If you’re thinking about or preparing for the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, great idea! It is one of the most iconic hikes in the world and I am sure it will be an experience you’ll treasure for a lifetime. So what do you need to know about preparing for the Inca Trail?
Before my Peru adventure, I did a lot of research into the Inca Trail to be prepared and ready for it. But despite this, I had several surprises along the trail… So, I wanted to write a guide that covers everything, including the lessons I learned the hard way!
So, what do you need to know about preparing for the Inca Trail? This blog will help you with everything you need to do before you set foot on those ancient steps to Machu Picchu.
But you might want to grab a cup of tea or coffee to read this – there’s a lot to go through!
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. These are links to products or experiences I recommend and if you were to buy something after clicking on them, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Any earnings go towards the upkeep of this blog, which I appreciate.
1. Consider whether the Inca Trail challenge is right for you
Do you have the fitness level required?
The first thing you should do in thinking about and preparing for the Inca Trail trek is to consider whether you have sufficient fitness to do it. If you aren’t reasonably fit and don’t exercise regularly, you may struggle.
So, how long is the Inca Trail? 26 miles / 40 km.
To give you a flavour of what will be required, day 2 of the 4-day Classic Inca Trail includes about 6 hours of relentless uphill hiking up to Dead Woman’s pass, covering a vertical distance (ie altitude) of 1km. It’s not an easy-breezy stroll in the hills!
Certainly, if you are not used to hiking, you should do some training in advance of the trail – we’ll cover that in the third section.
Can you handle the heights?
In addition to fitness, you will also need to be comfortable with heights. I don’t just mean because you’ll be at a high altitude in the Peruvian Andes!
There are some stretches of the trail with a slippery narrow path and a steep drop to the side (with nothing between you and the side of a steep mountain). These aren’t the conditions for the entire trail, but there are some sections that will probably be a challenge for vertigo sufferers.
I know several people who had a really tough time with these parts of the trail. This is not something you can prepare or train for, so if you have a hard time with sheer drops and steep mountainsides, you may want to carefully consider whether this is the right adventure for you.
Manage your expectations about the trail
In preparing for the Inca Trail, it helps to set the right expectations of what you will experience.
Be warned: don’t expect comfort and cleanliness when you are walking the Inca Trail! You’ll be camping on the trail and it’s the rough sort of camping, not the glamping sort.
There are occasional toilets, but none of them will be clean and fully functioning (the toilets on the trail are up there with the worst toilets I’ve seen anywhere in the world). Some campsites have showers, but the showers will have queues and the water will be shockingly cold.
In preparing for the Inca Trail, I suggest you get used to the idea that you will be grimy and unhygienic for a few days, and that you will most likely pee outside.
Also, don’t count on good weather: there are wet seasons and dry seasons, but it can rain at any time. You might avoid bitter disappointment by preparing yourself in advance for views you had looked forward to being obscured by clouds.
For example, I didn’t see the famous view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate – it was too misty. And a friend could barely even see Machu Picchu when they got there because it was shrouded in clouds. So my advice is to make the most of the clear views you do get, and expect some to be hidden from you.
Machu Picchu itself
Be prepared to share Machu Picchu at the end. It is the prize at the end of the trail, but it won’t be yours alone. The last segment of the Inca trail opens around 5 am and takes 2-3 hours to complete, depending on how fast you walk. But the tour buses arrive in Machu Picchu from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes around 6 am, so you won’t be there first.
Be prepared for there to be a lot of non-hiking tourists exploring the citadel with you. I wasn’t prepared for that and it was quite a culture shock for me to be suddenly surrounded by crowds of energetic, clean people!
2. Know the basics to book with confidence
Questions to ask before you book the Inca Trail
So, if you’re still up for the Inca Trail challenge so far, good for you! Now, you must book your place well in advance.
The trail is popular and there are restrictions on how many people are allowed onto the trail each day (to avoid damage to the ancient sites and ecosystem). Only 500 people can start the trail each day, and around 300 of those are guides or porters. This means it can get booked up a long way in advance – certainly many months.
