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Travelling in Russia by Camper Van – The Things You Must Know

When you’re travelling in Russia by camper van, there are essentials you really need to know, before you arrive and while you are there. This way you will be properly prepared. Things like where to find water, how to deal with your waste and the low down on electricity.

Before I start, you can find out about some of the other things like reviews of different areas and more in these places.

So now to the practical things:

Crossing the Border

The first step when travelling in Russia by camper van can be a bit of a pain. Getting across that border is going to take you some time. Be prepared to spend a couple or even a few hours there. Luckily you are travelling in by camper van, so you can make lunch, have a cup of tea and relax.

There are quite a few steps to the border crossing. Each one is annoying and sometimes confusing. Especially if there is a language barrier.

  • The waiting line at the first gate
  • Immigration on the side you are coming from
  • Customs on the side you are coming from
  • Entrance booth on the Russian side
  • Immigration on the Russian side
  • Booth the car’s paperwork
  • Russian customs
  • Entry gate to Russia after customs
  • The road toll booth

Once you get through all that, you are finally in Russia.

There will also be a police checkpoint not long after you get to Russia, but they probably won’t stop you. This one will be the first of many!

Language

It is the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Language can be a problem, but don’t let it stop you. I don’t speak Russian, I’m a bit embarrassed about this considering my wife is Russian, but that’s another story and `i am living with my demons on that score. The thing is, you can get by with a few words only.

My impression, after being in Russia for many months, more people speak it than let on they do. Lots of Russian learn it at school but are shy to speak it to a native English speaker. Use Google Translator or an equivalent. Get Duolingo and learn 100 words (or more if you get excited). And speak whenever you can to whomever you can. People will find it amusing and will appreciate the effort.

In the touristic areas, more people speak English, so if you are really struggling, stick to those areas more.

I speak a bit of german and have been surprised by how many Russian I have met can speak German! Especially the older ones.

The further east you go, the fewer people the people who can speak English, When you get far enough over, Chinese comes into play, so if you speak Chinese, this might be easier for you.

Because we have been travelling so much in these last few years. I find I have a bunch of words in many languages sitting in my head. I can understand a lot of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Indonesian,  and Scottish… (this is a joke for Henry).

It’s sort of the same for me with Russian. Lot’s of familiar-sounding words and I know the meaning of quite a few of them, but I can speak it to save myself.

My best advice is don’t be shy, (I wish I could follow my advice more!!!) most people in Russia are friendly and helpful, even though the look on their faces might suggest otherwise. Once you speak to them, they tend to open right up. sometimes more than you ever thought possible. Many Russians would give you the shirts off their back. It is a cultural thing to be very generous and helpful to each other and to make friends quickly!

Camping

The best part of travelling in Russia by camper van is the free camping part. Basically, you can camp anywhere you like and no one with bothering you, unless you are causing them some sort of trouble or problem. Free camping in Russia is 100% legal and everyone does it.

We have even camped in the middle of big cities with no issues at all and it is surprising what you can find in sometimes. We camped by a lovely river in St Petersburg, and by the beach there too. we’ve also set up camp next to lakes and rivers and beaches. Near playgrounds and some other strange places like in front of abandoned casinos!

you have several options for camping in a van in Russia.

Wild Camping

This is free and as I mentioned above, you can do it practically anywhere. You will often find that people have created simple amenities in some popular wild camping locations, bunch seats and fireplaces, even homemade water dispensers for washing your hands and soap holders attached to trees.

People tend to tidy up after themselves, will leave any extra wood for the next people and sometimes you can even find a barbeque set up.

While there can be a load of rubbish on the side of the highway, these wild camping areas are generally well cared for. The best part is that they are free to use and you can stay as long as you like!

You will need to bring your own coal or wood to burn, if you aren’t sure where to find it, stop in any village and ask anyone there if they will sell you some firewood and 99% of the time they will be happy to do it. Most homes in Russia that are outside the cities are heated using wood.

Birch is the best as it doesn’t pop and spit like many of the other types. A couple of hundred Rubles will get you enough wood to last a couple of days camping. Generally, ask for the amount you want and then give them the money that is fair (as above) most villagers will be a bit shy about the money part so it’s up to you to take the lead. This can be a good option for water too if you can’t find it anywhere else, most people have their own wells in the villages.

