1 March 2020.
Your visa is approved, you’ve booked your flights, planned your route and reserved your train tickets, but what will you actually need to bring for the immense train journey across Russia.
On board, your compartment will become like a tiny shared home – a 2x2m box that encompasses your bed, kitchen and lounge room, sometimes for days on end. Packing light and packing effectively are key and what’s more, packing for summer and winter are two very different things.
I spent a month riding the rails in December, where wintery scenes filled the window frames and my days were whiled away with endless cups of hot tea and a soundtrack of whispered Russian conversation.
From the day-to-day essentials for train life to how many layers you’ll actually need to survive winter in Siberia, this Trans Siberian Railway packing list has everything you’ll need to make the journey.
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Day-To-Day Essentials For The Trans Siberian Railway
These are all the practical things you’ll need on the train on a daily basis that you might not think to pack for a regular trip.
Travel Mug | There’s nothing more comforting than a hot cuppa while the wintery landscapes glide by beyond the window, so don’t forget your travel mug. Make sure it has a secure lid as some trains are rather jerky. I learnt this the hard way when half my cup of freshly brewed tea went slopping across the table.
For this trip I bought a glass Barista Buddy mug with a soft rubber lid from my local supermarket, but this Keep Cup is similar or you could consider an insulated mug like these top-rated options from Yeti and Klean Kanteen.
Mug Or Bowl For Food | I’d recommend keeping your travel mug for drinks only and having a separate sealable dish to eat your meals out of so that you’re not constantly having to wash up and can drink and eat at the same time.
I used this Sistema 650ml Soup Mug which was big enough for a large serving of instant noodles and a decent breakfast, while the clip-on lid made it easy to use without worrying about spillage. It also fit my travel mug perfectly inside so as not to waste space when stored in my backpack. For other shapes and sizes, see here.
Cutlery Set | Well, you will need something to eat with. I brought a small pencil case and collection of cutlery from home, including a teaspoon, tablespoon, fork, table knife and sharp knife along with a spork. You can easily cobble together your own kit, otherwise, this cutlery set with a carry pouch is a decent option along with a small paring knife. For a flight-safe option, this bamboo cutlery set is a good alternative.
Reusable Water Bottle | Though it wasn’t as common as I’d expected, some trains do have a fountain with cold drinking water for passengers. Otherwise, the provodnitsa tends to have a large bottle of drinking water which she can decant into your smaller bottle or you’ll need to fill up from the samovar and wait for it to cool down.
Small Tea Towel | This was something I didn’t have but kept wishing I did. They’re particularly useful for laying across the table if you’re planning to make anything vaguely messy (i.e. not instant noodles) and for drying up your dishes after washing. Get one small enough that it can be rolled up to fit inside your mug.
Slippers Or Train Shoes | The first order of business one you’ve clambered aboard, dumped your luggage and stripped off your layers is to remove your heavy winter boots and slip straight into a pair of comfy train shoes. Given the season, I had a pair of black fleece-lined slippers with a rubber sole that were perfect for the trip – wonderfully cosy onboard, lightweight, compact and, importantly, waterproof on the bottom to save me from the often slightly wet bathroom floor.
Eye Mask And Earplugs | If you’re a light sleeper, an eye mask and earplugs will make your trip far more pleasant. Most passengers are respectfully quiet and go to bed at a reasonable hour, but middle-of-the-night arrivals can be rather disruptive and there’s always the chance of a dreaded heavy snorer.
Small Padlock | Though I always felt completely safe on the train, as I was carrying a lot of expensive electronics, I decided to padlock my day bag overnight for some extra peace of mind. This is perhaps not strictly necessary, but if you are carrying a lot of gear, particularly in third class where anyone can roam about the carriage, it’s something to consider.
Food + Drink
Eating onboard is a quintessential part of the Trans Siberian experience.
Heading out from Vladivostok, there was an almost a celebratory atmosphere with many groups burying the table in deli snacks and pre-prepared meals, while slabs of chocolate were passed around to munch on along with a cheeky swig of rum (though these days alcohol is not strictly allowed onboard.) As we travelled further west, where most passengers came and went after just a day, meal times became a more mundane affair with simplicity being the preference.
Though most trains are equipped with a dining cart, high prices and small portions mean they’re not great value and are rarely used by locals. Instead, most bring a selection of snacks and instant meals. The challenge essentially is to find food that will make no mess, requires zero surface space to make and can be cooked with just boiling water.
For short overnight trips, you can often get away with eating dinner beforehand and only bringing food for breakfast, but for longer journeys like the 3-day stint between Vladivostok and Irkutsk, you’ll want to bring enough for each meal along with plenty of snacks to tide you over and treats to share with your cabin mates.
