How to pack your Machu Picchu adventure into a carry-on

Rising up to touch the sky, it’s no wonder Machu Picchu was once considered one of the most sacred destinations within the Incan Empire. Photo by Kade Krichko

Happy dance, you’ve booked a trip to Machu Picchu, one of the most stunning displays of natural beauty and preserved history in the world. Plane tickets in hand, travel itinerary from Cuzco, and a guide to lead the way—you’re almost ready for the adventure of a lifetime. 

The only thing standing in your way? Packing, of course.   

While Machu Picchu is Peru’s most popular destination with more than 1.5 million visitors in 2018 alone, it can also be a relative mystery when it comes to packing and preparation. The trip to Machu Picchu crosses everything from cold high desert to humid rainforest – with a fair share of trekking in between. 

At the start of our Machu Picchu trek on a cold morning from Hidroeléctrica, a former train station and popular launch point for day trekking route up to the ruinsmy girlfriend and I could see our breath hanging in the dark, early morning air. As the sun crested the steep mountain valley, temperatures jumped and humidity set in, collecting on our base layers as we stripped down and continued our slow trek through low-hanging jungle. Then came the rain. Scrambling for our packs one more time, we threw on rain jackets and prepped for our long haul up the mountain. In a span of hours, we had changed outfits nearly three timesWe’d been warned about the contrasts in the Sacred Valley, but if it weren’t for some strategic packing, our dream trip could have turned into a nightmare. 

As you pack, consider the buses and trains you’ll need to take to begin the walking portion. A trip to Machu Picchu covers a lot of terrain, and the drive from Cuzco to the start of many Machu Picchu treks is a minimum of seven hours. Trust us, you don’t want to lug a heavy and unwieldly suitcase all this way. 

The best way to get the most out of your Machu Picchu excursion is to pack your trip down to a carry-on. Yes, a carry-on. 

So how do you fit all that adventure into your cabin baggage? Here’s a no-frills guide to packing and preparing the ultimate carry-on for all of your Machu Picchu needs. 

Winding up the Sacred Valley to the base of Machu Picchu, the train tracks from Aguas Calientes are a stunning (albeit long) approach for hikers heading to the famous ruins. Photo by Kade Krichko

It starts with a pack

The backpack may be the most important packing choice you make for a trek to Machu Picchu. The Aircontact Lite 40 + 10 L from Deuter is a good option. (Photo courtesy of Deuter)

Caption: The backpack may be the most important packing choice you make for a trek to Machu Picchu. The Aircontact Lite 40 + 10 L from Deuter is a good option. (Photo courtesy of Deuter) 

Ask any world traveler, and they’ll tell you the key to carry-on travel is a good backpack. For your Machu Picchtrip-of-a-lifetime, the pack is key to more than squeezing your life into a carry-on; it’s critical for the actual trek as well. This means choosing the right backpack is likely the most important part of packing.  

The Deuter Aircontact Lite 40 + 10 L is a great option for anyone headed to Peru’s breathtaking ruins. The pack is easy to stow in your aircraft’s overhead compartment and combines a super lightweight frame and comfortable fit with creative storage and a bundle of useful features. Offering 40 liters of storage space, the Aircontact Lite can actually expand to accommodate an additional 10L, giving you a little extra flexibility on the ground to pack and repack without jamming everything into place. The pack also features a separate bottom compartment for storing wet or dirty clothes – but more on that later. 

The Aircontact Lite 40 + 10 L offers a customizable fit through adjustable straps, a flexible sternum strap and a padded hip belt to provide comfort for moving on and off planes, in between buses, and up and down the trail.  

 The case for a pack within your pack

 Your carry-on pack isn’t the only bag you’ll need to carry your load. Make sure to pack a small daypack inside your carry-on as well. This pack will be essential for quick day missions in cities like Cuzco and the ruins of Ollantaytambo, where you’ll want to carry a camera and an extra layer, but little else. There are several options that pack down to fit in the pocket of your hiking pants – one example is the REI Flash 18 – and will be well worth the effort 

Organize your space with packing cubes

Packing cubes, like these from REI, will help you keep your bag efficiently organized. (Photo courtesy of REI)

As you pack your carry-on for Machu Picchu, remember that organization is key when it comes to space management. One of the best tools for maximizing room and efficiency is a good set of packing cubes. It may seem natural to compartmentalize your gear, but packing cubes make the process even easier, offering a portable set of drawers for separating shirts and pants from toiletries and technical gear.  

Placed appropriately, these packing cubes will make it easy to change gear in and out of your pack, and can be removed and used as drawers in hotels and hostels. REI sells a few packing cube sets, and there are dozens of options available online for every kind of traveler.   

Stay dry, stay happy

Staying dry is especially key for anyone traveling to Machu Picchu, and should be a priority when packing your carry-on. While the ruins have a distinct rainy season between November and May, humidity in the area ranges between 80% and 100% year-round, meaning fast-moving precipitation is never far off. Proper rain clothes – we recommend a lightweight rain jacket and rain pants – are a must. A poncho will help, but the continuous up and down of the Machu Picchu is easier with clothes that articulate with you rather than blow against you. 

Also, quick-dry material is your friend. Merino wool goes a long way in the Andes, keeping you dry when weather turns ugly and keeping odor-causing bacteria off your skin and base layers. Quick-drying synthetic fibers can be very useful as often you’ll need gear to dry overnight. Think one to two shirts or base layers and a pair of convertible hiking pants/shorts as the basis of your wardrobe. 

For wet or dirty laundry, pack a small dry-bag or plastic bag to separate potentially smelly gear from the rest. This will go a long way in keeping your pack fresh and travel companions happy.  

Pack a puffy

Almost all Machu Picchu adventures start in Cuzco, a beautiful high-altitude city that can also get quite cold year-round (with lows barely rising above 45-degrees Fahrenheit). In fact, many of the Andean villages you will travel to experience a significant temperature drop at night. Battle the cold without bringing your whole winter closet by packing a puffy jacket like this one from StioPuffy jackets are lightweight and built to pack down into small spaces, making them ideal cold weather tools and the perfect options for fitting into a carry-on.  

Hiking boots, of course – but sandals are your footwear Swiss Army knife 

Your feet will thank you if you pack a pair of sturdy sandals like Chacos. (Photo courtesy of Chacos)

You won’t want to spend every waking hour of your trip in hiking boots, but packing extra shoes takes up valuable space in a hurry. Get the best of both worlds with a solid pair of sandals. 

The Chaco Z/2 classic is an excellent option for tired feet, providing support and function for walks around town, but also the utility to be used in a shower or late-night bathroom run. Sandals pack down to almost nothing, and can fit in most backpack side compartments. Trust us, your feet will thank you.  

Don’t forget a travel sheet

This is an easy one, but an important piece that needs to make your final pack list. A travel sheet takes up little room in the carry-on, but provides a physical barrier between you and whatever bed you might be sleeping on during your time abroad. While there are plenty of modern lodging options on your trip to Peru, hostels and other lodges can get the occasional bedbug attack, so it’s best not to take any chances. REI and outdoors stores carry these travel sheets in a variety of styles and even have sheets built to fit inside your sleeping bag.  

Items recommended in this article were selected by the author based on personal experience. Neither the author nor Alaska Airlines will earn any commissions on purchases of recommended items.

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