Steep descending steps on Inca Trail in forest, Peru

7 important safety tips for anyone hiking the Inca Trail

Jun 30, 2023
Reading time: 11 minutes

The Inca Trail winds through rainforest and up into alpine grassland well above 4,000 m. You tread many steep, rocky steps and narrow contour paths. So to be safe, you need to be prepared. Here are 7 important safety tips for anyone hiking the Inca Trail.

1. Take your pre-trek acclimatisation seriously

One of the most common – and yet avoidable – mistakes made by trekkers of the Inca Trail is to start hiking without having first properly acclimatised. They then suffer altitude sickness, which is yucky at best, and debilitating at worst.

Don't underestimate the toll that high altitude can have on the body!

If you look at the elevation map of the Inca Trail below, you'll see that the entire trek takes place above 3,000 m (9,800 ft) above sea level, which is the elevation from which altitude sickness generally strikes.

Follow Alice Inca-trail-elevation-map


Of course not everyone develops altitude sickness at this elevation, nor does everyone develop it as badly. But altitude sickness is known to be fairly random in its choice of victims, so there's a good chance it could find you out, even if you're a thirty-something elite athlete.

How to avoid altitude sickness on the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail is pretty challenging even without adding the high altitude to the mix, so you want to ensure you only have to focus on hiking and not on also fighting nasty altitude sickness symptoms. You can ensure this by:

  1. Acclimatising to the high altitude before you trek.
  2. Taking altitude meds.
  3. Taking meds for the symptoms.
  4. Drinking plenty of water.
  5. Jumping into a hyperbaric chamber.
  6. Refraining from smoking, drinking or exercise.
Silhouette of group of Inca Trail trekkers standing with Andes mountains behind them and clouds below

You climb above 4,000 m on the Inca Trail

Acclimatising to the high altitude before you trek

The very best thing you can do for yourself is to spend a couple of days acclimatising to the high altitude in Cusco and only then embark on the Inca Trail.

The city of Cusco, where basically everyone congregates before starting the Inca Trail, is 3,399 m (11,152 ft) above sea level (ASL). It's actually far higher than Machu Picchu – which is 2,430 m (7,970 ft) ASL – which everyone thinks of as being high in the mountains (which it is!). But the point here is that you shouldn't overlook how high you must travel before you even start the Inca Trail.

Woman in traditional clothes with alpaca sitting on stone in Cusco - Peru

Alpacas can be seen with locals within the city of Cusco

So if you're coming to Cusco from a lower altitude – like Lima, perhaps – then you really need to give yourself time to acclimatise to the altitude before starting the Inca Trail. We recommend spending at least two nights in Cusco before heading to the Inca Trail. This is because altitude sickness symptoms tend to take 24 to 48 hours to abate.

Taking altitude meds

Visit your doctor before heading to Peru and explain that you're going to do a high-altitude trek. They can prescribe you with an altitude medication like acetazolamide or promethazine which helps your body adjust better to high altitude. A well-known brand of acetazolamide is Diamox.

Many people think "Nah, I'll be fine" and then feel really yucky after a little while in Cusco. So you might want to consider playing it safe.

Taking meds for the symptoms

We also recommend bringing some standard medications for treating the symptoms of altitude sickness, which include headaches, dizziness, nausea, diarrhoea and insomnia.

Three medications we recommend packing to combat some of the common symptoms of altitude sickness are:

  • Ibuprofen or paracetamol for headaches.
  • Anti-nausea medicine, such as promethazine (like Phenergan) or ondansetron (think Zofran).
  • Anti-diarrhoea medication like loperamide link (Imodium is a well-known brand) or bismuth subsalicylate link (think Pepto-Bismol or Kaopectate).

Drinking plenty of water

Finally, note that water helps to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. So drink plenty of clean water (not water from the tap, or faucet, as this could cause an upset stomach).