Tea / Coffee | Long time readers of The Sandy Feet will know that I love me some tea, and when there’s nothing to do but sit and contemplate the world flying by, you’ll be happily consuming the stuff all day long. Whether it’s leaves or beans that are your drink of choice, be sure to have a stash with you for every trip.
Condensed / UHT Milk | Though I’m not normally a sweet tea drinker, adding a thick sticky dollop of condensed milk was a delightful treat during longer journeys. It’s also sold in small resealable pouches which are mess-free and take up very little space.
Technically it should be refrigerated after opening, but the high sugar content means it can last a little longer. I also found the external carriage walls would remain relatively cold in winter, especially overnight, so would keep the pouch here to stay cool. For short trips, I generally used a small bottle of UHT milk instead.
Instant Noodles | Instant noodles are made for train life and while they’re not something I’d normally eat, there’s no denying they make a great quick and easy meal when all you’ve got is hot water. You’ll find a variety available at virtually any supermarket in Siberia, though for me the best brand was Big Bon which comes in a larger size than most and includes sauce. Buy sachets rather than polystyrene packs for easier storage and less waste.
Muesli Or Instant Porridge | Perfect for breakfast and you can bulk it up with fresh fruit, nuts and seeds if you choose. For muesli, I’d also buy either a small bottle of UHT milk or tub of yoghurt.
Peanut Butter | Keep a tub in your bag for whenever you’re craving a snack. Just be sure to stock up on crackers or bread when you need it.
CousCous | Available in many supermarkets, you can use it to make a quick salad or as an easy way to bulk up other meals, like porridge or instant noodles. This may sound a little gross but I eat a lot, especially when it’s cold, and at least this meant I never went hungry.
Chocolate | Nothing breaks the ice like sharing around a slab of chocolate or just enjoying it as a sneaky sweet treat for yourself.
Salt + Pepper | Essential for adding a bit of flavour to packed lunches and picnics away from the train as well.
Other Snacks | How long you’ll be spending on the train will generally determine what and how much you choose to buy. For my first long leg, I had crackers with tomato and cream cheese which was great, but I quickly realised this was not the tidiest of meals for a confined space. Tomatoes are also easily squished. Packing nuts and fresh fruit that won’t bruise is also a good idea.
In summer, you could certainly plan ahead by making a salad or veggie mix in advance to eat on board.
| PACKING TIP |
This was the very first trip I ever used packing cubes (I know!) and they were a game-changer! While I used the larger ones for clothing in my backpack, I found the small ones were excellent at keeping my food and eating utensils organised.
When it came to mealtime, instead of fumbling about in my day bag for random items, I could just bring out the entire small cube, zip it open and have everything I needed right there.
Electronics + Entertainment
Smartphone | As much as the Trans Siberian is an excellent excuse for a digital detox, the more likely scenario is that your phone will be getting one hell of a workout. Before you leave, load it up with all your favourite playlists, a bunch of podcasts, a few tv shows and a great new audiobook for the journey. If you’re on the train for 3 days straight, you’ll certainly need plenty of variety to keep you occupied.
Psst… Haven’t jumped on the audiobook train yet? I love Audible and sign up every few months to restock my audio library. Some of my recent favourites have been The Goldfinch, All The Light We Cannot See and the Ken Follet Century Trilogy, while the Harry Potter series is always a go-to for easy listening. You can sign up for a Free 30-Day Trial with the option to cancel at any time and receive two complimentary audiobooks of your choice.
Portable Charger | Most compartments have two communal power outlets while others have one for each bed. However, these don’t always work. Just in case, a power bank or portable charger is a great idea to keep your electronics charged because, let’s be honest, you’re going to be using them an awful lot.
Headphones | Essential! I use the standard iPhone set but if you’re easily distracted consider a noise-cancelling pair instead.
Kindle | Prefer to read your books rather than listen? A kindle is an excellent accessory that is lightweight, holds its charge for weeks and means you can carry a variety of books without compromising on space and weight.
Universal Adapter | If you’re travelling with a laptop or other large electronics, make sure you have the right plug or adapter. Like the rest of Russia, Trans Siberian trains use the European small twin prong sockets. This universal power adapter can be used in 150 countries, has 2 USB connectors and a surge protector.
Local Sim + Data | I rarely get a local sim when I travel but with so much time on my hands it seemed like a good chance to keep on top of research for my trip, be able to figure out transport on the fly and in case of emergencies. I went with Beeline (Билайн) who were very affordable at just €7 for a month of unlimited data and worked reliably for the duration of my trip. Admittedly, they did have rather patchy service across Siberia, but this is to be expected. You’ll find stores in every major city.
Toiletries + Medication
Toothbrush + Toothpaste | Don’t forget to brush every morning and night.
Deodorant | You may not be showering for a day or two, but you don’t have to smell like it.
Dry Shampoo | Keep your hair looking clean for an extra day or two, particularly on those multi-day trips.
