Visiting Patagonia in Argentina: Trek safely with these tips

Essential tips to ensure your well-being while exploring the mountainous wilderness of South America

Four tourists have died in less than a week in the Patagonian mountains. Neha Malla, a US citizen, died of hypothermia near Loma de Pliegue Tumbado trail at El Chaltén. On the other side of the Andes, three Argentine mountain climbers died on Marmolejo volcano. It is not yet known how the men died.

The tragedies, which happened just days apart, have sent shockwaves through the hiking and trekking community, leaving some visitors wondering: is it safe to hike in Patagonia?  The mountainous wilderness in southern Argentina and Chile is unparalleled, but national park visitors — experienced or otherwise — should be aware of a few safety precautions.

Mountaineering, trekking and hiking are activities that inevitably involve some level of risk because they involve direct contact with nature, according to Leandro Scheurle, mountain guide and owner of the Argentina Extrema travel agency.

“Whether the trail is easy or hard, visitors can get information about it beforehand regarding completion time, the state [of the trail], and the number of people going,” says Scheurle. In popular hiking hotspots like El Chaltén, trails do have signs — but they may not be enough on their own, he adds.

When planning a trip, adventurers should check their devices to have a sense of where they’re going even when there’s no phone coverage, as is the case on many Patagonian trails. Not everyone can buy a Garmin GPS, but with a smartphone or a smart-watch, the app WikiLoc offers offline maps with tracks for most trails in Patagonia. If you can’t afford a premium account, the sports app Strava also offers offline trail tracking that comes in handy when the trail markings are erased. If you happen to stray off track, you can retrace your steps using your phone.

For some medium and high difficulty trails, you have to register your trek through an online form. Check the national parks website to see if your adventure needs registration before you set out. If that’s the case, remember to announce that you’ve made it back safely, or you could trigger a major search and rescue operation. Note that not all mountain refuges will search for hikers who do not arrive at the expected time.

People should be prepared and aware of their own fitness levels, technical skills, confidence, and enthusiasm when planning a hike. Scheurle says it’s also important to keep an eye on the weather forecast, which determines what clothes to wear and gear to pack. “Sadly, short trails are underestimated,” he says. is an ally when it comes to accurate weather information, especially on mountain trails, where wind strength and speed can completely alter the safety of a trail. In any case, Scheurle recommends wearing layers for a trek and always taking an extra coat or a pair of gloves that won’t take up much space.

The expert also mentioned that small backpacks, although trendy, may not allow you to carry everything you need.

However long the trail is, you should always carry at least 1.5 liters of water. If you run out, it’s safe to fill up from clear water streams in most mountains and valleys in Patagonia. To be on the safe side, check your surroundings: if there are any dead animals, animal waste, or stagnant water nearby, top up elsewhere. The further upstream, the safer the water, since the birds of prey living in the ecosystem will take care of any animal bacteria. 

What to pack when trekking

Multi-day treks require more equipment than a day hike. But in both cases it’s advisable to take a first aid kit, a head torch, sunglasses, sunscreen, food, and an extra coat. Wearing sturdy hiking boots, waterproof clothing, layers for temperature fluctuations, and taking a reliable tent, and a high-quality sleeping bag, is also encouraged.

When adventuring for more than a day, Scheurle says your packing list should include a GPS device or other orientation gear, a VHF radio, a small water heater and a camping stove if possible. In Argentina, most national parks forbid campfires, so it’s important to get hold of a gas-powered camping stove before you set out.

Besides the equipment, peaks higher than 6,000 meters — such as the Seismiles route in Catamarca, or Aconcagua — require more expertise. It’s a good idea to practice on a few “fourteener” trails (of at least 14,000 feet, or 4,270 meters, above sea level) to see how your body responds to altitude, practice your mountaineering skills, and develop a good idea of the dangers, be they due to nature or human error. 

If you’re hiking at high altitudes, it’s worth taking a few days to acclimatize at an intermediate altitude before attempting the trek itself. Altitude sickness may show its first symptoms, such as dizziness and headaches, past 4,000 meters. 

Some dizziness and headaches are normal at very high altitudes, but be aware that this can progress to more severe forms of mountain sickness, with symptoms including vomiting and even pulmonary edema. In rare cases, this can prove fatal. The only cure for this is going back down. Remember, altitude sickness has nothing to do with your physical fitness: knowing your limits and accepting them could save your life.

Exploring off-trail in national parks

Enthusiastic beginners often attempt to go off-trail in search of better views. This is strictly forbidden in national parks: it’s a risk for visitors and endangers the ecosystem. As a rule of thumb, you should seek to leave no trail. 

If the route is challenging for its geology or steepness, visitors can always hire a mountain guide for help.

Following this guide will help planning and taking best advantage of the landscapes in Patagonia. However, taking care of ourselves and nature shouldn’t be a reason to explore less. “Being precautious doesn’t mean being overly worried, a person who is too careful might miss out on great opportunities for adventure,” Scheurle says.


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