After we finished the Tour du Mont Blanc, more specifically, 110 miles, 11 days (1 rest day), 3 countries, and the altitude gain equivalent of climbing Mount Everest, we discussed how it was one of the toughest physical things we’ve ever done but it didn’t seem that bad after. It felt like we were on the trails for forever, but the trip flew by and we were sad to end it. We took time to discuss our personal highs and lows of each day and I think that we stayed in-tune with our bodies and minds throughout the trek, yet we all shared these conflicting feelings about the experience.
I recently had a chat with an interesting traveler I met about the perspective of time being related to the moments accumulated, and it resonated in regards to what I have mentioned about the trek. I collected soo many good moments that I feel like I was on that trek for a month, and I give most of the credit to the company that I kept. I am beyond thankful that these 2 friends came along on this trip, and that they also simply put their head down and did it. No one complained, a pleasant attitude was maintained, and honestly we never even bickered. The three of us just put one foot in front of the other everyday, for 11 days. We haven’t seen each other in 2ish years and don’t necessarily talk on the regular, but I think it was exactly who I was supposed to have this experience with. The first 3 days were probably the toughest, and we had personal challenges… like Liana ripping the crotch of her pants. But, our discussions, story time, and everyone’s general appreciation of our surroundings and the moments made me so sure I was with the right people for this trip. It made the tough moments easier, and we collected wonderful memories and a hell of an experience together.
We also made friends and met some amazing people from around the world. Before the trip, we read that you end up on the same stages and bump into the same people often, but with us taking a rest day in Courmayeur we ended up with a front half of friends and a 2nd half. Chatting over beers at the end of a long days and even spending days hiking with these new friends were some of our favorite moments. Truly, the people on the trail are a highlight and if you’re reading this because you’re considering doing the TMB, talk to everyyyyone. Reneé from the Netherlands ended up saving my poor blistered feet just from striking up convo over a card game. Kuba from Prague kept us safe from a fox trying to steal our garbage while wild camping another night. Like all night, the fox continued to come back and poor Kuba didn’t sleep. And we loved giggling with the Dutch brother and sister team (who I will be calling on in Berlin someday).
That brings me to the things I learned, loved, or would do differently. I’m not going to give a day by day run down… But I’ll share the itinerary that we did, and also what I have learned. I’m more than happy to answer any specific questions as well!
-we camped for 5n, stayed in a refuge for 4, plus a hotel in Courmayer. This meant carrying all of our camping equipment the entire trek. I believe my pack was around 30lbs, which is on the heavy side. BUT, camping is a lot cheaper, plus a completely different experience. Personally, I love waking up in a tent with a beautiful view a zipper away. We stayed in 3 different sites that were free, one of which was wild camping at Lacs Des Cheserys. There are plenty of people who choose to only camp or to only do refuges (which are like hostels with some private room availability and optional dinner and breakfast). Those that do the refuges/hotels packs are lighter and the days easier, so it’s completely a personal choice.
Examples of some of the refuges and campgrounds you can book…
-roll with the punches. Generally speaking, but also know that each refuge and campsite operate very differently, just give them grace if issues arise. Elizabetta had an issue and had no running water the morning we were there. So probably 40 people had breakfast, drank their coffee and then were told they could not use the bathroom, at all. Plus, no drinking water to start your day with and no where to get it from for a few miles on that stretch. In the US there would have been 8 Karen’s telling them how unacceptable that was, but everyone went on their way and no stink was made about it. Half of the places helicopter in the supplies for the 3 course dinner you get and I still don’t know where the workers come from or stay, so yes, expect differing accommodations but give them grace if it doesn’t meet expectations. You’ll be so tired you don’t care, and most of the time the location makes it worth it regardless (like Elizabetta below)…
-we were not in top notch shape (we are not trail runners, avid hikers, or mountaineers), 2 out of the 3 of us live in absolutely flat major cities. So, we opted to take a rest day on day 5 in Courmayeur. It was THE BEST THING we could have done for ourselves. We elevated our aching knees, stocked up on more blister bandaids, ate all the pasta and pizza, did all our laundry and just rested and enjoyed an Italian mountain town. If you have the time, take a rest day. For us, we wanted to enjoy the TMB, not race through it. If you’re on the same, ‘just cross the finish line eventual’ page as us, enjoy another cute mountain town and relax in Courmayeur.
