Six Lessons Learned While Hiking the Inca Trail

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.

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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.

Image of my pack for the 4 day Inca Trail hike at 22 pounds.

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.

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.

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.

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 (here’s my packing list).

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.

Related content to read next:

Day Hike Packing List: A Prepared Girl’s Guide

Inca Trail Packing List: A Prepared Girl’s Guide

Things to Do in Cusco While Acclimating (Before Hiking the Inca Trail)

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Are you considering hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru? My six lessons learned touch on porters, packing, hiking technique, altitude sickness and more! #incatrailhike
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru is a dream come true. But, it's not easy. Don't make the same mistakes I did! This post covers getting a porter for the Inca Trail, training for the Inca Trail, and more! #peru #incatrail #machupicchu #cusco

36 thoughts on “Six Lessons Learned While Hiking the Inca Trail

  1. This Big Wild World says:

    Good question! We had several guides with our group. One stayed near the front and the other was in the back. This was great so that no matter where you were in the group, someone was keeping an eye on your safety and sharing about the history and culture. I’m not sure if all tour operators on the Inca Trail use this same approach. I would ask a tour company how many guides they have per tour before booking.

  2. Surien says:

    What a great post. Do the guides wait for you to explain the history of the different ruins along the way or how does it work if you are not right up at the very front with your guide

  3. This Big Wild World says:

    Thanks so much 🙂 Snaking works best on steep uphill or downhill sections. It’s much gentler on your knees, especially when you’re hiking on stairs like on the Inca Trail!

  4. Bappy says:

    You are just awesome . I’m so excited about the snaking technique! Does that work on all types of terrain? Also I learned I totally need to get some hiking poles!

  5. Sharjeel Ashraf says:

    Your post is amazing! The best way to fitness is to keep a regular routine and be consistent with it!

  6. This Big Wild World says:

    Hello! Since most of my life has been lived at sea level, I trained a lot. The altitude scared me a bit! So, I was on the stairmaster about 2-3x/ week for 30-60 minutes at a time (about the length of a streamed tv show). As I got stronger, I started putting weights in an old backpack I had to simulate trail conditions. I also sometimes would mix in some weighted squats or lunges and go on hikes nearby when my schedule allowed. While the altitude still gave me breathing issues, my legs were strong which made me much more confident on the trail. There were other people rushing on the trail, and honest I felt like they were missing out on the experience. So, no matter your pace, just be willing to go at whatever pace works best for you and make sure you take time to enjoy the scenery!

  7. This Big Wild World says:

    You’re welcome! You’ll love (almost) every step of the trail 😉 I went in August, during low season, and it was great to have the trail be less crowded. It got cold at night, but with layers it’s fine. Happy adventures!

  8. Leigh says:

    Grea post!! Machi Picchu is on my list for next year.Will definitely be using this blog as a guide. Thank you

  9. This Big Wild World says:

    Oh my gosh I’m so excited FOR you! It’s going to be great. Glad that my post is helpful. If you have questions you can always reach out here or via my contact page. I’m happy to answer questions!

  10. Christina says:

    My sister, husband and I hike the 4 day Inca trail in June and this post has been SO HELPFUL! Thank you for sharing your tips.

  11. This Big Wild World says:

    Thanks, Ana! So glad you found it helpful! Ha ha I can relate. The hike is certainly not for everyone, but if you like being in nature you’ll be so thankful for the experience!

  12. This Big Wild World says:

    Ooh yes, I’ve heard the Salkantay Trek was great too! I believe you reached even higher altitude than I did. I cannot believe I thought I’d just carry all of my stuff lol. The porters are incredibly talented hikers – it was amazing to see them in action! And I still have nightmares about the spider, like every time I put my shoes on ha ha!

  13. This Big Wild World says:

    Walking poles are life savers!! Yeah, the snake-like thing may be better described as a zig-zag pattern. So, instead of taking the steps straight on and straining the same muscles in your legs every time, if you zig-zag, you spread the strain out across the muscles on either side of your leg. I would walk to the far left of the trail and then diagonal forward to the far right of the trail and then continue that way. I hope that better explains it! I should take a video next time I’m out hiking and drop it in there 🙂 Thanks for your message!

  14. This Big Wild World says:

    Thanks, Janine 🙂 Glad you found the post helpful! Def get a porter, it’s worth every penny and the porters are so appreciative. I hope you get to experience the magic of the Inca Trail soon!

  15. This Big Wild World says:

    Ha ha yeah BIG mistake! Glad we were able to still secure a porter to carry some of our stuff at the last minute. Never again 🙂 The altitude was no joke! The Lares Trek looks great – may have to go back and give it a try!

  16. Ana @ Jaunting Trips says:

    I loved your post. It’s very insightful and I am pinning this for future research. I’ve been wanting to do the Inca trail for so long. It’s one of those things that my friends don’t understand why the hell I want to put myself through that hahaha. But it’s an experience, and I don’t have to tell you … because you did it!

  17. Charlotte says:

    I didn’t get to do the Inca Trail but the Salkantay trail, which is quite similar. Your advice on the porters is so good and I didn’t know about the fact they are shorter makes it easier. I’m short and I struggled so much haha! Also the spider in your shoe, MY NIGHTMARE.

  18. Josy A says:

    This looks amaaaaazing! I would love to do this soooo much!

    I totally agree about walking poles. They really do help your knees and reduce that jelly-leg after long downhill stretches. I am intrigued by the snake-foot thing though. What do you mean, walk in a large snake-like shape, or move your legs in a swirl for each step? I can’t quite imagine it…

  19. Janine says:

    I’ve been wanting to hike the Inca trail for so long. You’ve convinced me to hire a porter. And to spend some serious time in the gym before I do it. It looks absolutely incredible in your photos. Thanks for sharing!

  20. leanne says:

    OMG I cant imagine doing it without a porter!!! The altitude was what got me on the lares trek. And I agree about the poles – definitely needed on those down hill aprts!

  21. This Big Wild World says:

    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!

  22. Penny says:

    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.

  23. This Big Wild World says:

    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!

  24. This Big Wild World says:

    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!

  25. This Big Wild World says:

    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!

  26. This Big Wild World says:

    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! 🙂

  27. Missy says:

    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!

  28. This Big Wild World says:

    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!

  29. Claire says:

    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!

  30. Miranda says:

    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!

  31. This Big Wild World says:

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

  32. Olivia says:

    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.

  33. Penelopi says:

    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!

  34. Kristen says:

    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.

  35. Sara Essop says:

    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.

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