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July 2024

Planning the Tour du Mont Blanc

Photos & Trip Report by: Cassie Markham (@cassiemarkham_)

Last September, I embarked on an epic 9-day journey through France, Italy, and Switzerland, circumnavigating Mont Blanc on the TMB trail.

The trail itself was relatively straightforward, especially compared to some of the more rugged trails here in BC. However, the planning and logistics for a trip like this were significantly more complex than anything I was used to. 

There are numerous considerations to be made during the planning phase, which can be both confusing and time-consuming. I've done my best to lay everything out in this blog, highlighting all the options you'll want to consider.

I've also created a few separate blogs with preparation tips and specifics on our route.

Note: Your experience can vary greatly depending on the decisions made during the planning phase, as there are so many different options and considerations when planning a hike of this magnitude.

TMB by the numbers (main route):

  • Countries: 3
  • Distance: 103 Miles / 166 Kilometers
  • Elevation: 32,700 Feet / 10,000 Meters
  • Number of mountain passes/peaks crossed: 10
  • Average number of days: 10

Things to Consider:

  • When to book and plan?
  • When is the best time of year to hike?
  • How many days do you want to spend on the trail? 
  • Where do you want to start?
  • What direction will you hike?
  • When and where will you take rest days?
  • Do you want to stay on the main route or take alternatives?
  • Do you plan to camp, stay in huts or off-trail accommodation?
  • Do you want a luggage transfer?
  • Do you want a guide, self-guided or non-guided trip?

When to Book & Plan?

Unless you plan to camp, the TMB is not the kind of hike where you can simply wander round’ and expect to find a place to sleep each night. While some may manage to secure a bed at the last minute, it is not the norm. 

For the TMB, you need to book your accommodations in advance—and by advance, I mean 6-9 months out—especially, if you want to stay at your preferred stops. We booked in March 2023 for September 2023 and ended up with a number of stays that were quite a ways off route or required intricate transport options to make work.

Note: Your choice of lodging will determine your hiking route and how far you'll walk each day.

Most people we talked to on the trail had planned their trip through a travel agency, and this was the route we went as well, although it's certainly possible to do it on your own.

When is the best time of year to hike?

The TMB can be hiked mid-June to mid-September, with pros and cons for each month. Most accommodations will open around June 1st and close around September 30.

We were happy to hike early to mid-September, near the end of the season, because we avoided crowds. We were also very lucky with our weather in September where in other years it can be cooler or unpredictable. That said, things were starting to close up for the season and accommodation options were more limited.. The main effect of this was that a few gondolas had stopped operating and some of the smaller towns seemed a bit sleepy. 

June to Mid July

Early in the season, you'll find fewer crowds, quieter trails, and mild temperatures. However, you may encounter snow and need extra equipment to hike through it. On the bright side, there will be an abundance of wildflowers.

Mid-July to Mid-August

This is the most popular time to hike! Villages are bustling, trails are busy, the weather is warmer, and the days are longer. Expect crowds, including large guided groups, making it challenging to book your preferred auberges. This period is ideal for camping on the TMB.

Mid-August to Mid-September

This is also a popular time to visit, but the number of hikers decreases as September approaches. It's a great time to hike with pleasant weather. Be aware of the UTMB ultra marathon, usually held at the end of August and beginning of September. While it's a lively event, it might impact your ability to hike.

Mid-September to October

Most refuges and auberges close between September 15-30, limiting your accommodation options. You'll experience cooler weather, fewer crowds, and possibly encounter snow in some areas.

How many days do you want to spend on the trail?

The TMB can be hiked in anywhere from one to two weeks, depending on your physical fitness, training, and personal preferences. On average, most people complete it in 11 days, as outlined in Kev Reynolds' guidebook, which divides the trail into 11 stages. 

The number of days you spend on the TMB is closely linked to your accommodation choices. Staying in huts or hotels in the small towns means carrying less weight and spending less time setting up camp. While camping offers a more flexible approach, it requires some buffer time to adjust plans if needed.

