In April 2017 we completed the eight-day full circuit O Trek in Torres del Paine. It is probably one of the most famous national parks in the world and often considered the jewel of Chilean Patagonia. Known for its soaring granite towers, bright blue lakes and vast glaciers, it is the ultimate destination for intrepid hikers looking for a challenge. Some people plan the trek months in advance but if you’re anything like us and have been on the road for some months, it might be more last minute planning. In which case, here are some very useful facts to know before embarking on your hike…
1. The online booking system is a nightmare– As of last season (2016-2017), you now have to book accommodation (camping and refugios) in the park in advance. What hasn’t been reckoned with though, is quite how you do this. Currently the campsites and refuges are split between three organisations:
CONAF – The national parks organisation, who govern the free campsites across the park and whose website is by a country mile the best organised and easiest to use. They’re also free, so that’s nice. Just be aware that because they’re free, people like to book whole swathes of reservations across multiple campsites and then just turn up for the ones they fancy, which is why we couldn’t get any reservations in any of the free ones, which is not so nice.
Vertice – Lovely campsites, very nice staff in the campsites and an atrocious booking system. Honestly, if you have the time, it’s worth booking in person in their office. It’ll be fractionally more expensive, but you’ll get an accurate picture of availability (we turned up at their office having seen that there was no availability at all online and the lady didn’t bat an eyelid – ‘oh yes, we have lots of availability, don’t worry’) and actually can then book for the nights you want and be confident of them definitely being reserved.
Fantastico sur – Same story, lovely campsites, friendly staff and an atrocious booking system. Again, probably best to book in person in their offices if you can.
2. You can turn up and book at the last minute in the shoulder season – We really struggled to book in advance as we didn’t really know exact dates when we were going to be there and also because the booking system online was so confusing. We kept trying to book the O Trek for the first week in April and it was saying unavailable/ fully booked, which we thought was highly unlikely. Turns out we were right! We turned up in Puerto Natales on 1 April and booked all of our campsites for two days later. If you are planning to do either the O or W out of peak season (March/ April/ May) or in the spring (September/ October/ November) you should be completely fine to just turn up and book it in town. However, be aware that the campsites on the full circuit do shut out of season.
3. Give yourself plenty of time in Puerto Natales to prepare – If you have the time, we would ideally recommend spending at least three nights in Puerto Natales before your trek to prepare and then at least two nights post trek to recover. We just had two nights in town before we set off and that really wasn’t enough to do everything without feeling rushed. We had to make all of our reservations, do our shopping and packing, basically in one day. It nearly caused me (Antie) to have a mild breakdown. That said, it depends how you are doing it. If you are doing it with an organised group or staying in the refugios with food included, you don’t need as much time to prepare…
4. Go to the daily Erratic Rock talk at 3pm – Erratic Rock is an institution in Puerto Natales. They host a daily talk and Q&A session at 3pm daily and we would highly recommend going to it, whether you are do the W or O, camping or staying in refugios. They talk through everything including the trail, food, general advice and then you can rent anything you need from there including camping equipment and clothing. We would recommend going on the first day you arrive, before you do your food shop, and so you can be prepared as possible.
5. You don’t need a guide or maps – The trails are very clear and it isn’t necessary to have a guide or even a map for either the O or the W treks. When you arrive, you get given a little map, which is more than adequate for the hike. Having a guide is very expensive and so wasn’t really feasible for us. However, it definitely has its benefits. If you are travelling by yourself or just want that extra support, it could be a good option for you.
6. Mice – This is a big one that we really wished we knew more about before starting the O Trek. No one had mentioned to us that there was a big mice problem in Torres del Paine. We had been camping in Patagonia for about two months and not had any problems with mice. Here was a different story. On our first night camping at Seron, we were warned by fellow campers to not leave anything that a mouse might want to eat, including food, toothpaste and sun cream, make sure you hang everything up in bags in the trees. We hung up everything in a tree by our tent in one of our larger dry bags. However, I (Antie), was woken up in the night by scurrying INSIDE OUR TENT. After trying, and failing, to wake up Pete I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening and went back to sleep. In the morning, we discovered holes in our tent and in my rucksack, where the mice had discovered one tiny sachet of ketchup! I knew ketchup would be my ultimate downfall!
7. Bring Duct Tape – Our mice debacle leads me nicely on to my next tip – pack duct tape! We hadn’t brought any but thankfully one of our O Trek mates had and lent us rather a lot to fix up our holey tent and bag. Two others in the group also had holes in their bags from mice attacks and so it was helpful all round. It’s also just really handy for anything that needs a quick fix and a must for any camping trip in the wilderness.
