Updated August 2021
With our ever-growing obsession with long-distance trekking leading the way in much of our trip planning these days, it was inevitable that we would eventually find ourselves trekking the famous (infamous?) Tour du Mont Blanc hike.
Typically starting in France, then crossing through sections of both Italy and Switzerland before returning to its French origins, the TMB, as it is commonly known, is the darling of nearly every “best of European trekking” list. The Tour du Mont Blanc trail is universally considered both one of the most impressive and most difficult treks to be had in the Alps.
Needless to say, the first definitely got Laynni’s attention. The second, however, meant she would need some serious convincing.
We completed the Tour du Mont Blanc hike counter clockwise starting in Les Houches, which is generally considered the “standard” route. We did the trek in September, experienced outstanding weather, for the most part, met a lot of great people and now look back on it as one of the best treks we’ve ever done (as well as one of the most strenuous).
Tour du Mont Blanc Difficulty
Which is how we found ourselves spending a good chunk of the summer walking up and down Saskatoon’s Meewasin trails wearing weighted backpacks among all the joggers, school groups and casual strollers. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough hills in Saskatoon (or the trails around Waskesiu, for that matter) to adequately prepare the body to tackle roughly 10,000 metres (!!) of the Tour du Mont Blanc elevation gain over the course of 11 hiking days.
Yes, you heard that right, the Tour du Mont Blanc hike averages nearly 1,000 metres per day. Just to put that in perspective, we generally consider day hikes to be a decently strenuous workout with 300-400 metres of gain. So, multiply that by 2-3 times, and do it every day for a week and a half.
The total elevation gain is roughly the same as the Camino Del Norte and Camino Frances, but both of those took us more than a month. It is nearly double that of the Everest Base Camp trek, although much of Nepal’s signature hike takes place at problematically high altitudes, making the total difficulty much more comparable.
But, as we hoped, we ultimately found it hard but manageable. Once your mind simply accepts the occasionally irritating fact that every day you will need to walk uphill for hours to the top of some pass or other, then slog your way all the way back down into the next valley – giving up every hard-won inch you gained – it becomes somewhat easier mentally.
Although it is a bit misleading to only talk about the elevation gain, since it is actually the steep downhill sections that are hardest for most people, myself included.
On the Mont Blanc trek they almost always coming toward the end of the day, when your body is already exhausted and your mind checked out, the long descents can be torturous with your fatigued thighs shaking, your battered toes jammed up against the front of your hikers, and your sweaty back desperate to rid itself of its relentless burden.
Tour du Mont Blanc Highlights
But the scenery! Simply stunning, nearly every step of the way. The main benefit of circumnavigating the entire Mont Blanc massif and crossing all those aggravating valleys and mountain passes is the constantly changing views – the hiking trails with long climbs toward tall peaks, panoramic vistas at the top, and picturesque walks back down into expansive green valleys.
Particular highlights were the green rolling hills around Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, the unbroken views back down Val Ferret (Ferret Valley) as we climbed from Refugio Elena to Col Ferret (Ferret Pass), and the uninterrupted sight of Chamonix Valley and the entire Mont Blanc range on our final day between Lac Blanc and the stunning viewpoint at Le Brévent.
Unquestionably the best of all, though, was twilight and sunset from extraordinary Lac Blanc, as the beautiful mountains practically loomed over us from Aiguilles Rouges, slowly changing colour with the sinking sun while the dead calm lake offered up shocking reflections impossible to discern from the real thing.
The small contingent of guests remaining after all the day-trippers had left stood around quietly awestruck, soaking in the majesty of the scene (other than those that couldn’t pry themselves away from their yogurt desserts or rowdy card games).
I almost didn’t notice the spry ibex clinging to the rocks above me, until he suddenly decided to bound past, showing off his uncanny dexterity among the boulders that even the best of our rugged Vibram hiking soles couldn’t possibly hope to match (let alone our not so uncanny dexterity).
And here is a short video that gives just a small idea of the incredible scene that night:
It wasn’t all burnt-orange sunsets and cocky mountain goats, though, as we did face some less than ideal weather here and there. In fact, day one started out in thick fog which periodically shifted into mist or full-on rain throughout the day (making us even more comfortable with our decision to take the cable car out of Les Houches to avoid the initial 650-meter climb).
The only time we saw any sun was for about 15 minutes during our lunch break at Refuge de Miage which was, apparently, plenty of time for both of us to slightly sunburn our faces. Days 2-4 more than made up for that inauspicious start, though, providing dazzling blue, cloudless skies and endless views taking us around the bend, past La Ville des Glaciers which offers homemade cheese and up and over Col de Seigne into Italy.
In Courmayeur, a posh Italian ski village featuring high-end shops like Burberry and Bang & Olufsen, things turned frigid and windy, and half-way through the following day the rain set in with a vengeance.
Luckily, just at the right time we came across an abandoned barn full of the shattered remains of, you know, farm stuff, plus an almost unfathomable amount of old cow shit. It gave us a chance to fully gear up, however, (poncho, pants, gaiters, gloves) and meant we didn’t feel even remotely bad for using it as our own personal toilet.
The interminable climb up to Col Ferret the next day took place in freezing temps and a harrowing wind that felt like a harbinger of winter (in fact, people just 2 days behind us had to make the same climb in more than an inch of snow), but as soon as we crossed the pass into Switzerland and started back down into a green ridged valley reminiscent of New Zealand (or Lord of the Rings, whichever fits your personal experience more closely) mild and sunny once again became the order of the day.
Other than draining colour from our photos, the only time inclement weather actually influenced our route was on day 8 out of Champex-Lac after we joined up with the Haute Route, when significant snowfall up at Fenetre d’Arpette kept us from trying our luck on this notoriously treacherous and difficult pass.
We do know 4 others who pulled off a successful traverse, surely rewarded with spectacular views for their trouble but, ultimately, we were comfortable not taking the chance (or adding over 500 metres of extra gain and loss).
Then, after some mixed sun and cloud, our final 2 days couldn’t have been better, full of brilliant sun and puffy, mesmerizing clouds drifting in and out of the scenery. All in all, we feel pretty lucky. I can tell you, we sure wouldn’t have wanted to be doing this during the 35C heat wave earlier this summer, and in September snow and even more rain had been definite possibilities.
So, that’s the gist of the whole experience although, of course, there were many other noteworthy aspects (to us, anyway).