View of the centre of Cusco city with the Cathedral, Peru

Cusco Cathedral forms part of the city's Plaza de Armas

Jumping into a hyperbaric chamber

Some hotels have hyperbaric chambers you can lay in to benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). HBOT helps get more oxygen into your bloodstream, which in turn aids in your acclimatisation.

Of course, don't expect hyperbaric chambers at most hotels. But if you think this is something you'd like to have as an option should you develop altitude sickness, you could look into staying at such a hotel.

Refraining from smoking, drinking or exercise

If you're feeling unwell from the high altitude at Cusco, be sure to avoid alcohol and cigarettes. Also don't exercise. And don't travel any higher. The very best thing you can do it to rest plenty, and even try to sleep it off a bit if you can.

2. Choose an experienced tour operator

Arguably the most important choice you must make when signing up for the Inca Trail is which tour operator to use. This is because your tour operator is responsible for your safety and well-being throughout the adventure.

The topic of how to choose a tour operator is a big one, as there are various things to consider, so we'll address it fully in another post. But just from the point of view of safety on the Inca Trail, we think it's worth your time to investigate the following:

  • The qualifications of the trek guides.
  • The quality of the sleeping tents provided.
  • The approach to food and water cleanliness.
  • If a private chemical toilet is provided.



Qualifications of the trek guides

Firstly, look at the company's website and see what they have to say about the safety policy and protocols. You shouldn't have to search hard to find this literature if the company takes trekker safety seriously.

Next, look on the website for answers to the following questions, or message directly to ask them:

  • What qualifications do the lead and assistant guides have?*
  • How experienced are the guides?
  • What evacuation procedure do they have for ill or injured trekkers?

* Note that you want your lead guide to have a recognised and up-to-date wilderness first responder (WFR) certification. This is the highest non-medical certification on the market. And it assures you that they're able to act appropriately in various types of emergencies.

The sleeping tents provided

You also want to find out what sort of camp setup is provided by the tour operator you're considering using. It's important that the tents provided will keep you sheltered and dry in heavy rain.

 View from inside a sleeping tent of Andes Mountains on Inca Trail trek in Peru

Ensure you choose a trekking company that provides quality sleeping tents

Nights on the Inca Trail can be very cold (though usually nowhere near below freezing point), and wind and rain are common.

The approach to food and water cleanliness

You want to find out where the drinking water given to you on the trek is sourced, and how it's sterilised. Also, try to find out if the trek cook uses sterilised water in food preparation? Either way, you might opt to avoid eating any uncooked veggies on the trek just to be safe. And consider peeling all fruits before eating them.

The very last thing any trekker needs is to pick up a bug and have their adventure ruined!

If a private chemical toilet is provided

Finally, while it's not an essential, we think tour operators that provide their clients with a private chemical toilet housed in a little tent offer a more hygienic experience. The public toilets are, unfortunately, not very sanitary.

3. Communicate openly with your guides

While your Inca Trail guides are there to keep you safe, you also need to play your part. This means communicating regularly with them about how you're feeling.

A critical part of staying safe on the Inca Trail is communicating openly with your trek guides about how you're feeling.

Note that while most guides speak Quechua as their first language, many speak Spanish, and they all speak English too. But it doesn't hurt to confirm this before making a booking with a tour operator just to be sure.

4. Train for the right conditions to avoid injury

On the Inca Trail, you tackle some long, tough climbs. In a few places, the steps are so steep that many employ their hands, so it's more like scrambling!

Three hikers on the Inca trail, in the rain and fog near the Puyupatamarca archaeological site, Peru

There are some very steep sections on the Inca Trail!

You also face some very challengingly steep descents. Some are along dirt trails, others involve the historic stone steps installed by the Incas themselves. These steps can be jarring to the knees, and that's why we suggest that you bring trekking poles with you when doing the Inca Trail.