When is it best to do the Inca Trail?
The coolest, driest season is June to August and the trail can be popular in these months because there’s less chance of rain or clouds.
April and May are also popular. They fall after the rainy season and can be the best months to see lush vegetation and flowers, including orchids.
December to February are most likely to be rainy – and the trail is normally closed in February to allow repairs.
I went in September, which was still dry season, and it was great because I had very little rain.
Which route and speed are right for you?
In preparing for the Inca Trail, you’ll want to think about which route and speed you want to go. There are various Inca Trail tours and mountain hikes that take you past Inca ruins, but only the Classic Inca Trail takes you on the traditional route by foot.
If this is your preference, you can also choose how long to take. The trail itself is 40km and is typically done over 4 days, but some providers offer 3 and 5-day options if you want to go at a faster or slower pace. I opted for the 4-day option, which seems to be the most popular.
Which tour operator should you choose?
You’ll also need to do the hike as part of an organised, licenced tour because independent hikers are not permitted – but the good news is that your tour guide can give you advice about the hike, the regulations (which can change over time) and they will also book it for you.
There are lots of organisations offering Inca Trail hikes, and the packages do differ and it is worth checking the details of a few before you commit. For example, you may want to consider:
- Do they offer private and group tours (private will of course be more expensive)? What is the average size of the groups?
- Do their guides all speak English (or your first language)?
- What is their approach to sustainability, and treatment of porters? This is really important in Peru, where there is a lot of tourism.
- What size tents are available? For example, I was keen to have a 4-berth tent for two people to allow a bit of space
- What meals and equipment are included and not included? Most will provide a sleeping mat, and many can arrange a sleeping bag and walking sticks on request
- What are the transfers to and from the beginning and end of the Inca Trail? Commonly, tour operators will pick you up in nearby Cusco and drive you to the start of the trail. At the end of your tour, they will arrange a train ticket for you to return from Aguas Calientes (the town nearest to Machu Picchu) back to Cusco.
I have done the Inca trail once, so I only have direct experience with one tour provider. I don’t have any kind of referral deal with them, but I’ll happily recommend them because they were excellent: Sun Gate Tours, a small Peruvian owned travel agency based in Cusco.
As well as them being amazing, it also felt good to me to use a local company rather than an international one.
To carry or not to carry your pack?
You will also need to consider whether you carry your own pack or not. The way the tours work is that porters carry the group equipment, like food, cooking equipment, tents etc – they are super-strong guys, carrying this stuff in huge loads and walking ahead of the hikers to set up camp before they arrive. But you can also pay extra to have porters carry your backpack for you, so all you need to carry is a day pack with water, a jacket and snacks etc.
Now… when I did the trail, I opted to carry my own pack, because it seemed a bit weird to have someone else carry it for me – but I regretted it! I hadn’t realised how hard I’d find the altitude and the steepness of the trail, and I guess I overestimated my own strength and endurance! The vast majority of people who did the trail at the same time as me had day packs only, so I’d suggest thinking carefully about this option when you’re preparing for the Inca Trail.
What will it cost?
Costs vary by the tour operator and the size of your group (bigger groups = lower costs per person) and at the time of writing, can range between around $600 and $1200 per person for the 4-day Classic Inca Trail. In addition, you might need the following extras:
- $20 for hire of a sleeping bag
- $20 for hire of walking sticks
- $150 for a porter to carry your bags
The importance of your Passport
Finally, your tour guide will inform you of this, but it is worth knowing now that in order to book your ticket for the trail, you need to provide your passport details. And when you turn up to actually do the trail, you need to present your physical passport – and it needs to be the same passport you booked with.
So if your passport is set to expire in between booking and doing the Inca trail, this is a problem. When preparing for the Inca Trail, make sure you have enough time left on your passport!
3. How to physically prepare for the Inca Trail
If you are already pretty fit, are used to hiking and are confident about your ability to do the trail, you probably can skip this section.
