C&O Thru-Hike Round 2 Complete!

The second hike from Cumberland, MD to Washington D.C. was just completed; almost 5 years after the first hike.  I’d like to share here some updated thoughts and experiences for anyone that is contemplating this adventure.

We left Cumberland early Saturday morning September 16th for ten days of hiking.  The weather was unusually warm for this time of year.  Mid to upper 80s during the day and 60s at night.  There was no rain, but there were a few wet and muggy days.  This time we started and ended with three people.

Learning from our last time on this trail, we all worked on lightening our packs, switching from boots to trail runners, leaving the hiking poles at home, and going from tents to hammocks.  We had more re-supply stops by family members, and took better advantage of food and equipment provided by local shops along the way.

Hammocks added new challenges, but overall I found it superior to sleeping on the ground.  If planned carefully, it can be done with less weight than most tents, and the comfort can be much better hanging once the mechanics are fully worked out.  There are negatives.  One of our planned stops didn’t have enough trees for three hammocks, so we put in another 6 miles to get to the next site which was exhausting.  The complexity involved with a hammock is usually greater than ground sleeping.  Tree distances, trunk sizes, hang angles, hang height, tarp rigging, under quilt suspension…  One could spend a long time fiddling and adjusting to get everything just right.  Then you have to find just the right diagonal to lay on and just the right spot to be laying relatively flat…

But waking up in the hammock for me was so nice.  No soreness.  No pressure points.  It was rejuvenating sleep that made the next day that much easier.

I tried to follow my own advice from last time and not actually carry water.  I drank my fill when we stopped at water sources.   A couple of times, I was grateful to “borrow” a drink from Doug or John who preferred to keep water on hand as they walked.  However, I’m still glad I didn’t usually carry any water which made my load that much lighter.  Many times I noticed that they carried the water but didn’t drink any until we stopped.  Most of our stops had water available.  A few times we anticipated long, hot walks between water sources and I would break down and carry 24 oz.

I feel that the hike was significantly easier this time around.  Largely because of the pack weight reduction, footwear changes, and better weather.  It was uncomfortably warm most days, but I think that beats cold, wet, and shivering.

This time we wore long pants and long sleeves, which for me helped with bug issues.  I didn’t use much Deet this time around, but my clothes were all treated with Permethrin.  I only had one major bug problem on the last night, and I’ll talk about that a bit later.  I said “bit”.  Ha!

The feet did well this time.  We suspect the mid-top boots we had last time were a problem.  Last time, the foot pain was spectacular.  This time, other than a few blisters, our feet were fine.  We used Leukotape for blisters and blister prevention, and we used some hike goo between the toes for lubricant, though I don’t know if it was necessary.  Lighter packs and trail runners that allow water in and out are probably the key.  My socks were wet a few times, but they dried quickly.  That keeps the blisters down.

Tyvek Home Wrap:  I can’t recommend it enough.  Cheap, tough, light, easy to clean.  It kept me and my pack clean(er).  I balled it up repeatedly until the noise went away, which made it soft and pliable.

You can see on my pack above that I carried an orange Spot Messenger.  Cell service is rare for the first half of the hike, a strong lesson from last time.  This time we had the ability to let people see where we were and how we were doing even if we were days away from a phone call.  Fortunately, we didn’t need to call for help this time.  It made a nice record of our trip as well:

Click me:  Google Map


As you can see, we caught the park service between mowings.  Perhaps half the trail was overgrown.  We would get very wet wading through this grass to set up hammocks, or have a quick break at the picnic table.  It also contributed to insects, snakes, and ticks being a bigger issue than usual.  Long pants and Permethrin are a necessity!

Nobody brought stoves this time.  We ate cliff bars, pro bars, green belly, chips, tortillas, spam, candy, and what-have-you.  We got pizza in Hancock, sandwiches at White’s Ferry, and hot dogs and ice cream at Fletcher’s Cove.  For the re-supply stops they brought subs and grilled up hamburgers.  We also stashed some food to eat just at the re-supply stops, including various chips and snacks we packed in our re-supply bags.

We all added gaiters to our gear.  They kept the rocks out of our shoes and it made it so much easier for us.  Highly recommended.  Not constantly stopping to dump gravel out of our shoes seemed to speed things up compared to last time.

Last time, we took one bath in the river.  This time, we took several.  The river level was lower than last time, which helps a great deal to avoid mud when getting in and out.  The water instantly cooled us down and soothed our aching feet.  One thing I didn’t carry that my companions did was spare clothes.  That means that I stood around trying to dry off before getting in the hammock, while they were clean and cozy in dry clothes.

Some of the un-needed extras that I brought along included a chrome dome umbrella, and a rain kilt.  I carried a light down jacket and a down hood to wear at night.  I needed none of these things, but I don’t regret carrying them anyway.  If we had rain and it had been cooler at night, I would have needed them.  The jacket and hood served as a nice pillow, so they weren’t completely useless.  I used my head bug net (above) most of the time.  That saved me from the constant annoyance of gnats, mosquitoes, and spider webs.  I admit it was a bit stifling though, especially in the heat but I’m glad I had it.