Tour du Mont Blanc Self Guided Itinerary
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).
Just for fun, we also put together a detailed comparison of the Tour du Mont Blanc and Everest Base Camp, two of the world’s most famous long-distance treks.
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.
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 to reach Rifugio Bonatti.
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 Total Trekking Numbers
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.
Tour du Mont Blanc Refuges and Accommodation
We did a independant Tour du Mont Blanc hike which meant that we booked our accommodation in advance after scouring through the TMB guide book for our options but people can also do it with a guided tour where everything is taken care of for them.
Or choose to do the Tour du Mont Blanc by camping the whole way. We stayed mainly in dorms in mountain huts/refuges/rifugios/gites, sharing with as few as 2 others (twice) and as many as 20 (twice). We treated ourselves to the comfort of our own hotel room in Courmayeur on night 4 (the excellent Hotel Triolet), and at Le Peuty we slept in a barn and ate in a yurt.
We joined long lines of an extremely international group of underwear-clad hikers in the hallway of Bonhomme waiting for our brief allotted shower time (the men’s line never died down for close to 3 hours), were shocked by the sudden loss of hot water in Bonatti, and were bluntly informed that Lac Blanc simply doesn’t offer showers these days.
Electricity came and went, charging stations were common but in high demand, and food was generally communal, good and plentiful. Every room seemed to have at least one snorer, but not as many as we’d come to expect from other hikes, making us suspect at least some correlation between the greater level of fitness required on the TMB and healthy breathing patterns.
In any case, our ear plugs remain firmly at the top of our list of necessities.
There is a wide range of accommodation available on the Tour du Mont Blanc trek, although much of that variety is concentrated in just a few main areas. Along other parts of the trail you may be limited to a single mountain hut, which can turn into a bottlenecks that fills up quickly. We booked all our Tour du Mont Blanc refuges and accommodation roughly 6 months ahead, not by original plan, but because when we started playing around with it in late February just to see what some of the huts looked like we were startled to see that certain days were already full.
We had read that trekking in September would mean smaller crowds and less concern regarding beds. However, it seemed that there were a number of groups also planning the same time frame as us and on those days some of the more popular and isolated huts (i.e. Elisabetta and Bonatti) were already booked up. So we switched to an earlier starting date (Sep 2) and got to work reserving everything. We booked as much as we could through the main TMB site, although a few places were available on Booking.com, which is preferable since you can avoid the deposits and sometimes get free cancellation.
Do You Need to Book TMB Refuges in Advance?
Yes, it is recommended. While we generally like to plan ahead and were happy to know where we’d be staying every night, I understand that some people either don’t know their exact dates that far ahead or prefer more flexibility. I have heard people say that they waited until a week ahead, or even a few days, and had no problem getting “most” of the places they wanted. Some of these carried camping gear as a backup (no thanks), some had to add a couple extra hiking hours certain days to reach an available bed, and some had plenty of time and didn’t mind adding in a rest day or two while waiting for availability.
For us, that all sounds too stressful, and we personally liked not having to spend a bunch of time during our trek calling huts and organizing our route. But it is probably possible to leave things somewhat open (in September, anyway) if that is your preference.
Accommodation along the TMB is, for the most part, extremely comfortable. Sure, we spent most nights in dorms, but usually with good hot showers and excellent meals. A far cry from the freezing little plywood shacks on offer in the Nepalese Himalaya, for example. Of course, those very basic little guesthouses usually cost a couple dollars per night, while the relatively luxurious mountain huts on the TMB cost, well, considerably more than that. Of course, almost all of them offer communal Crocs to wear around inside, so there’s that. Some places had wifi, while some didn’t even have a phone signal to use the data on your phone.
Obviously, we can only comment on the places we stayed, and in many cases there are other options to consider. Hopefully this info will help you plan your itinerary, though. Prices are all per person and include dinner and breakfast unless otherwise noted. Pretty much every place offers a pack lunch for an extra fee, which I’ve included when possible.
Note: €1 = approximately 1.1 CHF (Swiss Francs)
0. Les Houches – Gîte Michel Fagot (1,000m)
€50 (pack lunch €10), free wifi in the lounge, good signal
We stayed in a fairly modern 8-person dorm. They have a very nice lounge area with books, games and comfortable furniture. There is a bakery next door and a grocery store nearby (although it was closed all day Sunday even though the sign on the door showed it as open). Excellent dinner, friendly staff and €5 beer. Nice place. Also, they will store bags for €1/day (maybe €2 or €3 for large luggage) which is handy if you are ending in Les Houches as well. We finished in Chamonix so dropped our extra bag off there before we started.
1. Les Contamines – Camping Pontet (1,190m)
€40 (pack lunch €9), wifi for a fee, good signal
About half an hour along the trail past Les Contamines, this place was a mixed bag. Even though we booked as a couple 6 months in advance and saw no option to choose a 2-person room, those rooms exist but were somehow already “full” when we got there before everyone else. I assume they take unofficial bed reservations from guides or something, but it would be worth asking about when you book. It was annoying, though.
Our 6-person dorm was okay, except it was the only room without a curtain door, meaning the lights from the hall shined in all night. They have a beautiful, brand new shower area in addition to the older, original washroom. I used the new showers and could not get any hot water at all (I think I was the first person of the afternoon, so it shouldn’t have been out yet). Meanwhile, Laynni didn’t notice the new part and ended up in the old one, where she had a great hot shower. No idea if this is always the case, but it’s worth considering.
There was a stuffy drying room that didn’t work well and no lines outside (that we were allowed to use, anyway). This was also the only hut on the route that did not provide Crocs. You can buy beer there or stock up on the way in the grocery store in Les Contamines where we also got lunch food for the next day.
Seating for dinner and breakfast is set out by name cards, which means that you don’t get to choose who you sit beside. This gives you the opportunity to meet new people but the downside that you may not speak the same language as anyone around you. The dinner and breakfast were filling but nothing special (you can add egg/cheese/ham to breakfast for an extra €2). Overall, it wouldn’t be my first choice in Les Contamines if we went through again.
2. Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme (2,450m)
€51.50 (pack lunch €10), no wifi, no signal
Considerably higher, this place gets cold but it also commands an incredible location with views off in every direction. We got there quite early and, even though many people continued on, we were happy we stayed. We had a beautiful, calm afternoon so everyone hung around outside enjoying the scenery, making for a festive atmosphere. Eventually a group of ibex showed up silhouetted against the sunset, to cap off the day.
