Hail and 70 mph winds lashed my face as I climbed over John Gardner Pass, the highest point of Torres del Paine’s iconic O trek in Chilean Patagonia. The hike started hours before sunrise in the pitch-black dark. Now with the hardest part of the trek behind me, I could finally see the view: A rainbow—the first of several that day—emerged from the clouds and arched over the jagged crevasses of Grey Glacier and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Exhausted and exhilarated, my eyes watered from the wind. Or maybe it was the overwhelming awe I felt looking at the seemingly endless ice cap before me.
Everything looks and feels extreme here—it’s Patagonia after all.
Patagonia is synonymous with adventure, in part thanks to the eponymous outdoor gear brand (and its founder’s conservation legacy). The word alone conjures up images of glaciers hanging over turquoise lakes, expansive golden plains, massive granite spires, elusive pumas, and doe-eyed guanacos (llamas’ wilder cousins).
This land of extremes can all be experienced in Torres del Paine National Park. Dubbed “the crown jewel of Patagonia,” the 448,280-acre park lures hikers from all over the world. And the best way to take it in is on one of the park’s classic multiday treks on well-maintained trails with accessible campsites and lodges along the way.
After flying to Chile for an Antarctica expedition last February, I couldn’t pass up a chance to tack on a trip to Patagonia. After 18 days at sea, I craved going at my own pace, wide open spaces, and a physical challenge. So the full O trek was the ideal route for me, but these tips below are applicable for both of the classic routes: the O or W.
Here’s what you need to know before going on a multiday trek in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park.
1. Choose between the challenging O trek or the shorter, more hiked W trek
Torres del Paine has two multiday trek routes, the O (the full circuit with 85 miles over eight to nine days) and the W (the bottom half of the circuit with 46 miles over four to seven days). The W is the more popular route as it takes less time and forgos arguably the toughest part, the John Gardner Pass, which has an elevation gain of 3,940 feet over 13.6 miles.
The O must be hiked counterclockwise, while the W can be taken in either direction. Ask hikers why they chose their trek route, and often it comes down to time. Also, the top half of the O includes much more challenging terrain, and there’s one night you’ll have to camp and bring your own food. On the W, you’ll have options for cabins, plus full room and board (breakfast, bag lunch, and dinner).
While the O trek includes sweeping views of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and runs alongside the Grey Glacier, the W (aka the bottom half of the O) includes the most iconic spots on the trail: iceberg-speckled Grey Lake, the panoramic views of the Paine massif in the French Valley, and the trail to the base of the namesake “blue towers.”
I chose the O trek because I had the time and wanted the challenge. Fortunately, I was able to join a group of friends hiking the top of the O circuit. After I completed the top half of the O circuit with my friends, who are guides for a WHOA Patagonia trip and backpacking experts at Operation Adventure, I then hiked the bottom half of the circuit, or the W, solo.
2. Should you take a guided tour or hike alone?
There are benefits to both. After coming off an Antarctica 18-day expedition, I craved alone time and going at my own speed. I was able to get the best of both worlds by hiking the more challenging top half of the O trek with friends, then hiking the more trodden, populated bottom half of O (or W) solo. And I did the entire trek without a guide, which felt completely safe.
The benefits of a self-guided hike are that you can hike at your own pace and enjoy the silence and satisfaction of navigating the path on your own. The trail is well-marked and extremely easy to follow. A concern of mine before I started was “Will I get lost?” Not once did I question if I was on the trail. But I downloaded the All Trails app ahead of time, just in case.
Worried you’ll get lonely? Solo trekkers will still have plenty of social opps at the refugios, the accommodations/cabins with beds, meal service, and a small shop for food and supplies, along the trail. Some refugios have bars, and if you choose the dinner option, you’ll be eating family style and comparing notes with fellow hikers from around the globe.
While my entire O circuit trek was self-guided (even the part with friends), I still used the local experts at adventure company Chile Nativo to help me book all the campsites and provide tips for the trek. It’s a bit of a confusing process booking it on your own because three different agencies manage the campsites and refugios in Torres del Paine. The campsites/refugios can be booked online through these three websites: Vertice Patagonia, Las Torres, and CONAF.
