As one of the absolute highlights of my second trip to Patagonia, hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit was an incredible introduction to the fierce wilderness yet surreal beauty of the Chilean half of this region.
The Circuit, or “O” as it’s also known, is rapidly growing in popularity among seasoned hikers and first-timers alike, and while trekking in Torres del Paine National Park (particularly if you hike solo and avoid paying for an unncessarily – and costly – tour) might seem a daunting prospect, it really needn’t be.
This list of 14 essentials to know before you hike will make the experience far easier to plan and signficantly more enjoyable when you get there.
Hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit is no walk in the park
Ok, so before we begin, let me stress that the Circuit is a trek that should be taken seriously. You cover a grand total of 76-miles over between nine and eleven days depending on the speed you choose and some days seeing you trekking over 11-miles – a distance that isn’t for the faint hearted.
While it’s an excellent introduction to multi-day trekking (more about that shortly!), you are carrying all of your equipment and your food. The distance you cover each day won’t seem huge for those with hiking experience, it’ll be the weight of your rucksack that will leave you feeling less than perky by the proposect of continuing when you get to Day Three.
It’s more challenging – but more rewarding – than hiking the W
As someone who has been hiking in Torres del Paine National Park on two occasions, once in March 2o16 and again in March 2017, I can say with authority that the Circuit is definitely the more challenging hike and I would go as far as saying that it’s one of the most difficult hikes in Patagonia.
However, my experience of the W left me feeling a little short-changed. While I’ve written a length about how you can trek the W without a tour (and save yourself some pretty pennies in the process), this doesn’t fully solve my complaint with this particular trekking route around Torres del Paine National Park.
Unfortunately, as the popularity of the park has increased, so inevitably have visitor numbers and this has left the W, in particular, feeling more like a busy shopping centre on a Saturday morning than a tranquil, Patagonian paradise of unspoilt wilderness and silence.
Add in the fact that you’ll be passing through what can only be described as sensational scenery and the challenge of hiking the Circuit in Torres del Paine is 100% worth it.
And you don’t need to be an experienced hiker
While it certainly helps to have at least a little trekking experience under your belt, hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit doesn’t require you to be a pro. The biggest challenges that you’ll face is ensuring that your rucksack isn’t unrealistically heavy to the point that you can’t carry it (again, more on this shortly) and that you have the will-power to get up every day and continue hiking.
Sure, the landscape and the travellers you meant does make this significantly easier, but it ultimately comes down to your mental strength and your desire to succeed that will decide whether you do or not.
Having the right equipment makes all the difference
There is one simple way of making the Circuit trek significantly easier: planning the contents of your rucksack carefully. In our case, it helps that my dad is a complete gear nerd and is already obsessed with lightweight hiking, but you too can easily ensure that you’re not overpacking and that your equipment is suited to the conditions of long-distance hiking in Torres del Paine National Park.
I’ve written about this topic at length in this post about packing the correct equipment for hiking the Circuit, but what I will advise in shorter form is that a lightweight backpacking tent (such as the beautiful Big Agnes HVUL2 that we used – and I reviewed) alongside a lightweight sleeping bag and mat do make the difference between a 20kg rucksack and a far lighter, more manageable bag.this post about hiking the W, but the information applies for the Circuit too), it’s essential that you check your equipment thoroughly. Rental gear faces a lot more wear and tear than personal equipment and discovering, half way around the trail, that the tent you hired has a huge hole in the outside layer through which the rain can enter is not anyone’s idea of fun.
I would strongly recommend you kill two birds with one stone and check out Big Agnes (she’s both incredibly lightweight and won’t let the rain in), but if you don’t plan on investing in a brand new tent, then make sure you test run outside of the shop any equipment you plan on hiring to confirm it’s in good condition before you pay.
Good quality, broken in and waterproof hiking boots are your #1 essential item
But good equipment isn’t just about your camping gear. I can’t stress this enough: carrying yourself and the weight of your rucksack over 76-miles is enough to leave your feet feeling seriously sore, particularly if you’re wearing poor-quality hiking boots and, like me, are prone to suffering the worst hiking ailment of them all: blisters.
Blisters were my Achilles heel for the first 25 years of my life due to poor fitting trekking boots and a lack of understanding that I really did need to wear two pairs of socks (one thick, one thin) to stop my poor little tootsies from being rubbed raw.