Dinner was a chaotic affair and the food was nothing special – soup, beef and polenta and cheese/choc cake for dinner and weak tea, cereal and stale bread for breakfast. We got the pack lunch for the next day and it was pretty mediocre too – a small baguette with few fillings, couscous and a crappy cookie. However, with the location being so isolated it is understandable that the food doesn’t blow you away. However, it does fill you up enough for the next day’s hiking.
We were lucky to end up in a 4-person room with a quiet French couple, I assume because we booked early, even though you don’t get to choose your room when you book. However, you could also end up in a relatively small room with 24 beds.
The shower situation felt somewhat ridiculous – the shower rooms were locked until 4:30 and we just happened to be walking by at 4:15 and saw a line already forming. So I joined in as #5 in the men’s line and only waited a few minutes after they opened. By the time I was out, though, the men’s line was 30 deep and growing. There must have been far fewer women, in general, as their line never exceeded 2 or 3. There were still men waiting in line when dinner started at 6:30. Also, inside the shower room you are either “in the stall” or “out of the stall”, meaning whenever the door opened people in the hall got glimpses of nude dudes towelling off. Quite a system. And it’s all solar, which is great environmentally, but if there isn’t any sun, there won’t be any hot water.
The same applies to the electrical chargers, of which there was only one power bar for 113 guests. So try not to run your battery down before you arrive. Altogether, we enjoyed our stay because we had good weather, got a good room and got early to the shower. I know weather forecasts can’t always be trusted in the mountains but if the weather looks poor you may want to make other plans. Pretty beautiful on a nice night, though.
3. Cabane du Combal (1,970m)
€70 (pack lunch €11), no wifi, very weak signal
This was probably our favourite stay on the entire trek. It was a bit more expensive than most places but that got us a modern 4-person room with skylights, several electrical outlets and its own private bathroom (with complimentary soap, shampoo and towels). The dinner was fantastic (hello, Italy!) with pasta for a starter, porkchops with mushroom sauce, polenta and potatoes then cake and whip cream for desert and the pack lunch was incredible – we were still eating the huge sandwiches and massive chocolate bars the next day.
No wifi, although if you climb the hill out back and stand at just the right angle, you just might get a single bar to use data on your phone. It is a small place and was completely full – we saw several people show up late looking cold and tired get turned away. Presumably they ended up trying to reach the bus into Courmayeur but who knows? Highly recommended.
4. Courmayeur – Hotel Triolet (1,400m)
€77 for an entire double room (2 people) with breakfast (no dinner), free wifi
This place was great. Close to the middle of town, beautiful modern rooms and an amazing breakfast. It was really nice to have a room (and bathroom) completely to ourselves for the first time since starting the trek. Courmayeur has a lot of good restaurants and some surprisingly high-end shopping (in case your backpack’s been feeling too light). Highly recommended.
5. Rifugio Bonatti (2,025m)
€55 (pack lunch €10), no wifi, decent signal
Awesome location, and a beacon of hope at the end of a rainy day. They wouldn’t let us check-in until 3:30 sharp, even though the lunch crowd had completely dispersed an hour earlier and all the staff were just sitting around looking bored. Lots of different kinds of rooms – we ended up in a 20-person dorm with the beds side by side along each wall. Well-organized with shelves and hooks, and quite social, but hard to sleep with all the snorers, the very creaky floor and the lights every time the door opened.
They had a very good charging station. However, the showers were absurd. You get tokens from the front desk that give you just 90 seconds of hot water. Of course, they didn’t tell us that, and it ends without warning. Even though there are only 4 toilets upstairs for about 60 people, they have an entire room just full of sinks and 2 foot washers (or sit down bidets?).
Overall, a pretty poor layout, but there aren’t many options in this area, and the views make up for a lot. It would be better if you could get into one of the smaller rooms or the highly coveted double rooms. The dinner was vegetarian (salad, small egg balls sort of like quiche but no crust, mashed potatoes/cabbage) and some people complained that there wasn’t enough but it filled us up. Breakfast was cereal / bread / cheese / fruit / tea / coffee.
6. La Fouly – Hotel Maya-Joie (1,600m)
48 CHF (pack lunch 10 CHF), good wifi, good signal
We were in a nice 4-person dorm with closets, hooks and its own electrical outlet. There were 2 toilets on our floor and great showers downstairs (men’s and women’s sides not clearly marked – an elderly Asian woman accidentally got an eyeful as I was coming out of the shower). There are also 10-person dorms. There was a large, comfortable lounge with couches, games (including foosball) and a TV. It is just a 5-minute walk from town with restaurants (good pizza at Pizza du Milieu), a grocery store and an ATM, the first place to get money after crossing over into Switzerland. Breakfast was yoghurt / toast / cereal / orange juice. All in all, a great stay. Recommended.
7. Champex-Lac – Auberge Gîte Bon Abri (1,450m)
79 CHF (pack lunch 13 CHF), free wifi, decent signal
Nice location along the trail just past the town. Check-in was at 4 pm but they let us in early. We were in what seemed like a pretty decent 6-person dorm but in the night discovered a bed bug issue. When we told them about in the morning they seemed only mildly interested, didn’t even ask what room, and told us they spray for them “sometimes”. I can’t tell you if that is still a problem or not but it’s the only place along the trek where we saw any – you may want to check current reviews before you get there.
Simple dinner – soup, salad, rice and spaghetti sauce, bread and desert. It was also a bit frustrating that even though almost every trekker staying there is trying to decide between the Bovine or high Fenetre d’Arpette routes for the following day, the staff was barely even familiar with those names, and were completely unable to provide any information regarding current conditions on the high route. You would think it would come up every day. Not a great stay, especially at that price.
8. Le Peuty – Refuge du Peuty (1,325m)
65 CHF (pack lunch 10 CHF), no wifi, decent signal
A weird, basic place where you sleep in one big 20-bed dorm/barn. However, we appreciated that when we arrived quite early there was a sign welcoming us to use the facilities – which for us meant a quick shower then 2 hours of intense laundry and careful scouring of all our belongings to make sure we had eradicated all the bed bugs from Bon Abri.
