I set out to solo hike the Tour du Mont Blanc a few weeks ago and it was nothing short of life changing. At about 180km with 10,000m of elevation gain and loss, it’s a fair bit more ambitious than the weekend hikes I usually do, but the people, places, and incredible mountain scenery have already made this one of my favourite experiences of all time. It took me 8 days to hike and camp my way through France, Italy, and Switzerland around western Europe’s tallest peak, and it’s something I’d recommend to anyone and everyone.
And yes, I really do mean everyone! I believe that this hike, while strenuous, is suitable for all levels of hikers, as the navigational demands are minor, you pass though tiny villages most days so the route is never remote enough to be dangerous, and you have a million options to make the hike as easy (walking short days, buying meals, and sleeping in mountain huts) or as difficult (walking longer days, carrying your own gear and food, camping) as you want!
I learned a lot when I was prepping for this hike, and of course even more when I was actually out on the trail, so here’s my guide to preparing for all aspects of your own Tour du Mont Blanc hike!
Before you do anything else
The very first thing you need to do if you’re thinking about tackling the TMB is go purchase Trekking The Tour of Mont Blanc by Kev Reynolds. This guide is invaluable and an absolute must-have for anyone on the trail. It has maps and detailed directions for every single stage, information about transport options, accommodation (including campsites), where you can find food, and so much more. Basically everyone has this book on the trail and hardly anyone even carries a map, but I also relied heavily on it during my early planning stages. Buy it immediately.
Practical considerations for your TMB hike
When to go
The TMB is only walkable from late June to early September due to snow, though this varies from year to year― there are plenty of people who get caught in fresh snow in the middle of August, that’s just the Alps for you. Another thing to consider is that most mountain huts are only open in this window as well (but that doesn’t affect campers!). I hiked in mid-July, which is apparently a less busy time than August when most of Europe is on holiday, although there were still plenty of people around. The only other thing I considered when planning my hike was the UTMB schedule, which is the crazy race in late August where thousands of people come to run the entire 180km trail. Can’t for the life of me imagine why (or how) someone would do that, but I avoided hiking at this time as I didn’t really fancy being run over.
The hike starts from Les Houches, which is about 6km from the bustling ski village, Chamonix, France. The best way to get to there is to fly into the Geneva airport and then bus/train/shuttle/drive across the border to Chamonix. The bus takes about 2 hours and costs 19€; a shuttle costs about 25€, but only takes a little over an hour; and the train is a bit cheaper and really scenic, but it involves heaps of transfers. I had a shuttle arranged through my hotel in Les Houches because I had been travelling for ages to get there (Australia might as well be Mars), I was dead-tired, and needed to arrive asap to organise all my stuff for an early hiking start the next day. It was 29€, but worth it for me, definitely.
On that note, the night of the hike, I would recommend staying in a hotel/hostel in either Chamonix or Les Houches. That way, you can store a bag with your hotel while you are on the hike and retrieve it when you finish. I stayed sort of in between Chamonix and Les Houches, about 2km from the trailhead, so I just walked from the hotel in the morning of day 1. There is also a bus that runs around the area, which you will definitely need if you’re staying in Chamonix, and you can find the timetable here. It is 3€ for a ticket that works all day on the buses around Chamonix and between Les Houches.
Tent or mountain hut?
This will probably make the biggest difference in your whole TMB experience. I decided to camp along the way, which meant that I carried a tent, a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, a camp stove, a pot and cutlery, and a bunch of freeze-dried dinners (I bought bread, cheese, and meat along the way to supplement my mountain food). It was definitely a lot of extra weight, especially compared to the hikers carrying day packs (at which I often stared enviously), but I had a lot of freedom and flexibility on where I could stay and my hike cost a small fraction of a hut-style hike (a night in a mountain hut costs about 60€ including dinner and breakfast, while camping ranged from free to 14€).
If you’re staying in refuges, it’s also important to make reservations in advance, which means you’re locked into your itinerary with no room for adjustments. It really depends on what you’re after, as I can definitely see the value for some people in having a light pack, sleeping in a bed every night, and not worrying about cooking. But I wholeheartedly recommend camping as a more authentic— and fun— option!
All the campsites I stayed at were very nice, with toilets and (most) with showers, and ranged in price from 4sfr to 14€. For the most part, campsites are well described within The Book, but in a few instances, there were no campsites listed within hours of where I was hoping to stay. I found that other hikers always seemed to know of a place, and wild camping is always a good plan B. I only wild camped one night during my hike, but there are certainly places to do it more frequently. Often, you can enquire inside a mountain hut and they will direct you to a nearby grass patch where it is permitted to camp. Here is where I stayed during my hike and an idea of the facilities at each place:
Night 1: Camping Le Pontet
Located about 2km past Les Contamines, this is a lovely campsite and gîte with clean facilities and reasonable prices. Due to torrential rain, I paid a bit extra to stay in a dorm bed in the mountain hut-style dorm and was very happy to be out of the wet and cold.
