Bicycle camping along the C&O Canal has been on my wish list for years. The 184-mile trail runs along the northern bank of the Potomac River from Cumberland, MD through Harper’s Ferry, WV and into downtown Washington, DC.
This car-free trail is a popular biking route not just for experienced cyclists but also for beginners because it is an easy way for the uninitiated to gain exposure to very convenient bike camping on easy-to-ride terrain.
The cycling part itself is easy. Almost all of the riding is on a tow path that runs along a canal that is very, very flat. The path and the canal that it runs alongside were built in the mid-1800s. Mules tied to canal boats would walk the towpath pulling the boats up the length of the canal. By design there are no steep hill climbs along the route.
My 12-year old son and I did our trip in June so all but a few miles of our riding was done in the shade provided by a lush canopy of trees. In most cases—assuming dry weather— the terrain isn’t challenging and ranges from crushed stone to hard dirt to some less-improved sections of dirt and sand. This means the canal path is rideable on just about any reliable bicycle, though wider tires certainly make for a more comfortable experience.
On our trip we encountered quite a bit of rain. But even with some muddy sections of trail, my son was able to put in a solid 50 miles in one day.
There are campsites along the canal every few miles. Many of the campsites have water and toilets, too. If camping isn’t your thing, there are also hotels and B&Bs along the way and the park systems makes some of its historic lockhouses available as well.
With the ease of riding and convenience of many sleeping options, the C&O allows for a spontaneity of travel that makes it a terrific destination for novice bike campers. While I’ve done a good bit of bike camping, this was my son’s first trip and I wanted to set us up for success so planned out a trip that would be short and easy.
After a studying the canal map a bit we decided to ride 60+ miles along a section of the towpath from Harper’s Ferry, WV to Washington, DC.
Initially, I’d planned on us riding three days, tackling 15-25 miles per day and camping for two nights. Ultimately we ended up doing a 15 mile day and a 50 mile day and just one night of camping due to severe thunderstorms. Again, the ease of logistics along the C&O made it very easy for us to improvise and change plans along the way.
gear for C&O Canal Trip
It has been many years since I’ve done any bike camping and most of our family camping trips for the past several years have been done in our Volkswagen Vanagon. I had totally forgotten just what a challenge it is to pack up the necessities and get them to fit on a bike.
First off, my definition of necessity has certainly changed as I hit middle age and I totally was not going to leave my Thermarest backpacking pillow at home!
In the weeks before the trip I began assembling the cooking gear, clothing, tools and camping gear we’d need for the trip.
As it had been some time since my last backpacking or bike packing trip I was missing some gear, most importantly a stove. But rummaging through our basement crawlspace packed with camping supplies, I found most of the gear we’d need for the trip: sleeping bags, a light two man backpacking tent, air mattresses.
I also picked up a pair of Ortleib Panniers for the rear of my bike — an aged but dependable Surly Long Haul Trucker. These panniers are amazing. When I was younger, I used a pair of barely water-resistant Cannonade panniers for many trips but used the C&O ride as an excuse to finally buy a pair of real, totally waterproof, expedition-ready Ortleibs.
While the Ortlieb rear panniers are large (each bag capable of holding 20 liters of gear), they were nowhere near large enough for everything I thought we needed to carry. To supplement the bags, I needed something to carry gear on the front of my bike.
Bike Touring with a Basket
Typically for longer day rides I use a Velo Orange handlebar bag on a Nitto front rack. However, the VO bag wasn’t large enough to hold all of the remaining gear. As such, for the C&O trip I removed the handlebar bag and zip-tied a medium Wald bicycle basket to the Nitto rack.
In a stroke of genius, I put a large Mountainsmith cube bag in the rack. This offered some water resistance and kept things a bit more organized. I then used a large net to keep everything in place in the basket. This setup is a brilliant success and I’m really proud of the solution I came up with here. I would not have changed a thing about it.
The Mountainsmith bag added so much more carrying space. They’re spec’d at 26 liters but I didn’t max out the bag. I packed it with several small dry bags, one containing electronics (chargers, camera, cables), the other containing personal stuff (medicine, wallet, etc). If we were leaving the bikes unattended I could just grab the bag out of the rack and bring all of it with me.
The cargo net that held the bag in place was also a great call because it allowed me to sandwich items between the bag and net. I kept my bluetooth speaker there as well as my camera. This made them easily accessible. By the end of the ride I felt like Captain Cavemen reaching deep into his hair to pull out whatever tool or gadget the situation required.
