12 Things To Know Before Hiking the W Trek in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine in 2022
So you’re interested in hiking the W Trek in Patagonia – one of South America’s most famous walking trails. The W Trek zigzags through the heart of Chile’s iconic Torres del Paine National Park, a land where the summits form stunning granite monolith towers and the lakes glisten a breathtaking turquoise blue. The trek is named after the W-shape it forms on a map, running along the base of the legendary Las Torres before doubling back into the Valle Francés (Spanish for ‘the French Valley’) at the very heart of the reserve.
This detailed 12-point guide will run through all the ins and outs of hiking the W Trek. It will cover the best time of year for hikers to visit this wild part of the Chilean Patagonia, some challenges you can expect to encounter, top trip highlights, what gear you will need, how long you may spend in the wilderness, and much more. Happy exploring!
My Experience Hiking the W Trek
I’ve trekked extensively throughout the Andes, from the dizzying heights of Machu Picchu to the impressive glaciers of Argentine Patagonia, and have learned powerful life lessons from my adventures. However, I still remember the W Trek as one of the most amazing mountain adventures I have taken. There’s a reason why it’s the most famous hiking trail in Patagonia. It’s not that physically challenging, but the scenery you’ll take in along the way is second to none – imagine jagged mountains that resemble massive shards of ice, milky mountain lakes, and the rolling Patagonian Steppe in the distance.
A personal highlight of the W Trek was the mid-trek detour into the French Valley, which feels like one of the most untouched parts of the Torres del Paine. The French Valley reminds me of a hidden Shangri-La filled with wildflower meadows and chiseled sculpturesque mountains. Adding to the physical beauty of it all, the hiking route is fantastically well-organized with designated campsites that boast gorgeous views of the national park, the trekking season is long, and wonderful local guides are available. I highly recommend you experience hiking the W Trek for yourself.
What’s in this guide to the W Trek?
- Where is the W Trek?
- Is the W Trek worth it? (Trip Highlights)
- How long is the W Trek? How many days are needed?
- Elevation and terrain on the W Trek
- Is the W Trek difficult?
- When’s the best time of year to go?
- What do I need to pack for the W Trek in Patagonia?
- Accommodations: Where to stay on the W Trek
- W Trek Permits
- Getting to the start of the W Trek
- Sample W Trek Itinerary
- Alternative routes to the W Trek (O Circuit vs Q Circuit)
1. Where is the W Trek?
The W Trek leads you to the most famous part of Chilean Patagonia: The Torres del Paine. They’re a trio of incredible granite tower peaks that look like daggers shooting straight out of the earth. At their closest point, the three towers are just 12 miles (19 kilometers) from the Argentina border. The nearest main town is Puerto Natales, Chile. More generally speaking, the W Trek takes you down to the ice-capped, snow-dusted ends of the continent, less than 400 miles (645 kilometers) from Cape Horn. It’s truly a feral part of the planet you must see!
2. Is the W Trek worth it? (Trip Highlights)
If you’re looking to be wowed by the sheer majesty of hiking the Chilean mountains, then yes, the W Trek is most certainly worth it. This relatively low-altitude trek takes you through areas of the national park that are widely considered to be the most incredible places in Patagonia. In a region that’s beset by ice fields and soaring peaks, that’s really saying something!
The W Trek requires a commitment of about 4-5 days on average. What’s great is that there’s something special to see every single day of the journey. Views abound from start to finish and there’s always another W Trek highlight to look forward to. The most impressive parts of the trek for me were:
- The French Valley & Cerro Paine Grande – See the spectacular summits of Cerro Paine Grande, the tallest peak of the Cordillera Paine mountain range in Torres del Paine National Park, up close as you trek into the French Valley. The French Valley is a hidden cleft in the Andes that’s topped by a hanging glacier and dashed with gnarled beech forests.
- The Base of the Towers – You will either finish or begin the trek at this stunning location with a turquoise lake set before the iconic Torres del Paine granite spires themselves.
- Los Cuernos – A set of twisted mountains that resemble cow horns dominating the northern view for much of the hike.
- Grey Glacier – This colossal ice field with calving sheets of frozen water could be one of the first things you encounter on the W Trek. It is the largest glacier in the Torres del Paine National Park.
