When I arrived to Puerto Natales, I had the fortune of spending a few more days there resting my buggered knee from El Chalten. Five days in total I stayed, where the average punter would spend two nights before heading off for the W-Trek at Torres del Paine National Park. One of my observations while I was there was that the there was a sense of nervousness and doubt with regards to the trek itself and how to prepare for the five-day trek: What should they pack, how much of it, how would they feed themselves, do they need walking poles etc.
Thinking back, there probably wasn’t necessary to be nervous about the trek, but if you’re thinking of taking on the challenge yourself then here’s an account of how I prepared and what I would have done differently.
Which direction to go:
Majority of people take on the trek from West to East direction. Although known to be windier on the western side, the trek starts off flatter and then gradually becomes steeper. In order to get to the starting point of Paine Grand, you need to catch a catamaran from where the bus drops you off at the north-eastern end of Lagoe Pehoe to the north-western where you get off at Paine Grande.
One perceived advantage of travelling from West to East is that your views for most of the days will be of the granite towers. I chose to start from the eastern side on day one because the conditions were great and I wanted to get some photos of the tower without too many clouds. As a result, day one was the most difficult but once it was complete then the terrain became easier to hike each day. However, despite the final days being ‘flatter’ in terrain, the winds are generally into and across you which makes it difficult at times given the strength of the wind gusts.
Camping vs Lodging:
It’s a personal decision and comes down to how you want to take it. Go all out or mix it up with some “luxuries”. Camping will always be the cheapest option with a variety of free camp sites available. I camped the first night at Campamento Torres on the first night and then stayed in dorm rooms on the second and third evenings. The camp site at Torres had a flushable bathroom but most of the other free sites have just a hole in the ground.
The other option is to stay at a refugio which has its own camping facilities as well as the dormitory option and everybody has access to normal bathroom and showering facilities.The cost of a dorm bed is US$50 per night which is quite expensive. The beds are pretty basic and you will need to bring your own sleeping bag or rent one there. If you decide to camp then there is the option to bring your own tent or to hire one at each refugio. If you are staying at free campsites then you will need to bring your own tent.
At peak season around December/January, it’s advisable to book in advance if you want to secure a dorm bed. Unfortunately there are two companies that operate the various refugios: Fantástico Sur or Vertice. If you’re booking advance then you’ll need to work out where you’ll be staying and make the booking with the respective companies that manage those sites.
The benefits of staying in a dorm room vs camping is that you will have access to better maintained bathroom facilities if you stay in the dorm rooms. In my opinion it’s not really worth the additional cost but they have a monopoly and can charge whatever really. Whether you camp or stay in the dorm, you have access to the same cooking facilities.
I packed 2 x sets of clothes for four nights so that I’d be wearing everything two days in a row really. I also had a separate set of clothes that I would wear in the evenings just to stay fresh. Here it is broken down
- For hiking: 2 x long synthetic sleeved shirts, 2 x short-sleeved shirts, 1 x pair of hiking pants, 2 x pairs of hiking socks I found that it was quite hot in the day so just wore the t-shirts after, day one. However, you could use the longer sleeved shirts if you were camping to stay warm and you’d only need the one, not two.
- For sleeping: 1 x shirt, 1 x pants, 1 x pair of clean socks. I had this packed into a ziplock bag.
- 4 x pairs of underwear.
- 1 x fleece jacket. I’d make sure this was easily accessible because when you stop for breaks, your body temperature can drop from the sweat and wind.
- 1 x The North Face Gore Tex wind resistant jacket. I only wore this in the evenings and not whilst hiking.
- 1 x beanie
- 1 x bandana
- 1 x set of gloves – Nothing too hardcore; just to keep them warm at the start of the day and thin enough to be able to work the camera still.
- Ziplock bags are your friend and keeps things organised whilst offering waterproofing in case of any downpours.
