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Hiking the Spectacular TMB (Tour du Mont Blanc) in France, Switzerland and Italy

Overiew / Experience: We just spent 10 days hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc (late August and early September) and it was hard but fabulous. It's a 107 mile hike around Mt. Blanc via France, Italy and Switzerland staying in small towns and refugios along the way. We self organized our trip which worked out beautifully. We booked mostly private rooms along the way in January of 2017 and so were able to get them (private rooms are in limited supply in refugios). It's easy to do it yourself though many Americans were part of a tour group (REI, Mac Adventures and others). The hike itself was so gratifying, peaceful, beautiful and enjoyable. It was more urban than I anticipated with sometimes walking on pavement or just behind people's homes, but a good amount was also in the mountains. Favorite parts included the Italian alps and Lac Blanc near Chamonix (our last day). The tough part was the 13 miles of walking in a down pour.

Fitness Level: We are relatively fit and in our mid 40s. The hike involves daily ascents of 1500-3500 feet with similar descents so you definitely got your work out in every day. For a frame of reference, I'm 48yo female with a BMI 27. I run ~3x week with 6 miles my longest run. The other days I walk the dogs ~3 miles. With my fitness level it was hard but doable. We were probably faster than most hikers, especially those in group tours. The pace of most tour groups was pretty slow so I don't think one would need to be as active as I am to complete the hike. It might be more painful though because some of those ascents were pretty long (2+ hours) and steep.

Gear: We packed pretty light. We each had 15lb-18lb packs. Mine was a 40L (husband 44L) pack. It was 4-5lb heavier with 2 liters of water and lunch added daily. My pack wasn't full - I could probably do a 32-35L next time; husband could do 40L (he's 6'3"). Key clothes included 2 short sleeve wool t-shirts (they don't hold smell) and 2 long sleeve wool t-shirts. (I love Ibex brand wool.) I had a pair of 1 wool tights (sleeping), 1 short (hiking when warm), 1 pairs stretchy tights (hiking when rainy/cold) and 1 long lightweight pant (after shower/evening, break day attire). We brought gortex rain coat, puffer, rain pants, ball cap and thick wool hat and gloves. I wore it ALL. The first 5 days were hot (shorts), the last half was rainy and cool (tights) and in some places downright cold (my light gloves were insufficient). Layering was key as was having great hiking boots/trail runners (I had trail runners that worked great).

Anyway, if it's a hike that's interested you just know it's doable with a reasonable fitness level and you can plan it yourself if you like, even if you don't speak very much French. For us, it's made us excited about doing other long walks in France where we don't need camping gear and can have a good hot meal and a bottle of wine at the end of a long walking day. Not sure where next....maybe Pyrenees, Brittany or the GR 5 to Nice.

Posted by
5837 posts

Thanks for the report. Interesting that you could get all your spare clothing in 40L and under 9 kg. Great job of packing light.

Any snow/ice or technical walking? Trekking poles, ice axes? Sounds like no crampons needed.

What's next?

Posted by
715 posts

Thank you for this. I have always wanted to do the Haute Route but unfortunately my current health will likely keep me from that dream.

Posted by
16938 posts

Thanks for a great report! We are signed up with REI to do this next August. While we normally plan independent travel and hiking trips, and have backpacked long distances in the US (Sierras) carrying all our own gear for two weeks at a time, we are older now ( over 70) and like the option of hiking inn to inn with just a daypack, meeting our luggage at the end of the day. We are really looking forward to this adventure.

Posted by
50 posts

Like so many trying to pack light I obsessed over every....single.....item. Things I left behind included: book (read one on my iphone); ipad; umbrella (gortex jacket has a hood); a day pack for when we were in towns (just brought my wallet when we went out which wasn't all that often because many nights we were not in towns but rather mountain huts). We pared down our meds into tiny plastic baggies and only brought a a small number of pills. I had 1 ounce shampoo, a mini floss, crystal stick deodarant, and 3 ounces of body lotion we shared. A lot of weight discarded was by paring down toiletries and cables/devices. I took a bikini (used 3 times in the nicer hotels we stayed at) and a pair of All Birds wool shoes that I used nightly but no flip flops or sandals. The things I would leave behind doing it all over would be headphones and an extra pair of reading glasses (I'm not that blind yet).

And all 4 shirts and pants were dirty and stretched out by the time we got home, worn over and over and over. We left a small pack with friends in Chamonix so for our last two days in Chamonix I had a dress (wool by Ibex, LOL) and a sweater so I had something to wear then that I didn't haul around for 100+ miles. I was doubting the need for the gortex until the rain hit. SO glad I had it.

Posted by
50 posts

Lola, Have a great time on the REI tour! We used their itinerary to inspire us and plan our own route. It's gorgeous. We ended our trip with a ride up the Augille du Midi and it was just fabulous!

We aren't sure what's next....looking at the GR 5 or the Pyrenees. My husband is studying french and so we are thinking of another walking trip to France next May/June. I found the walking so incredibly therapeutic. We turned off the news, our emails, and just walked and ate and talked and slept. I loved being outdoors and having only one (physical) job to just walk to the next place. It's the antithesis of my office job. We've traveled a lot over the years (we met in the Peace Corps) and it's interesting to see how our travel tastes have changed to be more about enjoying the outdoors with a hearty meal and a nice bottle of wine at the end of the day. Of course the great thing about walking in Europe is not having to haul all your gear. I wish we had more trails like that here in the USA.

