Tuesday, December 31, 2013


It seems appropriate as I try to catch up with months of backlogged stories to write one about Bariloche as I say my goodbyes to the town that was my home base here in Patagonia.

I arrived in mid-October, in the dark, on a night bus from the Volcano Fun Town of Pucón across the Andes in Chile, having crossed the border on the Araucaria (monkey puzzle tree)-covered flanks of Volcán Lanín. I was exhausted from heartache, on a heavy day of my period, and fighting off the remnants of a cold. My first glimpse of Bariloche was as a string of yellow glitter: lights lining the invisible shoreline of Lago Nahuel Huapi as the bus rode south down the opposite shore of the lake. My feeling on seeing that string of lights was one of reluctance—it meant the end of living in little cabins in the mountains, my return to a city, a return to a schedule and noise and people and stress.

View from the bus on the drive from San Martín de los Andes to Bariloche

But I tried to be optimistic. Bariloche is a ski town. It’s billed as the “Switzerland of Argentina”. My friend Ellen (of EllenAndTom from my time in Malargüe and Las Leñas) had said it was one of her two favorite places in all of skiable South America. Sure, it’s a city, but it’s a little one, and one sandwiched between big mountains and a beautiful lake, like a Lake Tahoe with real spines for mountains. It’s famous for great beers, excellent steak, and the best chocolate in the chocolate desert that is Chile and Argentina. I like beer, I like steak, I love chocolate. On the bus I learned from my seatmate that Bariloche is home to several universities and research centers and a high tech industry, a great place to live, study, and work. “This is the sort of place you’re looking for,” I told myself.

Bariloche didn’t steal my heart. But I had a really great time there.

Bariloche at night.

In the streets of Bariloche, that's a big mountain at the end of the street.

Hanging out with friends at the lake.

The bus pulled into the station and I shared a taxi to my hostel on the outskirts of town with my seatmate, who lived nearby. I arrived shortly after 10pm and the hostel owner Brian was waiting for me, welcoming me by name, and showing me to my room. The ski area had just shut down for the season that day, low season had officially started, and the hostel was almost empty. I had a room to myself. I met the two other residents of the hostel: Anneke, who would soon become a good friend, and an Irish guy there for a few days. I settled in and went to sleep, my month of Spanish classes beginning the next morning.

Check-in at the Green House Hostel. Check out the Orondo, WA Cider Works sticker! Homestate pride!
Laundry line in my bunk = hostel life

I woke up to sun streaming in through my window and views of the lake, which I hadn’t seen in the dark of the night of my arrival. By the time I showered, dressed, and grabbed breakfast, I was running quite late, and got lost as I hiked up the dirt road to the school, a trend that would repeat itself for the rest of the month (except the getting lost part) despite my daily efforts to go to bed earlier, wake up earlier, and finally, finally, be there on time.

Having already picked up most of the really basic basics between six weeks of attempting to communicate with people in Malargüe and Chile and the learn-Spanish podcasts I had been listening to periodically for the past few months, I was placed in “Basico II” and pleased to not have to start at the very, very beginning (I had learned something! Yay!). And so it began with verb conjugation on Day 1 with Ivonne, my firey crackup of a teacher.

Day 1 of Spanish class

I quickly settled into a schedule for the following month that looked something like this:

8:15 Wake up, shower, get dressed
8:50 Grab a handful of toast, slap on jam, run out the door…late, again
9:05 Arrive at school, coffee
9:10 Vamos! Spanish with Ivonne
10:30 Cookie and coffee break
10:45 Continuamos! More Spanish with Ivonne
12:15 Class over, grab groceries or empanadas on the way back down the hill to the hostel
12:45 Make/eat lunch, start homework or work for the day
19:00 Make dinner
19:30 More homework/work
24:00 Clean up, brush teeth, bed, read
24:30 Sleep

The notable exceptions to the routine were Tuesdays and Thursdays, tango nights! when I’d dress up and go to tango lessons and dance in my socks (didn’t have shoes I could dance in, and never managed to work up enough desire to go shopping for them to do it) for an hour or two with new friends, then go out for some of that legendary Bariloche beer. Also, I had my weekly date with Fernando at the Club Andino mountaineering club when I’d wander in to get tips for where to go over the weekend and how to get there and he’d show me pictures, show me the routes, talk me out of really bad ideas, and wish me luck. And my weekly visit to my adopted dad at the local second-hand gear shop where I’d rent crampons, talk routes and conditions, get more tips, and get talked back into some of my really bad (= awesome) ideas, and rent crampons every Thursday afternoon. 

Because weekends were for mountains.

Crampons latched into the bindings of my snowboard, stuffed, with my backpacking pack, into the seat of a bus from Bariloche to Mountains on a Friday afternoon.

Mountains like these.

After getting gear, finalizing plans, and packing Thursday afternoons, going dancing with my rug-cutting guitar-rocking local engineer friend José Thursday evenings, I’d wake up Fridays for a few hours of Spanish, grab my backpack and splitboard, stash the rest of my stuff in the hostel storage closet, check out for the weekend, and run to the hills, not to return until Sunday evening in time to make dinner, do my homework, and crash for Monday’s Spanish class.

It was a pretty good work hard, play harder life. I learned a lot of Spanish. I got a heap of writing done, got a paper submitted, applied to jobs, and splitboarded a lot of nice Andean terrain. By the time the weekend rolled around I’d be totally drained, exhausted, sleep-deprived, zeroed on motivation, brain-dead, and grumpy. Then I’d haul my butt and my board up into those spectacular peaks, sleep out in the snow, breathe in that cold, dry air, say hello to my soul, and return recharged.

Me, saying hello to my soul. Lago Nahuel Huapi in the background.

And that x 4 weeks was pretty much how Bariloche went down. The routine was punctuated by a few special and memorable moments, like the time I met part of the Green House Hostel family on a secluded beach down the street to sit and drink local beer while we watched the sun set over the stunning turquoise water of the lake. Or the time a friend-of-a-friend who had spent 6 months in winter in Antarctica randomly met me at a bar where my friend José was performing, having hitchhiked all the way north from Ushuaia. Or the time after a late night of studying I finally joined the festivities for hostel owner Brian’s birthday party and was surprised by a cheeseless pizza his awesome girlfriend Candy had baked (and then by Anneke’s amazing and Benadryl-worthy dulce de leche birthday cake). Then there was the wild night where a group of Porteños (guys from Buenos Aires) showed up at the hostel and turned it into a wild party, trading besos for steak (the best of my life, really) and shots of fernet all night.

Fun bar time.
Fun steak time.

There were the gut-bustingly funny and often touching conversations with Ivonne, my Spanish teacher, in my broken Spanish and her endless patience, on love, philosophy, religion, and science. Beers and dinners and a tour of a very special plane with a friend from Spanish class. The trip with friends to La Cruz, a local favorite cervezeria walking distance from the hostel , where after 3 ½ weeks of Spanish lessons I was finally able to start following and even participating in the conversations of the Argentines around me. Finally, the going-away asado at the hostel, the hugs goodbye, and the genuinely traded, “I’m going to miss you.” I had found a sort of family there in Bariloche among the friendly and fun-loving, outdoorsy, beer-loving, meat-grilling folk there, and although I was ready to move on, wished I could take them all with me.

Six weeks later, I ended up taking my family back to Bariloche instead (story of the Frantz Family Christmas in Bariloche to come).

