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

Hiking the C&O Canal Towpath: History

September 2016: backpacking trip, thru-hike of the 184.5-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath (note: originally posted on 9/6/2016)

First, some history of the hike: as my friend and hiking companion Max tells it, a couple of years ago, he made a New Year’s resolution to hike from Pittsburgh to DC. He made a bet with his friend Jules that he would do it by the end of the year. The year passed, but Jules gave extensions. Then I heard of the challenge, and offered to join the hike, but for a shorter span: the 184.5-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, over half of the distance to Pittsburgh (the rest is the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage). We decided to hike in the early fall of 2016 and the planning commenced, with a great deal of help from my backpacking mentor, my dad. And as an added bonus, we’re hiking a National Historic Park in the centennial year of the National Park Service!

But why is this canal a national historic park? Well, let me enlighten you with knowledge that I gained from the National Park Service. The C&O Canal first started as the Potowmack Canal, which was the brainchild of George Washington, who proposed the idea as a way to facilitate shipping to and from the western frontier (which at the time was around Ohio) along the not-so-easy-to-navigate west-to-east-flowing Potomac River. He first proposed it in 1774, but the state of Maryland rejected it – he proposed it a decade later after becoming a national hero and the state of Maryland thought it was a wonderful idea. So the canal was constructed: not a completely separate canal but a series of detours around the unnavigable parts of the Potomac, like Great Falls – the detour around which required a series of locks that were considered engineering marvels for the time. And that time was 1802, when construction was completed. The Potomack Canal Company operated the canal until 1828, at which point the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company took over, with the aim of constructing a completely separate canal that negated the need for boats to ever traverse the Potomac River. As its name indicates, it was also intended to connect the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River, but that goal was never realized.

None other than President John Quincy Adams broke ground on the C&O Canal on July 4th, 1828. And it was a busy Independence Day for not far away, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad also broke ground. The construction was finally completed in 1850 at a final cost of $11 million (about $320 million in 2016 dollars). It didn’t reach the Ohio River, but it did stretch 184.5 miles from Georgetown in Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. And even though the canal didn’t reach its planned length, it did pretty well transporting materials from whiskey to coal and in its peak year – 1871 – it saw 850,000 tons of goods and sometimes over 500 boats simultaneously traversing the canal. After that heyday, however, a series of major floods and economic misfortunes put the C&O Canal Company in a bad way, and in stepped the B&O Railroad to buy the majority of their bonds. Whether cleverly or mischievously, the B&O then progressively captured the C&O’s traffic until a major flood in 1924, at which point (surprise, surprise) there were no repairs made and the C&O Canal shut down as a trade route for good.

The story has a happy ending for the canal, however, as the B&O Railroad sold it to the government for $2 million in 1938 (about $32 million in 2016 dollars), after which the government made repairs, declared it a national monument in 1961 and then made it a national historic park in 1971.

So there you have it. The first canal project in the country giving way to the first major railroad in the country, and retiring into the care of the National Park Service. And now Max and I will be hiking the towpath that the mules used to trek as they towed the boats, and camping not far from where the canal keepers used to sleep.

All of the information about the C&O Canal’s history is from the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plans.