Motion Sick Tablets | I’m someone who always gets motion sick and while I normally don’t have any issues on trains, spending several days facing backwards in a constantly rocking carriage definitely had me feeling queazy at times. Though I could usually solve this by just lying down to lessen the motion, if you do get seriously motion sick, consider having something on hand just in case.
I usually use Travacalm (similar to Dramamine) though these do make you drowsy, but have also recently tried out Sea-Bands which I also found to be a very effective non-drug option. A natural ginger remedy may also be a suitable alternative.
Painkillers | If you’re going to be on board for several days, a lingering headache is the last thing you’d want. Always have a stash of paracetamol and ibuprofen on hand, just in case.
Hand Towel | Wet wipes are not the most evironmentally friendly option, so take a cloth hand towel for a ‘shower’ on the go instead. All trains will include a small clean towel in your linen pack so it’s up to you whether to use theirs or bring your own.
What To Wear On Board The Trans Siberian
Train Outfit | Russians are a stylish bunch, but on the trains it’s comfort all the way. For overnight or multi-day trips, you’ll find passengers changing into something more comfortable as soon as they’ve found their compartments – and you should probably do the same.
For winter, trains are often heated to around 23°C so a pair of loose cotton trousers or thermal leggings and a t-shirt and light sweater or long-sleeved thermal top are the way to go, along with thick socks and your train shoes. In summer, a t-shirt and shorts will be adequate, though do keep in mind that some parts of Siberia are still relatively so conservative so it’s best to err on the side of modesty.
Essentially, your train outfit should be something you’ll be comfortable sleeping in but won’t feel totally out of place wearing while wandering the train platforms during stops.
Underwear | For multi-day journeys, you probably won’t be changing outfits every day but a fresh pair of underwear will keep you feeling human.
For the ladies, doing the old bra through the sleeve trick at the end of the day may just earn you a few strange looks, so wearing something that you’ll be comfortable lounging about and sleeping in is a good idea. I rotated between a sports bra and a soft wireless bra for the entire trip.
Socks | If you’ve spent the day exploring before climbing on board, have a fresh pair of socks handy to change into when you take off your boots.
What To Wear Off The Train – Winter Edition
Surviving the frigid chill of winter in Russia takes some serious consideration.
How many layers are too many layers? Is wool better than fleece? Will 2 beanies and 3 gloves look completely ridiculous?
As an Aussie, I quickly realised there was little chance of me finding all the right gear at home. As much as our outdoor shops stock excellent ski equipment, it’s just not made to deal with -30°C or colder and is only available in certain seasons.
I’d highly recommend coming prepared with as much gear as you can, particularly your base layers and accessories, but if you’re from a warm or tropical climate, rest assured that there are a few crucial items that you can purchase once you arrive if you need to, provided you allow enough time in your itinerary. For example, I bought my insulated winter boots and waterproof pants once I arrived, along with an extra pair of insulated gloves.
Sportmaster is an excellent outdoor stoor which stocks a huge range of products from plenty of top brands like Merrell, Columbia, Saloman and The North Face to name a few, at very reasonable prices compared to back home and has stores across the country. Decathlon is also useful for affordable outdoor gear though outlets are not as widespread and largely limited to the west of the country.
Also know that there can be a huge variation in temperatures. My first day in Vladivostok was a balmy 7°C, but six days later on Olkhon Island it was down to -26°C with windchill. If you’re visiting in February, temperatures can plummet even lower, occasionally to an incomprehensibly cold -40°C.
Gloves | Keeping your hands warm is crucial, as they’re often the first body part to start feeling the cold. I was generally comfortable with two pairs of gloves – a thin inner woollen pair which were perfect for cities and everyday use and a thick insulated waterproof pair of mittens which were excellent for being outdoors in the snow.
These days you can also get gloves with nifty little metallic swatches or threads in the fingertips which allow you to use a touch screen so be sure to get gloves with this feature because you won’t want to be taking them off once you’re outside.
Winter Boots | Along with your hands, your feet will likely feel the cold the fastest, especially if you’re trudging through snow. For winter, waterproof, insulated boots are essential, along with a pair of thick woollen socks (or two). My boots were from Outventure but these from Columbia are similar.
Woollen Socks | Good boots need a good pair of socks. Depending on the temperature, I generally wore two pairs of thick woollen socks. If you find you aren’t warm enough, there are plenty of socks available from the markets in Siberia made from exceptionally warm wool.
Merino Wool Thermal Top | As with any cold climate, keeping toasty warm is all about the layers, even if you end up looking like a human burrito. On a normal day, I was wearing between 4 and 6 layers on my top half, starting with a long-sleeved merino wool thermal layer. Merino wool products are great as they’re lightweight but keep you warm, while the antimicrobial properties of the fabric ensure you’ll stay a whole lot less smelly between showers which is great for several days on the train, or a few in the wilderness.
