There's a lot of information on the web about how to hike the W trail, and with some recent changes, almost all of it is now outdated. My goal is to arm you with the latest information, all in one place, so that you can make the most of your time in Southern Patagonia. This guide is written with preference given to camping in a tent, and cooking your own meals, rather than paying for dinner on the trail or taking boxed lunches. It does not cover the full "O" circuit.
First and foremost: You MUST reserve your campsites for every night in the park before you enter the park. This rule went into effect in September 2016, and it is enforced. If you attempt the second section of the W without proof of a reservation (either printed or on a cellphone), you might be turned back. In this guide I'll outline how and where to book your reservations, get the gear you need, and provide some personal tips & tricks.
One final note: If you can't get the reservation you want, DON'T WORRY. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the W, and I'll outline some contingency plans below in case you find yourself facing a "campsite full" page.
Five Days in the Park, Days 1 - 5
Day 1: Puerto Natales to Glacier Gray
Reserve camping at Glacier Gray with Vertice Patagonia (pro tip: if it says it's full, try changing your currency from USD to Chilean Pesos) ($10,000 CLP per person)
Buses begin leaving from Puerto Natales to the National Park at 7:00. Your ticket will say 7:30, or maybe even 7:15, but the companies will ask you to be at the station at 7. That's because each company sends multiple buses, and they leave as they are full. If you arrive at 6:55 or even 7, you're going to be on that first bus (but it really doesn't matter, you're all going to the same place). I recommend you go either with Bus Gomez or Bus Sur. Either is fine, but you should buy your bus ticket at least one day in advance. Since you'll likely arrive from Punta Arenas by bus, before heading to your hostel, just buy your bus ticket to the park. Bus ticket to and from the park costs $15,000.
You'll arrive at the main administration, fill out some forms, pay your entry fee ($21,000 CLP / $33 USD), watch a fire safety video, and then get back onto the bus you were just on to get to the ferry. The bus will then drive you to the ferry/catamaran, which leaves at 11am. The ferry used to leave later, but that has changed. The ferry costs $18,000 CLP or $35 USD. Notice that you are being severely gouged if you're paying with USD, so CLP is recommended. Disembark the ferry, and make your lovely 3.5 hour trek to Camping at Gray. Also, if the ferry is full, it will come back for a second (or third) trip, so don't worry.
Set up your tent, and if you're feeling stoked (which you should be), hike another hour and a half to two amazing suspension bridges and an incredible view of the glacier. If you are too tired or short on time, there is a lookout (mirador) about ten minutes from the campsite.
Day 2: Glacier Gray to Campamento Italiano
Reserve your campsite at Italiano through CONAF, Chile's national park service. You need to pick your date, then pick your campsite. (free)
Wake up at 6am and aim to get on the trail by 7:15. Yes it's early, but the hike from Gray back to Paine Grande (where you caught the ferry) has some significant hills, and if you start early, you'll be in the shade for most of that section, and you'll have a better pick of sites at Italiano. The hike down to Paine Grande from Gray will take about 3.5 hours, and then from there head east toward Italiano. It's a 2.5 hour hike. There aren't a lot of hills or anything extremely difficult, but most people say that this is their hardest day. I think it's because you aren't yet used to having a 40 lb. backpack on, and your back and legs are still acclimating to the stress. Just a theory.
Arrive at Italiano, check in with the guard, and set up your camp site. Grab some food and hang out. If you only have four days in the park, I suggest you do the hike up to Valle Frances on this day, leaving your big bag and tent at Italiano for the afternoon. More on this later in the contingency planning section. There are awesome views of Paine Grande from the nearby suspension bridge, so grab your camera and take some photos. It seems like most people forget that there is a world outside of camp. You're always welcome to explore the surroundings, so do it!
