Adventure, Peru

A Beginner Hiker’s Guide to the Inca Trail

As a newbie hiker, I was a bit nervous about the 4-day Inca trail trip I spontaneously booked last minute in April. After the excitement of booking this bucket list trip had faded, it dawned on me that I wasn’t exactly in athlete mode and other than day hikes, I had no experience with the type of multi-day adventure I was about to embark on.

Well, after successfully completing the hike without the need to be carried down by a porter or resuscitated, I’m happy to report that while it was tough, it’s absolutely manageable. This guide covers the basics for those new to hiking/camping and preparing to hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.

DSC01906

(Machu Picchu)

Physical Preparation

  • If you don’t workout regularly, it’s highly advisable to begin cardio and aerobics training before the hike, even if it’s minimal. I ran up and down the stairs of my apartment building with a pack for 45 minutes each day for three weeks. It wasn’t a lot but I do think it helped build stamina for some of the toughest parts of the hike (namely, day 2 dead woman’s pass).
  • It’s important to arrive in Cusco at least 3 days before the hike in order to acclimatize. On day 2, you will reach altitudes of 4215m. (13828 ft.) which can be crippling if your body isn’t prepared. Plus arriving early gave me time to explore vibrant and interesting Cusco, try out coca products (good for altitude sickness) and buy items cheaply, such as my walking sticks and poncho.

Cusco

(Cusco)

What to Expect on the Trail

  • Rain. It rains a lot at this altitude. Ensure you have some light, quick-dry clothing, so you don’t end up with only wet items after a few downpours. Also, in addition to a rain jacket, a poncho is recommended as it will protect your bag from the rain too.
  • Stairs, stairs and more stairs. The trail is basically comprised of many stone staircases. I thought the downhill portions would be a breeze until I realized that the stones can be slippery and require constant balancing. Also, there is a small portion of the trail that requires you to use your hands as you climb a nearly vertical staircase (the monkey steps).
  • A friendly environment. I got to know the guides and hikers from the other tour groups well since we took breaks at similar points and met frequently along the trail. There was lots of encouraging and camaraderie.
  • It’s going to hurt, especially after day 2. The most important thing when it sets in is maintaining a rhythm, a positive attitude and an appreciation of the views.

Stairs

Surprises

  • The food served on the trail is amazing and plentiful. We had alpaca, ceviche, and even a cake on the last day.
  • It’s so much more than hiking. Our guide was passionate about her role (and the only female guide) and consistently pointed out the incredible variety of vegetation and wildlife on the trail, in between Inca history and legends.

food

What to Pack
You can hire a porter to carry your belongings. The company I used allowed up to 30 lb (14 kg)! I didn’t use this service and simply packed the list below and it was light enough (about 9 lb/4kg) for me to carry comfortably on my own. Plus, I like having access to my stuff throughout the day, when you hire a porter, you only have access at the campsite.

Travel Documents
-Passport
-Travel insurance policy and contact details

Clothing
-3 t-shirts (1 for sleeping, 1 sweat wicking and 1 for the last day for pictures)
-1 sleeveless active top with built-in bra
-1 pair of comfy pants or warm leggings (for sleeping at night, and to wear on the last day for pictures)
-1 active pants (best if they convert to shorts)
-1 merino wool long sleeve sweater
-1 warm jacket
-1 rain jacket
-1 poncho
-3 pairs of hiking socks (yes, you need them) + 1 regular pair for sleeping
-4 pairs of underwear
-1 bathing suit (optional for the hot springs in Aguas Caliente)

*Layering is critical as the mornings start pretty chilly but the temperature quickly warms up.

Footwear
-1 pair of hiking boots (sneakers just won’t provide the ankle support needed)
-1 pair of flip flops (for the shower on the last day if you choose and for resting at the camp site)

Gear
-Sleeping bag (3-season)
-Backpack (I carried a 30L since I didn’t hire a porter but a smaller one would do if you are)
-Hydration pack (or water bottle, though the former is much better in my opinion)
-2 hiking sticks (preferably adjustable so you can adjust for the downhills and uphills)
-Headlamp (along with spare batteries)

Accessories
-Sunglasses
-1 warm hat
-1 pair of gloves

Toiletries
-Toothpaste and toothbrush
-Sunscreen and bug repellant
-Hand sanitizer (so essential)
-Deodorant
-Baby wipes (to clean up every night)
-1 roll of toilet paper

Electronics
-Camera
-Smartphone (I kept it in airplane mode and used it as an alarm)

Other
-Peruvian soles (in small denominations for snacks or fruits along the way)
-Coca leaves, light snacks and energy gels
-First aid kit (including essentials medicines like anti-diarrhea, ibuprofen and others as necessary)

If you’ve hiked the Inca Trail, do you have anything to add to this list? Leave it below!

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