Many often wonder why the Tour du Mont Blanc holds much allure for mountain climbing fanatics – the route consistently graces the top of many “best long-distance hikes in the world” lists. Yet most people have the misconception that the route is nestled in some far-flung fairytale place in the mountains, and is either too far, too difficult, or too expensive to attempt. This article will debunk these myths by answering the following – what, where, why, and how do you hike on the Tour du Mont Blanc?
In summary, the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is an extremely sought-after medium-altitude mountain trekking circuit that loops around the Mont Blanc massif.
Distance: In excess of 160 km
Duration: Between 9 to 11 days
Vertical displacement: 10km ascent and 10km descent
Maximum Altitude: 2700 metres above sea level at “Col des Fours”
Type: Walk + low-grade scrambling
The Tour du Mont Blanc passes through 7 valleys and crosses more than 10 mountain passes in 3 countries – France, Italy, and Switzerland. Given the circuitous nature of the route, it can be walked in both the clockwise and anti-clockwise directions. Most hikers opt for the anti-clockwise direction.
For the same reason, hikers can choose to start from any point of the circuit, with the typical start points being Les Houches/Chamonix in France (most popular), Courmayeur in Italy, or Champex in Switzerland. We opted for a tiny town next to Les Houches called Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains (see photos below).
Also, because the route is fully within Europe’s Schengen Area, there are no border controls along the way. You can simply just walk from country to country (see below).
A. You get to see the best of the Alps from 3 different countries.
We’ll let the photos do the talking. Feast your eyes 🙂
B. The trek is “non-technical” and does not require a guide (more under “How” section below)
As long as you hike within the “trekking season” (between June – August), the route is straightforward, well-marked, and requires no technical equipment or expertise. It is so “doable” that hiring a guide, while possible, is neither required nor necessary. It is pretty much a walk for 9 (to 11) consecutive days that can be done by most people regardless of hiking experience. There are some sections in which you may have to “scramble” (get on all fours for better stability), but even those sections are no more difficult than, say, Mount Kinabalu.
That said, a reasonable level of fitness and physical condition is still required! A hiker who plans to cover the entire route in 9 days can expect to walk between 15-18 km while ascending/descending approximately 900-1100 vertical metres on a daily basis. One would have ascended (and descended) a cumulative vertical distance of 10 kilometers by the end of 9 days – that’s even higher than Mount Everest. It is doable, but don’t underestimate it; it is not your typical “walk in the park”.
C. There is a wide range of accommodation that suits a variety of budget and comfort levels
You’ll have a plethora of accommodation options ranging from “mountain refuges” (tiny cottages with hostel-like bedding) to luxury hotels for those who are able and willing to splurge. Of course, if you’re adventurous enough, there are camping sites along the route for you to pitch a tent if you so desire (note that you may have to obtain permits or pay to use certain campsites).
I highly recommend staying in the mountain refuges, which cost approximately 40-50 euros a night and typically includes both dinner and breakfast (half-board). While the mountain refuges are very basic even by hostel standards, they are generally functional and clean. I believe they provide the best balance between comfort and cost. Also, their communal nature facilitates interaction with hikers from all over the world and all walks of life – this per se constituted a significant portion of my memories of the Tour du Mont Blanc.
D. You can get up close to alpine wildlife in their natural habitats (see photos)
Of course, you’ll also encounter domesticated animals such as donkeys, cows, and sheep (see below).
E. The trek is relatively safe and accessible.
Not only is the trail non-technical, it also does not stray too far from civilisation – the route is flanked by many mountain refuges and traverses various major towns such as Les Contamines, Courmayeur, and Champex (see below). This means that emergency supplies or help would never be more than an hour or two away. Also, mobile signal is pretty much available throughout the entire route except a 15 km section (Les Chapieux).
It is possible to simply just go for the trip without planning one bit – you do not need any permits (except if you plan to camp) or guides to enter the trails. You can just show up at the mountain refuges along the way and pay for your stay on the spot – though of course, you run the risk of finding yourself stranded if no beds are available (possible during high season). That said, if you’re such a person, you probably won’t be reading this anyway.
For the more cautious travelers out there, here’s a brief overview of what you can do.
A. Fully-guided tour (for absolute peace of mind)
Look up some of your local travel companies for fully-guided tour options. For Singaporeans, you can consider a reputable company like X-Trekkers, which offers guided 9-day tours: https://www.x-trekkers.com/tour-du-mont-blanc-guided/.