Dinner and breakfast took place in a yurt across the road, which was kind of atmospheric. Really good food with local produce/products with four nicely presented courses (salad, soup, chicken with mushroom sauce/rice, and desert) for dinner and included eggs in the usual breakfast. It was pretty cold but they provided plenty of extra blankets, and a mouse ate most of our Snickers bar in the night (we forgot the golden rule, hang up your food).
9. Les Frasserands – Gîte Le Moulin (1,350m)
€42.50 (pack lunch €10), free wifi, decent signal
A little off the main route, and we only ended up there because other places were already booked up, but we were quite happy we did. Big hot showers, a warm and comfortable lounge (with massive couches), good wifi, and a decent 8-person dorm. No nonsense owners, but a well-run place. Vegetarian dinner when we were there (tomato salad, mushroom with sauce and couscous, great bread and desert) but very tasty and as much as you could eat. Excellent croissants included with cereal and bread for breakfast but no protein (yogurt or eggs). Good pack lunch of sandwich, salad/rice, fruit, snickers and chips.
10. Refuge Lac Blanc (2,350m)
€55 (pack lunch €10), no wifi, very weak signal in one corner of the deck
We’ll start with the negatives – lots of day trippers from Chamonix, no official check-in until 5pm (although they let us in at 4pm), no electricity, no showers, no drinking water. They had bottles of water for sale for €3 and apparently anyone who booked before they started notifying people (which included us) was given a complimentary 1.5 litre bottle per person. Having read some of that in advance we were carrying some Aquatabs to purify the tap water (we never travel without them any more). Basic food and not huge portions – soup, bread, thin slice of pork, polenta for dinner and yogurt for dessert.
On the other hand, the lake, the mountains, the valley – just unbelievably spectacular scenery. We also were lucky to have an amazing colourful sunset on a calm night providing stunning reflections off the lake. Then a couple ibex decided to bound past. A pretty perfect night despite the rather basic conditions and the loud snorer in our 6-person dorm. It won’t be your most comfortable stay but if you have good weather you could very well get the best views of your entire trek. We certainly did.
11. Chamonix – Chamonix Lodge (1,035m)
This was a great value in a number of ways. First, €66 is very cheap for Chamonix. Second, because they weren’t full they upgraded us to a room with a private bathroom at no extra charge. Three, we had an extra bag of stuff we didn’t need while on the hike and they let us leave it in their storage room the entire time. There was a nice yard with hammocks, a shared kitchen we could use, and a basic continental breakfast provided in the morning. The only downside was the hot 10-minute walk from the centre of town.
Final Thoughts on Refuges
Obviously, a big factor in your planning will be whether you are willing to stay in dorms or not. In some places they are the only option, but most have a few smaller rooms, although those tend to fill up quickly. If you do spend some nights in dorms there are a few things to think about. They all provide blankets but require you to provide your own sleep sack.
If you are given a choice of beds, consider the fact that every time the door opens during the night it will make noise and let in the hall light. In general, you want to be as far away from the door as possible. Also, look at which way the door opens and pick a bed on the back side. If that’s not possible then at least pick a spot with your head facing away from it. Plus, a little etiquette tip, if you are trekking with someone else, take both a top and bottom bunk together, don’t spread out and take all the bottom bunks and force strangers to climb up and down the ladder over you. It’s just polite.
Other things that can help you get a good night sleep in preparation for your next big day of hiking:
Small pillowcase. It can be stuffed with clothes to improve upon the old, worn options on offer and gives you a relatively clean place to lay your head if the sheets/pillowcase haven’t been changed in a while (quite possible, especially in the mountain huts). Another option is to carry a sleep sack that has enough extra material to cover the pillow. Not all do.
So that’s where we stayed. In some of these locations there are many options to choose from, while others are all alone in the middle of nowhere. Some popular choices we didn’t stay in include Refuge de la Balme which has private rooms and dorms, Refuge de Nant Borrant which doesn’t have private rooms but does have one small dorm of 4, Refuge des Mottets a newly converted dairy farm with 90 dorm beds & private rooms, Rifugio Elisabetta which has private rooms and a very very crowded dorm, and Rifugio Monte Bianco.
In general, I would prioritize your hiking schedule rather than adjusting things to stay in (or avoid) a particular hut or hotel, especially since most of the time you’ll only be spending a single night there.
Tour du Mont Blanc Food and Drink
When we were planning for the Tour du Mont Blanc hike a big question was what was available for meals and drinks. We did a lot of research into what meals were provided at the rifugios and mountain huts, what we should bring from home, and where we could buy food from grocery stores or supermarkets. This is an overview of what we found out ahead of time and what we learned on the trail about the options for Tour du Mont Blanc food and drink on our independant trek.
Food at the Refuges and Mountain Huts
We had booked rifugios with half-board for 10 of our 12 nights, meaning that they provided our dinner and breakfast. Everything we had read said that even if the food is not inspired you won’t leave hungry, which we found to be true. Some places had particularly good food, such as Gîte Michel Fagot in Les Houches, Cabane du Combal and Refuge du Peuty (next to Trient). Dinners at others such as Bon Abri in Champex and Refuge Lac Blanc were just ok.
As North Americans we have always found most European breakfasts to be a little light on substance, particularly on protein. We both prefer to have a fairly hearty breakfast. The rifugios tend to serve bread and jam, cereal, juice, tea, and coffee. Occasionally there is yogurt and we only got eggs once. We decided to bring small containers of peanut butter with us from home, as well as nuts and beef jerky for more protein. We considered protein bars or energy bars but when comparing weight and grams of protein it turns out that nuts are better choice to carry. We also bought cheese from supermarkets along the way to add to our breakfasts.
As well, most places allowed you to order a pack lunch for the next day. These also varied in quality and quantity from just ok to quite impressive and tended to cost between €10-12. We describe the specific food including the main course from each hut in more detail in the Refuges and Accommodation section.
Most rifugios serve lunch to passing hikers at some point during the day but we chose not to use that option as you may not reach one exactly when you get hungry, so you might have to eat earlier or later then you would prefer. In the past, we have found that eating a big meal in the middle of the hiking day makes us sluggish so we prefer to split our packed lunch in two and have the first part around 10:30 or 11am and the second around 1pm. This also lets us stop whenever we find a picturesque spot of the trail to enjoy the view and have a break.
All rifugios have beer and wine as well as other drinks – i.e. coffee, hot chocolate and tea for your after-hike beverage or with dinner. It was very relaxing to sit back and enjoy a cold beer and, usually, an amazing view at the end of a hike.
