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  • Writer's pictureBecca Jackson

How hard is the O Circuit, Patagonia? | Personal experience

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

Going to the Torres del Paine National Park and hiking the O Circuit, Patagonia is on the bucket list for many people, from the trekking beginner to the seasoned hiker. Whether you have been around the block a few times, or whether it's your first multi-day hike, the good news is the O Circuit in Patagonia is accessible to everyone, and with the right preparation and training anyone can enjoy it. The most commonly asked questions are:


The last of these questions I will try to answer with the post below, detailing our personal experience completing the O Circuit. It includes a breakdown of distances, an AllTrails map for more details of the trail & what the route we chose to take through the park was like.


It's always tricky to describe or rate difficulty, as it is such a subjective area. So before we tell you how hard we found the trek, we'll tell you a little bit about our previous hiking experience. We would describe ourselves as keen hikers & a typical month at home would see us going out on day hikes 1 or 2 times per month, probably covering about 10km. We have done a few multi-day hikes in the past; some at home in the UK but stayed in various forms of accommodation but not camped. The most internationally recognised multi-day hikes has to be Kilimanjaro, which we climbed back in 2019 & completing the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu in October 2022. We enjoyed all of these & were not put off hiking! Taking on the O Circuit though was due to be our first multi-day hike carrying our own gear, as on Kili the amazing team of porters were there to carry tents, food & your main bag. We did complete the El Chalten 3 day / 2 night hike to Fitz Roy on our itinerary through Patagonia, as a bit of last minute training.


When deciding whether to take on the O Circuit, Patagonia you should consider these three factors:


  1. You will be walking for approximately 8 days consecutively; this is tough going on your feet and legs.

  2. You will have to carry your food, clothes and equipment for the full 8 days.

  3. Camping is the most affordable option, so you will be setting up a tent each night, taking it down again each morning & sleeping on rather hard floor, in a sleeping bag, each night.


Point number one can’t be avoided and let’s face it, if you don’t like the sound of lots of walking this experience is not going to be for you!


If points 2 and 3 put you off; whilst this is the most affordable choice, the one we chose and was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting; there is the option to pay more to have pre-erected tent at each camp or if you are feeling very flush, you could opt to stay in the refugios instead, on a proper bed! Additionally, regardless of which sleeping arrangement you go for you can pay for food/meals at each camp rather than carrying your own supplies. We've provided details of these more luxurious options in our O Circuit Patagonia | The ultimate guide.


Basically, there are ways to make the walking element easier if you are worried about carrying a heavy backpack, but these do come at a premium.


Our experience on the O Circuit, Patagonia


Day 1 of the O Circuit - Central to Serón



Distance

14.3km (all distances quoted are from our AllTrails tracker)


Difficulty

Easy


Approximate Time taken

4 hours


Total elevation gain

420m


Experience

Today is a nice easy day to break you in gently. There are a couple of uphill and downhill sections, some slightly rocky parts and path was a little boggy when we did it, but it was a straight-forward, pleasant walk. As you get closer to camp the terrain levels out and you are walking through lush green meadows. Whilst there is a back-drop of mountains it wasn’t what we expected and reminded us of English countryside! We had glorious weather, bar one little sudden downpour, even getting a little sunburnt!


Serón camp is lovely; grassed and flat with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. There was a small building where you go to check-in and those who have booked onto the full board go to eat. Outside there were picnic tables for cooking at and a small marquee for if the weather was bad. There were a ladies and men’s toilet and hot shower that was kept nice and clean.

The camp is quite exposed and whilst it wasn’t very windy for us, as it had been a sunny, cloudless day, it did get pretty chilly at night. The upside of this was the stars after dark were very impressive.


