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Inca Trail To Machu Picchu: How To Prepare If You Aren't A Pro

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

This post is sponsored by Alpaca Expeditions, an indigenous-owned tour operator in Peru. I trekked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions and it was incredible!

Anela stands in a bright green Alpaca Expeditions shirt at Machu Picchu, smiling proudly as she made it through the four day trek though she is in no way a hiking pro
Anela at Machu Picchu

In June 2022 I completed a four-day trek on the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu and absolutely fell in love with the experience.

The trip was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Before the trek I'd never camped before, never done more than a day hike, and had never hiked carrying anything more than my phone, a bottle of water, and a snack bar. I had never owned hiking boots or even really considered the logistics of a multi-day trek.

While I am active and do get outside, get sweaty, and move my body regularly, almost everything about the trek was new to me. New kinds of movement. New ways of sleeping. New gear. New everything.

Despite being completely outside of my comfort zone, it was an incredible experience!

Though it was physically demanding and I struggled with altitude sickness, the trail itself offers some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. We walked through the clouds, cried with joy and accomplishment after making it through the highest (and most difficult) pass, and experienced terrain from Alpine tundra to jungle-like lushness.

I'm so glad I went on the trek and challenged myself. I worried in advance of the trip that I, a casual hiker who sometimes likes to be outside, couldn't manage a trek like this. Thankfully I survived and I learned a lot along the way that I can now share with you.

If want to experience the Inca Trail but are decidedly not a hiking or outdoors pro, then this is the guide for you. Keep reading for background on the Inca Trail, what to really expect on the trek, and how to prepare if you aren't a pro!

What Is The Inca Trail?

At its height, the Inca Empire was estimated to encompass 12 million people and parts of modern-day Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador. A network of roads and trails connected Inca settlements, cities, and communities. The Inca Trail is a world-famous hiking trail that leads you along a short segment of those historic Inca routes in the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu. There you'll be able to explore the 15th-century Inca city and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World to end your trek.

There are numerous possible trek lengths, ranging from two to seven days long, though the "classic Inca Trail" is a 26-mile trail typically completed in a four-day, three-night trek. I'll be focusing on that four-day trek specifically in my advice here as that's the route I completed and the most common for trekkers.

What To Expect On The Inca Trail

Along the trek, you'll walk on trails that remain, at least in part, original Inca construction and through various microclimates that make each day and sometimes each hour feel incredibly distinct. On the four-day journey, you'll climb mountain passes more than 4,200 meters or 13,800 feet above sea level, might spot toucans along the way, and will pass through numerous historic Inca sites. On the historic pilgrimage trail, you'll be physically challenged and also have the chance to see breathtaking sights.

Here's a bit of what you might experience physically while on the Inca Trail:

  • The effects of altitude sickness. Ranging from headaches to nausea, altitude sickness strikes an estimated half of people who travel to locations above 8,000 feet. Even if you are fit, you may feel its effects on the trail. That's why giving yourself time to adjust to the altitude is so important before starting your Inca Trail trek. See the section below on how to prepare for more!

  • Swollen feet and sore, shaky muscles. You'll be hiking for multiple days carrying a daypack with water, snacks, and other belongings. No matter how fit you are, your body will feel the impacts of the exertion and the altitude. By day three my body hurt from the waist down, and even the most active "in shape" person on our group trek felt muscle stiffness and soreness in their legs and feet.

  • You'll probably stink. Seriously. It's a multi-day trek where on most days you'll be wiping down with a wet wipe or a damp washcloth after an entire day of physical activity. You're going to be smelly. So is everyone else. In that sense, it's freeing as it's not just you. Try not to worry about it too much. Though if it's a serious concern of yours then consider booking with Alpaca Expeditions. You'll find more on the numerous reasons I recommend Alpaca below but they also offer something truly amazing on their four-day treks -- showers! They have a private campsite for night three with showers! They're ice-cold, but such a refreshing opportunity to feel clean (and help reduce muscle soreness) on the trek!

Other things you might experience on the Inca Trail:

  • Euphoria and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Especially after making it up the steep, multi-hour incline of the highest pass on day two of the trek, the emotions can be overwhelming. Many people (including me) cried and celebrated and floated on a sense of euphoria after making it up that pass. In some ways, the hard parts of this trek make the sweet parts sweeter.

  • Some of the most beautiful views of your entire life. Seriously. Think jaw-dropping photo ops above the clouds, lush greenery, diverse wildlife, and more. You'll find yourself gasping out loud and breathless multiple times.

  • This wouldn't be a proper guide if I didn't mention day four of the trek specifically. On day four on the Inca Trail, you'll wake up before dawn to start the final portion of the trek to Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, which overlooks Machu Picchu. It's a moderate morning of hiking but you'll notice the mood is much more excited and even a bit frantic compared to others. Some people will run this portion of the trail to ensure they make it to Sun Gate by sunrise. The chance to see Machu Picchu from a viewpoint that others can't access at that time (those who visit Machu Picchu by bus cannot access Sun Gate at sunrise) will push some to rush. You can as well if you wish to make it there quickly. Just do so safely and wait to pass others on the trail when there's adequate space. If you want to move more slowly to enjoy this final morning of the trek, which offers incredible views and scenery, then don't feel pressured! Just know that this particular morning might feel different than others on the trek so you can mentally prepare.

For a more detailed, day-by-day breakdown of the four-day Inca Trail trek, check out this itinerary from Alpaca Expeditions. It'll give you a sense of each day's hiking distance, sites to see along the trail, and more.

