The O Circuit Trek in Torres del Paine, Patagonia is likely among the most well-known treks in the world. The O Trek is challenging, but with a little preparation, it’s quite possible to hike on your own, self-guided. Read on for our complete guide to hiking the O Circuit in Patagonia.
Table of Contents
- 1 About the O Circuit Patagonia
- 2 Best time of year to hike the “O”
- 3 Getting to Torres del Paine
- 4 Camping in Torres del Paine Patagonia
- 5 Torres del Paine O Circuit Itinerary
- 6 Navigating and Hiking Patagonia without a Guide
- 7 Rentals in Puerto Natales
- 8 Health and Safety
- 9 Responsible Travel and Park Rules
- 10 Packing List
- 11 What kind of food should you take?
About the O Circuit Patagonia
The O Circuit is a 130km loop around Torres del Paine, Chile. Most people complete the loop around the park in 7 days. Torres del Paine is an insanely popular park that receives over 252,000 visitors per year but the nice part about the O trek is that it takes you to the remote, back-side of the park so that you can get away from the crowds. That remoteness fades on the front side where it joins the W hike, but the fantastic views more than make up for the crowds of day hikers and folks completing the W trek.
Best time of year to hike the “O”
The best time of year to hike the circuit is in the Patagonian spring and summer, between November to March. The trails are typically opened for the season by CONAF at the beginning of November.
Regardless of what time of year you decide to do your Torres del Paine Circuit trek, you can expect the weather in Patagonia to be notoriously fickle. Plan to spend some time hiking in the rain or have peaks obscured by clouds, but know that it probably won’t last your whole trek, and with strong winds, the weather can change in an instant in Patagonia. The most popular site that all the locals used for forecasting the weather in Torres del Paine is Wind Guru.
Getting to Torres del Paine
The base for Torres del Paine is a small town called Puerto Natales. Puerto Natales doesn’t have a whole lot going on, but it has some cute shops, a beautiful dock, and more importantly, a host of outdoor shops that sell and rent the gear required to hike in Torres del Paine.
There are no flights into Puerto Natales so the easiest way to get to there is to fly into Puerto Arenas and then take a bus for the remaining 254km. If you’re coming from Argentinian Patagonia there are buses departing from El Calafate. The journey is 350km and takes about 4 and a half hours, allowing time for the border crossing.
From Puerto Natales, you have two choices to get to Torres del Paine National Park and begin your Patagonian adventure. You can either take a catamaran to Pain Grande or a bus to Laguna Amarga, where you’ll pay your park entrance fees and then hop on a shuttle to Las Torres Hotel.
You can hike from Laguna Amarga as well but if you’re going to hike the full O trek it’s probably not worth the extra effort. You’ll get plenty of hiking, don’t worry! You can find all the information you need on the Catamaran and bus schedules here.
Camping in Torres del Paine Patagonia
I can’t stress this enough – make your campsite reservations EARLY as they book up quickly. And by early I mean you need to make your reservations for the Torres del Paine circuit months in advance. This isn’t a hike you can just show up for as all campsite reservations need to be made in advance and shown before checking in. Even the free CONAF sites require a reservation.
If your desired campsite is not available you may need to be a bit flexible in your itinerary. That might mean a longer hike to the next campsite on the circuit or tweaking your dates. If you aren’t able to get your desired dates there are cancellations at times so it can pay off to keep checking the websites. Some have had success checking in with the Fantastico Sur / Vertice / CONAF offices in Puerto Natales but I would only do that as a last resort as it’s leaving a lot to chance! Print your campsite reservations off or have them available on your phone as you will need to show them to the ranger at each campsite.
Campsite reservations need to be made at a combination of 2-3 different agencies depending on where you choose to stay. These agencies are:
- Conaf: Paso, Italiano, Torres Note that all of the CONAF sites are free but still require a reservation in advance. Also, Torres campground was closed during our trip and it doesn’t appear to have a set date to re-open.
