Family Bike Camping Along the C&O Canal

Laura Novak Tweet us @BikeArlington @BikeArlington August 14, 2018 1 Comments

Laura Novak lives in the West Village of Shirlington right off the W&OD Trail. She is a risk manager for Host Hotels & Resorts, and co-founder of SolPlay adventure camps, which provide enriching outdoor experiences that benefit children’s emotional, physical, and educational well-being.

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Nine kids, two adults, one teenager, 12 bikes, five days of biking, five nights of camping, tons of fun!

Several years ago, we came up with an idea to start a kid’s camp that uses outdoor adventure as a means to encourage alternative learning opportunities as well as promote physical and emotional well-being.

Since our inaugural C&O Canal bike adventure in 2011, we have sponsored four trips on the towpath and exposed over 30 kids to adventure and learning experiences. The C&O Canal is convenient to Arlington and a great place for just about any family to enjoy overnight biking trips.

An Adventure for the Whole Family

The canal’s towpath provides a nearly level, continuous 184.5 mile trail through which you experience the history and nature of the Potomac River Valley, making it a perfect adventure for adults and kids. More experienced riders can opt to do the entire canal in a weekend, while beginners may tackle the entire length over a longer period or select a shorter section of the canal.

Ways to Experience the Trail

You can choose to camp each night at the plentiful hiker/biker campsites or go luxury in hotels or bed and breakfasts. You can bikepack (hybrid between bike touring and backpacking, instead of carrying everything on your back, you load up your bike) or find someone to be a SAG (someone in a car to carry your things) and meet you at predetermined destinations. Whatever your plan, enjoy the ride. If that means going fast, then ride like the wind. If you prefer a moderate pace, use it to your advantage and enjoy the beauty and history of the canal.

Families with Young Riders

For younger kids we opted to do what I call the “Heart of the C&O Canal” from the Paw Paw Tunnel to Harpers Ferry and for older kids we have completed the entire distance from Cumberland, MD to Georgetown. We even added an additional day at the Antietam Creek campsite to take a break from our bikes and canoe Antietam Creek

Make Some Memories

Biking the canal creates memorable experiences. Some of my favorites are:

  • An amazing natural light show, courtesy of lightning bugs among the trees lining the towpath.
  • Hiking through the pitch black Paw Paw Tunnel at night with our headlamp’s night vision casting an eerie red glow. Some of the kids who were initially hesitant about entering the long, dark tunnel were intrigued by the structure and started asking questions which opened the door for discussions about the history of the tunnel and the canal.
  • Eating pies at Weavers in Hancock, MD, and burgers at Bill’s Place in Little Orleans.
  • Having fun with C&O Bike Mojo! What is bike mojo, you ask? Bike Mojo is a bit of personality—plastic cartoon characters, jewelry, rubber duckies, chili peppers—whatever you want to make your bike unique and expressive.
  • Fish nibbling on our toes in Antietam Creek, MD.
  • Exploring the nooks and crannies of the caves at Dam 4.
  • Learning how the locks worked—courtesy of the National Parks Service.
  • Seeing turtles, snakes, fish, owls, deer and so many more animals along the way.
  • Touching the MILE 0 marker in Georgetown and smiling with pride!

Planning Tools and Resources

C&O Canal Bicycling Guide

I have a well-worn print out of this guide that I have taken on every trip I’ve done on the canal. It lists all the amenities along the trail, hiker/biker campsites, and so much more.

C&O Canal Explorer Mobile App

This is a fairly new app created by the C&O Canal Trust that arguably replaces my worn paper guide. With a few exceptions, cell service is pretty good along the canal. Download the app.

The C&O Canal Companion by Mike High

The front section of this book takes a look at the history of the canal while the back gives a Mile Post Guide. This is a great resource to provide context for your adventure.

Captain Kate by Carolyn Reeder

A book about 12 year old Kate and her step brother who guide their family canal boat on the C&O Canal during the civil war. I guarantee kids will enjoy reading this book after a long day of riding as they picture themselves leading a mule instead of their bikes down the canal.


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