If you’re planning to trek the Tour du Mont Blanc by yourself, with no guide, then this is where to start to plan your TMB adventure. If you’re unsure whether to trek independently self guided, with a tour group or pay for a self guided package, read my Self Guided v Guided post.
Planning your route isn’t as easy as it first looks, unless of course you aim to follow the standard 11 day full circuit itinerary which is laid out for you in all the guide books. Simple.
The 11 day circuit is pretty full on – trekking between 7-9, perhaps even 10 hours a day over terrain that cumulatively equates to the height of Everest! If you’re match fit and have the time then this is the perfect option, perhaps just adding a day in Courmayeur as a rest day and a couple in Chamonix for start/finish days.
If you’re planning to alter the standard 11 day itinerary because of various factors, the planning gets a little more tricky. Perhaps you don’t have two weeks to dedicate to the trail. You might only have a week and want to walk the most scenic stages. Perhaps you don’t want to be on the trail for so long every day, you want to take it slower and absorb the mountains instead of having to slog it out each day. Perhaps you’re worried about your fitness or are hiking with kids, or you’re hiking in your golden years? All these scenarios require you to alter the standard 11 day itinerary and that my friend means a bit more work.
You can, of course, just book your refuges online at the official TMB site. It’s easy to do. You can choose your starting point, the direction you want to hike in and then choose each refuge to build your itinerary. It gives you the approximate length of time for each refuge from your start point, you select your first refuge and then you can choose your next stage, which will take you onto the next set of accommodations/refuges you can book for that step (with the approximate times from where you stayed the previous night).
However, the pitfall of the online system is that some of the refuges aren’t on it so you can’t book your entire circuit in one fell swoop (unless you’re planning on travelling the lower Val Ferret route on the Italian side which we would only suggest in bad weather).
Rifugio Bonatti – the infamous high mountain refuge on the Italian side is private and so is not on the online system. Others such as the most incredibly placed Refuge Lac Blanc are on the system but you can’t book via the online system – you need to contact the refuge directly. There are a number of excellent refuges that are not on the online system so this needs to be considered when trying to make your bookings – know which are private and know that you’ll need to contact them direct – this takes more time to email and get a response back. Some of these private refuges are beginning to build online reservation systems on their websites which is going to make reserving beds a lot easier. Refuge Col de Balme has already done this however it’s not taking reservations bizarrely until March and the word on the street is that Refuge Lac Blanc is currently building theirs to launch January 2024 – watch this space …..
Regardless if you’re hiking the tour self guided independently, and even if you use the online booking system, you’ll still need to piece together your accommodation like a giant puzzle.
Here are our top suggestions to help you plan your own self guided TMB adventure:
1. Get your head around the trail
Read as much as you can, early on, before you even want to think about booking the refuges.
Buy a couple of the guidebooks. Kev Reynold’s Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc is the most longstanding and popular guidebook, although we love the detailed maps in Trailblazer’s Tour du Mont Blanc by Jim Mathorpe.
There’s also a new guidebook Tour du Mont Blanc by Kingsley Jones released recently which we’re reviewing right now.
If budget isn’t an issue, consider buying a 3D relief map of the Massif du Mont Blanc area to put up in your home while you plan the trail. They cost around €40 online and are invaluable for understanding the elevation aspects of the trail and are, of course, fantastic souvenirs once you’ve completed this epic trail.
2. Decide how long you want to hike each day
You need to think about how long you want to be hiking on the trail each day. Is your aim to complete it in the fastest possible time, or do you want to relax, take in the incredible scenery and enjoy your walking holiday?
How fit are you? What might take some hikers 7 hours to complete, may take 9 hours for others. Expect to be on the trail between 7-9 hours a day if you’re hiking one stage per day which means you’ll be setting off 7.30-8.00h and arriving between 16-17h.
Don’t just look at the kilometres involved in each stage. More seriously you need to take into account the elevation gain (and loss) each day. Always expect it to take longer than you anticipate – sometimes by two hours!
