Hiking

Inca Trail preparation: a complete guide for first-time trekkers

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, one of the seven modern wonders of the world, tops many travellers’ bucket lists. Completing it is no easy feat, however, and good preparation – physical, mental and logistical – is vital.

Hiking the Inca Trail is something that many people dream about. In this comprehensive Inca Trail preparation guide, we detail how even the most novice trekkers can make it a reality. We did the trail on a 7-day tour with G Adventures; read about our experience and how to book it here.

This article contains links to tour packages, from which we may make commission at no extra cost to you.

Can a novice hike the Inca Trail?

When we completed the Inca Trail, it felt like one of the biggest achievements of our lives. Until just a few months earlier, we hadn’t even considered ourselves hikers. We didn’t own a pair of boots between us.

Like many people, Machu Picchu is a place we had dreamed of seeing. The 15th-century Incan citadel in the remote Peruvian Andes is one of the world’s most iconic images. An architectural masterpiece of the Inca civilisation, it is considered one of mankind’s greatest engineering achievements.

While it is possible to visit Machu Picchu directly by train from the nearby city of Cusco, the most rewarding way to see it is by hiking the Inca Trail. The classic route is around 43 kilometres long, reaching an altitude high point of 4,200 metres above sea level, and typically takes four days to complete. Winding through the mountains and jungles of Peru, the route passes various impressive Inca ruins and offers some of the most incredible scenery on the planet. There are some alternative hiking trails to Machu Picchu too – see our Peru trekking guide, which features several of them.

But is it really possible for a newcomer with little hiking experience to undertake the Inca Trail? The short answer is yes, and in this article we explain how. Spoiler: it does take effort to prepare, and you can’t go into it half-heartedly. If you attempt the Inca Trail without reasonable preparation, it can result in a miserable or even disastrous experience.

One thing I can promise is that the effort is worth it. Having been there, done it and bought the t-shirt, I can tell you there is no feeling quite like descending from the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu as the morning mist lifts, revealing it in all its splendour. But first, you need to get there. Let’s begin.

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is packed with incredible Andean scenery
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is packed with incredible Andean scenery

How to book the Inca Trail

First and foremost when planning your Inca Trail experience, you need to book in advance. The route is strictly regulated by the Peruvian government, with a maximum of 500 people allowed on any single day. New measures to preserve its natural beauty and archaeological sites are introduced regularly.

To secure a place on the Inca Trail, you need to sign up to a trek at least six months in advance. We booked our July trek in the previous September, and even then places were running out.

There are several travel agencies that run Inca Trail treks, with prices beginning at about 300 US dollars. We sometimes use budget options for tours on our travels, but this was different. As one of the major highlights of our round-the-world trip, we wanted to make sure the experience was the best it possibly could be, and so we decided to pay a bit more to ensure that.

We booked the Inca Trail with G Adventures. From a range of options we decided on the 7-day package, which included a day in the Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo, two nights in Cusco, and the classic four-day Inca Trail with all accommodation and meals included.

We paid £800 each in total for the tour. To secure it we paid £100 deposit each, with the balance payable by seven weeks prior to our trip.

Our group with the team of guides and porters that made the experience possible
Our group with the team of guides and porters that made the experience possible

Another reason we were happy to pay more to go with G Adventures was their good reputation for treating local staff well. The Inca Trail is possible for tourists like us because every group is accompanied by a team of local porters who know the terrain and carry heavy luggage and equipment. Check out the article I wrote immediately after our trek to find out more about the incredible Inca Trail porters that supported us.

G Adventures took care of all the bookings and paperwork needed for our Inca Trail, including the day pass for Machu Picchu. As newbie travellers (this was pretty much the first activity of our year away) this took a burden off our shoulders. While other tour operators such as Llama Path are quite a lot cheaper, not all the logistics are covered, or cost extra. For more experienced trekkers this might not be such a problem.

When is the best time to hike the Inca Trail?

Inca Trail tours run all year round, but it is important to consider seasonal weather conditions. To avoid too much rainfall, the best time for hiking the Inca Trail is between May and September. We went slap in the middle of this season, in July, and hardly saw a drop of rain.


Physical training for the Inca Trail

The physical challenge of hiking the Inca Trail should not be underestimated. As a result of its high touristic profile, the route is attempted by a lot of first-time hikers. But with its uneven, up-and-down topography it is no walk in the park, and requires training. If you arrive unprepared physically, you will probably struggle and have a rough experience.

The bread and butter of physical training for the Inca Trail is to do plenty of walking and hiking, building up distances and difficulty.

Wherever you are in the world, seek out nearby hiking routes. You can even begin by doing simple walks around your local town or city, before getting onto some proper hiking trails.

