In prepping for the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) I did a lot of research. I was a virgin to Alpine hiking and I wanted to really enjoy my time on the trail so I wanted to be prepared.
By and large the information that’s out there on trekking the TMB is extensive and reliable. But here are some things that I’d wish I’d known about before setting out.
They’re an important part of every traveler’s toolkit, but never more so than when on a trek like the TMB. Although there are plenty of opportunities to stay in a private room at beautiful inns like this one in Courmayeur, Italy …
… with twelve to fifty of your closest friends as roommates. It’s actually very comfortable, however, there’s always some schmo who barks at everyone to keep quiet at 8pm only to end up snoring like a buzz saw all night long. If you have your trusty ear plugs, who cares? Let ’em snore, you’ll be sleeping like a baby. And believe me, you’ll need your sleep.
Muscle balm. I’m Asian so I grew up on Tiger’s Balm. Just the smell evokes memories of my grandmother. I understand some folks have ethical issues with Tiger’s Balm. Use whatever muscle balm you like, but bring it. I can’t tell you how many people I met who bemoaned the fact that they didn’t have any. Unless you’re running these mountains regularly you’ll have at least one day when you’ll just push it too hard and too long. The adrenalin, the scenery, the majesty of the massif will inspire you to do more than your might have intended. A little muscle balm goes a long way. As does Ibuprofen. Bring a tiny bottle and be good to your body, it’ll make the days much more enjoyable.
I wished I’d brought a lot more …
… shampoo. After running out of the travel sized bottle we brought with us we bought TWO more FULL-sized bottles and used them consecutively in their entirety before the end of the trip (two weeks). Not only will you use shampoo to wash your hair, your body and whatever parts of your anatomy that will be injected with grime, you’ll also use it to wash your clothes on almost a daily basis. Even though we washed our clothes every night, it’s a rudimentary and very quick (so not to waste water) washing that will still stink up in no time flat. If it matters to you, every three or four days you’re likely to hit a small town with a public laundromat. Take a 45-minute break for coffee and a sandwich and wash your clothes. Believe me. It’s cheap, easy and a miraculous pick-me-up. When you’re wearing the same two sets of clothes every day, pulling on some fresh-ish clothes feels good.
Here’s Jack’s tip: bring two sets of clothes. One set that you’ll wear hiking every day, we’ll call this your “stink” set. Jack claims, “You don’t have to wash the stink set. Wear the stink with pride!” The second set, the “clean” set, is what you’ll change into every night once you’ve reached your destination. That’s all you really need. Just be prepared to wash your stink set every night. Believe me, you won’t be alone in this strategy.
Here’s the other thing regarding laundry: When planning your days make sure that you’re arriving at your next destination no later than 5pm, 3-4pm is more desirable in order to to take advantage of the sunlight for drying your clothes. Also, we experienced a couple hours of rain every night, usually starting at 6-7pm, so you’ll want to be in and out of the elements before the downpour starts.
Love your pack. By the end of this trip I hated my pack.
Go for a lightweight alpine pack which has a slim vertical alignment to it. My pack is a Kelty Redwing 3100, which is good for general backpacking and travel (normally love it), but it is too wide and bulky when scrambling up/down rock faces. It’ll throw your balance. You need something slim and compact. 3100 cubic inches was a great size for me. It easily fit everything I needed with room to spare. I probably could have gone smaller and lighter.
The last thing: We wish we’d brought our own tent with us, which would have allowed us to diverge from the standardized trail somewhat and avoid some of the crowded dormitories that you’re sure to encounter on some nights. Throughout the TMB you can camp pretty much anywhere you can pitch a tent; no permits required. Most of the time we chose to do alternative high alpine routes and break up our routes to make things more interesting. If you’re following a guidebook and start and end your day according to guide’s schedule, you will assuredly run into crowds every evening. Our tip is to stop either before or after the “scheduled” ending points.
There you go. The things I wish I’d known before setting out.
Good luck and happy trails.