Lisa Owen

If you’re an outdoor lover, no doubt you’ve heard of the W Trek in Chile’s Patagonia region. It’s one of Chile’s premier hikes and thousands of hiking enthusiasts from across the globe flock to this beautiful part of the world each year.

The W Trek is named because the 70km route makes the shape of a ‘W’. There are dozens of tour companies offering the W Trek but you can also do the hike independently. Here is what you need to know about hiking the W Trek.

Where is the W Trek?

The W Trek is located in southern Chile in the Patagonia region. The Patagonia region is shared by Chile and Argentina and forms the southern end of the Andes Mountains. The gateway town to the W Trek is Puerto Natales.

When to Go

The best time to hike the W Trek is during Patagonia’s summer months between November and February, as this is when you’re more likely to get good weather. The days are also long with the sun setting about 10pm. But the trail gets very busy over the festive season so it’s best to time your visit at the start or end of the season.

Be aware that no matter what time of year you go, the weather is very temperamental. You can experience hot, clear summer days or bitterly cold, windy and rainy days throughout your trek. Even in the space of a few hours the weather can change dramatically. Most of all be prepared for the wind, which is strong enough to knock you off your feet.

What to bring

You need to be prepared for all types of weather conditions on the trail. If you plan to stay in the refugios (hiking hostels) along the way with full board, I recommend you pack the following items:

  • Rain jacket with hood
  • Warm base layer
  • Down jacket and/or fleece pullover
  • Good quality, waterproof hiking boots preferably with ankle support
  • At least two pairs of socks
  • Hiking pants
  • Thermal pants
  • Hat and beanie
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Hiking backpack with rain cover
  • Dry bag for valuables
  • Refillable water bottle
  • Small towel
  • Gloves
  • Face buff for the wind
  • Lip balm
  • Light snacks such as chocolate or muesli bars

Hiking backpacks, trekking poles and warm jackets can be hired in Puerto Natales. If you plan to camp, you’ll also need a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and a gas camp stove (wood fires are not allowed). The good news is these are also available to hire in Puerto Natales. You’ll need to bring food with you.

Getting to Torres Del Paine National Park

To reach the start of the W Trek trail, you need to get to Patagonia. Patagonia is a long way from Chile’s capital of Santiago, so most travellers choose to fly from Santiago. LATAM and Sky Airlines fly several times daily from Santiago to Punta Arenas airport.

From Punta Arenas airport, you need to catch a bus to Puerto Natales. Bus Sur runs a regular bus service direct from the airport to Puerto Natales. The bus ride takes about three hours and tickets can be bought online at www.bussur.com. Make sure you print out your ticket.

It’s best to plan a night in Puerto Natales before your hike so you can stock up on supplies and rest up.

You can also go along to the daily Torres Del Paine National Park information session at the Erratic Rock equipment rental centre. This session runs every day at 3pm to tell you about trail conditions, what to expect on the trail, what to pack and the weather forecast. If you miss the session, Erratic Rock staff can help you out with any questions you may have when you drop in.

To get to Torres Del Paine National Park, you need to take a bus from the Puerto Natales Bus Station. Buses leave throughout the day starting from 7am. It’s best to buy tickets in advance online if you’re visiting during peak season, but it may also be possible to buy from bus company counters.

Arrival at Torres Del Paine National Park

Once you arrive at the park entrance at Laguna Amarga, you will be asked to pay the entry fee before taking a shuttle bus to your starting point. The cost is 21,000 CLP ($42 AUD). Payment is by cash only. You need to fill out a short form and then watch a five-minute video about the national park rules.

There are two starting points for the W Trek – Las Torres if you’re hiking east to west, or the Administration Building/Lake Pehoe if you’re hiking west to east.