Price of camping: ~8€
Price of bed in gîte: 14€
Facilities: toilets, hot showers, wifi (for 1€)
Food: a small shack onsite sells some snacks and drinks
Night 2: wild camping near Refuge Les Mottets
I originally set my tent up on the side of the river closest to the refuge, but was told to move to the small grass patch opposite the field of cows. I woke up to a chorus of thousands of cow bells and enjoyed spectacular views of the mountains, so it was well worth the lack of facilities to enjoy wild camping for at least one night.
Price of camping: free!
Facilities: N/A (it might be possible to shower for a small fee at the refuge)
Food: possible to pay for a hot meal at the refuge (I got a baguette to accompany my mountain food and ate in my tent)
Night 3: Albergo Le Marmotte in Courmayeur
After an extremely long day combining stage 3 and 4, I treated myself to a large pizza and a comfy room at Albergo Le Marmotte (my friend Katy was staying there while she waited for me to come through Courmayeur). I must say, it was nice to have a hot shower and a good long sleep in a bed!
Price of hotel: 80€ for a double room
Food: there are a million pizza/pasta options in town (my motivation for walking the extra distance) and the hotel also serves a delicious Italian breakfast in the mornings, included in the room rate
Night 4: Le Peule
I camped inside a yurt at Le Peule for the same price of pitching a tent on the property, and it was certainly a warmer option. There is one yurt furnished with beds that is more expensive, and also the option of dorm beds for 25€, but I was quite happy to sleep with my air mattress and sleeping bag on the wood chips of the storage yurt after enjoying a delicious drink and some cheese from inside the refuge.
Price of camping: 15€ to pitch a tent or stay in the unfurnished yurt
Facilities: toilets, hot showers, indoor seating in the refuge
Food: hot meals at the refuge, drinks and cheese for sale
Night 5: Camping Les Rocailles
On the far side of Champex, this is a large and well-equipped campsite with good wifi and nice facilities. I found it a bit difficult to locate (luckily, I ran into a friend from the previous day who helped me find my way), so just follow the lake all the way around through town and it is immediately off the trail you will take tomorrow, can’t miss it. Stock up on food at the supermarket in town before checking in!
Price of camping: 15sfr
Facilities: toilets, hot showers, wifi (!), picnic tables
Food: sells a few snacks, 15min walk to supermarket and restaurants in Champex
Night 6: Le Peuty
Having heard that there is no camping at Col de la Forclaz, the traditional end of stage 8, I detoured about 20min to Le Peuty, where a simple campsite sits below the mountains. There are excellent directions in Kev’s book, but basically you just walk downhill along a winding road until you come to a small, level clearing. The facilities are really minimal, but the site has a great view and was pleasantly inexpensive.
Price of camping: 4sfr
Facilities: toilet block outside, small shelter to cook and eat under
Food: 5min walk to a very tiny shop selling sandwiches and a couple food items, plus a bar with drinks
Night 7: Auberge la Boerne
There are several options for camping in Tré-Le-Champ and Argentière, but I was really happy with this spot in the garden of Auberge la Boerne. Campers get full access of the wonderful indoor bathrooms and it’s just a short walk to a massive supermarket (by mountain standards) so you can binge on tasty snacks on the cheap.
Price of camping: 8€
Facilities: bathrooms inside the Auberge, hot showers, wifi also in the Auberge
Food: hot meals at the Auberge, 15min walk to a supermarket in Argentière
A few more considerations
Food on the trail
If you’re staying in mountain huts, all your breakfasts and dinners will be covered and will be delicious (so I hear). The huts also sell packed lunches for about 13€, so you could safely have ever single meal taken care of. Some campers ate their meals in the refuges, some bought food every few days from small shops, and some cooked every meal on a stove, so there is no shortage of options.
I personally had my mountain food, but I also bought bread and cheese in shops to supplement the pouch meals, and found it to be inexpensive and readily accessible. I paid about 1€ for baguettes and 4€ for good sized hunks of cheese in most places, but I even scored a free baguette from a refuge once when I went to enquire about buying one— it hadn’t sold that day so they just gave it away. Most refuges sell drinks (beer, soft drink, juice, coffee) for a few euro, as well. Every single day, you will pass by a refuge, most days also a small town with a shop or two, and every few days a supermarket— food is never far away!
