Patagonia’s famous W trek is an adventure of a lifetime. The five days you’ll spend hiking from the foot of the Torres Del Paine to the Grey Glacier, may become some of the most memorable experiences of your life. However, before you fly halfway around the world, it is very important that you properly prepare for your treck. While I was doing the W Trek, I encountered people who came unprepared because they didn’t do enough research. This unfortunate situation resulted in some being stranded and getting escorted out of the park(story below). Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about Patagonia’s W Trek, updated for 2020 and 2021.
Looking for more bucket list hikes? Check out Lake Louise and the Big Beehive Hike.
What is the W Trek?
One of the most famous hiking routes in the world, the W trek is a 50-mile hike through the Chilean Patagonia. You can do the hike in 4 to 8 days and cover bucket list locations such as Torres Del Paine, the Grey Glacier, and Lake Nordenskjold. During the W trek, you can stay in refugios (essentially high-end hostels) or on campgrounds.
What is the W Trek Route?
The W trek traditionally travels from east to west and starts in Puerto Natales. You can not enter the park without reservations for every night, but the reservations are hard to get on your own. This is why most people chose to do the W trek with a tour agency such as G-Adventures.
Day 1: Upon arrival In Puerto Natales (by bus) start your hike with a walk to Refugio Las Torres (night 1).
Day 2: After an early rise, hike to the base Torres Del Paine and see the famous lake with three towers. Spend the second night in Refugio Las Torres (night 2).
Day 3: On day three, walk from Refugio Las Torres past Lake Nordenskjold and to the Refugio Los Cuernos (night 3).
Day 4: This long day starts with a walk from Refugio Los Cuernos up to the French Valley, and all the way down to Refugio Paine Grande (night 4).
Day 5: On day five trek from Refugio Pain Grande to Refugio Grey, on the shores on the Grey Glacier (night 5).
Day 6: During today’s optional rest day you can explore Grey Glacier or walk to the Paso John Gardner, the tallest pass in the park. Once again, stay at the Refugio Grey (night 6).
Day 7: For your last easy walk, trek from Refugio Grey to Puerto Natales and catch the bus to Punta Arenas and a plane to Santiago.
To shorten this trek from 7 days to 5, you can combine days one/two, and days five/six.
How Many Miles are There in the W Trek?
The W hiking trail covers about 50 miles (a little over 80km). You’ll reach the highest elevation in the French Valley with about 1100m (3608ft).
How Can You Do the W Trek On Your Own?
The Chilean authorities control access to the W Trek using an alternative to a permit system. Instead of needing a permit for walking the trails, you must have reservations to stay in refugios or on campgrounds. Control booths throughout the park check your paperwork to make sure you have a reservation for the night. This means you can do the W trek on your own if you are able to book all the refugios or campgrounds you need. However, this is not easy to do as most of the reservations go to tour companies. This is why most people do the W trek with a tour company such as G-Adventures.
How Crowded is the W Trek?
It varies. The route from Puerto Natales to Torres Del Paine is always very crowded. Remember, you do not need a permit to enter the park for a day hike. Since Torres Del Paine is so famous, many day hikers come out just to do this route. Things get much quieter on Day 3 of the trek when you’ll only see people who are staying the night. My guide told me that about 5,000 people are in the park at the same time.
The off-season W trek is less crowded. During the Chilean winter (July through September) about 2,000 people are in the park on any given day. Even though I visited during the high season, the park did not feel crowded. Notable exception: the route to Torres Del Paine.
How to Do the W Trek Without Reservation?
Eh… don’t. While at Patagonia I saw what happened to two people who didn’t have a reservation. They showed up at a refugio and asked to stay. The hostel manager told them that beds were not available. The hikers then tried to set up a tent illegally, were caught, and told to leave. Then they had to walk all the way back to the previous refugio (8 hours away) where they finally got lucky and got beds. I met them in my room at that refugio. They slept for 12 hours straight, and then in the morning, the police showed up to escort them out of the park. I think they got a nice size ticket too.
Some bloggers say they just showed up at the park and had no problems scoring beds. Good for them. But having seen what happens when you don’t get lucky, I wouldn’t risk it. Instead, book a tour or get individual reservations and don’t ruin your W trek with poor planning.
What Supplies Do You Need For the W Trek?
To prepare for the W Trek you can easily go crazy in high-end sporting good stores and spend a few thousand dollars. I think it is entirely unnecessary. Assuming you are staying in the refugios, the W trek is very cushy and you really don’t need high-end supplies. Instead, save yourself a thousand bucks and buy the basic equipment on Amazon. Word of warning: I do not recommend you continue past the W trek (to Paso John Gardener) unless you have professional trekking supplies with you. The supplies here are perfect for the W Trek but are not good enough to go any further.
Hiking boots (break them in before you go)
Hiking socks (never wear cotton socks while hiking)
Short sleeve (synthetic) T-shirts (1 for every 2 nights is sufficient).
A couple of sports bras
Long sleeve (synthetic) t-shirt (1 for every 2 nights)
Synthetic underwear (seriously, no cotton on a mountain)
A water bladder
A zippable polyester performance sweatshirt
A rain shell
An ultra-light puffer jacket
Hat and gloves
You don’t need anything fancy to trek the W circuit but do remember: cotton kills. Never wear cotton on a mountain. When you sweat (or if there is rain) cotton will not absorb moisture, it will lower your body temperature and may result in hypothermia.
