The Classic Inca Trail, which takes hikers from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu in Peru, is difficult for most people. There is no denying it.

To start with, most people are simply not accustomed to hiking for four days and sleeping in a tent for three nights. While the daily hiking mileages are not big, porters carry your gear, and the camping is luxurious, this out-of-the-norm experience can still be trying for many people.

Stone stairs of the Classic Inca TrailPerhaps more importantly, there are some serious climbs and descents on the trail. Day Two of the hike is the most difficult uphill stretch, with an ascent of almost 4,000 feet. This is probably much more than most casual hikers are used to hiking at home! On the downhill, Day Four is the most difficult as the itinerary most hikers use includes a descent of 3,650 feet before the final gradual rise to the Sungate of Machu Picchu. This amount of descent, much of it on hard rock laid down by the Incas, can be very trying, especially for those with knee problems.

The most difficult aspect of the trail for many people, however, is the altitude. The high point of the trail, Warmihuañusca or “Dead Woman’s Pass”, is at an elevation of approximately 4,200 meters or 13,860 feet. Unless you have trekked in a foreign country such as Nepal, climbed a mountain such as Mt. Rainier, or hiked in Colorado at the very tip of the Rockies, you have probably never been at this altitude. Everyone who hikes the Inca Trail will feel the effects of the altitude in terms of shortness of breath, many will have symptoms such as headache or nausea, and a few will have more serious symptoms.

Yes, the Inca Trail is difficult but there are things you can do to prepare!

  • Hike at home before you go, specifically focusing on hiking up and down hills. If you don’t have a good hiking trail in your area, create a routine of walking up and down the 10 flights of stairs in your building three times per day!
  • Spend time in the Sacred Valley or Cusco before your hike. Cusco at 11,500 feet is actually a tough place to fly into because of the altitude but if you do spend two days there, it will help you acclimatize. Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley is at about 9,500 feet and is another good place to acclimatize, especially if you do a few hikes to higher elevations when you are there.
  • Consider taking Diamox if you have had previous issues with altitude sickness or are very concerned about it. Diamox has been proven to alleviate some issues with altitude sickness. You should see your doctor or, better yet, a travel clinic if you are considering this.
  • Consider bringing extendable hiking poles if you have knee problems (or issues with balance). Any hiking poles must have rubber tips on the Inca Trail.

The truth is thousands of people successfully hike the Inca Trail each year and only a few turn around because of the difficulties. Yes, the trip might be difficult but that is part of the challenge and will make it that much more memorable.

Remember, too, there is an Alternative Inca Trail that avoids the big hills and high elevation. And if you have a group of travel partners with mixed abilities, consider joining us October 20-28, 2012 for an Inca Trail Trek with both the standard (Classic) and alternative (Royal) Inca Trail options.