Day 2 of the O Circuit -Serón to Dickson



Distance

18.7km


Difficulty

Moderate


Approximate Time taken

6 hours


Total elevation gain

740m



Experience

We woke to another glorious morning which helped dry the dew on our tent. After packing up and having some breakfast we set off around 8.30am. The first couple of kilometres were flat and meadow-like again before the trail started to climb. Between 2.5km and 4.4km we gained 200m in elevation up a thin mountainside path. It was quite steep in parts, so we took it slowly enjoying the stunning views over the lakes below. The middle section flattened out with just the odd short up and downhill as the path continued to wind its way along the hillside. Just before the half-way point you reach a checkpoint that is manned by a ranger. There are toilets and picnic tables here if you need a break. We carried on a little further, wanted to get past half-way before stopping for our lunch.


After a downhill section coming down off the hillside the path flattens out again. At one point you walk on boardwalks across some wetlands; here we had a pygmy owl fly straight past our heads and land on a branch in front of us! It posed for a couple of photos before flying off again.

The path remained reasonably flat until the last 2km where we had one final climb and then an extremely steep descent into camp. We arrived at camp about 2.30pm.


Pygmy owl, that came to say hello between Serón & Dickson - Torres del Paine, O Circuit, Patagonia
Pygmy owl, that came to say hello between Serón & Dickson - Torres del Paine, O Circuit, Patagonia

I was worried as my feet had been hurting for the last 5km and when I arrived at camp and investigated I had a pressure point blister on the bottom of my right foot, not ideal on day 2 of 8!

Camp Dickson was even more stunning than Serón. The mountain back-drop was more dramatic, and it was right beside a beautiful glacier lake. Some of our camp mates went for a very cold swim so if you are feeling brave…. I only managed my feet!


There is a small ‘shop’ where you check-in & a indoor cooking area which is great as this camp is a bit windier. The toilets and hot showers here were in an indoor block comprising of three toilets and two showers for both men and women.


We had such glorious weather that we made use of the outdoor sinks & free washing powder (not sure if that’s standard or whether someone had just left it) and washed our clothes out.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was enjoyed with a beer in the sun, playing a dice game with some of our fellow trekkers. Once the sun dropped it was quite chilly, so we were grateful for the indoor cooking area to make our dinner.


Day 3 of the O Circuit - Dickson to Los Perros



Distance

13.4km


Difficulty

Easy/ Moderate


Approximate Time taken

5.5 hours


Total elevation gain

620m



Experience

We slept well and were greeted once again with lovely sunny weather, which wasn’t what I had been expecting having read about the incredibly high winds and 4 seasons in one day experienced in summer in Torres Del Paine! Feeling lucky we packed up and made breakfast. Today was one of the shorter days at 13.4km so Dave kindly took more of the weight, and I strapped up my feet in the hope the blister would get better not worse as tomorrow we had the notoriously difficult John Gardner Pass day.


The first section of the walk was uphill through the woods. Thankfully not as steep as the descent into camp last night! We were passed by a group of horses carrying supplies to the next camp. Most of the walk was through woods today and whilst we didn’t really notice them when moving, when we tried to stop for lunch we were mobbed by mosquitos and ended up eating our wraps on the go!


The last km or so was out the woods and over rocky, uphill terrain. It was more exposed, the sun had gone and we started to feel some rain in the air. Just before you reach camp you get some fantastic views of Glacier Los Perros and can go divert slightly from the path to the lakeside below it.


Los Perros camp is not as nice as the others in the Torres del Paine, it is basically a remote base camp where you can prepare yourself for the challenge of the next day. Hidden amongst the trees it is a bit dark and gloomy but does have an indoor cooking area and toilet blocks. The showers here are cold but not just cold, the water is glacier water so is absolutely freezing. Dave braved it but I just had a wet wipe wash! We cooked dinner and then got a nice early night ready for a very early start and long day tomorrow. There was an off-duty ranger walking the O’ Circuit at the same time as us and he advised us to set off as close to 5am as possible, warning that tomorrow can take up to 12 hours and the morning has the best weather. Check-out time from camp is officially 7am but it is definitely advisable to get going before then.