Day 3: Italiano to Valle Francés and Back + Italiano to Camping Francés
Reserve your camping for the third night at Camping Frances through Fantastico Sur. ($15 USD, $7,500 CLP per person)
The first time I did the W, I packed up my bag and tent, and then did the four hour round trip hike up to Valle Frances and back down, then grabbed my bag and headed out. Others like to cook breakfast, do the hike, and then handle their tent and bag after. I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter, but my recommendation would be to pack after, so that you're on the trail early. The earlier you go, the less people you'll deal with, which means more enjoyment for you. For the trek up and back to Valle Frances, you only need a day pack with a water bottle, snacks, a camera, and an extra layer as it can sometimes be a little chilly/windy at the top.
After your trek back down to Italiano, grab your big pack and make the (very short) half hour trek to Frances. You'll probably be feeling like Day 3 is really short, and you could do more, but enjoy your rest at Camping Frances, because Day 4 is objectively the longest day.
Day 4: Camping Frances to Campamento Torres
For your final night in the park, you'll need to book your campsite once again with CONAF. (free) This campsite is notoriously difficult to reserve, and if you can't get it, don't worry, and check out the contingency planning section below. If you don't have a reservation, don't try to rock up. You'll hate yourself and whoever you're with for carrying your bag all the way up there for no reason if you're turned away. It's not the end of the world if you can't get this site, and depending on your preferences, it might actually work out in your favor. More on that later.
Once again, wake up early at Frances, cook breakfast, pack up your stuff, and head out. It's about 2 hours to Cuernos (which you'll just walk through), and then another 5. all the way up to Campamento Torres. It's a long day, and there are a lot of hills that will try your patience and fortitude. There are some great places to rest along the lake and at some lookouts, and when you find the sign that says "shortcut to Chileno," turn left to head up the valley toward the Torres.
Just like on day 1, if you're feeling good (you're in Patagonia and you're not working, you should be feeling good), set up your tent and hike the extra 45 minutes up to see the Torres themselves. You'll be getting up early to see them at sunrise on Day 5, but if the weather turns to crap the next day, you'll be happy you got to see them in some light.
Cook dinner and relax, go to bed early, because you'll be waking up extra early tomorrow.
Day 5: Campamento Torres to Torres Mirador + Campamento Torres back to Puerto Natales
The time of sunrise fluctuates wildly in the park due to how far south it is, so ask the guard at Campamento Torres what time sunrise is (or check in advance). Wake up at least an hour and a half before sunrise, pack up anything you need to stay warm, and then head up to the Torres Mirador to watch the sunrise. There are other blogs or folks who suggest taking your sleeping bag, your sleeping pad, and a cup of tea to watch the sunrise in style. The hike up to the mirador is steep and you'll be doing it in dark. Sure, bring a thermos for tea, but just bring the shit you need to stay warm. Leave your camping stuff in your tent. If it's sunny, you'll get to watch a beautiful sunrise as the orange rays of sun's first light light up the granite towers, and if it's not, well it will just get lighter. Once you've decided you've had your fill, head back down, pack up your tent one last time, and make you way to the bottom of the trail making sure to take the trail to the left when it splits as to not inadvertently retrace your steps back to Francés.
You need to be at the main hotel area no later than 1:30pm, as the the shuttle that returns you to the bus pick up area leaves at 2pm, and you won't want to rush yourself on the way down. It's about 4 hours from Campamento Torres down to the Hotel where the shuttle picks up, so if you leave camp by 9:00am, you'll have plenty of time.
After the shuttle dispenses you at administration, where you first paid your park entry fee, get on the bus back to Puerto Natales (same company that you took there, obviously), and enjoy your enduring stinkiness along with everyone else's. Congrats! Oh, and one more thing, book your hostel for your night after the W in advance. There is nothing more frustrating than finishing a huge hike, wanting to eat and shower, but instead have to go hunting for housing. It's as wack as it sounds.
Contingency Plans aka "What if ... ?"
What if I only have four days/three nights? - Day 1: Puerto Natales to Glacier Gray. Day 2: Gray to Italiano, then do the 4 hour hike to Valle Frances and back. Day 3: Italiano to Torres. Day 4: Torres to Puerto Natales.
