Hiking The O Circuit: Torres del Paine National Park | Patagonia, Chile
If You’ve Ever Dreamed of Doing This Hike, Here’s the Lowdown:
For its stunning and varied scenery and well crafted trails, there’s no question this is one of the world’s best hikes. The full circuit route is about 120k ; roughly 75 miles in length.
The “full circuit” or “O” trail can be done anywhere from 8-10 days, depending on how many hours you’d like to walk each day (our 8 day pace had a few long, 8+ hour days of walking) and how many side trips you want to take off the main trail. In terms of route, we took the second longest option – THIS BLOG has great information about all three routes: the “W” (shortest, most common) “O” (longer, which we did) “Q” (longest by one additional day).
While they’re available, you really don’t need a guide or a porter; all three hiking routes are very straightforward and well traveled.
The park experience can be done luxe: stay in hotels/nice refugios + eat restaurant food, or minimal: carry your own freeze dried food, stay in backcountry campsites. We did the minimal route with one splurge night in a refugio.
Ballpark cost for the minimal route, including plane tickets from the US, bus tickets, camp reservations, hostel in Puerto Natales (gateway to the park), one night in a refugio on the trail (paying for breakfast and dinner) and store bought trail food: about $1800 USD ($1450 in flights / $350 for everything else). This is at least $1000 USD less than the package tour option, but required a significant ammount more planning.
Our Route: Estimated Mileage and Hiking Times
Day 1: Laguna Amargas Bus Station to Camp Seron (5 hours) – 10 miles
Wildflowers & Regenerating Forest
Day 2: Camp Seron – Camp Dixon (7 hours) – 12 miles
Mountain Panoramas, Glacial Lakes
3: Camp Dixon – Los Perros (4.5 hours) – 8 miles
Hilly Forest, Up-Close Glaciers, Base of the Pass
4: Los Perros – Paso (5 hours) – 5 miles
Scaling the Mountain Pass, Epic View of Glacier Grey, 3hrs of Steep Downhill
5: Paso – Paine Grande – (9.5 hours) – 16 miles
Hanging Bridges and Ladders, All the Glacial Views, Peaks and Valleys, Waterfalls Galore
6: Paine Grande – Camp Italiano (3 hours + 1hr side trip) – 5 miles
Mellow Meander Through Foothills of Dramatic Mountains
7: Camp Italiano – Chileno (8 hours) – 15 miles
Vast Reflective Lakes, Rolling Hill Panoramas, Ascending the Path of a River Gorge
8: Chileno- Torres Del Paine and Return – (3.5 hours) – 4 miles
Straight Ascent From River Valley to the Park’s Revered Piece de Resistance and Back
9: Chileno – Hotel Torres (2 hours + 3 hour return bus to PN) – 4 miles
Easy Downhill Traverse Back to Civilization at the Base of the Mountain
Trip Superlatives: The Best and Most Difficult Parts of the Trek + Advice For Others Planning to Visit Torres Del Paine
Most Useful Item(s) of Gear In Your Pack:
Michelle: My Merino Buff, which I used as a pillowcase, headband, hat, scarf, hairtie and hand towel. Also, Hiking Poles, which I can’t imagine doing the trail without.
Greg: Leatherman and a pair of flip flops: while the Leatherman has many common uses for camping, it was most helpful in cutting avocados. Since I accidentally bought 9 of them, I had to do this fairly often. Also, it worked really well crafting a custom foot orthotic for Michelle which was made of various materials from our first aid kits. Flips flops were crucial when you really need a break from those trail shoes!
Christina: REI Hiking poles: because you never know when you’re going to take a misstep and have your bag throw you off balance! Especially important on this trail where you have to navigate rivers, steep inclines, and narrow, windy passages where a misstep could send you over a cliff!
Shaun: Helinox camping chairs – There is nothing better in the back country than a back-rest. These were our one “luxury item” and they were worth every extra ounce of weight. We definitely got some jealous sideways looks from trekkers when we were happily perched in our chairs at camp.
Least Useful Item of Gear In Your Pack:
M: The two pairs of shorts I packed – I only ended up using them once, and would’ve been fine with a single pair
G: A book: our priority was moving along the trail quickly, eating and setting up camp as soon as we arrived. Since our plans were ambitious on most days, we didn’t have too much free time and the book was just extra weight and a distraction from priorities like eating and drinking Chilean boxed wine.
C: Camping plates: with backpacking food, you’re never really eating something that couldn’t be eaten in a bowl. Plates are just limiting and create excess weight in your pack.
S: Rain pants. Fortunately we had fantastic weather and the horizontal rain / wind combo we were fearing never eventuated. Unfortunately, these just lived at the bottom of my pack the entire time.
Best Trail Snack:
M: Bearded Brothers Energy Bars. The savory flavors like “coconut curry” and “outrageous orange kale” were a delicious departure from the usual super sweet and mostly filled with oats or dates kind of bars we normally buy. I was also tickled at the idea of being able to eat kale and beets in dried form in the backcountry. I bought a dozen of them for the trip between me and Shaun, and we and never got tired of them.
