About the TMB
The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is long-distance circular hiking trail in the Alps of Europe. The footpath, encircling the scenic Mont Blanc massif, covers a distance of 165 kilometers (approximately 103 miles) and winds through three countries: France, Italy, and Switzerland. Circumnavigating Western Europe’s highest peak—Mont Blanc—the hiker treks some 32,000 feet (10 km) uphill and downhill. On average, the TMB takes 6-12 days to complete. I have allotted six days for my TMB hike.
‘Clockwise’ Versus ‘Anti-Clockwise‘
Since the TMB is a loop trail, a hiker may travel “clockwise” or “anti-clockwise.” The traditional direction of travel is anti-clockwise, beginning and ending in the trail town of Les Houches, near Chamonix, France. I have selected the traditional anti-clockwise route, saving the extreme climbs for last. Gotta get my hiker legs first!
Eleven ‘Stages’ of Le Tour du Mont Blanc
Stage 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines (16.7 km, 1186 m elev. gain)
Stage 2: Les Contamines to Les Chapieux (19.2 km, 1536 m elev. gain)
Stage 3: Les Chapieux to Rifugio Elisabetta (13.6 km, 1118 m elev. gain)
Stage 4: Rifugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur (16.1 km, 689 m elev. gain)
Stage 5: Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti (12.1 km, 1363 m elev. gain)
Stage 6: Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly (19.2 km, 1232 m elev. gain)
Stage 7: La Fouly to Champex (14.7 km, 855 m elev. gain)
Stage 8: Champex to Col de la Forclaz/Trient (14.0 km, 1090 m elev. gain)
Stage 9: Col de la Forclaz/Trient to Tre-le-Champ (14.3 km, 1283 m elev. gain)
Stage 10: Tre-le-Champ to La Flegere (6.8 km, 996 m elev. gain)
Stage 11: La Flegere to Les Houches (18.1 km, 1616 m elev. gain)
There are also several alternates off of the main TMB loop. These “blue-blazed” alternates are listed on the map as well as on the FarOut navigational app. Some of the alternate pathways may be precarious and lead a hiker clinging to the side of a mountain! Other alternates, however, may provide a low route option in the event of a storm.
When Am I hiking the TMB?
Sources I have researched recommend hiking the TMB between the months of June and September. This is largely due to favorable and predictable weather in the Alps but also because of a wider selection of accommodation for hikers. Since I prefer a good challenge, I have opted to hike the TMB in the off-season month of October, mainly to avoid any crowding and have a more secluded hiking experience. Also, by doing my hike in the autumn, I should be able to view the turning of leaves in the Alps. The trade-off, however, is cooler weather and the possibility of sudden mountain snowstorms, which require more preparation and specialized gear. The refuges and refugios mostly shut down in September; however, some have year-round “winter rooms” open for off-season adventurers like myself. There are a few huts that remain open later in the year as well as a few hotels/hostels in the valley villages.
A list of TMB huts along with a location map may be found here:
Refuges and Refugios
Refuges are mountain huts that a TMB hiker stays in while circumnavigating the TMB. The Italian equivalent of refuges are called refugios. Half-pension (also called half board) includes a place to bed down for the night, a communal dinner, and breakfast. Some refuges/refugios may offer showers but only at limited times. Outdoor camping may be offered as well.
‘Bivouac’ Versus ‘Wild Camping‘
Bivouac: A bivouac is a temporary minimalist camp that allows hikers to spend a night in the middle of nature. The camp is pitched at sunset and taken down early the next morning for a maximum of one night in the same place, which is usually not known in advance. The primary purpose of a bivouac is to permit hikers to rest or protect themselves in the event of inclement weather before moving on the next day.
Wild Camping: Unlike bivouac, wild camping is generally practiced by hikers or car campers who stay longer than one night in one place. It is called “wild” because it is held in places that are not equipped for such a purpose such as designated campsites.
Therefore, when a hiker backpacks for several days with a tent and don’t know in advance where to camp and only stays one night from sunset to sunrise, that’s bivouacking. All other cases are wild camping. The boundary between the two may become blurred with a one-night bivouac whereby the hiker already knows in advance where the tent is going to be pitched. The important thing is to abide by rules and leave no trace.
Bivouacking with an ‘Autonomous Trekking’ Itinerary
Hiking in bivouac allows the TMB hiker to be free from the itineraries and stops imposed by the need to sleep in a refuge.
Rules for the Tour du Mont Blanc in Autonomy:
Bivouacking on the Tour du Mont Blanc is regulated and authorizations vary according to the country crossed. Here is a summary of the rules for bivouacking on the Tour du Mont Blanc in France, Italy and Switzerland.
Bivouac in France: On the French side, it is allowed to bivouac as long as you are more than an hour’s walk from any motorized access. Furthermore, your tent can only be pitched between 7pm and 7am. Finally, you can only spend one night in the same place (this measure aims to avoid wild camping).
Bicouac in Italy: In Italy, it is forbidden to camp below 2500 meters of altitude. This means that you cannot camp in the vast majority of the Italian part of the TMB. It will be necessary to plan a few nights in refuges or in the numerous campsites in the villages crossed.
Bivouac in Switzerland: In Switzerland, the rule concerning bivouacs on the Tour du Mont Blanc route is simple: it is forbidden. When you are on the Swiss side, you will have to spend the night at the campsite.
Pronunciation of TMB Place Names
As one might imagine, the pronunciation of place names can be overwhelming to a foreign traveler. The following is a handy link to practice TMB-related words before the big hike!