Cycling the C&O Canal

Front and read panniers

Gear & packing

Unless you are riding the 335 miles without changing clothes or sleeping, you will need to pack a change of clothes, personal hygiene equipment, food, and possibly camping gear.  This can easily become a considerable amount of equipment which will require a storage strategy.  What gear do you pack and how are you going to carry it on your bike?

Great Falls Virginia Weather

On-the-bike Clothing

Cycling helmet — ANSI and/or Snell approved
Touring shoes — good for walking as well as riding, i.e. some flex in the sole
Cycling gloves
Cycling shorts (1 to 3 pair)
Socks — wool or synthetic (2 or 3 pair)
Leg warmers or tights for riding (rain pants could substitute)
Short-sleeved shirts (2)
Light, long-sleeved shirt for layering and sun protection
Rain gear, jacket and pants
Waterproof shoe covers

Pre-ride bike check

Bike loaded with panniers and trailer
prepare for wet conditions

Off-the-bike Clothing

Comfortable shorts
Comfortable pants (zip-off legs or rain pants could substitute)
Underwear (1 to 3 pair)
Sandals, flip-flops, or lightweight shoes
Wool or fleece hat
Wool sweater or fleece jacket
Gloves — wool or fleece
Swimsuit (optional)

fall over if not supported. I found it easiest to lean the bike and trailer against a wall. The BOB trailer is the perfect design for the C&O because of the single rear wheel. There's a grassy median separating much of the towpath so a trailer with two wheels (side-by-side) would be running one of the wheels through the grass. 150 miles of a bouncing trailer would be hard work.     

est bike and tires for the towpath

Hybrids and mountain bikes are most popular. The wider tires absorb the bumps and perform better in wet conditions.

Bikes & tires

Gear & snacks

I was watching a movie about the Tour de France and there was a clip showing a guy from the support team applying chamois cream to the racers shorts.  The coach demonstrated the proper technique which is to apply generous amounts of cream and then evenly distribute the cream across the chamois area of the shorts before you put them on.  Rub it into the chamois pad so it's nice and even. Unfortunately, I found that I needed to reapply the cream multiple times a day, but it's not convenient to remove your shorts during the ride so you must simply reach down your shorts to reapply the cream. This move is best performed when your friends are looking the other way.

Before I set out on my first multi-day ride I was worried that my legs would not go the distance. As it turns out my legs were not the body part that I needed to be concerned about. I quickly learned that sitting in the saddle for eight hours a day focused a lot of pressure on my hands and my bottom. I learned that two of the most important things to pack are a decent pair of padded bike shorts and chamois cream to protect yourself from rashes. I stopped at the bike shop to pick up a few things and the salesman suggested that I get some "butt butter". After my first long day in the saddle I realized how critical chamois cream is. If it weren't for chamois cream I never would have managed 70+ miles per day.  I have since tried a dozen different products which all seemed similarly effective.

Perform a safety check on your bike before starting on your ride. If you feel more comfortable, take it to your local bike shop for a tune-up. Services are limited along the towpath so fix any issues in advance. Having a mechanical issue 20 miles away from the nearest bike shop can be stressful and walking 20 miles to the nearest bike shop could put you in a bad mood. If you perform your own bike maintenance you will know what to look for. For everyone else, check out the video put together by Park Tools.

Waterproof or water-resistant?  Waterproof bike panniers are made from material such as treated, high-denier Cordura or waterproof, dry bag style PVC. These bags take a heavy duty, minimalist approach to maintain that none of your gear will get wet. By reducing features like pockets and zippers, you can be assured you will have a dry pair of socks to change into after a long ride in the rain. 

Water-resistant panniers are typically made from heavy-duty, rip-stop Cordura fabric. With a plethora of features like outer pockets, zippers, snaps, and Velcro closures, necessity items are easily accessible, and organization is a breeze. To increase usability of water-resistant panniers in inclement weather, there is the option of tight fitting rain covers, which offer the best of both worlds.  I saved $75 on my current 

Powered by the Peel: Bananas are snacks ready to roll; they are famous for their potassium and contain carbohydrates that may provide advantages to your muscles' ability to use the fuel efficiently. More fuel reaching your muscles means more pedal power for you. A recent study compared bananas to commercial sports drinks in a trial of bicycling performance and found them to be equal. 

