In 5 Tips for Fastpacking the Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB) ,Iain Martin shares his advice for a four-day hike around the famous trail running course.
For anyone with a place in the UTMB, fastpacking – trail running with a light backpack – is the most time-effective way to recce the course.
The classic Tour de Mont Blanc typically takes hikers 7-10 days to complete, but you can strip that down to just four days, reducing the 100 mile circuit to manageable chunks of 25-30 miles per day.
There are companies and coaches who offer a ‘serviced recce’, with your luggage transferred from your accommodation each day. This is a great option if the dates and budget fit, but if you are going solo, here are my five top tips for fastpacking the Tour du Mont Blanc.
It may be axiomatic that fastpacking means packing light, but just how much are you willing to forgo?
I took only one set of run clothes, plus some compression tights, a pair of shorts, one set of socks, and two T-shirts for the evenings. [I always take a spare pair of socks, because the joy they can bring far outweighs the extra grams. But also “two evening shirts”? – Robbie]
Some people might flinch at wearing the same running gear for four days in a row, but if you’re going to wear it non-stop in the race for longer, then why not test that now?
Most refuges have rooms to leave your kit and trail shoes in overnight to dry out. They also normally provide Crocs, so there’s no need to weigh your pack down with sandals either.
Refuges will provide blankets, but typically require a sleeping sheet, especially with Covid protocols in place. If you don’t have one already, shop around. Silk bags take up less space and weigh less than cotton.
A book takes up too much space, so you’ll need to compromise culturally as well. I downloaded a few films onto my phone to fill the few hours I wasn’t running, eating or sleeping.
There are a few areas where you can’t compromise. Ensure you have your required combination of chargers for your phone and watch – because if it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen.
I also carried all the compulsory safety gear on the UTMB kit list, because it’s there for a reason – the weather can change very quickly in the mountains.
Finally, remember to take some cash as not all refuges accept cards.
Plan your Nutrition
I managed to fit all of the above into the Inov8 Race Ultra 2in1 pack. This has a 10-litre pocket, which was just about filled to the top after I had added two-dozen gels.
Although this added significantly to the weight, I needed to be sure I could fuel. Fastpackers don’t stop for lunch, so having guaranteed calories onboard is essential.
I recommend you load up at breakfast as much you comfortably can. In refuges, you’re likely to be limited to cornflakes and bread, but if you’re in a hotel with a buffet breakfast…well, there’s your lunch too! My hotel in Courmayeur not only had the normal pastries and cereals, but ham, cheese, bacon, scrambled egg and even chocolate tarte.
Refuges offer a picnic lunch, but these rarely pack down small, nor are great value for money. I supplemented my gels instead from shops along the way – croissants can last surprisingly well, I learned.
When you’re out on the trail for most of the day, having a hydration plan is essential. Every litre of water is an extra kilo of weight to carry, but this is not an area to gamble with.
You should know from your own experience what your sweat rate is in different temperatures and conditions and ensure you’re stocked accordingly.
Ironically, it’s easier to find water on the Tour de Mont Blanc than food.
You can top up by buying from shops and refuges, but those single-use plastic bottles will cost you and the environment. Instead, you can top up from the many water fountains in villages you pass through on the route, especially from La Fouly onwards.
And don’t be afraid to top up from streams. It sounds like an advert for Evian, but this is pure, filtered snowmelt. As long as you are above any livestock or human habitation, you can’t get any healthier or fresher.
If you are unsure about stream water then it’s quite easy to take purification tabs with you or have a bottle with a filter like this.
Know your Route
The signposting on the Tour du Mont Blanc is very good and if you pay attention it’s hard to lose your way.
The complications come if you are on a recce for the UTMB. From the top of Les Houches, the traditional Tour du Mont Blanc will take you direct to Les Contamines, but you will need to drop down to Saint Gervais, then follow the course of the Bon Nant river upstream.
Good research and the various .gpx files available online to download can help you follow the exact route, but be mindful that the UTMB course has changed several times over the years, so select the most recent you can find.
Consider as well how much you want to cover in any single day. Assuming you start and finish in Chamonix – as 90% of people do – then the obvious midway break at the end of day two is in Courmayeur.
However, this is less than half of the anti-clockwise route, leaving two significantly longer and hillier days to finish. Instead, consider pushing on through Courmayeur to one of the refuges beyond.
You might miss out on a night of (relative) comfort in a hotel, but you’ll be able to start the hike to the highest pass on the course at Grand Col Ferret (2537m) with fresh legs and before the heat of the day.
Book your Accommodation Early
Having decided on your route, your immediate next step should be to book your accommodation.
Some refuges have reduced capacity available due to Covid regulations, but even those operating normally book quickly in peak season.
The official Tour du Mont Blanc website is very efficient and, in most cases, gives you live updates on current availability, as well as allowing you to book online.
I’ve only sampled a small number of the refuges available on the route, but my favourite was the Auberge de La Nova in Chapieux. Friendly, family run, neither too large, nor too small, good food and a great welcome.
My final piece of advice is to book a good hotel for the start and, especially the finish of your trip.
I chose Plan B – a funky hotel/venue near the Aiguille du Midi, which struck the right balance between comfort and expense.
By the time you return to Chamonix you will have covered over one hundred miles and climbed over 9500m of some of the most beautiful, but testing mountain scenery in the world – it’s time to treat yourself!