campgrounds throughout the busy season.
Option 2: Refugio Dorms
While we opted for the fully camping route (except for 1 night in the cabins at Cuernos), we met others who stayed in the refugios the entire way. The latter is certainly more comfortable, as you get beds, showers, indoor bathrooms and a comfortable common dining area to relax and stay warm in. It is more expensive as well, and will run you around ~$100 per night, per person.
Sample Itinerary: Our 5 Day W Trek
We did a 5-day 4-night version of the W Trek, and found it was the perfect amount of time to see all the main sights without feeling rushed. We went West to East, so the most difficult day (climb to Las Torres) would be after a few days of hiking practice, and our packs would be lighter for the longest day (Day 4 from Cuernos to Chileno).
- Day 1: Hike from Paine Grande to Glacier Grey. Stayed at Camp Grey (Vertice)
- Day 2: Hike from Grey to Paine Grande for lunch break, and onwards to Campamente Italiano (CONAF)
- Day 3: Day hike from Campamente Italiano to Britanico Mirador and back, hike from Campamente Italiano to Los Cuernos (Fantastico Sur)
- Day 4: Hike from Los Cuernos to Chileno (Fantastico Sur)
- Day 5: Sunrise hike to Las Torres, then hike from Chileno down to Torres Central
To better visualize the “W” trail, here is a map of our route. The only difference for future planning is that Camp Torres, the CONAF site closest to Las Torres was closed for two seasons for renovations, so we had to stay at Chileno. Ideally, you would stay at Torres for the final night, for a quick 45 minute hike to Las Torres for sunrise.
Full recap of our trip to come soon!
Tips for Booking Your Reservations
I looked on forums like Reddit and Tripadvisor to find the dates that Fantastico Sur and Vertice began opening reservations. It seemed to be a mixed bag over the years – I was worried after hearing about the 2017-2018 season booking mess, but the 2018-2019 season was much easier, thankfully.
If Fantastico Sur and Vertice haven’t opened reservations yet, check their websites and Facebook pages daily. The anchor point of our trip were the Cabins at Los Cuernos – so I wanted to book that first and fill in the gaps around it. Though, I needn’t have worried – the campsites go first, followed by refugio dorms, and lastly the cabins.
I actually emailed Fantastico Sur when their reservations hadn’t opened by mid-May, and they took mine via email about a week before the system came online. Though it wasn’t necessary for my time frame, I could see that being useful for a high-demand date during Christmas and New Years week.
CONAF didn’t accept reservations until 6 months before travel date, but they were the last to open reservations. A lot of folks who were planning trips in Oct – Dec were getting antsy. Note that when booking a CONAF site, you will also have to pay for your park entrance fee at the time of booking.
NOTE: The English version of the CONAF site never updated with information about reservations opening. I only realized they’d launched reservations when I checked their Spanish site here. So check their Spanish site first and foremost! I managed to make it through their booking process with Google Chrome’s built in translator.
For reference, I booked my reservations in this order for February 2019:
- Los Cuernos Cabana (Day 3) – May 2018
- Refugio Grey Camping (Day 1) – May 2018
- Refugio Chileno Camping (Day 4) – June 2018
- I would have booked this at the same time as Grey, but I was waiting to hear if Campamente Torres would be open for the 2018-2019 season (they confirmed in June that it would be closed that season)
- Note: Campamente Torres is going to be the most popular campground, you should book this immediately when the 6 month window opens
- Campamente Italiano (Day 2) – September 2018
If you’re booking later in the season and need to tetris together an itinerary, check out this handy site that someone created to check availabilities across all 3 agencies in one place: http://torresapp.com/
How do I get to Torres del Paine?
Step 1: Air
Getting to Torres del Paine is a trek in of itself – but while the travel there will be long, it is thankfully not too difficult to manage. After flying to Santiago, there are many flights going to Punta Arenas, which is a 3 hour bus ride away from Puerto Natales, the launchpad for TdP. During peak months, there are a handful of flights from Santiago to Puerto Natales as well, which can save you a day of traveling.
Step 2: Bus
We were pleasantly surprised at the variety of bus options for traveling around both the Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia regions. I used Recorrido.cl (https://www.recorrido.cl/en) to find and book bus tickets in advance. When I booked in December, I was able to book 1st or 2nd row seats on most buses, including the one from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine. I read that most folks booked one-way, to allow for flexibility on the way back. We did the same – it was very easy to purchase a bus ticket back to Puerto Natales once we finished the W and arrived at Torres Central.
Step 3: Water
If you are hiking the W from West to East like we did, you will want to buy a bus ticket from Puertos Natales to Pudeto. Initially, I was confused by the difference between Laguna Amarga and Pudeto – the latter is where you’ll want to arrive for the ferry to Paine Grande. Laguna Amarga, on the other hand, is the connection point for the shuttle to/from the Torres Central area, which is where you’d end your hike. If you are hiking East to West, then you would take the bus to Laguna Amarga and transfer to a shuttle that takes you to Torres Central.
What time should I arrive at the park?
