Everything and Anything You Need to Know to Plan for the W Trek in Patagonia
Updated: Jul 10
You’ve decided you are going to hike the W trek in Patagonian Chile, now what? How do you manage the bookings? Where should you stay each night? Which direction should you hike? Do you need a guide? These questions and more are answered in this post!
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Packing for the W Trek
I will be writing a separate article for packing for the W Trek, as well as an article with our full Chilean itinerary. Check back here for a link to the articles.
Why is it called the W Trek?
The trail for the W Trek is roughly in the shape of a W. It is not a round-trip trail. Hikers start on one lower side of the W and end on the other. There are ferries and buses to transport you to and from town at the beginning and end of the trek. Note that there is also an O Trek that takes 7-10 days. It overlaps with the W Trek so you may see the O Trail on maps and come across trekkers on the trail hiking the complete O.
Which Direction Should I Hike the Trail?
All of the blogs that I read said to hike East to West. This puts the harder, higher incline, part of the hike at the beginning and the glacier at the end. We preferred to have the more difficult portion early on when our legs were fresh! Other hikers prefer to go West to East to save the famous turquoise lake views at Mirador del Paine for last. We ended the trek by kayaking at Gray Glacier. It was an epic ending as well!
What is a Refugio?
I will reference this term a numerous times in this article. A refugio is a glorified campsite. On the W Trek, each refugio has an area for tents and most have indoor lodging too. They all have communal bathrooms. There are lodging options with shared dormitory-style beds with communal bathrooms and other options with private rooms. One refugio also has private cabins available for rent. The refugios all have communal dining halls and most have additional bar and/or restaurant areas. Most refugios have Wi-Fi available for a fee (in the main building and dining areas only), and sell snacks and a few convenience items as well (similar to a campsite store). The refugios on the W trek are owned by two private companies.
Do I need a guide for the W Trek?
No! I have done multiple international hiking trips where I hired a local guide and or porter. Even if you have never backpacked before, you can handle the W trek without a guide. The trails are extremely well marked and there are plenty of other hikers on the trail, so there are other trekkers around to ask for help. The refugios are also a source of information and help along the way.
Do I need backpacking experience to complete the W Trek?
No! With the refugio set up, where tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats can be rented every night, you don’t need to hike with traditional backpacking gear. The refugios will also provide all three meals you need so you don’t need to worry about cooking your own food or carrying your own food. There is also drinkable water along the entire hike. The W Trek is similar to simply day hiking between lodges. If you want to save on costs, then consider carrying your own tent, food, etc, but you don’t have to.
Do I need to train for the W Trek?
The highest elevation on the W Trek is 3,900 feet. You don't need to worry about acclimating to altitude or taking altitude sickness pills for the trip. You will need to carry a pack with all of your clothes, snacks, any toiletries, first-aid gear, and water. This pack shouldn't be too heavy since you don't have to carry a sleeping bag, tent, food for meals or a stove. It may still be a good idea to get accustom to wearing your pack and hiking with it, especially if you have never completed a multi-day trek before.
The two longest hiking days will be roughly 8-hours long, depending on which itinerary you choose (keep reading below for more details on the options). If you are an active person regularly running or doing cardio at the gym, you'll be fine without training. If not, then start to add more walking, hiking and cardio into your routine a couple months prior to the trek.
Can I drink the water on the W Trek?
We drank both tap water from the refugios as well as water from streams along the hike. We never filtered or purified the water and never had stomache issues. We avoided any natural water sources close to campsites where there were more likely to be human contaminants. We saw a few hikers filtering their water but most seemed to be drinking it straight from streams like us. The Patagonian glacier-fed streams that have cold, moving water are usually considered safe.
When to hike the W Trek
For the average hiker, the W trek is hike-able from November through April. Outside of those months, the snow conditions make the trek too dangerous. Note that over Christmas and New Year’s is a popular time for the hike. It will be hard to book campsites and the trails and refugios will be relatively crowded. Crowded is all relative, it rarely felt as crowded as a US National Park, except for the portions of the trail that could also be day hikes.
