The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is an inspiring 170km trek around the Mont Blanc massif which begins in France and crosses through Italy and Switzerland. It’s no surprise that it is wildly popular in Europe; not all trails were created equal. The TMB takes the trekker through unbelievable landscapes via snowy mountain summits and gorgeous green pastures where happy cows slowly graze. Charming mountainside refuges along the way whip up hearty dinners eaten in cozy common areas where fellow trekkers share stories of their daily adventures and review maps for the next day. If you’re thinking this might be the right time to see the Alps for yourself, here is everything you’ll need to know to prepare for a self-guided Tour du Mont Blanc trek.
Should I self-guide or go with an organized adventure company?
As many things in life, every decision is multi-faceted. Self-guiding your Tour du Mont Blanc trek can come with many positives, such as lower costs, the opportunity to forge friendships with others on the trail, move at your own pace, and the full autonomy to change plans in case unexpected circumstances arise (such as creating a “rest day” or waiting out bad weather). You are also solely responsible for understanding the trail and necessities needed to complete each day successfully. While I see this as a fun challenge, it can also be viewed as time consuming to others. You will also be schlepping all of your own gear, which I assure you, is a fantastic workout.
On the other hand, if you decide to go with an organized adventure company, there are also many benefits. Your daily lodgings are pre-arranged, which saves a lot of planning on your end. Many of the companies will offer services to send your belongings from refuge to refuge so that you are only required to carry a light daypack. Your guide will be available to answer questions, watch for your safety, and give you tips as you navigate your way through the Alps. You are also traveling with a group, so there is a guarantee you will always be able to ask other people to take your picture as you pose in front of an epic mountain.
I decided to self-guide my Tour du Mont Blanc trek for several reasons. First, I knew I only had 7 days on the trail. Several companies offer different day packages, but much of my research led me to tours that were 8+ days long. I was also working within a budget for this trip and wanted to find the most economical solution. Deciding to self-guide my trip also became a personal challenge that I wanted to take on.
Could I, a woman from the Silicon Valley tech world with a poor sense of direction but the spirit for exploration navigate myself safely through this trek? Challenge accepted.
When all was said and done, I spent $490 for 7 nights of accommodations (1 night in a hotel, 6 nights in hostels/refuges), dinners (2 high-end, 4 in the refuges), lunches (bagged and grocery-store bought), and breakfasts (served at each establishment) along the TMB. Compare this to a whopping $3000 – $4000 it could have cost on a tour with a similar itinerary. Of course, I was concerned about solo-trekking on the trail, but decided I would go forth with a great attitude and meet other trekkers I could move with along parts of the trail. Much to my delight, I wound up finding trail friends I would hit it off with on the very first day. If you are apprehensive about solo-trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc, you should also know this is a well-marked route (aided by the Tour du Mont Blanc trekking guide) with plenty small towns and fellow hikers along the way in case you have questions.
Okay, cool. I’m going to self-guide. What should I do first?
Buy Cicerone’s The Tour of Mont Blanc Complete Two-Way Trekking Guide. Once in this book is in hand, decide whether you want to go clockwise or counterclockwise and how many days you want to allot to the trek. Are you going to do the full loop or partial? Making these decisions will help you decide which airports or major cities you will travel from. I would recommend reading the introduction and daily route walkthroughs several times. Decide whether you want to stay in refuges every evening or go full backpacking mode with your own tent. Highlight important parts such as difficult ascents, fantastic photo opportunities, and water/refreshment sources. You’ll be bringing this book along with you during the trek so don’t be afraid to mark it up with notes.
When is the Tour du Mont Blanc season?
You will be high-walking in the Alps, so understandably there is a possibility of inclement weather (depending on the previous year’s snowfall or the early/late onset of cold conditions). Generally speaking, the season may be able to start the last week of June or early July and last until the end of September. The peak season is in August with the best weather conditions noted in early September. I trekked from mid to late September and got to encounter all sorts of weather conditions from harsh snow days, bright and sunny green pastures, to cloudy days with bouts of strong winds.
How many days should I plan for this trek?
The full Tour du Mont Blanc circuit is 170km long and is typically completed within 10-12 days. Depending on the route you decide to take (traditional and alternative are 11 and 10 days, respectively) this number can vary. It’s important to ask yourself whether you might want to take a day off the trail to explore a city/town to rest or if you want to keep charging ahead. I would highly recommend working in one of these “recharge” days to rest your aching body and spend a slow moment enjoying one of these idyllic mountain hamlets.
