I’m a little embarrassed to admit, but before my boyfriend first suggested hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB for short), I had never heard of it. He had me at Swiss Alps, but once he described the popular, tri-country crossing, long-distance hike, I was captivated. The route circumnavigates roughly 170 kilometres (110 miles) around the Mont Blanc Massif, Western Europe’s highest peak.
Mt. Blanc hiding in the clouds high above Chamonix
It didn’t take long to decide this trek was for us, but in the months leading up to our trip, planning proved to be difficult. We had so many questions. When’s a good time to go? Which direction is best to travel? Do we have to book the refuges ahead of time or can we just show up? What if we pre-book a refuge and the weather turns to shit and we can’t make it? Should we carry a sleeping bag? …you get the idea…If we managed to find a site that seemed to answer our questions, it was usually for organized, guided tours or everything was in French.
The main thing we struggled to find decent information on was the distances and elevation gain between the major villages. As you can imagine, that made it difficult to plan our route as we had no idea how hard or long each day would be and we were pushing do to as much as possible in 7 days.
After hours of Googling (that’s a word right?), I found the most informative sites tended to be personal blogs. They gave the best indication of track difficulty and of course had lots of personal tips and “do’s and don’ts”.
So for all you aspiring TMBers out there, this is for you. Below are some personal tips on basics like accommodation and what gear to pack. In my next post, I’ll cover all the details and break down our day-to-day experience.
THE TMB LOWDOWN
We had a few things going for and against us when planning this trip. The main issue was that our timeframe was not flexible and it was unfortunately very early in the hiking season after Europe just had a plentiful winter, a.k.a. lots of snow. This meant that we had to change our initial planned route from Les Houches to Courmayeur because the passes in this section were too high and still covered in snow. Our group had minimal (non-existent) experience with crampons and snow crossings, so we were looking to hike sections of the track under 2,200 m or 7,200 ft. A downside to our early departure, that we would later learn, was that a few of the villages we passed through felt like ghost towns. Our timing was in between winter and summer seasons so many shops and cafes were closed for seasonal breaks.
The upside to all this was that it felt like we had the whole TMB to ourselves. The track was ours and it was truly a tranquil experience.
The only guys we crossed paths with.
When we arrived at a few of the villages, the locals would eagerly ask us “TMB?” and it felt as if our passing marked the beginning of the hiking season. We stayed at several of the refuges on their opening nights and were VIP guests by default as we were their first and only guests.
So with all that in mind, here are some things to consider when choosing a time to plan your hike:
Do you have experience with crampons and ice axes?
Do you prefer solidarity or meeting and spending time with new people?
Are you up for sleeping in a shared room full of people?
Would you rather have less people on the track, but miss out on having all local shops and cafes available? Or have all the villages hustling and bustling, but risk the track being crowded?
Mid-June is a tricky time frame because it is still shoulder season and not all of the shops, cafes, or lodges are open. Be sure to check and recheck refuge season opening dates as they are all subject to change due to weather and track conditions.
A closed al fresco dining patio at 1987m, tempting us with thoughts of cold, refreshing beer.
Late-June/early July is the ideal time to take on the TMB as it is still early in the season, so it shouldn’t be too busy, but everything is open by then so you have the opportunity to experience all the TMB has to offer.
Anything later than July would be an ideal time for beautiful weather, but be prepared to share the trail with many families during summer school holidays.
If departing from a country not inclusive of the TMB, the most common way to get there is by flying to Geneva. You can find cheap return flights from London for under $100NZD with EasyJet.
Because it was still so early in the season and our route changed, we began our trek at a quaint, ski village called La Fouly, which is not a typical starting point on the TMB and made getting there a bit difficult. Trains were expensive and there was no direct route, so it would take hours and many transfers to get to our starting point. We opted for a taxi shuttle from the airport and although it was expensive, the convenience and time saved was worth it.
La Fouly set the view standards very high!
If you are like most people and start the TMB in Les Houches, then you will need to transfer from Geneva Airport to Chamonix. The journey is approximately 1 hour 15 minutes and there are many options for shuttles and busses. Although we didn’t take it to get to Chamonix, we did take a bus to get back to the airport. It arrives and departs from the Chamonix Sud Bus Station, which is a 10/15 minute walk to Chamonix town center.
By far, the website that was the most informative and helpful when booking accommodation was www.montourdumontblanc.com. It lists all the refuges, gites, and auberges by country and the next closest refuge depending on which way you are traveling (counterclockwise is the traditional direction). I haven’t quite figured out the difference between the three, but they’re all amazing accommodation options. No refuges on the Italian side offer camping, but most others on the trail do, if you want to camp, but still use the refuge facilities.
The interactive map towards the bottom of the webpage was the most helpful with planning. The refuges are pinpointed on a map of the trail, which allows you to visually see the distances between locations. When you click on the refuge, it takes you to their booking page and lists prices, availability, amenities, and contact information. The platform is easy to use and takes the stress out of figuring out where to stay.
Although we spent a lot of time researching beforehand, we actually left booking accommodation until the week before (which worked out well since our route changed). In the middle of summer, the popular refuges and lodges are booked out in advance so I would recommend making reservations early.