In general, the rifugios that are located in or near a town tend to have better food and facilities but we would still recommend staying at the more isolated mountain huts as well. We stayed at Bon Homme, Bonatti and Lac Blanc and they each had truly spectacular locations.
Supermarkets and Grocery Stores
We knew that we would want to get food from supermarkets whenever possible for lunch and snacks. In order to not carry more extra food than necessary (every ounce counts on those hills) we looked up all the stores that would be along the route, the opening hours and if they are closed any days of the week. We marked the locations and hours on google maps so we would know when we had to order pack lunches, when we could assemble our own and how many days we wouldn’t have access to any grocery stores.
The main things we bought were bread/baguettes, cheese, cured meats (most places had the choice of packaged or a deli counter), chocolate, apples and nuts. We also bought 6 eggs in Champex and asked the rifugio if we could use their kitchen to hard boil them and used them to supplement breakfast and snacks for the next two days. Overall, we preferred to buy our own food as it was cheaper and we could have exactly what we wanted.
The towns where we went to the market were Les Houches, Les Contamines, Courmayeur, La Fouly, Champex, and Chamonix. There is also supposed to be one in Argentiere but it wasn’t on our route. There were also bakeries in some of the towns that had cookies, individual quiches, cinnamon buns, baguettes etc. We used the ones in Les Houches, Champex and Chamonix to get extra snacks and fresh bread which really helped to supplement the Tour du Mont Blanc food options.
Food in the towns along the TMB
Of course, the larger towns of Les Houches, Contamines, Courmayeur, La Fouly, Champex and Chamonix also have restaurants and hotels. We stayed in excellent hotels in Courmayeur and Chamonix. The breakfast in Hotel Triolet in Courmayeur was significantly better than anything we had in any of the rifugios and very filling. We also had amazing pizza at Du Tunnel in Courmayeur for a very reasonable price.
Allergies or Specific Diets
Most meals included meat, eggs, cheese and bread so if you are gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, or non-dairy you will need to plan ahead more than we did. Most refugios offered vegetarian options – usually egg based. We also hiked a bit with someone who was celiac and they tried to accommodate her but she often just ended up with less food overall. Its important that you carry more food with you to make up for this and ensure that you have enough calories consumed each day to make it through the steep climbs. This makes it doubly important to know where each supermarket is and its hours to be able to stock up at each opportunity.
Water Sources on the TMB
We wanted to strike a balance between always having enough water and not carrying more than we needed to up the long inclines. We found that every rifugio/village/town had drinkable water (except Lac Blanc) and there are other water sources such as streams along the way. We were generally able to get away with only carrying a 600ml bottle each and occasionally, if it was more than 2-3 hours until the next water, we would fill up a foldable 1-litre bottle. I always drink extra water whenever it is available at breakfast or before leaving the rifugio or when filling up my bottle so that I can feel comfortable carrying less water in between.
We carried Aquatabs with us (see our packing list) so that we could treat any water as necessary (i.e. streams and Lac Blanc). There are varying opinions as to whether stream water need to be treated but I prefer to be safe rather than sorry. We prefer to carry water bottles rather then a water bladder as they are easier to refill. Most people who use bladders fill it up with the total amount they need for the day and carry it the whole way. Each litre of water weights 2 pounds so it can really add up. However, people tend to drink more often with a water bladder so if you carry water bottles instead, make sure to keep up your water consumption to avoid dehydration.
Final thoughts on Tour du Mont Blanc Food and Drink
We never went hungry and were often pleasantly surprised by the food and drinks along the TMB, although we were happy that we brought some food from home and were able to supplement in supermarkets along the way.
Tour du Mont Blanc Costs and Prices
The Tour du Mont Blanc’s journey around its namesake mountain passes through France, Italy and Switzerland. So it ain’t cheap. But compared with travel in these countries’ most famous cities, the Tour du Mont Blanc costs really don’t seem that bad. Of course, what you actually spend will vary considerably depending on your accommodation choices and how much you like to splurge in restaurants when the opportunity arises. But I will provide a cost estimate based on what we spent, with info on the alternatives.
Accommodation and Sleeping
Of our 12 nights, only 2 were spent in what I would call real hotels, the outstanding Hotel Triolet (€77 for a double room including full breakfast) in Courmayeur and Chamonix Lodge (€66 for a double room including continental breakfast) in Chamonix (obviously). In these two main centres, we had to fend for our own dinner, which generally fell in the €10-20 per person range.
The rest of the time we stayed in dorms in gîtes, refugios or mountain huts. The price of these was per person and included both dinner and breakfast. The cost for us ranged from €42 at Gîte le Moulin in Les Frasserands to 79 CHF (€73) at Gîte Bon Abri in Champex-Lac (where we got attacked by bedbugs). The average price was roughly €50 per person.
Alternatively, many of the places we stayed also had a few private rooms for rent. There were normally only a couple of them, they tended to fill up fast and, on average, seemed to cost about €15-20 more per person.
Eating and Drinking
Then, most days, we also paid approximately €10 per person for a packed lunch. A few times there was a convenient grocery store where we could stock up and pack our own lunch (Les Contamines, Courmayeur, La Fouly, Champex-Lac), spending just €3-4 each instead.
Even when we had pack lunches we still spent some money on snacks (nuts, chocolate bars, fruit) which probably averaged out to €2-3 per day each.
Tour du Mont Blanc Refuge and Restaurant Menus
These menus will give you an idea of the various costs for food, meals, drinks and snacks on the TMB.
You’ll be happy to know that beer (and wine) were readily available all along the trail, with a pint of generic lager or bottle of specialty beer usually in the €5-6 range, and bottles of Heineken and the like being a bit cheaper (€3-4). We didn’t really drink any wine so I can’t tell you what they cost, but it was probably as comparable to the beer prices as where you usually buy it.
How Much Does it Cost to Hike the Tour du Mont Blanc?
The total cost will be mainly determined by three factors:
1. How many nights you spend on the trail.
2. Whether you stay in dorms or private rooms.
3. How much you eat and drink outside the included meals.
While the TMB is a far cry from notably cheap trekking destinations such as Nepal or Peru, it is a very affordable way to travel in Western Europe. Yes, you are sleeping in dorms for these prices, and occasionally standing in line for a very short, lukewarm shower. But it is also worth keeping in mind that some of these places – the mountain huts, in particular – offer comparable views to those in the most expensive hotels in the Alps, which makes these prices look almost like a bargain.