How To Prepare For The Trek If You Aren't A Pro

Want to trek the Inca Trail but a bit worried because you aren't a hiking pro? Feeling unsure about what gear you really need, required fitness levels, and even where to start? You're in the right place. That was me before I went on this trek and I experienced a whole lot of firsts on the Inca Trail. It was my first time sleeping in a tent, first multi-day trek, and yes I even bought my first daypack and camelback for this trek. Below are some planning tips to get you started!

Book With The Right Trekking Company

To protect the Inca Trail from overuse and erosion, the Peruvian government limits the number of people who can access the Inca Trail each day. Only 500 people are permitted to access the trail daily when open and you must book through an approved tour provider to secure a permit. Of the 500 people permitted on the trail each day, about 200 are typically trekkers and the additional 300 are guides, porters, and cooks who accompany hikers.

In short: because of limited permits and high demand, you must book your trek in advance and book via a tour company or guide to hike the Inca Trail. So which company should you book with?

I highly recommend Alpaca Expeditions for your Inca Trail trek. Yes, this post is sponsored by Alpaca and I got to experience their four-day Inca Trail trek for free. More importantly, I had an incredible experience, love the ethos of the company, and truly think it offers a one of a kind service!

Alpaca Expeditions:

  • Is an indigenous-owned company focused on the ethical treatment of employees. The founder and owner is a former porter who created Alpaca to build a better work environment for the people who make Inca Trail treks possible -- the incredible porters and support staff. Alpaca's mission to be a kinder company includes building a Porter's House so that porters who travel long distances for work have a place to sleep before and after treks; hiring a medic to treat any porter health issues, cover health care gaps; and providing all equipment for porters, guides, and cooks at no charge to them (including boots, jackets, and other gear).

  • Provides a level of service that will make you feel comfortable even if you're definitely not a hiking pro. Their treks include door-to-door service, so you can start and end your journey on the Inca Trail right from your hotel lobby. The little touches included in their treks, from ensuring their guides have satellite phones to providing portable toilet tents for a clean place to use the bathroom, make the experience more comfortable and safer.

  • Provides top-notch trail food! A trek with Alpaca Expeditions along the Inca Trail includes fresh food prepared daily by a local chef who travels with your group. On my trek Alpaca easily accommodated vegan and vegetarian trekkers and each meal was a multi-course, absolutely delicious feast! On one night we even had freshly baked cake, complete with frosting, to celebrate how far we had come. When you're sweaty, physically exhausted, and far from the comforts of home good food makes a big difference.

Pro tip: May - October is the dry season and typically offers better weather on the Inca Trail. It also coincides with peak season (more crowds and more demand). If you want to hike the Inca Trail in the dry season book as far in advance as possible to secure your spot.

Pack The Right Gear

I hewed pretty closely to the packing list provided by Alpaca Expeditions and had everything I needed. Packing lists for the trail are pretty standard but there are a few things to keep in mind when packing for the Inca Trail:

  • You will need easy access to your passport to go through various entry and checkpoints along the trail.

  • If you trek with Alpaca Expeditions, the company will provide you with a rain poncho and a rainproof cover for your daypack. Alpaca also provides trekkers with large duffel bags that porters carry on the trail to assist you. Porters have strict weight limits for what they can carry, so try to ensure you keep your duffel as light as possible.

  • Of the items on the packing list, I consider the following essential: a headlamp so you can get around camp at night hands-free without tripping, a few large plastic bags (I brought gallon freezer bags) to keep dirty items and trash separate in your bags, a power bank to charge your phone or camera batteries (there are no places to plug in and charge on the trail), a day pack with a water bladder (easier to access and more comfortable to carry than large water bottles), and wet wipes so that you can wipe down each night to refresh. Yes you'll also need real hiking boots, clothes for the trek, and other items from the packing list. But the above are little things that are easy to forget that will make a difference in your experience. If you're tempted to skip packing them I'd suggest rethinking it.

Arrive Early To Acclimatize

This is the most important piece of trek prep in my opinion. Altitude sickness can strike anyone and can make your trek miserable. Most people are able to adjust to high altitudes in a few days so arrive early to give yourself time! I'd plan to spend at least three days in Cusco to acclimatize before your trek. Cusco's altitude is about 11,200 feet (3,400 meters) and it's a charming walkable city with so much to explore. Three to four extra days in Cusco before starting your trek will give you time to adjust if you feel really crappy, settle your stomach (many get nauseous from altitude sickness), and hopefully get over the worst of your symptoms.

Make Sure You Have A Solid Base Level Of Fitness

Trekking the Inca Trail is physically demanding. There are steep rock staircases and pathways that will leave you out of breath and aching. You'll be on your feet and moving for days, sometimes for 12+ hours total! Having a solid base level of physical fitness can help ensure you enjoy the trek rather than suffer through it. I prepared by combining cycling and lifting four days a week for a couple of months in advance. I slowly worked up to biking 30+ miles at a time, strengthened my core and legs, and focused on endurance. Without that training, I don't know if I would've been able to handle my four-day trek.⁠

Anela stands smiling in a sweater while Machu Picchu peeks out of the clouds behind and below her, she is standing at Sun Gate, which offers. views from day four of the Inca Trail that look down on Machu Picchu
Anela at Sun Gate with Machu Picchu in the bagkround

This Seems Like A Lot...

This may seem like a lot to take in. But you can do this!

The Inca Trail is an astonishingly beautiful and worthwhile adventure, one you can manage safely with a bit of prep and the right help along the way. It's well worth the planning and effort.

Feel free to drop a comment below if you have any questions about your own trail prep!

Other Resources:


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