-I’ve done a couple of big backpacking trips, but none of us are regulars (at hiking or camping for that matter). If you’re in the same boat, you can and should still do this trek!!! Here’s some tips… Y’all pro’s already know all of this so skip on down to the itinerary. Trekking poles are a must, compeed blister bandaids plus these interesting toe condom things I was given saved my toes, and Liana had to buy a knee brace. If you’re prone to any physical issues, it’s probably going to flare up. Be prepared. We also had a lacrosse ball to roll out our extremely sore muscles regularly and I think it was 100% worth the extra weight because we planned this trip 1 month out, did NOT train, and we were SORE. If you do camp, hand heat warmers saved our nights as we got cold in the tents. A small duct tape came in handy, put it on your feet AS SOON you feel something rubbing or getting red. It’s also duct tape, so it’s just always handy. Like for Liana’s split pants, seriously 😂.
-Buy the Cicerone guide book. We had story time reading about each stage the night before, and we were mentally prepared for the day. But it was also nice to consult when we came to a fork that we weren’t sure which way to head. We sure as hell didn’t want to add mileage by going the wrong way. All trails app seemed to work well for others too if you don’t want to carry the book. The trail really is well marked, but there are a lot of places to enter /exit and do day hikes. We found ourselves confused 3 or 4 solid times.
-also for the newbies- hiking boots or trail runners should be a size larger than your normal shoe size. I went with trail runners personally. If you’re going downhill, your toes should never touch the front of the shoe. I learned this one the hard way as I think this was the root of my blisters problem. 8 of my 10 toes had blisters by the end lol, some much worse than others. We met a girl who I very much doubt finished because she was in so much pain from her poor feet. I was given a tub of old school Vaseline, just rub it between your toes before you lace up to start the day and keep friction between your toes at minimum. Lace up tight for downhill and loosen up otherwise, and your feet will swell up so the extra room is necessary. People saw my feet and gave me advice lol. The above mentioned provided a little pain relief, but it was much too late for me on this trek. I’m sharing all I know with you now and I’ll be the blister guru and more than ready next time!
-bring a little extra soap/laundry detergent. You can wash your minimal clothes then hang it on your pack to dry in the sun if it doesn’t dry overnight. You’re going to get dirty, and you’re going to smell… it helps. Also, dryer sheets in your pack keeps things a bit fresher, and bring trash bags… for everything. I line my pack with it, it’s an extra layer of protection to keep your stuff dry if it rains or from a condensation soaked tent you’re throwing in your pack, because our tent was wet almost every morning, and we were lucky ones that only had light rain one evening.
-food… ahhhh the food y’all!!!! Backpacking meals would be easiest if you’re camping and worried about pack weight. But, we happily sacrificed weight for local cuisine. We made a lot of sandwiches for lunch from fresh baguettes and buying local cheese from the dairy farms and mom and pop stops as we went. You go through France, Italy, and Switzerland, the trip is a culinary experience as well as a trek! The Switzerland part may not have been our favorite in terms of scenery, but the cheese we bought along the way at the dairy farms made up for it! Moral of this story is that you’re going to have a little market or even a decent sized one available every couple of days at minimum. So don’t overpack on your food, even tho we one hundred percent hoarded everything from the free buffet style breakfast from our hotel in Courmayeur. Don’t be like us, be like the girl who offered us a single pack of ramen and half bag of dried mango because her pack was too heavy. We took it of course, and added it to our half wheel of cheese, baguette, and all the jams, Nutella packets, and crackers we had stolen lol. My point is still the same tho, food is available. It’s just up to you if it’s worth the weight to tote around a pound of local cheese (it is).
-the window to do the trek is fairly small (June, July, & August), so fair warning that the UTMB, the ultra trail running race, happens every year late August and it is a huge deal. It happened while we were on the trail and we were pumped! We thought it was awesome lol, we cheered people along as they passed us and enjoyed seeing their flags and finding the furthest country. BUT, we heard horror stories of not being able to get dinner for people that were in town before they started their trek, and parts of the trail are fall to your death situations, and you wouldn’t really want to be looking over your shoulder for a runner every 30 seconds there. So, just be aware that the UTMB is a thing, those people are nuts in my opinion (in the best way), and yea plan accordingly! But seriously, the winner ran what took us 11 days in 21 hours I believe. Psycho.
Truly it’s one of my favorite things I’ve done… such breathtaking scenery around every corner, a fun cultural experience, and just being out of the city and crowds and back into nature. All wrapped up in a physical and mental challenge that I, personally, really needed. I’m sure many of you can relate to becoming physically content in the last year, or just stuck inside your comfort zone. It felt so good to break through that, and finish out this personal challenge. If you have a chance or any desire to do this trek. Do. It.
Here is how we self planned and did our stages, along with the alternate options in case some places are full (which they can be)-
And more beautiful photos in case I’ve worried anyone with all the details and my blister stories. It’s totally worth it… my Instagram will have plenty more photos and reels as well.