‘Are you excited to walk and camp for the next five days?’ asked the guy I had been sitting next to on the bus from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas for the past 12 hours, as rain started pelting the window. ‘Not really, no’, I mumbled back to him as he chuckled away.
But was I looking forward to seeing glaciers, fjords, and breathtakingly beautiful nature? Of course. And hiking for 5 days to experience it in Torres Del Paine, one of Chile’s national parks was the only way to do that. I was up for the challenge. But challenges by nature are not supposed to be easy – I learnt that a year ago when I was training to run my first marathon. But a 4 hour run takes a different kind of endurance than a 5 day walk with all of your camping equipment and food on your back.
Hiking has never really appealed to me before now. I’ve always thought it for more the outdoorsy ‘Bear Grylls’ types. But when planning my trip to South America this one place kept popping up as a ‘must do’: Torres Del Paine. When it came to the day before I was due to start my hike, I realised I was hugely underprepared and hadn’t even considered things like waterproofing my rucksack. (Yes – you HAVE to do it if you want any chance of having dry clothes to get into at night).
So here goes: my five top tips from one amateur hiker to another. There are plenty more comprehensive lists out there on what you should take, and routes you should go (‘Back-packer.org‘ + ‘Cascada.travel‘) but these are the five things that I think are essential to know when considering whether you are up for the challenge, not only in Patagonia but also in other hiking destinations over the world:
- Know what you’re getting yourself into – doing a bit of research before you start is key. In the park you can do three different types of trek which all range in difficulty and length. There’s the ‘W’ trek which usually takes between 4-5 days, the longer ‘O’ trek which takes around 7 days and if you’re really up for the challenge you can do the ‘Q’ trek which takes 10 days. 5 days is enough for me so I opted for the ‘W’ trek which is an 100km trek over 5 days, with around 4-8 hours of walking per day. It’s not easy, and unfortunately it’s not cheap either, so know what you’re getting yourself into before you commit.
- Respect the elements. Torres Del Paine is situated right next to the Patagonian ice field, meaning you can feel all four seasons in a day. Due to the unpredictably of the weather you have to plan for all eventualities. There aren’t many certainties with trekking the Torres but there definitely is one: you will get wet. We had sun, rain, wind, (and it can even snow) – all in the space of a day. The Patagonian summer can be equally as cold as a British winter so respect the elements and prepare for them.
- Forward planning is key. Generally when travelling everyone tells you – ‘don’t book anything, leave it to chance, you never know where you’ll end up!’ and with most places this is definitely true. But when hiking you want to do the exact opposite as leaving things to chance is when things start to unravel, or worse you miss out completely. With Torres Del Paine, and other popular hiking spots, make sure you book your camping sites or refugios well in advance as they are now on a reservation only basis. Also, unless you came especially for the trek you’ll probably need to rent equipment. You can rent everything you need in Puerto Natales – tent, mat, stove, etc. To save on costs you can usually get gas canisters for free at local hostels. It’s also good to support the local economy and shop around for deals.
- Know the times for sunrise and sunset. In Torres del Paine during mid-March it got dark around 8pm so making sure you woke up early and spend more time trekking in daylight hours wasn’t so much of an issue, but generally its a good rule of thumb to know how many daylight hours they are and to not trek outside of these times. There’s nothing more jarring than the sun starting to set and the thought that you are still an hour or further away from camp.
- Lastly, have fun: before going everyone told me I’d be hiking for days in soaking wet clothes and probably be swept off my feet by a tornado or a rising river bank. Although it did rain I didn’t die, or even really get that wet. The danger never materialised. Yes, the trek at times is really hard and at one point you are going to want to stop, but you shouldn’t. The biggest mountains you climb aren’t the ones beneath your feet, but the ones in your head. Finding the will power and inner strength to keep going when you’d rather turn back around is always the most challenging, but also the most rewarding. So make sure you have time to stop and appreciate the beauty of the landscape because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience a truly amazing place!
Read more from Elly on her personal blog, here.