Keep in mind the Patagonian summers are known for their winds. We had no idea about this until we arrived, but the trek had the most wind I have ever experienced on a trail.
How to Book Refugios
Figuring out the logistics and booking lodging for this trek may have been more difficult than the hike itself! The campsites and lodges book out months to a year in advance. Once you decide to do the W Trek, start this booking process immediately. I recommend booking the campsites before booking your flight. When my friend and I planned our trip, refugio availability was so limited we ended up planning the rest of our trip to Chile around those available days. During our hike, we were told that tour companies will pre-book many of the campsites and refugio beds far in advance. Supposedly two-weeks out from the booked dates, the tour companies will release unbooked sites back into the reservation system. If you happen to book last minute, or are unable to find the campsites you want, try checking again two weeks out from when you are supposed to start the trek.
Two private companies own and operate the refugios on the trek, Las Torres (Formerly Fantastico Sur), and Vertice. Meals and lodging can be booked directly through each of their sites. There are also many third-party sites that will handle the bookings and coordination for you, but you pay a premium for using their service. I used a 3rd party site (Torres Hike) to check the combined availability of Las Torres and Vertice refugios and then handled the bookings on my own. The site made figuring out the options and availability so much easier.
Should I book meals at the refugios?
I highly recommend booking at least dinner at the refugio (with the exception of Torres Central, and maybe Gray read more on them below). By booking dinners you can skip carrying a stove and dehydrated meals for dinner. It saves weight, and at the end of a hiking day, it’s a luxury to have someone else cook a fresh hot meal for you. The meals are also a fun opportunity to meet fellow hikers, they are all served at communal dining tables.
The dinners we had were better than expected, the salmon we had at Cuernos was our favorite refugio dinner. The refugios can accommodate most dietary restrictions (vegan, gluten-free, etc) as well. They seemed accustomed to it and always asked if we had any dietary restrictions.
Booking and paying for breakfast makes sense to minimize how much weight you carry as well. Breakfast was usually simple eggs, cereal, and juice.
Lunch is the one meal worth considering not booking. I would’ve been happy with my own peanut butter sandwiches, granola bars, and fruit and nuts for lunch. The lunches often had ham salad sandwiches that weren’t appealing to me. The other issue with the lunches is that they are to go and everything on the hike is pack in pack out. Each lunch typically had a power bar, a piece of fruit, a juice box, and a sandwich. If there was part of it that you didn’t want to eat, you had to continue to carry it with you for the rest of the trek.
The pre-booked meals sell out and need to be booked in advance. Most refugios have a small menu of other items available for order onsite (outside of the pre-booked meal), but there are usually minimal options.
Also, keep in mind that the pre-booked breakfasts and dinners are at set times. When you arrive at each refugio they will tell you which dinner group and breakfast group you are assigned to (ie the 6:30 dinner seating and the 8 am breakfast seating). Although we never had issues with the timings we were assigned, packing your own meals gives you more flexibility in the timing of when you eat.
How many days and nights do you need for the W Trek?
I recommend completing the trek in 5 days and 4 nights unless you want to add on a full-day glacier trek excursion, then you may need a 5th night. It is also possible for a relaxed pace hike that is 6 days and 5 nights. My friend and I completed the trek in 4 days and 3 nights. We booked too last minute and it was the only way we were able to book any campsites and lodging. If possible, avoid completing the W trek in 4 days. Our day 3 of hiking was so long it was not enjoyable. We also had to skip Mirador Britannica (the top middle point of the W) to have enough time to complete the hike before nightfall and dinner service ended.
A Break Down of the Refugio and Itinerary Options
I had the hardest time figuring out what the lodging options were for each night of the trek, so I wanted to clearly break down all of the options. Below are the lodging options for each night of the trek. All of these options are outlined hiking East to West. Hiking Eat to West you will arrive via bus near Torres Central (the bottom right of the W) and then on the last day you will depart via ferry from Paine Grande (the bottom left of the W). I have noted the options for 5 days and 4 nights, but also for 3 nights and 5 nights.
