A Day-By-Day Breakdown of the W Trek
This summary below is intended to help with understanding the flow of each hiking day, and tips for each day. My planning article breaks down the details of each Refugio further.
For Hiking days One through Five, outlined below, I mention the hiking route options for each day. For a full breakdown of the advantages of disadvantages of the different hiking itineraries and refgio options check out my planning for the W-Trek article here.
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There are a few things that you will need to take care of the day before your hike:
Buy any last-minute fresh groceries or gear +fruit and nuts
Puerto Natales has a grocery store and multiple camping/outdoor stores to buy last-minute gear and food. They also have a couple of small fruit and nut stores. I highly recommend stopping at one of the fruit and nut stores for snacks for the trek. The Chilean Patagonia area was very into its gourmet nuts and trail mixes. I loved the dried fruit and trail mixes we bought. The store we went to was Itahue Frutos Secos.
Set aside time to pack your bag the day or night before. My friend and I laid out all of our gear and food to take photos of it, and laying it all out also helps ensure you aren’t forgetting anything. We also brought a small luggage scale so that we could weigh our bags and make adjustments if needed.
3. Download an offline map of the Trail
The W Trek is well-maintained and clearly visible. It was still useful to have an offline map for a few spots where we were unsure what was trail and what wasn’t. It is also a smart emergency back item to have in case something goes wrong. Print or download notes for your specific route. I printed the trail description from the Torres Hike website that I used to strategize our Refugio bookings. It was nice to have distance markers for the refugios we were staying at each day.
4. Attend orientation
Every day at 3 pm the Erratic Rock Hostel puts on orientation on the W Trek. We weren’t able to make it based on our schedule, but other hikers who attended said it was helpful.
5. Buy your National Park passes
You can actually buy these passes months in advance, but at minimum buy them the day before you go. You will need to find a place to print the pass as well (until they go digital!) Having the pass will allow you to skip the line to buy them when you enter the park. All hikers are required to buy the pass and carry it with them throughout the trek. I read that park rangers may periodically check for passes, but we never saw this happen.
6. Book bus tickets.
If you are hiking during peak season you may want to book bus tickets further in advance. We did see hikers buying them at the bus station the day before and the day of. We booked tickets with Bus Sur. They had clean coach buses with chargers, heat and AC, comfy seats, and bathrooms. We also appreciated that we could book our actual seats ahead of time, to ensure that we could sit together. Most of the other bus brands seemed to offer a similar quality experience, but not all of them offered booking online.
We booked a bus to take us from Punat Arenas to Puerto Natales and then booked another ticket to get from Puerto Natales and into the National Park. I had read to not pre-book our return ticket from the National Park to Puerto Natales since it’s hard to know the exact timing of when you will end the hike. We had a hard time booking a ticket upon arrival that day, so I recommend booking your return ticket in advance as well. If you are hiking East to West, you will end the hike at the ferry. The ferry only has a few departure times and all of the bus departures are timed to be immediately after the ferry pick-up.
The Hike Day One
*Torres Central to Mirador Torres Del Paine and back- 12.5 miles, 9,960 feet in elevation gain
Torres Central to Mirador Torres Del Paine and back to Chileno
Note that this whole itinerary it outlined for hiking East to West. The hiking route marked with a * indicates the route that we took.
On our first day, we took the first bus from Puerto Natales to the national park. Our departure was so early that our hotel packed us a to-go breakfast. I recommend trying to eat the breakfast before boarding the bus. There is no place to throw out the trash once you board the bus going into the park. On the ride keep a lookout for Guanacos. We saw quite a few on the drive into the park.
When you arrive in the park you will be dropped off at Puedeto Station. At the station, get in line to either buy your national park pass or show your pre-bought one to the park workers. Note that there is a bathroom at this checkpoint.
Next, you will line up to take another bus to Torres Central, the start of the hike. This bus/shuttle can’t be booked or paid for in advance. All the hikers line up to wait for the bus and pay for tickets via cash while in line. They accepted both Chilean pesos and US cash. At the time all of the lines and waiting during this part of the day made me nervous about having sufficient time for our hike. We seemed to be last in line for everything and waited forever to board the bus. We still had plenty of time for checking into our refugio, hiking, etc., so don’t stress about the check-in process. The W trek is designed to have a relatively relaxed pace, even for the 4-night version.
The 2nd bus dropped off all of the hikers right near Torres Central. You will first pass through a park information building that has a cafe with snacks. Walk another 2 minutes beyond this building to find the Torres Central campsites.
