My husband and I just returned last week from our amazing trip to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB). I definitely recommend this trek to anyone who loves hiking, mountains, or cornflakes. For a recap of our eight-day self-guided itinerary, check out my recap post. For a list of the gear we took with us, see my gear post. This post will fill in some blanks and provide some helpful information if you are interested in learning more about the TMB or if you are planning to do it!
OK, what is the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB)? Do you mean UTMB, the trail race?
The TMB is a popular long-distance hike route in Europe. It is a loop, and at the center is the Mont Blanc massif — in other words, Mont Blanc and its surrounding peaks. Mont Blanc is the tallest mountain in Western Europe at 15,781 feet. The full loop is around 110 miles with over 30,000 feet of gain, stretching through the Alps of France, Italy, and Switzerland. What makes the TMB different than many long-distance hikes in the US is that the TMB is dotted with little inns, or refuges, that offer beds and refreshments. It’s a pretty cushy set up.
UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc) is an ultramarathon race held on the TMB each year, but by doing the trek one can enjoy the TMB in their own time, like, 7 to 11 days rather than 20 hours. UTMB follows the classic TMB route, but as I’ll discuss below, hikers have several options for variants or skipping sections, which can help make the most of the experience.
Why did you decide to do the TMB?
As a trail runner, I had heard of the epic UTMB, which seemed to be everyone’s “one day,” dream race. I did some research and learned that along with the well-known 100 mile race, there were several shorter distances. My interest was piqued. But getting into a UTMB race requires getting UTMB points by doing qualifying races, and then entering and winning a lottery for spots. Sounded like a lot of work. But then somehow I came across the fact that, wait, there is a trail to follow! Any time of year! For free! Well then! So that was the plan, which I began subliminally messaging to my husband. Last year, a few friends of mine did the TMB and had a great time, so I was able to leverage their knowledge but also their endorsement — which helped with convincing my husband that he could join me on this trip. At the beginning of this year, we started planning and crunching the numbers on vacation days, and we landed on an 8-day TMB itinerary, with a total of 11 days for our trip.
How hard is the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB)?
Well, that depends. As a baseline, I should say it isn’t easy. My husband and I mused several times about which of our friends/parents would enjoy the trek or would have a good, non-miserable time doing it. Folks that don’t hike — ever — would probably struggle from so many consecutive days of hiking. And this route is in the Alps, not Kansas. People who can’t hike well downhill or who get altitude sickness in Denver (or similar) may struggle. But my husband — who does Crossfit and is in generally good shape — is not a runner and only hikes when I drag him along to 14ers, and he made it just fine. In addition, there are several ways to vary the difficulty of the hike:
- many days on the TMB offer high routes and low routes and variantes that give you flexibility to decide if you want to climb to the top of the biggest pass, or if you want to just hang out lower in the valley
- you can vary the length of each day and the number of days you take to do the route; for instance, runners sometimes do the route in 4 or 5 days, while the route “typically” takes 11 days; more on the number of days you should take below
- you can vary how much stuff you bring with you — the lightest option is to arrange for baggage transfer each day and carry just a small daypack with you, while doing the TMB as a backpacking route will require you to carry all of your camping gear, adding significant weight; we did the in-between approach by carrying all of our belongings (no baggage transfer) but using refuges to avoid camping (see what we brought here)
- you can take rest days, such as in the nice ski town of Courmayeur
- you can skip sections of the trail — we took a variant to skip the section to Les Chapieux, bussed over part of Switzerland, and never closed the loop from Chamonix to Les Houches
- assuming they are open and running, you can take cablecars up or down certain sections of the route, such as up the ascent from Les Houches and down from the Dolonne lift in Courmayeur
What is the best time of year to do the TMB?
If you want to hike the TMB rather than ski it, you should go in the summer, mid-June to mid-September. We went in the shoulder season at the end of the summer, just as things were starting to die down before either hibernating or ramping back up for ski season. We actually started the day after the UTMB trail race ended. Our official start date was September 3. On balance, I would strongly recommend this time of year for being less crowded and more mellow than earlier in the summer. But note that some refuges were closing the week after we finished, and some of the lifts had already closed — most notably the high half of the Brevent lift in Chamonix. In addition, there was a good bit of construction going on in the villages, as folks scrambled to make repairs and improvements before winter. Nothing disruptive, but something we noticed. I would recommend booking your accommodations in advance regardless of when you go, but do it especially early if you are going in super popular July or August.
To do the TMB do I need to know French or Italian or… whatever language they speak in Switzerland?
