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Hybrid bike with a trailer on the Great Allegheny Passage

It rains regularly on the GAP and C&O Canal so hope for the best and prepare for the worst

Hybrid bike with a trailer on the Great Allegheny Passage

gear you need

Saddles may require a number of adjustments before all of the pressure points disappear.

Hybrid bikes have flat handlebars and are popular because of the upright riding position. This bike is equipped with a fairly skinny tire. It is suggested to ride a tire which is 32mm or wider.

Check out the packing gear page for guidelines and tips for transporting your gear

Hybrid bike with a trailer on the Great Allegheny Passage
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Hybrid bike with a trailer on the Great Allegheny Passage

The best bike for the trail

The trail of fine crushed limestone provides a fairly smooth surface which can be managed with any type of bike. If you're riding through to DC on the C&O Canal it is suggested to have tires which are 32mm or wider because the C&O Canal is bumpier and can be muddy so the thinner tires tend to sink into the surface and don't offer much traction. Most road bikes can only accommodate thinner tires so you may want to consider some other options. Regardless of which bike style you choose, be certain that the saddle is comfortable. More about the saddle in a minute...

  • Hybrids - The most popular bike style is a hybrid because the more upright riding position tends to be more comfortable for extended periods in the saddle and the tire size is optimal.
  • Touring bikes - Typically have hardware which accommodates front and read panniers, have drop bars which provide a more aerodynamic body position than a hybrid and are made to carry heavier loads that touring demands. They will commonly accept a 32mm tire but often not accept anything larger.
  • Gravel bikes - This is a relatively new bike style which is similar to a touring bike with the drop bars but often has a larger tire size which is even better for the non-paved trails. These are excellent bikes for the trail, especially if you plan on riding greater distances each day (50+ miles).
  • Mountain bikes - The upside of a mt. bike is that they commonly have suspension and larger tires which make for a cushy ride. The downside is that they are usually equipped with a flat handlebar which doesn't offer many hand position options. Hand fatigue will happen more rapidly so many people add bar ends to gain additional hand positions.

The best tires for the trail

When the trail conditions are dry all tires work well. The trail surface will become softer after rain showers (which happens often in PA) and and thin tires (23mm-25mm) will sink into the trail surface. A bike loaded with gear is already harder to pedal than a bike with no gear so the last thing you want is for each mile feel like two miles. I recently upgraded my tires to a 40mm size which translates to about 1.5 inches. That size tire supports the loaded bike well and also gives me more traction on the slippery spots. offer Most people select a slightly wider tire (35mm+) which provides a smoother ride and doesn't tend to sink when the trail is soft.  Hybrid tires or conservative mountain bike tires with just a little tread in the center and lugs on the edges to handle mud.

If you do your own maintenance, check the bike over before leaving for long trips. If you don't do your own, take the bike to your friendly local bike shop for a safety check and tune-up.

The best saddle for the trail

Bicycling is supposed to be fun, not painful. Yet, it's quite common for even somewhat-experienced cyclists to tolerate saddle discomfort believing it's simply an inevitable part of the sport. Wrong! On the right saddle, you'll be able to enjoy even lengthy rides while hardly noticing your seat at all. If you ride from Washington to Pittsburgh (or vice versa) in five days, you will spend roughly seven hours a day in the saddle. If there is any discomfort with your saddle, you will certainly find it.

So how do you go about choosing the best saddle? The first step, is ensuring that you're on the right type of saddle for how you ride. There are three basic riding positions, with three corresponding seat types:

  • Upright Riding Position - sitting completely upright, pedaling slowly with all of your weight directly on the seat. A wider, cushioned seat works best for this rider.
  • Regular Riding Position - leaning forward slightly, pedaling faster with some of your weight supported by handlebars and pedals. For these riders a medium-width, medium-padded seat works best.
  • Forward Riding Position - leaning very far forward, positioned for maximum aerodynamic efficiency with your weight supported by seat, bars and pedals. A narrow, lightly padded seat works best for these riders.

