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A first-timer’s guide to trekking in Patagonia

Earlier this year, a friend and I travelled far south to a famously rugged region shared by Chile and Argentina, located in the longest mountain range in the world. Patagonia had been on my bucket list for quite some time and the challenging trek was well worthwhile. Even as seasoned hikers, it was our first time hiking past icebergs, drinking from glacier streams and watching condors soar above our heads.

Our trip took a lot of preparation, but we came back with even more advice for other travellers going to the region. If you’re planning a trip to Patagonia, be sure to keep these tips in mind.

Where and when to go

Patagonia landscape

From the crammed catamaran to Torres del Paine. Photo: Paul Ruescher.

Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is one of the most popular trekking destinations in Patagonia. Its moderate trails with limited elevation gain make it ideal for hikers of all skill levels looking for multi-day routes. It’s quite possible to meet other like-minded adventurers on these trails – so even if you don’t have the perfect trekking companions lined up before your trip, you may find them along the way.

Patagonian summers stretch from November to March, which makes this the ideal time to visit. January, the peak of Patagonia’s summer, sees on average 16 hours of sunlight per day and temps up to 20°C.

Choosing a circuit

Choosing your circuit in Patagonia involves a few factors. You should take into account how long you’re going and how much gear you’ll be bringing. I can personally recommend the full “O” circuit or shorter “W” circuit in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, two circuits named for their shapes on a map.

The O circuit takes 6 to 10 days and covers around 110km. While this trail is nearly twice as long as the W route, the rewards are worth the extra mileage: the O route sees only a fraction of the amount of hikers, so you can enjoy its other-worldly landscapes in near solitude.

For beginners or travellers with limited time, the W route may be the best option; it takes four to five days and covers 60+km. This route passes more directly through the stunning Cordillera del Paine mountain range.

Regardless of the route you choose, the journey will likely involve some highs and lows. The rocky ridge trail to the Grey Glacier was difficult and left us with inevitable blisters, but the sight of the colossal glacier and the photo ops made us momentarily forget our aching feet and sore muscles.

Hiker overlooking the Grey Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field

Overlooking the Grey Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Photo: Paul Ruescher.

Where to stay

Once you’ve chosen your route, be sure to book your campsites in advance, which you can easily do online. If you don’t feel comfortable camping the entire time, you can always make pricier reservations at the hotels (refugios) or hire a guide for a portion of the trip. Either way, you’ll get to experience an amazing multi-day hike while taking in Torres des Paine’s glacial lakes, rivers and granite peaks.

What to bring

You’ll need to decide whether you’re bringing your own gear, renting or doing a combo of both. If you don’t own everything, you can rent gear before you leave or when you arrive in the gateway towns of Puerto Natales (Chile) and El Chaltén (Argentina).

We found that sleeping bags, mats, down jackets and cooking supplies were all available to rent in town. You can also rent tents but keep in mind that they’ve been used by numerous campers and may not withstand heavy rainfall. To play it safe, you should consider bringing your own lightweight option.

You don’t need a reservation for rentals, but remember that many stores will likely be closed on Sundays. We made the mistake of arriving late to the rental shops and the majority had run out of gear. We ended up wasting a bit of time trying to find what we needed in El Chaltén. (Lesson learned!)

Packing for a trek like ours involved a bit of strategizing so that we could always reach our essentials. My advice for organizing your gear:

  • Pack your rain cover, waterproof layers, energy bars, first aid kit, moleskin and other emergency items somewhere easily accessible in your pack.
  • Put everything in plastic bags to provide an extra layer of protection, as the weather can change rapidly from sun to rain to snow within the same day.
  • Your vulnerable items, such as cameras or notebooks, should go inside a more reliable dry bag (which you can also use to hang your food up at night).
  • … and don’t leave any food in your pockets or tent unless you want late-night rodents to chew holes through your gear and steal your snacks.

Patagonia packing checklist:

Check out this backpacking checklist and make sure to include some Patagonia-specific items:

  • A quality backpack and rain cover. Caution: your rain cover may turn into an unexpected kite or parachute due to the powerful Patagonian winds.
  • Waterproof-breathable outer layers and a compact insulated layer (the Uplink jacket is great for Patagonian summer evenings and sunrise hikes). If you visit closer to March, you may want a warm down jacket as nights get cooler.
  • Well-fitting hiking boots and good hiking socks. Talk to MEC staff about boot fitting and make sure your boots are broken in.
  • Comfy shoes for the campsite.
  • Moleskin and blister care. (I treated a blister with pre-cut blister bandages the second I felt it forming – they were a huge help.)
  • Sturdy hiking poles for steep switchbacks and rocky sections – your knees will thank you.
  • Chilean and Argentinian cash; it isn’t uncommon for Argentinian ATMs to run out of cash, especially in smaller towns.
  • A camera to document the endless natural landscape, and a book for downtime.
  • A positive attitude ready on the famously strong winds, unpredictable weather and any travel mishaps.

During our 5-day trek, we hit such heavy rainfalls that Torres del Paine had to temporarily close off certain trails, which rarely happens. Luckily we came prepared with waterproof gear and warm clothing. In the end, we were fortunate to have our trail reopen in time for our early morning sunrise hike to see the jaw-dropping Torres on our very last day. The sun even came out, making those rainy days we had to endure worth the final sense of accomplishment.

Top photo: Shutterstock / Olga Danylenko

Steph Ortiz, writer
Steph Ortiz

Writer, half-marathon runner, cultured traveller, rookie surfer, climber of mountains and recent owner of a splitboard.