Loading a Kid’s Bike for bike touring
I wanted my son to have the experience of carrying some gear on his bike but didn’t want to weigh him down too much. He was riding a 24” Trek mountain bike that we picked up at the amazing Second Life Bikes in Asbury Park for $100. The bike performed flawlessly on this trip and I’m sure parents have spent much more to outfit their kids for a trip like this.
I picked up very adjustable Axiom rear rack for his bike for about $20 off of eBay and with a bit of adjustment to compensate for the smaller wheel size, attached a single Arkle pannier that I used to use for bike commuting. It’s not waterproof but after lining it with a garbage bag, it was close enough.
He carried my air mattress (and, of course, my pillow) in the Arkle as well as our very hefty supply of Clif Bars, Kind Bars and Trader Joe’s brand kind bar knockoffs (the latter were the best of the three, and the cheapest, btw).
I put his airmatreess in a dry sack and strapped it to his rear rack. As such, he was carrying a lot of very very light but bulky gear. Enough that he got to share the responsibility of carrying gear and to get a feel for how it changes the bike handling but not so much weight that he was struggling with it.
Bad Weather Ahead
In the days leading up to the trip I began watching the weather forecast for the areas we would be riding through. I was disappointed to see rain forecast for most of the trip. Having read multiple ride reports where wet weather turned the trail into a muddy sufferfest, my primary concern was that my son might have a tough time pedaling and keeping his bike upright if conditions on trail got too muddy.
But as we got closer to departing for DC my disappointment turned to outright concern for our safety as the rain forecast was changed to warnings and alerts for severe thunderstorms with damaging winds, lightening and hail. Not exactly great conditions for sleeping in a tent.
The storms were predicted for our second night on the trail so before we left I spent some time looking for safer sleeping options for our second night and ended up reserving us one of the Lockhouses adacent to lock 22 along the path. These old houses were the homes of the lock keepers along the canal and the C&O Canal Trust makes several of them available for renting. This particular one didn’t have electricity or running water but would keep us out of the storm.
With the weather-related safety issue somewhat addressed, we took off for DC. We stopped to pick up my brother-in-law who lives just outside of DC. After dropping us off in Harper’s Ferry, he would shuttle our car back to downtown Washington where we would pick it up to drive home.
We got lucky having family in the area who could shuttle our vehicle for us. Note that there are for-pay services that can shuttle your vehicle for you. Also, if you’re up for a longer trip, you can park near Union Station in Washington, DC, pack up your bike and get on an Amtrak to Pittsburgh where you can ride the trail back and get your car.
And We’re Off!
One key piece of advice that I’ve picked up from other bike campers is to make sure that you load up and unload your gear on your bike multiple times at home before you take off for your trip. This allows you to make sure everything fits and you won’t have any surprise when you hit the trail head.
As such, when my brother in law dropped us off in Harper’s Ferry I was familiar enough with our loading process that it only took us a few minutes to get our gear on our bikes.
Harper’s Ferry seemed like a cool place that we could easily spend a few hours kicking around and exploring, but we were itchy to get on the trail. Unfortunately it was a bit of false start for us.
We rode a hundred yards or so before coming to the pedestrian bridge that gets you from Harper’s Ferry to the C&O canal trail on the other side of the Potomac River. This bridge is very, very difficult to traverse with a fully loaded bike. There are many, slippery, metal, stairs on a twisty staircase on the C&O side.
I carried my fully loaded bike down them and it was the hairiest part of the whole trip. I then went back up and carried my son’s bike down. I’d recommend unpacking the bike and carrying the luggage down separate from the bikes if possible. Or if you’re starting your trip in that area, just begin your trip by getting dropped off on the C&O side of the Potomac River.
Once we hit the trail we had a short 15-mile ride to our first night’s campsite. The weather was fantastic. The forecast called for rain later in the day but we rode under sunny and beautiful skies. I targeted a short ride for the first day because my son didn’t have much experience with long rides and I wasn’t sure what he’d be able to do.
A few miles into the ride he was beaming. It felt easy for him, I could tell he was confident and comfortable on his bike. We rode with the Potomac over our right shoulder and deep green woods surrounding us as we overlapped a section of the Appalachian trail. Less than an hour into the ride he turned to say he was thinking this is the best trip he’d ever been on.
We spent a lot of time on the trip trying to imagine how much man power it took to dig the canal out of the earth. My son peppered me with questions the entire trip. “How far could they dig in one day?” “How many men could dig at one time?”
You can’t help but wonder at the immensity of a project that dug a 180+ mile long ditch, at least 6’ deep and up to 80’ wide before we had backhoes. Also, the construction of 74 locks and 11 aqueducts to allow the canal boats to cross over other bodies of water. It is a staggering amount of construction work. And it was successful and riding along it makes you think about all of the other huge projects our government has tackled when it had the support and resolve to do so.
