Touring around DC for the beginner
During the time of COVID-19 bike touring, along with all other forms of non-essential travel, should be avoided. Campsites and restrooms will be closed. Stay home, be safe. This information will be here when recreational travel is possible again.
Bike touring — multi-day, self-supported bike trips — can be a daunting hobby to get started with. It can also lead to some of the best and most meaningful experiences one can have on a bike. Getting to the point of being comfortable touring on a bike takes years of experience, but there’s only one way to get there and that’s touring!
So I’m going to give you a few pointers to getting started on your new bike touring hobby. Given that there’s a lot of general touring how-tos out there, this one is going to be specific to the DC area.
Cutting to the chase
This post is going to be centered around starting touring by doing a few overnight bike tours on the C&O Canal Towpath. A great trail is a resource every beginner bike tourer wishes to have, and we here in the DC area have it!
A little back story: from the 1830s to early 20th century the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was used to transport coal from the Allegheny Mountains to DC. The barges carrying the coal were often towed by horses. This towpath is now what we have free access to ride on. The surface is pretty smooth, made of fine gravel with typically decent drainage. While it’s not tarmac, it’s a very easy surface to ride a bike on.
Here are the reasons starting out on the C&O Canal is a fantastic way to start getting into bike touring.
It’s close to home. For many of us we can start this short bike tour from our front door. No need to involve a car in the logistics. Just ride to Georgetown and you’re there.
It’s flat and quiet. The athleticism of bike touring is definitely an intimidating aspect for the beginner. But if you ride your bike even somewhat regularly, I’m confident you can ride the canal.
No navigation needed. Once you get to Georgetown it’s a straight line. No need to plan a route or have a GPS.
No traffic. Riding on unfamiliar roads with unpredictable traffic is scary. No worries about that on your first canal overnighter as the canal is completely isolated from cars
Free and frequent campsites. There are free hiker/biker campsites with water and toilets in frequent intervals on the canal. Pick your distance and you have a place to camp. More on this below.
Never far from a rescue. Should you have a mishap on the canal, you’re never far from help. There are almost always roads near the canal and you’re unlikely to ever be out of cell service. You’ll never be stranded.
Picking a campsite
There are several free hiker/biker campsites dotted along the canal. They have regularly serviced toilets, water supply, and are not generally too crowded. The first free campsite on the canal leaving from DC is at Swains Lock at mile 16 of the canal. There are campsites at frequent, roughly 10 mile, intervals from there on.
Link to NPS C&O Canal map:
Getting the stuff
Figuring out your setup is a big part of touring, but you should take your time getting everything together. Don’t let anyone tell you that you *need* to have a specific bike and racks and equipment to bike tour. For your first few short trips (which I will get to in a second) you can get by with very little investment.
Most of you are familiar with this stuff. You’ll probably want to buy, borrow, or otherwise ascertain the following:
1. A shelter - tent, hammock, whatever
2. Sleeping bag and (probably) a sleep pad
3. Some way of carrying that stuff
You’ll need something to eat while you’re out there. There’s a few ways of doing this, but for this first camping trip I’m going to suggest you stick with the simplest method: bring something pre-cooked. Something that transports well, like a burrito, is a great way to simplify prep. Assuming you’re doing an overnighter you’ll want your precooked dinner, some snacks to eat while riding, and something to eat for breakfast.
After your first trips, start integrating cooking, camp stoves, etc, but starting with a burrito and some snacks is a great way to simplify.
For this first canal trip just about any bike will do. I’ve seen people ride road bikes, commuters, mountains bikes, and everything in between. It’s best to make sure it’s in decent working order. You’ll be a little more reliant on it for a bike tour than you are just riding to the bar. For this first trip just run what you brung!
You will definitely want to have some tools you’re relatively comfortable using. See our Accessories for the beginner post. The independence and self sufficiency you can feel while bike touring can be one of the most empowering and fulfilling parts of the experience. But it also means you’ll want to know how to change a flat along with a few other basics before heading out on this first trip.
Learning by doing
Throughout these first few overnight trips pay attention to your setup. If you can, ride with a few other people to see how they’ve outfitted their bikes for the trip. Maybe your bike could use some bigger, more supple tires. Maybe a sleeping bag that packs down smaller would save a lot of room. You’ll figure all that out. The important thing is to get a few trips under your belt in the process.
This is the secret sauce. Frequent, short, low-stakes overnighter bike camping trips are the best way to learn to tour. Period.
You can tweak your setup between each trip, both the bike and the camping stuff. You can feel what works and what doesn’t. C&O overnighters will give you practice with a safety net.
This approach to learning how to tour is all about being comfortable with your setup. The opposite approach is to find some guide online (perhaps what you thought this one would be), that tells you to buy everything they recommend, and set off on a multi-week trip through the backcountry. I hope it’s clear why that kind of approach can get you into trouble, and why this way will let your setup grow organically such that you know it in and out.