Hiking the C&O Canal Towpath: Advice

(Note: originally posted on 9/21/2016)

Inspired by the fact that I could only find one guide to thru-hiking the C&O Canal Towpath (from Hikengripen), I wanted to give some advice for thru-hikers who want to hike this historic trail.

First and foremost, this is a great trail with a hybrid beginner-intermediate difficulty. It is made much easier than other backpacking trails by the amenities along the trail (water wells, porta-potties), the lack of elevation change (it’s almost all flat), and its close proximity to civilization. It is a more intermediate hike in terms of the distance covered and the number of days spent on the trail. As such, it’s a good challenge for both first-time backpackers and more experienced backpackers who normally go on shorter trips.

There are many different approaches you can take to pacing and stopping at towns, but a general guideline is that the hike will take anywhere between 9-16 days. My hiking party was me (moderately experienced backpacker, mostly short trips) and my friend (first-time backpacker), and we found that 15-20 miles a day was very reasonable. Some days we pushed to 20 miles, but other days we only did 14 miles (our average was 17), and we finished in 11 days.  We also didn’t get up too early or hike too late, and we did fine hiking between the general range of 8am and 6pm, with an hour break for lunch.

Now for some advice in bulleted format!

  • You don’t need a map or a compass: all you need is this milepost guide
    • There are easily-visible mileposts every mile: use them as guides and also as victory points, because backpacking a mile is an effort!
    • Here’s the 2016 milepost guide in Excel format, which I made for easier planning (calculating reverse mileage, for instance)
    • All the NPS C&O maps and guides are here
  • Pack moleskin: there is no such thing as too much moleskin, because there’s no such thing as too many blisters
    • Unless your hiking prep includes going on really long walks, there’s not much that can prepare your feet for 15-20 miles of hiking each day (by comparison, the usual backpacking distance on a non-flat trail is 8-10 miles/day) – because of this, there will be LOTS of blisters
      • In addition to moleskin, molefoam is a super-thick version that is good for the ball-of-your-feet blisters, and you can also get blister bandages for multi-day protection of heel/ankle blisters
        • No, seriously: we stopped twice to get more moleskin – and if you have a lot, you can also take it off each night to let the blisters breathe and heal before reapplying the next morning
    • Additional tactics for blister prevention/treatment/coping include wearing two pairs of socks, making sure to lace your boots snugly, airing out your socks and shoes during breaks, and taking ibuprofen (here are some tips from REI)
      • In the latter half of our hike, our feet hurt much less, but in the beginning the pain was constant, usually acute at the start of the day and then just dull ever-present pain for the rest of the day
  • Consider a half-way point stop
    • We hiked from Cumberland to DC and stopped in Williamsport on Day 5, but there are also good places to stop and stay in Hancock and Harper’s Ferry and Brunswick, which are all in the vicinity of halfway
      • Since we planned for an 11-13 day trip, we decided to pack half of the food and ship the other half to the Red Roof Inn in Williamsport, where we stayed and did laundry (note on laundry: bring lots of quarters and a Tide pod or something similar because most hotel machines are expensive and have no detergent available)
  • Hike from north to south
    • This is a matter of personal preference and logistics, but the trail is much less busy near Cumberland than near DC, and we loved the solitude at the start of the hike and didn’t mind the crush of people near the end of our trip because we were happy to be back in civilization
  • Hike during the bookends of summer (if you can)
    • DC and its environs are known for heat and humidity, so keep that in mind when planning your hike: we hiked in mid-September and made it with only two really hot days
  • Consider lighter shoes
    • We both used low-cut hiking shoes instead of the more traditional backpacking shoes that cover your ankles because the trail is flat and not very rocky and low-cut shoes were more breathable (here’s REI’s guide to different shoes types)
  • Train for the hike
    • This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to let it slip away in the preparation process, so go on runs, walks, and – perhaps most importantly – do some form of weight training (REI agrees)