This refugio is a few minutes walk beyond the bus stop. I read that other hikers don’t like this refugio because it is near the road, and there is bus traffic, etc. We stayed at the campsite here and thought it was quiet and had a beautiful mountain backdrop. The tents were decently spread out. After taking the early morning bus from Puerto Natales, we dropped our bags here and then took our daypack to hike up to Mirador Del Paine. We then hiked all the way back down to Torres Central to stay for the night.
There is the option for meals at the Torres Del Paine Resort, a 10-minute walk away. The breakfast and dinner option at the refugio was booked when we made our bookings. So instead we ate both dinner and breakfast at the nearby hotel. This was a big bonus for us, it was relaxing to have a sit-down meal with a full bar and menu and free wifi! We also appreciated being able to use the clean hotel bathrooms. The food was the best meal we had on the trek. I enjoyed a salad with all locally grown lettuces and vegetables plus a Calafate sour cocktail made from local berries. This meal was obviously more expensive than the meal option in the common dining hall at the refugio, but it was not that much more expensive than a meal at a restaurant in town. Reservations are not needed for the restaurant but be sure to check the hours for dinner and breakfast.
2. Avoid carrying your larger pack up or down the tough hike to Mirador Del Paine.
The least picturesque of all the refugios, but still has a scenic mountain backdrop.
Although we skipped eating breakfast and dinner here, if you are planning to eat all of your meals at the refugios, we heard this one had other hikers' least favorite food of the trek.
It adds 20 minutes or so of additional hiking. When you go up and down to Mirador Del Paine, you hike back down to Torres Central and hike beyond where the trail continues onward. The next morning you then have to retrace your steps and hike back to where the trail continues on.
Torres Del Paine Resort
This hotel is located a 10-minute walk (on flat ground) beyond Torres Central. Staying here, the same hiking strategy as staying at Torres Central applies. Leave your large pack and hike up and back to Mirador del Paine with a small pack. It is more rare for other hikers on the W trek to stay at the hotel, but I wasn’t even aware of the hotel when I was researching for the trip, so I wanted to be sure to mention it as an option.
You have all of the amenities of a proper hotel, heat, wifi, your own room, a real bed, and a private bathroom, plus a restaurant and bar.
You don’t have to carry your larger pack up or down the tough hike to Mirador Del Paine.
You are less likely to meet other hikers or connect with hikers that you will be seeing throughout the trek. Many guests at the lodge are only there for day hikes.
This is a much more costly option compared to camping at one of the refugios.
Chileno refugio is located about a third of the way up to Mirador Del Paine. If you didn’t pack a lunch for day one, a few basic lunch items are available at its cafe (ham and cheese sandwiches, etc). For those staying overnight at Chileno, they are able to drop their larger pack here, and use a small daypack to hike up to Mirador Del Paine and then back to Chileno. This option adds a bit more hiking to day 2 instead of day 1. You will finish coming down from the Mirador del Paine trail section on day 2 when you leave the refugio.
The campsite is extremely picturesque, with elevated camp platforms in the forest.
Staying here saves 20 minutes or so of total hiking. You avoid backtracking to Torres Central.
You have to carry your larger pack up and down part of the tough hike to Mirador Del Paine.
If you stay at Curenos it will save you about an hour of hiking on day two (but that hour will be added to day three instead). We stayed at Cuernos purely based on availability but also were lucky and able to book one of the private cabins. The cabins are significantly more expensive, but we thought it was worth it. The views are stunning, they have real beds, a heater, and even an outlet! There is also a separate set of bathrooms for the cabin renters. The Refugio Cuernos is especially windy, so not having a tent constantly blowing around during the night was another advantage of the cabins. Many fellow hikers mentioned it was hard to sleep because their tent walls were blowing so much in the wind.
The Cuernos dining area had a separate bar and a few items you could order a la carte. We enjoyed our pre-booked dinner here the most.
Ability to book a private cabin with a bed and heater
Stunning views of Lago Nordenskjöld
The campsites are somewhat exposed on the edge of the mountain, so they are more exposed to wind.
