Preparing for the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and Cumberland and Ohio Canal (C&O Canal) trails may differ from your usual bikebacking adventure. Clocking in at 333 miles, the route is longer than many other trails and is more accessible to towns and places to resupply. This trail is lengthy but significantly more leisurely than most other bikepacking routes out there. There are also plenty of opportunities to explore the history and culture of this beautiful area.
Being prepared is always a wise choice! Making sure you have the correct gear, clothing, food, and other necessities can ensure the best possible outcome and avoid potential hiccups along the way.
Gearing up for your trip.
You’ll need all the usual necessities you bring for any other bikepacking trip, but not to the same extent. Since food and resupply options are plentiful, you may be able to pair down in some areas to save weight, but aside from your standard sleeping bag and sleeping pad, there are a
Bring a small backpacking stove.
A lightweight backpacking stove and fuel canister are of utmost importance, especially if you like coffee in the morning. While most hiker/biker campsites are in relatively close proximity to towns, some areas are pretty remote. Having the option to cook at camp can save you time, extra miles on city streets, inconvenience, and of course, it’s more economical.
Bring the right tent.
Make sure your tent has these two things if you want to prevent a night of misery. A waterproof tent with high sidewalls (bathtub) because it will rain or the ground may be wet. Also, make sure you have a freestanding tent because you may have the option to pitch in one of the lean-to
shelters available at some of the campsites; this comes in handy during wet weather.
Bring a water filter. If you are a purist when it comes to drinking water, this item is a must. While all the hiker/biker sites have water available for pumping, it’s not the delicious fresh water you might be expecting. The water is treated with iodine and frankly tastes terrible—and besides, it’s quite a process getting water out of these pumping stations, so unless you have a wingspan over 20 feet, you’re going to need a partner; one person to operate the pump and another to hold your container in place. Having the option to filter from the beautiful Potomac River or filtering some tap water is always a plus if you can’t find fresh water.
Bring clothing that compliments the weather.
Undoubtedly, springtime and early fall is the best time to plan this ride. For obvious reasons like snow and freezing temperatures, winter is not a good time, and the heat and humidity can make the summer months unbearable. Here are some tips to make sure the weather doesn’t get the
best of you.
Bring clothing that can be layered; the mornings and evenings may be cool with warm daytime temperatures.
Be prepared for extremes: it’s always a good idea to google the projected average highs and lows for the month you plan on going. Also, look up the record highs and lows for that time of year and base your clothing options on that.
It will rain: While you may not need full-on rain gear because it is not cold and your clothing will quickly dry, a rain jacket at least will keep you somewhat protected if the clouds start opening up. A pair of waterproof shoes are a must!
Make sure the storage bags you are using for your gear are waterproof too. Bring a lightweight long sleeve to keep yourself from getting sunburned or pack some sunscreen.
What about food?
This is the area where you have quite a bit of flexibility. If you plan things right, you may only need to carry a limited amount of food. If you plan ahead using a guide or website that maps services along the way, you can schedule meals and grocery runs in towns you pass through, but that’s not always the best option.
At the end of a long ride, you may just want to relax in camp and enjoy some food away from civilization, so having some freeze-dried meals on hand is always a good idea. Also, some of the hiker/biker campsites are pretty far from food sources.
Breakfast is also a serious consideration. Whether it’s instant oatmeal or shelf-stable bacon, bring your breakfast. You will need some fuel to get you started, so don’t rely on getting breakfast in town; that may mean riding 15 miles with a growling tummy—not fun. Always carry snacks in case you are hungry between meals.
Check out these 4 MONTyBOCA Bikepacking Trail Recipes for Your Next Trip.
Some other ways to be prepared.
You’ll need to be in relatively good physical shape to execute this ride. While the trail is primarily flat, be prepared to be in the saddle for most of the day. You can choose your daily mileage based on your level of fitness and the amount of time you have.
I would encourage setting aside some time to enjoy the area’s history, like visiting Harpers Ferry Historical National Park or walking the Antietam National Battlefield.
Bring a battery-operated bike light. You will not have many options for charging the USB kind. Even if you don’t plan on cycling at night, there are plenty of tunnels you will be going through.
Make sure you have a toolkit and any extras you might need in case things start going downhill. There are a few bike repair shops along the way but don’t rely on them to be open when you need them.
Get to camp early if possible. This gives you more options as far as campsites go, and the lean-to shelters are on a first-come, first served basis. Make sure your bike has been serviced and is ready for a long haul.
Bring a friend! While this trail is pretty safe, it’s always a good idea to bring someone along to share the memories and help you out if necessary, especially when it comes to pumping the water.
The C&O Canal and GAP trials are a perfect introductory bikepacking trip because the trail itself is pretty straightforward, and there are a multitude of bailout options should you decide you can’t go on for whatever reason. That being said, if you’re looking to complete the entire route from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, it’s a good idea to do a thorough job preparing for your ride.
Making sure you have the proper clothing, gear, food, and other necessities can increase your chances of not having to bail out halfway through due to a lack of preparedness. Stay safe and enjoy the ride.