To all of you dear people who I met there, thank you for making it home, thank you for the fun, the conversations, the food, the beers, the dancing, the love, the unforgettable good times, and for your friendship. I hope we meet again, and mi casa es su casa, no importa en qué lugar del mundo que pasa a ser!

Pretty lake
Awesome mountains
Good friends

Monday, December 16, 2013

Planning your trip to Torres del Paine

About Torres del Paine

National Geographic Special Issue
featuring Torres del Paine on the cover
On the cover of the 2012 special issue of National Geographic issue listing the "100 most beautiful places in the world" (Torres was ranked 5th) and named the 8th Wonder of the World by voters on Virtual Tourist, everyone agrees: Torres del Paine is spectacular. It offers visitors stunning vistas of glaciers, cobalt blue lakes, massive carved walls of granite (and fossil-laden Cretaceous sedimentary rocks), as well as condors, guanacos, and expansive fields of wildflowers in the spring.

It is possible to enjoy the beauty of Torres del Paine without putting on your hiking boots (see recommendations below). However, most of the people who swarm to the park are there to trek.

The most popular trekking route is the "W", so-called because of the shape it takes with three out-and-back legs to see the three most spectacular views of the park: Baso Torres, the Valle Frances, and Glacier Grey. Trekkers with more time can do the "O" which adds a hike along the quieter backside of the park with its sweeping vistas. If you're really in love with the park, there are plenty of other hikes to do, such as the "Q" or day treks out to Laguna Azul, Laguna Amarga, or Lago Sarmiento, from which you can get spectacular views of the Torres massif.

Detailed park map (from CONAF)
The W (red) and O (yellow) trekking circuits

Planning your visit

Note: Prices quoted were for the Summer 2013 season and are in Chilean Pesos unless otherwise noted.

If you're looking for info about Southern Patagonia more generally, check out my post "Travel tips for Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego".

Getting there

You can rent a car and drive into the park, but bus service from Puerto Natales is readily available (but gets full, book your bus tickets as early as possible) and can be booked at the bus terminal or, in many cases, directly from your hostel. Check with your bus service, but many take passengers to the Porteria y Guarderia Laguna Amarga (marked as a large blue dot in the trekking circuit map above) as well as to Hotel Las Torres and/or to the Lago Pehoé ferry terminal (from which you can catch the scenic ferry across Lago Pehoé that goes to and from Paine Grande).

To enter the park, each person will have to pay a one-time $18000 peso (~$35 USD) fee for foreigners ($5000 pesos for Chileans) in high season. This lets you back into the park for 2-3 days, depending on who you talk to. If you leave and think you might come back, talk to the rangers to figure out what the deal is. Also, if you enter the park before the ranger station opens or after it closes, there is no entrance fee. But given that the money goes towards maintaining this treasure of a park, if you can afford it, be a good person, pay.

Paperwork and receipts at the park entrance

Hikes and activities

There are so many facilities in the park that it is possible to do the circuit--especially the W--in pretty much any style you want, be it sleeping in your own tent and cooking your own food every night like a real swampbeast (me), sleeping in tents that are set up in campgrounds so you don't have to carry your own, sleeping in refugios and eating food you pay for, or sleeping in nice huts/lodges/domes and having porters carry your gear from spot to spot. Services in the park are expensive, though, so budget may decide which of these options are really available to you.

This is what I recommend you do if you...

...are short on time

If you are fit and can handle a good climb, get to Las Torres and hike up to Base de las Torres (depending on your speed, this will take you anywhere from 4.5-10 hours) and get within hugging distance of the Torres spires.

Base de las Torres

Alternately, get to Paine Grande and walk out to the Glacier Grey Mirador (about 2.5-4 hours round-trip from Paine Grande...you do not need to go all the way to Refugio Grey to get spectacular views of the glacier, you'll know the view when you get there).

View from the Glacier Grey Mirador

If you base yourself out of Paine Grande, you can day hike up to Paso John Gardner and back one day (a long and strenuous hike, but the views of the glacier rock) and out to the Valle Francés (more spectacular views) and back another day.

For 300° views of OHWOWMOUNTAINS, head up the Valle Francés

If you base yourself out of Las Torres (see options listed below), the views from Laguna Amarga and between Laguna Azul and Cascada Paine are arguably the best in the park. Getting to these places is easiest if you have your own vehicle or someone who will shuttle you (e.g. through a lodge).

Park panorama from a trail from Laguna Azul to Casada Paine

The catamaran ferry from Paine Grande across Lago Pehoé ($12000 pesos, 3 boats per day in summer leaving from the Pudeto parking lot for Paine Grande at 9:30 am, 12:00 pm, and 6:00 pm, arriving/departing Paine Grande 30 mins later for the return trip to Pudeto) gives you stunning views of the Torres and is absolutely worth taking. If you do nothing else in the park, do this. Buses go between Pudeto and the Laguna Amarga park entrace, and well as to and from Puerto Natales.

...are not a hiker

Take the ferry from Paine Grande across Lago Pehoé (see above). If you want to see Glacier Grey, there's also a ferry run through Hotel Grey (~$100 USD round trip).

My friend Serena enjoying the views from the Lago Pehoé ferry.

There are three major lodging options in and around the park:

  1. Park-operated, hike-in, free campgrounds with limited services.
  2. Campgrounds that include refugios/lodges, some of which are associated with hotels or "glamping" options, on the trekking circuit.
  3. More traditional hotels off the trekking circuit.

All of the lodging options in the park that I am aware of have awesome views and either offer or can arrange sightseeing tours, guided hikes, horseback riding, and other excursions. The list below is pretty exhaustive, but there may be others out there (let me know if you find any!).

Options on the trekking circuit:

  • Hotel las Torres at Las Torres (the "start" of the circuit)
  • EcoCamp at Las Torres (my parents stayed here during their park visit and it was awesome, the views from the camp are incredible)

Domes at sunset at the Las Torres EcoCamp

Options off the trekking circuit:

...want to hike, but are not into hauling a pack or not keen on sleeping in tents

You're in luck! The network of lodges, refugios, restaurants, shops, and tents-for-rent already set up at the campgrounds in the park mean that you don't actually have to carry a pack (except for stuff like water, snacks, and your sunscreen and rain gear) if you don't want to.

If you want to sleep in refugios, lodges, or domes, you're limited to the W. If you're willing to sleep in a tent, you can do the full O with a porter.

Many trekking excursions organized through agencies in Puerto Natales or run through lodges or vendors in the park also include porters who carry most of your gear for you (ask). The company my parents used during their stay in Torres del Paine was Eco Camp Patagonia which offers everything from full circuit treks with porters to stays at their beautiful and unique dome village with day excursions to park highlights. Not cheap, but the staff is excellent and the setting of the camp really couldn't be any better. A list of other lodges is above. The two main vendors in the park are Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur, which also offer guided tours.

What? This doesn't look like fun?

...are totally down with carrying a pack--this is trekking after all

Do the W if you are short on time (my group did it in 3 days, Lonely Planet recommends 4-5), the full O circuit if you have plenty (Lonely Planet recommends 7-10 days, but if you like long days you can do it in 5). When planning, add in at least two half days for transport to and from the trail from Puerto Natales.