We began our physical training six months before our trek. Once a week on Sundays, we simply took a train to somewhere in London, where we were living at the time, and walked from there back to our house. We started with 5 kilometres, and worked our way up to 12 kilometres.

Doing some training hikes close to home is great for Inca Trail preparation
Doing some training hikes close to home is great for Inca Trail preparation: we explored the South Downs in the UK

Gathering confidence, we graduated to off-road hikes in the South Downs, a large and hilly national park in the south of the UK. This was the perfect nearby trekking getaway from London. We ranged from one-day, 13-kilometres hikes at Box Hill to overnight camping trails around Amberley and Ditchling Beacon. 

As you get closer to the Inca Trail, it’s a good idea to try and weave some training hikes into your weekend or travel plans. For example, when visiting friends in the north of England, We stopped for a hike in Carding Mill Valley, which was beautiful. Similarly, when we visited my Mum in Cornwall, we hiked along the South West Coastal Path – a route that follows the coastline of one of the most stunning parts of the UK.

We kept this up on a regular basis all the way until our departure for Peru, a couple of weeks before our Inca Trail tour. At least once a week we did an extended walk or hike, and we did several shorter walks together in the evenings.

One of our Inca Trail preparation hikes was on the South West Coastal Path in Cornwall, UK
One of our Inca Trail preparation hikes was on the South West Coastal Path in Cornwall, UK

When doing these training hikes, it’s best to wear the walking shoes you will be using on the actual Inca Trail (see below for our recommendations on finding the right shoes). Walking shoes need to be worn in. If you buy a new pair just before the trek, it’s likely you will get sore and irritable feet, chafed ankles and even blisters.

Step training

The ascents and descents on the Inca Trail are not all smooth gradients; the trek involves  many hundreds of steps. This requires a different kind of training. We were conscious to include training hikes that included some step walking, such as Box Hill in the UK, and we were glad we did!

Try and build some step training into your regular daily routines. If you live in a block of flats, for example, walk up and down the stairs a few times each day. My workplace was in a nine-storey office building, and at least a couple of times a day I would walk to the top of the staircase and back down. Over time, this built up the strength in my muscles I would need for the Inca Trail.

The 'Gringo Killer' on day two of the Inca Trail is a downhill trudge of over a thousand steps
The ‘Gringo Killer’ on day two of the Inca Trail is a downhill trudge of over a thousand steps

Building strength

As you will need to carry some luggage on the Inca Trail, it is also important to build upper body strength. Gradually, we began taking weight on our training hikes and increased it over time. When we finally did the Inca Trail – thanks to our team of porters – we only carried about 8kg each. It’s a good idea to work out the weight you will be carrying and work towards that.

Last, but certainly not least, it is vital to build your cardiovascular system for the Inca Trail. This means doing plenty of aerobic exercise such as swimming, jogging or cycling. All of this improves your ability to process oxygen, which will be crucial when hiking at altitude (more on that below).

As a recreational hockey player, I was already getting plenty of aerobic exercise twice a week, but I stepped that up with more jogging as the trek grew closer. It’s a good idea to track your exercise progress with a smartwatch such as a Fitbit.

How much does a Peru trip cost? Read our spending breakdown to help plan your budget

Acclimatising for high-altitude trekking

While there are many treks out there with longer distances, steeper ascents and tougher terrain, one simple factor makes the Inca Trail a even trickier proposition: altitude. With the route ranging between 2,500m and 4,200m above sea level, the thinner air makes every little exertion a lot harder.

The typical symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. However, there are ways you can avoid it, and if you do find yourself struggling, there are steps you can take to beat it.

Altitude can affect people differently, and your level of fitness won’t necessarily make a difference. Some people have almost no problems at all, while others really struggle. If you can afford the time and expense, it can be useful to visit a high-altitude destination a few week in advance of your trek to see how it affects you.

Two months before our trek, I was lucky enough to take a work trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – the world’s fifth-highest capital city at 2,355m. After a day of acclimatising with no issues, I tried a bit of jogging. Aside from being a bit shorter of breath than usual, I was ok, but others in our group needed to take a bit longer to acclimatise.

If you can be flexible with your entry route into Peru, one option is to come in via Bolivia. Most of the country’s hotspots are at high altitude, including Salar de Uyuni, La Paz and Lake Titicaca (tours of Bolivia’s salt flats, for example, go higher than the Inca Trail) .

The city of Cusco, the base for visiting Machu Picchu and a beautiful place in its own right, is the perfect place to acclimatise in the days before the trail. At 3,400 metres above sea level it is roughly equivalent to the average altitude on the trek. Arrive at least a couple of days before your Inca Trail is due to start.

