At the beginning of the year, I didn’t even own a bike. After spending the last 3 years finding my footing in the world of backpacking, I felt it was time for a little change of pace. Seeing my dad’s growing love for cycling inspired me to want to explore it myself. And anyone who knows me knows that when I take an interest in something, I tend to dive in fully. It only took a couple of casual day rides on some local trails with my new Diamondback Haanjo 3 gravel bike to know that I wanted to do something bigger. With some quick research, I found the C&O Canal Towpath and Great Allegheny Passage, a 333.5-mile bike route from DC to Pittsburgh. It was close enough to home that I figured I could make it happen without having to spend a fortune or take too much time off work, so I gave myself about a month and a half to get all of my gear and plan out the trip.
My biggest questions before riding the GAPCO trail:
What gear do I need?
I managed to find several bikepacking-specific websites, forums and YouTube channels with just a quick Internet search, which gave me a solid start towards determining what I would need to carry. With my backpacking system already established, I found the transition into bikepacking to be somewhat simple. All I really needed was gear specific to the bike (i.e. the right tools, a spare tube, padded bike shorts & storage bags to strap all my gear to the bike) – most of which I purchased off Amazon.
The thing to remember is: everyone’s gear suggestions are based on what works for that individual – what works for them might not necessarily work for you.
Where am I going to sleep? (Campsites vs. Lodging)
The most clutch resource, by far, was an Instagram Live chat which I happened to stumble on, featuring a young black woman who had just completed the route in only 4 days. She recommended everything from reading through comment sections on GAPCO-enthusiast Facebook groups to picking up a copy of the official TrailGuide book, which I ordered the same day. This made mapping out logistics fairly simple.
With the intention of keeping costs down, I decided the best option for me was to tent-camp each night. This proved to be much easier on the C&O Towpath, where campsites come much more frequently than on the GAP. Majority of the campsites along the GAP also come with fees and require reservations in advance, which made planning stops in Pennsylvania a little more challenging.
How many miles do I need to cover per day?
I planned to complete this trip in 5 days, meaning I would need to average about 66 miles per day. I quickly realized, however, that doing exactly 66 miles a day wasn’t feasible, as it did not align with designated campsites. My intended itinerary and daily mileage was as follows:
Five Day GAPCO Bikepacking Itinerary
Day 1 – Traveling North from Mile Marker 0 in Georgetown, DC
69.4 Miles to Antietam Creek Campground (Sharpsburg, MD)
Stops at: Great Falls Park (Mile 14), Dinner in Harper’s Ferry, WV (Mile 61)
Day 2 – Continue 86.6 miles to Paw Paw Tunnel Campground (Mile 156)
Stops at: Lunch in Williamsport, MD (Mile 99), Hancock, MD (Mile 124)
Day 3 – Continue 28.5 miles into Cumberland, MD (End of C&O Canal Towpath)
Connect to GAP – Travel 43 miles to Husky Haven Campground (Rockwood, PA)
Stops at: Lunch in Cumberland, MD, Meyersdale, PA (GAP Mile 33)
Day 4 – Continue 67 miles to Cedar Creek Park Campsite (Smithton, PA) (GAP Mile 110)
Stops at: Lunch in Ohiopyle, PA (GAP Mile 73), Connellsville, PA (GAP Mile 88)
Day 5 – Complete final 39 miles to reach Point State Park fountain in Pittsburgh, PA (GAP Mile 149)
Stops at: Lunch in Boston, PA (GAP Mile 127)
Where can I find reliable, up-to-date information about the trail itself?
Along with utilizing Facebook groups, https://gaptrail.org/ provides everything from maps and trip guides to the latest trail alerts to keep travelers updated on anything GAPCO-related. I checked this site as much as possible leading up to the trip, and even during stops where I had service.
Did everything go according to plan? Of course not!
Was the trip anything like what I expected? Not in the slightest.
“This will be an easy 5-day trip,” I thought to myself. “If you give me a good 8-10 hours of daylight, I’m pretty sure I can easily put away 70-80 miles a day.” That was the mindset I had going in. With literally zero bikepacking or touring experience, I was very naïve to the level of difficulty of the task I was about to take on. I also made practically zero effort to train, aside from a few last-ditch rides on our Peloton the week prior. I was used to carrying 25lb of gear on my back while backpacking, but I had no idea what it would feel like to push a 30lb bike with 30 extra pounds of gear strapped to it on a not-so-smooth gravel trail. That was probably my biggest mistake.
Though I was fortunate enough not to experience any mechanical issues with my bike, I did run into a few problems:
- The pure physical exhaustion I experienced from about mile 15 onward. When starting in Georgetown, it is worth noting that you are starting at sea level. For the first 200+ miles, the trail is an uphill battle, literally. Though not at a particularly steep grade, the sheer distance at which you are traveling uphill takes a toll on you.
- It is always a smart idea to test out all of your gear before you go out on a big trip to not only ensure that everything works properly, but to also ensure that you know how to properly use your gear. That’s exactly what I had in mind when I used my brand new portable pump to put air in my tires the day before setting off. But even still, things break, and on the morning of Day 2, my pump was no good. Luckily, I experienced zero flats, and I was able to get to a town with a bike shop to replace it.
- Mother Nature will always show you who’s boss. I learned that there’s nothing worse than pushing a 60lb bike through high winds, pouring rain and muddy trails. All of which slowed me down significantly and took a toll on me mentally.
Would I attempt to bike this route in 5 days again? Probably not. But I do think this trail is a great option for someone new to bikepacking or bike-touring, as I was. I might suggest doubling that time and allowing for at least 7-10 days. This will not only allow for more comfortable daily mileage, but will also give one ample time to stop and explore some of the towns. If sleeping under the stars isn’t your thing, the trail also provides plenty of options for accommodations – just be sure to reserve your stays in advance. With so many options to create your own experience, I do believe this is a trail that almost anyone with the desire can do.