Machu Picchu guide: Inca Trail tips for first-time trekkers


You’ve decided that Peru and its famous Inca Trail is at the top of your travel wish list, but how do you make it happen? Is it within reach for an inexperienced hiker and what should you know before you go?

We spoke to MatadorU student Leora Novick and got him to share some valuable tips when it comes to one of the world’s great walks: the trek to Machu Picchu.

“I arrived at the Sun Gate at the end of a grueling four-day hike and took my first look at Machu Picchu. As the stone walls pierced the early morning fog, and the entire Inca city unfolded before me, the tiredness melted away.

When I reached that peak on an early morning in January, I joined my hiking group in a series of hugs, high-fives and ear-splitting grins, but then pulled away for a moment of silent reflection. It had not been an easy journey, and there had been a moment when I’d seriously considered turning back. I’m not an athletic person by anyone’s standards, but I felt I should still be able to experience the Inca Trail.

While it was the hardest, most physically challenging thing I’ve ever completed, the Inca Trail is a very realistic goal, even for inexperienced hikers. Here’s how to do it.


Image c/o Ken Bosma, Flickr

Hire a porter

There’s no shame in hiring a porter. In fact, I’d say anyone starting the Inca Trail without some training should take advantage of this service. Many people try to push themselves to do the trail on their own and end up burning out after one day. It may not seem like a big deal, but carrying your backpack full of snacks and clothing, with an attached sleeping mat and bag, adds up to a lot more weight than you may think.

My entire experience changed on the morning of the second day, when I decided to take the advice of my guides. “If you don’t hire a porter, you’re not going to make it to Machu Picchu,” they told me. The moment I slipped off that bag and handed it over for 80 soles (US$35), my entire mood lifted and I finally started to enjoy the hike.

Not only was I able to change my personal trail experience, but by hiring a porter I was supporting a local family. Each trekker on the Inca Trail is obliged by law to sign up with a guided tour. While this includes a set number of porters who carry all campsite gear and food, you have the additional option to hire someone to help carry your personal belongings. These porters depend on this fee to help support their families.

While each tour group varies greatly, there are specific companies that pride themselves on their ethical treatment of porters, providing them with clean uniforms and ensuring they receive a fair wage. Booking your Inca Trail tour with such companies can cost a bit more, but think about who that money is going to help.


Image c/o fortherock, Flickr

Select your gear

The gear you’ll need depends on the season. I went in January, the peak of the rainy season, and had to account for that.

Rain gear
Waterproof hiking boots, pants and a solid raincoat are essential, but what really saved me was the poncho I decided to buy last-minute in Cusco. Get an oversized version that fits over your backpack and gear. When you finally reach the campsite after hiking all day at 14,000ft, and your sleeping bag is still dry, you’ll appreciate that $2 plastic poncho.

Walking sticks
Many people choose to purchase walking sticks, especially for the two-hour downhill stretch on day 3. I had a solid half hour of deliberation over taking one, but in the end decided against it. While I did have a few moments of “How the hell am I going to make it down that cliff?”, I chose to go slow and used the three-points-of-contact rule.

This meant I was pretty much crawling down a mountain, but I found a rhythm after a while and eventually felt pretty confident. If your balance isn’t great, I’d advise the sticks. Otherwise, ask yourself if this is really worth the extra weight. When you’re hiking for eight hours, every pound counts.

After hiking those eight hours, I was happy I’d had the foresight to dress in layers. Hiking at 5am can be pretty cold, but after a few hours of uphill climbing I was sweating. Bring base layers that are good insulators. Then add a second t-shirt and hiking pants and bring a light jacket or raincoat. Make sure to add layers for your extremities for nights at camp. My last-minute purchase of an alpaca hat and gloves earned me a few extra hours of warmth in my tent, and saved me from nights of shivering sleeplessness.