From the park entrance, you then take a shuttle bus to your starting point. Cost is 3,000 CLP (about $6 AUD) per person. This shuttle bus will take you either to the Visitor Information Centre at Las Torres or the Lake Pehoe catamaran terminal, and then you take the catamaran across to Refugio Paine Grande. The cost of the catamaran is 18,000 CLP ($36 AUD). Payment is by cash only.

How long does the trek take?

You can do the trek in as little as four days, but most people do the trek over 5-6 days.

What route should I take?

You can hike east to west (Laguna Amarga to Refugio Paine Grande) or west to east (Refugio Paine Grande to Las Torres). It’s really up to personal preference – I chose east to west solely because it worked best for refugio (hiking hostel) availability. My itinerary looked like the below.

Day 1

Caught the 7am bus from Puerto Natales and arrived at the Torre Norte Refugio at Las Torres about 11am. Checked in and did the eight-hour return hike (18km) up to the Las Torres Base Mirador (The Towers).

Day 2

Trekked 11km from Refugio Torre Central to Refugio Los Cuernos.

Day 3

Trekked from Refugio Los Cuernos to Campmento Italiano. Left my backpack at the ranger station to make the two-hour return trip into the beautiful Frances Valley to check out the Frances Glacier. Opted to skip the additional three-hour return hike up to Mirador Britanico. Collected my backpack and continued onto Refugio Paine Grande. The total trekking time was about seven hours, covering 17km.

Day 4

Trekked from Paine Grande up to the first Glacier Grey viewpoint, 15 minutes after Refugio Grey. Distance was 22km and took 7.5 hours. Returned to Refugio Paine Grande to catch the 5pm catamaran and then took the 6.30pm bus back to Puerto Natales.

What is the trail like?

The trail is very diverse and features flat sections; very rocky, uneven sections; and rugged uphill sections.

Along the trail, you’ll encounter suspension bridges, you’ll have to rock hop across streams or mud, and you’ll encounter very exposed sections which will see you struggling against the wind.

The trail from Las Torres to the Mirador Base Las Torres starts off uphill and rocky before flattening out and taking you through the woods. Then there’s a steep uphill section featuring large boulders.

The section from Torres Central to Refugio Los Cuernos/Frances or Campmento Italiano is mostly flat for the first half, crossing several streams before getting rockier. There are some short uphill sections.

From the mid-point of the W Trek to Refugio Paine Grande, most trekkers typically start by going up to the miradors to check out the Frances Glacier. Then it’s a flat but often rocky trek to the refugio. Be prepared for high winds as you get close to Refugio Paine Grande.

The trail from Paine Grande to Glacier Grey is undulating, sometimes steeply. It can get extremely windy up here.

The W Trek trail is well defined and easy to follow. There’s formal signage most of the way.

You don’t have to carry much water with you as you can drink the water from streams. However, make sure to take water upstream of river crossings or campsites.

Accommodation options

You have several options for accommodation during the W Trek.

  1. Dorm style accommodation in the refugios (featuring sheets and blankets or you can bring your own sleeping bag).
  2. Camp using your own tent and sleeping bag.
  3. Camp in an established tent on a platform with provided mattress and sleeping bag.

Facilities include shared bathrooms. Hot water is available between 5pm and 9pm.

Refugios also feature fire stoves to keep you warm and toasty after a day on the trails. Electrical outlets inside refugios are sparse, so best to bring a battery pack as a back up to charge your phone or camera.

You have the option to include meals into your package at the refugio or bring your own. If you pay full board, lunch is given to you in a takeaway bag at breakfast and includes a sandwich, muesli and chocolate bars, a piece of fruit, and dried fruit and nuts.

Accommodation is where organising to do the W Trek can be confusing as there are two accommodation providers in the park with two different websites – and there’s lots of refugios and camping sites to choose from, some in close proximity to each other.