The benefits of joining a guided trek with a company such as Chile Nativo are that not only will you leave all the logistics and planning up to the experts but you’ll also learn so much more about the flora and fauna with a local guide hiking alongside you. Plus, you’re guaranteed to have a group of fellow hikers to eat and bond with. So if you’re nervous about doing a multiday hike alone, taking a guided trek makes the most sense.
Whether you go alone or guided, book well in advance as campsites fill up fast. The most popular time to hike and visit Torres del Paine National Park is during the Patagonian summer months of December to February. I went in March and the weather was early fall-like and there were fewer crowds.
3. Weather is wildly erratic; pack smart and light layers
Patagonia is known for its unpredictable weather. The common refrain here is that you’ll experience all four seasons in a day. Or, as I recall, I experienced rain, wind, hail, sunshine, and rainbows—double ones even—in a few hours hiking down from the John Gardner Pass. Packing smart, but still light, is key. It’s essential to pack quick-drying and breathable fabrics and light insulating layers.
Rain gear is a must
You’ll want a windproof and waterproof option, like the Arc’teryx Beta LT Jacket Hadron ($450, arcteryx.com). High winds make a lightweight insulating layer necessary, like the Helly Hansen Hybrid Insulator Jacket ($200, hellyhansen.com). I lived in it and on cold nights I slept in it, too. And while you might not use rain pants every day, you will want them when it’s pouring, so it’s worth adding those to your packing list.
Keep your feet dry and blister free
My waterproof Lowa Gore-Tex hiking boots (from $154, lowaboots.com) kept my feet dry walking through mud and streams, yet were light enough for everyday use. In addition to waterproof boots, you’ll also want to look for taller options since ankle support on steep stretches is a must. You’ll also want to pack liner socks. Every day I wore two pairs of socks—a thin wool liner sock ($15, rei.com) plus Smartwool’s classic full-cushion hiking socks ($22, rei.com)—which kept me blister free for the entire trek. If you do tend to get blisters, it doesn’t hurt to pack moleskin and wrapping tape just in case.
Other essentials to pack
- First-aid kit
- A wool hat that stays on during intense wind
- Sunglasses and sunscreen since the sun is very strong when it comes out
What to rent there
You can rent hiking poles in town at Rental Natales in Puerto Natales, as well as get anything else you might need. Hiking poles are essential for steep paths and to disperse strain on your body; you’ll also need them on super windy stretches to help anchor you—yes, it’s truly that windy.
Prepare to unplug
Buy your park pass and have all your receipts for refugios/meals saved on your phone so you can access them without phone signal or Wi-Fi, which you won’t have, unless you pay for it at the refugios. (FYI: It’s not cheap and you have to pay by the hour.) Some refugios don’t offer internet at all, so be prepared to be fully unplugged.
4. Save space in your pack and opt for tent setup and three full meals a day
When I booked my campsites, I included a tent and sleeping bag every night with my reservations. In addition to making my pack lighter, it was so nice to arrive at camp every night to have my tent already set up. I found the tents and sleeping bags I rented from every refugio to be very clean. To save space in my 32-liter Dueter pack ($170, dueter.com), I chose the full meal option, which includes breakfast, dinner, and a packed lunch. I’m a pescatarian and I was surprised by the food options along the way that catered to vegetarians. My first meal at Seron Camp—salmon and calafate (Patagonian blueberry) ice cream—was particularly memorable. You’ll still want to pack your own snacks though.
5. It’s safe to drink the water right from the glacier-fed streams
One thing you should never be carrying in Patagonia (or anywhere for that matter) is a plastic disposable bottle. Luckily, you won’t have to wait until you get to camp and the refugios to fill your reusable water bottles. The water in Torres del Paine National Park is safe to drink, with caution, of course. It is not recommended to drink water from streams and rivers located near the refugios due to human presence, but there will be marked areas on the trail showing a good place to fill up your water bottle. If you fill it from a waterfall or upstream, you should be fine. Apps like Far Out or All Trails can point you to the next water source. If you’re still worried about it, pack a Grayl water bottle (from $100, grayl.com) that purifies water in seconds.
6. Don’t be that traveler. Trek and tread responsibly.
In the past 20 years, two fires caused by irresponsible tourists resulted in massive fires that destroyed over 74,000 acres of native forests around the Grey Camp area and Pehoe Lake. It will take a century for these slow-growth forests to return. Follow the fire rules here. It’s extremely windy in the park, so don’t cook anywhere other than designated areas at camps.