Cusco lives off the tourism industry of Machu Picchu. Its streets are lined with shops offering hiking gear for rental at very fair prices. If you’re not sure you want to commit to an expensive pair of hiking boots or a North Face sleeping bag, save yourself the money (and having to lug those boots around on the rest of your trip) and go the rental route. The shops are eager for your business, especially during the off-season, so don’t be afraid to bargain. I paid 10 soles a day for my insulated sleeping bag, which totaled just $15 for the entire trip.


Image c/o Geraint Rowland, Flickr

Consider food

The porters accompanying each group are responsible for carrying enough food for each trekker, and cooking it as well. I was surprised at how many gourmet chefs double as porters! There were some nights I was so tired from the hike I’d fall asleep in my tent before dinner. Don’t make that mistake.

Your body is burning calories at a much faster rate than normal and needs to be constantly nourished. Plus, the provided meal choices are super delicious, with options like honey-covered pancakes, vegetable soups and chicken with rice.

It’s also important to bring along some snacks for the road. Nuts and power bars are good to keep energy levels up, but don’t forget to pack some cookies for a rush of sugar and carbohydrates.

On day two, as I was still a few hours away from the top of the pass, the skies opened and I was drenched before I could reach my poncho. Each step grew heavier, and with such thin mountain air I could barely breathe. I grabbed a packet of cookies from my pocket and quickly ate two. Instantly, I felt a little better. My dizziness grew fainter, and I was able to keep walking towards the campsite.

Plan your costs

The Inca Trail is not cheap. Yes, you can very easily find tours that cost $100 less, and swap good hiking boots for sneakers, but these decisions will affect you on the trail. As a newcomer to the world of trekking, do yourself a favour and create the most comfortable and supportive environment you can. It’s worth the extra money. Sleeping bags are usually US$25 and hiking poles will set you back about US$10.

Ready to tackle Machu Picchu? Check our range of guided small group tours in Peru. 

Photo: Rafal Dubiel

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About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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I’m considering doing the inca trail on my way home from aus to the UK in early March next year.

I’m just a tad worried about the weather. I know no one knows for definite but a rough guide would be appreciated. I’ve read on some websites it’s impassable and others it’s rainy but quiet….

Any help/advice please xxx

Emily Kratzmann / Reply

Hi Gemma,

Thanks so much for getting in touch! March is the end of the wet season, so it’s very likely there’ll be some rain, however not as much as if you were travelling in December or January. But the bonus of trekking in March (once you get past the drizzle and potential for wet socks!) is that it’s generally much quieter – there are less people on the trail and less people at Machu Picchu.

Hope this helps – let me know if you need a hand with anything else.

Emily – Intrepid'

These Canvas Tents also include bedding and have hot running water just steps away for washing dishes and cooking. It’s simple and you don’t really need to bring a thing- they even include roasting sticks and flashlights.'

I think physical and emotional preparation are the most important when preparing for an Inca Trail hike.
Prepare physically for weeks at least, then stay at least a week in Cusco for acclimatization.

This was so informative! Thank you for taking the time and sharing your experience. My friends and I are planning to do this in June, wish us luck!'

I’m booked on the Quarry Trail Trek for this February 2016 (soooo excited!) I read that for the Inca Trail you need to bring a sleeping bag, do I need to bring one for the Quarry Trail or are they provided?

Hey Jayne,

Congrats! It’s coming up fast. We don’t provide you with sleeping bags on the Quarry Trail, but you can hire good quality ones fairly cheap in Cuzco before you set off. Your leader can arrange it all for you on the ground. Lots of people choose this option, so don’t worry. There should be some price guides in your Trip Notes, otherwise get in touch with one of our specialists over the phone – they’ll be able to answer all your questions.


Thanks for that James. Can I also ask, is it worth using walking poles?

Hey Jayne,

Walking poles can make a big difference over a long trek. Because the Inca Trail isn’t as long as some other routes (like Everest Basecamp), you could probably get by without the poles, but they will certainly come in handy, especially if you have sore ankles or knees. If you want a few more pre-trek tips, we’ve written a training blog over here.