On the Hike

  • Be ready to be an oddity
    • It is much more common to bike the C&O than to hike it – during our 11-day thru-hike, we met only two other pairs of thru-hikers, and not many more day-hikers, except for the brief stretch where the C&O overlaps with the AT
      • This isn’t bad, it’s just unusual on backpacking trips to be the only backpackers
  • Be flexible with campsites
    • We passed up on campsites on two different nights because they were too crowded (filled by a scout troop once and a highschool group the other time), and other nights didn’t sleep well because of the proximity of said sites to civilization, sometimes right across the river – bring earplugs and be ready to push an extra few miles if necessary
      • Because of this, bring cash for the pay-campsites in case you need to stay at one
  • Look out for poison ivy and sumac
    • This one is the most common warning, but one of our hiking party did fall prey to poison while foraging for wood for the fire
  • Water: treated pumps are at every campsite (an amazing luxury), but carry water with you and bring alternative means of procuring it
    • In terms of how much to carry: we hiked hydrated by carrying two Nalgene bottles and a dromedary, and probably would have been fine with just the Nalgene bottles
    • Be careful, however: pumps go in and out of service and campsites can be scarce in some parts of the trail, so bring some alternative kind of filtering just in case
      • Water pumps are all closed from November 15th to April 15th
  • Reflect on the cool history of the C&O!
    • Whether you’re a Civil War buff or a transportation nerd (like me), there are plenty of plaques along the way that provide a good excuse to stop and rest while learning about the long history of this trail
      • You can also read my post on the history I learned from the NPS

9 thoughts on “Hiking the C&O Canal Towpath: Advice

  1. Note: this comment was left on 2/13/2017, but was not transferred when I changed website hosts, so I am re-posting it.

    From: Ed Rodgers, Hikengripen.com

    Excellent advice, thank you! We are ramping up for another thru-hike this fall, and I plan on making several adjustments this time. First, your suggestion of lighter, and quicker-drying shoes makes a lot of sense. In that regard, everything I bring will be much lighter this time.

    Thanks Again!


    1. Note: this comment was left on 2/13/2017, but was not transferred when I changed website hosts, so I am re-posting it.

      From: Riordan Frost

      You’re welcome, I’m glad you found it helpful! Best of luck with your hike this fall. I heard a rumor on the trail that the NPS was going to stop treating the water pumps, though I haven’t been able to substantiate that on the NPS website. Might want to bring a pump or purification tablets just in case.


      1. Note: this comment was left on 2/14/2017, but was not transferred when I changed website hosts, so I am re-posting it.

        From: Ed Rodgers, Hikengripen.com

        Last time I used Aqua Mira drops and didn’t trust the pumps. I’ve learned that the pumps without handles are not “out of order”, but rather they failed a water safety check that week. This time, I plan on using a Sawyer mini filter system.


      2. Note: this comment was left on 2/15/2017, but was not transferred when I changed website hosts, so I am re-posting it.

        From: Charles Lynch

        No plans to stop treatment in 2017, per a Ranger. I’m leaving from Cumberland March 25 and plan on being in DC on April 4.


      3. Note: this comment was left on 2/15/2017, but was not transferred when I changed website hosts, so I am re-posting it.

        From: Riordan Frost

        Charles – very cool, best of luck with your hike! That time of year should mean the trail isn’t as busy, which will be nice. You may already know this, but the NPS site says water is shut off for the winter until April 15th: https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/camping.htm.


  2. Note: this comment was left on 2/23/2018, but was not transferred when I changed website hosts, so I am re-posting it.

    From: Mark Yarbrough

    I thought I read somewhere that tying ropes to trees was a no-no in campsites. I suppose this eliminates hammock sleeping? The answer should be obvious, but i didn’t know if straps were ok since they have less propensity to damage the bark.


    1. Note: this comment was left on 2/24/2018, but was not transferred when I changed website hosts, so I am re-posting it.

      From: Riordan Frost

      Technically true, the NPS C&O site here (https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/camping.htm) says “The tying of ropes to trees and structures is not permitted.” That being said, I don’t know how strictly the rule is enforced. I saw one group of campers set up hammocks during my hike, and they didn’t seem concerned. From my recollection though, they did find trouble finding good trees for it — the campsites are fairly open, so hammocks would have to be set up on the edge of most sites.


  3. How did you store food at night? I’m worried about all the critters! Thanks for posting this guide. I’m planning on a late summer/early fall thru hike of the C&O and the GAP.


    1. We kept our food bag inside our tent each night, and kept our packs (sans food) just outside of the tent. The trail is close enough to civilization that there were no big creatures to worry about, and keeping the food bag in the tent was enough to keep little critters from getting it. Not sure if there are larger critters on the GAP, however. I’m glad the guide is useful, best of luck on your hike!


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