From this unpleasant experience, it is essential that if you plan on trekking in Torres del Paine National Park (or anywhere else in Patagonia for that matter) you must – must – buy good quality hiking boots (I recommend high-ankle types such as my beloved Salomon Quest hiking boots). It’s also essential that you have broken in. What does this mean? This means you’ve worn them on at least a handful of previous walks and know that they don’t leave you bleeding and blistered.
My second big recommendation is that if you’re prone to suffering blisters (or not sure whether your hiking boots are the perfect fit) is that you buy some blister plasters before arriving in Patagonia (such as my favourites, Compeed) or head to a pharmacy in Puerto Natales to buy some there. You can try to eliminate the prospect of blisters by applying the plasters to rubbable areas before you begin trekking the Circuit; they’ll act as a handy little barrier between your feet and the boot and can stop blisters before they form.
Ensuring that you boots are waterproof is another essential step on the path to having happy feet during the experience. I recommend you treat them regularly with a waterproofing spray (Nikwax do an excellent fabric spray that’s ideal for GORE-TEX fabric boots).
Finally, a set of hiking poles are also invaluable as they can help take some of the pressure off your hips and feet and are great for sections such as the dreaded descent from Paso John Gardner, which is exceptionally steep and slippery.
Clean socks are your friends
When I hiked the Circuit, I found to my despair that I hadn’t brought enough clean socks. Part of the problem was that I washed my socks mid-way through the hike and the weather wasn’t sunny enough to dry them, meaning that I had slightly damp pairs to put on each morning. This was made worse by the fact that my beloved shoes, after two and a half years of extensive use, had finally ripped at the seams and were letting in water.
I would also recommend a pair or crocs or similar in case you need to ford rivers (something relatively unusual but that we did face after a lot of rainfall when we were hiking in Torres del Paine National Park).
I had some flip flops which were utterly useless because they almost were sucked away by the current, whereas crocs were far better at staying on your feet. They’re also good for the evenings as you can wear them with socks to give your feet some time away from your boots and keep them warm at the same time (trying to do this in flip flops is not easy!).
Bring hot and cold weather clothing to hike the Circuit
One of the strangest things about Torres del Paine National Park and parts of Patagonia in general is the weather. It’s notoriously unpredictable, can pass from snowstorm to burning sunshine in the space of 15-minutes and in the summer, the winds can reach over 70 mph.
For this reason, packing for hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit requires a bit of thought, as you’ll need clothing that covers practically all seasons. Again, I would recommend you check out exactly what I took in my rucksack when I experienced the Circuit earlier this year, but as a quick guide, your wardrobe should consist of thin layers that can be put on or taken off to adapt to changing temperatures as well as waterproof, windproof clothing.
I actually bought a pair of waterproof trousers in Puerto Natales last minute because it was pissing it down with rain the day before we started, and they also turned out to be an excellent investment against the rain, wind, cold and mud. A waterproof rucksack cover is also a good addition, although if it’s ill-fitting or not attached to the bag then there’s a chance it will blow away.
Finally, an inner dry bag (such as this Karrimor 40l dry bag) will avoid the possibility of you pitching up for the night and realising that you have no dry clothes to sleep in because the rain seeped into your rucksack. While bin bags are a cheap alternative, bear in mind that they can easily rip, leaving them completely useless.
You have to be organised and book all accommodation in advance
Long gone are the days when you could just rock up into Torres del Paine National Park and starting hiking the Circuit; now you must book your accommodation online before you attempt the hike. This applies to the campsites and lodges run by both Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur, as well as the free campgrounds run by CONAF (the ones at Paso, Italiano and Torres).
By the start of December in the 2016-2017 hiking season, the Circuit was booked up from the end of December through to the end of February, meaning that if you were planning on hitting the trail between those months and hadn’t already made reservations, it wasn’t going to happen.
My main piece of advice is to try and book your reservations as soon as possible. Outside the months of December through to February there is less demand but I would still recommend booking early to avoid disappointment.
You MUST print out your reservations
I’m not going to relive the argument I had with the ranger at Los Perros because I had failed to print off my reservation for the next night’s stay at Paso. Instead, what I will say is that you really must have copies of your reservations to show to the rangers.