B. Self-guided tour (for peace of mind)
I know, “self-guided” seems like an oxymoron. What it really means is that a tour company would make all the accommodation bookings for you and provide you with a guidebook/route map to follow. There will not be an actual, physical guide with you, and you’ll have the discretion to deviate at your own peril and cost. But because the Tour du Mont Blanc is so straightforward and clearly-marked, there is usually little room for error and taking this option is relatively risk-free. Also, it would save you significant costs as compared to signing up for a fully-guided tour.
Singaporeans can consider a local company ‘X-trekkers’ which offers self-guided 9-day tours: https://www.x-trekkers.com/tour-du-mont-blanc-self-guided/. Alternatively, ‘Allibert Trekking’ which is based in France offers similar (and probably slightly cheaper packages): https://www.allibert-trekking.com/voyage/alpes-francaises-tour-du-mont-blanc.
Note: Some fully-guided and self-guided tours offer an option for luggage transfer. This means that you simply hike with a day-pack and a driver would pick up your luggage and move it to the next refuge/hotel for you. This should cost approximately 200 SGD per person.
C. Self-planned tour (for the adventurous)
The downside of a “self-guided” tour is that you’re still paying a sizeable fee to a “middleman” company to perform all the transactions and bookings on your behalf. If you would like to get rid of any middleman cost and do the Tour du Mont Blanc for as cheap as possible, consider booking directly with the refuges and coming up with your own itinerary. You can use this portal which has the contact details/booking links of all the refuges along the route: http://www.autourdumontblanc.com/en/index.cfm/tmb-huts-accomodation.html. You can simply replicate the itinerary (and routes) provided by the self-guided tour options.
Caution: Depending on your insurance cover, some policies may exclude trekking activities unless it is done with a reputable agency.
What to Bring?
I would highly recommend to pack light and pack only the necessary stuff. During my trip, these are some of the essential items that I had with me:
- Hiking Bag (30L) – The North Face (if you have “luggage transfer”) / Hiking Bag (40L) – Quechua Forclaz 40 Air (if you have no “luggage transfer”)
- Outdoor Hiking Hat (available at decathlon)
- Waterproof Rain Jacket (for heavy rain)
- Thick Pair of Gloves – (for cold temperatures)
- Packed Lunch + Snacks (sweets, chocolate/energy bars)
- Water Bag (3L) @$27.20 – http://tinyurl.com/saframountfaber
- Backpack Raincover @$7.90 – https://tinyurl.com/bpraincover
- Hiking Poles x 2 @$14.90 – http://tinyurl.com/hikingpolearpenaz200-decathlon
- Sports Sunglasses @$19.90 – (available at decathlon)
- Cooling Arm sleeves (pair) @$3.99 – https://tinyurl.com/coolarmsleeves
- Sports Watch Timer @$39.90 – http://tinyurl.com/sportwatchtimer-decathlon
- Xiaomi 10,000 mAh Power Bank @$20.90 https://tinyurl.com/xmpowerbank
- *Hiking Shoes @$64.90 – https://tinyurl.com/hikingshoeswaterproof
*No.13 – Although not absolutely necessary, having a good pair of hiking shoes would make a lot of difference when you are trekking through rocky and muddy terrain in unpredictable weather. Out of the 7 days that Bert hiked, there were a good 3-4 days in which he encountered heavy showers and occasional periods of hail.
Additional items that Bertrand brought for Photography/Videography:
- Olympus E-PL7 (Mirrorless Camera)
- GoPro Hero 5 Black (w/lens cap) – @$3.70 – https://tinyurl.com/goprolenscap
- Polar Pro Backpack Strap Mount @$37.49 – https://tinyurl.com/backstrapmount
- Small Multi-Compartment Belt Pouch @$9.90 – https://tinyurl.com/smallpouch
- PolarPro Trippler 4-in-1 Tripod @$59.90 – http://tinyurl.com/polarprotripplertripod
- Valore Selfie Stick @$8 – bought from Challenger
Bertrand’s solution to limited storage space for Photos & Videos
Since I wanted to avoid the hassle of bringing my laptop over for storing all my images and videos each day, I discovered a simple solution to this problem by bringing along my smaller and more compact Samsung GALAXY Tab S 8.4″. With the aid of a USB OTJ Adapter Cable that costs only $2.30 (http://tinyurl.com/usbotjadaptercable), I was able to use the USB cable for my mirrorless camera to transfer all my media files to the tablet. For the GoPro, I just needed to eject the micro SD card and insert it into the tablet before transferring all the files to my external hard drive (~500GB). This trick allowed me to capture tons of photos and videos and store them on the hard drive without worrying about a lack of storage space.