Best,
Christy

Posted by
50 posts

Edgar,

It was not technical. No crampons needed. I think if you hike in early June crampons might be needed. The only somewhat technical bit was tackling a whole lot of ladders on the hike up to Lac Blanc on our last day. They are avoidable as there is another trail that circumvents them. But take care to make sure you are on the right trail. I'm afraid of heights and we didn't mean to end up hiking the trail to the ladders but we did. I had a bit of a stress cry when I finished them all (I was terrified), but alas I lived to survive them and most do.

Best,
Christy

Posted by
72 posts

Christy

Sounds like a great trip - thank you for sharing and for the encouragement that it is doable with a little bit of planning and a lot of serious staring at your pack and its contents. There is a valuable lesson here - even for those of us who are not hiking the Alps.

Cheers
Amy

Posted by
1 posts

Christy
Thanks for the informative summary. My daughter and I are doing the TMB next August and will do the hike without a tour operator. How did you research what private rooms and refugios to stay in? How did you reserve them? Is there a particular website you found helpful? Finally, are there any particular private rooms, hotels, or refugios you recommend or places that we should avoid?
thank you.

Posted by
1 posts

Hi Christy,
I enjoyed reading your account of the TMB and your gear recommendations. We walked the GR-5 from Chamonix to Menton this past August/September. We overlapped a few days with the TMB, so I can give you a brief comparison of the two routes. We felt the northern scenery was the most spectacular, but some of that is personal taste. Because we walked the higher GR-55 through the Vanoise instead of the GR-5.....and the GR-52 for the finish into Menton instead of the GR-5 into Nice, the terrain was equally as demanding as the TMB. It becomes less green the further South you walk, and more rugged and rocky.

For the us the highlights were the few days out of Chamonix and the GR-55 portion through the Parc National de la Vanoise.

I planned the trip independently and booked all our lodgings from the US and we highly recommend doing this. I used Paddy Dillon's guide from Cicerone and it was indispensable, along with a few blogs on the GR-5. We stayed about 2/3 of the nights in Gites or hotels and the other 1/3 in mountain refuges.

We carried our own gear and it was very similar to the weight and size of yours for the TMB.

If you have a month to devote to hiking, I highly recommend the GR-5. It was a rich experience provided a great feeling of accomplishment to have covered so many miles with that degree of difficulty. If you are looking for the best scenery for your effort, however, I'd recommend just choosing portions of the GR-5......or taking a look at the Walker's Haute Route through Switzerland or one of the other shorter walks in the northern Alps. You might enjoy Kev Reynold's book Trekking in the Alps in which he highlights 20 classic routes through the Alps. He has hiked them all and has written guidebooks on many. It's a great resource to help determine which trek to tackle next. After reading Kev's book, my husband and I are planned to do the Haute Route next September. It seems to have the spectacular scenery of the TMB without the crowds, which suits our taste better.

And concerning sandals.....I'm going to check into the Allbirds. We walked the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago and the GR-5, and I carried my heavy Chaco Volv X2's for both. They were worth the weight for me, and a few times I even used them for long and arduous descents when my toes were tired of banging into the fronts of my Oboz boots. I am looking for something more lightweight for our next trip, so will check into the Allbirds and Teva Tierra.

There are so many amazing routes to trek in Europe - Happy planning!

Posted by
50 posts

Hi Twinky,

We planned the route using Kev's Reynolds book and then found refugios/hotels by looking at tours (e.g. REI, Mac Adventure), maps, trip advisor, etc. We reserved them all via email using English or my husband's bad french. It took awhile for some to get back to us since I think most are closed in January, but we eventually heard back from them all. We had an Excel spreadsheet with the dates, type of place, reservation with half board or not, etc. We saved email correspondence in the cloud with the date and downloaded it for offline use so we had it with us without carry papers (I use Dropbox).

Most places we stayed were simple, fine and clean. Hotel la grande ourse (Triente) wasn't very good. The meal felt like it was all out of box and the sac picnic (lunch) was terrible. The room was lacking. But it was clean and in a good location for our chosen route. I wouldn't recommend it but it wasn't terrible. The other one that wasn't great was rifugio elisabetta. Breakfast was bread and jam (not even butter), but it was clean and well, it was a lot better than a tent!

On the nice side. We'd highly recommend Hotel Bouton d'Or in Courmayeur. It was a lovely hotel. And we also enjoyed Hotel Mont Lac in Champex. They are both a much higher class of hotels and well worth the splurge at least for us. Rifugio Bonatti had awesome dark chocolate bars in our lunch.

Good luck. You'll have a marvelous time!

Best,
Christy

Posted by
50 posts

Hiker Girl,

Thanks for your post! The GR5 sounds great. The GR5 is on our list, but because of our work, we can't get more than 15 days off at a time and can only really go May/June and Aug/Sep. This next year we are even more limited as we have family obligations Aug/Sep. We looked at a number of trails and have decided to do part of the Louis Stevenson Trail through the Cevannes in late May/early June 2018. The GR5, Haute Route, Pyrenees and others are not readily hikeable at that time. The spring flowers in Cevannes and the rural nature of the hike appeal. It should be a good trip. We are finalizing the details now.

If you want a trail walking alternative shoe, I'm not sure the AllBirds would be that great. They are a pretty soft sneaker that would get really dirty. I have a pair of heavy Chacos that I considered. I also considered buying their new light Chacos (mine are HEAVY). On the TMB, my husband brought flip flops. The warm half of the hike, I would have preferred Chacos and the cold half I was glad I had my Allbirds, so I think it's pick your poison! We don't wear shoes in our house at home, and I've turned my Allbirds into house shoes. I like that they give me more support since they are an actual shoes than my boiled wool slippers, and they are super toasty. Anyway, hope this extra information is helpful. I'd love to hear about the Haute Route.

Best,
Christy