Of course CONAF don’t have a list of who should or should not be camping at their site that evening; they are expecting you to arrive with the correct paperwork. If you don’t, there is a serious chance that you may not have a space to pitch your tent.
And while I never did find out exactly what I would be expected to do if I couldn’t camp overnight at Paso (were they planning on airlifting me out of the park?), the argument as you try and claim that you did indeed book, just forgot to print the reservation off, isn’t worth it!
You can charge electrical items in certain campsites
I was really surprised to discover that there were charging points in a number of the campsites in Torres del Paine. We found this to be the case in Los Perros, the free CONAF campsite, as well as in the kitchens and indoors spaces in Paine Grande and Los Cuernos.
Seron, Dickson, Paso and Torres do not have plug sockets, but I suspect that Grey, Frances and Las Torres do. So if you don’t have a battery pack (I think one such as the Portapow slim USB battery pack is a great item to bring for any trip to Patagonia), make sure you pack your charger.
Plan your food carefully
It’s very easy to overpack the food that you take with you into Torres del Paine and I’m currently in the process of putting together an overview of exactly everything that we used for the Circuit.
However, the main considerations is to ensure that you’ve got enough carbohydrates to keep you going (porridge oats, pasta, rice etc.) and that you only pack what you need. Rather than take a 1kg bag of rice that you probably won’t use all of, pack it into individual portions in small, ziplock plastic bags. This way, you’ve got everything at hand for cooking up your dinner quickly and easily, and by removing things from their original packaging, you’re reducing the weight you carry.
A secondary bonus is that this also helps to keep the park clean, as you’re expected to take your rubbish from most of the campsites along the Circuit.
Bring a basic first aid kit
It’s never a great idea to go hiking without at least some basic first aid equipment. My kit always including plasters, painkillers, a small pair of scissors, allergy tablets and bandages. But if you’re hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit, I would also recommend bringing strapping or a bandage for sprains – something that unfortunately happens quite regularly on the trail.
I’ve heard of a lot of people twisting an ankle or another part of their leg, which can be made even more painful by the fact that there are no medical supplies available in the refuges.
To be extra prepared, bring hiking sticks so that if you do suffer a sprain, they can be used to take the weight off the injured limb.
Don’t forget the mosquitos – or the sunshine
Torres del Paine National Park is probably the last place you’d expect to find mosquitos, but in March when we were there, we were absolutely ravaged by these insects. I’d not thought to pack any repellent, but lucky others had, which saved me from spending the nine-days itching at the bites.
Another important tip is to pack some high-strength sun cream, and remember to keep reapplying as you sweat it off.
Want to hike in more comfort? Check out these “short cuts”
If you’re a bit concerned about the amount of equipment, food or distance you’re required to cover by trekking the Circuit, it’s worth considering these “short cuts:
Actual short cuts to the route
Although the Circuit route is a standard distance, there are a handful of ways that you can shorten it. For example, on Day One when you leave the bus at Laguna Amarga Ranger Station to begin the trek, there is a path that breaks away from the main road long before you get to Las Torres Hotel, and which shaves off a couple of miles. This route isn’t marked on the map that they give you at the entrance and the signposts to it have been removed, but if you download the free app Maps.Me (one of my favourite apps for hiking in South America) you’ll find it clearly marked.
Another short cut is not hiking to the Britanico Lookout on Day Five and instead only reaching as far as the Frances Lookout. While I’ve heard that the Britanico Lookout is absolutely stunning, the day we arrived the weather was so poor that it made no sense to go that far. Be a little bit flexible in your plans because the weather might well stop you from hiking here.
Camping “short cuts”
We weren’t 100% sure that we could physically carry all the food that we needed, despite the fact that we had planned our meals very carefully. Because of this, we decided to shell out on an overnight stay at Los Cuernos Lodge on the night of Day Five, where we were fed a three course meal and had access to a warm bar and hot showers. Yes, it was expensive, but it was a well-earned treat after days of being cold and having to cook over our little stove.
This is an option that you can take at Grey Lodge, Paine Grande Lodge, Los Cuernos Lodges, Las Torres Lodge and Chileno Lodge and it’s worth considering it as a treat for all your hard effort of getting so far.