The Complete Guide to Hiking Torres del Paine
UPDATE 2018: A lot has changed since we visited Torres del Paine in 2015. Trekkers doing the O and Q circuit can only hike counterclockwise, and all campsites and refugios need to be booked in advance including the free CONAF campsites. Note that Campamento Torres will be closed during the 2017/2018 season due to maintenance. Read on for more details.
After several months of indulging in amazing luxury experiences in Peru and Argentina, Tony and I were craving a good challenge and decided to hike the O circuit around the Torres del Paine Massif. It had been way too long since we did a multi-day trek on our own, so hiking Patagonia without a guide was just what the doctor ordered. It was time to hit the trails and test our physical limits. This time, no organized lodges, no guides or porters, no prepared meals. We wanted a real adventure to rediscover our sense of independence. Just a tent, food, and enough time to explore 130 km of wilderness. We know this is not for everyone, so in our Torres del Paine itinerary below, we are also including options for guided tours.
Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is a household name among serious trekkers. Even if you have never heard the name, you’ve certainly seen the world-famous park in advertisements. Its epic, low-altitude landscapes represent everything that makes Patagonia so unique: rugged granite peaks, windswept grasslands and towering forests as well as rivers and lakes fed by massive glaciers and ice fields. Granted, most of Patagonia fits that description, but what makes this park so unique is its extensive trail system and convenient set-up for trekkers of every budget and mindset.
Torres del Paine trekking routes include everything from one-day outings to Las Torres, the three granite peaks after which the park was named, to multi-day treks around the Paine Massif. Several of these trekking routes are consistently ranked among the best in the world. There’s a great deal of information on trekking Torres del Paine online, so in addition to our itinerary, we are including links to other detailed itineraries of the various treks at the end of this post. But before you skip down to go through each Torres del Paine itinerary, we think there are some important details that have been left out of many reports, so stick with us for a second.
Overview of Torres del Paine Hiking Routes
Before we get down to details, we should probably give a quick overview of what Parque Nacional Torres del Paine has to offer. Perhaps the most famous trek is the 5-day W route, named for the W-shape of the trail when traced on a map. The W trek takes in the southern half of the Paine Massif exploring the stunning Grey Glacier, the gorgeous French Valley and – drum roll – Las Torres.
The more challenging 8-day O trek winds along the northern side of the massif, crosses the John Gardner Pass and then takes in all the attractions of the W trek. The 9-day Q trek is similar to the O trek but adds an additional day along the Grey River southeast of the massif. Both the O and the Q trek see a lot fewer trekkers, which makes for a much more genuine experience. Ultimately, we chose the O circuit because we wanted to explore the whole massif and we liked the fact that the O trek culminated with a sunrise visit to Las Torres.
Torres del Paine Offers Options for Every Budget
In addition to the extensive trail system, the park is set up for every budget imaginable. Visitors can hike independently, hire a personal guide and porter, or do the trek as part of a tour. It all depends on your personal hiking style; we chose to trek on our own because we wanted the freedom to set our own pace and leave open the possibility for last minute changes. (We should point out that the new policy requiring visitors to pre-book every campsite makes last-minute changes virtually impossible.)
Similarly, there’s a good range of accommodation and food options to choose from. We camped the entire time and cooked our own food, which is obviously the cheapest and most independent way to do the trek. (Our 8-day trek cost US$350 for the two of us which included our return transfer from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine, entrance fee to the park, food, camping fees, and rental equipment.) Others may choose a room and full board in lodges or a combination of camping and lodging. Quite often, this is determined by the trekking route itself. On the popular W trek, hikers have a good range of choices. But there are stretches on the O and Q routes along the northern part of the loop, where camping is the only option (Serón, Los Perros, and Paso).
Our Torres del Paine Highlights
Successfully hiking the Torres del Paine circuit independently was perhaps our greatest highlight. It was clear that most full-circuit hikers were half our age and most of the hikers who were our age or older were on organized tours with extra support. Although we had done several much longer treks, this is the first time we carried 10 days of food. (We wanted to carry extra provisions in case we had to wait out bad weather crossing the pass.) Yes, it was physically demanding schlepping our 35-pound backpacks through deep mountain valleys, up steep steel ladders, and across wobbly suspension bridges, but boy was it worth it! Here are a few other highlights:
- Getting up close and personal with a mountain lion (Andean puma). The footage in the video above was shot from a very safe distance, but our puma encounter ended up being much more hair-raising than that. (Read more in our post Close Encounters.)
