The Inca trail can’t really be described as easy, but it is still possible to enjoy the trail while taking your toddler with you.
The trail involves approximately 42 km of walking over four or five days. “Less than a marathon!” you say, but this distance measure does not take into account 1) the altitude and 2) the significant elevation changes over the walk. As an example, day two involves a continuous ascent from 3000 m (9000 ft) to 4200 m (13,000 ft), followed by a descent to 3600 m (11,000 ft). That said, the key to happily completing the trail is to avoid overexertion and take regular breaks. Once you’ve pushed too hard and have fallen into the realm of altitude sickness, it is hard to come back.
We did not see any other small western children on the trail. The youngest walkers we saw were probably about 10 years old. We also noticed that most people who were hiking the trail were either young (i.e., in their 20’s) or older (i.e., over 50). The purpose of this blog post is to encourage the people in between – with young families – to take part in this kind of adventure. Done right, everyone can have a great time and your kids will have a great experience. It is my view that a safe childhood lacking in adventure is a sure path to dullness and mediocrity. Some discomfort and acceptable risk in return for unforgettable experiences can provide memories from which strength of character can be drawn for the rest of their lives.
It is important to firmly have in mind that this kind of trip is very different to one where you and your partner and/or friends visit some exotic adventure destination for wild times and late-night drinking. A multi-day excursion with a toddler is the same anywhere – it is an exercise in time management and in prioritising the happiness and sleep schedule of the child. The fact that this occurred over the Inca trail and in Machu Picchu was almost irrelevant to the happiness of the family. As most parents are well aware, a well-slept child is a child more able to handle an unpredictable schedule and moments of boredom. Sleep is the number one priority.
We carried Joey in an Osprey ‘Poco premium’ baby backpack carrier. This expensive but quality piece of kit was probably the one item we had that contributed most to our happiness (with “Pete the Cat goes to the Beach” by James Dean a close second). The Poco was designed so well that Joey was comfortable sitting in it for hours. So comfortable in fact that he napped in it during the middle of the day, every day. The gentle rocking of his carrier laboring up steep stairs was enough to have Joey nod off and the Poco did a satisfactory job of holding his body so that he would remain comfortably asleep. This benefit alone meant that whoever was carrying Joey could keep up with the group, who would not be willing to stop for several hours in the middle of the day while Joey napped. In fact, stopping was almost always a bad idea during this time. The cessation of rocking almost always lead to Joey waking prematurely and being grumpy for the rest of the day.
During the hike, Joey spent his wakeful hours partaking in a combination of the following:
- Eating snacks, preferring ‘Peru crackers’ a.k.a. oreos (which we learned are vegan, strangely).
- Drinking water from his bottle.
- Playing with his toy car, which was run back and forth along the drool pad in front of him.
- Looking at the scenery, trees and hummingbirds.
- Reciting stories.
- Calling for mummy/daddy and asking to be let down.
While nap time called for continued walking, regular breaks during wakefulness in which Joey was released from his carrier and could walk around were probably critical to him remaining in good spirits during his stints in the Poco.
Camping on the Inca trail with a toddler was made considerably easier by the fact that it wasn’t really camping at all. Upon arrival at a campsite, the porters had already set up the tents and the chefs were busy making dinner. “Glamping” is the more appropriate term to describe this scenario. Given that the parents did little to no work in meal preparation and setting up the tent/bedding, putting Joey to bed was fairly easy.
One challenge was the lateness of dinner. As the porters had to build the kitchen every night, as well as make dinner, the meal was not ready until around 8pm – after Joey’s bedtime. He was bought to dinner a couple of times but his tiredness and irritability did not go over well with tired parents and other hikers. Eventually, the schedule was changed so that he was given an early dinner and sent to bed before the adults were fed. That way, everyone could eat in peace while the toddler regained the sleep time that was lost with the early (4-6am) starts.
Inside the tent, care was taken to ensure Joey did not sleep on the floor. Previous experience had taught us that in a cold climate, the floor of a tent is very cold as there is no ground insulation. While a cold floor could be mitigated by an air mattress, the air against the walls of the tent cools and then pools on the floor. A back-sleeping adult typically lies with his or her nose and mouth above the coldest of this air, but a small child – who often sleeps on their front and does not possess nearly as much thermal mass – will be affected greatly. To avoid the chill, Joey slept on a collapsible child stretcher that raised him about 100 mm off the ground. While he sometimes rolled off his little platform in the middle of the night (and on to me) he remained fairly warm and comfortable even when the temperature dropped below freezing and/or he struggled out of his sleeping bag, which he disliked intensely.
It is interesting to note that while westerners think of taking a toddler on this trek as a challenge, the locals who live on the trail – far from any road – raise their kids here without porters, expensive compostable nappies or fancy baby backpacks. As far as we could tell, these people were extremely happy. I suppose difficulty is all a matter of perspective.
Joey had a great time on this walk and so did his parents. A couple of other parents on the trail mentioned to us that they would have liked to bring their children along. I wondered why they did not. Sure, the additional complexity is a burden, but that is the nature of raising children. I started to adopt a different point of view about these things which went something like: “If your child is amenable to this kind of thing, you could say you have a responsibility to do it. Not because you can, but because others either cannot, did not think of it, or thought it too difficult. Show by example that such a thing is possible, and that far from being just a burden, it is also a pleasure”.