What if Italiano is full? - Book your second and third night at Camping Frances. You'll spend two nights there, which isn't so bad. You'll probably end up doing an extra half hour of hiking, but then again, you only need to set up your tent once.
What if Camping Frances is full? - Consider staying in Cuernos on night three, but keep in mind that you cannot cook there, so you'll need to pay for full board there, which isn't cheap.
What if Campamento Torres is full? - Ok, so this one can seem heartbreaking and frustrating, but the last time I did the W, it was full, and I stayed at Camping Central through Fantastico Sur on my final night, and actually had a better W experience than when I stayed at Campamento Torres. Here's why: 1. You don't have to take your big pack all the way up the damn hill. 2. You don't have to bring your big pack all the way back down the damn hill. 3. The hike on day 4 from Italiano is a lot easier to Central instead, and you see a part of the trail that you wouldn't see otherwise. 4. The hike up to the Torres and back down is actually quite easy with just a day pack, and it's enjoyable rather than a slog. The con is that you are kind of back in civilization a day earlier and doing sunrise at the torres is impossible.
The first time I did the W, it was my first multi-day backpacking trip. I brought way more than I needed. The second time, I still brought more than I needed, but my pack was lighter. I've divided this list into three sections: hiking, camping, and food. Note about water: Bring a full water bottle into the park, but that's it. There are streams that you can drink from along the entire trail. If you bring a huge camelbak, you'll just be carrying around extra weight. I use a 24 oz biking bottle and was 100% fine. You can too!
- Long sleeve, synthetic base layer to wear as your hiking shirt. The sun is brutal in the park due to a hole in the ozone layer directly above the southern tip of South America, so having long sleeves protects you.
- Hiking pants. Not waterproof pants. These are just lightweight pants that protect your legs from sun and sharp sticks on the trail. There is no need for waterproof pants. Don't bring them.
- Trekking poles (optional). When I've got my big pack on, I'm a monster with the poles. I go way faster, and when the wind howls, they are great for support. They aren't mandatory, but if you're feeling like you would like the support, you can rent them from Erratic Rock for $3,500 CLP per day.
- Hat. Seriously. Bring a hat. It's sunny.
- Socks. Thin, lightweight socks are best, and leave less room for blisters. 2-4 pair are plenty.
- A belt. If your pants aren't adjustable, bring a belt, preferably a lightweight fabric one. It's possible to lose weight while on the trail, enough so that your pants won't fit. This sounds crazy, but it's possible.
- Finally, bring a garbage bag to put all your hiking gear into when you arrive at camp. It will smell like crap, and you don't want it interfering with your nice and comfy camp clothing.
- Water bottle.
- Day pack for the out and back trips to Valle Francés and Mirador Las Torres
- Thick wool socks. It can get cold at night, and even if your sleeping bag is super warm, you'll likely want socks on, and not the sweaty gross ones you wore earlier in the day.
- Leggings/tights. Rather than having thick pants on, if it's cold at camp I prefer just to wear my winter running tights. I may look a little goofy, but they take up zero space and are really warm. Plus I can sleep in them without feeling like a weirdo too.
- Down jacket. Any down or synthetic down jacket will do. I love my Patagonia nano-puff but any puffy style jacket will do.
- Water proof shell jacket. Pretty straight forward. You'll never need this while hiking, because you'll get too hot, but you'll want it at camp if it starts to pour.
- A medium thickness long sleeve base layer shirt. For wearing around camp whether it's cold or warm
- A heavier mid-layer long sleeve to boost warmth underneath your down jacket if it gets cold.
- A beanie or winter hat.
- Sleeping bag rated for freezing temperatures
- 3 or 4 season tent
- Sleeping bag liner (if you think your sleeping bag won't hold up to the cold or you're extra sensitive to cold at night like me)
- Sleeping pad
- Slippers/Flip Flops/Sandals. You're going to want to walk around camp in anything but your hiking shoes. Having flip flops on will feel like a luxury. The lighter, the better.
