Six Lessons Learned Hiking the Inca Trail

And One Thing I Got Right

After months of planning to hike the Inca Trail, I found myself hours before my flight with a pile of stuff all over my room, an unpacked bag, and a sense of great uncertainty. Was I going to be warm enough? Is my pack too heavy? Should I bring my extra camera lenses? Did I push myself enough on the stairmaster? Well, here are my lessons learned while hiking the Inca Trail.

Get a porter.Image of porters crossing with large packs on at the start of the Inca Trail.

To the person reading this who is thinking “nah, I’ll save my money and pack light”, I can assure you that’s what I did and it’s a decision you’ll regret. Remember, the entire trail is above 8000 ft elevation, with the peak being just under 14,000 ft. I am in reasonably good shape and had trained at sea level for an hour at a time on the stairmaster with a 25 lb pack on before I left… and I still had trouble just walking up the steps at our hotel in Cusco.

The porters, though, are the real MVP’s of the Inca Trail. These men mostly come from villages above 10,000 ft elevation. Our guide explained that their shorter stature gives them a lower center of gravity. This, paired with living at such high altitude, enables them to effectively carry 70-80 lbs in their packs. I was amazed to see them jog past me with their huge packs wearing flip-flops (and a big smile)!

The ideal time to book a porter is when you book your tour (we did not do this). At our orientation the night before our hike began, our guide told us that there was a small chance a porter may be made available at the trailhead the next morning. Do not assume this option will be available and expect to pay more than the original rate for a porter. We ended up paying for ~30 lbs among the 4 of us, so about 7-8 lbs each that we could remove from our packs. This dropped my pack from 22 lbs down to 15 which felt much more manageable, though I still would’ve liked to offload more weight.Image of my pack for the 4 day Inca Trail hike at 22 pounds.

Now, let’s say that you can’t secure a porter at the trailhead (and you went against my advice and didn’t book one in advance), there’s a third remote chance of getting a porter. Day 2 of the hike has about 4-5 hrs of non-stop stair climbing for about 4000 ft elevation gain. It’s brutal. The locals know this and sometimes walk around the campsites in the morning looking to see if any hikers want a porter for just Day 2. I also took advantage of this and split it with a friend to get my pack down below 10 lbs. For the two of us, this cost about $20 USD.

Remember, you have this amazing opportunity to hike through the Andes Mountains and experience the Inca Trail, so the less you’re worried about your pack weight means the more you can enjoy every moment of the hike.

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Bring your hiking poles and know how to use them.Image of me smiling on the downhill section after the peak on Day 3 of the Inca Trail.

Oh hiking poles, how I love thee! Over the 26 miles of the Inca Trail, you gain about 5500 ft elevation, and lose about 6500 ft elevation. Hiking poles can reduce the impact of those downhill steps on your knees so you aren’t hobbling into Machu Picchu. They also distribute your weight when you’re going uphill, which makes it easier on your leg muscles. You definitely want to bring adjustable poles so you can make them shorter for uphill and longer for the downhill. Luckily, I had brought adjustable poles, but my guide had to show me the ideal length to use for different sections of the trail.

I had a little soreness in my knees after the downhill on Day 2, but it was gone by the morning. The poles made all the difference compared to previous hikes that I’ve done without them that left me in significant pain. If you still aren’t convinced, here’s an article with more reasons to love your trekking poles!

Image of our guide's hand pointing at our destination in the distance on the Inca Trail in Peru.

Check your hiking form.Image of steep stairs on the Inca Trail hike in Peru.

Yeah, I get it, you put one foot in front of the other, right? Well, apparently not. I’ve literally been doing it wrong for roughly always. At the end of the first day, our guide gave us a few tips based on what he observed.

  • Always make sure your heel touches the ground before your toes, especially when going up stairs.
  • Walk in a snake-like pattern to distribute out the fatigue on your muscles.

For the long uphill on Day 2, I was ready to try anything, so I put both suggestions into practice. What a difference! I don’t know if there’s science behind the “snaking” technique, but I found it less tiring and overall easier on my leg muscles.

Don’t leave your tent open or anything outside of your tent.

Image of a small scorpion seen in front of our tents on the third night of the Inca Trail hike.This one is embarrassing because I know better. My tent-mate and I were actually pretty rigorous about keeping our tent closed and only leaving our boots outside for a short time when we first got to camp to air them out. On the last night, we did the same but for some reason I decided to check my boots one more time before going to bed. They’d been inside the tent for hours, and I had checked them before I put them in there but I felt like checking them again. (Maybe it’s because we saw a scorpion outside of our tent before bed.) Sure enough, there was a spider deep inside my boot. There was screaming, chaos and I may have thrown my boot outside of the tent. So, just don’t be me.

Image of my squad looking out at the Andes Mountains at the end of Day 3 of the Inca Trail hike.Training isn’t required, but recommended.

As my friends and I discussed what we learned, we noted that while training wasn’t mandatory, it certainly made the hike more enjoyable. I was so impressed by the age range and fitness levels that accomplished this feat. For most of us, our bodies aren’t used to being at that high of altitude and hiking in these conditions. Do yourself a favor, and invest some time before the trip to get your body in trail-ready shape.