There are two places to start:

  1. From Las Torres (take a bus from Puerto Natales to the Laguna Amarga ranger station from which point there are little transfer shuttles to Las Torres)
  2. From Paine Grande (take a bus from Puerto Natales to the Lago Pehoé ferry terminal, then take the ferry to Paine Grande)
Both treks can be done in either direction. There are arguments as to which way is best. For the W, I don't think it matters. For the O, the major difference is that you'll either be hiking up the extremely steep W side of Paso John Gardner with the glacial views to your back, or sliding down it with the views the whole time. Most people prefer the slip-and-slide with the glacier views. To avoid too much "I got used to hiking alone and what the hell is up with all these people now?" shock, do the W part of the trek first (I would recommend starting at Paine Grande and going counterclockwise).

Camping is only permitted in designated campsites, so plan ahead knowing your reasonable hiking limits. There are several free CONAF campgrounds, and if you are willing to hike long hours you could almost do the whole circuit staying only in free sites: Paine Grande (arrive and start hike same day) -> Campamento Italiano -> French Valley and back to Italiano -> Campamento Torres -> Refugio Dickson (not free) -> Campamento Paso -> out via Paine Grande.

The CONAF campgrounds do not require (and most do not take) reservations, just show up, they won't turn you away. Reservations can be made at the other sites, but they are not necessary if you are hauling your own tent. All have water and pit or composting toilets.

Bring plenty of cash in pesos in case you don't make your free campsite and need to camp in a pay site. And bring plenty of cash in pesos to buy yourself beer ($2000 pesos/can of Austral) at the refugios when you pass them. There are no fires allowed in the parks and cooking stoves may only be used in designated campsite spots.

Stressing out about how to pack for your trek? Check out my "How to Pack for a Trek to the End of the World" post, keeping in mind that Torres is so well-supported that you won't need a lot of things listed.

Drinking a bottle of wine that my friend Anneke surprised me with
alone in my tent on my 30th birthday in the middle of a rainstorm.
Special times.

...want a true wilderness experience

Go somewhere else. Torres del Paine is spectacular, but a zoo of humans. There's a lot of truly wild land in this part of the world. Get dropped off somewhere remote and enjoy knowing there are no other people as far as you can see, like I did when I wandered south of the Dientes del Navarino circuit on Isla Navarino.

Not another human in all this view. In stark contrast to busy Torres del Paine, where I didn't go a day without seeing at least 30-some people (and that was in the "quiet" backside...on the W it was more like hundreds).

...are a geobiology nerd (like me!)

There are microbial mats and microbialites (including some huge thrombolites) on the shores of Laguna Amarga and Lago Sarmiento. Pretty much the coolest shit I'd ever seen.

Me, pawing a lovely thrombolite on the shore of Lago Sarmiento

The campgrounds (in clockwise order from Torres)

Prices are for a tent site, per person, in Chilean pesos at the time of writing (December 2013).

There are two types of campgrounds:

  1. Free CONAF campgrounds. These campgrounds have limited services, but always have some sort of toilet facility (either flush, composting, or pit), water, and a ranger watching over everything.
  2. Pay campgrounds run by either Fantastico Sur (F) or Vertice Patagonia (V). All pay campsites have toilets, showers, and rental equipment/mini-stores (e.g. sleeping mats, sleeping bags, tents, fuel, stoves, beer...), and refugios/lodges where you can rent a bed (with or without sheets/blankets), pay for meals (which you may need to reserve in advance, full board runs around $50 USD) unless otherwise noted.

For refugio and lodge reservations and prices (which run about $50 USD pp/night and up without board, full board is an additional ~$50+ USD), contact Fantastico Sur (F) and Vertice Patagonia (V).

Note that campgrounds (particularly the CONAF campgrounds) may close without notice. Inform yourself when you enter the park and plan accordingly. Be prepared (with energy, time, and cash) to go to the next or return to one you just passed in case you find one closed. Camping outside open campgrounds is forbidden, and you can be fined or even imprisoned for not following park rules.

A friendly Zorro wandering through the edge of one campsite.

The first ten campgrounds are on the W trek. Prices listed are for tent sites.

  1. Las Torres (F) - Refugio and pay campground ($6000 pesos/person/night for tent site) with showers, flush toilets, and awesome views. There are also hotel and lodge options here (Hotel Las Torres), and the EcoCamp that my parents stayed at that is like staying in a hobbit village and absolutely charmed my pants off...not literally, I behaved and kept my pants on except in the privacy of my tent, but I was thoroughly charmed.
  2. Campamento Chileno (F) - Pay campground ($6000 pesos) with a restaurant on the side of a creek on the way to Base de las Torres. If you don't need restaurant access, continue up the hill to Campamento Torres.
  3. Campamento Torres - Free CONAF campground in the woods with running water/toilets. Best place to camp if you want to watch the sunrise at Base de las Torres.
  4. Campamento Japonés - You need special permits to go here, base camp for climbers. The normal "W" route does not go this far.
  5. Los Cuernos (F) - Pay campground ($8000 pesos) with a restaurant, refugio, and dome/lodge options.
  6. Valle Francés (F) - Pay campground ($4000 pesos) with toilets and showers, no cooking or rent-a-tent facilities yet, check if open.
  7. Campamento Italiano - Free CONAF campground in the woods with composting toilets and a stream for water.
  8. Campamento Británico - Free CONAF campground that was closed when I did the trek.
  9. Paine Grande (V) - Pay campground ($4800 pesos) with flush toilets, showers, a cooking gazebo with stoves, and breathtaking views. The campground can get very windy. The Paine Grande lodge has a restaurant, bar, internet cabins, refugio, and lodge in a beautiful spot at the shore of Lago Pehoé. The Lago Pehoé ferry leaves from here at 9:30 am, 12:30 pm, and 6:30 pm. Don't miss happy hour at the bar from 5-7 pm (2-for-1 $3500 peso pisco sours when I was there).
  10. Refugio Grey (V) - Pay campground ($4000 pesos) with a restaurant, refugio, showers, etc. in a field not far from views of Glacier Grey.
The campground at Paine Grande (Lago Pehoé)

The rest of the sites are on the "backside" on the "O" route, continuing in the clockwise direction from Refugio Grey:
  1. Campamento Paso - Free CONAF campground in the woods with pit toilets and creek water. The steep and windy Paso John Gardner is between this campground and Campamento Los Perros.
  2. Campamento Los Perros (V) - Pay campground ($4000 pesos) in the woods with a little store and refugio, close to the Mirador for the Los Perros glacier.
  3. Refugio Dickson (V) - Pay campground ($4000 pesos) with a little store, showers, and refugio in a breathtaking spot with views of the glacier at the end of Lago Dickson.
  4. Campamento Serón (F) - Pay campground ($6000 pesos) in a field with a little store and refugio.

Refugio Dickson. The views were...umm..."pretty baller".

Miscellaneous information about the park

There are streams practically everywhere and at the time this was written, the water was safe to drink, so you do not need to bring filtration or treatment equipment or a huge water bladder--a 1L (or even 0.5L) bottle that you refill along the way is plenty.

There are refugios and lodges dotting the trail that sell food and basic equipment like gas canisters and beer. So if you have cash to burn, you can save yourself some pack weight.

The weather can change rapidly (be prepared for rain) and the winds get very strong (two of the members of my hiking party--myself included--had their ponchos shredded in a rainstorm with heavy winds...so don't count on ponchos to save you; I also lost my pack cover to a sudden, strong gust). The sun, when out, can be intense. Come prepared with layers, rain gear, sunscreen, and good sunglasses to protect your eyes.

This should go without saying, but bring a camera. It's only, like, the most beautiful place on Earth.

