Traversing Russia, Mongolia and China on the Trans Siberian Railway in winter is a mesmerising journey that will stay with you forever. The landscapes are stunning, there are very few tourists, you don’t have to queue for galleries, and your pictures of iconic sights like the Great Wall will sparkle in snow and whisper of sweet solitude.
Sub-zero temperatures can be fun. We promise. But they will only ever be fun if you are dressed appropriately. So what exactly is the right gear for Russia in winter?
In a word: Layers.
Countries with perennial winters are set up for the cold. Hotels, restaurants and train carriages are all heated well. You’ll find yourself pulling on and off layers as you flip between being in and outside. Even with the right gear, the cold can take hold, head inside to defrost over coffee and cake before braving the elements again. This is common practice. And part of the reason layers come in handy.
How to layer effectively
Think of layers in threes: Base, mid and outer. Each one has a vital role to play. Your base layer is closest to your skin and manages moisture. Mid-layers add much-needed warmth, while outer layers protect you from the elements.
Base layer: Consider thermal merino as your base layer. It’s breathable, and cleverly keeps you warm in the cold and stops you from sweating in the heat. The best thing about Merino is that it is odour resistant, making it the perfect travel companion for long journeys on the Trans Siberian Railway. Pack top and bottom base layers, and if you can’t find merino options there’s plenty of good synthetic thermals on the market.
Mid layer: This layer is all about stopping your body heat from escaping. Look for wool or fleece options. And as much as I love a chunky knit, performance gear from an outdoor store would help provide breathable warmth without bulk. An essential consideration when packing for an overland journey (more on that shortly).
Outer layer: Cold winters usually mean less rain but instead you may be faced with wind, snow and sub-zero temperatures. Luckily nature has provided us with a solution: duck and goose down. These are graded in ‘loft power’, look for high LP grades as this signifies quality insulation. Select an outer layer that is also waterproof and lightweight.
Pack the right footwear
You can have all the right layers but your warmth will quickly unravel if your feet are frozen and wet. Proper footwear will help you remain smiling when you come face to face with sheets of black ice, shin-deep snow, or just plain old bitter cold temperatures.
Completely sealed waterproof footwear such as those made with GORE-TEX will help you stay warm, dry, and confident that you won’t take a tumble. GORE-TEX boots, as well as Sorel and Merrell brands, come highly recommended when facing Siberian winters.
Winter dos and don'ts
- Pack merino or synthetic thermal base layers
- Pack a cosy fleece as your mid layer
- Pack a lightweight, waterproof, high LP down jacket
- Pack a wool beanie or buy a furry Ushanka (Russian hat) once there
- Pack a pair of good gloves
- Pack a scarf – you will want to cover most of your face if it’s both cold and windy
- Use packing cells – keep your luggage organised, compressed and separate. Ideal on long overland journeys
- Pack light
- If you can only spend money on two things, focus your attention on your outer layer and proper footwear
- Head inside and warm up if the cold gets too much - it's the perfect excuse for a delicious hot chocolate
- Layer socks – your tootsies need air to circulate warmth. Layering socks has the opposite effect, allowing more heat to escape.
- Layer gloves – same as above.
- Forget to be ruthless with what you pack - all those ‘just in case’ items, half them.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of layers
- Worry about how fashionable Russian’s are – you didn’t grow up wearing high heels on icy cobbles, there’s no reason to start now