I completed the "W circuit" in 5 days, west to east. In my opinion, this is what you need to know for your preparations:
- The weather is unreliable and highly unpredictable. However, you need to book the Refugios way ahead of time... That means that if you are doing Refugios, accommodation arrangements are inflexible in a park where flexibility is a big plus. That's an argument in favor of backpacking vs. Refugios. But if you are like me, with little desire to carry tents, mats and sleeping bags, and if you only have 5 days to do the whole thing (and no spare days), you have to take what the park gives you. Take it easy and pray for good weather. Once you start walking your route is fixed and booked.
- You can't call the Refugios to change plans- they don't have a telephone. Communications inside the park is by radio only. The only Refugio with email service (no wifi, just a station that uses satellite) is Paine Grande. You will be disconnected from the world, hurray!!
- Doing west to east or east to west does not make a lot of difference. It really doesn't matter, compared to the other big factor: weather. You want to have the best weather for day 3, when you visit Valle del Frances in between Refugio Cuernos and Refugio Paine Grande, and for the sunrise in the Torres (morning of day 2 or day 5, depending on your direction). Since day 3 is right in the middle, going in either direction does not change your weather for day 3... But for the Torres, I'm glad I walked West to East because the best weather came at the end. But that was pure luck and I could have been the victim of the exact opposite situation. In any case, is not like you have a lot of flexibility. So again, pray for good weather, but if you could manage the schedule a bit, great weather is not that important in the West side of the W. Watching the glacier in not so good weather works just fine- while missing the Torres because of heavy fog could be very disappointing. By the way, it doesn't matter if you go in spring, summer or fall... you can get a storm at any time of the year.
- Some of the best views of the Cordillera Paine cannot be seen from the W circuit. It's not a bad idea to budget 1-2 extra days to have a more complete experience. I didn't do this... but I'm committed to come back to explore other areas of the park. By the way, the park is huge and the W is just a piece of it.
- You can't start a fire anywhere in the park, so no hot food for you unless purchased in the Refugios at somewhat abusive prices.
- Refugio Grey is a great place and by far my favorite Refugio. The ice trekking in the Glacier with BigFootPatagonia turned out to be amazing. I strongly recommend it.
- While people fantasize with the Torres, I found that the glacier, the Cuernos and the Nordenskjold lake are probably as interesting and beautiful.
- If you are from the US, try to stay calm and avoid jealousy when you learn that your European counterparts are taking 2, 3, 5 months off, while you're in a hurry to get the most out of your more limited vacation time.
- If you are taking a regular bus between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales upon landing at the airport, BOOK THE BUS in advance. I almost messed up all my plans for not doing this. I arrived late and there are only 1-2 buses departing Punta Arenas after 7pm. If they are full and they don't have booked passengers to pick up from the airport, they may not stop.
- There are plenty of electrical outlets in all Refugios... so you can reload your camera batteries.
- Trails are very well marked with the exception of the path between Campamento Italiano and the Mirador beyond Campamento Britanico, which is not too bad. You don't need GPS!
- Give some time to watch the fauna outside the W. There is a very nice trail starting from the Laguna Amarga gate that is full of guanacos and carcasses... the puma eats there.
- Enjoy! This is a truly phenomenal place.
If you own or manage Torres del Paine National Park, register now for free tools to enhance your listing, attract new reviews, and respond to reviewers.