8. Mosquitoes – There are rather a lot of mosquitoes at various points along the way. We were completely unprepared for this as we had been in Patagonia for nearly two months and hadn’t really had problems with them anywhere else. Be prepared and take some repellent along with you.
9. Foxes – The foxes might look cute but they, like the mice, are pests in Torres del Paine. They hang around the campsites trying to scavenge food from hikers and pose for the cameras as a distraction. Make sure your food is hung high up in the trees and can’t be reached by naughty foxes. On our third night in the park, at Grey, I (Antie…I am a light sleeper thankfully!), got woken up to the sound of scratching from outside of our tent. After our horrendous mice experience, I shook Pete awake and made him get up and see what was going on. He stumbled half asleep outside of the tent and came face to face with a bright eyed, bushy tailed and very confident fox, who was standing on his hind legs on a picnic table scratching our food bag. If I hadn’t have woken up when I did, he would have no doubt clawed his way in and eaten the rest of our food…which would not have been ideal.
10. Camping equipment – If possible, bring all of your camping equipment and hiking clothes from home, rather than buying it in Chile or Argentina. The quality is nowhere near as good and it is much more expensive. You can read more on this in our How to Do Patagonia on a Budget post.
11. Waterproof your backpack – The weather in Patagonia is notoriously changeable. One minute you will be basking in the sunshine and the next minute the heavens will open. The best way to waterproof your rucksack is to line it with a bin liner. We also packed everything else in bin bags as well, just in case!
12. Pack as light as possible – You will need to carry everything you take with you and so the lighter you can pack, the better! We will be writing a full packing list, which will go live soon.
13. There are hot showers – This was quite a pleasant surprise for us. Most of the campsites we stayed at had quite nice hot showers. The showers at Francis Camp were some of the best showers we had on our whole trip in South America, not just camping! However, be prepared at some of the other campsites, such as Paine Grande, to have to queue. They also have annoying time slots which doesn’t help regulate the queues.
14. It can get really cold at night – Even if it’s been a really hot day, it is likely to get very cold at night. Pack lots of layers and make sure you have a warm enough sleeping bag. Another handy tip is to heat up some water before bed and fill a bottle with it to put in your sleeping bag. This acts as an excellent hot water bottle equivalent and saved me on a couple of really chilly nights.
15. The sun gets really hot – The sun is very strong down in southern Chile and it is essential to cover up and wear sun cream every day, even when it’s cloudy. It’s so easy to get burnt when you’re hiking.
16. Crazy Patagonian weather – As you might have gathered from my previous two points, the weather is absolutely crazy in Patagonia! One minute it will bright sunshine and the next it might be snowing. Be prepared for all eventualities and just enjoy it. We were quite lucky for the first half of our trip and had beautiful sunshine, we then experienced a storm at Paine Grande campsite and I wasn’t sure if our flimsy tent (sorry, Hubert) would survive. Thankfully, we made it through the night without the tent flying away or any rain getting inside.
17. Invest in some good hiking shoes – Everyone we met doing the O was wearing good quality hiking boots and we would definitely recommend it. It is important to have that extra support as the terrain is so varied, you will encounter everything from muddy bogs to rocks underfoot. I probably had the worst walking boots out of everyone. We were five months into our trip and after doing rather a lot of hiking, they were on their last legs. The seams were starting to open up and my trying to fix them with superglue the night before the trek hadn’t really worked. I really couldn’t afford to buy new ones in Chile and so I just had to hope they would see me through. Thankfully they did but I had to throw them away shortly afterwards.
18. Rent or buy some hiking poles – Hiking poles are a big help when you are hiking on difficult and steep terrain. We would also highly recommend them when you are carrying a big heavy rucksack as it really helps with your balance. You can rent them in Puerto Natales but it pretty much costs the same to buy them (especially if you are doing the O and need them for eight days).
19. Take a spare camera battery – There is nowhere to charge your camera along the way and so it is definitely worth bringing a spare one, especially as camera batteries struggle with the extreme hot and cold temperatures.
20. Be prepared for no/ limited WIFI – This is a really great opportunity for a digital detox. We didn’t have any WIFI for the whole eight days we were in the park, which was great. Just pre-warn family and friends that you might be out of touch for a few days if they (like mine) are prone to worry.
We hope you have an incredible time in the park and that these tips are helpful. Do write in the comments if you have any other tips we might have missed!