If you are staying at the Torres Del Paine Resort, continue on the trail for another 10 minutes. If you are staying at the Torres Lodge, it is located across the trail from the campsite, a 5-minute walk. We were staying at the campsite, so we stopped there. It was too early to be assigned a tent, but there was a covered area where hikers left their larger packs. We took out our day packs, filled up our ’water bladders, and used the bathrooms. We left our larger packs at camp. If you are staying at Chileno you will need to hike up with your larger pack.
We then began the hike up to Mirador Torres Del Paine. It took us a minute to find the trail, but literally just keep walking beyond the campsite and/or follow other people and you will likely be on the trail and eventually see signage pointing to the Mirador.
Day one is the toughest portion of the hike as it is primarily uphill all the way to the viewpoint. It starts off by crossing over a couple of bridges and streams and then begins climbing.
As you take breaks going up, be sure to look behind you, views of the brilliant blue Lago Nordenskjöld will start to appear.
About midway through the hike up, there were a couple of more exposed areas, and one of them was the windiest spot on the trail, aptly named “Windy Pass”.
After Windy Pass, you will reach Refugio Chileno. This is a good spot to grab a snack, fill up your water, and use the bathroom. If you stay overnight at Chileno, you can drop your larger pack here and just take a small day pack up to the viewpoint.
Towards the top, the trail will become harder to see as it becomes rockier. Look for red stakes in the ground and/or red markings on rocks to try to stay on the trail path. When you reach Mirador Del Paine, spend time taking photos, having a snack, etc. We felt we had plenty of time to make it back to camp before dusk, dinner times, etc., so no need to rush.
Most hikers will spend the night at Chileno or Torres Central on night one. See my planning post for more information on strategizing your overnight options.
Once back at camp, your assigned tent (or bunk) should be ready. Hikers are assigned dinner time slots, so the staff will let you know when your dinner seating is. There can be lines for the showers, so if you seem to arrive ahead of the crowd, shower right away! By the time we ate, showered, and reorganized our packs, it was dark and we went right to sleep.
The Hike Day Two
*Torres Central to Cuernos is 8 miles
Chileno to Cuernos is 6.8 miles
Torres to Frances is 10 miles
Chileno to Frances is 9.7 miles
Start the day having breakfast at your assigned time and be sure to pick up your pre-packed lunch if you ordered one. If there is any part of the lunch that you won’t want, don’t accept it or return it to the staff, to avoid carrying it for the rest of the hike. Depending on the refugio or campsite’s policy, you likely will also need to pack up your rental sleeping bag and mat and return it before departing. Be sure to fill up your water in the morning as well.
Day two is a relatively easy day of hiking. I remember reading that the trail is flat on day two, I would not describe it as flat. It goes up and down throughout the day, but it is easier than day one’s climb to Mirador Del Paine. Most of the day will have varying views of Lago Nordenskjöld. There are some very windy sections on day two as well.
There is a beautiful swing bridge that is a popular lunch stop roughly halfway through the hike. The ever-changing scenario helps make the day fly by.
After crossing a small bridge you will reach Cuernos.
If you are staying at Cuernos you can check in here. If you are continuing on to Frances, Cuernos is a nice stop for water and bathrooms. Frances is only about an hour’s hike further.
Note that the name Cuernos comes from the mountain peaks behind the refugio that look like horns.
On Day Two we had time to hang out at the bar, play cards, and relax before dinner.
The Hike Day Three
*Cuernos to Mirador Frances and Mirador Británico and then to Paine Grande- 16.5 miles if you go all the way to Mirador Británico
Frances to Mirador Frances and Mirador Británico and then to Paine Grande
Day three you will hike up to the middle of the W. This section of the hike will bring you the closest to the snow-capped peaks of Frances Valley. Day three has more uphill climbing than day two, but it is not as steep as day one. The day starts easy, following along the lake and even walking alongside the water on the beach for a bit.
Not long after hiking along the shore, the snow-capped peaks of the Frances Valley will come into view.
The trail becomes more uphill once you reach Refugio Italiano. All hikers will need to carry their large pack with them, until reaching Refugio Italiano. This refugio is now closed, but there is still a partially sheltered area where hikers can leave their large packs. There are also restrooms but they were not operational when we went.
After Refugio Italiano, you will continue climbing along the stream that runs into Rio Frances and then you will eventually reach Mirador Frances.
Many hikers only visit Mirador Frances and then turn back towards Refugio Italiano. To complete the full W, continue on to Mirador Británico. We only made it to Mirador Frances and heard mixed reviews about whether the additional hike to Mirador Británico was worth it. One hiker told us to make the decision based on cloud conditions. If Mirador Frances was pretty cloudy, it was a good indication that Mirador Británico wouldn’t have a great view.