Roadside Parking Areas

There are Cafes (кафе) along the main roads throughout the country. They offer food, drinks, basic supplies, toilets, showers and sometimes motel rooms. These are great

Commercial (private) Campgrounds

They are few and far between and when you get to around the middle of Russia, I think they may just run out. We haven’t actually used any in our whole time travelling in Russia by camper van. We did look them up at first, some looked pretty good and the pricing seemed ok, but we have enjoyed the wild camping so much that we just stopped looking for places fairly eearly into our trip across Russia and never look now (as I write this I am in the heart of Siberia and we’ve covered 11,000km so far)

National Parks

We have really enjoyed the national park camping we have done in Russia. It is rather similar to the popular wild camping spots, but they have water taps with drinkable water from a well usually, toilet blocks (these are rather scary though, and sometimes stores for basic needs. They are also very inexpensive for camping. just a few dollars to park. And of course you are then near some pretty amazing destinations in Russia, so it is really convenient and easy.

Prices for Camping Related Services
  • Wild Camp Areas – Free (and abundant)… Yipee!
  • Parking @ Roadside Cafes ₽50 – ₽100 ($0.80 -$1.60) per vehicle, no charge for the people in it
  • Toilets @ Roadside Cafes – ₽20 – ₽50 ($4.70 -$0.80) per use
  • Showers @ Roadside Cafe – ₽80 – ₽150 ($1.60 -$2.40) per person
  • Commercial Campgrounds – ₽600 – ₽1,000 ($9.40 -$16.00) for a full hook up
  • Access to National Parks – ₽300 – ₽450 ($4.70 -$7.10) per person
  • Camping in National Park – ₽100 – ₽150 ($1.60 -$2.40) per vehicle

Travelling in Russia by camper van is a little like being in a yacht, you find yourself feeling like you are under passage (sailing between distant locations) and driving across Russia is a lot like that. We found that there is little to see or do between destinations and so we ended up just driving longer days and staying in the roadside cafe parking areas while ‘on passage’ then we would stay longer at each destination. This little routine worked really well for us and I recommend you consider doing it this way too.

Water

Water was initially a big problem for us travelling in Russia by camper van. We couldn’t find any places to fill our tanks up as the locations of the few campgrounds in Russia weren’t where we wanted to go. Normally we would fill our tanks and empty our wastes such as the black water and the grey water at campgrounds. We did have that option in Russia.

Fresh Water

We searched high and low to find fresh drinking water for the camper van. Driving deep into the night for a few days at the beginning of our travel in Russia, just trying to find freshwater. It clearly wasn’t working out for us. At first, we tried petrol stations, a logical step I would have thought, but it’s incredibly hard to find petrol stations with water taps in Russia. What we found was only one in about 100 have water and how drinkable it is might be questionable.

So petrol stations weren’t a workable option for us, we had to find another way. We were told by many of the station attendants to get our water from the taps in their toilets. As you can imagine. This had zero appeal for me. Not just the idea of using a jerry can 10-12 times to get it into the tank, but the source of the water was a total turn off.

We Hit The Jackpot

Gratefully we stumbled onto another source and as it turned out and it turned out to be a really good one. Something that most Russian families use regularly to get their drinking water.

Villages and many city suburbs have something akin to a village well, it’s actually a big old looking water tap called a Kolonka (Koлонка) that uses a system that keeps the water well below ground level and pumps it up under pressure when you hold a big lever on the Kolonka down for a while. It works summer and winter through. The water is from a well underground and very clean and drinkable. It’s also very cold like it has come straight from a fridge.

We also found a map App called 2GIS that showed us the locations of every single one of these Kolonka throughout Russia. In a flash, all our water problems completely evaporated (sorry about the pun). From that point onwards we had beautiful fresh cool and clean water and water that was easy to find and free!

They aren’t much to look at and we always made a point of running the water for a bit before putting the hose in the tank, just to be sure that it was clean water going into the tank. I got caught out one time. I think that some work had been done to one we used before we got to it and the bottom half of our tank was a bit muddy. We had to flush it all out before the next fill up. I found Kolonka’s in places ranging from the suburbs of St Petersburg to remote villages in Siberia.

We were really surprised sometimes by the quality of the water, one batch around Tomsk was effervescent and tasted better than any naturally effervescent bottled mineral water I have ever bought! Can you imagine my surprise when I drunk it straight from our vans tap for the first time, I thought Vero had played some sort i=of trick on me!