Read our article on things to do in Cusco while you’re acclimatising for the Inca Trail

 

While you’re in Cusco preparing for the Inca Trail, take it easy, drink plenty of water, and avoid alcohol if you can. It’s also a good idea to buy some altitude sickness tablets, which you can find in shops around the city.

Your body needs more carbohydrates at high altitude. Pack plenty of snacks for the trek, including some carb-based ones. You may want to bring some coca leaves along too, as they’re believed to alleviate the effects of altitude. You’ll find them in most food shops around Cusco.

When it comes to the trek itself, take it slowly, take plenty of breaks and, again, drink lots of water.

The highest point of the Inca Trail reaches 4,200m above sea level
The highest point of the Inca Trail is Dead Woman’s Pass, which reaches 4,200m above sea level

Mental preparation for the Inca Trail

Hiking the Inca Trail is a feat of endurance that is just as much about the mind as the body. If you are not ready for the challenge of multi-day trekking, your mind might give up long before your body does.

You are likely to hit mental barriers; the feeling that you can’t go on, or don’t want to. You might tell yourself you’re unable to continue. First of all, you need to be aware that this is going to happen and be ready for it.

Inca Trail tours are usually run in fairly large groups; ours was 14 people. It’s likely you will have a briefing on the day before you set off, to meet your tour guides and the group, and find out more about the details of the trek.

Inca warriors: our Inca Trail team at the beginning of the trek
Inca warriors: our Inca Trail team at the beginning of the trek

This briefing is a good opportunity to raise any concerns or reservations you might have. If you have any anxieties about the trek, share them with the guides, and they will be able to help. That’s their job!

We were lucky to have two excellent guides who were extremely understanding and supportive of the slower people in the group. If you can set the parameters for the trek before you start, it will help to clear those niggling worries from your mind.

Take time to understand the route. This should be explained in detail in the briefing. While most people say that the second day of the Inca Trail – which includes hiking to the highest point of 4,200m – is the most difficult physically, many find the next day tougher. With a descent of over 1,000m in the latter stages of the day, locals call it the ‘Gringo Killer’, and it can be a real grind. The more you know the intricacies of the route in advance, the better you can prepare for it mentally.

It’s also a great idea to buddy up with someone for the trek, and again, the briefing meeting is a good opportunity to set this up. By sharing the endurance with someone else, you can support each other to push through those tough moments.

Our group sets off on day one of the Inca Trail
Our group sets off on day one of the Inca Trail

Inca trail preparation: choosing the right gear

The Inca Trail is a serious trek that involves some harsh terrain, and where challenging weather conditions are not common. As such, it is vital to take high-quality, durable hiking gear. Check out our Inca Trail packing list for a complete lowdown on everything you need to bring.

Inca Trail essentials

The three most important items for hiking the Inca Trail are your boots, jacket and bag.

It’s ok to buy most of your gear online, but I would make an exception for footwear. You really need to try them on, have a good walk around and get a feel for what suits you best. When it comes to boot size, Consider the fact that you’ll probably be wearing thick hiking socks. With this in mind it’s usually best to go for half a size above your usual.

I chose Berghaus Men’s Explorer for my walking boots, while Lisa went for Salomon Women’s Ellipse. These both worked out great for us. Everyone’s taste is different, but the important thing is to choose something comfortable. It’s best to go with a recognised outdoor brand – don’t take a risk for the Inca Trail.

For more ideas, see our guide to the best hiking boots for travel

For the jacket, waterproof is essential, and windproof desirable. We both chose 3-in-1 jackets that worked as a comfy fleece, a waterproof outer shell, or both together. Again we went for recognised brands; I chose the North Face Evolution Triclimate, and Lisa the Jack Wolskin Vernon 3-in-1.

A well-designed bag is crucial to your comfort while hiking. The Osprey Daylite Plus is a great option that distributes weight well and has mesh pockets for extra storage. Check out our guide to the best travel backpacks too, which includes more options for smaller daypacks.

