A Zephyr trekker contemplates the universe from Inca Trail, above the clouds and peaks

A Zephyr trekker contemplates the universe from Inca Trail, above the clouds and peaks

The answer to that question, for most people, is no.  Thousands of people hike the Inca Trail each year and most do not have serious issues.  However, you should definitely be prepared for the effects of altitude and know a little bit about altitude sickness ahead of time.

The highest point we reach on our Classic Inca Trail trek is 13,860 feet.   At this height you will likely have some symptoms of altitude sickness, which affects different people in different ways:  headache, nausea, loss of appetite, trouble with sleep, and lack of energy.   These are manageable effects and will generally go away when you descend to a lower altitude.  (Note: on our Royal (Original) Inca Trail trek, the highest point we reach is 11,220 feet – therefore, you should have much milder effects at this altitude.)

Why does altitude sickness occur? As you climb higher the air gets thinner.  At 14,000 feet elevation, each lungful of air gives you roughly 60% of the oxygen you would get at sea level.  Your heart and lungs have to work almost twice as hard to maintain a normal oxygen supply to your tissues.  What effect does this have on your body?  You breathe faster and deeper (immediately).  Your heart beats faster, increasing oxygen circulation to your tissues (also immediately).  Your body gets rid of excess fluid (this is why fluid replacement is so important) and creates more red blood cells (this can take up to a week or two, which is why acclimatization is so important).

If you have symptoms that are more severe (such as vomiting, mental confusion, or being short of breath even when not exercising) this may indicate the development of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and the solution is to get yourself to lower elevation as soon as you can.  However, severe AMS and complications are very unlikely on the Inca Trail if you follow a sensible plan.

What can you do to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness?   First and foremost, make sure to prepare for your trip by being physically fit.  Always remain well hydrated – because altitude issues are intricately tied to hydration, you should increase your fluid intake and limit alcoholic beverages, caffeine, and aspirin, which tend to dehydrate your system.  While on the trail, plan for three to five liters of fluid per day, most of it in the form of water.  Get plenty of rest.  Gradually expose yourself to higher elevations and go at a slower pace than you normally would.  Most importantly, you should spend at least two days prior to embarking on your trek in Cusco doing easy to moderate activity to begin your acclimatization process.  Some people also have good luck taking the prescription drug acetazolamide (trade name Diamox), which speeds up the acclimatization process and helps prevent AMS.