The catamaran at Pudeto leaves for Paine Grande at 9:30am, 11:30am, and 1:30pm. It takes about 40 minutes to cross the Lago Pehoe – if you are planning to hike to Glacier Grey / Refugio Grey on your first day, you should aim to catch the 11:30am ferry to allow for plenty of time to set up camp and continue hiking onwards past the campsite to visit the viewpoints and swinging bridges.
Note: I would recommend taking the 7am bus if you want to ensure you can get onto the 11:30am catamaran. The actual drive is only about 2 hours, and the park entrance (checking tickets, bookings, etc.) will take about an hour.
We booked a 7:15am bus thinking 15 minutes wouldn’t make a difference – but what we didn’t anticipate was a long line for the 11:30am catamaran from all the 7am bus folks. Unfortunately, we missed the capacity cut off for that catamaran and had to wait 2 hours for the 1:30pm catamaran. This unfortunately cut into our hiking time and meant we couldn’t hike to the 2nd swinging bridge (supposed to have even better views) after reaching Refugio Grey.
Packing: Gear & Food
What gear should I pack for Patagonia?
As a 2nd time backpacker, I wanted to make sure I had not only the right gear, but also stay lightweight. I referenced r/ultralight quite a bit for ideas on where to reduce my weight without having to spend a ton.
For a full list of gear I brought, check out my Lighterpack here: https://lighterpack.com/r/at0cca
Tent: REI Quarter Dome 2 – this still remains one of my favorite REI Garage Sale steals at $160 (normally $350). We decided to bring it since we had it, while lightweight, it was still able to stand up to the ridiculous wind and rain we had on our trek. I personally would not bring a tent that is UL or more lightweight than this one.
Sleeping pad: Thermarest NeoAir XLite Women’s – yes, it can be noisy / crinkly at night, but it really didn’t bother me as we also had the sound of wind and rain. This was a major upgrade from my REI AirRail in terms of weight and volume, which I appreciately greatly on this trip.
Sleeping bag: REI Joule 21 Women’s – I love this sleeping bag. It may not be the lightest or fanciest, but the down is compressible and at 2 lbs 3 oz. the weight isn’t too bad. Our last night was the coldest at 30 degrees Fahrenheight – it even snowed a little – but I stayed toasty in this sleeping bag (and I run cold).
Backpack: REI Flash 55 Women’ XS – I took a gamble with carrying this bag new. I previously tried the Osprey Eja / Exos 58 but a wonky seam design in the back panel made an otherwise amazingly comfortable bag unbearable. While the straps on the REI Flash weren’t nearly as comfortable as the Osprey ones, overall the pack did a nice job at a good weight (2 lbs).
Baselayer: Smartwool Short-Sleeve 150 – this was my daily baselayer that kept me both warm and cool (on the rare day that was sunny).
Midlayer: Patagonia Nano Air – I’ve had this thing for years, and it is one of the most comfortable and versatile active insulation pieces I own. It keeps me warm when I’m on the move, but doesn’t ever get too warm due to the breathability of the fabric. That being said, whenever it got cold and windy, I would layer my rain shell over it to stay warm.
Camp Insulation: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer – loved how packable this was. It is a bit light on insulation, however; thankfully, it didn’t get below 30 degrees, otherwise I would have been cold with this piece.
Rain Shell: Montbell Peak Shell – not the lightest rain shell out there (though still lighter than my North Face Venture) but it performed excellently and did not wet out at all.
Hiking Boots: Lowa Renegade GTX Boots – I brought both my La Sportiva trail runners and my hiking boots on the trip, and ultimately decided to wear my boots for the W. I do not regret this decision at all. Though I normally prefer to hike in my lighter trail runners, I would have hated doing the freezing stream crossings in trail runners and getting my feet wet. Yes, my boots ended up getting wet from the rain (not the rivers / streams), but I was able to moderately dry them out near fireplaces at the refugio common areas.
Buff: I’d never used one before, but this was essential in keeping my hair under control and not whipped around by the wind.
What food should I pack?
We brought every meal with us except for 1 dinner and 1 breakfast, which we purchased for the night we stayed in the Cuernos cabin. Otherwise, our meals consisted of:
- Instant coffee
- Days 1 & 2: Hard cheese (ie. Parmesan) + Salami
- Days 3 & 4: Peanut butter in 2 tortillas
- Clif bars & KIND mini bars (we brought from the US)
- Snickers bars
- Peanut M&Ms
- Peanut butter in 1 tortilla
- Trail mix packets that we found in local supermarkets
- Shin Ramen (brought from the US, my guilty pleasure)
- Instant couscous + mushroom soup mix + cured sausage cubes
- Instant couscous + tomato soup mix
- Freeze dried meal – Mountain house me, Alpine Aire for him
I will admit, I was initially weirded out by the idea of eating tortillas with peanut butter. But I quickly learned that this was a very efficient method of gaining energy on the trail, and I’m fully a convert!
Note: I didn’t realized how distinctly American peanut butter is. Thankfully, a few grocery stores in Puerto Natales carry peanut butter (this was not the case in Punta Arenas). I wish I had brought packets of Justin’s peanut butter, which would have been easier to carry than an entire jar.