I turned into a major gram weenie this time around.  My base pack weight was 9 pounds.  All of these photos were taken by John and Doug because I was too stingy with weight to bring my phone and charger along.  On the second half, I took the phone out of my re-supply and carried it, but didn’t have a charger or battery pack so I left the phone off.  I was able to call home to my Wife each evening after that which was very uplifting.  I overshot my food estimate by about 20%, which I think was a good thing.  Better to have too much than not enough when it comes to energy.  That added a couple pounds though.  I had no spare clothing at all, just enough soap, just enough tooth paste, and just enough of a tooth brush.  I bought cuben fiber everything and made it my mission to be as light as possible.  Almost nothing came with me that I didn’t consider a necessity.

Did it help?  Absolutely.  It was so much easier this time than last.  How much it helped, I don’t know.  The shoes helped.  The weather helped.  The comfortable hammock helped.  That I’m 50 pounds lighter personally than I was last time also helped.  I think maybe I could have brought a couple more pounds of comfort items this time around and been fine.  If I had it to do over, I’d bring sleeping clothes and a battery to charge my phone.

The last night..  This was Swain’s Lock, which is the last hiker/biker campsite on the trail when south bound.  I mentioned a bug problem and this photo was taken in the middle of it.  The last night was the warmest.  Most nights, I had my top quilt around my feet, and a pad under them to keep the chill out.  My under quilt is a 3/4 length, (because I’m such a gram weenie), so the sit pad is necessary to insulate my lower extremities.  It was so warm the last night that I did not use the top quilt or the pad and slept with my skin exposed to the hammock.  I didn’t realize it until I got home the next evening, but the mosquitoes chewed on my calves and the bottoms of my feet right through the hammock fabric all night long.  So if you bring a hammock, I suggest treating the hammock itself with bug repellent, using a full-length under quilt, and/or making sure there is an insulating pad under all exposed skin.  This was a 1.7 single layer Warbonnet hammock.  I’ve read that the dual layer 1.1 doesn’t have that problem, but in any case, I was decimated by those little blood suckers.

Kissing mile marker 0.  For me, this trip was not a good time.  It was exhausting, dirty, painful, dangerous, and I’ve already seen the sights last time I came through.  But I’m glad I did it, and I’m proud that I did it.  This was all about the challenge, and supporting my friends through it.  I’m so happy that we were able to finish this, and we couldn’t have done it without the support of our families.  Thank you Kevin.  Thank you Rosie.  Thank you Karla.  Thank you Vonda.


2017 is on.

Last weekend we did our first of four shakedowns for a September thru-hike.

See where we went here:

Spot Map

We did 15 miles on day one, and 5 miles on day two with an additional exploration of Williamsport.

Changes from the last hike include using hammocks instead of tents, lightening up the pack weight significantly, and trying to better source local food supplies rather than carrying everything.  I’m also using light-weight trail runners with gaiters instead of the “waterproof” boots I used last time.

My base pack weight was under 10 pounds with my new gear, and the difference was amazing.

Tips for Thru-Hiking the C&O Canal Towpath

I learned a few things on the trip, and specific hiking advice for this trail is rare on the Internet. Here are a few tips if you would like to hike the entire 185 mile canal in one go.

1. Season

I trained during the summer, and the heat, bugs, and humidity were miserable. Much of the trail follows a ditch filled with stagnant water after all. Winter means heavy clothing and no water pumps. Spring is generally wet. We picked September/October and the weather was generally pleasant. We also were able to see the leaves changing.

2. Water

Unless it is above 95F degrees, you might not need to actually carry water. Water is plentiful on the trail. Each Hiker/Biker campsite has an iodine treated pump, and boat ramps provide easy access to the river. Even if the pump is out of order, each campsite has river access. Plan breaks at H/B sites and boat ramps. Drink your fill while you are stopped. Bring a pump filter or water treatment drops for drinking river water. 32oz. Gatorade bottles are lighter than Nalgene or Camelbacks with hoses and bite valves. Bring a folding bucket and a length of paracord for emergencies. Sometimes river access is difficult and a rope and bucket will keep you from having to scramble down and up steep river banks and overhangs.

Water is turned off from November 15 to April 15 each year.

3. Shoes

The terrain ranges from muddy grass to gravel to fist-sized stones in clay. Higher boots will keep gravel out, and stiffer soles will make walking in large gravel and rocks more comfortable.

4. Blisters

Blisters were universal on our trip. Socks were damp. Bring duct tape, sports tape, moleskin, paper towels, antibiotic ointment, corn pads, and scissors. You might want to bring needles and a lighter, or like me, cut a larger hole in the skin with the scissors. Walk through the pain and they will get numb within a few minutes of starting up.