While the towpath can get a bit monotonous, the surrounding woods change quite a bit. Also, the canal that runs along the tow path is in some cases dried up, in other cases full of water and teeming with wildlife. We saw prehistoric-looking herons, giant owls and turtles throughout the ride.
After a couple of hours of riding we were approaching our stop for the night. We picked this first night’s campsite because just down the road off the trail from the campsite was a pizza place where we could stop for dinner. We grabbed pizza and a gyro and some sodas and enjoyed feasting in the cool air conditioning before biking down to the campsite.
The campsite was deep and just a few yards from the Potomac river. My son was glad that we had the whole space to ourselves. We setup camp and slathered on the mosquito repellant. As the sun set the bugs swarmed the site and were almost as annoying as the freight train that ran, seemingly, continuously alongside the campsite.
After reading for a while at the campsite’s picnic table and listening to some Bill Evans on my new bluetooth speaker, we went to bed. The dew point was so high and it was so warm out that I knew sleep wouldn’t come easy. I put in my earplugs to try to drown out the freight train and had a restless night’s sleep. My son seemed to sleep just fine.
It rained overnight. Fortunately I had remembered to cover my leather Brooks B17 saddle with a plastic bag before going to bed. We had a few showers and a thunderstorm just before sunrise.
The morning was cooler and it was comfortable laying there in the tent as the sun was coming up. As my son and I lay on our sleeping bags watching the tent brighten and the drops of water intermittently sprinkle the top of the tent, he turned to me to ask me how much further it was to Washington.
“It’s about 50 miles,” I said.
“I want to see if I can ride that far in one day, do you think I can?” he said.
I could tell he was really happy with how he rode the day before. The 15 miles were like nothing to him.
I told him he might be able to do it but I didn’t know many 12-year olds who had ridden that far before.
That was all it took. The gauntlet had been thrown down. The line drawn in the sand. I could see it in his eyes that he wanted to be the only 12-year old in town who had ridden 50 miles.
“Let’s see how the morning goes,” I told him. “We’ll take it slow and see how your legs feel when we hit the Lockhouse that we’re supposed to stay at tonight.”
“OK, I really want to see if I can do it,” he said.
The showers let up enough for us to pack up camp without getting soaked. I’d planned on making coffee for myself and oatmeal for my son at the site but the cistern pump at the site we’d slept at wasn’t working and I didn’t want to use our surplus water for cooking without knowing for sure we’d be able to fill up down the trail a bit. We hit the road with empty stomachs. While most of the campsites are equipped with a water pump, we learned that you can not expect them all to work so make sure you carry plenty of water.
On The Road Again (Day 2)
We got back on the towpath headed towards DC. I made sure to keep the pace really easy. Frankly, I was ambivalent about riding all the way to DC. I wouldn’t have minded another night of sleeping out on the trail but also really wanted to help my son succeed with his goal of tackling the remainder of the ride all in one shot.
The mud from the overnight rain made the towpath a bit difficult in spots but nothing we couldn’t handle. Our bikes and legs were covered with a thick layer of towpath mud after only a few miles.
This made the ride even cooler as we looked like a couple of explorers. My fenders did a good job keeping my gear mostly clean but at one point the mud got so thick that a stick got wedged in my rear fender causing the fender to crack. This was the only real mechanical issue of the whole ride. The 3lb bag of tools I carted around in my handlebar bag never saw the light of day.
As the morning wore on I occasionally checked the weather forecast for the coming evening and it was sounding increasingly more dangerous. Violent thunderstorms with hail, winds and lightening were forecast for the area outside of DC that we were supposed to stay in.
Making it all the way to DC was sounding better and better to me but I was trying to keep an open mind until we saw the Lockhouse. I told my son that it might be a cool place to stay despite the storms.
Throughout the morning we made a couple of stops. We found a campsite with water along the trail and stopped to make coffee and oatmeal. Along the way we met up with a group of guys who were riding from Pittsburgh to DC and they were on their final leg of the ride. They were having a blast and I envied the length of their trip. They inspired my son and he, too, wants to try to tackle the whole length someday.
We also stopped at Whites Ferry. It was supposed to be a rest stop with a couple of vending machines. We stopped and were surprised that there is a recently-opened general store at the ferry stop complete with a restaurant that made some really tasty bacon and egg and cheese sandwiches for us. A great way to fuel up for our long day’s ride.