- Chilling at Campamento Dickson, the O circuit’s most beautiful (and spacious) camp ground. The setting on Lake Dickson with an eye-popping view of Glacier Dickson made for the perfect camping experience. Our motley band of trekking comrades even gathered for a sunset picnic and a blue-sky breakfast on the pebble beach from where we soaked in the mirror reflections of pristine Patagonia.
- Hiking through vast stretches of towering Patagonian forest along the O route between Campamento Dickson and Los Perros. Much of Torres del Paine’s once grand forests have been destroyed by forest fires caused by careless campers. While the W trek does have small stretches of intact forest, much of the trail passes through stark tree graveyards reminding visitors just how slowly Patagonian forest recovers.
- Descending from the John Gardner Pass (1,240 m / 4,070 ft) with a 180 degree panorama of the mind-blowing Grey Glacier. It just goes on forever. Grey Glacier is fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the same ice field that feeds glaciers Upsala, Perito Moreno and Viedma in Argentina. Many consider this the highlight of the entire trek.
- Making our way up the insanely beautiful French Valley… with perfect weather. Many trekkers rush in and out of this spectacular side valley after arriving at Campamento Italiano in the late afternoon. If the weather looks good, we highly recommend taking an extra day to explore the valley. At the head of French Valley, we had stunning views of Cerro Catedral and Cerro Cota 2,000.
- Meeting cool trekkers from around the world. While we mostly hiked alone during the day, the refugios and campgrounds were filled with fascinating people exploring South America. Swapping stories over mediocre camping meals definitely made our evenings.
- Basking in the golden glow of a perfect sunrise at the base of Las Torres, the three granite towers which most people consider the highlight of Torres del Paine National Park. Again, crystal-clear skies made this an unforgettable experience. We just sat there in our sleeping bags munching on breakfast Snickers bars as we enjoyed the show with our group of trekking friends.
And Now for Some Important Pointers…
While it’s easy to find online information about the must-see places in Torres del Paine, it gets trickier when it comes to actual advice that makes your trip easier and ultimately more successful. So here are a few important tidbits you may not find elsewhere online to help you plan your trip.
Book Your Torres del Paine Accommodation Far in Advance
Because of the sheer number of visitors, we highly recommend you book your accommodation and meals as early as 6 months in advance. Prepare yourself, prices are shockingly high for what you get. All lodging and meal options along the W, O, and Q trek can be booked through CONAF – the governing body of Chile’s national parks – and two private companies, Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia. Fantastico Sur operates everything in the eastern part of the park and Vertice Patagonia everything on the western side.
When we did our trek in February 2015, only CONAF’s free Campamento Torres required a reservation. All other campsites could be booked on the spot. This has changed. Starting in 2016, advanced reservations are required for all campsites and refugios before you are allowed to enter the park. Unfortunately, this means you have to stick to a set daily schedule so that you arrive at each campground on a certain day. Waiting out bad weather in one of the camps or throwing in an impromptu rest day is no longer an option. (We honestly don’t know what happens if you do fall behind or if the pass closes. Let us know if you experience this.)
You can reserve CONAF’s free campsites (Paso, Italiano and Torres) at their office in Puerto Natales or online through their new reservation system. (Just click on “Reservar Camping CONAF” at the bottom to get to the next page where you can change the language.) Their system is quite awkward. Be aware that you cannot book more than six months in advance. Also, you can only book one night at each campground and you can only reserve for up to two people at a time.
NOTE: Campamento Torres will be closed during the 2017/2018 season. If you are planning a sunrise hike to Las Torres, you should stay at Chileno and calculate a minimum of 3 hours to reach the towers.
