It was raining and blustery and just above freezing as I shoved another translucent, blue gummy bear into my mouth. I was sitting at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, 13,828 feet above sea level, waiting for the rest of my group to catch up and desperately in need of carbs. For a windswept, bedraggled hiker, I was in surprisingly good spirits. I watched the rain drip gingerly off my hooded poncho like a curious ant hiding beneath a blade of grass to stay dry as I gazed out at the misty cloud forest below, daydreaming about coca leaves and crimson orchids hidden in the deep crevices of towering trees. I had just completed the most difficult section of the Inca Trail in a downpour with a full pack on, and I was incandescently happy.
Peru’s Inca Trail is one of the most famous backpacking trips in the world, making it onto thousands of people’s bucket lists every year. Because of its rich history, panoramic Andean views, and notorious Instagram fame, the hike attracts trekkers of every fitness level imaginable, ranging from rock hopping crag warriors to sunscreen-stained 60-somethings huffing and puffing up the legendary pathway. Even if you’re a diehard mountain nerd like I am, the trail will push limits you didn’t know you had, as precipitation, freezing temperatures, and cliffs-edge vistas at altitude make for an unforgettable 4 days in the wild. Rather than hiring a porter to carry my supplies, I opted for burly self-reliance and lugged my 70L pack up every inch of the trail’s circuitous journey. Here are a few items that I would highly recommend to anyone looking to hike the Inca Trail, even if you choose to hire some help and only carry a daypack. Great gear will make it SO much easier to enjoy the trail to its fullest!
- A Good Poncho
Sure, you could buy the cheap, transparent poncho like I did in Cusco for only a dollar, but on day three of a rainy trek through the jungle, I was drooling over my mother’s longer, more durable rain poncho that she brought from the states. Length matters when you’re waddling up the trail with a backpack in tow, and you’ll want to ensure you select a poncho or rain solution that covers most of your body and your entire pack with a hood for your head too. Those of us thrifty hikers who picked up the cheaper, shorter option in town found ourselves with thick mud splatters along the bottom halves of our hiking pants for the entirety of the trip (and I went during the “dry” season!).
- Energy Gels/Coca Leaf Candies
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my many adventures above 12,000 feet it’s that, well, my stomach can get a little iffy. Over the course of the last year, I’ve tried everything from protein powder to Haribo gummies to string cheese, trying desperately to find a calorie-rich solution that keeps me moving on higher-elevation trails. One thing I can’t live without are Clif Shot Energy Gels. They provide an easy to eat, steady stream of carbohydrates to keep you from bonking when you’re crushing the gnarliest part of the hike. Clif makes a huge variety of flavors, and many varieties contain extra salt or caffeine to keep you motivated and moving. If you’re worried about altitude sickness, pop a few coca leaf candies into your pocket before you set out on day 2 of the Inca Trail. They’ll keep your mouth from drying out when you’re breathing hard and help to dilate your blood vessels so that more oxygen can get through.
- Extra Wool Socks
If you want to avoid blisters on the trail, always pack an extra pair of wool socks… or two. I hiked the Inca Trail during the supposedly dry season, and we got steady rain for 3 out of 4 days. Trekking for miles in wet footwear is the perfect recipe for blisters and ripped skin (yes, I’ve learned the hard way), but having 1-2 extra pairs of socks handy in your daypack is a great way to remedy any issues. Plus, unveiling a fresh pair of fuzzy foot sleeves and placing them onto your feet in the middle of a tiring day out will re-up your stamina like you wouldn’t believe! Remember, wool socks are naturally moisture wicking and odor resistant, so it’s a good idea to cough up a few extra dollars and get the fancy ones at REI or CloudLine when you’re gearing up. I have spent an exorbitant amount of money on my foot care, and I don’t regret it one bit!
- An Insulated Soft Shell
Since your poncho won’t add much insulation to your incredibly chic, rain-soaked hunchback look, I really recommend having a midlayer jacket that is water resistant to keep your core warm while moving and safely shed any stray rain droplets that might leak through. Arc’teryx makes a phenomenal one called the Atom LT for men and women with wind-proof fabric and well-placed, breathable fleece on the sides and underarms to prevent sweat buildup when you’re pushing hard up those mountain passes. Similar, more cost effective options are also plentiful. Just do a quick Google search for insulated soft shell, and marvel at the plethora of choices.
- Trekking Poles
For years, I was one of those people who thought trekking poles were the nerdiest things they’d ever seen. I stomped my feet up and down hundreds of miles of Southern California trails and dragged my massive backpack through multi-day trips in the Sierra Nevada before it dawned on me that I was actively ruining my knees by not using them. The Inca Trail is exposed, rocky, and uneven, plus there’s a good chance you’ll be traversing its many hundreds of granite stairs in the rain. Even with trekking poles, I fell on my ass more than once on this hike, and I have the bruises to prove it! Even if you’re not planning on carrying a heavy backpack, I’d definitely buy a set of trekking poles to help on the massive descents of this trail. Now, I use them all the time, because I want my knees around for many trails and decades to come.
Another piece of advice – train when you can, even if only for the 2 short months leading up to your trek. I highly recommend going on at least one 8-10 mile hike or walk per week with a small backpack on if you’re unaccustomed to longer, man-powered journeys. Your ability to enjoy the Inca Trail will be in direct proportion to the strength margin you build up so that you have time to soak in the lush scenery and incredible, centuries-old history of the ancients. Plus, the stronger hikers in our tour group definitely seemed to smile more.
Even as a Yosemite darling who treats Sequoia like her second home, I found Peru’s Inca Trail to be one of the most jaw-dropping walks on the planet, full of a diversity of plant and animal life seldom found elsewhere. It’s no wonder that camera-carrying tourists and dirtbags alike scramble to the Andes from all over the world to marvel at their unmistakable beauty. Book early, be bold, and get ready to have your mind blown on this once in a lifetime experience.