Here is a quick list of the refuges we stayed at, all of which I highly recommend. My next in-depth post on the TMB will provide more details and pictures of each lodge. Stay tuned!
Refuge Maya-Joie – La Fouly – Very welcoming, clean and comfortable. Spacious and dark sleeping quarters. Basketball court and games room. Get the all you can eat raclette!
Relais d'Arpette – Champex Lac – About a 45 minute walk off of the route. The walk there was mentally and physically draining after already “arriving” at our end point in Champex-Lac, but it is completely worth the effort. Secluded location surrounded by close mountains. Big and fairly modern rooms. Generous fondue option for dinner, but only bread to dip!
Hôtel du Col de la Forclaz – Trient – More of a hotel than a refuge (I guess the name says it all). Dorm room options available, however they are very tight sleeping quarters: 12 beds packed in to a small room with no extra space for your things. Fantastic hospitality and food, however. First meal without cheese and we were all surprised that we were happy about that.
Auberge la Boërne – Argentière – Hands down the group favorite! Idyllic, green grassy campsite next to a calm stream, while the wooden, three-bed high bunks in the dorm room felt like staying in a tree house. This was our first hut with other guests, whom we all sat down with and shared our favorite meal on the trip – tartiflette.
Gîte Michel Fagot – Les Houches – Very convenient location next to a boulagerie and supermarket. Personal experience staying with a couple, their baby, and house dog named Iced T. Large outside courtyard with tables. Clean and comfortable!
Arriving at Relais d'Arpette.
COST & FOOD
Only hiking half of the TMB made it easy to justify spending extra dollar to stay at refuges each night with full or half board (#YOLO?). But, if you’re on a budget, things can add up pretty quickly.
On average, a bed for the night + dinner + breakfast was about 85 euro. This is what is considered half board, while full board includes all this plus a packed lunch. We went for the full board at our first refuge, but decided it was unnecessary for the rest of the trip. There are villages and grocery stores along the way where you can buy cheap lunch and snacks. Plus, it was kind of nice to eat something other than cheese. Blasphemy!…I know; but cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner takes a toll!
One thing that surprised me about the refuges is that there are no communal kitchens. I expected them to be similar to hostels or huts in New Zealand where there are basic cooking facilities available. So as far as food goes, you either have to carry all cooking equipment and utensils or pay for dinner.
Breakfast at each refuge mainly consisted of toast, jams, and juices. I recommend carrying some fruit with you along the way if you fancy some freshness in the mornings.
If you’re planning on camping, but eating dinner and breakfast with the refuge, a financial tip a few in our group learned the hard way, is that it’s actually more cost effective to ditch the tent and book the half board. You only end up saving about $5 not doing the half board bundle and I’d say a warm bed and a shower after a long days hike is definitely worth 5 bucks.
Overall, my observation with accommodation and food is that it’s all or nothing. Either stay at all the refuges so you don’t have to worry, or only camp so that you’re able to stick to a budget and it makes carrying that extra weight on your back worth it.
Camping on the TMB is a vastly different experience in itself, one that I hope to try someday! Although I can’t offer advice or tips on the matter, there are plenty of blogs and people who can:
Get cash out in local currencies where you can. Some of the bigger towns have ATMs, but most do not. Most of the local shops do not accept credit card.
Bring a sleep sheet! – if you plan on staying at refuges or hotels along the route, then a sleeping bag is totally unnecessary.
If you are vegan or DF – prepare your own food. Dairy free options are very hard to come by!
Pack light – Our packing motto is “it’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it”. However, when having
to carry everything on your back, consider taking just the essentials. We tend to carry quite heavy packs when hiking in New Zealand because we think it’s worth the luxury (i.e. frozen homemade meals and whiskey), but on the TMB, there’s no need to because the luxury is provided. For example, I carried around a pair of running shoes to wear after hikes around the refuges, but at all of the places we stayed, some form of slip on shoes (usually Crocs) were provided.
Buy some Devil’s Piss in Switzerland – thank me later.
GEAR ESSENTIALS :
First aid kit (with lots of blister plasters)
Dry bags – keep those electronics and valuables dry!
Water bladder – water is never far, but it’s convenient to not worry about where the next availability is. There are water troughs along the route where you can refill your bladder.
A food sack – one of the refuges (Maya Joie) gave us lunch in a drawstring sack, which I continued to use for the entire hike. I recommend bringing something similar to store your snacks, food, and trash.
Battery pack – power outlets were hard to come by. There was usually only one per room so we’d take turns charging our phones/cameras/etc. During the busy summer months, I’d say it’s hard to find a charge, so I would recommend carrying a solar powered battery pack.
Decent Topographic Map and/or GPS Tracker – Because we were trying to avoid parts of the track over 2,500m due to snow, we relied on maps to follow alternate routes. These maps marked several alternate routes, which we didn’t know about beforehand. Everything is very well signed posted, but without a map, they can be difficult to find if you don’t know where to look. Plus, your GPS location can be reassuring when you’re tired and want to know how far you are from the comfy bed at your destination.
Want to know more? Check out our day-to-day experience coming soon. Have you hiked the TMB? What advice do you have for fellow hikers?