Mont Blanc: Tips for the Novice or Experienced Alpine Hiker
The Best Practical Tips For Hiking The Tour Du Mont Blanc
By Ally Mash
The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a classic among the many GR routes and a coveted goal for any serious mountain hiker. The magnificent trek leads in nine to eleven stages climbing Mont Blanc (4809m) through France, Italy, and Switzerland.
At every border crossing, the atmosphere and the view of Mont Blanc change radically. In the Vallée de Chamonix, the highest mountain in the Alps with its white flanks and glaciers fills the landscape.
In Italy, the wild side with its immense rock formations comes into view and in Switzerland, you walk along the beautiful and quiet eastern side of the massif.
7-10 Days to finish 170 km
Depending on which hiking trails you follow, it might take you anywhere between 7-10 days to finish this GR route of +/- 170 km.
As for me, I took a lot of alternative trails that deviated from the traditional TMB hiking trail. As such, I ended up covering +/- 200km in 10 days by hiking multiple mountain ridges which offered spectacular views along the way.
So if you’re wondering which alternative routes are worth doing or when it’s best to walk this GR route, you’ve come to the right place. In what follows, I’ll be sharing my top recommendations based on my experience.
Practical Tips For Hiking The Tour Du Mont Blanc: Daypack vs Backpack
If you are doubting whether you are fit enough for the TMB then don’t worry. There are plenty of alternative routes to the official TMB route for all kinds of hikers. That said, the level of comfort at which you hike this trail will heavily depend on the amount of gear you carry with you.
In my opinion, the only reason you should take a backpack during this trail is if you plan on sleeping in a tent. You will be passing by small cities during your hike, so no need to carry food with you besides snacks for lunch.
Carrying a daypack is the best option if you plan on sleeping in mountain huts and hotels. The biggest advantage of opting for a daypack is the significant weight reduction, which reduces the pressure on your knees during ascent and descent. Keep in mind that you plan to walk +/- 170 km, so the less weight you take with you, the better.
Sleeping In A Mountain Hut VS Sleeping In A Tent
The TMB is a very famous trail and so quite busy during the summer. Moreover, wild camping is only allowed above 2500m, which most people find too cold to sleep in a tent. So, whether you plan on sleeping in a mountain hut(=refuge) and/or tent, you will need to book your stay in advance.
There are two main sites about the TMB. On montourdumontblanc.com you will find the accommodations that are affiliated with the Association of Caregivers Tour du Mont Blanc and Gites. There are many TMB properties on this site, but not all mountain huts, B&Bs, and gîtes d’étape are mentioned.
The second site is autourdumontblanc.com, which includes L’Espace Mont Blanc, a cross-border project that focuses, among other things, on the protection of the Mont Blanc massif. All accommodations are listed on this site. Lastly, make sure to carry cash with you as most huts don’t accept cards.
As mentioned earlier, the less weight you carry with you, the better. Therefore, you must make sure to only carry the most essential and lightest gear with you. To make things easier, consider using a backpacking checklist so you don’t miss anything important.
Here are things that I would definitely bring with me on the TMB if I were to do this GR route again:
- Lightweight tent
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Sleeping bag (This is also mandatory for some mountain huts)
- Sun hat
- Hiking sticks
- Enough thermal clothing (It gets very cold in the mountains, especially if you sleep in a tent)
The Recommended Hiking Trails For TMB
When planning your TMB trip, do not go before mid-July, as some variants are high and impassable when there is still snow. The official TMB is fairly snow-free. September is the best time, but many cabins close in mid-September.
Nothing is more subjective than ‘most beautiful, prettiest’ and so on. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend these most beautiful routes of the Tour du Mont Blanc:
Les Houches – Contamines
Since the TMB is a hiking trail around Mont Blanc, you can choose where you start as long as you finish at the same starting point. That said, the official starting point is in Les Houches, a French city close to Mont Blanc. Unless you are traveling by car, the best way to get there would be by train.
From here, you can start the TMB clockwise by heading towards Chamonix or counter-clockwise by heading towards Contamines. We decided to go counterclockwise as some trails were easier on the knees on the ascent than on the descent.
There are two hiking trails that take you from Les Houches to Contamines. The first trail is the official TMB trail which is less spectacular but also less intense. The alternative trail on the other hand goes over a Nepalese suspension bridge and the Col de Tricot mountain ridge.
We decided to take the alternative trail which leads from the Bellevue mountain station via an increasingly rocky path through a forest to the glacier tongue of the Glacier de Bionnassay. Via a Nepalese suspension bridge, you cross the thundering river that rises from the glacier gate as you slowly begin to ascend towards Col de Tricot.
It took us roughly 11 hours to arrive in Contamines, but don’t be frightened as we decided to do the alternative trail completely on foot without taking the cable car at the Bellevue mountain station. In all honesty, this was quite strenuous on the knees with all the ascent and descent and not to mention the fact that we were carrying a backpack with camping gear.