What I would have ditched:
Surprisingly, nothing major. We still had about 1 day of food leftover at the end, so we could have cut down on some of those items.
What I would have added:
A proper dry bag or Ziploc for electronics/essentials: Sadly, my Sony RX100 became waterlogged on the 3rd day when it started raining. I spent the next 4 days drying it out, and unfortunately didn’t get any photos on the latter half of the trek.
A dry bag for food storage: We learned how difficult it is to do a garbage bag bear hang at Campamente Italiano, which has an ongoing mice and condor problem with food. While it worked out, I spent much of the night worrying that our bag would break or get punctured by condors.
Rain skirt: Funniest looking piece of gear? Absolutely. Handiest? 100%. We both brought along the cheap and ultra-lightweight 3F UL Rain Skirt, which was so much more comfortable than rain pants for the two straight days of rain we had to hike through. It provided a little bit of warmth, while allowing our legs to breathe. When we arrived at our campgrounds for the night, we watched others spend 5 minutes painstakingly peeling themselves out of their expensive Goretex pants, while we ripped off our $10 velcro skirts and instantly had dry pants to lounge in. If you don’t have a month to wait for shipping via Aliexpress, you can also purchase for ~$22 from Amazon.
Good rain jacket: Pretty straightforward – I brought a lighter weight Montbell Peak Shell that didn’t wet out at all during the trip. It was more expensive than my North Face Venture, but totally worth it for that factor alone.
Extra guylines for our tent: If you are camping in a 3-season tent (we brought our REI Quarter Dome 2), you will need to guy out your fly to prevent the wind from literally crushing your tent at night. We learned this lesson the hard way our first night at Refugio Grey when we woke up the next morning covered in a thick layer of fine dirt. It had been swept up under our fly and sifted through the mesh of our tent every time a gust of wind pressed against our fly. We guyed out our tent every night after.
Trekking poles: I hemmed and hawed over this one. I don’t normally hike with hiking poles, but decided to bring a pair of Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Poles. Not only were these great for reducing the impact on our legs, but they were key in a lot of the flooded stream / river / bog crossings we encountered during the two days of heavy rain.
Fanny pack: While my REI Flash 55 had hip belt pockets, I actually removed them to save weight. I find most hip belt pockets on size XS womens backpacks to be comically small, so I prefer hiking with a fanny back instead. My Thrupack Summit Bum held my on-trail snacks, phone, and camera (when it wasn’t raining).
Water filter: I know, I know – everyone says that the glacier water is the purest water you’ll ever drink and requires no filtering. Which is true – albeit, pick your source wisely, don’t choose anything downstream from a campground / refugio. Being overly cautious, I still brought my lightweight Katedyn Gravity Filter as a backup. On day 2, I was kicking myself for carrying the extra 10 ounces. On day 3, I was so thankful I had it. After the first day of rain, the rivers and streams became extremely muddy from the storms. We absolutely filtered our water – sure, a little dirt never killed anyone but brown water was not appetizing. We also shared our filtered water with others at various campsites since we could filter 3 liters at a time.
GoPro Hero 7: When it rained, our iPhone and Sony cameras were pretty much rendered useless. I initially resisted getting a GoPro, but it very much came in handy this trip.
How fit do I
have to be to hike the W?
While you don’t have to be a crazy experienced backpacker, you will definitely have a more enjoyable time if you are somewhat physically prepared! Prior to this trip, my normal workout routine was 2 cardio classes (indoor cycling) and 1 core class (pilates megaformer) per week.
When I was researching, I found Adventure Alan’s helpful post which mentioned that the official park estimates are too generous for the moderately fit individual. In certain cases they were – for example, our hike from Los Cuernos to Los Chilenos was a full 3 hours shorter than expected. But if you don’t backpack on the regular, I would generally follow the map guidelines for timing.
What do I do with the rest of my luggage while on the W?
Most hotels in Puerto Natales will gladly hold your miscellaneous luggage for you while you hike the trail. Even though we stayed in different hotels pre and post-trek, our pre-trek hotel held our suitcase for the 5 days we were in the park at no cost.
What weather forecast should I use?
Weather is predictably unpredictable in Torres del Paine. The different parts of the park have their own microclimate, as well – on the way to/from Glacier Grey, you’ll have a constant occasional shower from the wind literally picking water off the lake and carrying it over the trail.
While we used Google to get a general sense of weather and temperature in the region, we saw that the refugios were using a site called Windguru for hour-by-hour accuracy of rain, wind and cloud cover. Specifically, Glacier Grey (here) and Chileno (here) – when we were trying to understand the best window to hike to Las Torres, it was clear that our best bet was hiking up for the sunrise, where there was a break in the cloud cover (circled below).
I hope you find this guide helpful – Torres del Paine is a magical place, and 1000% worth all the planning to get there! If you have any questions that aren’t answered here, please comment below and I’d be happy to help.
If you’re planning a longer trip, check out my latest post on a two week Patagonia itinerary here.