Staying warm at night:
You don’t have to pile on a thousand layers if you have if you have the correct sleeping bag. The sleeping bag should be good for -4 degrees and the main purpose is to provide thermal insulation to keep you warm.
- Wear thin layers. If you wear too many clothes then the body heat cannot escape the layers in order to let the sleeping bag do its job
- Enter the sleeping bag already warm. I did a few star jumps outside of the tent and when I was in, a few sit ups didn’t hurt as well
- Fill your water bottle of with warm water that you’ve boiled on the stove and throw it into the sleeping bag before you go to bed.
- Put the next days clothes in a bag and throw them into your sleeping bag so that they are warm when you put them on the following morning.
This is a huge contributor to weight. Every gram counts especially when your pack can weigh up to 18kg. Although you want something tasty at times, the main priority should be loading yourself up with energy during the day and something comforting in the evening.
- 4 x small chorizo
- 1 x packet of salami
- 8 x packets of soup (4 x tomato, 4 x chicken)
- 1 x 500g packet of angel hair pasta. Pasts is broken into smaller parts to cook faster
- 8 x breakfast bars
- 2 x small packets of biscuits
- 1 x packet of sliced cheese
- 1 x packet of nuts and raisins
- 2 x blocks of chocolate
- 2 x Snickers bars
- 1 x small bottle of hot sauce
- 1 x water bottle to fill with water from the streams
- 1 x portable gas stove and pot
- 2 x gas butane tanks. I would stick to just one next time.
- 1 x Leatherman pocket knife to cut up the chorizo and salami
- 1 x spoon
For breakfast, I had a lot of soup and 8 x breakfast bars. I saw many people bring oats and mix powdered milk with water which works. I’m just not an oats kind guy.
For snacks I filled a big zip lock bag full of peanuts, raisins, and in the end broke up the breakfast bars as well as 2 x blocks of chocolate to top up the mixture which lasted me until the final day. I didn’t eat lunch much as the nut mix would be sufficient but if I did, I had a couple of packets of biscuits and a packet of sliced cheese that I ate with some salami and added some hot sauce for flavour. I carried hot sauce with me EVERYWHERE in South America.
For dinners, I stuck with mixing soups with pasta and for protein I fried off some salami or chorizo. There’s enough fat in the sausage to preserve it as well as allowing it to fry without any added oil. I also stored the meat and cheese a few layers down in the pack so that the heat from the sun would not get to it. I had planned on having at least one paid meal so I saved this for the final night.
I didn’t bring any tea and only stuck to drinking water from the streams. If I was travelling with somebody then I probably would have split a bottle of rum and carried it in a plastic bottle.
At the refugios, there is hot water readily available and you can also buy beer and wine. Paine Grande lodge had a small supermarket albeit super expensive. If you’re staying at a free camp site then be prepared to have everything you need to be self-sufficient.
Renting vs Buying
I didn’t see many advantages of buying your equipment unless if you were going to do anymore multi-day trekking. I rented all of my gear the day before I left from Base Camp where they conduct the daily briefings. What I rented was:
- Two man tent
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping mat
- 75 litre Osprey pack
- 1 x mess kit (gas stove, pot, spoon)
- 2 x extendable walking poles
- Purchase of 1 x butane gas cylinder and 1 x free half empty cylinder)
Everything was in pretty good condition apart from the cooking pot which had quite a few dints in it. If you can, get one that is in good condition, otherwise food or sauce will get caught in the bottom dints and burn making it difficult to clean.
I packed everything into ziplock bags so that things were easier to find as well as for protection from any possible rain fall. I was lucky enough not to get any rain but the day before we arrived, a few inches of snow fell. I also had a couple of large garbage bin liners to wrap around my tent, sleeping mat. I packed the sleeping bag inside into my The Northface waterproof daypack. This would go into my main pack first and then my clothes followed by food and cooking equipment. Everything I may need to access quickly during the day’s hike I would pack last such as snacks and polar fleece. The remaining sleeping mat and tent were stored in the side pockets of the backpack.
