The 5-day “W” circuit is the more popular trek that most visitors hike on a visit to Torres Del Paine(TDP). In contrast, the “O” circuit is the longer 9-day hike around the entire national park. My visit to TDP was late September, which coincides with the southern hemisphere winter to spring transition. The weather was still quite cold and thus snow prevailed in some areas on the national park. I particularly think the mountains looked much prettier with snow on them. Additionally, in the middle leg of the “W” dubbed the French Valley boasts some view of spectacular thunderous avalanches from a safe distance, which I don’t think can be experienced during the summer months.
I started the whole journey by flying intoPunto Arenas from Santiago. From there I took a 3-hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, which is probably the way most travelers arrive in to Puerto Natales.
Puerto Natales isn’t terribly big. The entire town thrives around the influx of tourist during the summer months. With that said there’s plenty of budget accommodations, camping gear rental, and grocery stores. There’s one large supermarket(Unimarc) and various smaller grocery stores scattered throughout town.
I rented a gas stove and a pot from an outfit in Puerto Natales. Even though camping rented, I brought the majority of my gear from the States including a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad mostly because I was recommended to do so. I was particular glad I brought my Thermarest sleeping pad because the rental sleeping pads were those cheap foams types that didn’t provide much insulation between the ground and yourself. A few of my group members had these foam type ones and were quite envious of my Thermarest self-inflating air mattress especially on the cold nights.
List of equipment I packed:
Backpack – 50 liter North Face Scarab
REI Safari Convertible Pants – Even though I went in late September, I got warm when I started hiking to the point that I stripped down to my t-shirt. I never once had to convert my pants into shorts, but it would be nice to have that option.
Black Diamon Gaitors – Wasn’t really needed. There were parts that were muddy so it made it useful.
Arc’Teryx Beta AR Gore Tex Shell – This is the same candy apple red jacket I packed for Everest Base Camp and Kilimanjaro.
Thermals – The nights were cold given that it was late September. I packed a pair of bottoms. I didn’t bother packing a pair of long sleeve thermals as I had enough layers to keep me warm.
REI Flash sleeping bag – This sleeping bag is rated to 29 degree F or -2 C. To be honest, this sleeping bag wasn’t quite warm enough for the time frame I visited TDP. I should have bought a warmer sleeping bag, but I was more concerned about the weight of my backpack.
Thermarest Pro-lite sleeping pad. Some folks in my group were envious because I had a cushion of separation between the ground and myself. The other folks in my group had foam pads, which offered as much cushion as a piece of cardboard.
Mountain House freeze dried meals – I brought 8 of these with me from the States. Prepping these to eat was real simple – add hot water, stir, re-seal, wait, and enjoy. For clean up, I just had to wash a spoon and discard the pouch.
I have to say the convenience of having these on the trail outweighed the inconvenience of carrying them. In no stores that I came across in Puerto Natales sold these freeze dried meals. I was definitely glad I brought them with me.
Stove/pots – I rented all this in Puerto Natales. Nothing special, I couldn’t pack gas cylinders on plane so I didn’t want to bother with trying to find cylinders to mate with my burner.
Hiking Poles – I brought a pair of poles. They were a pair I bought in New Zealand on discount. These were the same poles I brought with me to Kilimanjaro.
WHEN TO GO
The “in-season” for TDP starts on the first of October. I hiked the “W” circuit during the second to last week of September. This meant a few things. First, the catamarans were not operating. Not having the catamarans added a bit of an inconvenience because it meant a little more hiking at the start of the trek.
Second, the refugios were closed or were not 100% operational. Officially the refugios open on the first of October. The ones that were open, but not 100% operational sold food items and hot meals, but did not allow hikers to sleep in the dorms. For the ones that were closed, everything including the bathrooms were closed.
The weather was colder than most people would have liked during week I was there, but there are benefits to that. First the, the trails were void of large crowds. At the campsites, there were maybe at most 20 hikers sleeping overnight. This made cooking in the designated areas bearable rather than vying for elbowroom.
VIEW FROM THE TRAIL
The elevation in TDP isn’t high, so altitude shouldn’t be a problem to most people. The steepest ascent I recall was the ascent from Las Torres to the Mirador Las Torres. I did this section without my heavy pack because I left it at the Las Torres campsite, which is the way the majority of the people hike this section.
I’ve heard stories that the weather changes like you wouldn’t believe. However when I was there the weather was extremely unusual. The weather was immaculate, there was little to no wind nor rain, the sky was blue as the ocean without any clouds to be found at least the first few days. The nights were cold almost unbearable partly due to the fact I had an inadequate sleeping bag.
There are many streams from the melting glacier/snow where people simply drink straight from them. I brought a water filter, but never used it once because of the readily supply of drinkable water.
There are paid and free campsites. The paid campsites include showers, bathrooms, and cooking facilities with running water. There are also cafeterias where food can be purchased if you wanted to. There’s also a small on-site grocery store if you forgot to buy some food items. Just to give an idea on the prices, one of my group members forgot to buy tomato sauce and paid $2 USD for these one-time use packets, which probably cost $.50 in town. A night at the campsite didn’t cost more than $10 a night during my visit.
For those self-sufficient hikers, the free campsites provide the simplest necessities – toilets and a cooking area.
TO HIRE A GUIDE OR NOT
There are guide companies that one can hire. I chose not to hire a guide even though I was a solo hiker. The best thing about the trek is that there are always other hikers on the trail and it’s easy to connect with them and walk the trail with them. I don’t think a guide is necessary unless hiking is completely out of your comfort zone or you’re unable to carry a fully loaded backpack.