Here are some tips and insights on how to plan a three-country, multi-day trail running trip around Mont-Blanc.
In recent years, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) trail running race has been considered the epitome of the trail running world. And with good reason—the rugged, 104-mile race features 30,000 feet of elevation change and 10 mountain pass crossings as it takes runners around the Mont-Blanc massif range. It starts in Chamonix, France, and winds through portions of Italy and Switzerland before returning to Chamonix, offering amazing mountain views and cultural interaction along the way.
Running the UTMB trail race (or any of the four other races held in the last week of August) can be a tall order, but you also need qualifying points to gain entry. However, if running 104 miles in one push (with a 38-hour time limit) isn’t within you abilities, you might consider runnning the same route around the biggest mountain range in Western Europe over several days. Running the Tour du Mont-Blanc (TMB) trail while staying in mountain huts (aka a “refugio” or “refuge”), small hotels and hostels has become increasingly popular in recent years. You can run the trail from a minimalist point of view or dabble in a mild amount of luxury, depending on where you stay and what kind of meals you eat.
American Krissy Moehl is one of two female runners to win the UTMB twice—the other being American Rory Bosio, who won the race in 2013 and 2014—but Moehl says her fondest memory of running in the Mont Blanc region is her solo, four-day tour of the route in 2011. She carried minimal gear, slept in huts and otherwise ran while disconnecting herself from the world.
“It was so cool to interact with all sorts of people out on the trail,” Moehl says. “Most people staying in the refugios were hikers or mountain bikers, but there was a shared sense of adventure and purpose that we were all out there doing these things in such a beautiful, rugged place.”
Running the loop in four days is an ambitious effort to be sure—most runners break it down between five and seven days. No matter how long it takes, you should be prepared to do a lot power hiking on the steep uphills, says Chris Smith, a trail runner from Boulder, Colo., who ran the route in six days with three friends in 2016.
“Most days we were either climbing or descending steep terrain, so we were not always running,” Smith says. “But with our light running packs, we still covered the distances very quickly. The trails were pretty smooth throughout the loop and every intersection was signed, so there was no problem finding our way. Water was available all along the trails from the refugios we passed or from springs that continuously dispensed water into permanent fountains.”
Here are some basic tips on how to plan a trail running trip around the Mont-Blanc massif.
1. Getting There: The closest international airport to Chamonix is Geneva, Switzerland, about an hour away by car. You can rent a car at the airport or take a shuttle directly to Chamonix. (There is daily train service to Chamonix, but there is no direct line from Geneva.) If you’re running with a group, a rental car can serve as a sag wagon if runners are willing to alternate as the driver during various sections of the course.
2. The Route: The Tour du Mont-Blanc trail is well-marked, although signage and spray-painted red and yellow “TMB” trail markers are more apparent outside of the villages. The route varies in places, but most of it consists of soft dirt trail interspersed with more technical rocky/gravel sections. In a few places, the route overlaps paved roads and dirt roads. Trail segments can be as short as 10 miles or as long as 30, depending how you decide to break up the course. You can run the route clockwise or counter-clockwise, but most runners prefer to follow the counter-clockwise direction of the race. (If you don’t want to run the entire route, you can catch a bus back to Chamonix in Courmayeur, Italy, or a train back to Chamonix in the Swiss towns of Trient or Vallorcine.)
3. Weather: Plan your run to fall between mid-May and late August for the best conditions. Temperatures typically range between the low 50s and upper 70s during the late spring to late summer, but rain can be frequent in the mountains during the summer. Be aware that brief bouts of snow and sub-freezing temperatures can come out of nowhere in the late spring and late summer.
4. Gear: A pair of sturdy trail running shoes, lightweight moisture-wicking clothing and a lightweight, medium-sized trail running pack with a large reservoir are mandatory, while a waterproof shell (and pants), a warm hat, sunblock, a second pair of socks, detailed maps and lightweight trekking poles are highly advised. If you’re going to run as minimally as possible, consider carrying a sleeping bag liner and an inflatable sleeping pad while also carrying a second pair of socks and shorts to change into after your run. A first-aid kit, blister repair patches and a small roll of duct tape should also be in your pack.
The Ultimate Direction PB 3.0 running packs were perfect for running around Mont Blanc, Smith says.
“We brought lightweight rain gear with us, some warm clothes for the cool mornings and nights like packable down jackets and a change of clothes for the end of the day,” he says. “Sleeping bag liners were all we needed for the beds in the refugios. We wore the same clothes each day and washed them out each afternoon and put them out in the sun to dry.”
Smith recommends bringing a lightweight pack towel as all accommodations have hot showers.
5. Food: Pack plenty of energy food, trail snacks and water for each day’s run. You can replenish your food supply at shops and restaurants in the 13 towns and villages along the trail and there are many places to refill hydration reservoirs and bottles with potable water along the course. Typically the “refugios” don’t have anything to buy, although you will likely encounter generous hikers willing to share their bounty.
6. Money: Make sure you take some cash and/or a credit card on your run for food, lodging and those must-have souvenirs you won’t find anywhere else. (It’s highly advised to make lodging reservations in advance.) Euros are the currency used in France and Italy, but Switzerland still uses Swiss francs. However, many businesses along the trail in Switzerland will accept Euros (usually bills only, no coins) and give equivalent change in francs.
7. Language: While it will be very helpful to speak French and understand some Italian, you can get by if you only speak English. You’re bound to hear several languages as you’re greeted by other runners and hikers along the trail.
8. Resources: There are numerous online planning resources available, including Walking the TMB and Autour du Mont-Blanc. The most comprehensive guide out there is “Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete Two-way Trekking Guide” by Kev Reynolds, published out of England and available on Amazon—and Kindle, which is really handy to bring along on your phone.
“The guide is geared toward hikers, so we essentially ran two segments per day for a six-day tour,” Smith says. “We picked out our accommodations and emailed or called them all to secure reservations. Because we had no tents with us as a backup (as many of the hikers do) having guaranteed reservations each night was essential.”