The Tour du Mont Blanc is a 110-mile alpine trek circumnavigating the Mont Blanc Massif (15,770 ft.) meandering through an array of colossal snow fields, glaciers, and luxuriant wildflower meadows at the crossroads of Italy, Switzerland, and France.
Regarded as one of the most popular long-distance hikes in all of Europe, the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) offers superb lodging accommodation and provides a plethora of astonishing views as you make your way around the tallest mountain in the Alps. The trail generally takes 8-12 days to complete but can be done quicker with higher mileage days and (of course) lighter gear.
The TMB is one of the most visually prolific expeditions in the world but is NOT to be taken lightly. The trail combats adverse weather conditions on a regular basis and can be extremely challenging as you’ll ascend upwards of 35,000 feet, pushing up over eight high peaks ranging in elevation from 3,600 to 8,200 feet. Even for experienced hikers, the TMB provides a multitude of unique challenges that will exploit your weaknesses and will test you both physically and mentally.
While thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail last year I could only ever dream about getting the chance to hike in Western Europe alongside some of the biggest mountains in the world, and I can honestly say that the precipitous peaks and expansive alpine views on the TMB significantly exceeded my initial expectations.
If you’re considering hiking the TMB at any point in the future (which I highly recommend you do) take some time to ruminate on the following tips which I deem noteworthy and essential to understand before you start your trek.
Getting To The Trail
For starters, if you’re traveling from the United States or Canada you’ll need a passport to facilitate your international voyage. I took an eight hour flight from New York City to Milan, Italy, which made up the first leg of the trip. International airfare can certainly be expensive, but if you plan ahead and look for cheap flights (or if you know any flight attendants who can get you a discounted ticket) then you can make it to Europe without going completely broke.
The good news is that once you’re abroad, you won’t have to spend nearly as much money on travel as you did for your plane ticket. After arriving in Milan I took a two hour train ride from the airport to a bus station in Northern Italy, where I then hopped on a FlixBus for an additional three hours until eventually arriving in Courmayeur. This is where my hike of the TMB began.
Getting to Courmayeur and finding the trail was not as arduous as I presumed it would be, however the language barrier was inevitably difficult to interpret at times and there were surely moments when our directions seemed ambiguous and hard to understand. Thankfully I was traveling with a couple of friends so there was a reassuring sense of clarity amongst all of the confusion which definitely helped to diminish some stress.
Tenting vs. Lodging
Widespread across the entirety of the TMB are varying types of lodging and accommodation. In higher elevation areas, you have the option of staying in Refuges or Mountain Huts. Most are dormitory-style living quarters with bunk beds and a communal bathroom, but for a few extra bucks you can reserve a private room with a range of personal facilities, including exquisite cuisine for breakfast and dinner.
If you do plan on spending every night in a Refuge or Mountain Hut, I recommend calling ahead and making reservations for when you plan to stay as they can get quite crowded with other hikers looking for a dry place to sleep. Also, they have beer on tap which a lot of people tend to gravitate towards after a long day of hiking, so keep that in mind.
As the trail descends into the various towns along the Tour there are subsequently many possibilities to stay in hotels, specifically when at lower elevations in Les Houches, Les Contamines, Courmayeur and Champex. Here you can find cheaper rooms for those nights when you are craving a comfy bed, warm shower, and a cold beer.
You can, however, also pitch your tent in certain areas. Before embarking on the TMB I read somewhere that it was not allowed to stealth camp anywhere on the trail, which is true for the most part. But in designated areas, usually flanking or residing nearby the Refuges, you can pitch your tent for a small fee (~5 Euro) to avoid crowding into the over-populated Mountain Huts.
Due to the prominent elevation and exposure of the ridge-line, it is highly recommended NOT to stealth camp anywhere on the TMB other than near a Refuge or in an otherwise designated area. Not to say that people don’t do it, but considering the conditions and the sporadic ferocity of the weather I would advise people to err on the side of caution and camp only where recommended.
What About Gear?
For the ultralight enthusiast, I have to say that this trip was a fun one to plan an even more enjoyable trek to hike with a minimalist backpacking setup. The majority of people thru-hiking the TMB (aside from the surplus of ultra-runners training for UTMB) had unnecessarily large and oversized backpacks. Especially considering that most people spent their nights sleeping in the Huts, it’s amazing — more so perplexing — to me that despite not having to carry too much food or sleeping gear that people still seemed to be carrying the world on their shoulders.
Now don’t peg me for trying to belittle the traditional-style backpackers making their way through the Alps because that’s not what I’m doing. I’m just baffled at how many people choose to carry so much weight on a very strenuous trail that is daunting on so many levels and then they wonder why they are having trouble or not enjoying themselves.
My gear for the TMB essentially mirrored the gear that I brought with me on the AT with a few minor alterations. For the TMB specifically I brought an excessive amount of food: One, because I bought everything in the U.S. and didn’t want to have to resupply anywhere along the trail; and Two, meals at the Refuges and Huts were expensive (not that I didn’t indulge every so often) so I set out with the goal of completing this trip on a budget.
I used my trusty and reliable Gossamer Gear Kumo as my backpack for this trip, along with my Big Agnes Fly Creek, Thermarest Z-Lite sleeping pad (cut to torso length) and Flash 29 sleeping bag. Aside from the clothes I wore during the day, I packed and brought with me an additional pair of socks, underwear, leggings, winter hat, gloves, extra base layer, and puffy jacket. We hiked the TMB in early August, but not surprisingly it got cold and windy at night so the extra warm layers definitely came in handy.
For cooking purposes we brought one MSR pocket rocket stove to use between the three of us, and shared the weight by splitting carrying the fuel and the stove itself. Although the cook kit is not ultralight, it was nice to have a warm meal to look forward to after a long day on the trail. Additional comfort items included my Rubik’s Cube (which I’m learning for me is more of a necessity than a comfort item) and a small, easily-packable camp pillow which kept my head warm at night.
All in all, minus the excess food and bundle of extra warm clothes, the TMB can be tackled using an ultralight gear setup which will make hiking this trail far more enjoyable and will make it less impactful on your body. My base-weight for this trip was sub-10 pounds, but with food and water my pack weight definitely exceeded 22 pounds but got lighter the more that I ate.
If you’re really trying to go ultralight on the TMB, I’d recommend ditching the backpack all together and swap it out for a running vest. That seems to way most people are doing it these days. Maybe next year :p