Nope. Some really basic knowledge of a Romance language or two is surely helpful for reading menus, but pretty much all staff we encountered at restaurants and hotels and refuges could speak English at least well enough that we didn’t have to resort to my husband’s high school French skills. That said, it would be helpful to understand a few basics, mostly about food — bonjour (bawn jore; hello in French), fromage (frow maj; cheese!), lait (milk!), merci (mare see; thank you in French), cepes (sep; mushrooms), assiette de (ah siet; plate of…), viande (meat), c’est bon (it’s good), petit dejeuner (petite day june ay; breakfast), pomme (pom; apple). Most other words you’ll need are pretty straightforward — toilette, omelette, orange, cafe, etc. Everyone says “bonjour” on the trail regardless of where you are from. A few people said “buongiorno” once we crossed into Italy but I could hardly keep track of what country I was in, so I mostly pretended to be French.
Lodging and Food on the TMB
What resources are best for planning my lodging on the TMB?
I primarily used three resources in the following order when planning my trip, and then filled in the blanks with some blog posts of previous trekkers: (1) the Cicerone guidebook; (2) the TMB website; and (3) TripAdvisor. I’d recommend using the book and the TMB website to decide approximately where you’d like to stop each day and then using TripAdvisor and blogs to decide on the final pick.
I booked all of the lodging directly, usually over email or using an online form, except for the lodging in Courmayer and Chamonix, which I used Chase points for.
Personally, for Les Contamines, I’d highly highly recommend Hotel Gai Soleil which was probably our nicest spot. If you make it to Argentiere, we really liked Yeti Lodge. For specifics on each of the places we stayed, see my recap post.
How early do I need to book my TMB lodging?
I’ve heard rumors that some people don’t book their lodging all in advance. That terrifies me. I was really happy to have our itinerary set and to know we had a confirmed reservation before setting out on our adventure. I booked well in advance — in February and March and April for our September trip — which was good because it meant I didn’t have to adjust our itinerary based on where we could get a room, and because it allowed us to get a private room at all of our refuges except for Mottets.
Are all the refuges located on the TMB or are they out of the way?
It is possible to book refuges only along the TMB or within a short walk. All of our lodging, except for Yeti Lodge in Argentiere, were within 10 minutes of the TMB, and most were directly on the TMB. I would strongly encourage you to carefully read reviews of your chosen lodging to determine distance from the trail. We met a couple from the UK who had trouble finding accommodation near Mottets, so they booked a place — Robert Blanc — that was 3 hours OFF THE ROUTE. We got to Mottets and were done for the day, and they still had 3 more hours of hiking that afternoon, then three hours of extra hiking the following day. Yikes!
What are the TMB refuges like?
It definitely varies. Some I’d hardly even call “refuges” because they were more like hotels. And then there were some — like Maya Joie — that I thought was going to be a nice hotel based on the price but ended up being more basic (shared showers, etc.). But here are some basics: Many have dorms and private rooms so you can pick what you prefer and what fits your budget. Dorms vary but expect that in some cases you will basically be lying in a bed next to a stranger. Bring a sleeping bag liner for several of the places, especially if you are doing dorms. Don’t be surprised to be asked to change your shoes in a boot room and wear Crocs around the rest of the stay. Most serve breakfast and dinner, included in your stay, at a specific time. Don’t be late but also don’t expect food outside of those timeslots. Most have Wifi and outlets — even Mottets had some communal outlets! Many have shared bathrooms and shared shower areas. You shouldn’t count on having a towel. Bring a headlamp for Mottets or other dorm accommodations. For specific descriptions of each of the places we stayed, check out this post.
What can I expect to eat on the TMB? Can refuges on the TMB accommodate a vegetarian? What about other dietary needs?
Cornflakes. Seriously. Every. Damn. Morning. After the first three days I was SO over cornflakes. For a specific play-by-play of what refuges offered what foods, check out my recap post. But here is the general scoop.
Breakfasts: In addition or cornflakes, all the refuges offered bread, usually but not always toast. Some had Cocoa Krispies or muesli. A few had plums, and some had other fruits. Most had pastries, such as croissants or pain au chocolat or blueberry cake. A few had cheese and sliced meats. Only the very nicest spots had eggs. All had orange juice, coffee, and tea. Most but not all refuges and hotels had yogurt, which I tried to fill up on since it was a good source of high quality protein. I also tried to drink coffee with a large amount of milk. Gotta get those strong bones!
