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How Hard Is it to Hike the Inca Trail?

The alternative trekking route to Machu Picchu is via Salkantay Pass. | Mark Tipple
The alternative trekking route to Machu Picchu is via Salkantay Pass. | Mark Tipple

An ancient pathway through the steep mountains of Peru. Hanging valleys of lush vegetation. Tiny villages clinging to mountainsides. Women in tiny top hats selling cocoa leaves. The Inca trail has all that and a lot more.

When we talk about trekking the Inca Trail, we are usually talking about only one of dozens of trails that exist in the mountains of southern Peru and Northern Bolivia, some of which are hundreds of kilometres along. The trail we’re interested in links the community of Piscacucho with the famed 15th-century Incan citadel (fortress) Machu Picchu and it is generally trekked in 4 days.

How hard is it? Can the average trekker do it?

First, yes, the average trekker can find success on the Inca Trail, but we’re going to suggest some things to get you prepared to succeed.

Inca folk dancing, gigantic parades and vibrant costumes at a festival in Cusco |  <i>Mark Tipple</i>

Just the Facts, M’am
But first, a few facts. The trail is roughly 50km and the majority of the trail is at elevations between 3,000 and 4,000 metres (9,842 and 13,120 feet), making it a high-altitude trek. The trek itself is generally four days long, starting at a place called Piscacucho on the Urubamba River and finishing at the sacred city of Machu Picchu at 2,430 metres (7,972 feet).

Starting at 2,600 metres along the Urubamba River, the trek climbs to 3,100 metres on the first day, and you’ll camp at Huayllabamba (3,100 metres). The second day’s travel crosses Warmihuañusca (Dead Woman Pass), the highest point on the Inca Trail, at 4,200 metres. The second night is spent in the Pacaymayu Valley (3,500 metres (13,700 feet).

Day 3 we cross another pass at 3,900 metres (12,800 feet) then onto another crest at 3,800 metres (12,450 feet) and travel on to a campsite at Wiñay Wayna 2,679 metres (8,790 feet). Day 4 is easy. It’s a simple 3-kilometre walk to Inti Punku (Gateway to the Sun), then we continue down to Machu Picchu.

Preparation: Physical Fitness
First, you’ll want to be aerobically fit. This means getting your heart rate up and keeping it up for an extended period. Do any form of exercise you normally do (with the emphasis on exercise that you enjoy) and crank up the level of that exercise. If you’re a runner, run farther. If you’re a cyclist, cycle farther. At a bare minimum you should be doing at least 5 hours of training spread across several days per week.

If you normally walk or run 5kms three mornings per week, try walking or running 7kms four mornings per week. And when that seems normal, push up the length of the walks/runs. We recommend you start training at least three months before your trip to Peru.

Also, try to train on ground that is sloping. Whenever you can, train on hills. The difference between training on a slope and training on level ground is quite big, and the benefits of hillwalking and running are huge.

The five things you’re aiming improve while you prepare for the Inca Trail are physical strength (especially in the legs), endurance, flexibility, balance, and mental preparedness.


Inner sanctuaries of Machu Picchu |  <i>Chris Gooley</i>

Train for the tough bits
Training in adverse conditions can help you prepare mentally. Rolling out of a sleeping bag when it’s -20°C in the dark is not fun, so if you can get into a routine of getting up before the sun in a cold setting, try it. It can’t hurt.

Putting yourself in a ‘Success Mindset’ can help. Pretend you’re on the trail while you train. Wear any boots you might buy for the trip while you train. (That’ll help break them in, too, which is very important.) Wear a daypack and put as much weight as you can in it while training. Picture yourself there. Wear the clothes you might wear on the trail and take off layers as you warm up.

Rest and recovery are also important. Overtraining is not uncommon, and if your physical exercise is too demanding, you risk injury, which certainly doesn’t help your ability to climb a mountain.

Inti Raymi Festival in the streets of Cusco |  <i>Heike Krumm</i>


Acclimatisation in Peru
There are several tricks that can help with acclimatisation. One suggestion is to add one or two acclimatization days (or more) in Cusco to your trek. These can be arranged before the start of your trip and hanging out in Cusco is quite fun.

The best acclimatisation strategy is to climb the trail slowly. When you get on the trail, our porters will constantly urge you to slow down. Take their advice. The slower you go, the better your chances of reaching the top of Warmihuañusca.

Best season for the Inca Trail
The best time to trek the Inca Tail is the southern hemisphere’s winter (also the dry season), generally between May and September. Between November and March is the rainy season. Note: the Inca Trail is generally closed in February for maintenance work.

What to Bring in Your Backpack
Since out porters and guides carry all the group camping gear, you’ll only need to bring a few personal items in your daypack. The most important things are a water bottle, layers of clothing, sunscreen, a sun hat, and a camera. You don’t need to worry about finding water on the mountain – your guide will take care of that. But you need to bring containers for as much water as you’ll consume while hiking, whether that’s one 1-litre bottle or four.

The air gets 6.5°C colder with every 1,000 metres of elevation gain, so having clothing that you can layer is extremely important. We recommend a thick base layer plus two thermal layers and a shell jacket at a minimum. A big down jacket is especially nice when taking sunrise and sunset photos. You don’t need to have all these layers in your daypack, but a couple are welcome as you get higher.

Trekking the beautiful Inca Trail towards Machu Picchu in Peru |  <i>Chris Gooley</i>

Trekking Poles or No?
Trekking poles have been shown to help distribute weight and reduce the pressure on the opposite leg by as much as 20 percent. Additionally, if you are walking on a slope, poles reduce the weight carried by the legs by approximately 8 kilos (5 kilos on flat terrain).

Using poles also allows trekkers lengthen their strides, putting less strain on their knees (American College of Sports Medicine Journal, 2001). Though it still may be an exhausting day on the trail, trekking poles can certainly make the long days easier and more enjoyable.

In short, the use of trekking poles while walking reduces fatigue, increases speed, provides excellent stability, increases the distance that can be comfortably travelled each day and reduces accumulated stress on the feet, legs, knees, and back.

However, metal-tipped trekking poles are NOT ALLOWED on the Inca Trail. Much of the Inca Trail is made up of the original cobble stones the Incas laid more than 500 years ago. If you have metal-tipped poles you must bring plastic covers for the tips. Hoofed animals are not allowed on the trail for the same reason. To read more about trekking gear, click here.

Meals
Our bilingual Peru staff will provide you with three square meals a day, using the freshest vegetables and proteins available, and out porters will carry all the group camping gear (provided) so you can focus on the trek, keeping your body moving comfortably, and enjoying the scenery.

You’ll get the use of a gear pack for the trek, including a sleeping bag, a fibre-filled jacket, a Thermarest, and a headlamp. Site entry fees are also included in the cost of the trek.

Yes, you can trek the Inca Trail, but by following a few fitness suggestions in the 3-6 months before you leave home, your chances of having a happy and rewarding trek are much greater.

WANT TO TREK THE INCA TRAIL? Check out these Inca Trail and Machu Picchu hiking tours.

Inca Trail, South America trekking, Peru trekking, Machu Picchu

Comment (1)

Ron Ashman

Well written. I am working on it!

5 months ago
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