The O Circuit vs. The W Trek: Which to choose?

After deciding to trek in Torres del Paine your next step is to decide which trek to do, the W Trek or the O Circuit. This blog will explore the similarities and difference between the two treks so that you can choose which one is the best fit for your Patagonian adventure.

Park Geography:
Torres del Paine National Park spans over 180,000 hectares and lies 112 km north of the coastal city, Puerto Natales. The granite pillars, Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine), are found on the east side of the park while Glacier Grey and John Gardner Pass are found on the west side. Los Cuernos del Paine (The Horns of Paine) are to the south just above Lake Nordenskjöld.

The O Circuit, also referred to as the Paine Circuit, forms a full loop around the park, while the W Trek makes a “W” shape to the south of the park. The O Circuit includes the W Trek, which makes up the southern portion of the circuit.

Itinerary and routes:
The W trek is primarily trekked east to west starting at the park entrance located in the south east corner of the park and ending at Glacier Grey. The O Circuit can only be hiked in a counterclockwise direction also starting at the park entrance.

The first leg of the O Circuit is to the Towers of Paine where you will hike through the Ascencio Valley. From here, the trail begins it counterclockwise loop, following the Paine River until reaching Lake Paine. From Lake Paine to Lake Dickson the top section of the loop is formed. This area is more remote and sees fewer trekkers which is a big plus for those who prefer less crowded tails. Once reaching Lake Dickson, the trail moves south west until reaching the highest point of the trek, John Gardner Pass at 1200m/3900ft. The trail is challenging at this point, but trekkers are reward with stellar views of the Patagonian Ice Fields and Glacier Grey. After descending down the pass, the trail will meet up with the W-Trek and the trial may become noticeably more crowded. The trail continues along the W Trek, but O Circuit trekkers will be hiking in the opposite direction from the majority of people trekking the W. For the O Circuit 7 Days the journey ends at Paine Grande followed by a picturesque ferry ride across Lake Pehoe. On the other hand, with the O Full Circuit 9 Days trekkers will complete the full circuit, ending where they began, at the park entrance.

Like the O Circuit, the first leg of the W Trek will be to the Towers of Paine but after coming down out of the Ascencio Valley instead of heading east like with the O Circuit, trekkers will head west along Lake Nordenskjöld. After passing the Horns, trekkers will go up the French Valley spotting hanging glaciers along the way. From the French Valley the trail will head towards Paine Grande and then up towards Lake Grey and Glacier Grey. The same distance and trail is covered with the Classic W Trek 5 Days and the W Trek Highlights – 4 Days/ 3 Nights. The main difference is that with the W Trek Highlights, the trekking begins on day one of the itinerary while with the Classic W Trek, trekking begins on the second day of the itinerary.

A great way to add some extra adventure into your trek is by ice hiking on Glacier Grey, which is possible with both the O Circuit and W Trek. Ice hiking is possible on the 5th day of the Classic W Trek 5 Days as well as the 5th day of the O Full Circuit 9 days. It’s important to note that ice hiking must be done early in the morning.

Both the O Circuit and W Trek have a guided and self-guided option. To read more about our guided and self-guided options, please click here.

Time and length:
The W Trek is approximately 80 km/50 miles long while the O Circuit is 110 km/68 miles.
The W Trek can be completed in 4 or 5 days while the O Circuit requires 7 to 9 days. The duration of the trek depends on factors such as what time of day you start the trek, trekking pace and side hikes.

Due to its shorter completion time, the W Trek receives more trekkers than the O Circuit. In reverse, the O Circuit, taking longer to complete, receives fewer trekkers. The national park does not limit how many trekkers are permitted to do the W Trek (as long as they have accommodation reserved – see below), however the park only allows 80 trekkers to be on the top section of the O Circuit at a time.

Accommodation: Lodges and Camping
Torres del Paine offers two types of accommodation for trekkers, lodges (in Spanish called “refugios”) and campsites. Along the W Trek it is possible to stay in lodges for the duration of your trek if you so choose. Camping is also available if this is your preference and a mix of camping and staying in lodges is also possible.

Despite whether you choose to sleep in the lodges or camp, please note that along the W Trek you will eat all of your meals in the lodges.

With the O Circuit however, camping is compulsory along the north side of the loop as there are no lodges between Refugio Las Torres, near the park’s entrance, and Refugio Dickson. Once the trail reaches Refugio Dickson, lodges are available, but you can continue to camp as well if you would like. For the portion of the O Circuit in which there are no lodges, it is necessary to hire the services of porter to carry your food and cooking supplies. The porter will also cook your meals for you. After the fourth day of the trek, your will no longer need the help of your porter and you can continue on without them.

Lodging within the park is limited and trekkers without reservations at lodges or campsites will under no circumstances be permitted to stay overnight in the park. Accommodation books up quickly (especially in peak season), so please be sure to make your booking well in advance. To read more about why it’s important to book in advance, please click here.

Difficulty level:
Neither the O Circuit nor the W Trek are known for being particularly strenuous, but naturally, due to its longer duration, the O Circuit is more challenging. The O Circuit also includes trekking up and over John Gardner pass, which can be a difficult climb.

For the O Circuit, trekkers spend around 4 to 10 hours trekking per day whereas with the W Trek, trekkers spend around 5 to 8 hours a day trekking. For more information on training for Torres del Paine, please click here.

Seasons:
High season in Torres del Paine National Park runs from October 1st to April 30th (summertime in the southern hemisphere) and the low season is from May 1st to September 30th (wintertime).

The W Trek is open to trekkers year round, while the O Circuit is only open in the summertime. A good time to hike the W trek is from September to April and for the O Circuit, November to March is best.

The busiest time in the park is from November to February.

It’s common to experience what feels like all four seasons in one day in Patagonia, so make sure you are prepared. Torres del Paine is infamous for its high winds which are present in all four seasons. On average, the warmest month is January and the coldest month is July. The driest month is November while the wettest month is May.

Differences in packing:
When packing for either the O Circuit or W Trek, keep in mind that you will be carrying what you pack, so be wary of over-packing. A 35 – 40 liter backpack should provide you with the right amount of space to carry what you will need for your trek.

While there aren’t major differences between what you should bring for each trek, it would be a good idea to bring extra inner layers of clothing for the O Circuit simply being that it’s a longer trek. Bring along extra socks, shirts and underwear.

It is not possible to rent gear once inside of the national park, so double check before departing from your hotel in Puerto Natales that you have everything that you will need.

To see our recommend packing list, please click here.

W Trek

O Circuit

Duration

4 – 5 Days

7 – 9 Days

Length

80 km/50 miles

110 km/68 miles

Highlights

Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine), Lake Nordenskjöld, Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine), French Valley, Glacier Gray

*ice hiking on Glacier Grey optional

Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine), Lake Nordenskjöld, Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine), French Valley, Glacier Gray, John Gardner Pass, Los Perros Glacier  

*ice hiking on Glacier Grey optional

Accommodation

Lodges, camping or mixed

Camping until Refugio Dickson, after Refugio Dickson either camping, lodges or mixed

Season

September – April

November – March

Guided option

Yes

Yes

Self-guided option

Yes

Yes