OK, so you want to do the Inca Trail hike – 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.
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 and start the Machu Picchu hike.
1. Consider whether the Inca Trail challenge is right for you
Do you have the fitness level required?
The first thing you should do before booking 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.
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
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.
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 any time. You might avoid bitter disappointment by preparing yourself in advance for views you had looked forward to being obscured by clouds.
For me, 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
So, if you’re still up for the challenge so far, good for you! Now, you must book well in advance.
The trail is popular and there are restrictions about 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.
Choosing your route and speed
You’ll want to think about which route and speed do 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.
Choosing a tour operator
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
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.
What it costs
Costs vary by the tour operator and the size of your group (bigger groups = lower costs per person) and 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 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!
Make sure you have enough time left on your passport when you book!
3. How to physically prepare for the Inca Trail
If you are already pretty fit and 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 get some practise hikes in so that you can 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 (worth practising uphill and downhill – some people have more trouble with their knees on downhill sections, though it was the hills that I struggled with).
And, ideally, do them 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: use my six exhaustive packing lists
General packing guidelines
It is so important to pack well for the Inca Trail because there isn’t much you can do if you start the trail with the wrong stuff.
The first thing to remember is, only pack what you need. Any unnecessary stuff is just dead weight that someone (either you or those already very hard-working porters) has to carry up and down mountains – so think carefully about what you bring.
Disclosure: these packing lists contain affiliate links and if you were to buy something after clicking on them, I may earn a small commission. This is at no extra cost to you, and I only share things I use and love.
And don’t worry about the gear you need for the rest of your trip to Peru, but don’t want to take on the trail – all the hotels in Cusco are used to people doing the Inca Trail, and they will let you store your gear in the hotel. You can buy one of those cheap shopping bag/hold-alls from the market in Cusco if you need it.
And the second thing is – everything needs to perform well. It is sometimes tough on the trail and conditions can change quickly, so you need kit that helps you feel ready for anything.
So with that said, my recommended checking and packing lists are…
List 1: Equipment your tour guide should arrange
I’ve included this list so that you can check with your tour operator to be sure.
- Tent & sleeping mat – again, it is worth checking how many will be sharing each tent and what size the tends are
- Cooking equipment & food
- Buckets for washing water – sounds small, but if this is the only means by which you can wash, you’ll appreciate it
- Porters to carry all of the above – you will be in awe of how much these guys carry on their backs!
List 2: Camping kit you’ll need but can hire
You can hire camping equipment in Cusco during the days before the trail, or through your tour operator (again, best to check with them in advance).
- Sleeping bag – some people have their own; many rent them just for the trip
- Walking sticks – these are optional, but I definitely recommend them! Some of the steps are steep, and some are uneven and slippery, so having sticks to help steady you is a good idea
List 3: Essential clothes
You don’t need much, but you need to be prepared for changeable weather (it can change several times a day in the Andes!):
- Good walking boots, suitable for uneven ground and steep, sometimes slippery steps, and for rain or warm weather
- Probably the most important item! Again – make sure you break these in before you start the trail
- Cushioned walking socks PLUS liner socks – 1 pair of each for each day
- This might sound excessive, but if you hurt your feet, it will be miserable, so worth the extra protective measures, in my opinion
- Linker socks are especially useful for the downhill sections, where your feet may slip over and over within your boots and risk blisters
- Wicking tops – one per day.
- For the uninitiated, these are made of material that pulls sweat away from your body so it can evaporate more easily – therefore, your clothes feel less damp and heavy, which is nice
- I saved the best-looking one for the last day (by Rab), when I knew I’d be taking photos in Machu Picchu (some people bring a new outfit for Machu Picchu selfies, but I didn’t think that was weight worth carrying for me)
- One pair of non-absorbant trousers
- they’ll get very grubby, but I really don’t think you need more than one pair
- Underwear (I won’t tell you how many pairs to bring, ha ha)
- Warm fleece with a hood for cold evenings and exposed mountain passes; you could substitute the hood for a woolly hat
- Waterproof & windbreaking jacket in case it rains (also useful for chilly evenings in the campsite)
- Sun hat & sunglasses
- Shorts or leggings & T-shirt for camp, which could double as something to sleep in (basically something which will be dry and comfy, should you get wet on the trail)
List 4: Essential kit
- You will need to present this at each checkpoint along the trail
- For tipping your guide, the cook and the porters (your tour operator can advise what the going rate is), plus there are a couple of places to buy extra snacks on days 1 and 2 and also in Machu Picchu itself
- I was glad I had some extra cash with me so I could pay for my pack to be carried by the porters from Day 2 onwards (I couldn’t have arranged this by credit card or with an IOU!)
- Comfortable backpack – with a waterproof cover. I would say around 60-70l should be big enough for most people
- Plus a smaller day pack, if you are not carrying your own backpack (so you can have access to your fleece, snacks, water etc during the day)
- Water bottle – ideally one you can fit in your backpack pocket, for ease of carrying
- First aid kit, including plasters for blisters, which is your most likely ailment on the trail
- Mosquito spray
- On my trek, I found that on warm days, the porters asked to use some of my mosquito spray because they didn’t have any, so if I did it again, I would bring extra to help them out (did I mention they work hard?!)
