25 Essential Tips for Hiking the Inca Trail

Cliche picture, but it's MY cliche picture.
View of Machu Picchu on the morning of the fourth day.

In mid-October 2011, I had just started backpacking around South America. I didn’t speak any Spanish, I was incredibly homesick and suddenly realized I didn’t really know why I had signed up for the Inca Trail in the first place.

Still, I managed to soldier on, hike the Colca Canyon the week prior to my infamous trek to Machu Picchu, and accumulate a wealth of advice and tips for other aspiring hikers.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. HIRE A PORTER. Don’t be cheap about this, unless you are incredibly strong or regularly hike. The redistribution of weight will allow you to bring more warm clothes, supplies and most importantly, let you focus on hiking instead the odd shaped mattress pad on your back. 
  2. Give yourself enough time to acclimatize. Three days is good, four days is better. Five days including a high-altitude place like Arequipa or Puno would be the best. The headaches and other health problems aren’t worth rushing this.
  3. Clip your toenails. If they’re not short, your feet will punish you for it.
  4. Get a daypack with a waist strap and a size-appropriate pack-cover. Both of these things will make your life infinitely better.
  5. Bring good sunscreen. You only need a very small bottle during the day, but always have some on you and don’t forget a lipbalm infused with it. Keep the big bottle (at least SPF 45) in your main bag and refill as necessary.
  6. Tie your shoelaces a little bit too tight in the morning. They’ll loosen throughout the day.
  7. When things get remotely even the slightest more difficult along the route, slow the fuck down.
  8. It is better to go slowly and steadily than to go too quickly and then take lots of breaks.
  9. Squat washrooms are disgusting. Try not to think about what’s on the floor.
  10. It is normal not to poop until the second or third day.
  11. Do not bring water-resistant anything. If it rains it will most definitely fail and then you will be a soggy mess.
  12. Ponchos are dorky, but everyone wears them. No one will judge you if you bring one from Universal Studios or the Maid of the Mist.
  13. A Camelback is cool, but not necessary.
  14. Don’t be the crazy person who brings their iPad. 
  15. Buy an alpaca wool hat and gloves during the end of the Sacred Valley tour before your hike. They’ll be cheaper and nicer quality than the stuff in Cusco proper. They’re also great souvenirs.
  16. It is really, really cold on the second night. Have a good sleeping bag (rated 5°C or better), thermal layers, fleece and wear your hat to bed. Pro tip: bring a pair of wool socks you wear just for bed. Trust me on this.
  17. Some porters have awful feet due to poor shoes and foot infections, and there is really not much you can do.
  18. Rent aluminum shock-absorbing hiking poles (two!) from a company other than the one you are hiking with. Try to go in a group so you can bargain.
  19. Rainy Season? Waterproof pants and rain-jacket. Yes, both of them. Gore-Tex hiking shoes wouldn’t hurt either.
  20. Always have on you: band-aids, itch-cream, lip-balm with at least SPF 15, bug spray, water bottle, toilet paper, hand-sanitizer, headlamp, camera, plastic bags.
  21. You can never bring enough plastic bags.
  22. Earplugs. Someone in your group will snore super-loud, guaranteed.
  23. Coca tea will help you with headaches, fatigue, cramps and altitude sickness without any sort of crash like you would get with coffee. It is pretty magical stuff.
  24. TIP YOUR PORTERS APPROPRIATELY. They’ll accept US dollars or Peruvian soles. If you can afford to get to Peru and pay the tour fee, you can afford to tip them.
  25. Have fun! Even on the crappiest moments (hail, terrible sleep, sharp decline in personal hygiene) you are doing something people dream about for years. The views truly are spectacular. Machu Picchu is breathtaking. And you will definitely have something to talk about at your next dinner party.

Questions? Suggestions? Think I’m wrong? Let me know in the comments.

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