The reservation madness doesn’t stop here. If you want to get a spot in one of the private campgrounds or a bed in one of the refugios, you need to book as early as possible. Visit Fantastico Sur to book online for the following campgrounds and refugios: Los Cuernos, El Chileno, Serón, El Francés, and Torres (next to Hotel Las Torres). Unfortunately, Fantastico Sur has hiked up their prices significantly offering camping spots only in combination with full board for campgrounds like Los Cuernos and Chileno. It’s quite maddening. Visit Vertice Patagonia to book in advance for campgrounds and refugios Paine Grande, Grey, Dickson, and Los Perros.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to trek counterclockwise to avoid heavy headwinds. For the W trek, this means hiking west to east. Walking counterclockwise, the strong winds descending from the Grey Glacier will be at your back as you hike; this will literally make your hike a “breeze.”
As for the O trek, starting in 2016, visitors are only allowed to trek the circuit in a counterclockwise direction. And this is a good thing. Crossing the John Gardner Pass counterclockwise makes a lot more sense. The last camp, Campamento Los Perros, is closer to the pass and not as steep which means a shorter and easier ascent. Also the views of Grey Glacier while descending are fantastic. Moreover, the poor maintenance of the trail down the western side of the pass has caused sections of the trail to erode into large steps, which can be several feet high. Walking down this path is no thrill, but walking up it would be sheer murder.
While many people don’t agree with CONAF and claim it’s better to walk in a clockwise direction to avoid the crowds, we don’t think that’s true. You can easily find some solitude on the trail by either leaving the camp earlier or later than the masses. We always headed out late and took the whole day to explore rather than rushing to the next camp in a big clump of hikers.
Don’t Worry About the Altitude
While Torres del Paine looks like it’s located in a high-altitude environment, it’s actually not. The highest point in the park is Paine Grande at 2,884 m (9,462 ft). Unless you are planning to climb the peak, there’s no need to worry. Altitude sickness is generally only an issue above 2,500 m (8,200 ft), but during your Torres del Paine trek, you will be hiking way below that.
The highest point on the O and Q trek is the John Gardner Pass at 1,240 m (4,070 ft), and the highest points on the W trek are the Mirador Britanico in the French Valley at 755 m (2,475 ft) and the Las Torres viewpoint at 880 m (2,887). Moreover, all campgrounds and refugios are below 500 m (1,640 ft). Feel free to check out the interactive Torres del Paine circuit map on Alltrails, which gives you distances and altitudes along the O and W trek.
Keep an Eye out for Wildlife
If you are a wildlife enthusiast like us, Torres del Paine is definitely the right place to go. While you are not tripping over animals along the trails, there’s plenty of wildlife around waiting to be discovered. Yes, that’s right, you actually have to look for it. Tony and I started our trek knowing that the park is one of the best places to spot pumas in the world. So we kept our eyes peeled the whole time, and on day seven, Tony spotted one.
We also spotted Andean condors on almost a daily basis, either circling high above us or perched on rocky outcroppings. But you have to look! At one point, Tony and I stood for ten minutes watching in awe as a stream of two dozen hikers walked passed two condors perched on a rock, and not a single person noticed them. We even managed to take a photo of one condor with a hiker not looking at it! (But we won’t post it because that hiker might be reading this.)
Of course, luck is part of spotting wildlife. Even though we continuously scanned the area while hiking Torres del Paine, we did not see a single guanaco or rhea along the trail. Other hikers did. Most of these animals can be found on the plains on the outskirts of the park, especially between Puerto Natales and the park entrance. Guanacos and rheas can also be found in Argentina.
Choose the Right Trekking Season
While you can’t choose the right weather for your trek, you can definitely choose the right season. Best time to visit the park is from October to April. We did our hike during the shoulder season in late February 2015 and were quite lucky with the weather; we only had two semi-rainy days. Also be aware that during summer in the southern hemisphere, UV radiation can be very high. (Use a sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30.)
Pick Your Hiking and Camping Equipment Wisely
It is easy to underestimate the harsh Patagonian weather. While our trusty old tent barely made it through the trek, other people’s tents were literally ripped apart by strong wind gusts. (Luckily, most campgrounds and refugios rent out tents and sleeping bags, although they might be hard to come by during high season.) Of course, warm sleeping bags and good hiking clothing is essential. The weather changes here every three seconds. One moment it’s wet and freezing, the next it’s sunny and hot.
