Make no mistake, the Tour du Mont blanc hike is tough, at roughly 170 kilometres (110 miles) with 10,000 metres (6.2 mi) of ascent/descent as it passes through parts of Switzerland, Italy and France while circling the Mont Blanc massif. As much as some super-hikers like to let everyone know how they raced around it in 7 or 8 days, anyone who says it was easy is either lying or delusional. With over 9,000 metres of total elevation gain (and loss) and a wide range of terrains, even the fittest trekker is going to be tired at the end of the day. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t accessible to those who aren’t in peak condition. As long as you are honest with yourself about your abilities and use that knowledge to choose an appropriate Tour du Mont Blanc itinerary and pace, there is no reason you can’t successfully and enjoyably complete this epic circuit. We opted for a self guided Tour du Mont Blanc trek – booking our own accommodations and devising our own itinerary to see the highlights and have a couple shorter days to compensate for the harder days. We scoured the internet and thoroughly read our Tour du Mont Blanc guidebook to come up with our plan.
Our Tour du Mont Blanc Map and Route
It is hard to accurately categorize fitness levels when it comes to trekking as your limits will have as much to do with your determination and willingness to push yourself as it will with your overall physical abilities. However, in the interests of planning, I would describe ourselves as maybe slightly above average in the overall fitness spectrum of those considering hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc route. We are both in our 40’s, relatively fit and we have quite a bit of trekking experience around the world (including several high-altitude treks in Nepal). We are rarely the fastest, never the slowest, and are normally happy to stick with the recommended itineraries rather than take on extra-long days (i.e. 30km+) or push ourselves beyond the point of enjoyment. Some might say “lazy”. Therefore, with that somewhat confusing description for context, I would call the TMB challenging and exhausting, but never overwhelming. While every big climb (and every steep descent) felt like hard work at the time, there was never a point when we were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to complete the stage as planned.
Other Posts to Help You Plan Your Tour du Mont Blanc hike:
Provides details on the different refugios and what you can expect.
Details on the types of meals you can expect at the refugios, where the grocery stores are and what you can find in them and tips for things you might want to bring from home on your Tour du Mont Blanc hike.
An overview of what the Tour du Mont Blanc cost us per person and information on how hiking it differently would change the overall costs e.g. staying in a private room in the mountain huts, rifugios or other private accommodation along the way and if you decide to use a luggage transfer service. It includes pictures of menu and meal costs at different refugios along the way.
Our complete Tour du Mont Blanc packing list as well as comments on what worked well and what we would have left behind.
An overview of our experience hiking the TMB.
A comparison of these two epic treks looking factors such as at difficulty, cost and comfort.
Our Self Guided Tour du Mont Blanc Stages
We did not take a rest day, although an extra night in Courmayeur is definitely a popular choice. Realistically, breaking things up at any point along the way will probably feel pretty good, although we were never so stiff or tired that we were unwilling to head out in the morning. Personal preference, really, rather than a necessity.
Along the way there are many variants to consider for a Tour du Mont Blanc self guided itinerary, as well as route details that are helpful to know about in advance and in some places you can take public transport to make it shorter e.g. from Chamonix to Les Houche. Here I’ve done my best to cover all the different options you are likely to face. All the numbers are somewhat approximate and the hiking times generally do not include lunch breaks or long rest stops.
1. Les Houches to Les Contamines (14km, 850m gain, 6-7 hrs)
We started the Tour du Mont Blanc trail by opting for the more scenic and more difficult Miage variant, but then took the cable car out of Les Houches up to the Col de Voza – the first of two cable cars we took on the trek. We debated this decision at length, repeatedly weighing the idea of starting out the trek by “cheating” vs. the significant benefit of avoiding a steep 650-metre climb before we even had a chance to get warmed up. Ultimately, heavy fog and steady drizzle the morning we set out helped us make our decision and we chose the cable car. Besides the climb, it also allowed us to hike the more scenic Miage variant to Les Contamines in roughly 6 hours and with 850 metres gain, instead of 8 and 1,500 (to Camping Pontet, which is about half an hour past the main part of town). We were happy with our choice but I also understand those who really want to “walk every step”. The other option is to take the less scenic but more direct Bionassy route, in which case that first climb will really be the only major one of the day.
2. Les Contamines to Col du Bonhomme (13km, 1,300m gain, 4-5 hrs)
Nothing technical, but a tough day, climbing basically the entire time but treated to amazing views the whole time. Many people skip Bonhomme and either cut across to Mottets (that would be a very tough day, in our opinion) or continue on to Chapieux along a lower route. However, if the weather is good I would highly recommend staying at Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme – the first mountain hut on the trek. While it would be bleak in rain and cloud, we spent a warm, clear afternoon enjoying spectacular views in all directions.
3. Col du Bonhomme to Cabane du Combal (20km, 900m gain, 6-7 hrs)
Another tough walk, we took the Cols du Fours variant. A short climb up to the col before a knee-busting 900m descent to Mottets, then all the way back up 750 metres to Col de la Seigne where we crossed into Italy, then back down 550m past Refugio Elisabetta. The last hour trudging along a flat road felt interminable but the terrific private lodge, Cabane du Combal, might have been our favourite stay of the entire trek. Every time we started feeling sorry for ourselves on that long climb we were jolted back to reality by another jogger or biker struggling up the hill looking on the verge of a heart attack.
4. Cabane du Combal to Courmayeur (15km. 450m gain, 4-5 hours)
The other benefit of staying at Combal was the short day into Courmayeur. We chose the longest and most scenic of the three route options and enjoyed a stunningly scenic morning, and more beautiful views over lunch at Maison Veielle before tackling the long 1,400m descent into town where we happily settled into a great room at Hotel Triolet.
5. Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti (12km, 850m gain, 4-5 hours)
Straight out of Courmayeur you face a daunting 700m climb through the trees and we were disappointed to complete this only to find the Refugio Bertone bathrooms closed for cleaning. Trailside, it is. Then I made the amateur mistake of stopping to apply sunscreen the moment we left the trees, only for it to quickly turn nasty and rain hard for the next 2 hours. You get great views of the Mont Blanc range along your left all day (weather permitting). There are two longer, more difficult variants to consider but we avoided them because of the less than favourable – and apparently quite accurate – weather forecast.
6. Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly (20km, 900m gain, 6-7 hrs)
Up and down all day, with excellent views of mountains and cows in practically equal measure starting with the downhill to Val Ferret before heading back up to Grand Col Ferret. Being from rural Saskatchewan, we find ourselves far less enamoured with roaming cattle than most of our fellow hikers, which saved us quite a bit of time and a lot of space in our photo rolls. We were surprised just how noticeably different the landscape was upon crossing the pass into Switzerland, leaving behind the harshly scenic mountain terrain of Italy to enter wide, lush valleys and green rolling hills. Less dramatic but spectacular in its own way. And, if the new landscape doesn’t tip you off to the fact you are now in Switzerland, your first look at the prices certainly will. Although we were pleasantly surprised at the great value of our 4-person dorm at Hotel Maya-Joie.
7. La Fouly to Champex-Lac (15km, 400m gain, 5 hrs)
Arguably the easiest day of the trek, and one with the least memorable mountain scenery. That’s not to say it isn’t beautiful, though. With its interesting villages, artsy mushroom route and pretty valleys it could easily be the highlight of a less epic trek. Some people choose to take a bus and skip this stage, which is an option if you are pressed for time, but I would recommend walking it if for no other reason than to see the carving of a squirrel lewdly pointing an acorn at passing trekkers.
8. Champex-Lac to Le Peuty (17km, 750m gain, 5-6 hrs)
We hiked the easier Bovine route, which was nice but not truly spectacular in comparison to many other stages. Right up until that morning we had planned to tackle the reputedly stunning Fenetre d’Arpette route but eventually gave up on it after reports of heavy snowfall at the top. We still aren’t sure if we made the right decision because, even though 95% of trekkers took the Bovine route, two other couples we knew successfully completed the high crossing. Both raved about the scenery but described the conditions in vastly different terms (“tons of snow and really slippery” and “a bit snowy but nice”). Next time.
9. Le Peuty to Les Frasserands (13km, 1,050m gain, 5-6 hrs)
The first time all trek where we felt stuck in a trekker train while climbing up to Col de Balme, I would suggest getting started a bit earlier than normal (we left at 8:30). About halfway up the views began to open up and when we reached the col the wind was howling, it was freezing, and the bathroom at the hut wasn’t working, causing much consternation among the women in particular. From there we stuck with the higher Aguille de Posettes route which offered some of the most amazing views of the entire trek but did involve a pretty tiring downhill slog through the trees at the end into the Chamonix Valley.
10. Les Frasserands to Lac Blanc (4km, 900m gain, 2-4 hrs)
We chose the “ladder route” which was, once again, wildly scenic, and not overly stressful for anyone without a serious fear of heights. Knowing we had a short day ahead of us we left quite late (9:00) and walked virtually alone for most of the time, giving us probably too much time to screw around taking photos on the ladders in a variety of marginally different poses. Despite that and a couple food breaks, we still made it to Refuge Lac Blanc, with the most scenic location of the Mont Blanc huts, by 1pm and settled into a sheltered spot by some rocks overlooking the lake to relax the afternoon away. We obviously got lucky with a completely calm day, but the extraordinary sunset with the colourful clouds and massive, looming mountains reflecting off the glassy lake was probably the main highlight of the entire trek for us. Even if Refuge Flégère is re-opened by the time you start (it was closed for renovations all of 2019) I would still recommend re-working your schedule and putting up with some of the basic inconveniences of Refuge Lac Blanc in order to spend a night up there.
11. Lac Blanc to Chamonix (12km, 750m gain, 5-6 hrs)
For this stage we hiked the route normally all the way to the top of Le Brévent, at which point we ended our trek and took the cable car down to Chamonix (and a very welcome private room at Chamonix Lodge). As previously noted, we felt no compulsion to fully complete the circuit and had yet to hear anything complimentary about the long, 1,500 metre “knee-wrenching” descent into Les Houches. For us, finishing on a (literal) high note with the awesome panoramic views from Le Brévent seemed more fitting. I have also read about some people starting their trek from this amazing viewpoint in order to give themselves two shots at clear skies, something worth considering if you have the time and energy.
Our Trek Totals:
155 kilometres (14/day)
9,100 metres elevation gain (830/day)
53-63 hours (5-6/ day)
Clearly, there are plenty of alternatives you can take to make the trek longer or shorter, harder or easier, and the weather could very well determine your route at times. If you are willing to extend 5-hour days into 7-8 hour days you could easily cut a couple days off this itinerary, or you could opt for additional rest days in any of the cute little towns along the way. This route felt fairly relaxed most of the time but since it is roughly the same as that outlined in the popular Kev Reynolds guidebook, The Tour of Mont Blanc, it meant that a lot of fellow trekkers were following the same itinerary and it was nice to see familiar faces along the way. However, each person should assess their fitness (as honestly as possible), available time and, most importantly, overall goals for the trek before deciding on the specifics of your route.
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