Water on the trail
As for water, there are little troughs with eau potable every few hours, clean water at all the refuges, and even delicious glacier water in little streams along the way. I never felt very panicky about having enough water, and actually found that carrying only 1L at a time was a good way to keep my pack light. I didn’t really encounter anyone who was purifying their water, and certainly never felt the need to, so don’t stress about packing filtration systems, either.
I’m an absolute potato when it comes to directions, and even I never got lost on the trail. On just a couple occasions, I was not 100% sure of which fork in the road to take, but there were usually people around to ask or I’d just whip out my very handy Kev Reynold’s book. Between TMB signage, painted trail markers on the rocks, and all of Kev’s detailed directions, it was easy to find my way around and I never once wished that I had a map with me.
Planning your route
You can hike clockwise or anticlockwise around Mont Blanc, but anticlockwise is by far the most popular, so there’s heaps written about the hike in that direction and there’s a better opportunity to meet people along the route since you’ll be walking with traffic rather than against it.
In The Book, Kev breaks the trek into 11 stages:
Stage 1: Les Houches – Les Contamines
Stage 2: Les Contamines – Les Chapieux
Stage 3: Les Chapieux – Rifugio Elisabetta
Stage 4: Rifugio Elisabetta – Courmayeur
Stage 5: Courmayeur – Rifugio Bonatti
Stage 6: Rifugio Bonatti – La Fouly
Stage 7: La Fouly – Champex
Stage 8: Champex – Col de La Forclaz
Stage 9: Col de La Forclaz – Tré-Le-Champ
Stage 10: Tre Le Champ – La Flegere
Stage 11: La Flegere – Les Houches
I originally planned to hike each stage as a day, taking 11 days to complete the trek, but I was actually able to group a few stages together and finish in 8 days. I found the pace completely comfortable, and I’m definitely not the fastest hiker, so I would recommend 8-9 days for most people. It’s hard to know exactly how you will feel on the trail and how the weather will be, though, so it’s another great reason to camp and stay flexible in your itinerary, allowing yourself to make constant changes to your “plan” as you go (and I say “plan” because you can never really have a plan in the mountains.. nature always has its own plan for you).
Every morning, I would wake up and set a goal for the day based on the weather and my own body (i.e. the monster blisters on my feet), then amend that plan at lunch, and then about 10 more times before the end of the day. It worked really well for me to be constantly re-evaluating, since I often felt I could continue another two hours when I came to the end point I’d been aiming for or I would diverge slightly if hikers told me about a better campsite 30 minutes out of the way. Honestly, I think the most important piece of advice I could give with regard to planning your own itinerary would be to make a rough plan, and then not be worried if you don’t stick to it.
I wrote detailed blog posts for every day on the trail, which you can see using the links below. They should give you an idea of what to expect— and what to look forward to!
My TMB trail journal:
Day 1: Les Houches – Les Contamines
Day 2: Les Contamines – Col des Fours – Les Mottets
Day 3: Les Mottets – Rifugio Elisabetta – Courmayeur
Day 4: Courmayeur – Rifugio Bonatti – La Peule
Day 5: La Peule – Champex
Day 6: Champex – Fenêtre d’Arpette – Le Peuty
Day 7: Le Peuty – Tré-Le-Champ
Day 8: Tré-le-champ – Lac Blanc – La Flegere – Chamonix
You can also look at my post on the TMB highlights for the best photos and trail stats from each day.
Budgeting for the TMB
When planning my own hike, I found that there wasn’t a lot written online about the price of things, and it really worried me, especially since the alps have a reputation for being expensive. Once I actually did the hike, though, I realised that you can spend as little or as much as you want to do the TMB. Staying in huts and hotels and eating meals in restaurants will be extremely pricey, but there are also opportunities to wild camp for free and eat incredibly inexpensively by cooking your own food and buying simple items from the market. Here are some specific examples of what things cost along the trail:
- Fuel canister for camp stove 9€
- Baguette 1€
- Wedge of nice cheese 5€
- Bottle of wine 3€
- Pint of beer from a mountain hut 5€
- Sandwich from small shop 7€
- Dinner at a refuge 25€
- Packed lunch from a refuge 13€
- Camping in a basic spot 4-8€
- Camping at a nice site with showers and wifi 15€
- Bed in a gîte 15-18€
- Nice hotel in Les Houches, France 60-100€
- Nice hotel in Courmayeur, Italy 40-80€
- Night in refuge (includes dinner and breakfast) 60-80€
- Airport shuttle (Geneva to Les Houches) 30€
- Bus from Chamonix to Les Houches 3€
- Cable car ride along the trail 14€
Packing for your hike
This will vary hugely depending on whether you’re camping or staying in huts and whether you’re cooking for yourself or buying food, so this is just what I packed for my trip (plus the things I wish I had brought). If you’re having to buy a lot of this stuff for the first time, read my post on essential backpacking gear that has heaps of specific recommendations!