On a separate but equally important note, many trekkers hike without hiking poles. BIG MISTAKE! People kept telling us that hiking poles didn’t look cool. Seriously? Those poles saved us so many times. Especially with a heavy backpack on, you can use them to balance, push yourself uphill, or brace yourself downhill. We met two pole-less guys in their 20s who both completely ravaged their knees on the circuit. Hiking poles mean you’ll still be hiking at our age! 😉
Try to Navigate the Hordes of Visitors
Somebody just has to be honest and say it: Torres del Paine is overwhelmed by the sheer number of visitors. Facilities simply aren’t sufficient for the more than 250,000 people who visit the park each year, most of them within a period of a few months. The situation is most extreme along the W trek where competition for reasonable campsites can border on gladiatorial. Similarly, fire safety regulations require that people cook in special cooking areas which are overcrowded and, at moments, dangerous with dozens of propane stoves precariously balanced on uneven picnic tables just waiting to topple over on someone. Beyond that, we noticed numerous environmental problems related to the overwhelmed campsites included raw sewage flowing into the lakes. Not good.
Having said that, the park administration has begun to react to people’s complaints by limiting the number of hikers on the O and Q treks to 80 per day. They are definitely moving in the right direction, but there’s much work to be done (especially improving the facilities and controlling pollution).
Be Aware That Nobody Will Rescue You
Now another piece of bad news, nobody is going to rescue you. The deceptively modern appearance of Chilean national parks leads many to compare them to other parks in places like the U.S., Canada and Australia. But be warned, there is no rescue service in Torres del Paine. Young Chilean couple Felipe and Carolina were confronted with this issue two days into their hike.
We met Felipe and Carolina on the trail and started bonding with them immediately. After putting up our tent at Camp Dickson, we noticed Felipe hobbling around his tent. He had twisted his ankle which quickly became sore and swollen. Clearly, they couldn’t continue the 8-day trek over the rugged terrain. But with no rescue service around, how could they leave the park to seek medical help?
To make a long story a little shorter, they had to save themselves. Even more annoying, they were required to get an emergency exit permit from CONAF to allow them to use the park’s service road system to exit the park. The permit took about four days to obtain and that was the end of CONAF’s involvement in the rescue effort. (How completely stupid is that?) The couple finally arranged to hitch out on a service road with someone from the privately run Dickson Campground.
This experience brings many questions to mind. What if you are more seriously injured? What if an accident happens away from the service roads? Where the heck does the US$35 national park entry fee go? And for many people who are accustomed to more professionally run national parks, is the trek really worth the risk?
Torres del Paine is amazing and obviously worth the risk for many trekkers; this includes us as well as Chilean couple Carolina and Felipe, both of whom told us that they are ready to come back and try again once Felipe’s ankle has healed. That says a lot about the park. However, not everyone agrees.
Fellow travel bloggers Audrey and Dan from UncorneredMarket.com did a post on their W hike in which they called the trek “nice” but not “a trip of a lifetime.” They felt that expectations for Torres del Paine had been set a bit too high. We totally understand and realize that experiences along the trail can be very different depending on crowds and weather. To be honest, we might have felt similarly if we had only done the W trek because while that section of the trail is quite beautiful, it is also crowded and competition for camping and cooking spots can be fierce.
Having said that, we have hiked some of the most spectacular routes on the planet, and when we reflect a bit, we do recognize why Torres del Paine has become so famous. The combination of sharp glacial spires, sprawling plains, sweeping glaciers, and turquoise lakes makes this route special. There are very few low altitude routes that can compare.
So, not surprisingly, opinions differ on the park. The most important thing for prospective hikers is to do their homework and get a realistic idea of what the trek involves. Know who you are and what you feel comfortable doing. If you have never done a long multi-day trek, the O circuit is probably not the best place to start due to the extreme weather and no easy escape routes. The W trek does provide for shorter versions and an easier exit.
Torres del Paine Itineraries for the W, O, and Q Treks
For detailed itineraries and tips related to specific hikes, we are linking into some helpful resources we used to organize our own trek. To start, we are listing our own 8-day, 7-night O trek itinerary because it deviates from the one listed below. (Add a 2-hour bus ride at the beginning and end between Puerto Natales and Laguna Amarga, the Torres del Paine park entrance.)
