When temperatures start dropping, we start thinking about what we can do to stay warm in our beloved Defender, because maybe the hat-scarf-and-gloves solution from last year wasn’t really all that. Staying warm in your Defender in winter doesn’t necessarily require a whole lot of work, however, when temperatures drop to -45°C, it’s a different story altogether.
First a little bit about us. I’m from Belgium and spend a lot of time in Irkutsk, Siberia with my wife Katerina (who’s Siberian) and we thought it would be a good idea to share some of the knowledge we’ve gained through years of overlanding experience with our 110 Defender “Jeremy” in wintry Russia.
This article was written with the 300Tdi engine in mind. Things may differ slightly with the 200Tdi, TD5 or Puma but the same principles will apply. The 300Tdi is not exactly what one would call ‘under cooled’ which, combined with the world-renowned, mind-blowing performance of the Land Rover heater, makes for quite the frosty drive in winter. And that ‘crisp, frosty’ feeling quickly turns into bone-chilling cold when temperatures drop to -20°C, -30°C, -40°C and below. That is why we decided to put together a few tips that have helped us keep our Landy (and us) nice and warm in the harsh Siberian climate. We hope you find this useful, whether you live in sunny Wales, where shorts-and-sandal season is almost year-round, or planning a trip to the frost-bound regions of snowy Russia.
All of our tips and advice can be divided into three categories: Fuel, the cabin and the engine. How do I prevent the diesel from gelling? Is there a solution for the immense output I get from the Land Rover heater? Or how do I go about insulating my Defender and keeping that precious heat inside? We’ll do our best to answer all of these questions and more in this article.
If you drive a V8, you can sit back and relax as fuel issues will not be for you. Poor fuel quality on the other hand, is always a concern in certain parts of the world but these issues are not climate related. As for diesel, yes, that may be an issue. Diesel will gel when temperatures drop below a certain point. However, besides summer diesel, there is also winter diesel and even arctic diesel, so surely, diesel shouldn’t be an issue, should it? Well, even in December, there are still towns in Siberia selling summer diesel while temperatures of -30°C at the end of October are not unheard of.
That’s where fuel heaters come in. They are ideal to bridge that period between summer and winter diesel, or for when only winter diesel is available but you really need arctic diesel. Ideally, you want to be able to warm up the diesel inside the tank, the fuel pipes and the filter. Afterwards, if things get a bit too frosty for diesel, all you have to do is flip a switch, wait a few minutes for things to warm up and you’ll be able to start your engine. Without it, the 300Tdi tends to start but stalls when attempting to take off.
The importance of anti-gel is also worth mentioning since it offers a slightly different approach. Whereas the heater tries to un-gel diesel and thus make it more liquid, the anti-gel helps prevent the gelling altogether. Don’t expect miracles from these products but they do give you a few extra degrees, at least when used correctly! If the anti-gel is left outside in temperatures of -40°C, then even the anti-gel will turn into gel. The best way to use it is to fill a jerry can with diesel, add the anti-gel to it and keep this mixture in the vehicle. At the petrol station, first add the mixture from the jerry can and only then fill up the tank with regular diesel. An alternative to anti-gel is petrol or kerosene although the latter may be harder to come by in some countries than it is in Russia. If you do have it, you can add up to 10% to your diesel.
This category can be further divided into heating and insulation. As you surely know, the Defender’s heater needs quite a bit of time to start blowing warm air. That is assuming you don’t reach your destination before it does. And as for warming up the driver or maybe even a passenger or two, that’s unlikely to ever happen. So you may want to look at other options. Changing the heater matrix is one way to go but we decided to opt for the versatility of a Webasto Air Top. This diesel air heater has been around for a very long time and has proven to be extremely reliable.
In order to warm up the back or front of the vehicle, depending on where we need it most, we had to ‘modify’ it. The Webasto lives underneath the passenger seat and faces the back of the vehicle. Good, but that doesn’t help the driver and passenger much when driving. So instead of simply flipping it around, which would take away the hot air in the back while burning your passenger’s shoes, we decided to come up with some simple pipework that would provide additional heat to the front of the cabin instead of the back when we need it. This pipework can be done any way you like, providing hot air exactly where you want it. We carry a few extra pipes which allows us to reroute it when we sleep in the vehicle and need hot air in the back and higher up. This modification is extremely practical and dirt cheap.