If you stay at Frances you will have an extra hour of hiking on day two, it is about an hour beyond Cuernos. You can stop at Cuernos for a snack on the way. Staying at Frances saves you an hour of hiking on day 3.
The Refugio Italianio has been closed for a few years now. I am including it here just in case it happens to open again, it could be worth considering as an option. It was government-run, and not owned by the two private companies that run the other refugios. To check for the status on it, go to CONAF's website.
Frances- Relaxed Pace Option
If you prefer to spread the hike out over more days and take a slower pace, spend night 3 at Frances. During the day, hike up to Mirador Frances and Mirador Britannica with only a day pack and then come back down and spend a night at Frances, rather than continuing on to Paine Grande.
Hike up to Mirador Frances and Mirador Britannica with only a day pack
Paine Grande is located on the lower left (West) side of the W. It is a large refugio as it is also where the ferry drops off and picks up hikers, at the beginning or end of their trek. It has a 2nd-floor bar with panoramic views overlooking Lago Pehoé. The majority of hikers will spend night 3 at Paine Grande. Continuing on to Gray adds another 3+ hours of hiking on day 3, which makes for too long of a day for most hikers. Staying at Paine Grande gives the option of leaving your larger pack on day 4, and hiking out to Gray Glacier with a small day pack. Then spend a 2nd night at Paine Grande.
Gray- Fast-paced option
Gray is located at the top Western point of the W and is close to Gray Glacier. Only book Gray for your 3rd night if there is absolutely no other option. I am only including it here because it is where my friend and I stayed on night 3, so it is possible. We booked lodging too last minute, and the only way for us to do the trek was to push from Cuernos to Gray in one day. It is about 27 kilometers of hiking in one day. We eliminated one viewpoint (Mirador Britannica) and still barely made it before nightfall and in time for dinner. We met one other family who had the same itinerary and they did not make it to Gray. Although it was possible, it would have been much more enjoyable to break it up and stay at Paine Grande for a night before heading to Gray.
If you want to hike to Gray Glacier with only a small day pack and go out and back for the day, then spend a 2nd night at Paine Grande.
Hike with a small day pack to and from Gray
You won’t be able to experience any of the Gray Glacier excursions.
Paine Grande- Relaxed pace version
Or if you spent night 3 at Frances, then hike to Paine Grande and spend the 4th night here. You will spend Day 5 hiking to Gray.
If you hike with your full pack and spend a night at Gray, then you have the ability to book glacier activities early the next morning. The Gray refugio is a short walk from where the glacier kayak trip and glacier walk trips start. The morning activities require you to stay at Gray the night before. If you chose a half-day excursion, after the excursion hike back to Paine Grande and ferry out the same day. If you book an all-day excursion then you may want to spend another night at Gray.
The Gray refugio offers the same pre-order meal options but they also have a small bar area where food can be ordered a-la carte. It had one of the bigger a la carte menus that we saw, so if you want to skip the pre-ordered dinner here, it is an option. The a la carte menu had pizzas, burgers, and bar-style food.
Experience a new campsite if you stayed at Paine Grande the night before
Have the ability to book the morning glacier kayak excursion or the all-day glacier hike excursion
You must hike with your full pack to and from Gray
The campsites are packed closely together
If you choose to book an all-day glacier excursion on day 4, you will likely need to spend a 5th night at Gray. Then hike down to Paine Grande the next morning to take the ferry back.
Gray- Relaxed Pace
If you prefer the relaxed pace options and stay in Paine Grande on night 4, you may want to spend the 5th night at Gray. Then hike down to Paine Grande the next morning to take the ferry back.
How to Book Glacier Excursions
The glacier excursions are run by a separate company, Big Foot Patagonia. They offer options for kayaking near Gray Glacier or doing an all-day glacier hike. The base for these activities is a 10-minute walk from Refugio Gray. Book these activities in advance, as there are rarely last minute spots available. They only take out small groups for both activities.
What to Expect Each Day on the Trail
I will be writing a separate article to break down the trail, food, packing options and more for each day of the hike. Check back here for a link to the article.
Trip Dates: January 2023
Article Updated: July 2023