Hiking the Inca Trail? Take These Precautions Against AMS

3 min read

Inca trail hiker

The Inca Trail, locally known as “Caminos Inca,” is a four-day hike to the breathtaking Machu Picchu in Peru. Taking this trek to one of the Seven Wonders of the World is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for which you should carefully prepare. Considering that the Inca Trail climbs to over 13,000 feet above sea level, altitude sickness is a routine concern for travelers.

Hikers often describe the atmosphere of the Inca Trail as “thin” air. This is because the percentage of oxygen per breath reduces as you ascend to a higher elevation, leaving travelers feeling easily out of breath. The human body adapts by taking quicker and deeper breaths in conjunction with increasing blood flow to the lungs.

Acute Mountain Sickness

Visiting the Inca Trail puts travelers at risk for altitude sickness. The common high-altitude ailment known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can leave you feeling like you’re stuck on the ground instead of high in the sky.

Common mild symptoms of AMS include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • General fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dizziness 

If you begin to experience these symptoms, stop climbing and rest until they subside. Moderate to severe symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe headache
  • Confusion
  • Inability to walk
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Blue tint to the skin

AMS will typically resolve in 6 to 16 hours, according to the Institute for Altitude Medicine; however, it can lead to deadly complications if left untreated. Anyone experiencing moderate or severe symptoms should descend immediately and seek medical attention.

Can You Prevent Altitude Sickness?

The good news is that you can prevent altitude sickness if you prepare two to three weeks in advance. However, since AMS can be unpredictable and vary in severity, you still need to take precautions. Here’s how you can prevent AMS while hiking the Inca Trail:

Take your time on the trail. Ascending at a gradual rate has shown to be the most helpful action to prevent AMS. This allows your body the time it needs to properly adapt to the reduced level of oxygen found at higher altitudes. Remember, your body is working overtime to keep functioning effectively. 

Fill your diet with carbohydrates. Studies show that people who consume a high carbohydrate diet (roughly 70% of calories from carbohydrates) two to three weeks prior to hiking at high altitudes show more efficient oxygen use. Enjoy foods like granola bars, crackers, breads, pastas, rice, tofu, fruit, potatoes, dairy products, chips, beans and hummus.

Stay hydrated and avoid alcohol and sleep aids. Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol at least two weeks before traveling to the Inca Trail. Dehydration leads to increased concentration of your blood and less efficient use of oxygen. Alcohol and sleep aides also slow down breathing, discouraging your body from adapting to high altitudes. 

Take preventive nutrition supplements. Gingko biloba has been shown to have a possible effect on the prevention of AMS. Rhodiola rosea has been studied for its function of increasing oxygen saturation in the human body for the prevention of AMS. Antioxidants like vitamins E are effective for reducing free radical damage and preventing AMS. This is especially true if daily supplementation occurs three to four weeks prior to high-altitude exposure.

Listening to your body and being proactive to prevent AMS will help you enjoy your trip along the Inca Trail. Know your route, research elevation trends and be prepared.

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