Warm Sweaters | I had two cosy sweaters – one in cotton and the other in wool – and depending on the temperature I’d wear one or both of them.
Down Jacket | Choose a jacket that’s not too puffy but still super warm for your next layer. Consider buying from a brand that meets the responsible down standard which indicates that feathers are ethically sourced from animals that have not been subjected to unnecessary harm.
Insulated Outer Jacket | You’ll be wearing this outer layer every single day so make sure it’s properly insulated and waterproof. One that’s thigh or knee-length is a good idea to properly cover your inner layers and keep all the heat in. What you choose will heavily depend on what time of the year you visit – there’s a huge difference between -5°C and -30°C after all. I used an insulated, fleece-lined jacket from Australian brand Rainbird which was excellent given the temperatures in early winter, but for anything colder, a thick goose down jacket would probably have been necessary.
Jeans | For exploring cities, a thick pair of jeans make a decent outer layer over your leggings.
Fleece Pants | Ok, I’ll admit it, these are my favourite item on this list. Who knew fleece pants were the cosy winter essential I had been missing all my life! For long days spent outside in the snowy wilderness with no chance of escaping to a corner cafe to thaw out, a pair of thick fleece pants over my leggings kept me toasty warm all day long. Mine are by Aussie label Cape, but fleece-lined sweatpants would also do the trick, like these.
Waterproof Pants | To keep the heat in and everything dry, a pair of waterproof pants are essential, especially for snowy days. Just make sure they’re big enough to fit over all your other layers. For outdoorsy days, I wore my merino wool leggings, fleece pants and waterproof pants and was always perfectly warm.
Beanie | A must for keeping your head and ears warm. If you’ll be spending most of your time in cities, and not so much in nature, a woollen or fleece headband is also a popular choice.
Scarf | With all the other layers, I didn’t actually use my scarf all that much, but it’s a good thing to bring along anyway.
What To Wear Off The Train – Summer Edition
The difference between summer and winter in Russia is stark – like stepping from the pages of Narnia back into the real world. The white cloak of winter has melted away, landscapes are washed in green, rivers and lakes swell and the Siberian taiga is thick with foliage.
Daytime temperatures generally fall in the mid-20s, though summer heatwaves, high humidity and chilling evenings are all common. Summer also brings a higher chance of rainfall with most regions receiving a dousing between June and September.
Clothing | For day-to-day outings, bring a selection of comfortable lightweight clothing along with a pair of jeans and a light sweater or jacket for cooler evenings. Have a separate outfit or two suitable for any hiking trips or outdoor adventures.
Nice Outfit | Russians are unfailingly well dressed, especially in the big cities, and while there’s no need to be dressed up all the time, consider bringing at least one nicer outfit for when you’re dining out or if you plan to visit the opera or ballet.
Rain Jacket | Summer means a higher chance of rain, so don’t forget to bring a weatherproof jacket for any outdoor activities. If you’re spending most of your time in cities, a compact umbrella can also be handy.
Hiking Boots | For all your outdoor adventures! Melting snow and high rainfall can mean some areas are particularly muddy. Boots that are waterproof and have ankle support are a good idea.
Sandals Or Sneakers | Off the train, you’ll be doing plenty of walking so bring a comfortable pair of shoes for all that city wandering.
So you’ve cobbled together all the gear, but what’s the best way to actually pack it all up for the train journey.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that there’s not a great deal of storage space on board.
Luggage compartments are located under the bottom bunks, are long and thin in shape and often need to be shared so try to pack light, especially if you’re travelling in summer when compartments are often full. A small suitcase, large duffel bag or backpack up to around 60L should be fine, but large suitcases are unlikely to fit.
You’ll want to pack absolutely everything you’ll need on the train in a small day bag that you keep on hand to avoid having to lift the bottom bunk and rummage around in your luggage repeatedly.
This will include all your day-to-day train essentials, food, train clothing, changes of clothes/underwear, train shoes and socks, entertainment, chargers, toiletries and medications. Under the bunk, there’s usually a small gap which you can use to stow your day bag and outdoor shoes.
In winter you’ll find that when you clamber aboard in your Michelin-man attire, you’ll immediately want to take everything off given the heating. Each compartment usually has a clothes hanger where you can hang all your excess layers for the remainder of the journey and it’s a good idea to keep them here rather than stow them so that they’re easily available for jumping off the train at random railway stops.
For meals, I found it easiest on short trips to organise all my food and eating utensils in a small packing cube so that everything I needed for meal times was accesible from the one case. For multi-day stints, I was way overprepared foodwise (there’s no such thing as too many snacks, right?) and kept this all in a separate carry bag which I could easily slide under the seat.