Slow and steady is your mantra and remember that this means something different for each of us. I got down on myself during Day 2 (the stair climb day) because I was at the back of the pack. Later in the day our guide told me that he regularly had people that took 2-3 times longer than me, we were just in a fast group. This lifted my spirits and made me feel more comfortable taking things at my own pace. Plus, I was able to take some time to appreciate the views 🙂 Take it one step at a time and focus on intentional breathing.

If you’ve done the training, it really is just a mental challenge.

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Bring only the essentials. Really.

Ounces matter. Don’t throw in an extra outfit, plan out what you’ll wear and make re-wearing clothes a part of your plan. Guess what you don’t need – most toiletries. While there are some cold water showers along the trail, there are few and the outdoor temperatures are low enough that you’ll probably want to opt out. Leave those heavy liquids behind! I did a decent job at packing but I still had several items I didn’t use (more on my packing list on a future post).

Image of the Inca Trail on Day 3 of the hike in Peru with flowers along the trail.

The One Thing I Got Right

Be present.

You are hiking through the Andes Mountains on the same steps that the ancient Inca’s walked. This place is absolutely magical. Take the time to look around you, reflect on the experience, and take some pictures. I saw several other hikers racing each other or with their heads down looking at the trail. Don’t be that person!

A part of being able to be present is training and planning out your access to certain items. Given that I love photography, I made sure my camera strap could be worn around me with my pack on for easy access. My friend kept his clipped onto his backpack strap. We also kept snacks and coca leaves on our waist belts to combat our “hangry” moments and altitude related headaches. The last thing you want is to have to take your pack on and off for every photo, snack or sip of water. Having these easily accessible helps you stay focused on the moment!

Image of me looking out at the Andes Mountains from the ruins at the end of Day 3 on the Inca Trail hike.

So that’s my rundown of lessons learned while hiking the Inca Trail. Stay tuned for a packing post soon with my post-hike rundown of what to bring and what to leave behind for the 4-day hike on the Inca Trail.

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Pin image of my friends and I looking out at the Andes Mountains from the Inca Trail on Day 3 of the hike in Peru.Image of Andes Mountains through the windows of Machu Picchu in Peru.

 

15 Comments

  1. Macchu Picchu is high up on my bucket list but I don’t think that I’m fit/brave enough to do the Inca Trail. Although it looks beautiful, I think that I’ll probably be taking the shortcut i.e. public transport. 🙂 These are great tips for the hikers though.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      I understand – it’s definitely not for everyone and fortunately Machu Picchu is pretty easily accessible with public transport! There is a shorter 2-day option or you can opt to hike up to the Sun Gate from Machu Picchu to see the city from above. It’s much less intense but still has awesome views!

  2. What an accomplishment! I’d love to complete a hike like this. It’s great to read about your experience because there are so many things I know I would never even think of.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      I hope you do tackle a hike like this! It’s a rewarding experience! The nice thing about this hike is that the tour companies carry the tents and kitchen supplies so the camp is setup for you when you arrive at the campsite. This allows you to just focus on the trail and enjoy the views! 🙂

  3. I agree with all your points!! I just returned from a hike in Mount Olympus in Greece and it was one of the most difficult things I ever was done! The key? PACK LIGHT!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      That’s great to hear! I could not agree more – pack light and then still remove stuff from your pack 🙂 Do you have a post about your Mount Olympus hike? I’d love to read about it!

  4. This is such a great post. I have wanted to do this for a long time, but man oh man, I have some stairmaster to do first. It sounds and looks like you had an amazing time.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thanks! Yes, the stairmaster will be your best friend when preparing 🙂 I hope you make it there soon! It’s a truly magical place.

  5. oooh I’m so curious about the snaking technique! Does that work on all types of terrain? Also I learned I totally need to get some hiking poles!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      The snaking technique was particularly helpful on steep uphill or downhill as it distributes the strain on your muscles. I used to just power through straight up the steps but that can be tough on your muscles, especially when it’s for such a long distance. Yes! The hiking poles are a game changer!

  6. I’ll be honest, I didn’t realise the Inca Trail was so tough! Planning to do it next year but looks like I’m going to have to schedule in some training too! Thanks for this post, it looks so amazing and great tips!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      It’s tough but with some prep beforehand, you’ll be fine I’m sure! I was so thankful I’d been training on the stairmaster, especially since I live at sea level normally. You’ll have such a great time – there’s nothing quite like walking through the Sun Gate on Day 4 as the sun rises over Machu Picchu!

  7. I can’t wait to do this one! I love the clarity and challenge of these types of treks, and I’ll definitely be taking this advice when I go!

  8. I would so have tried to skimp on the porter. I think it’s a hazard that one gets when you start traveling on a skimpy budget. I’m not in great shape but I would definitely train before going.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Ha ha – yeah, that’s exactly what I did! It’s best (and cheapest) to just book a porter up front and save money elsewhere on the trip in my opinion. Lots of time on the stairmaster and weighted lunges helped me get in shape!

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