Carry cash in pesos. Some of the lodges (e.g. Paine Grande and Hotel Torres) accept credit cards or USD, but the refugios and campsites do not. Wouldn't you be sad if you spent all day while hiking in the rain dreaming of a lukewarm beer at the end of your hike only to realize you were a few pesos short? That is the stuff my nightmares are made of.

Throwing together all of our change to try to
buy beers at Paine Grande.


In addition to lodging, Erratic Rock Hostel in Puerto Natales offers daily park talks at 3 pm (open to all), gear rentals, guide services, etc. as well as an excellent website full of info to help you plan your trip to the park. They also have a pub. Check them out.

Another website with lots of information about the park is TorresdelPaine.com

The Wikitravel page has fairly up-to-date info.

Got additional tips or corrections? Please post them!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Travel tips for Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego


I found it difficult to find info for some of these places, so here's some of what I dug up or tried out either alone or with friends/parents during my adventures in Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Prices and places can change rapidly, so check into things yourself, but I tried to provide links where possible.

The lists of lodging and restaurants aren't anything close to exhaustive, just the places I tried that stuck out i my memory. Maybe someday I can get paid to try out all the restaurants and hostels and report back... ;-)

Prices listed here are what I paid or was quoted in November-December 2013. Especially in Argentina, prices change rapidly, and in this whole area there can be big differences in high vs. low tourist seasons.

If you have tips to add, pipe up!!

Towns visited (from N->S) and covered in this collection of tips and reviews:

El Chaltén, Argentina
El Calafate, Argentina
Torres del Paine, Chile (see separate "Planning your Trip to Torres del Paine" post)
Puerto Natales, Chile
Punta Arenas, Chile
Ushuaia, Argentina
Puerto Williams, Chile

With jagged peaks, the world's third-largest ice sheet, massive glaciers, luxurient forests, pasturelands, cobalt lakes, huge swaths of wind-swept desolation, fjords, charming port towns, soaring condors, frolicking guanacos, and warm and friendly people, this is an incredible part of the world.

General practical tips for the region

  • Learn some Spanish. Many people speak English, many do not. A little Español combined with a smile will open doors.
  • Bring cash in USD. In Chile, many hotels will offer you a significant discount for paying with cash in USD because foreign tourists paying in cash do not have to pay the 19% VAT. In Argentina, where the blue market exchange rate will give you almost twice the number of pesos per dollar as banks, ATMs, or your credit card, bringing dollars and exchanging them for pesos once you arrive in Argentina at blue market exchange houses, at hotels, in shops, or on the street (be careful that you don't get fake pesos) will essentially make your trip to Argentina cost half what it would otherwise cost.
  • Bring your debit card and a credit card for emergencies. Put them in different places in case your main wallet gets lost/stolen. Many places accept major credit cards (Visa and MasterCard). However, many do not, and some towns don't have banks for doing exchanges or ATMs, so always have cash on hand before going to your next destination!
  • Pay your reciprocity fee in advance. People from the United States, Canada, and Australia need to pay a reciprocity fee before they enter Argentina. For folks from the U.S., this is $160, which is what we charge Argentinians for a tourist visa to the U.S. (so it's only fair). This is true at all border crossings, and you will not be able to book a bus ticket that crosses a border into Argentina without it. This did not used to be enforced as strictly, but as of January 2013 it became mandatory at all border crossings. You can pay by credit card here (under "Log In" click "Sign Up" and follow instructions), be sure to print out your receipt and staple it into your passport so you don't lose it. It is good for the life of your passport. Chile also requires a reciprocity fee (again, $160 for U.S. citizens, Canadians and Australians also need to pay), but it only is necessary if you fly into the Santiago airport and you can pay it at the airport.
  • Always carry tissues and hand sanitizer for public toilets. Toilets may not be stocked, and there's nothing worse than doing your business and realizing you have nothing but your t-shirt to wipe with.
  • Bus tickets usually need to be bought in person at bus ticket offices. Some companies allow online booking, but only for residents with a local bank account. Not all will accept credit card, so be prepared with cash for your fare.
  • Bring snacks for the bus. Some long bus rides will supply meals, but often a "meal" means two slices of white bread, a packet of mayonnaise, and a slice of cheese, or just a small package of cookies. Others supply excellent meals (I've heard rumors of steak and wine?), others nothing at all. It's wisest to bring a bag with some food and water. Note that when crossing the border into Chile, you will not be able to bring any plant or animal products (fruits, veggies, nuts, meats, dairy, honey, etc.), and they will check.
  • Water is generally safe to drink, but if you're sensitive, ask if the water in the place you are staying is potable. Bottled water is widely available for purchase.
  • Don't eat bus station empanadas. Trust me. Do eat empanadas, but eat them at a reputable establishment where they make them fresh. Also, empanadas are bigger, and therefore better, in Chile.
  • Do drink the wine. All the wine. Best in the world. There are some really good microbrews here, too. When in this region of Chile, try the Austral beers. My favorite in Argentina has been beer by Berlina, but one restaurant in Chaltén served up a delicious Stout that knocked my socks right off.

Enjoying a local beer at the end of a hike in Patagonia.

Where to go, in what order, and how to get there

If I were to do this again, had more money and lots of time, and were to design a tour from Bariloche, I'd do this 4-week trip:

1. Go from Bariloche to Puerto Montt either by bus or via on the Cruce Andino cruise across the lake.
2. Spend a few days exploring around Puerto Montt, e.g. visiting Chiloé.
3. Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales on the Navimag ferry through the Chilean fjords.
4. Visit Torres del Paine for a week from Puerto Natales, hiking the O clockwise from Torres.
5. Return to Puerto Natales and go to Punta Arenas for a day or two and see the penguins at Isla Magdalena and/or Seno Ottway.
6. Take the Yaghan ferry or fly to Puerto Williams. Better yet if I had the money or connections, hop a yacht and explore some of the more remote fjords and estancias on the way.
7. Spend a week or more trekking around Isla Navarino. Skip this part if you aren't an adventurous trekker or love of extreme yachting.
8. Then take a zodiac (or catch a yacht ride) to Ushuaia and spend a day or two there hiking or going on boat excursions.
9. Take the bus to El Chaltén via Rio Gallegos, spend a few days or more trekking and rock climbing in El Chaltén.
10. Take the bus from El Chaltén to El Calafate and do a glacier trek.
11. Bus (or fly) back to Bariloche. Taqse/Marga buses are really comfortable and hit the scenic parts of Ruta 40 while blowing through the rest on mostly paved roads. Or if you want the experience from Hell so you can say you did it, get one of the Ruta 40 buses (seriously not fun, but maybe less miserable than cycling it...).

Alternately, for those with lots of time and energy (next time...):

  1. After exploring Chiloé...
  2. Bike the Carretera Austral from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins
  3. Magically ditch the bike and hike across the border to El Chaltén (description here) and play in the mountains there (rock climber's paradise, fun on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
  4. Bus to El Calafate and do some ice climbing on the glacier.
  5. Bus to Torres del Paine and do the O circuit.
  6. Jump back onto the above list for parts 5-8.
  7. If your butt hasn't had enough, bike from Ushuaia north on Ruta 40 (I've heard this is miserable! Yay!).

El Chaltén

Chaltén is a super-cute little mountain town and it wouldn't take much to convince me to live there forever. It is very touristy (goes from 500 residents in the winter to 3000 in the summer tourist season), but with plenty of charm to spread around. There are lots of hostels (I was staying with parents so didn't check them out), if you camp be aware that the winds can be very strong (welcome to Patagonia! brace yourselves!). The mountains are awesome, and there are trails and climbing everywhere. Also, with Fitz Roy rightupyournose there, it's a mecca for rock climbers and serious mountaineers. This would be a good place to stay for a while if you like the outdoors, a place to stick your claws into and scream "NO NOT LEAVING" if you love the outdoors (I know I did...).

