Bikepacking the C&O Canal Towpath

Written by Lidia G.

With COVID summer coming to an end and the heat starting to fade, bike camping is a great social distance activity you can do with a couple of your fellow biker friends. The 184 mile long C&O canal towpath trail, which starts in Georgetown Waterfront and ends in Cumberland, Maryland, offers beautiful scenery and numerous camping spots along the trail.

C&O Canal Lockhouse

My friends and I have bike camped many times along the trail. Here are some tips and pointers on where to stop, what to pack, and what to expect along my favorite section of the trail between Georgetown and Harpers Ferry.

Where to stop

The first camping site is located 15 miles out from the trail starting point, near Great Falls at Marsden Tract Group Campground. If you are willing to travel an additional 15 miles for a more secluded area you will be able to camp at Horsepen Branch. From there, bike camping options are available every 4 miles. The last campsite is located 10 miles from Harpers Ferry. By then you will have traveled around 50 miles. Well done! To celebrate, you can hit up the Smoketown Brewing Station in Brunswick and camp at Brunswick Family Campground.

“Bike Washington” is a phenomenal web resource that covers every possible aspect of the C&O system as well as other trails in the area. Visit them at http://bikewashington.org/canal/plan-camping.php

At the campsite

  1. Table with benches.
  2. Fire pit.
  3. Port-a-potty.
  4. Some sites have water, but this can be unreliable especially as a result of COVID.  We recommend filling up all your water containers at every opportunity, which may be at a location that does not offer camping (visitors center, e.g.).  Keep your eyes peeled!
  5. No trash receptacle.  Pack in, pack out!

Your bike

The trail consists of numerous terrains, including concrete, gravel, and dirt. I recommend equipping your bike with gravel tires. You will have a better grip on the road and lower probability of flats. Check out our other blog posts for more detailed information on prepping your bike for an adventure ride.

There are many ways to outfit your bike for bike camping. I am 5’3 and have a small Kona Sutra touring bike (pictured left), which is fitted with a rack.  For small trips, I only use 25-liter panniers. It is enough space to fit camping gear (minus the tent and sleeping bag), clothes, and food. The tent and the sleeping bag are strapped on top of the back rack. Tall people with bigger bike frame can use a seat post bag (pictured left).  My friend has a 16-litter bag, it fits his tent and clothes.

In case of a flat, bring extra tubes, a pump, and tire levers. An excellent video that helped me when I first learned how to change a flat can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2HMwOHyfsc

What to pack

  1. Tent. I have a backpacking tent that weighs 4 pounds, made by Big Agnes. Mine is big enough for two but is compact enough to easily secure on the bike.
  2. Sleeping bag.
  3. Sleeping pad.
  4. Pillow (optional).
  5. Hammock (optional).
  6. Water filter. There is often drinkable water at the site. You can avoid bringing extra by purifying the water from Potomac.
  7. Fire starter.
  8. Jet boil or other stove depending on what you plan to cook.
  9. Bug spray.
  10. Toiletry bag. Wipes.
  11. Toilet paper.
  12. First Aid Kit.
  13. Rope with carabiner for the bear bag set up. While there are few on bears on C&O, there are rodents who are happy to have your food.

Clothes

This all depends on the weather and how comfortable you are with being stinky and dirty. I try to bring clothes that are pack small and sandals that don’t take a lot of space.

  1. “Day one” bike outfit.
  2. Non-bike shoes for camp relaxing.
  3. Non-bike outfit for camp relaxing.
  4. “Day two” bike outfit. I usually use the same top from day 1. At the end of the first day, I hang the jersey on the tent to air out.
  5. Depending on the weather, pack long sleeves, pants, and wool socks.

Food and liquids

Since there are no stores near, plan your meal in advance.

  1. The easiest meal is hot dogs, which can be cooked over the fire. That is my go-to meal. If I am feeling fancy, I will bring mac and cheese or beans to cook in the jet boil.
  2. Snacks, snacks, snacks. It is recommended to eat something every 90 min on the ride. I usually fill my bike with granola bars that can be easily eaten without stopping. Constant consumption of snacks will help your body to maintain energy and not fade throughout the ride.
  3. Water. I carry a platypus backpack, which holds 4 liters and has a lot of room for snacks.
  4. Electrolytes. They help replenish minerals that the water can’t. I dissolve a tablet in my water bottle and store it in the bottle cage where it can be reached easily.

Biking after the rain

If you decided to hit the trail after rain, here is what to expect:

  1. Giant muddy puddles.
  2. Fallen trees.
  3. The freshest air.

I hope this information gets you started on your adventure. If you need any help prepping your bike for C&O adventures, Handy Bikes is happy to help!

Lidia G. is a mechanic and team member at Handy Bikes since early 2020. She has bikepacked the C&O extensively, and completed a trip across the country by bicycle in 2019 along the Adventure Cycling Association’s Western Express route from San Francisco to Pueblo, and then the TransAmerica from Pueblo to Washington, DC.

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