Day 4 of the O Circuit - Los Perros to Grey via the John Gardner Pass



Distance

16.6km


Difficulty

Difficult


Approximate Time taken

9 hours


Total elevation gain

820m



Experience

Anyone who has started looking into hiking the O Circuit in Torres del Paine will have come across the John Gardner Pass. I was nervous about this day as I had read lots of blogs saying how hard it was. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy, and we were extremely lucky with the weather, if it had been torrential rain or snow it would have made it even harder. However, what I think other blogs fail to mention is how amazing it is, how epic the scenery is and how rewarding it is to complete a hike like this. Don’t get too hung up on the difficulty of it, be prepared for it, but don’t lose sight of the fact you are doing the O’ Circuit because you want to, you want to be challenged and you want to experience something, that may in fact, be once in a lifetime.


Annoying we didn’t sleep very well so the 4am alarm wasn’t welcomed! It soon got light whilst we were having breakfast and getting packed up so by the time we set off at 5.20am it didn’t seem as early as it was. The path climbs steeply out of camp into woods, although the path becomes less steep it is still uphill and was very boggy. We made very slow progress trying to avoid tree roots and deep, squelchy sections of mud. After about 2.5km we broke out of the tree line and had a couple of short stints across rocky exposed areas before reaching the woods again. When we finally broke out of the woods after 2 hours, we started another ascent across very rocky, windy terrain.


Up until now it didn’t feel like we were climbing a mountain pass but now in this exposed, barren rocky landscape it was very clear! The wind was very strong, battering us side on so you had to be careful with your footing. We were very lucky and had no rain and so the visibility was very good. I did notice that the orange way markers are extremely frequent as I imagine when the weather is bad it is difficult to see from one to the other.


Making our way up the John Gardner Pass, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile
Making our way up the John Gardner Pass - Torres del Paine, O Circuit, Patagonia

There were a couple of false peaks, but we actually made good progress up the pass. We stopped a couple of times for a quick chocolate bar and drink but the wind was bitter and we soon got too cold and had to keep going. It took a further hour to make it to the top.


As you approach the top of the pass you are suddenly presented with a range of striking black, snow topped mountains. It is only as you get to the highest point you notice that in-between and below these peaks is the absolutely humungous, breath-taking Grey glacier! Photos do not do it justice and although you can take a look at the glacier from the bottom on the W trek, the view is nowhere near as impressive as approaching from this angle, it is just incredible and the challenge of climbing up there is instantly forgotten.


We stayed at the top for about 10-15 mins taking it all in and getting some photos but started to get pretty cold so needed to descend back down to the shelter. The path soon drops down into trees again on the other side and then the descent through the woods is steep and pretty tough going on your knees. We made frustratingly slow progress, finally completing most of the steep downhill after an hour and a half. We reached another view point where you could see the glacier again before climbing uphill to a checkpoint, Paso. We had a break here and something to eat.

From here it seemed the path was only ever up or downhill, never flat and on tired legs it was a bit of a slog. For quite a while you more you are still walking alongside the glacier and at one point we heard a thunderous crash and saw a huge chunk of it fall off into the lake, causing a big wave which was pretty cool! You cross 3 swing bridges on the route to camp which are pretty cool, a little hairy if you are scared of heights but a great experience in the incredible landscape you are in. The bridges are spread out alone the route, we reached the first an hour after leaving Paso. The second we reached another hour later and the last another 30 minutes later. The last kilometre into camp felt endless but we finally made it to camp at 2.20pm.


Grey camp was windy and where we camped was on sand and we ended up having a lot of sand blown into our tent! Some of our fellow campers actually moved their tents to another part of the camp away from the dust but we couldn’t be bothered once we’d set up.