- Utensils (fork, knife, spoon, etc)
- Collapsible bowl
- Gas (can be purchased in Puerto Natales)
- Jet Boil or stove to boil water
- Light weight gloves (running gloves work well)
- Your favorite book :)
- Journal and pen
Bring more food than you think you'll need. Just trust me on this. I'm a hungry hungry hippo on the trail, and the first time I did the W, we had to start rationing snacks at the end of Day 4, and I was literally not a happy camper. While we had a bunch of extra food the second time, we were never hungry, and I was much happier.
Breakfast for 4 Days
- Instant oatmeal. Seriously, just bring a bunch of it, bowl some water in, and you've got breakfast. I like to stir in Nutella, peanut butter, and jelly to give it some more protein, sugar, and flavor. Plus those three things can be used in ....
- Tortillas. Bread gets crushed in your bag and no one likes crushed bread. Bring tortillas instead and make your favorite combination of nutella, peanut butter, or jelly "sandwiches". I eat two of these "sandwiches" every day on the trail. You can also make veggie + salami wraps with red peppers and cucumbers as a diversion from the PB&J malaise. Everything is listed below for thoroughness
- Peanut butter
- Jelly (tends to come in a glass jar, which some consider extra weight. I just suck it up, but you're welcome to find other means of transport)
- Diced cucumbers
- Sliced red pepper
- Salami or pepperoni
- I'm a huge fan of the boil, stir, and sit camping foods and I'm not ashamed of it. They are light weight, flavorful, and you don't have to do any dishes. I might just eat all my meals this way, actually... Any way, my two favorite flavors are Thai Curry, and Penne, but REI has a ton of flavors and brands to pick from. Each bag has "2 servings" but if you're a normal person, you're going to want a whole bag for yourself every night, so 4 bags per person total if you're doing 4 nights (math!)
- I like to snack every hour I'm on the trail. It sounds excessive, and my hiking buddies sometimes think so too, but if you've ever been hangry on a trail (or anywhere for that matter), you'll know do anything you can to stay full. Almonds and trail mix are great choices, and there are plenty of places to buy dried fruits in Puerto Natales.
- If you want bars and such like Clif Protein Bars or Balance Bars, you should grab them in Santiago or bring them (unopened) from wherever you call home, as finding them in Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales can be difficult.
- Try to stay away from stuff that is too processed or sugary aka generic cereal bars. They don't provide adequate protein and make you feel good for only about 15 minutes.
Tips & Tricks
- If you're bringing your own tent, make sure to put your stakes in your checked baggage: you can't fly with them.
- Bring one garbage bag for your tent, one for your sleeping bag, one for your sleeping pad, one for your camp clothing, and one for your hiking clothing. Pack each of these things in its own respective bag. Garbage bags are better waterproofing than any rain cover can do, and they keep everything separate and easily removable in your pack.
- Speaking of rain covers, you really don't need one for this hike. It will rain, but it's also windy as hell and you're more likely to lose your rain cover in a huge gust, never to be seen again. Better to water proof everything inside your bag, plus most modern packs have some semblance of built in water resistance anyway.
- You need to pack out your trash, so make sure to bring a separate bag for your basura.
- BE BOLD. START COLD. In the morning, it can be really cold, and you'll want to be warm, but I guarantee that within twenty minutes, you'll be hot and you'll have to put your pack down, take off your layers, pack them, and then lift up your pack, just as you were getting into your zone. You'll probably block the trail too. Just start cold! Gloves are ok though.
- Uphill always has the right of way. If you're looking down at someone coming up the trail, please please please stand to the side and let them pass. It's trail etiquette.
- Samarce House in Punta Arenas is a great place to stay.
- Hostel Patagonico in Puerto Natales is a great place to stay.
- Start on the trails early. The W is beautiful, and therefore, extremely popular. The trails can be crowded, but if you start early, you'll avoid most of the crowds/day-hikers.
And that's it! If I missed anything, you have a question, or you feel you want to add something, please leave a comment! I get notified via email which I check regularly, and will keep this updated.