A breakdown of the cost to hike the famous Tour du Mont Blanc:
Total Cost for 2 People
Cost per Person per Night
Update for the 2021 and 2022 Tour du Mont Blanc Hiking Seasons
Many people were unable to complete their TMB hike in the 2020 season after having already reserved their accommodations. Many of the TMB refuges, hotels and mountain huts let those people postpone their reservations until the 2021 season.
This meant that it was even busier than normal and, depending on when you hiked, there may have also been a decreased number of people allowed in the huts each night. So it has been important to book accommodation on the Mont Blanc circuit ahead in 2021, especially at the ‘pinch points’ of the Refuge Elisabetta and Refuge Bonatti areas.
It is hard to say what this means for 2022 as there may still be some residual demand from people that were unable to make it happen in either 2020 or 2021. Considering it is always pretty busy, anyway, I would expect that 2022 will be at least a little more crowded than usual and would recommend starting your planning early. There are some places that allow bookings earlier than others so I’d suggest figuring out your most important huts and start booking everything whenever they start taking reservations early in 2022.
Who Did We Meet on the TMB?
Unsurprisingly, we met a large variety of trekkers from many different areas of the world and walks of life.
Some we saw again and again throughout (I think we only spent 2 nights apart from Israelis Uval and her father), some crossed our paths seemingly randomly (we hiked with Rishi the first 2 days, then ran into him at Alp Bovine on day 8, said our goodbyes again, then helped him find a taxi in Le Peuty to rejoin the alternate route he had lost) and others who seemed we’d be with long-term disappeared without a trace (Francois stopping to chat with a Belgian guy on day 3, never to be seen again).
It was definitely social and friendly, although lacked the same intense camaraderie of the Caminos. The main difference being that the popularity of the Tour du Mont Blanc requires accommodation to be pre-booked (we reserved most of our beds 6 months in advance, and still we had to completely adjust our dates once), which means most schedules are basically set ahead of time.
On the Camino, people generally don’t book ahead and routinely changed their plans and itineraries in order to stick with others they meet along the way. This allowed for the formation of tighter groups and stronger bonds. On the TMB, we met lots of great people but inevitably our schedules diverged sooner or later, leaving just a few days with each of them.
There were a pair of American women we saw off and on who had decided to come a bit last-minute and were “winging it” from day to day, with generally successful results.
Even though basically every place was fully booked, from an official standpoint, they somehow managed to weasel their way into a couple beds night after night, sometimes through the benevolence of sympathetic hut managers, and sometimes by riding the luck of last-minute cancellations or injuries.
Nonetheless, you couldn’t pay me to face the level of stress and panic they seemed to be experiencing every afternoon as the moment of truth approached, full of tense uncertainty and embarrassed pleading.
Random Things About Our TMB Trek
Maybe it is our rural Saskatchewan background, but we apparently find taking photos of cows far less engrossing than most of our fellow trekkers. Any time you saw a huddled crowd of hikers blocking the trail you could be sure some dim-witted cow was blandly posing for photos nearby.
We did, however, find it interesting that in the Alps they make sure every single cow has a bell, not just the troupe leader, providing some pretty noticeable musical accompaniment at times.
And some of the valuable Swiss fighting bulls sport rugged studded collars and imposing bells nearly the size of their heads, which seems fitting to their physique but somewhat pointless beyond that.
Following the Routiere des Champignones between La Fouly and Champex-Lac, we repeatedly encountered an older American man and his younger female partner.
They would, without fail, be stopped by the side of the trail puzzlingly enamoured with yet another cluster of giant mushrooms (it was the Mushroom Route, after all), with him describing some surely fascinating details while pointing with his walking stick, then ending each impromptu lesson by using his pointer to destroy the celebrity fungus in question, like a toddler compulsively tearing the heads off dolls.
There were also a whole string of wooden sculptures along the trail, including this strange one of a squirrel (?) cupping a walnut (?) at his crotch. We hope.
My least favourite person on the entire hike was young-French-manbun-and-tights guy who always seemed to be bounding from one destination to another with great urgency and impressiveness, yet still kept showing up in the same places as us every few days.
Besides his objectionable fashion sense, I took particular issue with his decision to drop to the ground next to the busy lunch stop at Alp Bovine (day 8) and rip into a vigorous set of push-ups. I can honestly say I rarely feel the urge to launch my toe into the ribs of a perfect stranger, but every now and then…
We met a guy on Col des Posettes (day 10) who was actually hiking in jorts (jean shorts, for the uninitiated). I literally can’t imagine a less practical pair of pants for that activity and weather.
And this is day 10, remember. Naturally, we immediately assumed Eastern European (invariably the strangest fashion choices come from the former Soviet bloc) – maybe Kosovo, or somewhere deep in the Lithuanian countryside. But no, turns out he was Dutch, and a pretty nice guy to boot.
Sometimes you just can’t generalize. I still couldn’t bring myself to ask him about the reasoning behind the jorts, though.
Cabane du Combal was a private lodge just across the French border in Italy and was probably our favourite stay of the trek. Modern, comfortable, professional, and the food was amazing (pork chops with mushroom sauce and pasta for dinner, a packed lunch that lasted us 2 days).
However, even though 4-bed dorms were both normal and highly sought-after in other refuges, the regular hotel room that we shared with just one other couple at Combal felt strangely uncomfortable, somehow weirdly intimate despite the extra space and modern bathroom.
Plus, they gave the only key to the other couple, which seemed like an odd policy, and we had to climb halfway up a rocky outcrop out back to get a phone signal. Oh yeah, there was also a massive ibex horn sticking out of the wall in the dining room, which I didn’t really get. Of course, now that I type all that, it seems I must have really enjoyed those pork chops.
We finished our hike at the spectacular Le Brèvent viewpoint after a very long, tiring climb (of course), deciding to take the cable car down to Chamonix from there and avoid the “knee-wrenching” and “wearisome” 3 ½ hour descent back to Les Houches thus finishing our TMB hike.
Naturally, I wanted to celebrate by sitting down, loosening my shoes and enjoying a terrific Mont Blanc blonde lager with the gorgeous, imposing façade of the real Mont Blanc looming over us. The sun was shining, we were finished our hike, it was a picture-perfect scenario. Then the waitress mistakenly brought me an IPA, and the moment was ruined.