On the way back down we took advantage of the picnic tables at Refugio Italiano and had a nice lunch break before continuing on. The route to Refugio Paine Grande was up and down but did not have any large inclines. Per usual there was plenty of wind on the route. The ever-changing views help to keep you entertained with more blue lakes (Lago Skottsberg).
On day three we also hiked through one of my favorite sections of the trek, the Dead Forest. A 2012 fire burned a large area on the trail, but lots of new growth has taken place below the dead trees, it created a magical-feeling pathway.
Eventually, you will be able to see the tents of Paine Grande off in the distance.
The Hike Day Four
*Paine Grande to Gray 6.8 miles
Paine Grande to Gray and Back- 13.6 miles
Hiking up to Gray Glacier is another day with uphill climbs, but the terrain and vista help you feel like you are on a completely different hike. You will hike along Lago Gray for most of the day.
As the trail got closer to Gray there were forested areas full of colorful wildflowers.
Once you reach Refugio Gray, continue on past it for another 15 minutes or so to reach the actual end of the W Trek and viewpoints of the glacier.
You also have the option to hike for another hour on part of the larger O trek. Many hikers said if you continued on the O-trek trail, over a couple of picturesque swing bridges, the views of the glacier were even better.
If you are returning to Paine Grande, you have the option to stop at Refugio Gray for a snack. They have both a general store with packaged snacks and a restaurant and bar area with a small a la carte menu. If you are staying overnight at Gray check in and receive your dinner time slot.
The Hike Day Five
*Kayak and Hike Gray to Paine Grande- 6.8 miles
I highly recommend pre-booking either a glacier kayak experience or a glacier hike for your final day. Big Foot Patagonia is the sole operator for these excursions. My friend and I kayaked around the glacier and it was an other-worldly experience kayaking around icebergs that had broken off of the glacier. Both excursions are weather-dependent and the only way to get updates on conditions is to walk to the Big Foot Patagonia Base and ask for updates. The base is a 10-minute walk beyond the Refugio, there are signs along the path. They provide all of the gear and clothing you need.
We booked the morning kayak and had plenty of time to kayak, walk back to camp to pick up our large packs, and then hike down to Paine Grande in time to catch the ferry.
If you arrive with time to spare before the ferry departure, Paine Grande has a large dining area and a la carte menu as well as an upstairs bar with water views.
I recommend lining up for the ferry at least half an hour before its arrival. There was no way to reserve a spot in advance, and there were hikers who waited in line and did not make it onboard. You will need cash to pay for the ticket as you board. They accepted US cash and Chilean pesos. The ferry workers will hand you a paper ticket after you board. Don’t lose it! You have to return the ticket when you disembark. During the ferry ride be sure to go up to the top deck to take in the views, it’s a stunning right with picturesque views of the area you just hiked!
The ferry ride ends at Pudeto Station. The return buses will be lined up waiting at the station. If you happen to need to wait for a bus there is a small restaurant that serves jamon y queso sandwiches and a few other snacks.
A few of my favorite things in Puerto Natales: stores, markets, restaurants, and food try!
Hotel Kau Cafe- The baked goods here were amazing. The dining area also had great views and friendly fellow hikers. We ate here a couple of times.
Pueblo Artesenal Etherh Aike- This was a nice stop for buying locally made wool goods and other souvenirs. It felt pretty touristy but it still had a decent selection of vendors.
Cafeteria Nandu- This was a cafe/souvenir shop. At first glance, it seems like the store only has cliche travel souvenirs, but ticked in the back was a section of art and clothing made by local artist Jorge Caballero.
Espacio Artesanal- This was another artists' market with small mini spaces showcasing various artists. This market had more actual paintings, carvings, and art than Pueblo Artesenal Etherh Aike.
Ls Tehuelch- This store focused on woven goods. It was more expensive than the stores mentioned above but it was still fun to walk through to see woven wall art, pillows, blankets, and more.
Itahue Frutos Secos-The fruit and nut store mentioned earlier in this post. The dried fruit and nuts that were bought from here were tasty. It was fun to be able to build your own trail mix.
Muelle Historical- Puerto Natales is famous for this historical pier. It was a fun spot to take photographs with the ever-changing Patagonian sky behind it.
The Singulair Hotel-
If you feel like splurging on lodging, or even on one meal, I highly recommend either spending a night or simply dining at the Singulair Hotel. They hotel is in a converted cold storage plant and has stunning sunset views.
Calafate berries are a a fruit that is only found in the Patagonia region. They look like a blueberry but are more flavorful. We found them used in drinks and desserts. A Calafate Sour is a commonly found drink in the area, it's a pisco sour with the berries added. We only found one Calafate Spritz, a take on an Aperol Spritz, but the one we had was amazing.
Trip Dates: January 2023
Article Updated: November 2023