Peanut Butter Jelly Time: PB&J's are perfect pocket fuel. The bread and jam (or honey) provide carbohydrates and the peanut butter offers protein and fats. Allergic to peanuts? Try almond butter if you can tolerate tree nuts or sunflower butter if not. Swap a tortilla for bread to prevent having a squashed sandwich. Cut your sandwich into quarters and have one piece at 15- to 20-minute increments.

Trail Mix: Dried fruits and nuts are a concentrated source of carbohydrates. Dried apricots, prunes and raisins have the added benefit of potassium. Mix your favorite fruits with nuts and seeds to keep your body supplied with energy, vitamin E and magnesium. If you have a heavy sweat rate, you may want to choose salted nuts and seeds.

Water Works: In general, if you're planning to bike for an hour or less, water is the best way to stay hydrated and to prevent drinking the calories you just burned. If you're going to be rolling for more than an hour, have a heavy sweat rate or the weather is exceptionally hot, consider having two bottles with you — one for water and one for a sports drink. You may purchase a sports drink for the sake of convenience, but making your own with black or green iced tea, a splash of juice, some sugar and a pinch of salt is easy and provides an added antioxidant boost. Take sips of fluid often to maintain hydration and alternate between the two drinks if packing both.

Energy Bars: While energy bars are convenient, they also can be expensive. If you would prefer energy bars, look for one that has ingredients such as whole grains, dried fruits and nuts.

Tee shirt store

What makes a good biking snack is about more than just energy. It needs to be portable, provide your muscles with the nutrients they need, eaten on a good schedule and can't melt. Pack more snacks than you think you need, and, in general, aim to have a few bites of food and a few sips of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes.

Here are five super snacks for you to tuck into your jersey pockets:

After completing a long trek, your recovery and readiness for the next ride depend on your post-ride food choices. Research indicates that having recovery fuel within 30 to 60 minutes after exercise is ideal. What is best? A small meal that contains a mix of carbohydrates, protein and fats, as well as a glass of water. One good option is a parfait of plain low-fat yogurt layered with cubes of cantaloupe and sprinkled with nuts.

purchase a rack. These clips wrap around your bike's frame tubes and accept the lower mounting bolt.

A front rack offers an additional mounting spot for gear. It is a secondary option after a rear rack as it adds weight to the bike's front wheel and can affect steering and balance. Front racks are popular mostly with touring cyclists who carry large volumes of gear. There are two primary styles of front racks:

  • A standard rack (also called a "top mount") maximizes gear capacity as the load can be carried above the front wheel as well as hung off the sides.
  • A low rider rack accepts bags only on the sides but holds that weight closer to the ground for better balance.

As with rear racks, front racks are designed to attach to the braze-on mounts on your bike. Next you will need to decide which bags to mount to your rack. 

You are not in California anymore.  Five days without rain in Maryland is called a miracle.  Be prepared for wet weather. A lightweight rain shell and waterproof pants are usually a good idea.  This link to the USDA Forest Service provides good weather related & outdoor safety information.

Posing at the Mile 0 marker

Regardless of which type of bike you ride, make certain that the bike is properly adjusted to fit you and most importantly, that it has a comfortable saddle. You could spend 8 or more hours a day in the saddle so make certain that it's properly adjusted and doesn't rub against you while pedaling. Check out this video from REI on how to select the right saddle. Many riders prefer a wider tire (35mm+) which delivers a smoother ride and doesn't tend to sink as much when the trail is soft. Hybrid tires or conservative mountain bike tires with smooth tread in the center and lugs on the edges to handle mud work well. It rains on a regular basis in this part of the country so you should prepare for conditions like those pictured above.