So, my advice here would be to take a daypack and sleep in huts or hotels if you want to make the most out of your experience without suffering as much as we did. If you are quite adventurous and active, then it’s perhaps good to know that things become easier after the first 2-3 days.
Contamines – Refuges des Mottets
Once you arrive in Contamines, there are different types of accommodations in which you can stay for a night. If you brought your camping gear with you, then you can also sleep at a designated campsite, just as we did.
Depending on your level of fitness and available time, you can hike from Contamines to Refuges des Mottets (1870m) in 1 or 2 days. We decided to do it in 2 days as we wanted to do the alternative trails over mountain ridges.
The official TMB route runs through the valley and is only a good alternative when it rains and, if needed, you can also take a bus.
Mont Joly to the Aiguille Croche
If you do decide to do the alternative trail, then you should expect a wonderful ridge walk from Mont Joly to the Aiguille Croche.
This hiking trail is without a doubt the most beautiful variant, among other things because of the unparalleled view of Mont Blanc and the Rochers des Fiz. Unfortunately, this trail is only snow-free starting mid-July.
Once you arrive in Refuge de Nant Borrant, you can then decide whether you would like to continue to Refuges des Mottets or stay for the night. It took us +/-12 hours to hike from Contamines to Refuge de Nant Borrant.
On average, it takes you eight hours, but it took us longer due to our heavy backpacks. As you can imagine, we were in no shape to continue our hike once we arrived in Refuge de Nant Borrant. Luckily, there was a free campsite about a six-minute walk from the Refuge where you could set up a tent.
The next day we continued the hike towards Refuges des Mottets. Because there are only a few good alternatives for this piece of TMB trail, you sometimes get stuck in traffic here. Though, that’s not a bad thing, because nature is exceptionally varied.
Refuges des Mottets is also the last stop you will make in France before crossing the border to enter Italy.
Refuges des Mottets – Champex-Lac
As you cross the Col de la Seigne, the border with Italy, the landscape changes radically. The Val Veny and the Val Ferret show the most impressive side of the Mont Blanc massif, because as beautiful as the French side is, here the eye is surprised by the Arête du Brouillard, the immense south ridge of Mont Blanc, which is surrounded by an unheard number of rough glaciers, white peaks, and elegant granite mountains.
As you head towards Champex-Lac, you will pass through Courmayeur, a small Italian city where you can recharge. If you will be in a big group then consider booking accommodation with wellness facilities, as we did.
Since Courmayeur is only tailored towards winter tourism, we managed to book a 5-star accommodation with a sauna, swimming pool, and hammam for $60/night as it was low season.
The next stop I would highly recommend is Rifugio Walter Bonatti (2025m), which is named after the famous Italian mountain climber, Walter Bonatti. On a sunny day, the view of Mont Blanc is simply spectacular, which is why most people prefer to pass by this hut and spend a night.
The border between Italy and Switzerland is crossed once you pass Grand Col Ferret as you head towards Champex-lac. If you still fancy doing an alternative trail, then you should stop at Praz-de-Fort and choose the trail heading towards Arpette. Beware though as the ascent and descent are quite intense and shouldn’t be done if it is raining. Since the elevation is quite high, the rain will turn into snow and/or ice at that altitude making the hiking trail very dangerous.
Champex-Lac – Les Houches
Champex-Lac is small but has all the facilities, including a great bakery and a camping ground. Though, this is still Switzerland so you will need to cross another mountain ridge to enter France. This is what you should expect once you cross Col de Balme and get a glimpse of Mont Blanc once again.
The final of the TMB is thrilling. The heart of the Mont Blanc region can be seen right up to the last step in Les Houches.
Not only the viewing pleasure is first-class, but also the route itself. Because it runs through the Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges, one of the most beautiful natural areas in France. Depending on the trail you choose, you can opt to pass by Chamonix.
Key Takeaways on Mont Blanc
In summary, the TMB is perfectly doable given that you plan everything well in advance. In the valley, you can often find (expensive) accommodation at short notice, but booking in advance is highly advised in the mountains.
Important: Always cancel ASAP if you do not make use of your reservation so that the innkeeper will not be left with empty beds. Because hikers do not adhere to this golden rule, you often have to pay in advance, especially on the TMB. Also, you can’t pay with a credit card everywhere; so bring enough cash with you.
You can walk the TMB after September 15, but then you either have to make very long hikes and spend the night in the valley or combine camping with sleeping in the winter rooms of the club huts.
An avid outdoorsman, Ally Mash has spent much of his free time backpacking through South America and other parts of the world. He loves sharing what he’s seen with others by blogging about it on a regular basis! His goal is to get more people in the mindset of protecting our planet; which we all need if we want this beautiful earth around us long enough for future generations to enjoy its beauty too.