Inca Trail Sign

It's the trip of the lifetime and you've finally booked your airfare and tour: You're going to trek the Inca Trail.

After the adrenaline rush from clicking, “Purchase” on a computer has passed, the next thoughts turn toward, “Okay. How do I prepare?”

Worry not! This post is stuffed full of tips and a packing list to help you get started. At the bottom is an itemized list of what I brought on both my trips to Peru and directly below are more than 25 tips for your trip:

What worked for me (and what didn't)

Peter on the trail

I have chosen some items from my own packing list, at the bottom, to let you know how valuable they might be for you. Certainly not everything needs to be packed, but an informed traveller is a happy traveller.

  • 1 pair jeans – I ended up not packing these and wished I had.

  • 1 swimsuit – I used this in other areas of Peru, but not on the trek. Aquas Caliente is where they were needed.

  • Flip flops – Really useful in the rainforest. I would have preferred to have my moccasins for the trek.

  • First aid kit – Yeah, bring one. The one day I didn’t have it on me, I needed it most. Otherwise, I used it every other day for someone else and it was appreciated.

  • Packtowel – These ultralight and quick-drying towels are great!

  • Collapsible cup – I never used this, and it should have been left behind. I used water out of my water bottle directly instead.

  • Hand towel – Made of same packtowel material above, this smaller towel was great for scrubbing down after a day of trekking.

  • Soap (cut into small single use pieces) – I didn’t need these after all. I stayed in hostels and hotels that had soap.

  • 3 8GB CF Cards – I didn’t use these.

  • 9-volt light – A very handy light I won’t travel without. It’s spendy, but useful. I handed it to others half the time when they forgot their lights.

  • Spot Satellite Messenger with GPS Tracking – This unit seems to just keep on working. I kept it in tracking mode for the trek and it gave reliable information back to family at home, showing my location on the move. I’d suggest getting this device if you have family back home who worry about you as you travel.

  • SteriPEN Adventurer Handheld Water Purifier – I have already written up a quick review of this wonderful tool for purifying water on the go. That post can be found here. Get one and say goodbye to plastic water bottles.

  • Small travel inverter for plane – American Airline’s power ports didn’t work and Alaska Air didn’t have them. This was the largest waste of space in my pack and I lived without it.

  • Dana Design day pack – This pack is heaven on the trail and I’m so glad I made space for it. It’s funny carrying one pack inside another but I wouldn’t want to trek without it.

  • NUUN Active Hydration Tablets – These helped when the water taste was a bit off, and helped me get needed electrolytes.

  • Phrasebook – I purchased the Lonely Planet Phrasebooks in Latin American Spanish. It was handy and very easy to use. For a non-Spanish speaker, it was relevant and useful.

Tips for the trek

Beautiful landscapes of Peru.

If you are trekking with a tour group, your overnight bag will be carried for you — but there is a weight limit. Don't pack the kitchen sink just because you won't be carrying it.

In your day pack — the one you'll be carrying yourself — be sure to include a windbreaker/rain jacket, water bottle, hat, bandana, moleskin/blister pads, lip balm, sunblock, sunglasses, dry socks (in rainy season), camera, headlamp, and a journal/notebook.

Trekking poles can make a world of difference for some hikers. They lighten the load on your feet and are nice to rest on while heading up the long, steep slopes. Coming downhill, they take the brunt of shock from your knees, so spend a little extra on poles with some form of shock-absorbing technology.

Altitude can be a concern for those attempting the trail. It's nearly impossible to know if you will feel the effects of Acute Mountain Sickness, and there are remedies, each with side effects. Locals chew on coca leaves, and there are Western drugs, such as Diamox, which can help. Ask your doctor what might work best for you.

Consider evacuation insurance even if your guide company doesn't require it. This is more than just travel insurance, which covers loss or cancellations in most cases. Evacuation insurance will pay for expensive medical or emergency evacuations. The cost of a helicopter in the middle of the night can set you back thousands of dollars without this insurance.

The team that made this hike possible.

The team that made this hike possible, photo by Peter West Carey

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Take it slow! The trail reaches altitudes of 13,000 feet, and unless you live in neighbouring Bolivia, you probably aren't accustomed to the decrease in air pressure and available oxygen. Excitement might be high when you start, but you have days ahead of you. Pace yourself.

Get to know the crew. Most of the porters on the trail are local farmers and other local residents. They can be a great source of info your guide won't be sharing with you. Strike up a conversation and bring some pictures from home to share with the typically warm and inviting Peruvians who will be carrying the bulk of your gear, and all of your shelter and food.