If not, in the weeks before your trail, I recommend you do some practise hikes to help you with preparing for the Inca Trail. These will help you wear in your boots (if they’re new, or if you don’t wear them often) and also get your body ready.
Practise hiking, so you are confident about walking the trail
On the Inca Trail, you will be covering up to 16km a day, so do some research and find hiking trails that are long enough and with plenty of hilly sections to help you get used to walking steep terrain. It is worth practising hiking uphill and downhill – because some people have more trouble with their knees on downhill sections (though it was the uphill stretches that I struggled with).
And, ideally, do your practise hikes whilst carrying a similar weight to the pack you will carry on the Inca trail itself (either a full backpack with clothes & equipment or a day pack).
Take the stairs wherever you can!
Whenever you can, avoid lifts and elevators in favour of taking the stairs!
When I was preparing for the Inca Trail, I did hikes up and around Box Hill in Surrey and Pen Y Fan in South Wales. I also took advantage of living in a tower block by walking 12 flights of stairs whenever I came home.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to prepare for the altitude until you reach a high level of altitude – more on that later.
4. What to pack for the Inca Trail: use my six exhaustive packing lists
It is so important to pack the right things for the Inca Trail – because if you miss something, you might find it really inconvenient to be without it. On the other hand, if you pack too much, you’ll have too much weight in your pack.
I wrote an exhaustive Inca Trail packing list – but it was so detailed, I made it into a separate post. So when you’re coming to the time to plan your packing, do check that out. I break the packing checklist down into six categories, including essentials, non-essentials that I recommend and some items that I regret taking – so that you can lean from my mistakes.
5. Acclimatise to the altitude
The final aspect to consider in preparing for the Inca trail is acclimatisation. This is really important because unless you live at a high altitude already, it is impossible to predict how altitude will affect you.
How to avoid altitude sickness
The Inca Trail covers altitudes from approx. 3200m above sea level to 4200m, where the air is significantly thinner than most of us are used to! Some people barely notice the effects; others have temporary, mild symptoms, and a few get seriously ill and may require hospitalisation. There’s no correlation to age, gender or physical fitness, so you won’t know in advance how you will be affected.
I was advised to spend three to five days acclimatising in Cusco (3400m) before starting the Inca Trail – and being the impatient kind, I did the minimum! But if I did it again, I’d spend the full five days there. That’s because I did feel the effects of altitude and I started to feel better on the fifth day after arriving in Cusco – but I’d already struggled through two days of the Inca trail by then, breathless and with a pounding headache. I wish I’d acclimatised longer!
There is information on altitude sickness on the NHS website.
And if you’re concerned about any symptoms you experience before or during the Inca trail, inform your hotel or tour guide straight away.
Acclimatising in Cusco
Don’t worry about being bored during those acclimatisation days. There are plenty of things to do in Cusco during those days before the trail. There’s plenty of interesting architecture – from the Incas and also the Spanish; several great restaurants; and lots of opportunities for people-watching. You also have the option to do some low-effort excursions, eg to the Sacred Valley.
In Cusco, I stayed at the Hotel San Agustin El Dorado, which is centrally located and very comfortable. They looked after the luggage that we didn’t want to take on the Inca Trail in their lock-up, and it was a great base from which to explore Cusco before and after the Inca Trail.
So, are you up for the challenge?
So, these are my recommendations for preparing for the Inca Trail! Don’t forget to check out my Inca trail packing list as well.
I hope you get to do it one day because it is one of the best long distance walks in the world. I hope this helps you plan your adventure, and that you enjoy the unique sights of the trail as much as I did. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments.
If you’re not 100% decided about whether to do the trail, here is a post about the stunning Inca ruins that you can only see on the trail.
One final tip
If I could do it all over again, I’d stay one night in the town closest to Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, after the trail, rather than taking the train straight back to Cusco. This way, I could make more of Machu Picchu in the afternoon of the day I arrived (when I’m told it is quieter), plus I could return on the early coach the next morning to attempt that sunrise experience that is impossible if you arrive by the trail.
Ps. Oh and, check out my itinerary for spending two weeks in Peru (including the Inca Trail).