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The very first morning of the W trek starts off with a hike to the base of Torres Del Paine. The lake at the foot of the mountains is a spectacular clear glacial mirror and the towers (they call them north, south and central tower) seem almost close enough to touch. On occasion there may be a climber on the tower although I am told they are pretty hard to see. The trek from your first Refugio to the base of the mountain is about 4 hours there and 4 hours back. The trail, as everywhere in the park is very well marked but also very crowded. Many people come from outside the park for just one day to see the lake so this is definitely the busiest portion of the trail. If you are the super adventurous type you can camp out close to the mountains in the Campamento Las Torres (reservations must be made in advance) and get to the lake before sunrise. Just a word of warning – you are very far south so sunrise is usually around 4 am. As for myself I made it there around 1 pm and it was just beautiful 🙂 #backpackerstory
The W Trek – The Complete Experience
Day 1: Torres Del Paine
The very first morning of the trek starts off with a hike to the base of Torres Del Paine. The lake at the foot of the mountains is a spectacular clear glacial mirror and the towers (they call them north, south and central tower) seem almost close enough to touch. On occasion, there may be a climber on the tower although I am told they are pretty hard to see.
The trek from your first refugio to the base of the mountain is about eight hours roundtrip. The trail is well marked but also very crowded. This trail attracts day hikers so this is the busiest portion of Patagonia’s W trek. If you are the super adventurous type you can camp out close to towers in the Campamento Las Torres (reserve in advance) and watch the sunrise over the lake. However, keep in mind that you are very far south, so in the Chilean summer (December, January, February) sunrise starts as early as 3 am.
Torres Del Paine (the trek to the lake with the three mountains) is a trail many people do on a day hike. If you just want to visit the famous towers you can easily score a hotel in the park. You do not need to hire a tour company to visit Torres Del Paine.
Would you like to explore more in South America? Check out 17 Amazing Things To Do in Brazil
Day 2: Lake Nordenskjold
On the second day of the W Patagonia trek, we walked from Refugio Las Torres to Refugio Los Cuernos. On this portion of the trek, you are walking between Lake Nordenskjold (named after the Norwegian explorer who first studied it), and Mount Almirante Nieto. This is an easy day with about 8 hours of trekking over what our guides called “Patagonia Flat” terrain. Be careful not to confuse “Patagonia flat” with “International flat.” Patagonia Flat can mean anything between 0 to 25-degree elevation, but usually, it also means there is no sustained trend up or down.
After a while “Patagonia flat” was the running joke, as we also got to experience a “Patagonia summer” (when it randomly began to snow on a 70-degree day) and Patagonia gravity (when our backpacks grew heavier by the hour, supposedly due to our proximity to the south pole).
W-Trek Travel Tip:
If you really want to go a little fancy with your hiking equipment invest in a higher-end backpack and high-end hiking boots. Go in-person to a specialty store such as REI where they will help you get a proper fit for both.
Day 3: The French Valley
Day 3 of Patagonia’s W trek takes you from Refugio Los Cuernos to Refugio Paine Grande. This is a long day since you are hiking the entire middle leg of the W trek. After making our way from Los Cuernos with our full backpacks, we stopped at Campground Italiano and switched to a daypack. We left our big bags at the campground and made our way up to the French Valley viewpoint. Some of our group decided to turn back about halfway through (it’s a very long way up to French Valley) but those of us who continued were rewarded with viewpoints at 1,100 meters. After making our way back to Camp Italiano we trekked with our full bags to Paine Grande for a happy end to a long and lovely day.
Day 4: The Grey Glacier
On the fourth day of Patagonia W trek, you walk towards the Grey Lake and Glacier. The glacier is a massive ice structure and extends as far as the eye can see. The Grey Glacier is so-called due to a grey color in its sediment, different from most glaciers (which are blue).
Approaching this area the temperature drops and the winds pick up. On this day we got lucky, with no rain or snow in sight. The winds felt deceptively calm and the sun peaked through the clouds. The weather on the Grey Glacier side of the park is notoriously unpredictable and can be dangerous, as I learned the very next day. We would soon discover how quickly Patagonia’s weather can change and how important it is to be prepared for everything.
Day 5: (Optional) Paso John Gardener
The W trek traditionally ends at the Grey Glacier. Therefore, on day five you have a few options. The first option is to rest up after the trek. The second, to explore the glacier and the lake. The last is to forge ahead to the Paso John Gardener, the highest pass in O Circuit. The advanced O Circuit continues after the end of the W trek and requires about 10 days to complete. You won’t find any refugios after the Grey Glacier, so those adventurous soles who do the O circuit must carry their own supplies.
Our guides told us that those who wanted to climb the pass would have a long day ahead. In the end, only four of us opted for the hike – the rest spend several hours canoeing around the Grey Glacier, it looked like a lovely experience. The Paso John Gardner hike is very difficult, and I don’t recommend it unless you are in fantastic shape. Make sure you have good equipment too. Although you can get away with Amazon type equipment during the rest of the trek, the pass calls for higher-end, professional supplies. We got caught in a terrible storm on a bare mountain, and my inexpensive windbreaker was not much help.
I hope you have found this blog post useful. Enjoy your visit to Torres Del Paine and hiking the W Patagonia Trek. For another bucket list-worthy idea, check out The Cliffs of Moher Hike.
W Trek Supplies List
- Hiking boots (break them in before you go)
- Hiking socks (never wear cotton socks while hiking)
- Short sleeve (synthetic) T-shirts (1 for every 2 nights is sufficient).
- A couple of sports bras
- Long sleeve (synthetic) t-shirt (1 for every 2 nights)
- Synthetic underwear (seriously, no cotton on a mountain)
- A water bladder
- A zippable polyester performance sweatshirt
- A rain shell
- An ultra-light puffer jacket
- Hat and gloves
- Hiking pants