Duct-tape or moleskin areas that get sore before blisters form. Bring several sock liner changes and a few pairs of thick smartwool socks. Injinji toe socks worked great as liners for me. Foot powder helps keep feet dry, and also holds the foot stink at bay. 🙂

5. Trekking Poles

This is personal preference, but the trail is mostly flat with occasional hills near the locks. There aren’t many occasions where balance is helped by carrying poles. Those in the group that brought them put them away after the first few days. I preferred to keep my hands free and avoid the weight. The other benefit of poles is weight distribution, but we did fine without them.

6. Food

More personal preference, but personally I enjoyed trail mix and Cliff bars over MRE or freeze-dried meals. Easy is good, and the trail mix was 150 calories per ounce. I left the stove at home and didn’t miss it. Those in the group with stoves quickly grew weary of bowl washing and boiling water. You may need hot food, and that’s fine. Maximize the number of calories per ounce.

There are 4 or 5 towns along the trail with real food available, but many are well off the path and up-hill. We were pressed for time and ate only in Hancock, but you could get a hot meal on at least 3 days if you plan it right.

7. Weather

We experienced hot, cold, hot/wet, and cold/wet. Depending on the time of year, clothing choices are very important. You shouldn’t carry many types of clothing because of the weight and bulk, but you need to watch the weather carefully lest you sweat in your raincoat or freeze in your mesh tanktop.

8. Pace

We had just under 12 hours of daylight during our hike in early October. At our peak performance, we were able to complete no more than 25 miles in a day. We did 2 hours a day on the trail before sunrise, and hiked to about one hour before sunset. Carrying 35 pounds on our backs we set 3MPH as our pace, and it was difficult to maintain. We took a break every 5 or 6 miles and did a one-hour lunch. The last few miles of each day were very painful. Unless you are in great shape and want to almost jog the trail, do not plan on more than 25 miles a day, and consider 15-20 miles as comfortable.

9. Rest/Camp Planning

We had a complex spreadsheet with 3 options for specific stop locations over the entire trip, but we really didn’t use it. It was easy enough to plan each day as we went, usually at camp. If you are heading south, the last few days are a bit critical because the camp sites become more sporadic close to the end.

If you have an iPhone, I highly recommend spending the $2.99 on the C&O Companion application. All points of interest, maps, GPS, and real-time trail distances were constantly used and extremely useful. Better than the paper map by far, though you should have both just in case.

Maps are available at all 4 visitor centers. I’m not sure about the other 3, but at Great Falls maps were in a box outside the office for after-hours access. No need for a compass.

10. Toilets

Depending on your timing, you may not need much toilet paper. Every portable toilet we used had plenty of paper installed. Toilets are serviced every 7-10 days it seems. I strongly recommend hand sanitizer to prevent illness. Toilets are at each camp site, picnic area, most boat ramps, ferrys, etc. Picnic areas and pay campsites usually had permanent “outhouses” with septic systems. No running water at any stop with the exception of Great Falls (14) which has a full bathroom facility, and Swain’s Lock (16.5) which has a water pipe and a drinking fountain. There may be others, but these were all we saw.

11. Personal hygiene

There are no showers, unless you count hotels in the towns. “Fresh Bath” wipes help, but they leak and are heavy. Make sure you keep them in heavy duty ziplock bags to keep the juice out of your pack. A 4oz Nalgene Camp Suds bottle is useful for you and your clothes. If you can swing it and the weather is reasonable, I strongly recommend a dip in the river. (Not near rapids, dams, etc. of course.) You might have to wade through 3 feet deep of dead plant matter at the edge of the river, but once you get out to the regular river bed, a bath is easy and refreshing.

We met a couple with a solar shower. That may work for you, but keep in mind that privacy is rare on the C&O.

12. Bugs

Ticks are a serious problem in this region. Lyme disease is very common. You will be constantly brushing against tall grass, bushes, and basically communing with the bug world. I recommend treating your clothes and fabric equipment with Permethrin and keeping a good amount of DEET spray on hand for exposed skin. It will keep the mosquitos away and kill ticks on contact.

13. Electronic Devices

Charging cell phones is challenging on the C&O. Most of the trail is shady, and there are no outlets. The best solution I found is Lithium AA batteries with a Verbatim AA Power Pack that has USB out. It can do almost 2 full iPhone charges on 4 lightweight (but expensive) batteries. I had a Solarmonkey Adventurer, and this worked well also, except when we had a couple of rainy days in a row. I had to be stingy with my phone use (GPS, WordPress posts, etc.) so the solar panel could keep up. The last night I had to use the lithiums.

There is a big dead spot around Green Ridge State Forest. About 2 days of nothing for both AT&T and Sprint. (We had no Verizon). The rest of the trip had fair signal, improving greatly at and South of Harper’s Ferry.

184.5 Mile Radius

Just for fun, I drew a 184.5 mile radius around the zero mile marker. It looks like the river bends ate up about half of our distance.



The panoramas I uploaded during the trip might not display properly in all browsers.  I have pulled them all down and uploaded them here a bit smaller.