One of the most challenging aspects of the hike is the high altitude. Some people really struggle, even the fittest of people can struggle without adequate preparation. In my experience, spending a few days at a similar altitude with a few ‘warm-up’ walks and exercise will make the hike much more bearable and leave you some breath to enjoy the breath-taking scenery. It is heart breaking to hear about people who fly directly to cusco and begin the walk the following day, only to experience shocking altitude sickness. You will enjoy it – but make it better by preparing your body.'

It would be nice to have the luxury of time to prepare for the Inca Trail but like many we don’t. We’re doing an Intrepid tour (that we are VERY EXCITED about doing) and will only have a couple of days, one in Cuzco, one in the Sacred Valley/Ollontaytambo before we start the trek, Two days is better than nothing I suppose.'

I highly recommend talking to your doctor and getting a prescription for acetazolamide, aka Diamox. You might want to test it once before you go, but it has transformed the ability of my dad and my wife to be able to deal with altitude. Before using this drug my wife had horrible altitude sickness on the Inca trail and when skiing in Colorado at 9-11k feet, but after using the drug she has no altitude sickness in Colorado and managed to summit Kilimanjaro!

If you don’t know how your body reacts to altitude, it’s better to be safe than sorry. The only side-effects I’ve heard of are needing to pee a lot and tingly fingers. Talk to your doctor about it, but it could make your life much more pleasant.'

Just be aware that my doctor (in the UK) would not prescribe Diamox, as she warned the side effects can be even worse than the altitude sickness. The only remedy really is to descend – definitely sleep lower than you’ve trekked each day.
Better still, make sure you acclimatise properly first – and get started on the local “coca” tea as soon as you arrive and as frequently as it’s available, quite often free in Reception!
I’ve spent time high up in Peru & the Himalayas without any problems, both times with a pocketful of “coca” sweets (also readily available in Peruvian tourist areas). I did struggle a little more in Lhasa/EBC – I think due to the air being so dry as well. A double whammy, but so worth it!'

We ticked the trek off our bucket list in early July. A far as I’m aware none of the group that was taking diamox had any issues but of course different people react differently. We took it from the day we flew to Cusco to the day we flew out of La Paz and neither of us suffered from altitude sickness. We also drank coca tea and had the occasional coca sweet during the same period.'

Can you advise if I need a yellow fever vaccination for the 4 day hike please.

Hi Allison, generally it’s best to leave those sort of decisions to your GP. We’d recommend finding a good one and having a chat. But there are some online resources you can check out too, like the Travel Doctor.

If you have any other questions, just give our customer service team a call. They can point you in the right direction.


I am planning to do the inca trail in sept this year. What can I expect from the weather? Also drinking water. How did you ensure it was clean ?

Intrepid Admin / Reply

Hey Sylvia, the weather from May – September should be relatively dry and sunny. Regarding the water, your porters will boil up fresh drinking water for you along the way.

Hope that helps!

Decided to do the Inca Trail next year. Very excited about it. And Michael, Everest Base Camp is what I am doing for my 40th birthday in 2017.'

I did Machu two years ago with my daughter. I was age 60. It’s a fun walk, but you need to be in shape. As the Intrepid Editor says, you will reach 14k feet along the route. Spend some time in Cusco getting used to the thin air, you will be glad you did. Was the trip worth it ? absolutely !! Once you do this, Everest Base Camp should be your next trip. Good Luck.

Hi Saskia,
Thanks for your comment. You’re right about Machu Picchu being just below 8000ft, but depending on your route there are sections of the Inca Trail where you’ll be trekking around 14,000ft. Altitude sickness is definitely a consideration so it’s important to give yourself time to acclimatize. We also have more altitude sickness info on our Inca Trail trip pages.
Happy travels,
Sue, Intrepid Express Editor

Excellent help! Thanks but according to wikipedia machu picchu is at roughly 8000ft not 14000ft!
Hope the 8000ft is the accurate reading altitude sickness is much more bareable at this height!

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