Grey Water

This was more problematic as there simply are zero dumping stations for this. It is nothing like Europe. So what to do. We realised quickly that there was nothing to do other than dump it where we could.

It caused us a real moral dilemma, one we really struggled with. Our only way of overcoming it personally was to make sure that we used the best eco soaps available, that we minimised the food waste going down the sink, this helps to keep the pipes clear anyhow, and to use the water in the van sparingly and use alternatives whenever and wherever possible. Mostly we ended up having to dump grey water on the side of the highway. I’m not proud of this, but there really were no alternatives.

If anyone reading this found a better way to deal with this issue, please tell us asap, as we have another 7,000km to travel here as I write this post.

Black Water

Blackwater was less of a problem to deal with, but still a nasty icky one.

In western Russia, there are loads of roadside cafes you can camp next to when you are travelling in Russia by camper van. They offer not only food and drinks, but many also offer a safe place to park overnight and a place to go to the toilet and have a shower, some have motel rooms too. The ones with toilet facilities, generally, will let you dump your toilet cassette for the same price as charged to use the loo yourself. Some might turn you away, but not many and the ones that refuse are most in the cities and are not roadside facilities.

There are very few, if any, public toilets in western Russia that you don’t have to pay for.

Easier As You Head East

As you move further east, you will find there are fewer and fewer paid toilet options, but thankfully small public toilets adjacent to the bus stops start to pop up. The toilets are actually pit toilets, so basically and literally a hole in the ground and at ground level for the most part. What I mean by this is that it is a squat toilet, no seat at all. This is the case with most public toilets in Russia. These are a perfect, if rather unpleasant, option for emptying your blackwater waste tank/cassette. Because it is at ground level.

I believe that you can run a pipe from your tank to the toilet easily enough, you might need to make sure it is long enough to reach or have an extension pipe you can fit if you need to.

For those with cassette toilets, it’s a breeze, and because they are at ground level, it’s much easier to empty the cassette into them than a conventional toilet.

I mentioned above that it was an unpleasant option. It’s unpleasant because no one is cleaning them, often they are old wooden structures that look like they might fall down on your head and some people that have used them before you got there clearly have zero ability to aim! I held my breath many a time while I stood as much ‘outside’ as I could while reaching in to release the contents of our cassette. Need I say more?

Electricity

If you are anything like us, you will find yourself free camping a lot. The downside is that electricity can become a bu=it of an issue, at least the lack of it! We are lucky (or maybe smart) enough to have a solar panel on our roof and an inverter, but really we should have 4 or 5 of them and a bigger inverter to use the |TV and have a more consistent supply of main power.

If you don’t have solar, or not much of it. And you are really used to having a full hook up for your camper van, then I suggest investing in a little silent generator. You can pick them up for as little as 16,000 rubles ($250).  They will give you all the power you need. We found them in all the big stores across the country (like Castorama, Depot, Marvin Leroy). With fuel being so cheap here it will pay for itself really quickly and give you greater independence. Make sure it is one of the super-quiet models, you can find rather noisy generators here for as little as 6000 rubles! Stick to the quite ones, you’ll thank me for this advice.

The Roads

Russsian roads range from ‘good enough’ to ‘appalling’. Too often they are somewhere in the middle. There are virtually no freeways and the vast majority of roads, and I am talking 98%-99%, the speed limit is 90km/h. As you can imagine, there are times when you question why you are travelling in Russia by camper van. But trust me, when you get to the good destinations and there are lots, it is all worth the effort.

There can also often be animals such as cows and horses walking on the highways, there are almost no fences to stop them anywhere.

So if you had a vision of charging down the highway at 130km/h, you will be lucky if you have half an hour of that on the entire drive. Plenty of people here drive over the speed limit, but that’s another story.

Police

You are going to be pulled up by the police a lot, you just need to accept this fact. There are checkpoints everywhere and they are all manned. This is generally not an issue, as long as your paperwork is all in order.

What they have only ever asked us for is:

  1. Drivers license
  2. Car registration
  3. Insurance certificate

I actually think that most of the police who stopped us couldn’t actually read the documents I gave them. I think they just looked for dates and weights. They are generally quite friendly, less so with the city-based ones. They can often be quite jovial, once they decide your paperwork is in order.

None of them has asked to see the import papers we received on the border. This actually surprised me, but I would keep them handy in case they ask for them.

Speed Cameras

The only Official things there is more of on the roads than the police are the speed cameras.