Lunches: Many of the refuges offer packed lunches for 9-15 euros, which you could order the night before and take with you in the morning. We did not use this option because we appreciated the flexibility to pick out what we wanted to eat, and because it seemed like these were usually sandwiches, and I really didn’t want yet more cheese and bread. Instead, we usually ate as much as we could at breakfast and then had a very small lunch. But every day was a little different: a few days we picked up pastries or bread or a sandwich at a bakery in town (Les Houches or Champex, for instance); a few days we stopped at a refuge for food or were fortunate to be able to get food in town or at our refuge when we arrived (Mottets, Bonatti, La Fouly); the other days we ate the small snacks we’d packed, such as cookies, nuts, and nut butter. I will admit that most days we were hungry by the time dinner rolled around! But because most dinners were all-you-can-eat, it wasn’t the worst.
Dinners: Dinners were actually much better than I expected and generally satisfying. My vegetarian diet was accommodated at every single place we stayed without any confusion or attitude. (I did tell each refuge that I was a vegetarian when I booked.) So what did we eat? We had a ton of bread (usually served without butter at dinner) and multiple bean soups, and we had two nights and one lunch of polenta. The food did vary somewhat based on location. In France, we had ratatouille. In Courmayeur, pizza seemed to dominate although there were other options if you sought them out. I had polenta and pizza! In Switzerland, we ate rosti and raclette and, oddly, curry with rice. Again, specifics — including which refuges had the best food — are in my recap post.
Special Diets on the TMB: As mentioned above, vegetarian dinners were no problem. I think dairy free or gluten free would be more tough than vegetarian, but both are probably doable if you give the refuges a heads up, and probably even more doable if you book through a guide who is responsible for ensuring you are properly fed. That said, I really benefitted from bringing my own protein powder and snacks (RX Bar, RX nut butter with protein, Bobo bars). I’d strongly encourage anyone with special dietary needs or restrictions to do the same, and do be on the lookout for opportunities to get extra nutrients (e.g., ordering egg dishes whenever you get the chance as a vegetarian). Note I also brought vitamins with me on this trip, just to be safe!
What time do refuges on the TMB serve dinner and breakfast?
All of the refuges served dinner around 7 pm (I think one or two might have been 7:30) and breakfast around 7 am (Mottets is at 6:30 and a few others were 7:30). Many have bars open from 4 pm or so onward, but many do not have snacks available before dinner. When we were hungry before dinner, we’d eat snacks we brought or had picked up at the grocery store. Mottets was the notable exception: they had many snack options for sale through the afternoon. We got coffees and a crepe, and we saw some other folks eating a massive bowl of pasta. Bonatti also had food available in the afternoon, and we were glad we stopped there before getting to Chalet Val Ferret, which did not have any snacks for sale.
I’m pretty anti-social, do I have to talk to people at the refuges and along the TMB?
Probably, but I promise it will be OK.
At refuges, you may be assigned a seat at a table with others. And you may have to make conversation with them. They may we weird. The weirdest was an older couple we met from Maryland who, when we asked why they decided to do the TMB, kept saying “We don’t know why we signed up for this…”
We also met some lovely young couples — a couple from Canada who was traveling Europe for three months between jobs, a couple from Israel who told us all about how expensive Israel is and who generously gave my husband some KT tape for his IT band, a set of couples from Quebec, and a UK couple that got lost with us. But it wasn’t all couples: we met a Canadian woman who was hiking with her friend, a family from Colorado, a group of retirees from Minnesota, and a group of young men from San Francisco. There was also a typical group of retirees who we could hear bragging about their children and about their outdoor exploits. You know the type.
On the trail, we avoided sticking with any group for too long by adjusting our pace as needed. Usually we said “bonjour” as we came up behind someone and they’d let us pass.
Nothing too painful.
Gear and Supplies for the TMB
What should I pack for the TMB?
See our packing list here! Be sure to choose items that pack down well, and save weight when you can by removing unneeded items from your wallet, use travel size toiletries, etc.
What size pack should I bring for the TMB?
I brought a 24 L pack, and my husband brought at 46 L pack because he was also carrying a nice camera, our first aid kit, and a yoga towel. This was plenty of space — his pack was not completely full. If you are not camping and cannot fit all your things into these packs, you should pare down your packing list. After several days of hiking, you will be grateful for every saved ounce.
What kind of shoes are best for the TMB?
My husband and I both opted for trail running shoes for our hike, and would strongly recommend the same for others. Hiking boots are heavy and clunky and too frequently cause blisters or aren’t sized right. In my experience, the odds of no major issues are better with trail running sneakers. They were plenty durable and warm for the hike in the summer. We did bring several sock options and a blister kit in the event of emergency, but our feet were totally fine. We both wore Altra Timps, which are zero-drop trail running shoes with a wide toe box. (For more on my learnings about “natural” footwear, check out this post.)
How much water do I need to carry with me on the TMB?
