Preparation, food, money, kit, politeness, open mindedness and a good travel insurance policy are essential for hiking, particularly in Latin America. One of the more challenging trips is the W trek in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. It takes four or five days and is named after the shape the route takes on a map. Well marked, populated by friendly travellers even out of season, it was a good place for a beginner to beef up his hamstrings and chow down the cereal bars.
Putting the same t-shirt on every morning may not be pleasant but once you’ve set off, you won’t notice. Savvy hikers were weighing their rucksacks before departure, which gave me encouragement to lighten my load significantly.
Being resourceful is knowing when and how to dry stuff – not packing extra trousers just in case. It is recommended to have something comfortable for the evening (by which I mean a second pair of trousers), and that should do it. There were, I must point out, ample stops or ‘refugios’, along the way, offering plenty of facilities, spots to hang clothes and refresh.
That said – the weather in the national park was more unpredictable than in Scotland. Having set out in a t-shirt under the blazing sun, we arrived at the towers of rock in a total blizzard – so I was pleased to have lots of layer and waterproofs at the ready. A useful packing list for the Torres is here.
I also managed to find a very good stick along my way, which had been marked at the top by a previous climber – but I was lucky. Many recommend taking a pair of hiking poles. Having something sturdy to support and take some of the load off your knees is highly recommended – something I’m sure newcomers and seasoned walkers alike will appreciate.
Fortunately resting and rehydrating in Patagonia is a treat: having fresh glacial water in abundance means less weight in the backpack, too.
The waterproof medium-heavy boots were also indispensable once we hit the snowline, despite the extra weight on the feet, so it’s worth bearing in mind that there are often surprises when abroad, and even with research it can be difficult to anticipate conditions.
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There is nothing quite like taking in the fresh air and having the wilderness all to yourself. But there’s equally no harm in asking your trail companions for a few minutes’ advice, because the benefit of sharing your experience and having somebody around is impossible to outweigh.
Other walkers will help you if you fall, but the more trust you have in your partner the better. If you twist your ankle, you want somebody you can count on to wait with you, or somebody that you can be completely confident will return if they need to go seek help after a more serious injury.
Ideally reach your destination before dark, but make sure you’ve a head-torch and don’t get caught out. It may sound obvious but it’s important to keep your hands free, watch your balance and look where you’re going. Steep edges and valleys require careful negotiation. It can be tempting on the return descent to run, particularly if time is tight – but it’s certainly not worth a twisted ankle or a fall down a ravine.
Keep left, give way to those coming uphill who might want to keep their momentum. I tended to pace myself for the group, pushing myself a little – though resting and rehydrating was often a very popular suggestion if others were clearly masking their fatigue. Short and regular stops are the safe and healthy option.
Finally, before you leave, make sure you have all the equipment you need. One convenient way to pay could be by credit card, especially if you’ve got a card that offers a 0% period on purchases or rewards your spend. And don’t forget that some credit cards even offer travel insurance as a benefit.
Journalist Joe Bond travelled in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia for nine months.