Tour du Mont Blanc Packing List
Perfect hikes don’t just happen, they are the product of smart planning and wise packing. Keeping your backpack as small and light as possible while still having all your most important gear and enough clothes to deal with the elements is truly an art form. Even after all these years we are still constantly learning new tricks and getting new planning ideas.
You will feel every ounce of extra weight on the way up the passes – which is also why its a good idea to start your training plan for the Tour du Mont Blanc early and practice carrying your backpack with at least the same amount of weight in it as there will be on your trek. Here are our recommendations for your Tour du Mont Blanc packing list in early fall (the clothing choices, in particular, will be different in mid-summer):
A phone with a SIM card that works in France, Italy and Switzerland. Wifi was intermittent, at best, so having data on our phones came in handy often, even just when using the maps. You should also download offline maps on Google Maps so they can be used even when out of range, although directions tend to only work when you have data.
We each bought a Three UK SIM card online that gave us unlimited calls and texts and 4GB of data almost everywhere in Europe. Now we just keep topping them up occasionally since they work in over 70 countries (including Sri Lanka and the USA, just to name a couple that have come in handy recently).
There are too many possibilities to list here but these are some of the ones we found most useful:
E-reader. Even if you are a traditionalist that prefers the feel of an old paperback, e-readers make so much more sense when travelling for the simple fact you can carry literally hundreds (or thousands) of books with you in a thinner package of roughly equal weight. After smartphones, they are truly the innovation that has had the greatest impact on our travels.
Also, unless you are swearing off traditional entertainment and getting back to nature, I would recommend downloading some audiobooks and podcasts to help pass the time. You can even download Netflix content on to your phone so it can be watched offline. Of course, you’ll also need a small pair of ear buds. Normally, we use wireless ones but, considering the occasional lack of charging options in the mountains, only take these if they have long-lasting batteries.
Guidebooks and Online Planning
We bought a digital copy of The Tour of Mont Blanc by Kev Reynolds and found it to be very helpful. We probably used it a lot more in the planning stages than we did on the actual trail, but it was invaluable in helping us plan our route.
One that came out after we had already finished most of our trek planning was Tour du Mont Blanc by Andrew McCluggage but we have been told that it is also an excellent resource. We came across it on the Tour Du Mont Blanc Facebook group, which was also a terrific source of information and answers for us leading up to our hike. Another Facebook group worth checking out is Long Distance Hiking in Europe, which covers the TMB as well as many other great European circuits. Then, of course, Autour Du Mont-Blanc is the place to start when working on your TMB accommodation.
Whether or not you want to carry a guidebook is personal preference, really, since the route is generally easy to follow and there are frequent trail signs. The most important thing is to know the names of the rifugios and towns between the start and finish of your day’s hike. The signs usually only had the closer location rather than the end goal. In general, rather than carrying a guidebook we find it easier to use hiking apps like Wikiloc or AllTrails as a backup navigation plan.
I think it is fair to say that people undertaking strenuous mountain hikes on tricky rock paths are prime candidates to have travel insurance come in handy. Whichever company you choose, make sure there are no exclusions regarding trekking or altitude. We find World Nomads offers among the most benefits for the price and are also geared towards adventure travellers so their policy wording is very accepting of trekking.
Only 4 of the 12 places we stayed accepted credit cards, and 2 of those charged an additional fee so we didn’t use them anyway. But I never go anywhere without 2 credit cards, just in case.
There are ATMs in all the towns along the way so you can replenish your cash flow and do not need to carry an absurd amount of money the whole time. I always recommend at least 2 bank cards (1 Plus, 1 Cirrus) that have 4-digit PINs (some machines won’t accept anything but).
We exchanged euros for 150 Swiss francs before starting so we would have some cash on hand when we crossed into Switzerland. We are also in the habit of not counting on ATMs when there is only one in town as we so often travel in 3rd world countries. There was only one ATM in La Fouly but we took money out with no problems and then remembered, oh right, this is Switzerland. Of course, it worked and had plenty of money in it.
On the counterclockwise route you will pass a lunch/beer/cake stop before reaching that first ATM, so having a few francs can be handy. Of course, everywhere in Switzerland will also accept euros, but many places only trade them 1 for 1, meaning you lose out by about 10%. Which isn’t really a big deal on that 4 CHF piece of cake, but you’ll probably want to get some francs before paying for any hotels. Also, you can use a credit card with no extra fee at Maya-Joie in La Fouly.
I would argue that the most important factor in your enjoyment of the TMB (besides weather) will be the amount of weight you are carrying on your back each day. Packing light is essential, and that all starts with choosing a light backpack as these can vary by as much as 2 or more kilograms before you even start filling them up, maybe with some of these ultimate gifts for hikers. Plus, it needs to be comfortable, so make sure you use it frequently long before starting the trek. You don’t want to learn anything new about your backpack halfway up the hill on day 1.
I recently invested in a Gregory Optic 48 and couldn’t be happier with it. It only weighs 1.03 kg (2.3 lbs) and is amazingly comfortable. The “small” version I have is actually 45 litres, which is far more capacity than I need on the hike but since it is so light anyway it is worth having since it is also large enough to carry everything I need when not trekking. Now that I am used to them, I also find waistbelt pockets an essential feature on a hiking backpack.
If you are staying in dorms, in particular, you should bring a small bag to carry your valuables in – money, bank cards, passports, electronics – because you probably shouldn’t leave that stuff in a common area.
Despite all the hiking we’ve done around the world, this was the first time we used hiking poles from start to finish (we had used them for some particularly dicey sections in Nepal in the past). Obviously, they are beneficial in taking some of the load off your legs during steep ascents and can make a real difference on the knees during long descents. Needless to say, there were plenty of both on the TMB, which is why we chose to bring poles this time.
Often we find the inconvenience of carrying them throughout a long and varied trip outweighs the benefits during trekking but, in this case, it seemed worth it. There are precious few flat sections on the TMB so if you are a regular trekking pole user you will definitely be happy to have them along. We bought cheap poles but if you want to invest in a good pair everyone seems to love the Black Diamond brand. Just be aware that not all airlines will allow them as carryon.