The town of El Chaltén from the Fitz Roy trail


  • Senderos Hosteria (rooms $130USD and up) is right across from the bus station at the edge of town. Rooms were nice, wifi was extremely slow, breakfasts included the standard toast and jams and cereals as well as cold cuts and fruit. The hotel also has a restaurant most days of the week with very nice food. The "deluxe" rooms face the mountains and sort of have views. The "standard" rooms are on the opposite side of the building and can get very hot from sun coming in through the windows and only little ventilation.
  • Lots of hostels in the town. Check them out online.
  • Campgrounds in the national park (hiking distance from the bus station) all looked very nice.


  • La Cerveceria is conveniently located on the way back from the Fitz Roy trail (San Martin 564). Microbrews, a small outdoor Biergarten, and food (including excellent salads).
  • There are several nice restaurants along the main street Jose Antonio Rojo. All were good.


  • Don't miss the Fitz Roy trail. Even if you only go to the viewpoints (there are several stunning ones) halfway and skip the final climb (it's steep and strenuous, I advise bringing trekking poles) up to the lake, this is the view you came here for. If you have a good weather day with low winds, do this and consider yourself incredibly lucky.
  • If you want a nice walk when you first get into town, hike out to the waterfall. The trail takes you through the whole town (not very long), along the river, and out to the Cascada. You pass the Fitz Roy trailhead on the way.
  • This trek across the border to Villa O'Higgins in Chile sounds amazing and I wish I had had time to do it.
  • Climber? Then bring your gear and your friends and you know what to do. Because... this:
Mountain, you are so beautiful I just want to give you hugs. All the way to the top.

El Calafate

Calafate is a good transit point, a little wooded oasis in an otherwise barren landscape. Stop off, see the glacier(s), continue on to somewhere nicer (like Torres del Paine or El Chaltén). It has plenty of stuff for tourists including streets full of tour agencies, souvenir shops, and outdoor equippers. Restaurants tended to be overpriced, although the Cerveceria was great.

Glacier Moreno out of El Calafate


  • Los Dos Pinos offers up a range of lodging options from a lawn for pitching your tent to dorm rooms to little cabins. Nothing special, but prices were fine, the location convenient, the internet was decent, and transfer from the bus station was free (although it isn't a long walk). Tent site for a night was $40 argentine pesos, including free wifi, showers, and use of the kitchen. The communal kitchen area is nice and big, but woefully understocked due to backpackers stealing equipment from the kitchen.
  • Stanta Monica Aparts has a series of very cute kit cabins complete with private living rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms (with tubs) surrounded by green lawn, trees, and lupine off at the edge of town. The staff were very helpful in helping my parents book activities and transportation.


  • Chopen cerveceria at the edge of town (Libertador 1630) serves up great food at a reasonable price as well as local brew, and the staff was fun. We ended up returning here after not particularly liking any of the other restaurants we tried in town.

Puerto Natales

Puerto Natales is a cute little port town with spectacular views of the mountains, but pretty much everyone who comes here isn't here to see the town, they are here on their way to or from Torres del Paine. For info on Torres del Paine, see my post "Planning your trip to Torres del Paine".

A cloudy day in Torres del Paine


Lonely Planet is outdated: there is a new bus terminal (the glassy new Rodoviario) outside of town on Av. España 1455 where all of the buses come into and where the bus companies now have their offices. This means that, in general, you'll have a long-ish walk to any hostels downtown. Be prepared to walk in the rain.
There are so many backpackers, that despite high frequencies buses do fill up, sometimes days in advance. So leave extra time to get yourself on a bus!
  • To Torres del Paine Park from Puerto Natales, Pacheco runs buses twice daily at 7:30 and 14:30 and returns at 13:00 and 18:00
  • From Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales: Pacheco and Buses Fernandez both offer buses about every hour from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm. ~$5000 CLP.
  • Navimag ferry runs Puerto Montt <-> Puerto Natales for a scenic 3-day trip through the Chilean fjords. Cabins start at $500 USD, although if you show up at the terminal the day of, you can get steep discounts (I’ve heard as low as $300 USD). I didn't do this (no time) but have heard wonderful things about this trip.


Many of the hostels in town offer gear rentals (tents and sleeping pads, some also  have sleeping bags, stoves, packs, gas cans, etc.) and can arrange bus tickets to the park.
  • Backpackers Kaweskar is clean, has a good breakfast, helpful staff, and enforced quiet hours ensuring the backpackers get their sleep. It is full of...backpackers. $9000 CLP/night for a dorm room.

Punta Arenas

A port town that has outlived its glory days but still retains a certain maritime coolness. Try the seafood, visit the penguins, move on.

Penguins at the Seno Ottway colony out of Punta Arenas


  • The mercado municipal is full of little restaurants, all reasonably-priced and offering up local seafood and other specialties (including, supposedly, sea urchin = erizo) although I didn't find it on the menu at any of the places I looked).
  • La Luna is a fun place for dinner with excellent food and a nice wine and beer selection.


Ushuaia bills itself as the "end of the world", which when you stand at the "End of the World" sign at the harbor and look out at the mountains beyond, kind of makes you feel cheated. But it's a fun little town in an absolutely spectacular landscape with a little something for everyone: hiking, boating, shopping, penguins, seafood...

Lovely Ushuaia


Prices in $ Argentine pesos for dorm rooms in late November 2013.

Hostels in Ushuaia book up fast in Nov-Feb. Book in advance through HostelWorld or other booking site if you can!

All of the hostels I stopped at had good info desks for helping you plan trips and excursions.
  • Hostel Antarctica has a fun atmosphere and a bar
  • Hostel Yakush has a nice living room, kitchen, and dining area, $120/night
  • Hostel Cruz del Sur fun and lively atmosphere with knowledgeable and helpful staff for planning outings, $100/night
  • Amanacer del Bahia where I stayed, $120/night, all of the hostels downtown were full, this one is up on the top of the hill (a short distance from downtown, totally walkable) and sort of like a men’s boarding house, not a lot of charm, but it was clean enough and the people were friendly and the staff helpful
  • La Posta is recommended in Lonely Planet but is a long way from the town center and is not very charming. Not recommended.



There is no central bus terminal in Ushuaia, which makes life difficult. To book tickets, you need to go to one of the agencies in town, all of which are closed on Sundays and holidays. Many hostel info desks can book tickets for you.
In general, Platforma 10 is the best website for looking for schedules for buses in Argentina.
Prices listed are in USD unless listed otherwise.
  • From Bariloche: Marga 36 hours, ~$220 USD including meals and snacks, leaves 9 am, arrives in Ushuaia at 9 pm the following day with a transfer in the morning in Rio Gallegos.
  • To Punta Arenas: Buses Pacheco ($60+) you can buy tickets on the bus the day of if seats are available, or book them at the Tolkeyen Patagonia office at 1267 San Martin. Other options are Bus Sur and Tecni Austral, check at the info center and at the offices in town to buy tickets.

Puerto Williams

Puerto Williams was my favorite place I've been in all of South America. Why? Read my Isla Navarino series. It's a tiny port town that reminded me of tiny port towns in SE Alaska. There's not a big tourist infrastructure there, and I liked it that way. So what I should say is that it's really hard to get to, there's not much there, definitely don't go. But I can't lie, I loved loved loved Puerto Williams.