G: Cheese packets: individually wrapped packets you buy from the Chilean supermarket don’t go moldy the way fresh cheese does (trust me…we found this out the hard way). It also feels super special to eat cheese when you’re living on the same dehydrated camping meals. Oh, and if you buy these, make sure to keep them out of the sun (they will melt), and try mixing them with your dinner when you need a little something extra on that beef stroganoff.
C: Empanadas! A rare trekking snack for sure! Chileans in general are all about these things, so obviously the Refugios on the trail carried them, which we found out on Day 7. At that stage, I was so ready for anything that wasn’t pre-packaged, de-hydrated, or full of preservatives, so this empanada was heavenly.
S: BBQ chickpeas from the Unimarc supermarket in Puerto Natales. When we were working hard and sweating, the salt from these was just what I needed. The only bad part was that they’re so addicting, it’s difficult not eat the whole bag.
Best View of the Trail:
M: The much anticipated Torres Del Paine. They were absolutely regal – everything I imagined they would be and more. While the pictures we took turned out well, pictures just can’t do the place justice. It was a true finale moment of the trail for me, having just backpacked over 65 miles and climbed an hour and a half straight up a mountain of rubble and boulders to get to that beautiful view. Worth every step.
G: Los Cuernos: I found these mountains interesting from every angle because they are so jagged and tall. I even bought a poster of them. You can only see them for about two days of the hike so I found this unique feature to be very special and worth the work of hiking around them.
C: Glacier Grey: You really can’t get an appreciation for the scale of a glacier from photos or TV. Seeing Glacier Grey in person was mind-blowing- not only for the scale, but for the knowledge that you’re looking at a natural feature that had been around since the ice age.
S: The view of Valle Frances from Italiano. You have to use your peripheral vision to see all of the mountains and glaciers from this viewpoint. The panorama feature on the camera was useful, but couldn’t even begin to capture it. This was about the fullest mountain view we saw on the entire hike.
Most Difficult Stretch of the Hike:
M: The 9.5 hour day from Paso to Paine Grande. By day 5, I had figured out that my hiking boots are about a half size too big, and I hadn’t yet mastered my elaborate bandage technique or realized how useful ibuprofen and arnica (A LIFESAVER) can be to manage pain. That day was my favorite in many respects: some of the best features and scenery of the entire trail, but it was also the most painful on my feet which was really frustrating. The last couple miles I was relying on my poles to crutch me downhill into camp, and to boot: it was the only day I got sunburned, and also discovered that I have a mysterious Patagonian grass allergy… so by mile 16 I was a sneezing, limping mess. Things got a lot better after we got into camp, took our first showers in 5 days, had a cold beer, and indulged in the weirdest craving I’ve ever had for half a can of Pringles potato chips, which we bought from the Refugio mini-market.
G: Uphill to the pass: I really disliked the shale rock pass because your feet are never really secure on the trail and you could see the pass uphill for a few hours before actually getting to it, which is a little demoralizing when you’re carrying such a huge pack. However: the top of the pass is a great milestone in the trip, so it is super awesome to get to the top – especially since most visitors to the park don’t go on this part of the trail (it’s only meant for badasses).
C: Downhill to paso: Being a short person with not overly muscular legs, downhills are my least favorite. Paso was 3 hours of steep loose gravely paths mixed with banked steps that I’d have to practically sit on to get down. It’s like doing hundreds of squats with a third of your weight on your back! Needless to say the next day I was hurting and had a tough time even stepping down a 4 inch depression in the ground.
S: Up to the Torres viewpoint with all the traffic. You definitely notice the difference between the front and back side of the park, and the Torres path exemplifies this. I love getting into rhythms when hiking, and nothing breaks your stride like pulling over to let people come down or short stepping behind a guided tour. The view at the end makes it all totally worth it but I had to put effort into relaxing when stuck in trail traffic.
Best Trail Invention:
M: HUGE props to Shaun for inventing the backcountry foot bath. After my feet started hurting a few days in, he experimented with using both my rain jacket and ultimately the waterproof dry bag as a container for warm (jet boiled + cold river) water and minty Dr. Bronners soap to soak my feet in. In tandem with Christina’s hot stone massage, we were basically running a backcountry spa out of our campsite.
G: Buff pillow: Shaun and Michelle have been crafting this invention for generations, and we perfected it on this trip. It goes like this: you take a down jacket, roll it up, then add your fleece and roll that around the puffy down. Finally, stretch the Buff over it as a pillow case and voila! A luxury camping pillow.
