Going (Goo Goo) Gaga Over Vermont

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Following a trip along our Green Mountain Gravel Growler route with his wife and nine-month-old son, Bilal Zia put together this combination story, route report, and insightful mini-guide to traveling with a little one. Find it all here, along with a colorful gallery of photos from Vermont…

Words by Bilal Zia, photos by Bilal Zia and Natasha Calderwood

“Well, that’s something you don’t see every day!” exclaims the portly gentleman tending to his garden near Craftsbury, Vermont, right before erupting into a hearty belly laugh. What he’s referring to is a baby loudly babbling away while sitting in a bike trailer and being pulled up a mountain by his dad.

  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia

This is representative of the numerous pleasant exchanges my wife, Natasha, and I had on our recent bikepacking trip to Vermont with our nine-month-old son, Rafi. After all, baby bikepackers are an unusual breed rarely spotted in the wild!

Bikepacking means different things to different people, but to us, it’s about taking fear of the unknown and harnessing it into something audacious and addictive. Natasha and I have spent the past several years on that very precipice, trying to push our own personal comfort frontier in dirt bikepacking trips throughout the US and equally halfway across the world.

  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia

But then we had a baby, and everything changed!

Bikepacking with an infant presented a whole new set of challenges, and the fear monster decided to make a semi-permanent home in our trip planning and thoughts. What if we run out of food? What if the baby doesn’t stop crying? What if we need to rush to the hospital? What if aliens abduct the baby? On and on it went with questions and doubt. Turns out, taking that first step out the door was the biggest challenge, and once we committed to the idea and put things in motion—trusting our years of bikepacking experience—the enjoyment and excitement we thought we’d have to put on hold for years suddenly came right back. And it’s here to stay!

Bilal Zia

The Green Mountains Beckon

It doesn’t hurt that we picked Vermont as the destination for our first gravel bikepacking trip with Rafi. Not having visited the state before, we were in for a real treat riding the Joe Cruz christened “storybook-farm dirt roads, flowy New England singletrack, and rugged historic woodland paths.” Indeed, we decided to use Joe and Logan’s Gravel Growler route as a starting point, and we spent weeks prior to the trip on Ride with GPS modifying the map to make it more baby-friendly. We still kept most of the class 4 rugged terrain and singletrack but cut out some of the side trips to a few breweries in favor of making it to the next town in time for dinner and bed. We also decided to stay at inns and homestays instead of our usual wild camping, just to make sure Rafi’s introduction to bikepacking was memorable for all the right reasons.

Our number one priority for the trip was marginal redundancy. Redundancy in planning and route selection with bail-out options and plan Bs for each day marked out on the map, redundancy in gear selection with just enough extra stuff on board to deal with unexpected changes in plans, and redundancy in safety protocols with daily family check-ins and a Garmin inReach device with an active subscription. I refer to it as marginal redundancy because we didn’t transport Rafi’s entire nursery on bikes, but rather tried to strike a balance between feeling safe and not carrying too much stuff that we’d have to lug over steep mountain passes.

  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia

Luckily, we didn’t have to resort to a Plan B or activate any safety protocol on this trip, but believe you me, the peace of mind was priceless and we’ll do exactly the same for our next trip. Granted, this route isn’t that remote, and you’re never too far from a town or a shop, but we treated the ride as a wilderness excursion for practice and because we’ve learned the hard way that babies don’t have an ounce of patience.

On the ride itself, we didn’t set any speed records with our average of 30 miles covered per day, but it was no walk in the park either, especially with a 50-pound trailer and about 3,000 feet of elevation gain on those insanely steep and technical roads. Clearly, Vermont doesn’t believe in switchbacks. Add in necessary baby stops for diaper changes, feeding, and snacks, and the days filled up pretty fast. We ended up completing the trip over seven days instead of the recommended five, but this was the plan from the onset.

Bilal Zia

Vermont is for Lovers

Given how much we loved Vermont and its people, we would have happily kept riding for even longer! We got very lucky with the weather as it hovered in the 80s in late June and the rain mostly stayed away throughout the week. Incidentally, the mercury did rise substantially the very next day after we finished, and heavy rains followed soon thereafter, so the last week of June may be the ticket for a good weather window for this route.