The frequent rest stops and easy pace were making for a very easy ride. By noon the rain was gone and we were starting to get warm as the wet, sticky heat enveloped the tow path. The shade of the overhanging trees offered some good protection from the heat of the sun as we rode on. We stopped to explore the very cool aqueducts and Lockhouses that we passed along the way and saw enormous owls that flew in front of us on the towpath.
At around noon we came upon the Lockhouse that we’d booked for the night. It definitely had the air of a haunted house to it. Jay had no interest in going inside to check it out. No electricity or water, the structure looked like a safe enough to weather the evening’s storm. But Jay’s legs were feeling strong and the idea of spending the night in the old lockhouse under the flashing lights of lightening seemed less fun than making it into DC.
Back to Civilization
After a few more miles of easy peddling, we arrived at Great Falls. The Great Falls area marks the re-entry into civilization. The sound of the nearby Potomac’s whitewater churning over huge rocks soon gave way to sounds of groups and family hiking the towpath from the Great Falls visitor center.
We stopped for lunch at the Great Falls Visitors Center and after refueling, took a short walk around the trails overlooking the amazing waterfalls. Jay was starting to tire a bit, I made sure to stop for frequent water breaks as we finished the ride into downtown DC.
Once downtown, we hooked up with another bike path that we’d ridden several times on other visits that took us from the C&O up to the Omni Hotel. We were able to make the whole trip on paths but connecting with the secondary bike path after a 50 mile day on the C&O canal when we were both hot and tired got a bit frustrating. The route was not marked by any signs and we had to depend on Google maps to get us connected to the second trail.
We Made It!
We made it to the Omni hotel by 5pm. It was a full day of spinning the pedals with a ton of rest stops and water breaks but we made it and my son was beaming. It was great to see him feel so proud of a really big accomplishment.
Our bikes, our luggage and our legs were covered in mud as we checked into the Omni. We stay at this hotel regularly when we visit Washington, DC because the staff is always great about helping us out with our bicycles. This time was no exception. Even though we (and our bikes) were filthy, they checked our bikes into the luggage area with no questions asked and brought our dirt-caked panniers up on a luggage cart to our room.
I’d arranged for my brother in law to drop our car off at the hotel’s valet so we were all set for our trip back to New Jersey. We spent a couple of days kicking around DC and visiting a couple of the museums before heading back home.
This was a fantastic trip. It was an adventure that I don’t think I’ll ever forget and something that I hope my son will remember — not just because he did it with his dad but because it was really the first time he challenged himself to a big ride and he accomplished his goal.
What I would Do Differently
Looking back, there were a few discoveries that will make me plan differently for future bike camping trips like this. First off, I hate hot-weather camping. Trying to sleep in the tent while sweating like mad was no fun. I’d definitely look to do this trip earlier int he spring or later in the fall if we decide to tackle the full canal path.
My initial estimate of 15-20 miles a day was too conservative. My 12-year old could have easily done 30 miles a day for several days in a row on this terrain. I’ll keep that in mind for the next trip as well.
The severe weather really put a damper on our camping experience. I have been out in the woods in some extreme weather before but never with my son. I would really try to have alternate sleeping arrangements available if hail and lightening were in the forecast for a given night.
What Gear Worked Well
I’ll also say that good gear makes a huge difference and while I spent more money than I would have liked outfitting ourselves for this trip a few things really made the trip easier:
Surly Long Haul Trucker: this was exactly the kind of riding this bike was built for. It handled great when fully loaded and reminded me just what a joy it can be for your bike to be your home on wheels for a few days at a time.
Ortlieb panniers: I’ve wanted these forever and for good reason, despite a few short but torrential downpours, all of our gear stayed dry. Also, on the somewhat slick/treacherous mud sections, the bags were super-stable.
Wide tires: before the trip, I put on a pair of 42mm tires. They made the dirt and mud much more bearable.
Bluetooth speaker: what a joy it was having tunes on the trail. Espectially as it got very hot and my son started to get a bit cranky, some Weird Al tunes really saved the trip.
Coffee-making setup. You can read about this here. I’m glad I put the forethought into this solution. I know I’ll have coffee on the trail whenever I need it.
The basket + net + Mountainsmith modular hauler were also awesome.
Resources for C&O Canal Trip
Bike Washington has a terrific guide to the C&O that was very useful in our planning.
The National Park Service website is well-organized and has a lot of good information for planning a trip to C&O Canal.
We found that the C&O Towpath Group on Yahoo is a good place to get up-to-the-minute trail conditions and other information from folks who are very familiar with the towpath.
If you prefer hardcopy guides, there is a Trail Guidebook Available. I purchased a copy for $12. The map it comes with is useful but much of the information in the book is available elsewhere online.