3. How long is the W Trek? How many days are needed?
The distance of the W Trek is approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers) long. One of the great things about this hiking route is just how versatile it can be. It’s easy to chop, change, and add to the W Trek itinerary so you’ll find everything from 3-day fast treks to 7-day ultimate treks on the menu.
Different tour providers do the trail in different directions. Some skip one leg while others add another. So long as you follow the basic idea of a W-shaped route through the Torres del Paine park and include a trek into the stunning French Valley along the way, you can rest assured that you’ll see the Patagonian national park’s highlight attractions.
4. Elevation and terrain on the W Trek
The pinnacle of the W Trek reaches 2,788 feet (850 meters) above sea level. Now, that might sound positively low for veterans of the Everest Base Camp or Machu Picchu, and it is. However, where this one gets tricky is in elevation gain and loss. Some sections of the W Trek see hikers clock up altitudes of over 2,000 feet (610 meters) in just a few hours, only to lose it all again the next day. You’re likely to notice this most after the hike to the Base of the Towers, which is followed a few days later by the ascent into the French Valley.
The good news is that there’s zero technical climbing on the W Trek. For the most part, the trek is entirely on well-maintained paths, invariably made up of packed mud, loose gravel, or stone. There are some parts where you may need to navigate wet rocks and cable bridges, but there’s nothing overly challenging on the route itself.
5. Is the W Trek difficult?
The W Trek multi-day hike isn’t a cinch, but it’s also not on the same level of difficulty as other world-famous hikes such as Mount Kilimanjaro or Everest Base Camp. So how hard is the W Trek in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine? Well, there’s no technical expertise needed and you don’t have to acclimatize. The trail is well-marked and maintained for a majority of the route. I’d say the biggest challenge is the unpredictable weather, which can change from snow to heavy rain to blazing sun in just a matter of hours.
The W Trek also packs a lot of walking into single days. For comparison, you might be asked to do between 6 to 10 hours per day on average on an Inca Trail tour, and you can expect to be rambling for up to 8 hours at a time on the W Trek too. A reasonable level of fitness should see you through, but some training can’t hurt either.
6. When’s the best time of year to do the W Trek?
The seasons can be very unpredictable this far south in Patagonia. As a general rule, summer (December to March) is better for trekking, making it the peak season for hiking the W Trek in Torres del Paine. That’s because it’s warmer, with midsummer temperatures typically between 43-63 degrees Fahrenheit (6-17℃), and there’s less rain (average of just 4 millimeters each month).
However, it’s not totally clear cut that the summer season is the best time to hike the W Trek. It all depends on your preference and the type of experience you’re looking for. There are way more people hiking the trail so the W Trek lookout points are busier and the mountain refuges more expensive. Additionally, high summer winds can spoil a hike in Patagonia so you’ll have to be ready to change plans if the gusts get up to over 80 mph (130 kph) or so.
Autumn (April to early June) is a good alternative to the main summer trekking season. The upsides include fewer hikers and beautiful colors on the Patagonian Steppe – think pale yellows, deep oranges, and muted browns rolling out from the base of the mountains. However, there is usually more rainfall and the temperatures at night get low.
Spring (September to November) is another popular time to hike the W Trek but this season can bring the risk of snowfall. This means you’ll need to pack extra thermals.
Winter (late June to August) trekking through the Torres del Paine is mainly closed due to snowfall. The only path that’s open is the day hike to Torres del Paine Base, but that too is regularly closed because of snow. So the best time to visit will depend on you.
7. What do I need to pack for the W Trek in Patagonia?
What you pack for your W Trek trip will depend on when you decide to visit Torres del Paine to hike the trail, but try packing as light as possible. Travelers in the high season (summer and autumn) won’t need as much thermal gear as those visiting in the low season (spring and winter), when there’s a bigger risk of snow and sub-zero temperatures. That said, every hiker on the W Trek should have a good thermal under-layer, a fleece, and waterproofs for the upper and lower. The weather can be pretty wild and unpredictable, even in the height of summer, so it’s a good idea to bring multiple layers to wear.
When it comes to trekking equipment, there are some must-haves: Sturdy walking boots, a good set of trekking poles, a high-volume and lightweight water bottle, sunscreen, and a reliable waterproof trekking backpack. Depending on how you choose to do the trek, you may also need camping equipment and a sleeping bag.
