Russia is the biggest country in the world, covering 11% of the world’s surface, and when we think of driving across the country, it sounds like a challenging and exhilarating experience, and it is. It requires careful planning and a good understanding of the process.
So, let’s find out the most practical routes to drive and what to expect along the way.
The most accessible way to drive across Russia is via the Trans-Siberian Highway, which is 6,800 miles (11,000 kilometers) in length, running from St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea, to Vladivostok and the pristine waters of Japan. To complete this journey, you’ll need a minimum of 10-12 days and a keen sense of adventure.
The Trans-Siberian Highway
Even though Russia is 74% larger than the US, the US has over four times the number of roads that Russia has. This means that when driving across Russia, you’re going to be more limited to the drivable routes available.
This means you’re most likely going to be driving across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Highway, which is the third longest highway in the world, consisting of seven federal highways and a distance of 6,800 miles (11,000 kilometers).
Until recent years, the highway was inaccessible to international travelers due to harsh road conditions, but the roads have been updated and fully paved since 2015.
However, the highway is so vast in length, maintaining road conditions is a continuous job, with entire sections that are often left untouched. As a result, it still has varying road conditions throughout. These include pristine motorway sections in the West, to poorly paved roads in the East.
Driving the Trans-Siberian Highway isn’t going to be as comfortable as driving on a US Interstate Highway, with infrequent convenience stops, uneven road surfaces, and without 2-4 lane driving.
While the route is paved and has some nice stretches, it also has some uneven stretches that will take a toll on your cars, especially the suspension.
For instance, roadwork maintenance throughout the highway is common, and as a result, you’ll be driving through long stretches on sandy, uneven roads. There are also “wavy” sections of the road where you’re going to be constantly moving up and down over the bumpy surface, and you’ll have to take care when driving through these parts to avoid damaging your car.
Also, if you decide to branch off of the highway and take a detour, then you can expect harsh road surfaces full of deep puddles, pebbles, and sand, too. In other words, it’s not advisable to take detours unless you know exactly where you’re going.
In the Summer, between May and September, weather conditions are at their best, and it’s going to be the safest time of the year to make the drive. Even so, when exposed to direct sunlight, temperatures along long stretches of road can stretch to in excess of 100 F (+40 C)!
Even for experienced drivers, it’s best to avoid driving the highway during the Winter months. In stark contrast to the Summer, during the colder months, torrential rain and snowy, icy conditions are a common occurrence.
Starting around mid-October and ending in late March, the highway is at its coldest temperatures, dipping to -22 F (-30 C) daytime and -58 F (-50 C) nighttime during the peak Winter months.
Speed limits will be enforced throughout your journey (generally between 55-75 mph), but limits are often determined depending on whether you’re traveling in urban or rural environments. Of course, as the road is so vast, for the majority of the journey, you won’t encounter any traffic police, but in some instances, you’ll want to stay more speed aware.
For instance, you’ll want to stay mindful of the speed limit when traveling through small towns and settlements, where you’ll encounter squad checks, where rules are strictly enforced, and if you’re caught breaking them, expect a fine.
How long does the trip take?
Traveling the entire distance of the highway from the far East to the West with continuous driving takes approximately five days to complete if you’re sticking to speed limits.
Of course, to do this would require constant driver rotation, which isn’t a practical option, and in reality, at a minimum, the trip would take 6-7 days to complete.
In realistic terms, this is a sightseeing adventure, and if you want to stop off and see what the highway has to offer, then at the very least, you’re going to take around 10-12 days to complete the journey comfortably.
If you choose to stop off overnight and visit different locations, in the city or other areas, it will take longer, and you can comfortably spend three weeks on the road and visiting different places.
Some important info for your trip:
- Some sections of the road aren’t covered by mobile communication networks, so you’ll need to have a map and emergency supply kit ready, and know what you’re doing and where you’re going.
- There are gas stations on the route, but some won’t provide high-quality fuel or have amenities that a US or EU driver is used to.
- Due to the changes in road surfaces, a 4×4 vehicle is going to be a good option for your travels.
If you want to see as much of Russia as you can, then driving a car is the best option. Before your trip, however, it’s going to be important to get as much information about stopping locations as you can, as there are great places to see along the way, but there will also be places to stay clear of.
Some side ventures to cities and towns can reach in excess of 100s of miles and require a highly skilled driver to complete, so unless you know where you’re going, you’ll want to avoid venturing far off the main highway.
Ideally, if you can be accompanied by a local guide, then this would be the safest way to travel across Russia via car.
Extensions of the Trans-Siberian Highway
There are further out locations you can access from the Highway.
Moscow to Saint Petersberg
If you keep driving once you reach Moscow, you have the option of extending your drive all the way to Saint Petersberg.
To get there faster, instead of taking the older M10 (part of the Trans-Siberian Highway) from Moscow to Saint Petersberg, you now have the option of paying to drive on Russia’s most modern highway, the M11, which was opened in 2019, spanning 425 miles (684 km).
This is a tolled route, serving as an alternative, quicker and safer route to the older M10, cutting the driving time from approximately 9 hours to 6 hours.
Driving this route from Moscow to Saint Petersberg will take you 8 hours and 23 minutes. Also, every 12 or so miles, you’ll find kiosks and toilets, and it currently serves as one of the most pleasant sections of driving available in the country.
Ubylinka border to Magadan
Another drivable route through Russia is from the Ubylinka Border between Russia/Latvia to Magadan, with a distance of 6835 miles (11,000 km).
However, navigating the northern territories of Russia is challenging, as there are more mountainous regions with limited and less developed road networks. This route is only recommended for those who are more experienced with driving on the Russian road systems. Due to varying weather and road conditions, this route can take weeks to complete.
Ferry to Japan
Similarly, if you’re looking for an added adventure, and plan on driving the Trans-Siberian Highway from West to East, once you reach Vladivostok, you could take a ferry from the southeastern seaport of Vladivostok over to Sakaiminato, Japan, with one crossing per week and a 20+ hour crossing time!
Other travel methods across Russia
If driving seems like too much hard work to cross Russia, and you’re interested in finding a more comfortable option, both passenger trains and passenger planes are available.
The Trans-Siberian Railway
Traveling by train via the Trans-Siberian Railway serves as an alternative way of traveling across Russia and is a great option during the Winter months. Spanning the entire width of the continent, the traditional journey covers 5771 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok.
First and second-class sleeper carriages are available, with plenty of space to move around. The train will complete the journey in as little as six days.
Additionally, other routes include the Trans-Mongolian, from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia, and the Trans-Manchurian, running from Moscow to Beijing.
The fastest and easiest option to travel across Russia is to take a non-stop plane, available to travel from Moscow airport to Vladivostok Knevichi airport, with a travel time of 8 hours and 30 minutes.
Regular flights are available. Direct flights start at around $200, and return tickets from $360.
Make no mistake about it, if you want to drive across Russia via the Trans-Siberian Highway, you’re going to need to plan things out carefully. This includes making sure your car is up to the job, having a few weeks to spare, and researching the route beforehand, including any side roads you intend to drive down.
The best time to drive this route is in the Summer months, and it’s not advisable to do so during the Winter as weather and road conditions are too unpredictable. A road trip across Russia is something to be looked at as an adventure, and is something you’ll certainly never forget.