Clothing essentials

Most long-distance cyclist use a combination of front and rear racks to transport their gear


There are many different pannier options for configuring a useful bike commuting or bike touring set up. One main point to consider is how much you want to carry. Some bags have distinct advantages over others when it comes to hauling specific items and load weight. For instance, experienced commuters usually prefer lightweight panniers with lots of organization pockets for a laptop, change of clothes, and small bits. The touring set up, however, is usually more simple, designed to carry larger items (tents, sleeping bags), and endure the daily beating of traveling through a multitude of weather conditions and over various terrain. When maneuverability and simplicity are key, racks and panniers are a good solution.

Another option which provides lots of storage is to attach a trailer to your bike. This method is not as popular as panniers simply because the trailers are not as user friendly and they are several hundred dollars. The most popular trailer which was once named the "Beast of Burden" was shortened to BOB. There are a couple different models which are between $300-$400. Check out the different models on BOB gear website. My friend loaned me a trailer for my most recent GAP-C&O trip and it certainly made packing easier. The waterproof bag provides 5600 cubic inches of storage which exceeds the combined capacity of all four panniers (roughly 4000 cubic inches). The dry sack did it's job and kept everything dry through two days of pounding rain. The trailer does add a challenge to parking your bike. You can no longer park in a bike rack because the weight is in the trailer so it will 

panniers by purchasing the water-resistant style over the water proof.  After one rainy day on the trail I wished that I had invested in the water proof style because everything I owned that was not in a zip-lock bag was wet.

One of the most popular brands is Ortlieb.  They are not cheap but they make a beautiful product.  Check out more of their products here.

C&O Towpath tee shirt

Clothing essentials

Pack a light for the Paw Paw Tunnel

Bikes & tires


pack food for your ride

Eat a few energy bars a day to prevent yourself from ever getting really hungry on the trail.

Beast of Burden (BOB) trailer

Invest in a decent pair of padded bike shorts and chamois cream to protect yourself from rashes.

Your gear list will change by the season. You won't need long tights or a warm fleece jacket in August. It's interesting how you develop favorite pieces of equipment over long rides. On my last ride my top three favorite things looked like this; my lightweight North Face rain shell which made me cozy through two long days of rain, the "incredibell" bike bell which saves you from calling out to every person you approach on the trail "on your left", and the chamois cream which made my nethers very much more comfortable. Here's a list to get you started:

Recommended gear

  • helmet
  • padded bicycle shorts
  • chamois cream
  • comfortable saddle
  • bike lock 
  • spare tube, patch kit, tire levers
  • multi-tool, tire levers
  • headlight (you will need this for the Paw Paw Tunnel)
  • pump or inflation cartridges
  • bike bell (you will shout "on your left" apx. 400 times without a bell)

Other gear to consider

  • basic first aid kit
  • sunscreen
  • matches or lighter
  • water bottles
  • food

A rack provides a stable framework to hold gear on your bicycle. In good weather, items can be strapped directly to the rack without a cover. For weather protection or the ability to hold loose items together, rack trunks and panniers can be easily attached to the rear rack.  Most long-distance cyclist use a combination of front and rear racks.  Keep in mind:

Rear racks are usually rated to carry loads between 20 and 50 pounds, which is sufficient for most uses. A few heavy-duty touring models are able to carry up to 80 pounds. These racks have 3 supports per side (others have only 2). Most bikes have braze-on mounts to accept the bolts that attach a rear rack. If your bike doesn't have these, you can still mount a rack using metal C clips that are included when you 

 Racks & panniers

Recommended gear

Bike trailers

The C&O towpath is not technically demanding so you can ride any type of bike. However, hybrids and mountain bikes are most popular because the upright riding position causes less fatigue which is a big factor on longer rides. The towpath is bumpy and can have miles of mud after a storm, so the larger tires provide a little more shock absorption and stability. Touring or road bikes cover miles efficiently but are harder to manage in wet conditions.  Thin road-bike tires can sink into the trail surface which makes each mile feel like two. 

The GAP is a different story. The surface is made of fine crushed limestone which is a fairly smooth surface and can be managed with any type of bike. Thin road bike tires will sink a little into the limestone surface when its wet but it will still be more manageable than the mud on the C&O canal.

C and O canal tee shirt store