This is probably one of the nicest camps, the shower block, offering hot showers, is separate to the toilet block and inside the posh looking refugio is a really lovely large bar/restaurant area that serves yummy pizzas, burgers, beer and wine. After a nice hot shower we treated ourselves to food here rather than cooking up a dehydrated meal. It was an early night, I think we headed to bed about 8.30pm.


Day 5 of the O Circuit - Grey to Paine Grande



Distance

11.1km


Difficulty

Easy


Approximate Time taken

3.5 hours


Total elevation gain

290m



Experience

We both slept well and didn’t rush to get going this morning. We set off around 9.45am in light rain but it soon stopped and as the path was uphill we soon got warm and had to delayer. After the initial climb the path levelled out and we were able to make good progress along the flat. The path is a little rocky underfoot, like a lot of the trails in the park, but not too bad. The path overlooked a lovely lake to the right and if you look back you can still see the magnificent Grey glacier.

The second half of the walk was a little windy but mostly flat or downhill so easy enough. We actually arrived at camp at 1.15pm and so had our lunch when we got there.


The backdrop for this camp is absolutely beautiful. It was a big camp with a huge refugio with bar and restaurant. The catamarans come into this camp and so it is quite the hub for day trippers too. It was nice but lacked some of the charm Grey had. It was also pretty windy, the windiest camp so far! Big toilet blocks house warm showers & there was a large indoor cooking area.


We were actually here during the 2022 football world cup and watched Argentina beat Croatia in a very packed, excitable bar!


Day 6 of the O Circuit - Paine Grande to Francés via Italiano & Britanico lookout



Distance

22.2km


Difficulty

Difficult


Approximate Time taken

7 hours


Total elevation gain

1050m



Experience

This was a tough day! I personally found it harder than the John Gardner pass. We set off at 7.40am and made good progress on the first section of the day, covering the 7.5km to Italiano (one of the free camps that is now closed but has toilets and somewhere you can leave your packs whilst you climb up to the mirador Britanico) at a good pace. It was reasonably flat, through low bush land, alongside a lake.


At Paine Grande camp you see signs about the cheeky foxes that live in the area telling you not to leave belongings outside your tent but we didn’t actually see any of them. However, this morning a couple of birds of prey alerted us to a fox as they were trying to swoop down and steal whatever it was he had already caught. We watched as the fox tried to defend his meal.


At Italiano we moved our stuff about so we could just take one backpack with us containing our coats, water and lunch and set off. The trail started off flattish but very soon started to climb quite steeply up very rocky terrain. It was tough going and some of the step-ups were hard work. It took us 1 hour 10 mins to reach Frances lookout which gave stunning views of an impressive glacier.

From here the path continued uphill but not quite as steep through woods on uneven terrain. It took a further 1 hour and 20 mins to reach Britanico viewpoint with a very steep final push. I must admit I was a bit over it by this point and couldn’t see how this viewpoint was going to be worth it. I can tell you now that it is totally worth it! 360 degree panoramic views of mountains, glaciers and the bluest lake you have ever seen!


We ate our lunch at the top and enjoyed the magnificent views for 20 mins or so.

Going back down seemed to take forever and still took us over 2 hours to get back to Italiano as what goes steeply up also comes steeply down and Dave has dodgy knees so we can’t go fast downhill. As we were approaching Frances viewpoint again on the way back down, we heard a tell-tale, almighty thunderous crash and a huge lump of snow and ice fell down the mountainside on the glacier, it was very cool to see!


Great views from Mirador Britanico,  - Torres del Paine, O Circuit, Patagonia
Great views from Mirador Britanico - Torres del Paine, O Circuit, Patagonia

Collecting our other bag from Italiano we set off to Francés camp, which thankfully was only 1.3km further as I didn’t have much left in the tank.