Reservations for the refugios and camping areas operated by Fantastico Sur – Torre Central, Torre Norte, Los Cuernos, El Chileno, Seron, and Frances - can be booked through their website at www.fantasticosur.com/en

Reservations for the Vertice Patagonia operated refugios – Paine Grande and Grey – can in theory be booked through the Spanish version of their website at www.verticepatagonia.com/es or through a booking request form on their English website. Many travellers I spoke to had trouble booking Refugio Paine Grande, but advice is that booking requests should be written in Spanish and not English to have a better chance of getting a response. It also seems that booking requests are only answered from mid-November onwards before the start of peak season.

It is recommended to book accommodation ahead of your trek, however if you get stuck, there is the potential to get a bed in the refugios at either of the starting points of the W Trek. It is unlikely you will be able to get a walk in spot in the middle of the trek however. Los Cuernos, Frances and Italiano are all located in the middle.

I was unable to book Refugio Paine Grande through their website, however when I arrived I was able to get a bed easily owing to the fact they had ‘simple beds’ free (no sheets) and I had my own sleeping bag.

Which refugios should I stay in?

The first decision you need to make is if you will hike the W Trek east to west or west to east. The itinerary below explains the accommodation options when hiking west to east but it can be done in reverse.

Day 1

Arrival to Las Torres. The options on where to stay here are below:

  1. Torre Central or Torre Norte refugios or camping area. These are near where the shuttle bus drops you off.
  2. Dorms or a tent at Refugio Chileno. Refugio Chileno is a small refugio halfway between Las Torres and the Las Torres Base Mirador. It’s about a two-hour hike from Las Torres. Many people choose this option if they want to hike to the base of Las Torres for sunrise.

Day 2

You have three choices on where to stay on Day 2.

  1. Sleep in a dorm or tent at Refugio Los Cuernos.
  2. Sleep in a domo or tent at Domo & Campmento Frances.
  3. Sleep in a tent at Campmento Italiano (closest to Frances Glacier) or further up at Campmento Britanico. These two options are basic with only drop toilets and no showers.

Day 3

On Day 3, most people hike to Refugio Paine Grande on Lake Pehoe, before attempting the hike up to Glacier Grey the next day. Day three is a big day if you choose to hike west to east. You’ll start at either Los Cuernos, Frances or Italiano, go up to the Mirador Frances or Mirador Britanico and then hike to Paine Grande.

Day 4

Day 4 will see you heading up to Glacier Grey. You can choose to stay at Refugio Grey, which offers both dorms and campsites, or do the hike as a day trip. With an early start, it’s possible to hike up to Glacier Grey and return in time for last catamaran.

Departure

Your departure point from the W Trek will depend on where you started.

If you hiked from east to west, you will need to catch the catamaran from Refugio Paine Grande to the Administration. Then you can catch a bus to Puerto Natales. The last catamaran of the day is at 6.30pm but there are also catamarans at 9am, 11am and 5pm.

If you hiked from west to east, you can catch a shuttle bus back to the national park entrance from Las Torres and then catch the bus back to Puerto Natales.

Costs

The cost of doing the W Trek independently will vary depending on your accommodation and food style during the trek, however here is an outline of costs that every person has to pay regardless of where they sleep.

  • Return Bus from Punta Arenas Airport to Puerto Natales $14,000 ($28 AUD)
  • Return bus from Puerto Natales to Torres Del Paine National Park $16,000 ($32 AUD)
  • National Park Entrance $21,000 CLP ($42 AUD)
  • Shuttle Bus $3,000 CLP ($6 AUD)
  • Lake Pehoe Catamaran $18,000 CLP ($36 AUD)

The W Trek is an adventure you are unlikely to forget and it is definitely one for every outdoor lover to add to their bucket list.

 

Lisa Owen is a pint-sized Australian following her dreams to travel to as many places as she can, and loves to share her photography, travel hacks, hiking adventures, and food discoveries along the way. At last count, she has travelled to more than 60 countries in between working in public relations and discovering hidden gems in Australia's great outdoors. Instagram: @thelittleadventurer. Facebook: The Little Adventurer Australia.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.