- hiking backpack— I used a 50L pack and it was perfect. Surprisingly, I had by far the smallest bag of anyone that I saw camping along the trail, but people were carrying unnecessary items, if you ask me (jeans? a laptop?)
- waterproof backpacking cover.
- trekking poles— cannot stress this enough, I would not have been able to complete the hike without poles. Sometimes you are descending into valleys and your knees are screaming with the pain of a thousand suns and the only thing keeping you upright is your pole, so. Do not leave it at home.
- bladder— I managed with a 1.5L bladder and just filled up frequently, which helped with the weight of my pack. I also packed a 1L plastic bottle that I could fill up at streams throughout the day (and use to pour water into my bladder).
- hiking boots— I would really recommend some that come up high on the ankle for better stability. There is a fair bit of uneven ground, but also the steep ascending and descending on scree (!!) provides prime ankle-rolling opportunities.
- sleeping bag— it’s usually around 10C at night, but I get quite cold, so I packed a bag rated to 5C (and was still sleeping in all the clothing I brought).
- mattress pad
- ultralight pillow
- camp stove— I actually ditched my stove and cookwear after the first few days, just cooking my mountain pouch food with cold water. If I had a second person to share weight with, it would have been fine, but I wanted to keep my pack as light as possible and I was already carrying a 2 man tent.
- gas canister— you’ll have to buy this in Chamonix or Les Houches since you can’t fly with it.
- cookware— I only carried a long spoon to stir and eat directly from my mountain pouches (after I left my bowls with Katy on the 2nd day).
- mountain food— I brought about 5 pouches of food and they lasted for multiple meals, especially when eaten with a baguette. All of the pouch meals I had could be cooked with only cold water, even the ones that say they require hot water, you just need to leave the water in the pouch for a few hours rather than a few minutes. I would put water in the pouch in the morning and the food would be completely rehydrated and delicious by lunchtime, when I would just eat straight from the pouch. This site makes the most amazing mountain food, you’ll want to eat it all the time.
I saved a lot of weight by packing hardly any clothing, but I basically wore everything to sleep. Long sleeve, fleece, down jacket, tights, fleece leggings, and wool socks.. I got really cold in my tent, despite a warm sleeping bag, so don’t skimp on warm clothing if you’re also someone who runs cold. Better to carry a few extra items than to not get any sleep at night because you’re freezing!
- 2x quick drying hiking tanks/shirts
- 1x long sleeve shirt
- 1x fleece pullover/zip-up for the evenings
- down jacket— really glad to have this at night and on the windy mountain passes
- rain jacket— I actually only used mine for about 2 hours over the entire hike, but other people have not been so lucky with weather, so it’s essential to have.
- 2x hiking/running shorts
- tights for chillier evenings and for sleeping (plus fleece tights if you get cold easily)
- 2x wool socks and liners— wash them as soon as you take them off at night and tie to the outside of your pack in the morning if they still aren’t dry
- 1x comfy (and clean) socks for the night
- baseball hat/sun hat
- Tevas/similar sandals— something you can wear around the campsite, on short walks in the evening, and possibly in the showers
- 1x sports bra for the ladies
- Knee strap— this hike has a cruel amount of steep descents that will wreak havoc on bad knees. I bought this knee strap specifically for this hike, since I get crippling knee pain even down gentle hills and my knee brace is huge and very metal, and I can’t recommend this strap highly enough. It fits snuggly right above your tibial tuberosity and puts pressure on your patellar tendon, which helps maintain normal tracking and reduces pressure on the posterior patellar surface. It was about $8, is super small so it doesn’t make your knee hot and sweaty, and it really made a world of difference for me.
- KT tape for blisters and hotspots— I struggled so badly with blisters and went through way more bandages than I ever anticipated, plus was given handfuls by multiple kind hikers who took pity on me, so come prepared if you too are prone to blisters.
- Naproxen— something for the aches that you will definitely have, preferably a strong anti-inflammatory to keep swelling to a minimum in your joints.
- Claritin— the pollen is out and about in the summer.
- hygiene kit— toothbrush, soap, the usual bits (I recommend bar shampoo and bar soap to save on space and weight)
- ultralight microfibre towel— I actually left this out to save weight, but I know that not everyone is willing to drip dry.
- camera + extra batteries— I love my GoPro Hero 5 since it’s super small and light, takes amazing photos, and is totally water/dirt/shock/Brooke-proof.
- Cicerone TMB guidebook