Our ride started in Burlington with a few unfavorable but ultimately unavoidable busy road stretches as we headed out of town. Soon, however, we hit some quiet meandering gravel roads on our way to Waterbury, where we stopped for the evening. This first day was mostly flat and we wanted an easy ride to serve as a systems check and work out any kinks in the trailer or packing. Luckily, Rafi loved the ride; in fact, he loved all seven days of riding with nary a tantrum. The only time he threw a fit was descending Waitsfield and then climbing up toward Sugarbush in a thunderstorm. Needless to say, I was throwing a tantrum at the same time, so it’s hard to say who the real baby is in the family!

  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia

The rest of our ride followed the Gravel Growler route with stops in Morristown, Hardwick, Montpellier, Sugarbush, Bristol, and finally Burlington. Two of our favorite sections were the class 4 roads out of Hardwick and the climb up Waitsfield the next day. Both these sections were quite remote, insanely steep, and filled with rock garden after rock garden. Being a mountain biker, I was able to ride most of the route but had to push through a few sections that were likely unrideable even without a trailer. The same is not true for the climb up Lincoln Gap, however, where I had to push most of the way up.

Rafi was a happy baby throughout and gleefully sat in the trailer yapping away, making friends with strangers and enjoying the scenery. I was nervous about riding the rocks with him, but the 200mm of travel in the trailer made it a magic carpet ride for him and all he did was giggle and laugh.

Bilal Zia

Baby Jitney

A crucial factor in our successful trip was the gear we chose, in particular, our bikes and the baby trailer. After all, carrying a nine-month-old over technical terrain presents a whole host of challenges.

Bikes

I rode an Open One+ hardtail frame outfitted with 46cm ENVE gravel drop bars, ENVE mountain rigid fork, and 55mm Rene Herse Fleecer Ridge tires. The drivetrain matched a 30T Absolute Black oval ring with Di2 in the back, GRX shifters, and a 9-46 e*thirteen dinner plate suitable for heavy loads. The trailer was hooked onto a Cane Creek eeSilk seatpost with a Selle Repente gravel saddle on top. The compliant carbon, big tires run at low pressure, and a bit of squish in the seatpost were ideal for this type of terrain.

Natasha rode a more standard Open Up gravel bike with 1x Di2 shifting, 650B wheels, and 48mm Rene Herse Juniper Ridge tires. While my bike doesn’t have the catchy looks and at best can be viewed as a gravel mutt, hers is the epitome of gravel bike lore.

We both had Wahoo ROAM computers for navigation along with offline Ride with GPS maps on our phones as a backup. We never needed the backup, although I do find the offline tool on the phone very helpful for on-the-go route review and the interface is much more user-friendly than any bike computer.

  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia

Trailer (with mods)

The Tout Terrain Singletrailer isn’t cheap, but in my view, it’s worth every penny if you want to take your baby everywhere you want to go. With 200mm of travel, a comfortable seat, and German safety standards, we didn’t come close to pushing its envelope of capability on this trip. Setup correctly, the RockShox air chamber with the adjustable damper provides the perfect amount of cushioning over rock gardens and fast descents. The handling of the trailer over rough terrain is simply remarkable and it tracks and leans with the lead bike through corners and turns. There is a bit of a learning curve, but most of that has to do with efficiency rather than safety (e.g. you have to stay on the pedals a second or two longer over obstacles as your rear-most tire is now a bit further back). You also can’t make abrupt sharp turns, although lively lateral handling is definitely game. In fact, it most often resulted in squeals of delight from the back!

We did add a Thule baby support system that wraps the baby’s torso in a cushioned brace and provides extra head and neck support. The only other mods were a slow-moving vehicle high viz board that I zip-tied to the back of the trailer with a “baby on board” reflective sticker in the middle and a Moon Nebula tail light with a high output daytime flash at 200 lumens. These were extra safety precautions as part of the route did hit tarmac and we wanted to make it redundantly obvious to drivers that we had precious cargo on board.

Bilal Zia

Baby Gear and Packing

Baby-specific gear

Given that a nine-month-old still needs to nap twice a day, we had to figure out a system for him to sleep soundly in the trailer and also sleep comfortably at night. The trailer bit was easy, we simply hooked up a wireless Bluetooth speaker next to him and played white noise through an app on my phone. This helped drown out all exterior sounds and it worked great for up to two hours of naps. The general road buzz also helped him doze off and stay asleep.

