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What to pack on the Trans-Siberian railway

What to bring and leave behind on your Trans-Siberian adventure

Matthew Woodward shares his thoughts on the right kit to pack and how to get yourself organised well before you set off on the next big trip.

Packing for any trip is best not left to the last moment. Try and develop a list of what you think you need to bring far ahead of your journey. If you are travelling with others, clearly some items can be shared and there is no point in everybody carrying the same things.

Your goal is to get most of your items into one bag, as a guide around 100 – 130 litre’s. The maximum size you should consider is 90x60x40 cm.  Anything bigger than this will not fit into station luggage lockers and also may not fit under the berth in your compartment. It’s good to have your bag available early on so you can see how much can be fitted in. This may encourage you to sacrifice some non-essential items. You might have heard the old packing adage of laying out everything you intend to bring, and then putting away half of it.

The right luggage

Not all luggage is well suited for long distance rail travel. What works well at Everest base camp, or on a package holiday to Malia, is not necessarily ideal for life onboard the Trans-Siberian. I have tried a variety of bags and learned some big lessons. Some people think that ‘real’ travellers always carry a cargo or duffel bag on their back, but personally I found this to be a disaster. Not only are you carrying a lot of weight, but you can’t turn round in the confined space of the train. The many steps and obstacles of the station mean that you might arrive at the train in poor shape unless you are super fit.

Wheels can be a good idea – this means that you can push and pull your bag and just need to be able to lift it up stairs. Hard sided bags are much lighter than they used to be, but a soft bag might be better for squeezing it in to smaller spaces like under seats on trains. Whatever you choose for your main bag, make sure it can be locked, and if you are seriously concerned, attached to something like the luggage rack with a security cable.

Your mobile office

In addition to your main bag I would suggest carrying a daypack and possibly also a messenger bag. Both of these are small enough to have on your seat or berth on the train and can be used to keep your valuables and items you need to get hold of most regularly. There is nothing worse than having to ask your fellow passengers to make space whilst you dig out something from the bottom of your main bag in the middle of the night!

I use a daypack to carry most of my gadgets and my wash bag, and an additional messenger bag that contains my documents and valuables. This comes with me at all times and has a very strong carry strap and some clever hidden pockets.

It pays to be organised on any adventure, and none more so than the Trans-Siberian with its variety of borders and visa requirements. I use a zipped folder that holds my itinerary, tickets and all my bookings kept in plastic wallets in chronological order inside. I also carry spare passport photos, memory sticks, pens and post-it notes in here. This makes it easy to find anything fast when I need it.

Clothing

Depending on the time of year, your wardrobe needs to cover a wide range of climatic conditions. You are dealing with a temperature that might vary from +30 to -30 degrees C as you step from the train onto the platform. The key is to wear several layers of comfortable clothing. If you are travelling in winter you also ideally need one really warm jacket. The down filled jackets - the type used by mountaineers - can pack down very small, and are great for this purpose.

In terms of footwear, whilst a pair of big boots is practical in the winter they can be bulky and somewhat inflexible. I prefer to use a trail shoe with a Gore-Tex outer and a good sole. On the train, do as the locals do – a pair of flip flops or plastic sandals is very much the normal dress.

Beyond this, as you will not be dressing for dinner, you don't need much else. A tracksuit can be comfortable day wear, and in winter a hat, scarf and gloves keep you warm for the many short breaks when you get off the train.

Gadgets

These days most travellers carry devices to allow them to read, listen to music and watch movies, all of which can be a useful distraction on a long journey.

One of the most vital resources on the train can therefore be power. You need a good multi-country socket adaptor and a bag with the right cables for all your gadgets. Always buy good cables, as cheap ones can let you down just when you really need them. Consider a spare cable for the most important gadgets. I also carry a back-up rechargeable battery, and this has saved me on several occasions. The power sockets on trains do not always actually work, and even when they do, they are often in high demand.

I invested in a pair of good quality, noise cancelling, headphones a few years ago. Whilst these were expensive to buy, they really do help seal out the noise of other passengers at times when you need some peace and quiet.

Bring a good torch – maybe a head torch. This will help you to navigate between the carriages, which can be unlit at night. It also gives you a back-up way to read when the power to the carriage occasionally goes off. In the same bag that I keep my torch, I also have an eyeshade, and some earplugs.

I am sure that you will be carrying a camera, and this means you also need to consider a bag containing memory cards, batteries and cleaning materials. Train photography can be great fun, and I also recommend carrying a small tripod (the type with legs you can bend), and if you can bear it, a selfie stick.

You may need to mend things from time to time. I carry a good pen knife from a well know Central European army, some duct tape, super glue and needle & thread for this purpose. I have repaired many things and even once successfully rewired a Chinese telephone whilst on the move.

On the catering front, you need a good metal insulated mug, a water bottle and a knife/fork/spoon. Some prefer the modern take on this – the ‘spork’.

Don't forget your toothbrush

You will need a wash bag, ideally one that can be hung up, and a compact towel (towels are not provided). The only water on the train that is safe to drink comes from the samovar, so a metal water bottle would allow you to let this cool down and use it to brush your teeth. I also carry a small bag with toilet roll, soap and wet wipes.

A small medical kit is essential. Pack all of the usual items, including rehydration and travel sickness treatments. Do not automatically assume you will be able to get any particular medications en-route. Some drugs freely available in the UK are not sold in pharmacies in Russia (anything with any codeine in it, for example). Antibiotics may be freely available in some countries, but not the same type or quality as that sold at home. If you have any prescription items, put of copy of the prescription inside your kit.

What to leave behind

You don't really want to wear expensive things like watches or jewellery that might make you stand out too much as a potential target to petty criminals and opportunist thieves, so leave these at home. Certain items are prohibited on trains in some countries, especially kitchen type knives, so be careful if you plan a lot of self-catering. Your luggage will be scanned as you enter the station in most places. I would also avoid any clothing with overtly strong messages printed on them - they might be misunderstood in countries where English is not the first language.

Finishing touches

It is always nice to have a few luxuries to make your trip feel more pleasant. For me this means good quality coffee from a mobile espresso maker. It takes up valuable space, but for me it is infinitely worth it. Allow yourself some treats along the way if you can.

I also always find having some postcards and small gifts for locals I meet really useful – pictures of the Royal Family and impressive castles seem to fascinate people.

Finally, these days it is easy and cheap to print some trip specific business cards. These are great to give to people you meet – I print a map of my journey on one side and basic contact details like my blog and email address on the other side.

Enjoy your adventure, and spare a thought for any less well prepared fellow travellers you meet when you spot them struggling to get on the train with enormous backpacks and far too many bags!

What to pack on the Trans-Siberian railway, Russia

What to pack on the Trans-Siberian railway, Russia

 

Matthew Woodward is a writer and train adventurer. He has completed several Trans-Siberian rail journeys, from his home in the UK to places including Shanghai, Singapore, Lhasa and Tokyo.

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