A sound made us look up from our screens.
“What’s happening? Did you turn the heater off?” Coen asked me since I was sitting next to the control panel.
“No, I didn’t, but it is shutting down, isn’t it?”
It was 11 p.m and we were quietly camped in a parking lot. To maximize the heat in our living compartment, we had closed the Land Cruiser’s front section off from the rear by putting blankets behind the front seats up to the ceiling.
The Planar heater was blowing hot air across the floor, keeping the area cozy and warm while we were both typing away on our laptops. When the heater gave out and the warm air stopped flowing, the temperatures dropped quickly. Outside, it was -15C (5F).
We couldn’t figure out why this was happening and thus settled for the best option available: going to bed and crawling deep under our down blanket topped with Big Agnes sleeping bags. (No matter how cold, we never sleep with the heater on anyway and always leave a window open).
This was not our first winter overland adventure. Two years earlier we had spent seven weeks in snow, on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. In the years prior to that, we had had a series of cold nights in the Himalayas and the Andean highlands.
Here’s what we have learned over the years to ensure a comfortable overland journey in winter, and in particular during our winter in Siberia.
Note: Of course you need winter tires, functioning glow plugs, anti-freeze and a number of other measures necessary before the onset of winter. But since those are necessities whether you go on an overland trip or commute to work, I’ll leave those aside.
Here we will be talking about comfort-related issues for an overland journey that includes camping.
The Basic Preparation for a Winter Road Trip in Siberia
Thermal underwear is an essential layer to stay warm, serves perfectly as pajamas, and takes up little space in your clothes department. During winter we basically live in our Armadillo merino-wool base layers.
Gloves, hats and shawls seem too obvious to mention, but I figured I’d do so anyway as we managed to start our first winter in Turkey totally unprepared – clearing your rooftop tent from a layer of snow without gloves turned out to be quite unpleasant.
The sides and ceiling of the Land Cruiser are permanently insulated, but for the winter in Siberia (as in Japan) we bought additional insulation. We used large pieces to cover the floor, the lower section behind the front seats and the rear door.
Smaller pieces were fitted under the car seats and even under the floor mats. In Japan we bought reflective foam insulation whereas in Mongolia we bought felt for the Siberian winter (that people use for their yurts), which worked great as well.
When parked for the night, the second the sun sets, we put foam insulation in front of the windshield and side windows. It makes a huge difference in keeping the cold out.
3. Living Compartment
Because the front part of the car isn’t insulated it gets freezing cold there. The piece of insulation behind the passenger seats is low enough to step over when going from the front to the back, while at night we reduce the space in the living compartment by hanging blankets from the ceiling behind the passenger seats.
4. Water System
If you have an indoor water system and can keep the temperatures inside the vehicle above freezing at all times, there are no worries here. Our water tank, however, hangs under the carriage and so the system needs to be closed off before frost sets in.
During the winter season we use water canisters that we fill up whenever possible or otherwise buy five-liter water canisters in supermarkets.
Click on the links for more blog posts about traveling in Siberia:
For Japan we bought a gas heater in a hardware store that works on butane gas canisters. It gave more than enough heat for a small car like ours. If you plan on taking one long winter trip or just go winter camping in the weekends, this may be a good, low-budget option.
In Russia we started with a gas heater but we feared that was not enough for a Siberian winter. Tigerexped offered to send us a Planar air heater that runs on diesel, which we gratefully accepted. Initially I didn’t see the point in switching to a diesel heater system, but now that we have used the Planar, I am very glad we do have one.
There are a couple of advantages in having a diesel heater:
- There is less condensation inside the car than with the gas heater.
- You don’t have the potential problem of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- We can leave the diesel heater on while driving.
- We can time schedule the Planar to start up before getting up so the car is comfortably warm when we throw off those blankets and get ready for the day, which feels like sheer luxury.
Extra Preparations for a Winter Road Trip in Siberia
Modern rigs may have heated seats. Forget that when buying an old vehicle. Throw a blanket on the seats or, as we did, buy sheepskins in Mongolia. This made a big difference, all the more so because our seats are covered with leather which feels cold in winter without that extra layer.
Another option is to buy aftermarket 12v seat heaters.
2. Double windows
In Yakutsk, Siberia, we learned that in November locals get second windshields installed because otherwise the driving becomes unbearable. The side windows are covered with a sheet of plastic on the inside, which we got installed as well!
As the Land Cruiser has a straight window, this is simple and cheap to do. During extreme colds when driving across the plains with fierce winds, these measures made a huge difference.
We are going to keep these, for sure!
A Couple of Tips for your Winter Trip in Siberia
We realize that sleeping without a heater no matter how cold and having a window open may be taking it to extremes – it’s not for everybody.
Ventilation, however, is important to keep a healthy airflow going and to prevent an overkill of moisture.
2. Keeping fruits & vegetables
When the temps inside the vehicle go below freezing point, fruit and vegetables deteriorate quickly.
Put them in the fridge (that you don’t turn on) and you can keep them a bit longer (until it gets so cold that no matter where you put your food, it will freeze).
Next time I’ll add a bottle with warm water to see if that helps to keep the vegetables and fruit from freezing.
3. Using thermos flasks
The frozen water in a five-liter canister takes a long time to melt. In order to have water you can use right away in the morning, keep it in a thermos flask.
Read More: Books about Russia
What Was the Shutdown of the Heater all About?
What measures you take for your overland journey all depends on where you go, how cold it gets there, and, of course, your required level of comfort.
The shutdown of our heater taught me something important, namely to have a back-up system in case of extreme situations. While I had initially planned to throw out the gas heater that we were no longer using, I am now going to keep it as we intend to return to Siberia for another winter adventure.
As to why that heater shut down: contrary to Russia, Kazakhstan doesn’t sell winterized diesel and although Coen had bought anti-gel fuel additive he had misread the instructions and miscalculated by just one ‘0’. So instead of 100 ml he added 10 ml. Unsurprisingly, the Land Cruiser didn’t start the next morning. How we got it running again is another story.
This article was first published on Expedition Portal.
Recommended Overlanding Books
(click on the images to look inside)
Resources to Prepare Your Road Trip in Siberia
To get the best information about Siberia (Russia), check out:
- Russia Travel Guide by Insight Travel Guides and don’t forget the Insight Guides’ Russian phrasebook.
- The forum on Horizons Unlimited has been a longstanding source of information especially for motorcycle tourers but has a growing wealth for four-wheeled travelers as well.
- About Russia: Facebook groups such as Russia Beyond and Discover Russia.
- Russia Beyond also has a website with great articles about range of Russia-related topics.
- Don’t forget to check out our Russia Budget Report, our Russia Accommodation & Camping overview, and other Russia blog posts.
Tips, Suggestions, Feedback?
What measures do you take when going on a winter overland trip?
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