The night sleep required another solution. Rafi is sleep trained, so sleeping with us wasn’t really an option and we needed an independent but safe sleep space for him. Lugging around a heavy pack n’ play wasn’t an option so instead we tried out a Kidco Peapod travel bed, which worked out great. It weighs just over two pounds with its own mattress and importantly collapses into a 16-inch disc that fits under the baby seat inside the trailer. We also carried an ultralight ENO travel blanket that served many purposes – a ground cloth, a wrapped-up pillow, and a makeshift baby tent cover to drown out light at bedtime. This system worked perfectly, and the baby slept soundly for 10-11 hours each night. The travel bed was also our emergency naptime backup if trailer naps failed and we needed to stop and let him nap in the forest! For future wild camping trips, this baby tent fits inside our three-person bikepacking tent with room to spare for two adults, so is a great little find.

  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia

Other baby-specific gear included a full-sized breast pump that I lugged around in the trailer. There are smaller and lighter ones available, but it didn’t make sense for us to spend money on a soon-to-be-redundant item. So, we sucked it up and just carried the bulky one. I did question our wisdom when pushing my loaded bike and trailer up the 22% Lincoln Gap Road, but in all honesty, I’d still be pushing even without a breast pump onboard. And Natasha did pump every morning, evening, and occasionally at lunch stops, so it all made sense in the end.

In terms of baby solid food, we carried several pouches of applesauce and some pureed veggies but were fortunate to get our hands on some fresh avocadoes and bananas each day, both of which Rafi loves. A block of Vermont’s own Cabot cheddar cut into baby-bite-sized pieces was the perfect snack item and we carried some baby crackers as well. Now, if only he could have a glass of red to go with it, things would be perfect. Beet juice, maybe?

Bags

All our clothes, baby items, food, drinks, safety supplies, and repair gear came along for the ride on our bikes. We fit it all in bikepacking bags with my bike outfitted with a custom Rogue Panda full frame bag and an Apidura saddlebag. As per standard packing advice, the heavy stuff went in the bottom of the frame bag for better stability, and clothes and diapers were piled into my saddlebag. Natasha carried a large Ortileb saddle bag with all her clothes and the baby’s clothes, and a small handlebar bag with his toys, especially Linus the Lemur!

Day supplies for the baby (milk bottles, food bowl, around five diapers, wipes, and a change of clothes) fit very nicely into Tout Terrain’s own nine-liter cargo bag that sits snugly on the trailer chassis. We carried enough diapers and baby food for five days of riding out of Burlington but knew that we could resupply pretty much any day along the route. We ended up buying more diapers and food in Montpellier on day four with a cache still left on the bikes. Again, marginal redundancy – bring a little more than you think you’ll need.

  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia

Two other items that turned out to be invaluable were a baby chest harness and an Osprey ultralight stuff pack. The baby carrier was great for off-the-bike stuff as we could easily carry Rafi around hands free. The one we have is quite lightweight and compact, so it fit easily inside a seat pack. The Osprey sack was great for overflow shopping and walking into town after the ride with baby supplies. This pack carries a punch with a 20-liter capacity, weighs only 90 grams, and collapses into the size of a wallet. And when not in use, this guy lived in the upper compartment of my frame bag.

I believe we hit the sweet spot for baby gear as we used everything we carried and didn’t yearn for anything we did not. And 50 pounds does sound like a lot and the climbing wasn’t easy, but once in motion, the trailer favored Newton’s first law quite well. Plus, I now have some extra fitness from the trip, which is never a bad thing for a middle-aged dad!

  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia
  • Bilal Zia

Wrap up

Bikepacking with a baby can seem like an unachievable objective, and it doesn’t help that the internet is filled with reams of bad advice on how (or even if) to go about it. We spent countless hours researching our trip and set modest goals, all of which we were able to reach. Picking Vermont as our destination was perhaps the wisest of choices, as the breathtaking vistas, low-traffic gravel roads, incredibly friendly people, and frequent small towns and shops made for a fantastic first baby bikepacking trip.

Take that first step. It’s the hardest one, but you won’t regret it!

Bilal Zia

About Bilal Zia

Bilal Zia and his wife, Natasha Calderwood, have been exploring the world on bikes ever since they met seven years ago. From the high altitude of the Tajik and Kyrgyz mountains, to the beauty of the Julian Alps and the Dolomites, to the lush greenery of the Colombian Zona Cafetera, they have pedaled many continents together in intrepid adventure. Bilal is from the US and Natasha from the UK, and both call Washington, DC home. Their parental goal is to indoctrinate their newborn son, Rafi, in bike culture, and it is working out well so far. Find reports of their latest adventures on Bilal’s blog, Coin Toss Forum.

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