- DAY 1 – Laguna Amarga to Campamento Serón: 12 km (7.5 mi), 7 hours
- DAY 2 – Campamento Serón to Refugio Dickson: 18 km (11 mi), 8 hours
- DAY 3 – Refugio Dickson to Campamento Los Perros: 11 km (7 mi), 5.5 hours
- DAY 4 – Campamento Los Perros to Refugio Grey: 17 km (10.5 mi), 11 hours
- DAY 5 – Refugio Grey to Campamento Italiano: 18 km (11 mi), 8.5 hours
- DAY 6 – Campamento Italiano to Refugio Los Cuernos: 5.5 km (3.5 mi), 2.5 hours
- DAY 7 – Refugio Los Cuernos to Campamento Torres: 20 km (12.5 mi), 7 hours
- DAY 8 – Campamento Torres to Laguna Amarga: 12 km (7.5 mi), 9 hours (including sunrise hike to the Las Torres viewpoint)
After crossing the John Gardner Pass on day 4, some people stay at Campamento Paso and trek to Paine Grande the next day. We split it up differently, hiking to Refugio Grey and then to Campamento Italiano the following day. This way we had a lot of time to explore the beautiful French Valley on day 6.
The W Trek
Steve from Back-Packer.org describes a budget camping version of the W trek including itineraries for 4, 5 and 6 days.
The O Trek
Steve from Back-Packer.org describes a budget camping version of the O trek including itineraries for 7, 8, and 9 days.
Andonis from TheCounterIntuitive.com provides a detailed description of his 8-day camping circuit with Erratic Rock.
The Q Trek
Erratic Rock describes a 10-day camping version of the Q trek.
Erratic Rock is a tour operator slash hostel located in Puerto Natales, the gateway town to Torres del Paine. They hold free daily seminars at their Basecamp pub giving information about the trek and answering questions. They also rent out equipment.
For online information on how to prepare for your hike, check out Steve’s informative article on Back-Packer.org.
Plan your Trip to Torres del Paine National Park
When to Go – Best time to visit is October through April when days in Patagonia are warm and dry(ish). The park is usually less crowded early and late in the season (October and April) while the weather can be quite pleasant.
Accommodation – Most visitors stay in Puerto Natales, the gateway town to Torres del Paine, before and after their hike. It’s a great place full of like-minded travelers, gear rental shops, well-stocked supermarkets, and plenty of accommodation. Room prices during high season can be steep, so booking in advance is advised. We recommend searching for great Puerto Natales deals on HotelsCombined.com, a site which finds the best deals for you across numerous top hotel booking sites, including booking.com and agoda.
Travel Insurance – Overseas medical insurance should be your number one priority when hiking Torres del Paine. As mentioned in the article, there’s no rescue service in the park, so it’s especially important to get travel insurance that includes emergency evacuation. World Nomads’ travel insurance covers travelers for overseas medical, emergency evacuation, baggage and a range of activities and adventure sports. One of the advantages of World Nomads’s insurance policy is that you can buy and claim the insurance online, even after you’ve left home.
Tours – Although this article is geared toward independent hikers, some readers may be interested in joining a tour after learning what the trek involves. You can check out these two Viator tours: The 4-day/3-night no-frills W trek and the 5-day/4-night luxury W trek. REI also offers a guided 13-day Patagonia Hiking & Camping tour that combines Torres del Paine National Park in Chile with Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina.
Guidebooks – We often travel with a Lonely Planet. During our travels in Chile, we used the Lonely Planet Chile & Easter Island. This guide is great for cultural and historical info, maps, hiking tours, itineraries, and also includes a section on Torres del Paine National Park. If you are looking specifically for a Torres del Paine guide, we recommend the Trekking Torres del Paine guide book. While these books provide general information and detailed overviews of trekking routes, make sure to check online sources for the latest updates on how to book accommodation and meal plans. Wildlife enthusiasts might want to consider getting the animal guide A Wildlife Guide to Chile. All of these guidebooks can be conveniently purchased on Amazon.
Travel Gear – There’s a long packing list for Patagonia, especially if you want to do some serious hiking. To help you get started, here are a few essential things everyone should have: A good pair of hiking boots and hiking socks, a comfortable hiking backpack (we prefer Deuter), and a durable, lightweight tent (MSR gets good reviews). Also, get some trekking poles, they will be one of your best investments for your knees and back. We also recommend an action camera such as the GoPro to capture your adventure on film.