The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is listed as not only one of Europe’s classic hikes, but one of the best in the world!
The 160km, 8000+ elevation gain hike around the highest peak (4810 m) in Western Europe is a classic! Having just completed it through France, Italy and Switzerland, I can highly recommend it. Although you don’t actually go to the peak itself (that involves mountaineering), it’s tough. It will challenge you both physically and mentally, but with a little bit of planning you can choose how much you want to be challenged.
There are a variety of ways that you can hike the TMB.
There are guided hikes, some where you are accompanied by a donkey, like Coco, pictured below in which you are able to off load 7 kg of gear to him. I kept running into him along the way on our tour and rewarded him for his efforts with fruit – even though he wasn’t carrying any of my gear. What can I say? He has the same name as my cat, so I took to him immediately, plus I love donkeys! And had apples to spare – see below!
There are also self-guided treks of the Tour du Mont Blanc, in which a tour operator consults with you and makes all the arrangements best suited to your needs and wants. This is the option that I highly recommend. That way you can avoid the mistakes that we did by planning it all our ourselves. Based on my experience, I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve partnered with a tour agent that I know and trust to help you plan your most epic trip! Simply fill in this questionnaire and she’ll get back to you within 72 hours. So why do I recommend help with planning a self-guided trek? Keep reading….
So how do you plan your own Tour du Mont Blanc Trek?
If you want to plan it yourself, I recommend that you plan it by using a combination of this site, and the Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete Two-Way Trekking Guide Book by Cicerone Guides. (I had bought another book, but after seeing this book, it was much better than the one I had) And of course a good map of Mont Blanc.
Choose Your Starting Point for the TMB:
We started in Chamonix, known as the “Capital of Extreme” for all of its climbing, mountaineering and rafting activities. But the traditional starting point and where most people that we met started is in the nearby village of Les Houches. Travel tip: If you do decide to start in Les Houches, ensure you buy everything you need in Chamonix first. We walked from Chamonix to Les Houches and had to take the bus back to Chamonix again to buy an iPhone cable since I couldn’t find one in Les Houches – it’s really small.
Choose the direction you will trek the Tour du Mont Blanc:
The traditional way is to do it counter-clockwise which is how we did it. The advantage to doing it this way is that you will keep running into the same people, so if you want to hike with other people, it’s easy enough to meet up. We did a combination of hiking on our own and hiking with other people we met on the trail, including a fellow Canadian!
The apparent advantage of doing it clockwise (I’ve only done it counter-clockwise) is that you will be going against the flow, so will likely not see the same people again. This may be a good option if it’s solitude and quiet time with the wild flowers that you’re seeking. You will also want to choose a different starting point, like Champex if you decide to do it clockwise. This will help you ease into the steep climbs.
Use a combination of the TMB site, book and map to plan each day.
Don’t start by saying that you will do the trek in so and so many days. Plan each day according to what seems reasonable to you. The TMB site, listed above, shows you the availability of the refuges (mountain huts) and how long it takes to hike to the other hut. You’re also able to book the huts directly through their site.
The disadvantage to the TMB site though is that it doesn’t provide the elevation gain, nor the distance. It’s also only possible to book some refuges by phone. We called a few and found they didn’t speak English or German, the only two languages we spoke. In addition, each booking is dependent upon each other. I.e. you want to have your booking secured for Days 1,2, 3, before you book for Day 4, to ensure that you don’t have a really short, or a really long day. Furthermore, after we confirmed our booking, two refuges contacted us a few days later to tell us they were full. As a result, we had to do all of our bookings again, starting from scratch. While it is doable to book everything yourself, it’s also very time consuming. It took us ~12 hours from start to finish. That’s why if you’re short on time, I highly recommend completing the TMQ questionnaire and letting my recommended tour company do all the bookings for you.
Lastly, some of the refuges are really nice, some less so. We stayed in a 4 bedroom at one which was nice, but the dorm room was awful! The beds were inches off the floor and inches from each other – keeping in mind that you may be sleeping next to a stranger! We also heard horror stories of refuges that were filthy. We stayed in one in Switzerland after a 13 1/2 day of trekking that wasn’t exactly filthy, but not exactly clean either. It added to my already sour mode. That’s another advantage to having a self-guided tour company do the bookings for you. They know which ones are nice and which ones to avoid! Note: I am not able to tell you the ones that I wouldn’t recommend since it was two years ago and things may have changed. I’m also eager to avoid a law suit, which I know has happened to other bloggers who have said less than complimentary things about hotels (not on the TMB).
Also worth nothing: If you are choosing a longer trek that often means going up two separate cols/mountain passes. Keep in mind that you will likely be much slower later on in the day when your legs are already tired. It’s also a good idea to plan your TMB route out on a map. That way you can choose huts that are en route to where you’re going and not out of your way. While booking refuges on the TMB site, we can Google maps open at the same time and simultaneously checked each one to make sure it was directly on the path – rather time consuming.
Also remember to purchase Travel Insurance. You hope you won’t need it, but mountain rescues are expensive if you do, so better to be safe than sorry!