A petrol Webasto Air Top is also available but, for us, this would require a separate tank which we didn’t want. There is however something to be said for the fact that petrol won’t freeze and you will therefore not have to worry about it not starting on a very cold morning. Decisions…
Now that you have a way to warm up the cabin, you’ll want to prevent that heat from escaping. And while you’re at it, this is probably the right time to do something about all of the cold air blowing from all directions. Insulating your Defender is an annoying, time-consuming job but well worth the effort!
Depending on where in the world you live, you’ll have different materials available to you. We decided to go for two layers: A first layer to reduce noise and vibrations and on top of that a closed-cell foam to keep all of that precious heat inside the cabin. Pretty much the entire car can be insulated and the difference is amazing. You will however always be left with some weak spots such as the windows. But even this can be solved with just a dash of originality. A sandwich of different materials, eg an aluminized material on the outside and sintepon on the inside, will make a big difference. Sintepon is a very popular material in Russia and often used in winter jackets. The aluminized material will reflect heat back into the cabin while the sintepon provides the necessary insulation. Add a few suction cups and you’re done. This solution also doubles as a blind for the windows if you want to sleep in your Defender.
Another spot you don’t want to forget are the vents! Our seals were in good condition yet my knees were always frozen after just 5 minutes of driving. We addressed this problem by simply putting a layer of insulation underneath the vent, on the outside. The difference is immense!
As you probably already know, Siberian temperatures and the 300Tdi (or almost any Land Rover engine for that matter) are not exactly a match made in heaven. Most people in Siberia have automatic starting systems that start the engine once it reaches a certain temperature. That’s all good and well, but most people don’t drive a Defender and this solution will do more bad than good as idling has very little influence on the engine’s temperature. This means it will constantly be running cold.
The best solution here (and yes it’s a costly one) is an engine pre-heater such as a Webasto, Eberspächer or Binar. Despite its price tag (which can vary quite a bit depending on where in the world you live) it is, without a doubt, one of the best investments you’ll ever make! It allows you to warm up your engine before starting it which makes those cold morning starts a whole lot easier while greatly reducing the time your heater needs to start blowing warm air. It is also a great way to keep your engine warm in the city or in a traffic jam as it can usually be turned on whilst driving. Without it, the engine will stay warm, but only when driving 50 mph, which is sadly not always possible in the city or in a traffic jam. Having that option to keep your engine at a safe temperature at the push of a button is invaluable.
If you’re not willing to spend that kind of money then there is another type of engine pre-heater that works exactly the same way but has to be plugged in. They are available at a fraction of the price of the Webasto but always require proximity to mains electricity. So unless you carry a 20 km extension cord wherever you go, the Webasto may be the better choice. Now that you can safely start your engine, you’ll want to keep it warm, which may require a bit more than simply putting your foot down.
For starters, a radiator muff. Simply turning on the heater will already cool down the engine so you can imagine that a constant flow of freezing cold air won’t do any good for your engine’s temperature either. You could go for the more elegant-looking Exmoor Trim radiator muff, or, if you want to save a few quid, a good old trusty piece of cardboard will do the trick as well. The advantage of the Exmoor Trim radiator muff is that it can be used for wading as well as for protecting your radiator from mud whilst off-roading. Cardboard, on the other hand, doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to wading.
An engine blanket is another good upgrade. They are not terribly expensive, very thick and specifically designed to help keep your engine that little bit warmer, especially after you turn off the engine. In extreme cold, this blanket allows us to keep the engine temperature above zero for many hours after turning if off.
One last thing worth mentioning is the battery. Batteries don’t enjoy extreme temperatures, whether it be above or below zero. If you’re lucky enough to be able to park your Land Rover in a warm garage every night, then you shouldn’t have any issues. But, if you do leave your car outside every night, then a daily drive will be required or you may find yourself cursing and looking for the jump leads the following morning. If you know you’re not going to be driving for a couple of days, it’s best to just take the battery out, charge it and put it away.
A dual battery system makes things that little bit easier and when the voltage gets a bit low, you can simply connect the two batteries and combine the cold cranking amps which should be enough to start the engine.
We hope this has been helpful to you, whether you want to be the second Defender to reach the summit of Mount Elbrus or just stay that little bit warmer during the morning commute.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to send us a message on Instagram! Andy - @landy_jeremy
Thank you Andy for that brilliant insight into life in the big freeze! Shop the parts mentioned in this article:
Insulation > Shop here
Exmoor Trim Radiator Muffs > Shop here
Jump Starter > Shop here
*This article is opinion based. Please refer to your workshop manual for technical guidance.