- Vertice: Dickson, Los Perros, Grey, and Paine Grande
- Fantastico Sur: Seron, Los Cuernos, Chileno Central, and Frances
All of the campsites on the O Trek are fairly well appointed with a sheltered cooking area, a sink for washing your dishes, bathrooms, etc. Most have showers and outlets for charging your phone or camera. On the W side, almost all of the campsites have WiFi available for purchase, but we think it’s a good idea to get off the grid for a bit. The campsites on the back side of the O (Seron, Dickson, Paso) and the free CONAF sites are a little more rugged than the more popular sites on the front side of the park.
Glamping and Refugios
There are lots of other options along the trek if carrying a tent isn’t your style. For a price, you can rent tents that are pre-setup so that you don’t have to lug your tent on your back for 100+km. It sure would be nice to not have to deal with setting up a tent when you’re tired after a long day of hiking! There are also Refugios that you can stay at if camping really isn’t your style.
Don’t want to carry 7+ days of food on your back? You can purchase meals in advance at all of the Refugios. Doing so is a bit pricey but you won’t be complaining about the extra weight on your back. All of these services can be booked at the Fantastico Sur and Vertice websites when you’re making reservations.
Torres del Paine O Circuit Itinerary
If you’re trying to figure out how to book a self-guided hike of the O Circuit your head is probably spinning now. Don’t worry, that’s normal if you’re planning on hiking Patagonia without a guide. When we were planning our trip we found it to be a lot to take in as well. Wrapping your head around the terrain, the different campsites, and where you should stay each night is difficult.
We had to pull out a pen and paper and write down campsites and dates to figure it out, and it took a whole day of frustration in front of a computer to lock everything down. The booking websites are in Spanish and we found they often didn’t work very well. I recommend having a bottle of wine handy to ease the pain, or at least enjoy a glass afterwards to celebrate surviving the booking process!
To make things a bit easier for you to plan your trek, here’s our suggested itinerary and a bit of a write up on the day by day based on our time doing the Patagonia circuit. I’ve also included alternative campsites that you can take a look at if your first preference isn’t available.
If you’re doing the W you have to consider whether to hike clockwise or counter-clockwise, but on the O circuit, that decision is made for you as you are only allowed to hike counter-clockwise from Seron to Paso.
That next decision is whether to start at Paine Grande or Central / Hotel Las Torres. We recommend starting at Central / Las Torres as you’ll start on the quieter back side of the park before re-joining the crowds on the W, and you’ll get to finish with a spectacular hike up to the base of the towers which is a great reward for hiking the full 130km!
Las Torres Hotel to Seron
Take the bus from Puerto Natales to Laguna Amarga and then the shuttle to the welcome centre. After getting your bearings you’ll hike about 9km to Seron which is a nice easy warmup to hiking in Patagonia. Seron is a nice little grassy campsite in a fenced off field. When we did the hike there was a temporary shelter set up for cooking and eating in.
Seron to Dickson
From Seron it’s an 18.5km hike to Dickson campsite, one of the most beautiful on the trek. Your first landmark will be the Corion Ranger station which is actually a former campground. You’ll have to provide your Passport information and reservation details to pass.
From there it’s a trek through the forest until you come out on a knoll with fantastic views above Dickson. The campsite is right next to the lake, which when we were there had an ice dam and a number of beautiful icebergs on it.
Dickson to Los Perros
Next up, is Los Perros which is a relatively short 9km from Dickson. It’s situated in the forest and is a short walk away from a viewpoint of the Los Perros Glacier. When you’re approaching the campsite you’ll walk along the Los Perros River, keep your eyes peeled for Torrent ducks.
Los Perros to Grey (or Paso)
This is the longest day of the O circuit. First, you’ll have to climb the John Gardner Pass which requires a climb to 1,200m and is famous for inclement weather. The weather is known to be worse later in the day which is why you’ll want to get an early start from Los Perros.
After attaining the pass you’ll have great views towards Grey Glacier (provided it’s not cloudy) and you’ll hike down through the forest and along the glacier to Paso campsite. If you managed to snag a CONAF booking with Paso you can call it a day here, otherwise, you’ve got another 10km to Grey campsite.