Both of us prefer hiking shoes to heavier hiking boots or something less sturdy, like cross-trainers. However, we saw people using all of these options (and more) along the TMB. Mainly it will come down to personal preference, although there was a considerable amount of time spent on rough, rocky trails so, even though light trainers may still be viable, there would definitely be times when you’d wish for a little more support, better grip and a thicker sole. I wouldn’t do it in anything less than hiking shoes. We never wear boots, as we find them both too hot and too annoying to carry when they’re not being used, but if boots are your thing this is definitely the place for them.
While we almost always carry a pair of flip flops or sneakers to slide into at the end of a long hiking day, there is really no need on the TMB. Every place except Camping Pontet and the hotels (Hotel Triolet in Courmayeur and Chamonix Lodge) provided communal rubber sandals for people to wear around inside. Hey, every little bit of weight you can cut from your pack makes a difference. I carried light sneakers and Laynni had some small Sanuk slip-ons, but neither were really necessary, and I’d leave them behind if we did it again.
Rain gear is an important part of your Tour du Mont Blanc packing list that you hope you never have to use. We each carried the following:
1 pair of rain pants
1 small pair of gaiters
1 pair of waterproof glove covers
We only needed our ponchos twice and our pants once. But that is still more than enough to make them a necessary part of your packing list. Obviously, hiking in beautiful weather is always the hope, but when the weather does take a turn for the worse – practically inevitable in the mountains – you’ll be glad you came prepared. I used the gaiters and glove shells but probably could have lived without them.
Less is definitely more when you are carrying all your belongings up and down mountain passes every day. We took the following:
1 pair of hiking pants
1 pair of shorts – as it turned out, I only wore these once. If you are hiking in September I wouldn’t bother.
1 merino wool long-sleeve shirt
2 merino wool t-shirts
2 pairs of quick-drying Ex Officio underwear (washing one pair in the shower every day)
2 pairs of wool hiking socks
1 pair of Injinji liner toe-socks. I use these for extra cushion under my regular wool socks on long descents and just to mix it up occasionally to move around any hot spots and to make sure I don’t get any blisters between my toes.
1 pair of small, cotton socks to wear in the huts
1 toque – also known as a beanie or wool cap for you non-Canadians.
1 buff – used for warmth on cold days and to protect my neck from the sun on hot days.
1 pair of gloves. I have since upgraded to a pair of warm, waterproof Burton AK Tech gloves so I don’t need to carry the extra waterproof shells.
1 ultra-light wind jacket
1 light down jacket – too warm for hiking but just right on cold September evenings.
1 pair of compression leggings – this is the first hike that she had used them and now she swears by them. They provide extra support to joints, keep muscles warm and also help prevent mild strains and pulls. The only downside is the pair she had doesn’t have any side pockets but she just used the hip pockets on her backpack waist belt instead.
1 pair of comfortable non-hiking
1 pair of sleeping shorts – not necessary if you are ok with wandering around in your underwear on middle of the night bathroom trips.
1 long-sleeve merino wool shirt – she says she would take two next time. One for hiking and one for afternoons/evenings.
2 merino wool t-shirts – one for hiking as a base layer and one for evenings and to sleep in.
4 pairs of underwear
1 merino wool hiking bra – Laynni always cools down quickly during breaks and sweaty clothes and cooler temperatures don’t mix well. She was unsure if a wool bra would be worth it because of the price but it definitely made a difference on this hike as it kept her warm even when damp.
1 bra for night that is comfortable enough to sleep in. She puts it on after showering and doesn’t have to change again until morning, which is handy in co-ed dorms.
3 pairs of wool socks
1 pair of mitts
1 vest – she found the vest unnecessary and wouldn’t take it again. Her down jacket was enough.
1 light wind jacket
1 light down jacket
We each carried a 600ml bottle plus had a collapsible 1L bottle that we filled occasionally depending on how long we expected to go between reliable Tour du Mont Blanc water sources.
Every place we stayed except Refuge Lac Blanc had potable water available but we now always carry Aquatabs purifying tablets just in case we ever get stuck. They work great as a backup plan, came in very handy at Lac Blanc and once at a random stream when we were getting low on water. Also, unlike many iodine tablets, they don’t noticeably ruin the taste.
There is no need to carry a sleeping bag as they provide blankets in each refuge or mountain hut. However, the blankets and sheets don’t get changed often so I would recommend bring a sleep sack or sleeping bag liner and preferably one that has a piece to cover the pillow as well.
Ear plugs / eye mask
Whenever you are staying in dorms, not to mention many other places, it is good to have ear plugs in case of snorers (or dogs, or roosters, or buses, etc.) I don’t normally use an eye mask but I find them useful in dorms when people are opening and closing the door letting light in or using head lamps, etc.
Every refuge and hut had outlets or a charging station but some were quite limited and often already being used by other people’s phones. We always carry the shockingly small Anker Power Core 10000, which is good for 6-8 full phone charges.
We carried a Renogy portable solar charger as well but only used it once on this particular trek and would leave it behind if we went again. However, it only takes up the space of a thick piece of paper and has come in very handy during many other parts of our travels. For the TMB, I would suggest this or a power bank, but not both.
We saw a shocking amount of people, especially on the first few days, with burnt, eventually peeling, lips. You probably shouldn’t need a reminder but, yes, your lips are made of skin, as well.
Small pack towel (Dean) or sarong (Laynni)
One of the small ones you get in hotels would do and remember you can use floss to sew heavy duty items like your backpack.
Having a small amount of laundry detergent, little scrub brush and a handful of safety pins for hanging up clothes in the wind can save you having to carry an extra set of clothing.
First Aid kit
We carry a small first aid kit which includes bandages, pain pills, immodium etc. We also carry around a small supply of vitamins, especially vitamin C.
Toiletries (everything small, of course)
Travelling as a couple, we are able to share a single deodorant (on treks, anyway) and use a small bar of dry shampoo that is much lighter than normal liquid versions.
As with all things travel, everyone will have their own non-negotiable Tour du Mont Blanc gear list items so our lists won’t look exactly the same. However, this should at least give you an idea of the things we found especially useful or unnecessary on this particular hike, given the challenges and facilities available.
Tour du Mont Blanc Summary
The bottom line is that the Tour du Mont Blanc hike is a phenomenal long distance trek, one of the best we’ve ever done. Yes, it’s difficult. And yes, it is way too popular. But the mountain scenery is unbelievable, the huts are comfortable and welcoming and, for the most part, we ate better than we do at home. There is a reason the TMB is one of the most famous treks in the world. It’s just that good.
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