We each brought 1 liter of water each day in Nalgene bottles and never had an issue. If you pack that much, it is unlikely you’ll need a filter for extra water, although there are ample opportunities if necessary. Remember, you can always stop to get a drink at a refuge along the way.
Do I need a first aid kit for the TMB?
I considered bringing my proper backpacking first aid kit but changed my mind once we started packing and I wanted to save some space. Instead I made my own little kit with just the things I thought we had a realistic chance of needing — a blister kit with moleskin, alcohol pads, some thin medical tape, a few bandaids, and some individually packed pain reliever. I think this was a pretty sufficient kit, although perhaps I would have brought some KT tape to cover a few spots that were rubbing and to help my husband’s IT band (he ended up borrowing a couple strips for his knee from a generous fellow hiker). The TMB is really not in the wilderness, and if you end up needing more extensive medical care, you can find it in the villages along and near the TMB.
TMB Routes and Scenes
How many days should I take to do the TMB?
As noted above, the “typical” TMB itinerary spans 11 days. The Bible of the TMB, the Cicerone Trekking the Tour of Mont Blanc book, coincidentally breaks the route into 11 stages. If you’re retired or have all the time in the world and don’t mind several “easy” days, go for it and maybe even add a rest day. But my husband and I agreed that 11 days of hiking this route would be a lot. It’s a lot of work to miss. It’s a lot of shorter days that leave you hanging at refuges. It’s a lot of days in the same clothes, carrying the same pack. It’s a lot of hiking. It’s a lot of carbs. On the other end of the spectrum, I know folks who have run the TMB over 4 or 5 days, which averages to 20 or 25 miles per day. If you are an ultramarathoner, this “soft UTMB” is doable with some training and ideally a baggage transfer. But my husband isn’t a runner, and I wanted to have the flexibility to take casual stops at refuges, explore the little villages, and take a thousand pictures of me cartwheels at the top of passes. So we settled on an eight-day itinerary, which I think could have easily been a seven day itinerary. That was plenty for us, and I think another three days of the ups and downs and carrying packs and wearing smelly clothes might have worn a bit too much on my husband. We didn’t want to overstay the welcome, so to speak. We also built in a full day at the end of our trip to hang out in Chamonix, which I highly recommend — maybe even a little longer.
Can I get lost on the TMB? Do I need to bring a map and compass?
The TMB is not wilderness, but rather a well-trodden path. It is well-marked in the vast majority of sections. There are these fabulous yellow signs that identify many of the refuges and key points on the route, often with a note of approximate time to that destination, considering the terrain. In other spots, there are red and white blazes or yellow triangles or clear TMB indicators.
Once or twice a day we’d come to some kind of a fork without an indicator and the vast majority of times either (1) both forks met back up shortly ahead on the trail or (2) it quickly became apparent that one of the forks quickly.
However, at one spot on the trail after the Col de Fours variant, there was a sign that was damaged, and we get off track. We could tell we were off track because the path was worn but not as worn as the rest of the TMB. And we could see another, more established trail down in the valley.
Some folks did have GPS apps to help with directions but we did not. At the time of this writing, the TMB is not on Google Maps nor The Hiking Project app. Instead, we used mostly the signs but also the book and in a few cases our fellow hikers.
Which TMB variantes should I take?
We chose to take most of the high routes on the TMB. Here’s a quick summary, with more descriptions on my recap post:
Stage 1 in Cicerone: We really liked the Col de Tricot variant between Les Houches and Les Contamines
Stage 2 in Cicerone: Col des Fours variant made sense because we were cutting across to Les Mottets (bypassing Chapieux)
Stage 3 in Cicerone: We didn’t go to Chapieux. No high route option here.
Stage 4: We took the normal route and it was lovely except for the descent into Courmayer. I recommend it over Val Veni.
Stage 5: We took the standard route because we were tired from two long days, and the weather wasn’t great. Even the standard route is fabulous — not sure if the high route over Col Sapin adds value here.
Stage 6: No variant option.
Stage 7: We bused over this section.
Stage 8: We took the high route over the Fenetre d’Arpette. We weren’t impressed and actually might recommend skipping this day entirely.
Stage 9: We took the standard route and really liked it.
Stage 10: We took the detour to Lac Blanc and recommend doing so since you are so close anyway and Lac Blanc is on many to-do lists.
Stage 11: We didn’t do this section.
What wildlife can I see on the TMB?
Cows. Sheep. Marmots. Bees. A bazillion grasshoppers. I had unfulfilled dreams of seeing an ibex, which are allegedly fairly common in the Aiguilles Rouges National Park close to Chamonix. I would have settled for a chamois but that was not to be either. Big time bummer!
What other questions do you have about the Tour du Mont Blanc??? Ask below and I’d be happy to share my thoughts!