plan your ride

Estimate daily distance

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Ask yourself, how many miles do I feel comfortable riding each day? No matter what your riding experience, you will likely average somewhere between 8-10 miles an hour. One effective way to estimate your daily miles is to decide how many hours a day you feel comfortable in the saddle. Every 10 miles roughly equals one hour on the bike. Using this formula, a 50 mile day would equate to five hours in the saddle. Planning to ride around 35-40 miles day gives you plenty of time to stop and read about the area history. If you ride the "through trip", the distance from Washington to Pittsburgh .

Below is a sample itinerary for my latest ride from Pittsburgh to DC. No camping on this ride...just hotels and B&B's. 

  • Pittsburgh - Ohiopyle (75 miles)
  • Ohiopyle - Cumberland (75 miles)
  • Cumberland - Hancock (60 miles)
  • Hancock - Harpers Ferry (63 miles)
  • Harpers Ferry - National Harbor (61 miles)

An advanced cyclist can sustain an average speed of 13-15 mph provided that they're not loaded down with too much gear.  Bicycle tour companies limit their daily mileage between 30 and 50 per day but advanced cyclists will typically ride 60+ miles per day.

Arrange lodging

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Spending overnights in a hotel will certainly require less gear than camping. It can be more adventurous to sleep under the stars but carrying all of the camping equipment requires you to work harder when your bike is fully loaded. Also bike handling is impaired when your riding with full panniers or a trailer.  Staying in hotels/B&B's/hostels will make packing easier but you will likely spend more money.

Research the target towns because you will have choices between Youth hostels, Bed and Breakfasts or hotels.  One thing I learned is to make lodging reservations in advance.  Many of the Trail Towns have limited lodging options and the places fill up.​



Sleep in a Lockhouse

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The Canal Quarters program is a cool lodging option because you can spend the night in a historic lockhouse which has been restored to provide the experience of what life was like 150 years ago!

Each Canal Quarter lockhouse has been furnished with furniture and accessories from a different time period, and each tells a different story about the development of the C&O Canal. We encourage you to spend the night at all 6 – each provides a unique experience!

All six Canal Quarters lockhouses can sleep up 8 people. They have been used for romantic couples getaways (including some engagements and weddings!), family getaways and reunions, girls’ weekends, scout troop lodging, and a special place for parties, holidays, and celebrations. They are pretty cool so they tend to get booked up, so if this option is for you make your reservation in advance.

There are six different lockhouses available for rental:
Lockhouse 6 (mile: 5.4) - full amenities

  • Lockhouse 10 (mile 8.8) - full amenities 
  • Lockhouse 22 (mile 19.6) - Rustic
  • Lockhouse 25 (mile 30.9) - Rustic
  • Lockhouse 28 (mile 48.9) - Rustic


The lockhouses rent for $100-$150 per night and sleep eight. Each Canal Quarter lockhouse has been furnished with furniture and accessories from a different time period, and each tells a different story about the development of the C&O Canal. Most of the lockhouses are rustic with no electricity or water but there are a couple (6 & 8) that have full amenities. Check out the Canal Quarters website to view availability.

Fitness & Fatigue

These handlebars are very odd but they offer numerous hand positions

Do you have to be in great shape?

For long distance cycling, fatigue is your biggest challenge.  Pedaling for 6-8 hours a day sitting in the same position causes your muscles to cramp up.  Stretching and changing positions as often as possible helps but on the bike, your movement is limited to a handful of different positions.  Stretching before each ride and taking regular breaks to perform additional stretches seems to be pretty effective at battling fatigue. One technique I use to fight fatigue is to alternate each mile between standing and sitting.  Stand up on your bike this mile and sit on your seat for the next.  I find that this uses slightly different muscles and it gives your bum a break from non-stop sitting. Do the same thing with your hands...keep switching up your hand positions.