The view descending into the valley on the penultimate day was one of the best
The view descending into the valley on the penultimate day was one of the best

Accessories for the Inca Trail

Other equipment you will need for the Inca Trail includes:

  • Walking sticks – essential for the extensive steep descents. You can hire them in Cusco, but if you’re planning to do any more hiking it may be better to buy some. FitLife hiking poles are a good option.
  • Gloves, scarf and a hat to stay warm at night – it gets cold at altitude when the sun disappears.
  • A sun hat for the daytime – the Peruvian sunshine can be fierce!
  • Hiking socks – we love our Bridgedales. They have lasted us through trekking in Peru, Patagonia, New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam, Slovakia and the UK, and they’re still going.
  • Light t-shirts Mountain Warehouse are an excellent budget option here. After .a year of travelling these were our only t-shirts that survived!
  • Camel pack for water. You need to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated on the Inca Trail, and the most comfortable and convenient way to carry it is in a camel pack that you can take regularly through a tube. 
  • Hydration tablets are useful for optimising your water intake and making your supply go further.
  • Snacks. While our tour company provided a bag full of snacks, we supplemented it with our own, and were glad we did. Anything that’s light and provides energy and protein is good – nuts, seeds, dried fruit, energy bars, that kind of thing. Best of all is to make your own trail mix.
  • Sleeping bag. We brought our own – we use Vango Ultralite, plus a silk sleeping bag liner for when it gets cold – but it was also possible to hire them from the tour company.
  • Head torch. It gets very dark at night in the mountains – you don’t want to get lost when nipping outside to the toilet.
  • Camera. You’re going to see some of the most impressive scenery in the world, so be prepared to capture those memories. Check out our electronics and gadgets page to see what we use.
  • Cash. It should go without saying that there aren’t any ATMs along the trekking route. If you need to buy any snacks or drinks, they come at marked-up prices, cash only. Also, it’s likely you’ll want to give a tip to your guides and porters at the end of the trek.
  • Your passport. You don’t want to miss out on getting the cool stamp at Machu Picchu!

I didn’t put electrical items like phones on this list because, well, they’re not really necessary. You won’t get much signal anyway! But if you really must take your phone, make sure it’s fully charged before you set off, and consider bringing a charger pack. You won’t find many power points in the Peruvian wilderness.

Success: we made it in one piece to Machu Picchu
Success! We made it in one piece to Machu Picchu with our team of Inca Warriors

With your training completed and bags packed, there’s nothing left to do but go ahead enjoy the experience. You’ve earned it.

Insurance for the Inca Trail

With any trek that involves hiking at altitude and in the wilderness, it’s important to make sure you are covered for any accident or injury. That means investing in some travel insurance. After all, if you find yourself in the unlikely scenario that you need to be airlifted away from the trail, you don’t want a bad situation to be made magnitudes worse by an astronomical medical bill, right?

When seeking a suitable insurance policy, bear in mind that most standard packages do not cover trekking over 3,000 metres altitude. As the Inca Trail reaches 4,200 metres, you may need to get special cover that includes this.

We recommend World Nomads Insurance for hiking the Inca Trail. They offer tailored travel insurance options for trekking up to 4,500 metres (and higher, if you want to trek in nearby Bolivia, for example) and specific hiking insurance that is geared towards the Inca Trail.

World Nomads is a reliable and flexible insurer that provides excellent customer service when you need it most. You can get started using the quote tool below:

Where to stay in Cusco before and after the Inca Trail

Cusco is well set up to accommodate to 2 million tourists that visit every year, and so there is a wide range of accommodation options, from budget hostels to luxury hotels and apartments. We prefer staying in hostels on our travels, and we’ve compiled some of the best in Cusco to help you choose your perfect value-for-money base for the Inca Trail. If hostels aren’t your thing, you can browse more options on the Cusco section of booking.com.

Tip: The San Blas district of Cusco is the most beautiful, with its narrow cobbled streets, colourful old buildings, and a stunning elevated view across the city. It also hosts a vibrant craft market in its main square and is full of shops and restaurants.

Check out our Peru itinerary and travel guide to help plan the rest of your travels in the country

 

Have you done the Inca Trail and have some advice to share? Please post in the comments below.

You may find some of our other articles on Peru useful:

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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is no easy feat, and good preparation – physical, mental and logistical – is vital. This comprehensive guide details how even the most novice trekker can achieve it. #incatrail #inkatrail #machupicchu #hikingguide #hikingpreparation

 

21 comments

  1. Wow it’s crazy how prepared you have to be to do this trek! The Inca Trail has been on my bucket list for several years now! Will save this post for when I finally get round to it! 🙂

  2. Alex – great view of our trip. That’s a good looking group you were with 😉 but you forgot to talk about the squat toilets and bringing toilet paper and hand sanitizer in a ziplock bag. The toilet situation can be challenging physically and mentally for some.

    1. Hi Michelle!! Great point about the toilet paper and hand sanitiser – I totally overlooked that. Thank you for the feedback 🙂

      I really enjoyed writing about the trek after so much time, it brought all the memories back. Can’t believe it’s nearly been a year!

  3. Very good this blog has very good information I thought to do the Inca Trail, I was thinking about doing in September but the availability is very limited recommended the alternative route salkantay trek and I am looking forward to the operator agency that is let’s go Inca Trail me They gave very good recommendations

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