The hike from Paso to Grey has some great views that really show how extensive the Grey glacier is and you’ll hike along some very narrow suspension bridges. It’s probably best to take these one at a time!
On our O trek, we spent this whole day in a hail/rain storm. That storm was particularly bad as we were heading up John Gardner pass with winds strong enough that they could almost knock you over! Still think you want to go hike in Patagonia?
Grey is a well-established and popular campsite with all of the modern amenities you could imagine and after hiking the back side of the O it will probably feel like a thriving metropolis. If you’re going to book one meal along the circuit this is probably the place to do it as the meals looked fantastic.
Grey to Paine Grande
The award for best campsite views in the park is probably a tie between Paine Grande and Dickson but personally, I think I have to give a small edge to Grande. It’s a very popular and busy campsite as the Catamaran dock is here and many start their W or O treks from this campsite. To get here from Grey is a relatively short 11km hike. You’ll see great views of Lago Grey and Glacier Grey will slowly fade into the distance.
Paine Grande to Italiano (or Frances)
Your next campsite on the O circuit will be either Italiano or Frances campsite. Regardless of which one you’re staying it, drop your bags off and head up to the two viewpoints of Frances Glacier and the Britanico viewpoint where you can see the backside of the towers. It’s a steep climb but you’ll be happy to be hiking without the extra weight!
Italiano campsite is pretty rugged but it’s perfectly situated at the junction for the viewpoints. Frances is only a short walk away and has a few more facilities.
Italiano/Frances to Central, Chileno, or Torres
Departing Frances and Italiano, you will walk through the forest and then along the entirety of Lago Nordenskjold. The views are quite different than elsewhere on the trek and provide a nice change of pace.
Close to the end, there’s a fork to Chileno and the towers. Depending on where you have booked to spend the night you can go left to head up to Chileno or right and straight to Central.
Chileno is a bit closer to the towers which means you can sleep in about an hour and a half more the next day, but to book the campsite you have to book full board so it’s a pricey option.
Torres is the closest to the towers as it’s only about a 45-minute hike away (Although it’s a very steep hike!). When we went Torres was closed for construction and it looks like that continues to be the case.
Which means you’ll probably wind up staying where you took off from the first day, Central. Central is a nice campground with picnic tables and lots of room to spread out.
Central to the Towers
The only problem with Central is that it’s about 4-5 hours from the viewpoint for the towers, but there aren’t really any better options until the Torres campground re-opens. If you plan to hike for sunrise you’ll have to wake up stupid early, probably around 3-4 AM, and hike by the light of the stars and your headlamp.
The trail is easy to follow and there will likely be a few other crazy souls doing the same early morning hike. The early morning jaunt is worth it to see the sunrise on the towers and it’s a fitting way to end your time in Patagonia. On the way down you’ll appreciate how much quieter the trail was early in the morning as it gets very busy!
- You’ll get a map at the entrance that’s similar to the one below.
- The trail is (very) well-worn and easy to follow. Junctions are well marked.
- Download Maps.me and the offline area for Patagonia. Pre-mark your campsites and you can check the elevation profile for the day and how far you have left to hike to the next campsite, even while offline.
Torres del Paine Map
You can find an elevation profile for the O trek here.
A quick note on distances, and elevations: We found that distance and elevation data for the park varied depending on the source. The signs in the park didn’t always match the map and vice versa. Use this information as a guideline to plan your trek, not an exact measurement.
Rentals in Puerto Natales
Whatever you need for the hike you can find in Puerto Natales. It’s a remote town so expect prices to be a bit higher than elsewhere in Chile or back home (wherever you’re from) so if it’s possible we certainly recommend bringing your own gear from home. Of course, that’s not always feasible depending on where you’re coming from.
Being on a long trip around the world we did not have all of our backcountry hiking gear with us but we had a great experience renting our gear from Rental Natales and the owner spent a lot of time with everyone making sure they were completely prepared for the park. Wherever you rent, do make sure that you check over the equipment as you’ll be spending a lot of time relying on it.