View of the Dientes del Navarino from the legendary Club de Yates in Puerto Williams

Transport Options

Prices are in USD unless otherwise specified.
  • Piratour zodiacs: Ushuaia <-> Puerto Williams, $130 including harbor fee, runs most days weather permitting. Buy tickets at the info center on the water front or their office on San Martin. Leaves Ushuaia at 9am, arrives ~12pm including customs. Check in Puerto Williams for leaving times (varies). This is how I got to the island and they were fine, even if I think the price is ridiculously high.
  • Ushuaia Boating zodiacs: Ushuaia <-> Puerto Williams, office at Gobernador 233 was closed every time I checked there (despite posting opening hours that said they should be open) so I don't know what prices are or when boats leave, but this is a theoretical option
  • DAP flight: Punta Arenas <-> Puerto Williams, $120, 2 flights/day Monday-Saturday, 10 kg luggage limit, $1000 CLP per kilo after that, flights leave at 11:30 and 8:00 pm, but arrive really early since they seem to actually leave when they want!
  • Yaghan Ferry: Punta Arenas <-> Puerto Williams, $200 for basic seat, leaves Punta Arenas on Thursdays at 6 pm, leaves Puerto Williams on Saturdays or Sundays (check the schedule) at 4 pm, takes ~30 hours, boat to Punta Arenas arrives at around 9 pm the day after departure.


  • There are a handful of hostels in Puerto Williams, I only have experience with one. If you show up at one and it is full, they'll help direct you to one that is not.
  • Patty Pusaki at the Residencial Pusaki is the best. She has private and dorm rooms, offers 3 excellent home-cooked meals a day (you can eat with her even if you aren't staying with her—her cooking is legendary!), is full of interesting stories, and she has a big map of the island on her wall that was actually really useful—arguably moreso than the topo maps—for planning my trek. Room and full board was ~$22000 CLP/night.

Other tips

  • The info booth in the center of town was staffed by a very knowledgeable and nice Estonian woman while I was there, she was great.
  • Yacht Club (Club de Yates Milcavi) on Milcavi on the waterfront at the west side of town. Good internet, club/bar open ~6pm most days, bar rages all night, great place to meet people.
  • There is a bank with an ATM downtown. Stores only accept CLP. Don’t expect to be able to exchange money when you arrive, so bring pesos or use the ATM.

Hikes (starting from town)

If you only have…

  • 1-2 days: Cerro Bandera ~3.5 hrs round trip, great views of the Beagle Channel
  • 2+ days: Overnight camp at Laguna Salta, you can continue on to the Paso de los Dientes and back if you have time for awesome views over both ends of the island if the weather is good. Hike to Salta is ~4 hours.
  • 5 days: Lago Windhond (2 days to the lake, 2 days back, one night at the Refugio Charles at the lake)
  • 6 days: The Dientes del Navarino circuit
  • Longer: combine Windhond and the Dientes circuit or explore some of the off-trail options


  • There are no fees for hiking.
  • Campfires are allowed (using fallen wood only, no cutting new wood, but the beavers did all of the work for you), as is off-trail hiking, but be careful and responsible and follow leave-no-trace principles.
  • There is apparently great fishing all over the island.
  • The store across the street from the Municipalidad has lots of good stuff for trekking from topo maps to rental tents to ramen noodles and trail mix. The owner is very knowledgeable.
  • For trekking, checking in with the carabinieros is mandatory and free.
  • Be prepared to spend at least one extra night out and be prepared for some really bad weather—weather can turn awful (snow, torrential downpour, gale-force winds, etc.) really fast.
  • Check out my post "How to pack for a trek to the end of the world" for packing advice.

And...that's all for now! Again, if you have tips to add, pipe up!! Hope this is useful!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Postcard Contest 4: Patagonia

Why, hullo spikey mountains.

My parents and I are headed off to a tourist town in Argentina's Los Glacieres National Park in the mountains of Patagonia that serves as base camp for a very spikey mountain on the edge of the Patagonian Ice Sheet that is named after the captain of the ship whose adventurous naturalist would later become one of the greatest names in science.


  • the naturalist
  • the name of the ship
  • the name of the captain
  • the name of the mountain
  • the name of the town we're going to
First person to leave a comment here and get it right gets a postcard! You do have to leave your name so I know how to contact you and get your address.

Disclaimer: I can only send you a postcard if I am able to get your mailing address. I will announce winners when I have internet access, which may be as long as a week after the contest is announced, so be patient! Also, I make no promises as to when I will send the postcard. But, at some point, I will send it, pinky swear.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

How to pack for a trek to the end of the world


Over the past few days of hostel stays I've landed in places with people frantically packing their backpacks, scurrying around the tourist towns trying to procure things for their journeys, and generally stressing out about what to bring on their hikes. Last night alone I helped three people go through their stuff, figure out what they would need and what they should leave, and pack their bags to maximize comfort and efficiency while minimizing the possibility of getting all of their stuff soaked in a rainstorm. I felt like an REI employee ().

I get it. Few things stress me out as much as packing. Strangely, packing for treks doesn't stress me out, I have it down.

So here’s my list in case it is helpful to anybody for what I packed for a 7 day (6 night) solo trek in highly variable terrain and weather conditions ranging from warm (but not hot) sun to blizzards in well below freezing conditions. This is the exact list of things I brought with me on my adventure on Isla Navarino, Chile.


I included some specifics as well for items I’m particularly happy with, including links to pages where you can check them out. By using the links in this page to shop, you will be supporting this blog. I only put links to products and retailers that I use myself and really like.

Some good places to load up on outdoor gear, all with excellent product selection and customer service (pretty much everything outdoor-related I own came from one of these retailers), are:
  • REI () and REI Outlet ()
  • backcountry.com ()
  • Shopping for the patient, backcountry.com runs several ultra-discounted (50% or more) deal-a-minute feeds like * Steepandcheap.com* * and * Dogfunk.com*. If you have a wishlist item and aren't in a hurry, sign up for their alerts, watch their feeds, and get serious discounts on gear!
  • evo Outlet, a Seattle-based outdoor sport retailer

Me, with my pack, surviving the sleet in the Dientes del Navarino on a seven-day solo trek on Isla Navarino.

A few notes

Italicized items are “luxury” items that, while I don’t consider them necessary, were nice/fun enough to have that I found them worth the extra weight to bring them.

All of my stuff listed here together weighed in at around 15 kg (including the water) in my pack (not counting what I wore), which is entirely reasonable for someone of my size to carry.

The key to packing for a trek is to bring exactly what you need and nothing more. The less weight you have to carry, the faster and farther you’ll be able to go and the happier you’ll be. How light you go is really up to you: go ultralight and bring only what you need to survive, or go moderately light (I consider myself to fall in this category) and bring only what you need to survive and be reasonably comfortable.

Side note: where I’m from, “backpacking” means going out in the woods/mountains and living out of your backpack for a period; it seems in the rest of the world this is called “trekking” with “backpacking” meaning more hopping from hostel to hostel and living out of that kind of backpack. I will try to remember to use “trekking” for camping and living out of a backpack to avoid confusion with an international audience, although for me “trekking” implies the presence of facilities and campgrounds or refugios, while for me “backpacking” means true wilderness hiking.