Frances camp is built on a slope in the trees so instead of pitching your tent on the ground you are told to choose a wooden platform that you tie your tent onto instead. The wooden floor is very hard but actually made it much warmer than sleeping on the ground. The camp is spread out with the toilet block being a couple of minutes walk downhill towards the lake and the refugio & small bar and restaurant being even further down, probably a 5-7 minute walk from the tents. There is no single designated cooking area but a few benches dotted about in a few locations – no inside cooking space here unfortunately. The toilet and shower block is nice and the showers hot.

We enjoyed hot showers, had a couple of beers in the bar whilst watching France vs Morocco (on a phone, there isn’t a TV) and then cooked our dinner.


Day 7 of the O Circuit - Francés to Chileno



Distance

16.4km


Difficulty

Moderate


Approximate Time taken

5 hours


Total elevation gain

745m



Experience

We had a long walk ahead of us today to Chileno camp but had in the back of our minds, that depending how we got on and what the weather was like when we got there, we may go up to the Towers lookout today rather than doing it at sunrise tomorrow (tomorrow our only option was sunrise as we had an 11am bus out of the park already booked).


The first section of the walk was to Cuernos camp that some of our fellow O’ Circuit trekkers had stayed at last night, the signs said it 1.5km from Frances but it was actually 3.6km! Had I had to walk there last night I think I would have been crawling by the final couple of kms! The path was hilly, and as usual, pretty rocky underfoot. You do come down to a pebble ‘beach’ beside the lake, which is a very beautiful spot to stop and admire the view for a little while.


From Cuernos the path climbed incredibly steeply up and ran along a hillside overlooking the lake. We snacked regularly to keep us going; the wonderful views helped too. The final push was through a valley on a winding tarmacked path that had some steep ups and downs with a last descent into camp. We made it to camp at 1.20pm. Annoyingly the clouds had started to come in and from camp it looked like the top of the towers were obscured but having talked to the rangers they advised to go up there today as the weather forecast for tomorrow was worse. When they said today they meant straight away as the trail closes at 2pm and you are not allowed to start your ascent after that. We stored our bags in the reception and quickly ate our lunch. Loading our pockets up with chocolate we set off!


Day 7 of the O Circuit (part 2) - Chileno to Towers Lookout & return

(This could be done day 8 in the morning weather permitting)



Distance

9.8km


Difficulty

Moderate (Difficult if you include this on day 7 after your walk from Frances like we did!)


Approximate Time taken

3.5 hours


Total elevation gain

500m


Experience

The first 2km were through forest and were easy going and we found we had a renewed burst of energy. The next 2km, as we emerged from the forest however is where is started to get hard! It was really rocky with some huge step-ups making it very tiring on short legs! Due to the time of day most people were coming down and quite a few made comments like ‘nearly there’ when we absolutely weren’t so the trail felt endless. You would think I would be getting to know the national park by now but once again I was thinking to myself ‘God I hope this is bloody worth it! Bet the view is going to be crap and I’m trekking up here for nothing!’. Once again, how wrong was I!! We finally made it at 3.30pm, about 1 hour 45 mins after setting off. There was some cloud and the very top of the towers was covered but the view was still incredible. I also wasn’t expecting a beautiful glacier lake at the top either which made the view even more impressive. It was very cold at the top though and so we took some pictures but didn’t fancy hanging around too long waiting for the cloud to maybe clear.


The Towers Lookout, - Torres del Paine, O Circuit, Patagonia
The Towers Lookout - - Torres del Paine, O Circuit, Patagonia

Going back down was slow going at first as the rocky ground made it a little tricky but the path was quiet and with no-one else coming up we didn’t need to dodge other people. Once we hit the forest again we were able to pick up speed. We reached camp about 5pm but probably would have got there a little sooner had we not offered to help a poor man who had twisted his ankle.

