Tips For Hiking The Tour Du Mont Blanc As A Family
The Tour Du Mont Blanc (TMB) is considered a rite of passage for many alpine enthusiasts. The classic trail climbs above 2,500 meters five times, totaling somewhere around 30,000 feet of total elevation gain as it circumnavigates Mount Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. Passing through France, Italy, and Switzerland, the incredible 10ish-day circuit linking these three Alpine countries has been beckoning hikers and climbers for centuries. Each section of trail is comprised of a serious uphill slog, almost always immediately followed by an equally relentless descent. It’s not easy, but if the views alone aren’t enough to keep you motivated, the food definitely will!
Completing the Tour Du Mont Blanc (TMB) as a family wasn’t a new idea. My family had been tossing it around for years - long before I began traveling for a living. But just when it looked like it might become a reality, an unexpected heart attack (dad), wedding (brother), and career change (me), had derailed our plans. Now almost five years later, what started as a two generation family trip, had become three generations with the addition of my 10 month old nephew. If I’m being completely honest, when my nephew was born, I figured that was the final nail in the TMB coffin. We would probably never take another family vacation - at least not one that didn’t involve some sort of all-inclusive Disney resort (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
Now that there was an infant in tow, I simply couldn’t imagine taking the type of adventure based trip that had always been the hallmark of our family vacations. And I wasn’t the only one. My friends with kids baulked at the idea, and even on the trail we received more than a couple questioning glances. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and in July our motley crew converged in Chamonix to begin the classic trek around the famed Massif. There were ups and downs—mostly a lot of up—and it was hands down one of the most memorable and rewarding trips we’ve ever taken together. The long stretches of trail brought us closer together in that special way only shared challenges and fresh air can. I learned a lot on the TMB about myself, the importance of carving out quality time with the people you love, and the joy that comes with introducing a new generation to the outdoors.
I also learned a thing or two about planning a family trip to the TMB. I hope the following tricks and tips will make the thought of a long distance family trek a little less intimidating! There’s nothing quite like trail time to bring everyone together.
Ten Tips For Trekking the Tour Du Mont Blanc
1. Don’t Underestimate the Difficulty of the Tour Du Mont Blanc
Perhaps it’s the popularity of the trail, or maybe it’s the relative accessibility, but for whatever reason, none of us anticipated the physical challenge that the TMB presented. The distance itself isn’t too challenging, but the elevation gain can be deceiving. On paper, it doesn’t look too bad. In reality you’re climbing hundreds of meters through a new pass each day, and then losing all that elevation on the way down. Days are long, and if you’re traveling with kids, they’ll need to be small enough to carry, or strong enough to complete each segment of the trail on their own.
2. Do a few hikes together leading up to the Tour Du Mont Blanc
Not all hikers are created the same. Some are slow and steady. Some like to cruise along with frequent breaks. Others are just plain fast. In a family spanning multiple generations and personality types, you’re likely to have a mix. Knowing how everyone hikes together by doing a few hikes before the TMB will help set realistic expectations for your trip. You may find that breaking up into groups, or even starting the trail at different times each day makes more sense than trying to force everyone to hike the entire way together.
3. Take daily walks with the child carrier
If you are planning on carrying any kidos, make sure they’re used to the carrier prior to the trip. If your kid is anything like my nephew, they weren’t born loving the idea of being constrained to a small space for hours on end. The best way to combat this is to make sure that you’ve clocked plenty of time with your little ones in the carrier before the big trek. By the time we landed in Switzerland, my nephew loved the Osprey Poco, and was more than content watching the world pass by from his home on my brother’s back!
4. Test out all your gear before the Tour Du Mont Blanc
Babies aren’t the only ones in the family that should test out their gear prior to the TMB. Putting some miles on your gear before any big hike is a good rule of thumb under any circumstance, but when you’re traveling as a group, or with small children, it’s particularly important. It’s a long trail, and there is nothing that can put a damper on a trip like ill-fitting shoes, or a backpack that rubs in all the wrong places. Simply trying on new gear in the store won’t reveal these potential pitfalls - you need to break them in. Otherwise they’ll distract you from the more important things on the trail - like family. If you are considering the TMB, this probably isn’t your first hiking rodeo, but sometimes even seasoned trekkers succumb to the pitfalls of purchasing new gear right before a big trip.
5. Use A Self Guided Tour Operator
There are a number of ways to go about the TMB, from backpacking, to fully supported and guided tours. As fairly seasoned travelers, my family felt confident we’d be able to arrange all the particulars for the trip independently. But after weeks of struggling with the time difference, language barriers, and apparent lack of lodging that could accommodate the entire family (including an infant), we broke down and contacted a self-guided tour operator. I regret we didn’t do so sooner!
A self-guided tour is not a guided tour. You won’t be part of a group, and you won’t have a guide. Instead, you’ll be provided route information, pre-booked accommodations, and insightful travel logistics, so that all you need to do is get from point A to point B each day, at your own pace(s). It’s the perfect option for anyone trying to maintain the illusion of independent travel, without having to deal with any of the stressful details - which can really add up when you have a large group.
Mont Blanc Treks organized our trek for us, and I have also heard good things about Macs Adventure. This Mont Blanc Treks is giving away a fully guided trek of the Walkers Haute Route an equally epic adventure! Competition closes on the 25th June, 2019 if you’re interested!