If you are trekking with friends, you can benefit from the “economy of scale” by splitting up carrying shared items like tents and cooking gear and first aid supplies and toiletries. At least in theory. In practice, my two man tent is more than twice the weight of my one-man, I tend to bring fancier (and heavier) food—and things like bottles of booze—when out with others, and I feel more obligated to maintain a certain standard of hygiene with more changes of clothes and things like deodorant, so my pack for my solo trek was actually significantly lighter than it usually is when I’m out with others. Not to mention that several of my past boyfriends liked to use me as a packhorse (“I have fragile bones,” said one as he loaded my pack with the tent and the cooking gear and more than half of the food…that should have been a sign of things to come).

Views like these don't come easy, and make trekking so very rewarding. Lago Windhond, Isla Navarino, Chile.

The List


  • Backpacking pack (my Gregory Electra 84L internal frame expedition pack is no longer made, but this one is similar)
  • Waterproof pack cover and garbage bags to put your critical “must stay dry” stuff in inside your pack just in case you go for a swim
  • Trekking poles (Black Diamond Flicklock 3-piece collapsible poles) While some may argue with me that these are not essential, if you are in variable terrain, doing stream crossings, or want to survive long steep downhills with your knees intact, I consider them a must-have. Tip: wrap a few meters of duct tape around your poles so that you have a ready supply for blisters, emergency fixes, etc.
  • 1-man tent with stakes (Doite Zolo Especial 3-season)
  • Sleeping pad (Big Agnes Air Core; their insulated pad is warmer but heavier)
  • Sleeping bag (Marmot Women's Teton 0F/-18C down bag) and bag liner (Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor) for extra warmth. Make sure your sleeping bag is warm enough for the conditions you will encounter! Also beware that down bags, while incredibly warm and light, need to be carefully protected from moisture and stored properly (i.e. only keep them in their stuff sacks during trecks, never store them packed) to maintain their insulating power.
  • Water bottle or bladder (Platypus 3L hydration pack)
  • Headlamp and fully-charged batteries
  • Water filter or sterilizer (SteriPen Ultra…found this very handy for travel but poorly-protected from water damage and I fried mine on only my fifth trip to the backcountry, will bring tablets instead next time)
  • Topographic maps in a waterproof bag
  • Firestarter & lighters
  • Compass
  • Whistle
  • Swiss army knife


Note: pack enough for your trek as well as enough extra in case you get stuck an extra day or two or find that after shivering all night long you are more ravenous than you would normally be. Plan for lots of carbs, a daily dose of protein, calorie-dense foods (like nuts, jerkey, etc.) and a few tasty treats that make you happy (for me, a few of my favorite fruits and veggies and cookies). You won’t get scurvy in a week, but your body will be happier if you are eating a reasonably balanced diet. This list is scaleable to shorter hikes or more people or different metabolic needs. I eat a lot normally, so also eat a lot while backpacking. I have noticed that most of the women I hike with eat and seem to need significantly less food, but in my opinion it’s better to bring more than feel underpowered until you get used to what your particular needs are. Think about how much food you normally eat when you are getting a good amount of exercise and try to figure out the lightest way to pack approximately that amount of food per day. I found this list a nice balance, if boring, of good, calorie-dense, largely lightweight options.

Tip: There’s a reason backpackers like dehydrated food. Avoid schlepping water weight wherever possible. Avoid cans: you can’t burn them when you’ve eaten what’s inside. Minimize packaging you’ll have to carry out when you pack your food. I like to pre-pack most of my food into resealable ziplock bags and put everything into a Tupperware container to cut down on packaging while avoiding messy spillsplosions inside my backpack.

  • 1.5 large packages of spaghetti with 7 dry seasoning packets for each day (tip: add soup mix to the water you cooked the pasta in for a warm treat without using more gas)
  • 4 cups of oatmeal (I packed half as much for my trek and really wished I had brought more)
  • 2 packages of tuna (if you can find these, like I did, in packets vs. in cans, all the better)
  • 1 can of garbonzo beans pre-cooked and mashed up with garlic and seasoning as a sort of makeshift hummusy-mash. Great flavor, as well as a good source of protein. Tasted good cold or warm.
  • 150 g butter (for sandwiches and for adding some oomph to the spaghetti or soup). Cheese is an excellent tasty and calorie-dense alternative, but I’m allergic to it.
  • 10 pitas/Chilean flatbreads for sandwiches (2 sandwiches per long day, 1 per short day)
  • 2 small packages of paté and one sleeve of presliced salami (a stick of salami would have been better than the packaged paté and salami sleeve)
  • 3 large packages of cookies (1/2 package per day). Substitute with granola bars if you can find them, but good whole-grain cookies are great, dense, dry energy food, and at least for me a morale boost.
  • 1 qt. of trail mix (nuts and dried fruit)
  • 6 packages of insta-soup
  • 4 avocados—a real treat in sandwiches! Even if they are a lot of weight, they pack a lot of good fat and flavor that I much appreciated during long slogs. Bell peppers are a lower-waste option, but there were none available when I went shopping.
  • 6 mandarin oranges—another treat!
  • 200 g chocolate
  • 100 g honey and/or marmalade—made oatmeal tasty
  • 1 small container of spice mix (mine is a mix of chili powder, garlic powder, and salt) to make otherwise bland or watery foods  more palatable
  • 6 tea bags (or packets of insta-coffee, if that’s your thing)

Cooking Equipment

  • Large lightweight aluminum pot with a lid
  • Small cooking can with a lid, doubles as a cup (titanium 750mL cup)
  • Camp stove (MSR Pocket Rocket)
  • 2 cans of camp fuel (only used 1, but bring extra)
  • Plastic spork (fork/knife/spoon in one little utensil)
  • Tupperware containers for storing food, doubled as dishes for mixing oatmeal & honey, spaghetti & mix, etc.)
  • 2 lighters

Note that I did not pack stuff with which to wash my dishes. I found a rinse with warm (or even cold) water, a scrub down with snow, and/or a wipe with my camp rag was good enough. Also, in most places in North America, you need to add a bear can or bear bag to this list to keep critters out of your food.

First Aid Kit and Toiletries

All of this fits into a small bag which keeps things in one easily-accessible and organized place. I use one of these Eagle Creek mini packing cubes.

  • Blister stuff (padded tape, moleskine)
  • Package of sanitary wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Pill bottle with painkillers/anti-inflammatories (I carry ibuprofen and motrin PM), Benadryl, decongestant, antidiarrheal medications, and anything else you need (e.g. birth control pills, EpiPen, inhaler, malaria meds, altitude sickness meds, your daily dose of antipsychotics, etc.). I mix everything together in one small pill bottle, taking just what I need, and tape a label to it to remind me what’s what.
  • ACE bandage
  • Sterile gauze
  • Medical tape
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Bandaids
  • Toothbrush
  • Travel toothpaste
  • Floss
  • DivaCup (ladies, if you don’t know what this is, look into it)
  • Contacts, contact case, and small bottle of contact solution…don’t get pinkeye, wash your hands well before removing or placing contact lenses
  • Glasses and glasses case
  • Blistex and chapstick
  • Sunscreen
  • Earplugs (really help with sleeping on windy/rainy nights…or if you have a heavy-breathing tentmate)
  • Small sewing kit with needles (also good for treating blisters), thread, safety pins, and Velcro strips

Note that I did not pack normal toiletry items like soap, shampoo, lotion, a comb, deodorant, facewash, etc. You’re in the woods, you’re going to get filthy, you’re going to stink, and trust me that creek is going to be too cold to want to dunk in for a bath. Embrace your inner filthy swampbeast. You can use wet wipes for sponge bathing if you really start to feel icky in an “I have a bogwater rash” potentially serious sort of way (I wet-wipe washed my feet most nights).