You can find some cheaper rentals, but if you’re planning to be in the backcountry for 7 days or longer it’s worth it to pay up for quality gear. It’s especially important not to cheap out on your tent as you’ll hear stories of strong winds knocking poorly made tents over. Make sure you to show up at rental shops earlier in the day as at times they can run out of gear.
Health and Safety
You’ll find hikers of all skill and experience levels hiking in Torres del Paine. In fact, Torres del Paine is many hikers’ first exposure to multi-day backpacking trips. An interesting place to start but certainly a beautiful one and at least there are other people around to help if something goes wrong. If it’s your first trip backcountry I’d recommend sticking to the W rather than the full O.
If you’re light on experience (or want more information about the trek), Erratic Rock hosts an information session every afternoon at 3 PM in Puerto Natales. If you don’t have a lot of experience backcountry hiking this is a good time to get any questions you have about the park answered and they can help you confirm you have all the gear you need. They’re a popular place to rent your gear from but keep in mind that their gear is also well worn because of that popularity.
Some say that the water on the trail is drinkable because it is glacier-fed but this is debatable. With the popularity of the trek you have to consider if you really trust everyone that came before you to follow Leave No Trace rules so that water sources aren’t contaminated? Especially later in the season it can be an issue and people have gotten sick before. The backcountry is not somewhere you want to be sick so I’d recommend taking a filter bottle or iodine pills to be on the safe side.
Responsible Travel and Park Rules
- Follow Leave No Trace Principles
- Visitors are not allowed to stray off the hiking paths
- No campfires are permitted
- Using your camp stove is only permitted in designated areas
- Reservations are required for all campsites. Don’t try to sneak in, you’re just stealing conservation money from the Park.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but it’s a starting point with the essentials for hiking in Torres del Paine. Keep in mind that whatever you pack, you have to carry for 130km. So think long and hard about whether you really need it and keep your weight down. Here are some of the essentials that you should take:
- A good three season tent
- Sleeping Bag (We recommend something around the -9C range)
- Sleeping Bag Liner
- Sleeping Pad
- Backpack (probably about 60L) and a Rain Cover that fits tightly – Some say that rain covers are useless in the wind but we disagree. If it fits snuggly it will be fine. If you’re worried about it you can always use the lo-fi method of wrapping everything inside in garbage bags.
- Waterproof bags and/or Ziploc bags and/or garbage bags
- Clothes – We recommend keeping it down to one shirt for hiking, one for the evenings
- Mid-Layer Jacket and/or Fleece
- Rain Jacket & Rain Pants
- Gloves, Toque, and a Buff
- Hiking Poles
- Hiking Boots – Goretex strongly recommended and you may also want Gaiters
- Stove, Fuel, a Pot, and a lighter – Many ask how much fuel to take for the trek. It depends on how many meals you’re boiling water for and what type of meals you’re preparing but if you’re just boiling water for meals a big gas canister and a small one is probably sufficient. We managed to get by with just 1 big canister but we were stingy with fuel. You can buy fuel on the W side of the trek if you’re in a pinch. Rental Natales also offered to buy back any unused fuel canisters when we purchased them.
- Multi-tool / Knife
- Filter Water Bottle
- Toiletries: Wet Wipes, Toilet Paper, Shampoo/Soap Toothpaste, Toothbrush
- First aid kit – Including bandaids, ibuprofen, hydration salts
- Cash – there are no ATMs along the trek
What kind of food should you take?
Generally, hiking food isn’t going to be super exciting as it needs to be shelf-stable, protein rich, and quick and easy to cook. Take everything out of unnecessary packaging and put it in Ziploc bags.
Some of the typical food trekkers pack on the O circuit is:
- Dried fruits (A good way to spice up your couscous or oatmeal)
- Tea/Coffee/Hot Chocolate
- Trail mix & Granola Bars
- Peanut Butter
- Chocolate bars
- Dehydrated meals are of course the most convenient, especially if you’re able to bring them with you from abroad.
So that’s it! Let us know if you’ve got any questions about hiking the O trek in the comments. Enjoy, Patagonia is a beautiful area!