The most common feedback from trekkers after they’ve completed the trail, after raving about the sheer beauty and how incredible it was (!) was that they underestimated the elevation!
I now recommend that you buy a copy of the map by Kingsley Jones in your planning stages – it has a very useful elevation map of the entire 170km trail with very accurate timings for a walker, a trekker, a fast packer and a trail runner. Not only does this map gives you a reality check on the elevations of each day, it also enables you to calculate to a good degree how long each stage will take you.
One way to try to calculate how far you are able to hike each day is to measure your pace. Try timing yourself on a sample hike similar to one of the stages on the Tour du Mont Blanc. Easy if you’ve got some mountains near you. Not so easy if not.
Once you have the Kingsley Jones map you can however time yourself on the first day or two between particular timing points and you’ll get a good idea of whether you’re on his walker or hiker pace. From there you can easily calculate what time you should arrive at the refuge each night for the rest of the trail.
If you want to shorten some of the days on the trail, or skip some sections by taking public transport, there are some great options on my itineraries page.
3. Research the refuges
Decide what kind of TMB experience you want to have when it comes to your accommodation. Are you happy to stay in high altitude huts in rough and ready conditions or do you want a few more home comforts? And know that not all huts were created equal.
The standard of hut when it comes to quality, comfort & welcome varies wildly on the tour. You can still have a high altitude hut experience without it being, well, disappointing. You just need to know which refuges to book!
With this in mind a little research goes a long way and it will affect your daily schedule because you know you want to stay in refuge X,Y and Z but definitely not B.
Our post, Tour du Mont Blanc Refuges – the good, the bad and the ugly will help you identify which refuges to avoid and which to snap up. For much more information on the refuges I’ve now written an 87 page TMB Refuges Ebook which details 24 of the refuges and accommodation on the trail with interior refuge photos, what the rooms look like, what food you can expect as well a full guide on how to book the refuges.
Do yourself a favour and book your Tour du Mont Blanc huts early –…June 13, 2023
All refuges were not created equal. Make sure not to miss out on one…June 13, 2023
This post will help you decide which TMB refuge accommodation to book, particularly if…November 12, 2020
4. Consider public transport options
Unless you’re a TMB purist who would never dream of skipping a stage, know that there are some good reliable transport options on the Tour du Mont Blanc for those of you who might want to drop a section here and there to make the hike shorter, or who just want a back up in case of tiredness.
Perhaps you only want to hike the raw, rugged jagged sections where the landscape is wild and the cols high. In this case if you’re looking to shorten the hike, you might miss some of the Swiss sections with their more serene countryside. Think rolling hills and charming hamlets.
Perhaps you just want back up in case of bad weather – and this is a real possibility so take heed. It is always good to know what plan B is.
5. Acclimatising – days before the hike
Think about your arrival day. Most will arrive into Geneva airport, many from long haul flights. You’ll be tired and your body weary.
Many of you may be coming from sea level so to hit Chamonix which lies at 1035m elevation in itself and then hitting the trail, even the next day might be a lot for your body to take.
If you’re following the traditional anti-clockwise tour then Stage 1 isn’t too much of a of a slog elevation wise, especially if you take the Bellevue cable car up! The highest point on the first day is Col de Voza at 1653m or if you’re thinking of taking the alternative route (only in good weather) the Col de Tricot’s lofty heights top at 1478m).
However, if you’re not too fussed about following the traditional route then consider basing yourself in Chamonix for a couple of days to acclimatise and do a couple of ‘training hikes’ which could actually be on the Tour du Mont Blanc route anyway. For example Stage 10 (Tré-le-Champ – La Flégère) and Stage 11 (La Flégère – Les Houches) can be accessed directly from the Chamonix Valley and you could hike these stages as day hikes with just a light day pack and stay in a Chamonix hotel with all it’s comforts before hitting the main trail.