We had planned for 11 days on the trail and one rest day in the middle but ended up completing it in 10 days with 2 rest days by combining days 5 and 6 as we traveled from La Ville Des Glaciers all the way to Courmayeur. As much as I hated the long descent into Courmayeur on a heavy milage day I was grateful for the two rest days. 

Things to note:

  • The hiking trail is segmented into 11 ‘stages’
  • Most trekkers hike one stage a day, but certain sections can be combined for those with strong physical fitness
  • The official start & end point is the village of Les Houches in the Chamonix Valley
  • With several access points to the trail, hikers don’t have to hike the entire trail but can complete shorter sections or opt out of certain sections due to inclement weather or other factors
  • There are plenty of public transport options (cable cars/shuttle buses) to cut your trail times. However many of the options ONLY run in July and August

Where do you want to start?

The TMB traditionally starts in the Chamonix Valley, France, just 7 km (4 mi) south of Chamonix in the village of Les Houches. But the TMB being a circular trail, you could actually start anywhere. 

The distance to the airport, or whether you will be driving a car or travel by train, are to be considered in choosing the starting point. We flew into Geneva and started our stay in Chamonix but actually back-tracked via train to start our first day on the trail in Argentiere. This allowed up to get the ladders out of the way on the first day and also allowed us some extra nights in Chamonix  while we were getting acclimated. 

Another consideration is whether or not you want to ease into things, saving the harder parts for later or if you want to get them out of the way while your legs are fresh? The trail south of Les Houches, as well as south of Champex are the less demanding parts of the trail, while the Fenêtre d’Arpette must be one of the toughest.

What direction will you hike?

For our TMB, we hiked counter-clockwise. Which is what the majority of hikers do and we were very happy with our decision. I’d say that only a handful of hikers—maybe 10%—hiked clockwise (CW). 

Below are a few pros and cons for hiking both directions:

Elevation

CCW does more ascent and CW does more descent. 

Crowds

As CCW hikers, you’re generally hiking with the crowds as everyone sets off around a similar time each day. Hiking in September we didn’t find the trails particularly busy though. We opted for a bit of an earlier start most days to beat the heat and this also helped with the crowds. 

One thing to keep in mind when hiking outside the regular 7 AM - 7 PM window is sometimes breakfasts and transport are unavailable before 7 AM and you may arrive before check-in in the evening.

Ladders

We did the ladders on the first day, in perfect weather so I didn’t have much to complain about but I could definitely see how they could be challenging further into your trip or in inclement weather. 

Going CCW you are heading up the ladders, which for me, was a lot less of a mental challenge. Traveling down, especially if carrying a heavier pack would have been a lot more for me to wrap my head around, especially if tired. 

Views

Generally speaking, the views are ahead of you when hiking CCW. That said, it’s beautiful everywhere and very simple to turn around and soak it all up as a CW hiker.

When and where will you take rest days?

You don’t necessarily need to take rest days, but so many of the little towns are beautiful and some adding a day here or there is a great way to break up the hiking and rest the legs.

We started in Chamonix and booked an extra day at the start to get acclimated and just move the legs a bit after a couple long days of travel. Chamonix isn’t very large but there is still plenty to do. We were there just as UTMB was wrapping up so the town was especially lively and we really enjoyed our time. 

We also planned a rest day half way through in Courmayeur (which ended up as 2 days because we were moving ahead of schedule). Reflecting back afterwards, two days was actually perfect. We spent the first day doing laundry, restocking food and supplies and snuck in a little time at the spa and the second day we took the Skyway Monte Bianco up to the top and did the glacier experience (which was probably my favourite part of the whole trip).

Do you want to stay on the main route or take alternatives?

There are several variants, or alternative routes, along the TMB. Typically, they are more challenging than hiking on the main trail and can add mileage but they provide solitude and incredible views. 

We did three variants and loved them all: Lac Blanc (between Argentiere and Planpraz), Col Tricot (between Les Houches and St. Gervais), Val Ferret (between Courmayeur and Chalet Val Ferret). Lac Blanc was probably our favourite detour however, it was definitely the busiest as well. 


Aside from these three variants, we also really wanted to check out Fenêtre d'Arpette, but unfortunately the weather was not in our favour that day. Most of the variants include going to high elevations and more exposed trail conditions so they are not ideal in inclement weather.


