How much of an adventurer will you be?
I don’t think anyone deciding to tackle the immensity that is the Patagonian territory expected to have it easy. But tackling the Torres Del Paine National Park ? Nothing in the world could have prepared me for that (or you, before you read that article). Located at about an hour bus ride from the small town of Puerto Natales in Southern Chile, the area thrives with soaring mountains, breathtaking glaciers and never-ending grasslands that attract all sorts of visitors.
Bear in mind that just like many Patagonian landmarks, the park can be explored the easy or the tough way. Well, technically the easy way isn’t that much of a walk in the park as actual trekking is still required but let’s just say a shorter daily distance with invigorating nights in comfy beds and warm meals certainly do the trick. So if you’re longing for Instagram-worthy pictures without pushing your physical – or physiological – limits, there are agencies organising several days excursions if a guided tour is what you’re after or rustic lodges within the park you can book beds in (Friendly tip: do so in way advance from Puerto Natales as it gets booked up incredibly fast) then do your own thing. BUT because I’m 25, healthy and not-that-lazy, I’ve decided that I wanted a real adventurer story to tell my grand kids someday so here I was, contemplating what kind of dried fruits would be cheap AND light to carry AND full of nutriments AND actually tasty. Tougher than it looks really.
Prepare yourself 101
Getting nice and cosy-ish
It all started with a group talk at the Erratic Rock hostel. Worst kept secret within the backpacking community, that rendezvous was known as the trekking 101 class every other day at 3pm, probably to shorten the number of unprepared hikers suffering from hypothermia or starvation. For all of you out there: this is a not to be missed event (unless well, you are a seasoned trekker who long knew that raisins are the dried fruits to go to for any situation possible). More than describing the different trails possible around the national park, the volunteers tackled every question and issue you can think of, from what kind of clothes to wear to how to sustain on little food or keep warm at night. And pretty much every single response will be the complete opposite of what you think you knew. Don’t believe me?
Rather than bringing a pointless amount of clothes because you want your outfit to be on point for selfies, you’re allowed two sets whether you’re trekking for 3 days or 7. One outfit for the day, one for the night. The first includes windproof trousers (or warm leggings in my case), a tee-shirt (okay, two if you are really fussy), a windbreaker and none of that fancy outdoor gear that is meant to keep you warm and dry. As the wise ‘teacher’ said, you want fabrics that will most importantly dry quickly, unless you fancy each freezing morning to start with putting on a top still humid from yesterday’s sweat. A fleece must be packed as well but only worn daytime in extremely cold conditions: you don’t want your body to acclimate to a comfortable warmth during the day as it’ll make it ten times harder to cope with the temperature drop on evenings. When the sun sets, merino wool undershirts and underpants are a thing and combined with fleece jumpers and leggings, they’ll most likely keep you warm enough to actually rest at nights. Because make no mistake, exhaustion is no sleeping pill in case of low temperatures as I have been unlucky enough to experience.Friendly advice? Survival blanket. It sounds slightly over the top but I am pretty sure it saved my life a couple of nights when no matter how many layers I was wearing or how warm my sleeping bag was, every muscle and bone of my weakened body was frozen and ready to give up. Take a couple just in case, one you can wrap around your sleeping mat to prevent getting cold from the soil’s natural humidity, one you can wrap around yourself. Just keep in mind that pretty much everyone will be looking as un-sexy as you do anyway so better be safe than sorry.
Back to the dilemma of cheap, light yet tasty dried fruits. Basically as painful it was for me to eat those, I knew how much my body was craving the healthy nutriments just as much as it was craving the fats and sugar in pounds of peanuts and chocolate. Forget all about clean eating, being super healthy and all that jazz, you will be trekking over 15km per day on rocky soils and facing glacial winds so will you really want to snack on carrots and brocolis half away through such a day? Chocolate, nuts and granola all the way. The quantities needed really depends on you and your body but what’s important to remember is to compartmentalise, especially when if you have a strong tendency to binge eat when the morale is at its lowest like I do. Simple plastic zipper bags will cut it when getting ready: just split whichever snacks you bought into evenly proportions separated into different bags. That way you’re aware of your snack intake for the day and won’t risk binging it all the first couple of days then starve when things get really serious (have a spare bag with nice treats as a joker because what is life without a bit of fun). Bonus tip: stock up on whole wheat bread as well (not so yummy but full of fibres) which goes perfectly with chocolate spread or peanut butter to start the day off right.
For actual meals at dinner time, powder soups and pot noodles come in handy because of how little space they take or how close to nothing they weigh. Truth be told, they won’t make the tastiest or most soul-comforting dinners but you will rather enjoy a bowl of soup than carry kilos of rice or pasta in your backpack for days, trust me. If you still decide to bring pasta because you’re stubborn like that, powder soup also makes a decent sauce, just add way less water to the powder for a less liquid yet just as heart-warming taste (I firmly believe powder soup solves everything). But truth be told, you will feel so washed out after a long day that craving a shower and a lay down more than a substantial dinner and some socialising will become a normality. When it comes to water, absolutely no need to carry litres of it nor water-purifying tablets, Torres Del Paine is one of those parks filled with enchanting rivers here and there. Buy a big thermos-like bottle that you can re-fill it as you go, just make sure to use running water rather than ditch water for obvious health and safety reasons (you do not want an upset tummy on a trail like this)
So now that you know what to wear not to die from hypothermia and what to eat not to die from starvation, what about a couple of additional tips to make the whole experience actually enjoyable rather than anything out of a Man Vs Wild episode? Invest a bit of money beforehand (as in before even hitting Puerto Natales where every prices are gringos ones) and treat yourself with quality water-resistant hiking shoes. They don’t have to be fancy good-looking ones, just a solid pair recommended by the staff because the morning hike up to a glacier can become a lot more painful with the ache of a blister and the cold humidity left from past days of sweat. Get them one size bigger than you usually would, to leave enough room for all the layers that will surround your foot (cotton socks are 100% forbidden, its sports ones all the way).
As for life-saving gear other than a tent (the more wind-breaker the better) and a sleeping bag as warm as it gets, do not overlook a good sleeping mat that’ll prevent every bone of your body to suffer from the soil’s blistering cold at night. Don’t bother with high end gear that will cost an arm and will be used once, a yoga-type one will suffice as long as you don’t forget to look silly wrapping a survival blanket around it. Other life saving items? Enough flashlights, toilet paper and bin bags to last a year. Well technically not life saving, but you’ll enjoy going to the toilet with anything other than a random leaf found on the floor and be guided by a light at night to stepping on snakes (that has happened to me and was just as terrifying an experience as it sounds). As for the bin bags, there are probably the best tip anyone could have given me the day before leaving as they make the best rainproof protection possible. I used them to separate my sets of clothing, toiletries, food or other random items to make sure they’d stay dry in any case (let’s not forget wrapping one around the sleeping bad + mat as well). And I used one to hang my food on top on my tent (on the inside obviously) so it wouldn’t get half eaten by ants or wild rodents. And you’re pretty much set.
Oh, just not without a set of playing cards ! And a book ! And an portable charger for camera and iPods !
Okay now you’re ready to go and conquer the Torres Del Paine National Park . That does seem like a lot but it not more than a check list combining of the 101 trail class advices and my own personal tips. Yes, I went through the worst of times so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.