Bring enough batteries for your headlamp and camera. There will not be any opportunities to charge unless you bring a solar panel.

Get up early. As a photographer, it is my habit to wake up early when on the road, well before sunrise if I can. While on the trek, more than once I found a spot just outside of camp, all alone, to watch the sun rise peacefully. You will be tired from the trekking for sure, but try to wake up early just one day and greet the morning. You'll create a memory that will last a lifetime.

If you will be trekking in the dry season, consider trail shoes or a cross-training shoe. Hiking boots aren't required unless you need the ankle support, or if you expect rain. It is said one pound on your feet is the same as carrying five pounds on your back — and from my decades of hiking the Cascade Mountains in Washington, I tend to agree.

Ponchos, while seemingly goofy in appearance, are a good thing. If the rain doesn't let up for a day or two, pack covers can get soaked through, leading to a soaked pack. A poncho does a better job of keeping rain off you and your pack. Cheap ones are available locally.

The ruins under the fog

The ruins under the fog, photo by Peter West Carey

Prepare your feet before you arrive. Buying a new pair of boots or trail shoes right before arriving in country might seem like a good idea, but 15 miles into a 45 mile hike is not a good time to discover the fit isn't perfect. Do your best to break in your footwear before departing.

Prepare your body before you arrive. You don't need to be in Ironman Triathlon shape before catching your flight to Peru, but it will help if you work your body before leaving. Cardiovascular work will help most while trekking. Get out and walk briskly, at a pace where a conversation becomes hard to hold, to work your lungs and legs. Be kind to your knees while attempting hills if you have them nearby. Lots of swimming can also be good.

Just keep going! The list of people older than you, more out of shape than you, and heavier than you that have completed the Inca Trail and arrived at Machu Picchu is long and storied. They all have one thing in common: mental toughness. The trek is a mental game and you need a positive attitude more than you need the latest hiking gear.

Lastly, enjoy the journey. Chances are you will be trekking to Machu Picchu, the highlight of any adventurer's trip. But don't be in a hurry to reach that goal. There is much to see and learn along the way, about how the Inca lived and thrived in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Take in the sights. Be proud of your accomplishments. And just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Packing list

Clothes and such:

1 pair Light zip off pants

1 pair jeans

1 swimsuit

3 pairs ExOfficio Quick dry underwear

1 travel shirt

3 t-shirts

3 pairs running socks

1 Powerstretch shirt

1 heavy Polartech top

1 light Polartech top

1 REI MultiTowel

1 rain jacket

1 pair of rain pants

1 large and one small water bottle

REI Backpacker First Aid Kit

1 light thermal top

1 light thermal bottom

baseball hat

light gloves

flip flops

Toiletries:

deodorant

shave lotion

razor and extra blades

soap (cut into small single use pieces)

q-tips

bandaids

safety pins

toothbrush

toothpaste

sunblock

chapstick

dental floss

hand towel

collapsible cup

Electronics:

camera

camera charger

camera batteries

memory cards

Steripen

Spot Satellite Messenger with GPS Tracking

Headlamp

9-volt light

laptop

laptop power cord

AAA/AA battery charger

USB camera sync cable

travel power adapter (all electronics are dual voltage, no need for a converter)(and Peru has US style plugs, but some European)

batteries for all the gadgets

Small travel inverter for plane

Other stuff

passport

day pack

extra passport photos

credit card

bank card

business cards

titanium spork

NUUN Active Hydration Tablets

Immunization card

aspirin

tylenol

toilet paper

bandana

pack cover

money wallet

card with vital info (flights, pp#, cc#, etc…)

book(s)

journal

poncho

small moleskine

Latin American Spanish (Lonely Planet Phrasebooks)

pen

cash

playing cards

travel alarm

watch

iodine pills

sunglasses

clothesline

baglocks

passport copy

vitamins

antibiotics

activated charcoal

motion sickness pills

photos of family and home

ear plugs

Clif bars

Airborne

Clif Shot Bloks (good for a boost up the long hills)

throat lozenges

reading glasses

headphones

duct tape

cell phone

Bluetooth ear piece (for cell phone and Skype calls from laptop)

Ziploc bags

2 dry bags

travel first aid kit


Getting there

Not booked to trek the Inca Trail —?but feeling ready to take the hike? Check out our small group trips to Peru —?to the Inca Trail and beyond —?here.

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