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Preparation for trekking the Inca Trail

August 4, 2011

A quick search on the internet for “inca trail hike” brings up dozens of websites, each offering countless tips and suggestions on how to prepare for what is doubtless a grueling trek through the Andes to get to Machu Picchu. This blog entry is not in any way a comprehensive list of everything that people do, but more to document and share what we did that worked for us.

Who knew exercise could be funny!

We cannot stress enough the importance of physical exercise and stamina building, which really contributes to greater enjoyment of the trail. The last thing you want to be doing is lugging along your heavy backpack, breathless and drenched in perspiration, too tired and exhausted to even look around at the gorgeous mountains and too listless to get the camera out of the bag. That was definitely NOT the way we wanted to hike the trail! Exercising a couple months prior to doing the trail really really helps. It builds confidence and helps in preparing mentally for the upcoming adventure.

Physical preparation:

Jagged stones everywhere on the Inca trail path

Ascending a steep mountain path strewn with stones at sea-level is tough enough, with the Inca trail, we would be doing this at high-altitude (13,800 feet to be precise!) which meant we would have less oxygen in our blood and would take far more time to recover from breathlessness and fatigue in the high Andes compared to sea-level. The best way to build up lung capacity, high heart rate and stamina for climbing uphill is by doing the stepper in the gym!

Altitude sickness can affect anybody – of any age and fitness level, being fit is not a proven way to prevent altitude sickness. However, if one is fit, they can combat altitude sickness symptoms better. Altitude sickness occurs when oxygen level is low in the blood (due to thin air, and shallow breathing) and this increases the acidity / CO2 in the blood leading to symptoms like nausea, headache, overall malaise and tiredness. The mild symptoms go away with plenty of rest and drinking fluids. But severe symptoms have to be addressed immediately with medical attention and descent, else high-altitude sickness could prove fatal.

We had 4 months to prepare, so we started off by setting up a gym routine during the week. I prefer the elliptical, Kiran prefers running on the treadmill. Both of us swear by the efficacy of the stepper. It is the best way to get those leg muscles rippling and strong. Most of the trek being uphill or downhill, the calves, upper thighs and knees are what you’ll be using the most. It’s even more important to get the heart pumping at a high heart rate that is sustainable, because higher heart rate means more oxygen being pumped through the body, which means faster recovery from breathlessness when climbing and less risk of altitude sickness.


Hiking around the bay area: Mission Peak, Berry Creek Waterfall Loop, Big Basin Redwoods State Park

Weekend hiking was something we looked forward to the most! There’s nothing like being out there amongst nature, breathing in the fresh air, listening to the trilling bird calls as you walk along beautiful trails. We did several hikes which are listed as strenuous on our favorite Bay Area hiker website, and hiked the longest loops, we wanted to push ourselves to build stamina by doing 10-14 mile hikes outdoors. We did these trails with all our gear that we planned on taking for the trek. Top items being hiking shoes with socks, hiking poles and hiking pants. With backpacks loaded with water, snacks and camera.  This ensures all the equipment is well-broken in and comfortably familiar to use on the real trail.

Exercise routine for 3-4 months:

1. Stepper for at least 30-60mins twice or thrice a week

2. Elliptical or Treadmill for at least 60-90mins twice a week

3. All-day strenuous hikes on weekends (Yes, both Saturday and Sunday!)

4. Diet – we tried to keep off of the fried and fatty foods, but it’s hard when so much of our socializing involves eating out with friends over dinner and drinks. We made some sacrifices, but overall kept a a normal diet, with a few indulgences here and there.

Some great hikes to do around the bay area when preparing for the Inca trail:

Seaside flowers and ferns blooming at Montara, Half Moon Bay

The San Francisco Bay Area is truly a paradise for hikers. From walking under tall cool redwood trees in Big Basin, to huffing and puffing up the steady, relentless ascent of Mission Peak, to getting drenched in the Vernal waterfall mist along Yosemite National Park’s signature hike, there are no dearth of choices!
1) Berry Creek 11 mile Waterfall Loop hike  at Big Basin Redwoods State Park
3) Mission Peak in Fremont
4) Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park

Do Mission Peak twice, back to back and you are golden!

Health Supplements:

1) People who’ve done the hike highly recommend taking knee supplements. These need to be taken 2 weeks prior to starting the hike. We took the Schiff Advanced Move Free Triple Strength Supplement. You can get this at Costco or any medical store. Take the advanced triple-action one, which has all the supplements like Glucosamine, Chonditrin and Joint fluid. We felt these really helped us, we could see the difference when we started taking these and our knees felt less sore and tender even after all-day week end hikes.

2) Vitamin C and Immuno Defense supplements – A great way to add flavor to plain old water and replenish all the lost electrolytes and vitamins in your body. We started taking these a week before we left for Peru. These really boosted up our immune system, and we are happy to say that for the entire duration of our stay in Peru, we did not have even a sniffle or any sign of a cough or sore throat, even though we roughed it out on the trail and ate and drank everything that was given to us. We definitely felt more energetic and alert when taking these supplements.

Books we found useful for learning about the trail:
Although a lot of the information is available online, this is a compact and useful book when planning for the trail and for exploring Machu Picchu. “Explore the Inca Trail” has a wealth of information covering several topics, from history of the Incas to current lifestyles, fiestas and festivals, cuisine, how to prepare for the hike, what to pack and take for the trail, what things to see when in Machu Picchu. All of this is presented in an easy-to-read, concise and informative form. The book is very compact and waterproof, so we took it with us on the trail too!

Websites with a ton of info on hiking the Inca trail and Machu Picchu, which we found immensely useful:

1. Andean Travel Web

2. Inca Trail Peru

3. Get Fit to hike the Inca Trail

4. Inca Trail FAQ

5. Inca Trail

6. Machu Picchu Inca

7. Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

8. The lowdown on hiking the Inca Trail

These are just a few of the resources we referred to often. There are countless other websites out there with blog posts on personal experiences and tips from professional travel operators. Just keep reading and assimilating all of this info. This is always the most fun part of any trip – all the planning and preparation and butterflies-in-the-stomach-anticipation … isn’t it!?

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From → Peru, South America

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