If your sit bones are too wide or narrow for a certain seat, you won't benefit from any of its features because it doesn't fit you correctly. Your sit bones should be centered over the rear of the saddle. Often there are anatomic bumps in the area for this purpose. An interesting and effective innovation you'll see in many modern saddles is a cutout or cutaway in the top, which looks like a groove or hole has been cut out of the top of the saddle. The idea is to remove the part of the saddle that's usually responsible for pressuring sensitive tissues and causing numbness and pain.

Different saddle makers have different ideas about the best shape of the cutout and whether it should go all the way through, be a deep groove or maybe just a slight recess. What's important is that you select a saddle that feels right to you. If the cutout is in the wrong spot for your anatomy, it won't do any good. So, it's important to sit on a seat and get a feel for which design works best.

Clothing guidelines

Look for clothes that are lightweight, packable (i.e. non-bulky), versatile, and appropriate for your expected conditions.

Some people think in terms of on-the-bike clothes and off-the-bike clothes, but as much as possible bring clothing that can serve as both. Many riders swear by a light, loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirt for protection from the sun's rays. When it gets chilly, layering is the ticket. If the weather looks threatening, keep your waterproof shell layers easily accessible while riding. You are not in California...five days without rain in Pennsylvania is called a miracle.  Be prepared for wet weather. A lightweight rain shell and waterproof pants are usually a good idea.

Cycling shorts, cycling shoes, a helmet, rain gear, and cycling gloves make riding more comfortable. A good rain jacket and cycling shorts are necessities, and there are a variety of options specifically designed for cyclists; look for Gore-Tex or another waterproof fabric that breathes and protects from rain and wind. The cycling specific shorts are equipped with a padded center area which conforms to your bottom. This pad is called the chamois.

More about shorts and the critical chamois cream
Before I set out on my first multi-day ride I was worried that my legs were not going to make the distance. As it turns out my legs were not the body part that I needed to be concerned about. I quickly learned that sitting in the saddle for eight hours a day focused a lot of pressure on my hands and my bottom. I learned that two of the most important things to pack are a decent pair of padded bike shorts and chamois cream to protect yourself from rashes. I stopped at the bike shop to pick up a few things and the salesman suggested that I get some "AsMaster". I laughed because I've been riding for years and never used chamois cream before. It was pretty funny that AsMaster is the actual name of a product. After my first long day in the saddle I realized how critical chamois cream is. If it weren't for chamois cream I never would have managed 70+ miles per day. I have since tried many different chamois cream products which all seem to be similarly effective. Check out the bike packing section on the trail video page to learn more about chamois cream and see the proper technique to apply it.

Here's the basic list of suggested gear

padded bicycle shorts

rain jacket
comfortable saddle
bike lock
spare tube, patch kit

multi-tool, tire levers
headlight (you will need this for the Paw Paw Tunnel)
pump or inflation cartridges
bike bell (you will shout "on your left" apx. 400 times without a bell)

Panniers to carry everything on your bike

water bottles and some snacks

Other gear to consider
basic first aid kit

chamois cream
matches or lighter

Snacks along the Great Allegheny Passage

The key to an enjoyable trip is being comfortable.  Take breaks every couple of hours and stretch.  Make certain that your bike is properly adjusted so that you are as comfortable as possible.  Your clothes should not hinder your pedaling motion and if you feel clothing rubbing against your skin you should stop to adjust it.  It doesn't take long for rubbing clothes to break your skin.

Bring plenty of snacks and water to avoid dehydration.  Energy bars are easy to carry and don't require refrigeration.  Eat a few energy bars a day to prevent yourself from ever getting really hungry on the trail.  If you allow yourself to get real hungry, you might already be slightly dehydrated and be losing energy, so eat and drink before you hit the wall.

Keep in mind that you need to plan your snack program a little better on the C&O because the towns have more miles in between.

Camping gear

If you are camping, you will need considerably more gear.  Use the gear list on the hotels and camping page for guidance.  Packing your camping gear adds another challenge.  Check out the packing gear page for more details.