6. Stay In Hotels Rather Than Huts
One of the main decisions you have to make, even if you’re self-guided, is whether you want to stay in the mountain huts or the small accommodations down in the valleys, or a mix. Most of the mountain huts have dorm-like sleeping setups, and the thought of imposing a 10-month old on a room full of tired hikers was enough to make this an easy decision for us. Opting to stay in more traditional accommodations (which on this trip means quaint little family run hotels), ensures a nice bed, private bathroom, and real food each night. The downside is more elevation gain and loss each day starting from the valley floors as opposed to up on the mountains. Nevertheless, with a baby on board, we all felt some predictability and privacy was desirable not only for us, but for everyone else. If I were to do the trek again with adults, and there was room available I would definitely try and stay in a few of the huts though!
7. Bring a Day Pack For the Trail & A Separate Bag To Shuttle Between Destinations Along The Tour Du Mont Blanc
With all the elevation gain and loss on the TMB a heavy pack will take its toll, especially if you’re already carrying kids. The best way to combat this is to NOT carry a heavy pack! One benefit of hiking a trail that starts and ends in civilization each day is that there are numerous companies you can hire to transport luggage from accommodation to accommodation. Some towns are too remote for a bag drop off, but if you love the mountains then you’re no stranger to going a day or two without a change of clothes. We each carried an Osprey pack with the essentials for weather changes, etc, but everything else—clean clothes, extra diapers, unnecessary gear—we stored in a duffle that was shuttled between accommodations for us. Even if you opt to stay in huts a few of the nights, this is a great option!
8. Plan on Eating Lunch at the Mountain Huts On The Tour Du Mont Blanc
Eating at the mountain huts along the TMB is an experience not to be missed! The food is delicious, and the settings are unmatched. The first couple days of the trek we packed lunches, but that was quickly abandoned once we realized we weren’t eating them. Dining at the huts will not only save weight in your pack, it’s a great way to get a taste of the mountain hut culture - even if it’s just for an hour or two.
9. Bring Favorite Trail Snacks From Home
If you have a favorite trail snack or treat, bring it with you! The food is awesome, so there’s no need to worry about starving - unless you hate carbs and cheese. But it can still be nice to have a little taste of home every once in a while, especially when you’re working hard on those uphill slogs. Plus, not every toddler is down for a Charcuterie plate at lunch!
10. Schedule one or two rest days into your Tour Du Mont Blanc itinerary
You can walk the TMB in as few as 8 days, but I’d suggest scheduling one or two rest days into your itinerary. It’s a lot of hiking, and even if you’ve trained for the distance, it’s likely that at least one person in your family will be feeling the effects of over exertion at some point. Slowing down a little and giving your body a rest can make a world of difference. What’s more, it’s a beautiful area of the world to explore! We stayed in a number of villages and towns along the trial that I would have loved to spend more time in.
It’s hard to carve out quality time with the people we love. Even when my family is physically together, all the distractions of modern life often keep us from appreciating each others company as much as we should. The TMB gave us a much needed respite from all the noise that accompanies our day to day realities. In many ways it was a throw back to a time when travel, food, and conversation were all a little bit slower. We may have started the trail feeling a bit scattered and unsure of the path ahead, but we left understanding that sometimes you have to disconnect to reconnect to the things that really matter.
Basic Tour Du Mont Blanc Itinerary
DAY 1: Arrival in Chamonix
DAY 2: Chamonix to Les Houches
Distance: 13km; Elevation Gain: +700m, Descent: -1500m
DAY 3: Les Houches to Les Contamines
Distance via Col du Tricot: 13km; Elevation Gain: +800m, Descent: -1300m (using the cable car)
DAY 4: Contamines to Refuge Nova
Distance: 16km; Elevation Gain: +1250m, Descent: -950m
DAY 5: Refuge Nova to Courmayeur
Distance: 20km; Elevation Gain: 1100m, Descent: -700 (using shuttle bus from Chapieux to Ville des Glaciers)
DAY 6: Courmayeur to Lavachey. descend to the Val Ferret and take the shuttle back to Courmayeur.
Distance: 17km; Elevation Gain: 750m, Descent: -100m
DAY 7: Courmayeur to La Fouly (begin by taking shuttle back to Lavachey)
Distance: 20km; Elevation Gain: +900m, Descent: -1400m
DAY 8: La Fouly to Champex-Lac
Distance: 15km; Elevation Gain: +450m, Descent: -570m
DAY 9: Champex-Lac to Trient (via Bovine). You can also cover this ground via the more difficult, but arguably more scenic Fenetre d’Arpette. The Fenetre d’Arpette was still covered in snow when we were there (early July).
Distance: 18km; Elevation Gain: +750m, Descent: -950m
DAY 10: Trient to Argentiere via Col du Balme
Distance: 13km; Elevation Gain: +900m, Descent: -900m
DAY 11: Argentiere to Chamonix (CONGRATS! You Finished The Tour Du Mont Blanc!)
Distance: 14km; Elevation Gain: +1200m, Descent: -500m
For more detailed itinerary information I would highly suggest picking up a copy of “The Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete Two-way Trekking Guid” by Kev Reynolds. This is the definitive guide for trekking the TMB, and pretty much everyone carries a copy in their pack!
Packing for The Tour Du Mont Blanc
For a more comprehensive gear list, check out my complete Hiking and Camping Gear Guide! In that guide you will find everything you need to get out into the mountains safely and comfortably.
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