Chileno camp was similar to Frances in that it was built on a slope and so had the wooden platforms for the tents again, although it was a less spread out. There was a toilet and shower block for the camp ground but the showers were all in use when we went to use them so they told us to use the ones in the refugio which were nice and hot. Officially camp stoves are prohibited here due to wild fire risk (I am not sure why it is more of a risk in this area but we saw on our walk up to the lookout that huge breaks have been cleared in the forest to prevent the spread of fire) but there is a small table in the corner of the bar/restaurant you are allowed to cook. We knew about this restriction so had already planned to buy food here, hoping we could grab a burger or pizza as we had seen at other camps. As it turned out, as it is a small restaurant the kitchen cannot serve ‘bar food’ at the same time as the pre-booked full meals and so the bar food stops at 5.30pm. Luckily they said it was no problem to add us onto the full meal option but this does come at a cost of 24,000 pesos (£23/US$28). Also, the other slight downside was we were on the 2nd sitting at 8pm which is quite late when you are tired and hungry. We had no choice but to get a bottle of wine and wait! 😉


The meal was slightly odd but we enjoyed it and it was filling. The started was a very thick lentil soup that tasted much better than it looked! The main course was a kind of cheese bake with lumps of beef burger in, served with a bowl of cold veggies. Desert was a lovely panna cotta with a berry sauce on top. Like I said, a little strange and not food we are used to but enjoyable all the same.


Day 8 of the O Circuit - Chileno – Central



Distance

5.6km


Difficulty

Easy/Moderate (only moderate because your legs are tired, and it is steep downhill in parts)


Approximate Time taken

1 hour 45 mins


Total elevation gain

Practically none, it’s downhill


Experience

We had hoped that by opting to do the towers yesterday we could have a lie in today but the lady on reception told us that the shuttle buses from central back to Laguna Amarga (which is where our bus out of the park at 11am was from) only run at 8am, 2pm & 7pm. This meant we’d have to get the 8am to be able to catch our 11am bus – rats! The other option of course would be to walk the whole way to Laguna Amarga but that would be another 7km and we didn’t fancy that. As it turned out, the good news for you is that I think she was wrong and the shuttles do in fact run more frequently than that (see ‘How to get in and out of the park’).


We set our alarm for 5.10am and got packed up. We couldn’t make our porridge as the bar wasn’t open yet and you can’t use your camp stoves outside here so it was cereal bars and oaty biscuits for breakfast. We set off at 6.10am and found the first km back out the valley harder than expected, it seemed to have far more uphill than there was downhill coming into camp yesterday than we remembered! The next section was steep and rocky in parts but all downhill and then we had some flat towards the end. I was worried we weren’t going to make the 8am shuttle as when we arrived at Central camp the visitors centre, where the shuttle bus runs from, was still nowhere to be seen! Thankfully we made it at 7.50am and got a place on the bus.


This stupidly early shuttle meant we had nearly 3 hours at Laguna Amarga which was very annoying. We watched others come and go on different buses, we wrote our diary, Dave had a nap and we ate wraps for a very early lunch! Finally our bus arrived and we waved goodbye to the park as we were driven back to Puerto Natales.


Summary


We thoroughly enjoyed the O’ Circuit hike in the Torres del Paine and would highly recommend it to any keen walkers considering it. Yes, some days were tough, but they were still enjoyable. The camps were great, ironically the cheaper Vertice owned camps were much nicer! We loved the remoteness, some of the most epic scenery we have seen, the challenges, the satisfyingly easy parts and the celebratory atmosphere at camp each night , as you enjoyed a beer with your newly made friends and comrades! We both agree that with the right amount of training, anyone moderately fit could take it on. Do it, you won't regret it!!


Now you've read our account on the O Circuit and you are not put off, if anything you are more excited now to take on this hike of a lifetime. Your next step is getting on to planning & booking your Patagonia adventure. Here are a few helpful links to help with planning;

If however, the O Circuit sounds a bit much but you still want a multi day trek in the Torres del Paine why not have a look at the complete planning guide for the W Trek? Failing that don't miss the Torres del Paine off your Patagonia hiking itinerary altogether, there are some beautiful day hikes in the Torres del Paine too.


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