Where will you stay?

The Tour du Mont Blanc is, like all alpine treks, designed as a hut-tour. A hut, or refuge/rifugio, offers a bed, water and food. Lodging is often very simple, with sometimes no showers or only cold water available. With the rising popularity of the TMB, huts can get crowded, and they are quite expensive. Combined with meals, the costs can be as high as € 100 per night. 

If you prefer a little more privacy and don’t mind some extra logistics there are also boutique hotels or bed & breakfasts just off the trail. These offer private rooms and often have a few more amenities. This was the route we went. 

The greatest advantage of the huts or other stays  is, of course, that you won’t have to carry a heavy pack. Just a sleeping bag liner, rain gear and some fresh clothes will do. The biggest disadvantage of huts or hotels (aside from the cost), is the necessity of making reservations weeks or even months before. This eliminates all spontaneity of a thru hike and the possibilities of changing your route at the last moment because of bad weather, or when you want to hike a specific side trail that comes along. 

There is camping along the entirety of the TMB, most of which doesn’t require advance reservations. So if you don’t mind carrying a heavy pack and traveling during peak season, this may be the best option for you. It’s definitely the most flexible. 

Things to note:

  • There are refuges every ~5 km along the trail
  • Most refuges include full or half board, meaning diner, breakfast and sometimes bagged lunches are included in your stay
  • Most refuges can be booked online on the official TMB site however, some can not making it challenging to book the entire circuit at once

Will you use a luggage transfer?

Like most multi-day treks in the world, the Tour du Mont Blanc has numerous baggage transfer companies that will gladly transport your bag to your overnight accommodation. Ours was booked directly through our travel agency so I don’t have specific details on booking or price. We really enjoyed not carrying a heavy pack each day and had no issues with our luggage. Some days, particularly when we got an early start, we would arrive well before our luggage so it was nice to pack a change of shoes, clothes and book to read while we waited for our bags.

As the trail contours some pretty inaccessible high mountain passes, luggage transfer vehicles may not be able to drop your luggage to you every night. They cannot access the high mountain refuges because there are no roads. On these occasions you need to pack your day bag for an overnight stay.

Do you want a guide, self-guided or non-guided trip?

If all of the above logistics don’t scare you - let's face it, choosing the independent trekking option is far more adventurous and a fraction of the cost. 

However, everyone's needs and preferences vary based on age, fitness, familiarity with the area, and budget. For our first time self-guided made the most sense, however, if I were to do it again I would probably be more open to independent options.

Whichever option you choose, my biggest tip would be to start by wrapping your head around the trail, the segments and all of the above options before you start down the booking process. 

Independent Trekking

Best for: Experienced hikers, adventurous souls, and those on a tight budget.

Pros: Complete control over your itinerary, the freedom to explore at your own pace.

Cons: Requires detailed planning for route, accommodation, and meals. You need to be prepared for navigation challenges and emergencies.

Tips: Use guidebooks, blogs, and trail maps for planning. Book accommodations early, but be flexible. It can be overwhelming if it's your first time, so be prepared for unexpected situations.

Self-Guided Packages

Best for: Those who want to trek independently but prefer some logistical support.

Pros: Balance between independence and support. Agencies handle logistics like accommodation and transportation, while you plan your route and pace.

Cons: Less spontaneous than fully independent trekking, but still offers flexibility.

Tips: Choose a trustworthy self-guided hiking company that listens to your preferences and provides detailed itineraries, maps, and additional services like shuttle bookings and luggage transfers.

Guided Tours

Best for: New hikers or those who want the security and knowledge of a guide, along with camaraderie.

Pros: Most support with a guide leading the trail and a group for safety and socializing.

Cons: Least freedom, as the itinerary is fixed and you're part of a group.

Tips: While the TMB is well-signed, a guided tour isn't necessary for experienced hikers who can prepare with a guidebook and navigation app. However, it provides peace of mind and a social element for those who prefer it.


If you’ve made it this far, keep watching this space for our next blog on How to Prepare for the TMB, including training for the trail, what to pack, budget and maps & variants.