When should I start reserving accommodations?
You don’t necessarily have to reserve your refuges in advance (you can also walk-up if needed), although the peace of mind from advance bookings was invaluable for me. If you are going a bit later, do note that some of the refuges close for the season mid to late September. Make sure you double check dates of operation to have a good sense of availability if you decide you’re going to book on the fly. If you happen to be trekking in August, definitely reserve your spot as soon as possible since this is the busiest season and refuges DO sell out.
If you pre-arrange your reservations, the nice part is that most of the refuges require a small deposit (or none at all) for the booking. If your plans end up changing unexpectedly you aren’t forfeiting payment for a full night. I realized that I had mistakenly made a reservation too far away from my destination in La Fouly and simply ate the cost of my small deposit for and then made an on-the-spot reservation at another refuge in the right town. It worked out just fine, given that La Fouly had several refuges available and I was traveling during the late TMB season. Another point of consideration for reserving in advance is that it also makes you accountable for completing your daily trek so that you don’t mess up your own schedule. While the trekking guide book does list some places, I found that this Tour du Mont Blanc website was immensely helpful to uncover other accommodations. To get a sense of what your Tour du Mont Blanc trek might look like, here is my actual 7 day itinerary including the refuges I stayed at.
What should I pack?
If you bring it, you’re going to have to carry it. Somehow, it’s easy to forget this when you are packing at home and want to include all of your gadgets and articles of clothing. For a petite female, a 36L pack works marvelously in the 12-15 pound range. Depending your body size and willingness to carry, you can also use a 50L pack and get up into the 20-25 pound range. Keep in mind that you’ll be trekking anywhere from 7-12 miles per day with difficult ascents and descents in the Alps. After a while, you’ll feel every ounce weight on your body. Don’t forget to factor in that you’ll also be carrying water and food, which adds a significant amount of heft, too. Check out my 7 day self-guided Tour du Mont Blanc packing list which will also help you prepare.
What is it like to stay at a refuge?
Outside of the alps, one of my favorite parts about trekking the TMB was staying at the refuges. Even though many of them only offer dormitory-style bed situations, the energy and camaraderie of each place makes the entire experience special. I recommend booking half board so you can have dinner and breakfast during your stay. Dinner is typically served at 7:00pm and is a loaded multi-course meal with lots of bread, cheese, and dessert. It’s a great time to mingle with other trekkers and get to know some of the faces you’ve been seeing along the trail. Breakfast is usually served around 7:00am and isn’t quite as exciting. It usually comes with the standard assortment of bread, butter, jam, cereal, and coffee.
To make things even easier, most refuges also have the option to pack bagged lunches for €10. Hot showers are always available (some refuges require tokens to conserve resources) and wifi is also available in some places. As you can imagine, sleeping in a dormitory means you will be subject to noise from other trekkers. Bring earplugs and an eyemask! For cleanliness, it is also helpful to bring your own sleeping bag liner as most of the refuges do not offer sheets for the bedding. Some of the refuges are quite isolated on the TMB, while others are nestled in larger cities. If you have the opportunity to stay at a hotel in Courmayeur or Champex, I would recommend going for it to give yourself a night of uninterrupted sleep or privacy to chill out.
How should I plan for food and water?
If you don’t plan on buying bagged lunches at the refuges, you can also buy your own groceries along the way or get refreshments along the trail. Depending on when you go during the TMB season, some mid-trail refuges may be open and serving food. When I hit the TMB mid to late September, I found that many of the refuges along the way (especially in France) were already closed for the season. Thankfully, I began every day with my lunch in my pack so this never became a problem. Grocery stores are available in the larger towns, so you’ll want to strategically buy enough to last you until you can find the next store. A good practice is to always ensure you have extra sustenance on you at all times (such as granola bars) in case you aren’t able to find a restaurant or grocery store.
I wish you the best of luck as you go forth along your self-guided Tour du Mont Blanc trek! Remember to slow down and enjoy your time in the Alps. As cliche as it is to say, it really is about the journey and not the destination. Every day, the landscapes that reveal themselves along your trek are truly remarkable. If you have any other questions that I can help answer, feel free to drop a line here. Bon voyage!
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