THERE ARE SPEED CAMERAS EVERYWHERE!!!

I really mean it, it sometimes feels like they are every 200m,  and often they are! They come in all shapes and sizes and there is not a map on the market that shows you where they all are. Too often the maps are wildly wrong in locating them and will tell you that the camera is 150 metres after where it actually is.

About half of them are mobile ones, the police hire citizens to take them to a spot and set them up on a tripod. so you have no warning other than a car sometimes parked nearby to warn you they are there.

So, do your best to stay within the speed limit always, it can be hard because there is n’t always a sign to tell you what the limit is, use the Yandex map as it is the most accurate for speeds I have found. If you aren’t sure what the speed limit is, just slow down, you will almost certainly be over it.

Take your time in Russia, don’t be in a rush. Stick to the limits and you will have a great time and see some awesome things that most camper van travellers will never see.

Road Rules

Don’t expect consistency in the road rules, some pedestrian crossings will have a speed limit of 40km/h others will be 60km/h and others again will be 90km/h, mostly the ones with slower speed limits will have speed cameras before, at, or after them… Are you getting my drift?

We did get into some trouble at one point and that was leaving the parking lot of a KFC on the side of the highway. there was a triangle painted on the road and it seems I was not supposed to cross that, not ever.

So here is the deal. Never cross the white unbroken line on Russian roads. Why you might ask? Because if you do it and the police see you do it, they will want to take your license from you and keep it for 6 months…

Yes, that’s right the penalty for crossing an unbroken white line in Russia is 6 months suspension of your license. As ridiculous as this sounds, it’s not a joke here and I urge you not to test it.

Zero Tolerance

The other very big no-no is drinking alcohol and driving, the acceptable amount of alcohol in your system while driving in Russia is a big fat ZERO. If you have even a sip of booze, don’t go near the steering wheel.

I can tell you that in the last 3 months, I have been pulled over by the police more times than in the whole 42 years of driving everywhere else in the world before I drove here.

If you drink and drive in Russia, you will get pulled over… You will find yourself in a Russian lock up!

 

Always stop at stop signs, like the ones on rail crossings, they love to catch you there.

Fuel & Gas

When travelling in Russia by camper van, there are a few tricks to making sure you get good fuel & gas.

Fuel

The price of fuel is very good in Russia. It is important NOT to buy the really cheap fuel though as it can often be rather dirty. The thing is that it’s really tempting because the cheaper brands can offer fuel at up to 25% less than the bigger brands. If youre on a tight budget, the tempation is very strong. But be strong, only buy from the big brands, your van will love you for it.

There might be a moment where you aren’t sure if you will make it to the next station without running out of fuel. It’s easy enough to take your eye of the gauge for a little too long. Put a tank of the cheap stuff in, just don’t do it all the time. Think of it as junk food for your van!

  • Diesel is generally  ₽41 – ₽52 ($0.62 -$0.82)
  • Petrol is a few cents more
  • Gas

When it comes to the gas for your appliances (fridge, heater boiler etc), it is a similar situation. The big brands are definitely where you should buy gas for them. You generally have a choice between Butane and Propane.

From my perspective, it doesn’t matter which to get, unless you are travelling in Russia in the colder months. Remember that Butane can freeze. Stick to using propane, as the temperature can suddenly get very cold any time outside of summer. We have family in Siberia and the week before we got to them the temp dropped to -2c at night. That WAS in the MIDDLE of summer!

On this score, make sure you have a heater and some warm clothes!

You will also need to get an adapter for your gas bottles (balloons). The majority of places you can buy gas are set up for filling cars not bottles. These adapters are easy enough to buy from most gas suppliers. You are allowed to use them in Russia, (it’s different to the EU in this regard).

Generally, you won’t have trouble finding petrol stations. They are rarely more than 60km apart, even in the more remote parts of the country. At least the ones you can access by road. But if you are really off the beaten track, you might have some trouble finding places to fuel up.  If you are really stuck, stop at any farmers house and ask to buy some fuel. You will find people are really helpful.

Conclusion

Travelling in Russia by camper van has its challenges. They are outweighed by the amazing things you will see and do.

If you have any info or topics I haven’t covered here, please share them in the comments. I will include the goos stuff into this post. I want this to be the most help post of travelling in Russia by camper van that it can be.

More to come soon.Remeber to subscribe to be notified when we post.

Happy travels!