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Wilderness Backpacking 101

CHILE | Tuesday, 8 January 2008 | Views [1892]

We attended an information session with Erratic Rock owner Rustyn, and over a "real" cup of java we learned all the essentials needed to make our trek successful. The tips he shared with us were so good, we thought we'd share them with others, in case any of you are planning something similar.

To Move West to East OR East to West? We chose west to east, based on the advise of Rustyn, to shave off some time and still be able to do the complete "W" in just four days. The placement of refugios and campsites allows one to do this easier going West to East. Those thinking of doing the full circuit also might want to go this way, as backpacks are heaviest starting out with 7-10 days of food and supplies, and the refugios are well positioned to leave packs at the base, and take day trips without having to carry all the weight. This saves energy, and if need be, meals are offered for purchase at the refugios which allows food carried to also be saved for later in the circuit when there are no refugios with the ability to buy food.

To Camp or Stay in Refugios? Those that are here looking to do a trek are here for the outdoor experience; camping is the best way to experience it. Camping also opens up your options on more places to sleep and explore. Imagine the refugio dorms, sharing a room with 10 other stinky people and all their wet dirty gear. Imagine gazing up at the stars shimmering over the glacial lakes and the moon rising over the mountains before diving into your tent for a peaceful nights sleep, or that hot cup of coffee after awakening on a beautiful sunny morning, as you roll out of your tent, listening to the sounds of birds, and smelling the nature. By camping, you get to really experience the national park, and there's no problem camping at the refugio, so you get the best of both worlds, you can dine in if you don't have the energy to cook up your meal, and retire under the starry night sky.

To Rent Equipment or Bring Your Own? If we were coming to South America just to trek, we would have brought our own stuff, as descending the continent, it's rife with beautiful camping options and it's also very easy to bus it around to new destinations over distance with your gear. We've opted however, to rent our gear, and we're actually renting it at the refugios, so we won't have to carry an excessively heavy pack. After having porters in Nepal and Peru, we have decided we want to enjoy the hike, and not be limited by being our own porters as well. This does have it's downsides as well, as we're betting that the refugios don't clean the sleeping bags and that the mats are probably super thin. However, on the plus side, the tents are supposedly already set up, so when you arrive at your tent, you can crash out easily. There are plenty of rental shops in town, though, and if you've got the energy (which now nearly 12 months into this trip we're lacking energy) renting your own gear is a great, and much less expensive way to go. It's probably even less expensive to purchase some of the equipment and either keep it, or give it away - or sell it to the next new person at your hostel, when you're done with it.

How to Deal with the Rain and Wind?
Backpacks: for our packs, we took Rustyn's advise and compartmentalized everything inside into durable trash bags, sealed to keep the water out. Dry clothes in one bag at the bottom. Food on the next level, portioned out by day and easy to access. Cameras and emergency things like first aid on top. This way, when it rains, while our packs may be soaked, everything else is dry - not just for comfort, but also, less items drenched means less weight to carry. And at the end of the day when we're settling into camp, we can take out each of the plastic bags and throw them into the tent, and leave the wet pack outside. It will eventually dry the next day when we're hiking if it's dry in the sun. Also, ditch the plastic pack covers that attach over the back of the pack. With the wind here, they will be blown off in seconds, and it's an expensive item to lose to the wind. Besides, they don't really keep your pack dry, the only thing that truly keeps things dry are those plastic garbage bags.

Clothing: Our biggest concern is getting soaked, freezing cold, falling sick and not being able to dry out and warm up for 4 days. Our fearless mentor gave us great advise. Bring two sets of clothing. One set will be undoubtedly get "wet," and the ones you wear during the day as you trek. The other set is your "dry" set of clothes, and the ones you wear to bed. Layers of clothing that will dry easily, like our synthetic trekking pants and shirts are key. We're going to get wet, lets face it - either through sweat or rain, and should be wearing layers that will eventually dry out. Thick jackets and fleeces should be left in the dry clothing bag for later when we're done trekking. Wearing Gortex rain wear will only keep our sweat in, and fail to let us dry out, and even the best of Gortex doesn't keep the rain out. It also slows you down, with the way the weather here changes so fast, you'd easily waste an hour or two taking the Gortex on and off again, catering to the rapid changes. So Rustyn's advise, safe the Gortex wear for night time and morning when you're outside the tent when you have your dry clothes on and you want to keep them dry. Avoid the plastic ponchos, the wind will have a field day with the, and turn you into a kite, if not blowing the poncho over your face while you're trying to manage your steps on a difficult trail. Shoes and socks are bound to be soaked If you only have one pair, bring a set of flip flops or tennies for your "dry" ones - just be aware of having extra weight to carry. With one set of dry socks left, and shoes web and muddy, you can always slide your dry socks into a plastic bag before putting your foot into your shoe. It may help to keep you a bit dryer, although consider your feet will be sweating and may end up a bit wet anyways. They may just dry out along the trail walking the next day. When you finally reach your tent at the end of your day, strip off your wet clothes and toss them into a plastic bag... it's no use hanging them in the tent or outside, they won't dry (unless you're camping at one of the refugios and can use the indoor lodge to attempt to dry out a few articles. In the morning, as you're reluctantly taking off your warm and dry clothes after breakfast, you now have that wet and ripe set of bagged clothing to slip on from the prior days trek. You'll also be amazed at how quickly they dry as they heat up from your hike.

What to Pack to Eat? Pack light, freeze dried, dehydrated goods, things that cook quickly in water. Oatmeal is great for breakfast. Cup of soup, instant noodles, nuts, chocolate bars, etc. are also great options. On the "W" you can also treat yourself to a meal at a refugio, just let them know an hour in advance, but also know that most refugios stop taking reservations before 6:00 p.m. so if you're planning on a Refugio meal, get to the campsite before 6:00 p.m. There's some food supply you can get at one or two of the refugios, but it's super pricey. Water... you can drink it from the streams, just fill your bottles in a safe place (not downstream from a campsite. Some refugios, if you're camping there, will give you or sell you hot water. That can also help you save cooking fuel, so take full advantage. There are several grocery stores in Puerto Natales carrying a decent supply of instant food for you to purchase before you get to the park.

What About Transportation to and from the Park? Getting to the park is easy, you can book a bus ticket through your hostel, and they pick you up between 7 and 7:30 a.m. It's a 2.5 hour ride to the park. If you're doing the park west to east, get off at Lago Pehoe. You'll have enough time to sprint up to the waterfall and back before the catamaran leaves to cross the lake to the Grande Paine Refugio, where you can then head off on your trek to Grey Glaciar. Coming back at the end (east side) of the "W" there's a shuttle bus to catch from Refugio Las Torres to where you catch the first of two daily busses back to Puerto Natales. One bus leaves at 2:30 p.m. and the other much later evening.

These tips from Rustyn were tremendously valuable. We had originally wanted to stay in the refugio dorms (which during high season are very difficult to book last minute), but after this information session, it sealed our decision to camp, and to rent our gear at the refugios. Given that we only had 3 nights and 4 days, this would be the most convenient and pleasurable way for us to do the trek. We also decided to bring snacks and lunch food and depending on our timing at camp and level of hunger, we would decide if we wanted to buy the meals, which are really a pricey rip off - dinners @ $15-18, [email protected] $13-15, and breakfast @ $8-9. We spent the rest of our day planning our route, booking refugio camping gear and sites at through the local [email protected] office, and getting supplies and bags packed. We're feeling ready for our big outdoor adventure!



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