The key to an enjoyable trip is being comfortable.  Take breaks every couple of hours and stretch.  Make certain that your bike is properly adjusted so that you are as comfortable as possible.  Your clothes should not hinder your pedaling motion and if you feel clothing rubbing against your skin you should stop to adjust it.  It doesn't take long for rubbing clothes to break your skin.  

A tee shirt customer from Virginia cycled from Pittsburgh to DC in two days.  He was trying to split the distance into two even days but he had friends in Frostburg so he planned his overnight there to visit with his friends.  It’s roughly 140 miles from Pittsburgh to Frostburg and 195 from Frostburg to DC.  That's a lot of miles each day.  You would need to be a considerable athlete to overcome the intense fatigue such distances would inflict.  I found his story very inspiring because I never imagined that even possible.


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gear & packing

How much gear do I need

Unless you are riding the 335 miles without changing clothes or sleeping, you will need to pack clothes for however many days, personal hygiene equipment, food, and possibly camping gear.  This can easily become a considerable amount of equipment which will require a storage strategy.  What are you going to pack and how are you going to carry all of this gear on your bike? Watch the video to get a better idea of what to pack.

bike gear

Bikes

Gravel bikes and hybrids are the most popular bikes on the trail

The trail of fine crushed limestone provides a fairly smooth surface which can be managed with any type of bike. If you're riding through to DC on the C&O Canal it is suggested to have tires which are 32mm or wider because the C&O Canal is bumpier and can be muddy so the thinner tires tend to sink into the surface and don't offer much traction. Most road bikes can only accommodate thinner tires so you may want to consider some other options. Regardless of which bike style you choose, be certain that the saddle is comfortable. More about the saddle in a minute...

Hybrids - The most popular bike style is a hybrid because the more upright riding position tends to be more comfortable for extended periods in the saddle and the tire size is optimal.

Touring bikes - Typically have hardware which accommodates front and read panniers, have drop bars which provide a more aerodynamic body position than a hybrid and are made to carry heavier loads that touring demands. They will commonly accept a 32mm tire but often not accept anything larger.


Gravel bikes - This is a relatively new bike style which is similar to a touring bike with the drop bars but often has a larger tire size which is even better for the non-paved trails. These are excellent bikes for the trail, especially if you plan on riding greater distances each day (50+ miles).


Mountain bikes - The upside of a mt. bike is that they commonly have suspension and larger tires which make for a cushy ride. The downside is that they are usually equipped with a flat handlebar which doesn't offer many hand position options. Hand fatigue will happen more rapidly so many people add bar ends to gain additional hand positions.


Tires

Tire choice is important when riding both the C&O Canal and the GAP

When the trail conditions are dry all tires work well. The trail surface will become softer after rain showers (which happens often in PA) and and thin tires (23mm-25mm) will sink into the trail surface. A bike loaded with gear is already harder to pedal than a bike with no gear so the last thing you want is for each mile feel like two miles. I recently upgraded my tires to a 40mm size which translates to about 1.5 inches. That size tire supports the loaded bike well and also gives me more traction on the slippery spots. offer Most people select a slightly wider tire (35mm+) which provides a smoother ride and doesn't tend to sink when the trail is soft.  Hybrid tires or conservative mountain bike tires with just a little tread in the center and lugs on the edges to handle mud.

If you do your own maintenance, check the bike over before leaving for long trips. If you don't do your own, take the bike to your friendly local bike shop for a safety check and tune-up.

Saddles

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Bicycling is supposed to be fun, not painful. Yet, it's quite common for even somewhat-experienced cyclists to tolerate saddle discomfort believing it's simply an inevitable part of the sport. Wrong! On the right saddle, you'll be able to enjoy even lengthy rides while hardly noticing your seat at all. If you ride from Washington to Pittsburgh (or vice versa) in five days, you will spend roughly seven hours a day in the saddle. If there is any discomfort with your saddle, you will certainly find it.