C: Hot stone back massage: Normally, backpacking is a relatively painless activity for me. I’d never had any previous issues with my shoulder or back, but even before the trip began I was having sharp, shooting pains in my shoulders. After 2 days on the trail with 40+ lb packs, the pain wasn’t getting any better despite copious amounts of ibproufin. Knowing our third day would be one of the longest days on the trail, I was getting desperate for anything to ease the pain and was ready to get creative. Thinking it might just be a wall of knots in my back, I invented a self administered hot stone massage process using a river rock and hand warmers. After about an hour of pressing the sorest parts of my shoulders onto the warm rocks, it amazingly worked took away the pain!
S: Freeze dry food rubbish [garbage] bags. Freeze dried food usually has a good zip seal, and we had to carry them anyway since there are few to no places to throw away garbage trail. A great multi-functional use of something in our bags also helped keep the overall weight of our packs down.
Biggest Piece of Advice For Anyone Doing the “O” Circuit:
M: Bring all of the layers. I used everything in my pack (sometimes all in the same day) including rain gear, long pants, shorts (once), tank tops, t-shirts, warm down layers, long sleeve shirts and a fleece. Also mentally prepare yourself for what 8+ hours of walking with a heavy pack feels like. The first few days before we ate into our heavy food supply took some mental grit to keep with the planned pace.
G: Pack dry, clean night clothes. I kept mine in a big dry bag separate from everything else so that they would always be clean. While I definitely stunk up my other trail clothes, the night clothes always got aired out and felt great to put on, even at the end of the trip. I had high performance Columbia long sleeve shirt and ultra sexy camo long underwear with super thick Carrhart socks. It was something to look forward to every night.
S: You don’t need to bring a water filter because there is plenty of good water on the trail. Only fill your camelback halfway, or what you need for the day because the water is a significant amount of extra weight. The water in the park is pristine. Even the tiniest trickle running through the well-trod grassland runs crystal clear. All of the Refugios get their water from the river anyway, so there is no difference between the water coming out of the tap and the water you can dunk your bottle into on the trail. More advice for best use of a Camelbak: fill yours up completely the first day, and walk the first major section of your trail. Then, use this as a guide to how much water you actually drink, and guauge how much you need for the longer days and shorter days on the trail. Otherwise, it’s just wasted weight if you turn up to camp with a half full bladder of water.
C: Customize your first aid kit to fit your specific needs. You can buy a first aid kit with low dosage, one time use items, but if you anticipate more consistent minor irritations happening over multiple days, then consider your kit as an overall a body maintenance pack instead of just for first aid. Things I brought with me that were REALLY helpful were items like: eyedrops, handwarmers, anti-chaffing cream, hand moisturizing wax, bean-o 🙂 and baby wipes which were super important when we weren’t around a shower and the river was too cold to bathe in.
What You Learned (About Yourself or In General) On the Trail
G: Don’t skimp on hygiene and you’ll feel better. It was fairly easy to get access to water near the camps that didn’t have showers, and some people were at least washing their feet and using cloths on their bodies when nobody in our group was. We had to make it 5 days without a shower which is not really that fun and kind of dampens your spirit a bit. If I could do it over again, I would have perfected the in-between trail light showers so that I felt more fresh and so clean clean on a daily basis.
S: There is a big difference between the front and back side of the park. On the back side we got passed by everyone, and on the front side we were the ones passing people. This was our first large backpacking trip, so we found out that we fall somewhere in the middle: faster than the typical W trekker, but slower than the typical O trekker. I think our pace was good for us though, with enough breaks and photo opps to keep us all happy.
C: My legs don’t go fast while carrying a heavy pack. Doing the hike really made me realize that sometimes I had to go a little slower than I normally do… I’m used to not encountering any challenges with athletic activities, and it was hard for me to be slower than everyone else sometimes. I learned not to underestimate the weight and duration of a trip like this, versus going into it like I would a more typical two night adventure. There’s definitely some tough parts of the trail and you have to sustain an even pace over a greater period of time.
M: I’m stronger and more determined than I even realized. There were times when I wanted to sit down and cry when my feet were in huge amounts of pain, but I gritted my teeth and set the pace into camp instead, which made me feel really proud of myself. I also think it hit me how important it is to stay present in the moment in those times when you’re struggling internally. We had many hours of silence in our own thoughts as we hiked, and I actively had to change my inner narrative from “how soon are we going to be there, I hurt” to “this is the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen, how can I take it in fully and snap a mental picture to remember it forever.” I also really appreciate having, and being around significant others who expect and encourage strength and don’t coddle me and Christina for being female. We carried some seriously heavy weight and completed a challenging athletic feat. The whole experience made me really happy and proud of us.
Michelle and Shaun, best friends and married for 4 years, are taking a break from professional life in San Francisco to follow their dream of traveling the world for a year with backpacks. Drawn to understand other cultures and get off the beaten track, they are spending anywhere from a few weeks to several months in each major region of the world, sometimes working and/or volunteering in the community; other times simply being open to new adventures that each culture and natural setting has to offer. To follow them and their journey and even suggest where they head next, head on over to AllBonVoyage.