- Sunscreen & SPF chapstick
- Torch, ideally a headlamp
- This is essential for evenings in the campsites, as there will be barely any other light. If you need to leave your tent for any reason (eg to go to the loo), you will not want to do that in pitch black!
- Ps. The upside of the pitch black is that on clear nights, you might see the Milky Way, which is amazing
- Snacks / emergency rations
- I was given snacks each day by our tour operator, but I kept some Kendall mint cakes in my pack as a ‘just in case’. I didn’t use them, but it makes sense to have a backup for emergencies
- Camera / camera phone
- You won’t get a signal on the trail, but you’ll want to take photos!
- Toilet roll
- Don’t expect there to be any paper in the toilets along the trail or in the campsites, so you will want some of your own!
- Antibacterial wipes
- Just as there won’t be toilet paper, there won’t be soap & water for handwashing, either, so these will help you stay hygienic
- Toothbrush & toothpaste
- Flannel, soap, deodorant & waterproof bag
- In the absence of showers, you will be making do with a bucket of water for personal hygiene, so a flannel will come in handy
- Any essential meds, eg asthma inhalers
List 5: Not essential, but I’m glad I took these anyway
- Packing bags
- These are so handy! These are waterproof, sealable bags you can use to separate items within your pack. They have three benefits:
- They keep things organised. When you’re packing and repacking each day, it is so much easier to do that with a few neat bags, rather than lots of loose items
- They gave me extra peace of mind that should it rain heavily, my clothes would stay dry
- They can separate dirty clothes from clean stuff. I appreciated this when I had a fresh, clean top to wear on the last day
- These are so handy! These are waterproof, sealable bags you can use to separate items within your pack. They have three benefits:
- Shampoo & shower gel
- If you’re entirely comfortable with the idea of not showering for four days, don’t bother bringing these, but I’m glad I had a small amount with me (I used a refillable travel bottle)
- I did brave one of the cold showers on the 3rd night and while the shower cubicle itself was not clean, it felt glorious for me to come out clean, after three days covered in sunscreen, mozzie spray, dust and sweat!
- Travel/Sports towel
- If you think you might shower, I’d recommend a special sports towel, designed to dry quickly and to take up very little space and weight
- Silk sleeping bag liner
- This sounds very poncey, but if you’re renting a sleeping bag and you’re concerned about how hygienic it is, a sleeping bag liner is a good way to resolve that. I didn’t choose silk to be luxurious: it’s because it is warm, thin and light
- The extra warmth was nice on those cold nights in the mountains!
- Camping pillow
- This is basically a small, light pillow that can be rolled and compressed into a bag. Otherwise, you’ll be resting your head on the floor or a bundle of clothes, which is fine – but for negligible extra weight and space, you can have a small pillow
- Power bank & connector for phone
- If your phone battery is unlikely to last four days, take a power bank to top it up during the trail (remember to charge the power bank fully first!)
- Altitude sickness remedies
- I don’t know for sure that these worked, but I was glad to have options, as I did suffer from breathlessness and headaches on the trail
- Chemists in Cuzco can sell you tablets before you depart for the trail, and your tour will likely offer you coca leaf tea (but don’t bring any coca leaves back to your home country without being sure they are legal there!).
- Rehydration sachets & gut paralysers
- I didn’t have any gastric problems on the trail, thankfully, but I had peace of mind knowing these were in my pack should I need them
List 6: Things I wish I hadn’t bothered with, but you could consider
- Warm gloves
- I was advised I may need them in the evenings, which can get very cold, but I found that my fleece with thumb hooks was sufficient.
- Waterproof poncho
- I went in the dry season and it only rained once during my hike and this was overnight. If it had rained while I was hiking, I had a backpack cover and a decent rain jacket, so it seemed like I’d had these relatively heavy plastics ponchos for no reason.
- BUT, if you go in the rainy season, you will most likely need this. It is best to check what your tour operator recommends for the dates you are planning to do the trail.
- Flip flops for camp
- I read these could be good at the campsite, for when I had taken my boots off – but I found it was too cold to walk around without socks on and too awkward to wear socks with flip flops, so they were a bit redundant. If you have lightweight closed-toe shoes, these might be better, but I honestly didn’t feel like it was essential to have a second pair of shoes.
- Water purifier tablets
- Check with your tour operator, but I was provided with sufficient drinkable water (that had been boiled), so I didn’t need to purify any water.
- Female Urination Device
- OK, this is a delicate one… Remember I said the toilets will be gross? Well, I was recommended to take a device designed for women to avoid sitting on dirty toilets. But, without getting into details, it’s a strange thing for the female body to adjust to peeing standing up, and it wasn’t as easy to use as I thought. After one try, I gave up and resorted to squatting in hidden spots when there wasn’t a usable toilet and I needed to go.
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 altitude 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. Cusco is a really charming city, a great place to take it easy in those days before the trail: there’s plenty of interesting architecture – from the Incas and also the Spanish; several great restaurants; and plenty 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! 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.
What about Covid?
At the time of writing, the Inca Trail is closed due to Covid19. Operators on the ground are waiting to hear when it will be re-opened. Machu Picchu itself did re-open to limited numbers of people in November 2020. You can find the latest information on Peru’s Covid19 guidance for travellers here.
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.