Some hikers will go for a porter service on their W Trek trip to help carry baggage and equipment. That’s an optional extra with most providers. It can be expensive and I’d argue it’s not necessary because the W Trail isn’t the most challenging route out there.
My team at The Explorer’s Passage makes it easy for trekkers who plan their travels with us. Because the requirements for the W Trek change with the seasons and the sort of trek you go for, we can provide our guests with a full packing list so they’re fully prepared – just ask us!
8. Accommodations: Where to stay on the W Trek
There are two options when it comes to accommodations on the W Trek: Camping or lodges. The good news is that they are all located in the same places, or at least very close to each other. That means you won’t have to rearrange the route you hike to find the level of accommodation you’re after.
For the most part, the campsites on the W Trek are of very high quality, at least for true backcountry camps. Take the site at Paine Grande for instance, which is one of the starting points for the west-east trek. It’s got hot showers during a few designated hours post-trek, a canteen and bar, and even pay-as-you-go WiFi. Since each campground site is run by one of three companies and itineraries often require a separate booking, booking campgrounds can be a chore. It doesn’t have to be though. The Explorer’s Passage makes visiting Torres del Paine easy. Book your trip to Patagonia with us and let us take the stress out of planning so you can focus on hiking the W Trek.
Lodges on the route tend to offer communal dorm accommodation, but there are some doubles for those willing to pay a little extra. They are rustic but comfy and typically have warm communal areas with dining messes where you can meet and mingle with other travelers on the W Trek. The best way to secure your place in a lodge is to go with an organized tour, as beds sell out fast on this ever-popular route.
9. W Trek Permits
Although you’ll need an entrance ticket to enter Torres del Paine National Park, there’s no official permit system for the W Trek a la Machu Picchu. There are, however, regulations on the number of trekkers that are allowed to stay in the park’s campsites and lodges. That acts as a sort of de facto limit on the number of people who can do the trek, governed mainly by who was quick enough to book their pitches or beds.
My advice? Start planning early to avoid disappointment. Better yet, plan to travel with us and our experienced team will take care of all the important details for you, including campsite bookings.
10. Getting to the start of the W Trek
Most people start the W Trek hike with an organized transfer out of the port city Puerto Natales. However, if you’re going at it alone, you’ll need to find the trailhead yourself.
For those going west-east on the path, the expedition typically starts with a bus to Torres del Paine. You can get off at Pudeto and catch the catamaran to the refuge at Paine Grande. There are boat departures typically starting around 9:30am and ending around 6:30pm, but be sure to check the schedule before you hike the W Trek because they can change at short notice.
Those looking to hike the path from east to west should aim for the bus to Laguna Amarga. It runs twice daily from Puerto Natales and takes you to a stop that’s within easy transfer distance of the start of the trail.
All of the above trips can be done from Punta Arenas, but expect transfer times to the trailhead to be in the region of 5 hours, instead of 2-3 hours.
11. Sample W Trek Itinerary
One of the most common options for hiking the W Trek is the 5-day trek that goes west-to-east across the massif, culminating with an up-close encounter with the iconic towers themselves.
- Day 1: Punta Arenas/Puerto Natales to Grey Glacier – You’ll get an early pickup in the towns to the south of the Torres del Paine National Park and then a transfer north to the Hotel Lago Grey. From there, a ferry whisks you across Grey Lake (Lago Grey) with the icy tongue of the colossal Grey Glacier looming ahead. This is your first chance to catch a glimpse of the famous Torres massif highlight, with a broadside of the twisted tops of the Cerro Paine Grande rising to the east. Your destination is the campsite and lodge at the base of the Grey Glacier, the starting point for the west-east W Trek route. An alternative option here is to catch the ferry across Lake Pehoé (Lago Pehoé) and then walk to the Grey Glacier from there. That’s more popular because there are more regular boats but does mean doubling back on Day 2.
- Day 2: Grey Glacier to Paine Grande – Your W Trek hike starts by skirting the milky waters of Grey Lake going southwards. This is right beneath the Cerro Paine Grande and the Paine Horns, which are some of the most famous mountain summits in South America. Before setting off, I’d recommend taking some time to visit the Mirador Glaciar Grey. It adds a few hours of walking but offers a sweeping panorama of the point where the ice meets the frigid waters, with the potential to see calving ice sheets.