We also suggest that you do some stretching throughout the trek to avoid waking up the next morning overly stiff. And you might also consider packing a supplement that helps to prevent or mitigate muscle stiffness or joint pain.

Consider packing a supplement or two if you know you're likely to battle muscle stiffness or joint pain on the trek.

If you're new to trekking, you might like to read Trekking tips for beginners. We discuss not only how to train, but also what gear and clothing works best, how to hike to conserve your energy, and more.

5. Have the right gear to avoid slipping or falling

The two main items you need pack to help you navigate the Inca Trail safely are trekking boots and trekking poles.

The value of proper trekking boots

As we discuss in Your complete packing list for trekking to Machu Picchu, you need proper waterproof (or water-resistant) trekking boots for the trek. Regular sneakers just won't cut it.

 A hiker in a red poncho walking in the mist and wet conditions on the Inca trail near the Puyupatamarca archaeological site, Peru

Rain and mist are common even in the drier season

Firstly, trekking boots have deep lugs allowing for good traction. Secondly, they have thick toe caps that can prevent injury to your toes. And thirdly, standard trekking boots also cover the ankle to offer support should you roll your foot or similar at any point.

Be sure to wear in your boots properly, so that they're comfortable. You don't want to risk developing blisters; you can learn more on this topic in How to prevent (and treat) foot blisters when trekking.

The importance of trekking poles

Trekking poles are also a must on the Inca Trail, as we mentioned earlier. They help to minimise the impact on your knees when you're tackling the many consecutive steep steps that you find on certain sections of the trail.

On one section of the trail, for instance, you descend 500 metres in elevation in the space of just two kilometres. That's very steep.

Difficult forest section of Inca Trail, historic steps and contour path

Trekking poles help you to safely navigate difficult sections of the trail

Trekking poles are also very helpful when you're navigating rocky and uneven sections of the trail. Also, when the path is muddy and the rocks are wet and slick, trekking poles are an assurance against slipping and falling.

If you'd like advice on what trekking poles are best, please read How to choose and use trekking poles.

6. Pack the necessary clothing to keep dry and warm

It's vital that you be prepared for rain and mist on the Inca Trail, even if you trek during the drier months of the year. The Andes are known for changeable weather, and rain can come on suddenly. So you need to have the right gear to stay dry.

Waterproof trekking boots are really important, as they ensure your feet don't get wet and cold. Wet feet and socks are also more prone to blistering.

You also want to pack waterproof overpants that you can easily pull over your trousers. And a waterproof jacket.

Rainy day for hikers in yellow and blue ponchos on the way to Aguas Calientes on Inca Trail, Peru

Rain gear is an essential part of your Inca Trail equipment

When it comes to keeping your backpack dry, you can either wear a poncho or carry a fitted backpack rain cover. Either way, you want to ensure your rain gear is ready to hand so that it's easy to whip and put in place.

As for the cold nights, be sure to bring a quality winter sleeping bag, or rent one in Cusco. Check if your tour operator provides a sleeping mat, otherwise bring one yourself, as this helps to insulate you from the cold ground.



7. Always keep your passport on your person

Finally, we want to mention that you should always have your passport on your person. This isn't really an Inca Trail safety issue per say, but it's still a good piece of advice, for two reasons.

Firstly, pickpocketing is an issue in Peru. This is much less the case on the Inca Trail, but it's always better to play it safe. And when you're in Cusco before the trek, and the town of Aguas Calientes at the end, this tip is especially important.

Secondly, the Inca Trail is monitored closely by officials to avoid people hiking without permits. You need to be able to present your passport when requested to do so. Failing to show it could present all sorts of headaches. So it's important that you have it with you at all times versus having popped into your duffel bag which is being transported by a porter somewhere else on the trail.

You can learn more about permits in Everything you need to know about Inca Trail permits and fees.

We hope that our above seven safety tips for hiking the Inca Trail have been helpful! You're now armed with what you need to know have a fantastic and safe adventure in the Andes!