Note: this list includes what I wore on the trail and what I packed. In general, just enough to keep warm enough while hiking and a set of dry thermals for emergencies and to stay warm in camp.


Note: all of these things are optional, but having a GPS is useful and it is probably a good idea to keep a phone on you even if you’re not going to get a signal to use it.
  • Smartphone with GPS loaded with navigation app (I used BackCountry Navigator for Android, but it was a little buggy) and topo maps with extra battery
  • Battery charger bank (Anker Astro 5600 mAh) with charger cable to charge phone
  • Kindle e-ink e-reader loaded with maps, first aid guides, and fun reading material
  • Mini MP3 player and headphones = instant-energy / morale boost when the slog gets too sloggy (San Disk Sansa Clip)
  • Camera
  • GoPro and spare battery


  • Absorbent rag / small towel (used a small car rag I bought at a grocery store…it was perfect)
  • 5 m parachute/nylon cord for tent ties, lines, etc.
  • Zipties and Velcro ties (I have yet to use any of these while backpacking, but they seemed maybe useful so I continue to keep them in my pack)
  • Duct tape (wrapped onto trekking poles for easy access)
  • Large and small plastic garbage/shopping bags (3 each)
  • Resealable Ziploc bags (3)
  • Tissues (3 packs…or 1 pack and a small roll of toilet paper)
  • Shit kit: shivel (= shit-shovel, a.k.a. trowel, for digging a pit for your poo), TP/tissue/wipes, trash bag, hand sanitizer
  • Notebook and pens

Trekking is fun. On Isla Navarino, Chile.

A few additional notes

On packing

A general tip is to put your heaviest/densest stuff next to your back (e.g. if you have a water bladder it goes right up against your back in your pack), lighter stuff goes on the outside. This keeps your center of gravity where it should be.

Pack lengthwise—a bunch of stuff hanging off your back, aside from making you look like a ridiculous hermit crab, will throw off your center of gravity and make it very hard to walk and keep your balance.

If your pack extends much over your head (unless you are carrying, say, skis or a snowboard or a fishing pole), you packed too much, take stuff out. I’m 5’3” and if my full pack for a week of trekking does not extend over my head, neither should yours.

Keep stuff you’ll need during the course of the hike (snacks, compass/GPS, camera, maps, shit kit, water, poncho, pack cover) in outside pockets, ideally outside pockets you can reach without taking the pack off. Other stuff you anticipate needing immediately when you get to camp or in an emergency (firestarter and lighter, first aid kit, waterproof shells, extra layers) in easy-to-access locations as well.

Put your sleeping bag and other sleeping stuff inside a waterproof garbage bag whether it is inside your pack (most good packs have a special compartment at the bottom for stashing your sleeping bag) or tied onto the outside (if this is the case, make sure it’s a sturdy bag, or consider double-bagging and carry backup bags for when sticks or rocks rip your trash bag open). Same thing for any clothes, electronics, or anything sensitive to water.

Stuff sacks for your tent, poles, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, fancy jackets, cooking pots, etc. are nice for keeping things compact and organized, but add ounces and are they really necessary, especially if you’re stashing everything in a waterproof garbage bag anyhow? Ultralight fanatics say no.

On the trail

If you pack well, water will be one of your biggest sources of weight. Know your route and water sources. If there are lots, you can get away with carrying less water at a time. However, I’d never leave camp without at least 1L on me. STAY HYDRATED.

In extremely windy conditions beware of pack covers. Mine blew off in a gust in Torres del Paine and I had nothing else to keep my pack dry in the wind, so when the rainstorm started it got soaked. If you have a pack cover, make sure it’s cinched down tight and tied on somehow so that you don’t lose it like I did.

Practice good pootiquette and always poo well away from water sources and other sensitive areas. I usually carry a “shit kit” (see above) in an outside pocket of my backpack: a small roll of TP, a small package of wet wipes, a garbage bag for the used wipes (carry out your trash, folks!! Unless you’re in a place where you can safely burn it), and a bottle of hand sanitizer. In some parts of the world in very sensitive areas you may be required to pack out your poo. Plan (and maybe adjust your fiber intake…) accordingly.

Speaking of bodily functions…ladies, you save a lot of carrying around used TP if you get good at drip-drying when you pee. Good underwear (e.g. ExOfficio antimicrobial undies) makes this seem less gross. One sign of a true backpacker chick is a woman who can pee without even taking her pack off. I assure you, it is possible. Bring wet wipes for hygiene to avoid yeast or bladder infections. Also, DivaCup. If I’m out backpacking with you and see a bag full o’ tampons and pads I’ll hit you. You’ve been warned.

In camp

Because of the very foul weather I kept my pack and boots, wet/dirty shell clothing layers along with everything else inside my tent with me. I had room inside, and did not have a rain fly to stash it under to keep it out of the weather but out of my tent. This meant I had to be extra-careful to keep my pack dry while hiking. In North American regions with bears or other critters, this is not a good idea, so carry stuff to hang and keep your stuff dry while away from your tent.

Keep tent ventilation openings clear and open.

Keep a dry pair of camp clothes (thermal layers, socks, hat) to change into at the end of the day. It gets cold at night, and you won’t want to be wet on top of it. These layers can all double as additional hiking layers for truly extreme weather, but I wouldn’t ever put them on in wet conditions (if it’s still warm enough to be wet, it isn’t that cold…just walk faster…keep your dry stuff for when you’re stationary in camp).

If condensation in your tent is a problem, make sure your tent is set up correctly (i.e. tight), open whatever vents your tent comes with (my tent, for example, has a trick dual zipper that allows you to fold down the top parts of the doors underneath a little overhang for additional ventilation) and use an absorbent rag to wipe down the inside periodically (wring out the rag outside the tent after you do to prevent the water you just mopped up from condensing right back onto the walls of your tent).

Do not cook inside your tent. You could light your tent on fire, the steam from the water will cause serious condensation problems, you could spill your meal all over your sleeping bag…not worth it.

To keep batteries warm and therefore more functional, keep them in interior pockets while you are hiking and inside your sleeping bag at night.

I put the base layers I’ll be wearing the next day (socks, gloves, sport bra, t-shirt, long-sleeved thermal shirt) in my sleeping bag to pre-warm them for the morning.

Jackets balled up under or in the head of your sleeping bag make great pillows. So does a stuff sack full of the clothes you aren’t wearing.

Your winter sleeping bag should have cinches around the head and shoulders. If it’s cold, cinch! It’s amazing how much heat you conserve if the only opening of your sleeping bag is a little O that your nose (or mouth) pokes through. On really cold nights, be prepared to wear everything you have that is dry (hats, jackets, socks, whateveryouvegot) inside your sleeping bag. Again, hats. If your head is warm, the rest of you will stay a lot warmer, too.

Genius tip from my friend Anneke: In cold weather, fill your water bottle with warm/hot (careful about it being too hot—a lot of plastics don’t stand up well to boiling or very hot water or will leach nasty stuff) water and put the (carefully closed!) bottle into your sleeping bag at night as a heat source.

Good times in a blizzard on Isla Navarino, Chile.

How about you? Any tips to share? Disagreements with what I’ve listed? Is this useful—should I also post my packing lists for traveling, splitboard trips, etc.?