- Day 3: Paine Grande to Italiano campsite with the French Valley – For many, Day 3 is the highlight of the whole W trek. The path bends eastwards and north from your second campsite, taking you deep into the heart of the Torres del Paine National Park. The first step is the trek along the south side of the massif to the Italiano campsite. You can leave your main bags there for the expedition into the French Valley. Then, take the north spur into that famous cleft in the Andes, which soon becomes a lush land of twisted pine trees and meadows beneath the hanging French Glacier. If the group is walking well, the aim will be the jaw-dropping Mirador Británico at the end of the valley, all before a return to the Italiano campsite.
- Day 4: Italiano campsite to Chileno campsite – You’re now back to skirting the southern edge of the Torres del Paine. Head east from the Italiano camp and join the path that circles Nordenskjöld Lake (Lago Nordenskjöld). It will take much of the day to link up to your next W Trek overnight spot, but there are some fantastic lookouts along the way. They’ll put the high peaks of the Torres just behind and the rolling tundra of Chilean Patagonia in front, not to mention the placid waters of numerous alpine waters in the foreground.
- Day 5: Chileno campsite to Puerto Natales/Punta Arenas with the Mirador Las Torres – The finale of the W Trek requires an early start. Rise at 4am and begin a tough uphill ascent through the craggy easternmost valley of the Torres massif. It’s steep but opens the way to the Mirador Las Torres, which is surely one of the most unforgettable viewpoints on the planet! There, you’ll survey the three jagged peaks that give this region its name and reputation, jutting straight up from pearly blue lakes. You should finish with photos around mid-morning, because there’s a thigh-busting descent back to Laguna Amarga to connect with transfers back to either Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas.
This sample itinerary is just a start and the opportunities are endless. Regardless of whether you’re traveling solo or in a group of any size, our expert Adventure Consultants will craft extraordinary itineraries for your private travel needs. See how to get the ball rolling on your private travel dreams here.
12. Alternative routes to the W Trek (O Circuit vs Q Circuit)
The W Trek may be the most popular trail in Torres del Paine but it certainly isn’t the only walking route that will let you experience this awesome corner of Chilean Patagonia. Usually open from November to April, there are also two route extensions that take you counterclockwise on the trail but promise to whisk you even higher into the clouds as you explore the mountains and glaciers. They are:
- The O Circuit (6-10 days) – Also known as the Paine Circuit, the O trek is the full circuit around the Cordillera del Paine mountains within the national park and includes the W route. It’s definitely a tougher and longer route, but its lesser travelled 74 miles (119 km) of pure Patagonian wilderness will take you to the heights of the John Gardner Pass at 4,000 feet (1,219 m) above sea level. O Circuit trail highlights you’ll see include the reflective Lago Paine, a mesmerizingly turquoise lake, and the mountains from the northern section of the park.
- The Q Circuit (7-11 days) – The Q Circuit is the longer version of the O Circuit. The Q route includes one extra day of trekking past Lake Pehoé. This one’s for the most dedicated of trekkers who have the most time (and money) to spare.
So there you have it, a comprehensive guide to 12 things you should know before hiking the W Trek in Chilean Patagonia! I hope this post has provided you with the necessary information to help you begin planning a truly memorable adventure tour to Chile. If you feel inspired, here are the other best places to visit in Chile.
This post has covered a lot, but you may have more questions on hiking the W Trek in Torres del Paine. If so, my experienced team here at The Explorer’s Passage would love to hear from you so contact us and let’s chat.
We have been running trips and treks to Chile for 10 years. We pride ourselves on delivering extraordinary tours based on travelers’ needs and are humbled by our guests’ testimonials. In fact, our dedication has earned us a 5-star rating on Tripadvisor, and awards by Travel+Leisure Magazine and Newsweek. Check us out and discover why so many travelers worldwide choose us. My team and I would love for you to join us on the W Trek or any of our other adventures!
I hope to go exploring with you soon!
Founder & CEO
The Explorer’s Passage
About Jeff Bonaldi
Jeff Bonaldi is the Founder and CEO of The Explorer’s Passage, an adventure travel company. His mission is to provide travelers with the opportunity to transform their lives and the planet through the power of adventure.