I didn’t have a separate camera bag that I saw people carry in tandem with their main pack. It seemed awkward and you’d be worried about it banging around. Instead, I packed it into the overhead flap in the back pack and seemed to work out a good system of retrieving and packing it without taking my pack off.
We were advised not to hike with bag covers on and I agree with this as the intensity of the wind will cause havoc as it will act as a parachute and most likely blow off. It is possible to bring it with you can cover the bag overnight or when you’re only taking a day pack and leaving your main pack at the camp site as you’ll need to double back that way the same day, especially at Campamento Italiano to go up the French Valley.
Preparing for the conditions:
Prepare for the worst and hope for the best is all I can say. Even the people who work there say they have no idea about weather patterns as it’s unpredictable as well as each of the areas with in the park has its own micro climate. It could be super windy in one end of the W and calm in another area.
Make sure you’re moving a lot. This keeps your body temperature up so that you won’t get cold. The hole in the ozone layer is right over the area so apply plenty of sunscreen. Chances are you’ll get wet however don’t be tempted to put on the gore tex gear because with the weight of the pack and all you will sweat like hell and be wet anyway.
- 1 x pair of Scarpa hiking boots. Tough as nails they are and saved my ankles.
- 1 x pair of sneakers. Any will do and they will feel like wearing pillows at the end of the day.
I wore hiking the boots as I have pretty dodgy ankles. It comes down to personal preference but I wouldn’t recommend sneakers as there are a lot of loose surfaces around. I wore the sneaker in the evening because there’s no better feeling than taking the boots off and throwing on the sneakers.
- Walking poles: I would highly recommend using walking poles. They may look silly but they save your knees on downhills and keep you on your feet when the wind really blows.
- Head lamp – for the late night trips to the toilet when camping.
- Toilet paper
Medical and toiletries:
- Panadol – Next time I’d bring strong pain killers.
- Tiger balm
- Neoprene knee support
- Toothbrush and Toothpaste
- Sunscreen – Absolute must.
- Travel Towel
Phone for when I wanted to take photos without pulling my camera out and camera/phone charger.The main refugios have places to charge electronics. I didn’t end up requiring a recharge on my camera batteries as I have a spare on me. If you take a lot of photos on your phone then you may want to invest in a lightweight portable battery that will give you multiple charges.
To go solo or with a group:
I never thought I would have done most of the trek on my own but I enjoyed the solitude at times and being able to go at my own pace. It’s not a daunting trek and the trails are clearly marked out. It’s almost impossible to get lost and also you will see the same people each day and end up chatting to most of them as you pass by or at the end of the day at camp.
- Return bus ticket from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park: US$30
- Entrance into Torres del Paine National Park (The bus will stop at the entrance so that you can pay): US$36
- Shuttle from the park entry to the start of the trail on the eastern side: US$5
- Catamaran: US$22
- Equipment rental: US$120
- 2 x nights in refugio dorms: US$100
- 1 x nights dinner: US$22
- Snacks and food: US$20
- Beer and wine at the refugios US$20
- Hot tub entry US$6
As you can see, it’s not cheap even if you stay in free camp sites. I’ve previously mentioned that El Chalten is my favourite of the two locations for trekking mainly for the cost factor but also because it’s not as overcrowded and the people who come to visit in my opinion are just a lot nicer.
The above is quite a comprehensive list of factors to consider, but give yourself a few days when you arrive in Puerto Natales, get settled and take in the buzz. If you decide the stay in Puerto Natales, consider booking through Bookings.com. (I get a small commission that allows this site to remain free)
If you’re about to head to Torres del Paine to do the trek and have any further questions then get in touch with me via contact page or leave a comment below.
If you require more convincing then check out my Patagonia Gallery.
Have you been to Torres del Paine to take on the W-Trek? Was your packing technique any different or similar to mine?
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