Beyond following fire regulations, some other basic campsite etiquette applies here, too: Pack out all your trash. Stay on the trail. Don’t carve your name into a rock or take one home with you. Don’t blast music while you hike. And please, don’t spend all night talking in your tent. A thin piece of nylon isn’t a sound barrier and the whole campsite will be up with you.
7. Don’t fear pumas—you’ll be lucky to see them, and it won’t be on the trails
The reigning wildlife of Torres del Paine is, without a doubt, the Patagonia puma. Patagonia has the highest density of pumas in the world, and while they live in both Chile and Argentina, they are more protected in Chile where it’s illegal to hunt pumas. The rise of puma tourism in Chile has fueled their conservation by giving an economic incentive to gauchos who used to hunt pumas to protect their livestock. Now former gauchos use their spotting skills for responsible “puma tracking.” Once enemies, the gaucho and the puma are now allies.
An estimated 50 to 200 pumas live in Torres del Paine National Park. Before I trekked the O, I went out with a legendary puma tracker, Pepe Wayaja V. Growing up as a gaucho needing to protect his sheep, he developed a sixth sense for spotting the largest predator in Patagonia. Now he takes photographers, documentary film crews, and wide-eyed travelers out to find the elusive cats. He’s even named them and taught me about the patterns of his big cat friends.
To date, there have been no puma attacks on humans in the park. Because pumas avoid human-trafficked areas, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter one on the trails or at your campsite. Growing up camping and being afraid of bears and snakes, I was glad to not have to worry about any wild animals during my trek.
8. Don’t miss a chance to trek on Grey Glacier
Outside Antarctica and Greenland, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the largest contiguous ice field in the world. Unfortunately, it’s shrinking at some of the highest rates on the planet. Part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Grey Glacier is Torres del Paine’s largest and most spectacular glacier, almost 100 feet tall and four miles wide.
While it’s not part of the circuit routes, I highly recommend taking an extra day at Camp Grey to go glacier trekking. Bigfoot Patagonia is the only company currently offering a glacier trekking experience, a five-hour guided trek looking at crevasses, tunnels, and lagoons on Grey Glacier. It will also supply the necessary crampons, helmet, and harness.
You can get a closer look at the icebergs birthed from Grey Glacier by kayaking along them on Grey Lake. My guide, and the owner Kayak Sin Fronteras, took us so close to one blue iceberg on Grey Lake we grazed it with our hand—before we kayaked down the Serrano River.
For a more leisurely look at Grey Glacier, you can view it from Grey Lake onboard the Grey Navigator boat with a pisco sour in hand (chilled with ice cubes from ’bergy bits brought in from the lake that morning). When the boat gets closer to Grey Glacier, you’ll be lucky to witness a dramatic crack and thunder as the glacier calves icebergs into Grey Lake. While calving is a natural occurrence here, it’s also a reminder of how fast the ice field is melting overall.
9. Where to stay in Torres Del Paine National Park before and after your trek
Make your base in Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine’s adventure hub town about an hour’s drive from the entrance to the national park, where you can get all the gear for your trek. Most hotels let you store your luggage while you are on your treks. Hotel Vendaval was my comfortable base for my days back in town as I geared up and fueled up with my favorite local dish, paila marina, or traditional Chilean seafood soup. Stock up on local carmerere, Chile’s signature red, at Wine & Market in town. You’ll have a lot to celebrate and toast to after completing your trek.
If you want to treat yourself to a luxurious lodging experience after a long trek, you have options right in the park. Explora Torres del Paine is the only all-inclusive luxury hotel right in the heart of the park on the turquoise shores of Pehoe Lake. (Bonus: it’s the only lodging with its own boat in the park.) Hotel Lago Grey is right outside the park and overlooks the iceberg-dotted Grey Lake. EcoCamp Patagonia offers sustainable, decked-out dome tents right off the trail. And Chile Nativo has set up new glamping-style lotus dome tents along the quiet Serrano River with a full-service dining lodge. After a day’s adventures, you’ll be treated to locally sourced delicacies, such as king crab and Patagonian lamb.