How to Pack for the Tour du Mont Blanc:
I’ve written a comprehensive post on this indicating every essential item, while eliminating those that you don’t need. Check it out!
Our 8 Day Schedule of Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc:
(Note: This is not a recommendation, but is what we did as many of you have asked for our route. Also worth noting is that our start to finish time includes a short lunch stop and breaks in between)
Day 1: Chamonix to Refuge Fioux. Start to finish time: 3.5 hours, 14 km
Day 2: Refuge Fioux to Refuge Nant Borrant: Start to finish time: 9.5 hours, 25 km
Day 3: Refuge Nant Borrant to Refuge Mottets: Start to finish time: 9.9 hours, 22 km, 1300 m elevation
Day 4: Refuge Mottets to Refuge Mont Blanco: Start to finish time: 9.8 hours, 17 km, 740 m elevation
Day 5: Refuge Mont Blanc to Refuge Bonatti: Start to finish time: 7.1 hours, 21 km, 800 m elevation
Day 6: Refuge Bonatti to La Fouly: Start to finish time: 6.5 hours, 18 km, 600 m elevation
Day 7: La Fouly to Trent: Start to finish time: 13.5 hours, 35 km, 800 m elevation
Day 8: Trent to Chamonix: Start to finish time: 10 hours, 25 km, 900 m elevation
Allow Additional Time for Breaks/Stops/Slower Hiking Along the TMB:
The times mentioned in the book and on the TMB site do not include breaks/stopping for route finding etc. Nor do they account for going slower on a long day. If a 6 hour time is mentioned, you probably want to calculate for somewhere between 7-8 hours. We had one really long day which was calculated as just over 9 hours of hiking. That seemed long, but doable. It ended up taking us over 13 1/2 hours (including a breakfast and lunch stop). By the time we finally hit the second bit of elevation, we were already 22km into our hike and climbed the remaining 700m of elevation at a tortoise pace – in the rain, without seeming Mont Blanc the entire day. Two years later, I look back on that day and still shudder. Anyone who was familiar with TMB Trail would have known that trekking from La Fouley to Trent was not a good idea – especially when you’re carrying a heavy backpack!
Inform TMB Refuges Prior of any Dietary Preferences:
I have a gluten allergy and informed all of the refuges before we left. Despite that, two of them claimed to be unaware of my allergy. My guess is that they were either busy and forgot, or there was a language barrier (French, Italian, and German are spoken with varying degrees of English depending on the refuge). One place made up for it quite well, another place served me salad. Safe to say that it didn’t exactly hit the spot after hiking for hours.
It was also a problem at breakfast where typically just bread was served. None of the refuges had gluten-free bread, so I requested a piece of fruit instead. We ordered lunches to go from each refuge and despite being informed ahead of time, lunch was typically sandwiches which I couldn’t eat, so I would often be given 3 or 4 apples instead.
If you have any special dietary needs you will definitely want to give them a heads up prior since dinner is one standard meal unless you make special arrangements. I believe that more suitable arrangements may have been made had I booked through a tour company, who could clearly communicate what I could and couldn’t eat.
To Reserve or Not to Reserve Refuges on the Tour du Mont Blanc Trail?:
We reserved all of our refuges along the TMB in advance. We wanted to enjoy our holiday and not be on our phone each day trying to call ahead to see if there was space. We also didn’t want to just show up and find out there was no space left. The disadvantage of this is that it allowed us no flexibility. The advantage was that we never had to worry about finding a place to sleep and – in theory, each place knew in advance about my gluten allergy.
As it turned out, all of the refuges we stayed at, did have space. Reservations may not always be necessary, but often the only space left was in a dormitory and we preferred to sleep in private rooms when possible. Travel tip: If you don’t have reservations for a refuge, then try to get an early start and arrive early, before it does come full with other hikers who have the same idea.
Pamper Yourself at the Beginning and End of Your Tour du Mont Blanc Trek
We stayed at the Hôtel Les Aiglons, Resort & Spa the night before our trek and at Boutique Hôtel Le Morgane on the last day of our trek. Both are four star eco hotels in Chamonix, complete with a spa! After staying in refuges, it was pure bliss. We sat on our huge patio enjoying the killer views of Mont Blanc, as we rested our blistered, aching feet. Trust me, on the final day, you’ll likely be tired, so it’s worth a bit of a splurge!
So How Did Planning our Own TMB Trek Planning Work Out?
Overall it worked out OK for us. We did it in 8 days (between 7-12 days is recommended). We did have several long days, which were manageable, but our 13 1/2 hour day was way too long. I was THISCLOSE to calling a taxi for the last 3km, but sustained, or rather J.P. wisely prevented me. It would have been nice to have had an extra day or two to reduce the amount of hiking we did on some days. I liked all the refuges we stayed in, with the exception of one.
But the best thing about the TMB?
WE DID IT! AND ENJOYED MOST OF IT! I don’t believe anyone who says they enjoyed every second of the TMB. There are some really tough parts! Even better, it left with me a lasting gift that is still giving….stay tuned, but in the meantime check out my Tour du Mont Blanc Packing List!
Note: Originally published in 2013, updated in Jan, 2016.