So how do you go about choosing the best saddle? The first step, is ensuring that you're on the right type of saddle for how you ride. There are three basic riding positions, with three corresponding seat types:

Upright Riding Position - sitting completely upright, pedaling slowly with all of your weight directly on the seat. A wider, cushioned seat works best for this rider.

Regular Riding Position - leaning forward slightly, pedaling faster with some of your weight supported by handlebars and pedals. For these riders a medium-width, medium-padded seat works best.

Forward Riding Position - leaning very far forward, positioned for maximum aerodynamic efficiency with your weight supported by seat, bars and pedals. A narrow, lightly padded seat works best for these riders.

If your sit bones are too wide or narrow for a certain seat, you won't benefit from any of its features because it doesn't fit you correctly. Your sit bones should be centered over the rear of the saddle. Often there are anatomic bumps in the area for this purpose. An interesting and effective innovation you'll see in many modern saddles is a cutout or cutaway in the top, which looks like a groove or hole has been cut out of the top of the saddle. The idea is to remove the part of the saddle that's usually responsible for pressuring sensitive tissues and causing numbness and pain.

Different saddle makers have different ideas about the best shape of the cutout and whether it should go all the way through, be a deep groove or maybe just a slight recess. What's important is that you select a saddle that feels right to you. If the cutout is in the wrong spot for your anatomy, it won't do any good. So, it's important to sit on a seat and get a feel for which design works best.

Clothing Gear

Go To Clothing

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Look for clothes that are lightweight, packable (i.e. non-bulky), versatile, and appropriate for your expected conditions.  

Some people think in terms of on-the-bike clothes and off-the-bike clothes, but as much as possible bring clothing that can serve as both. Many riders swear by a light, loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirt for protection from the sun's rays. When it gets chilly, layering is the ticket. If the weather looks threatening, keep your waterproof shell layers easily accessible while riding. You are not in California...five days without rain in Pennsylvania is called a miracle.  Be prepared for wet weather. A lightweight rain shell and waterproof pants are usually a good idea.  

Cycling shorts, cycling shoes, a helmet, rain gear, and cycling gloves make riding more comfortable. A good rain jacket and cycling shorts are necessities, and there are a variety of options specifically designed for cyclists; look for Gore-Tex or another waterproof fabric that breathes and protects from rain and wind. The cycling specific shorts are equipped with a padded center area which conforms to your bottom. This pad is called the chamois.

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Shorts and chamois cream

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Before I set out on my first multi-day ride I was worried that my legs were not going to make 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 "AsMaster". I laughed because I've been riding for years and never used chamois cream before. It was pretty funny that AsMaster is the actual name of a product. 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 many different chamois cream products which all seem to be similarly effective. 

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Suggested gear

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Here's the basic list of suggested gear 

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


Panniers to carry everything on your bike  Other gear to consider 

  • basic first aid kit
  • chamois cream
  • sunscreen
  • matches or lighter

packing gear

Attach your gear

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Attaching gear to your bike

The most common and economical way to transport your gear is to outfit your bike with panniers.  Named after the French word for baskets, these front and rear bags are a popular way for commuters and other cyclists to carry their gear. Panniers offer roomy storage, protection from weather and the ability to quickly disconnect from the rack so you can take your gear with you. They attach to racks using a simple system of spring-loaded hooks, clips or bungee cords. They can be used singly or in pairs.There are many different types of panniers and I have made some mistakes by trying to save a money on cheaper paniers. 


You can't really talk about panniers without discussing bike racks (and I don't mean the type of rack that you lock your bike to when you go into the grocery store).  Most bikes have mounting hardware to attach rear racks. 

Bike racks

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Front and rear bike racks

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 does not have these, you can still mount a rack using metal C clips that are included with the mounting hardware. 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. Heavier items are stored in the front panniers which improves bike handling.

Panniers

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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.

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 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.

C&O Bicycle shop located in Hancock, MD had a great selection of panniers.  One brand that I liked was Ortlieb.  They were not cheap but they make a beautiful product.  Check out more of their products here.

trail maps