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Our Top Tips for Enjoying a Canal Boat

Our Top Tips for Enjoying a Canal Boat

People have many reasons for choosing to spend time on a canal boat (or a narrow boat), some enjoy the idea of being able to move their accommodation around relatively easily and cheaply, some love the peace and quiet that a canal or river can offer, while some love the idea of a simpler way of life. Whatever your reason, as with most things, a little insider knowledge can make the experience much more enjoyable and cost effective. 

To help you make the most from the very start of your canal boat experience, the team at Willowtree Marina have put together this quick and simple guide for your time on a canal boat:

1. Choose the right boat

Finding a canal boat that is right for you will go a long way to ensuring you enjoy your time on a canal boat. Make a list of what you must have, what you would like and what does not bother you in terms of your canal boat accommodation. Share this list with a canal boat broker and let their expertise guide you to the vessel that will be right for you and your budget.

2. Find the right place to moor

The real joy of being on a canal boat is that you can change the view at any time, however, you may need to find a place to moor your boat for much of the time (even if this just becomes your ‘home port’). As well as budget, think about what facilities you would like and need, and where you would like your canal boat to be (somewhere that you know or somewhere out of the ordinary, easy to get to or off the beaten track?). For more information about this, read our guide to mooring here.

3. Conserve your water

Water tanks on canal boats usually have enough water to last between two to three weeks if you are economic with your usage. Remember, in order to fill up, you will need to move the vessel to a water point. So, being careful with your water will save time and a valuable resource. Top ways to conserve water include recycling water as much as possible (i.e. using the same water for boiling food to top up your toilet cistern), learn the art of showering quickly (beat your best time without skipping any bits), storing water on the boat in a water container, and avoiding high water usage devices such as a washing machine.

4. Insulate your water pipes

Just as you would in a land-based home, ensure that all of your pipes are insulated correctly. Getting pipe insulation foam tubes and cable ties can be relatively inexpensive and you will amaze yourself as to how easily and neatly you can insulate the pipes aboard your boat to avoid the expense and inconvenience of pipes freezing or bursting.

5. Prepare for every season

Spending time on a canal boat is not something you just do in the warmer longer summer days. It is a lifestyle choice that can extend across all 12 months of the year covering a wide range of temperatures and conditions. Having the correct clothing for each season is a must and ensuring you have appropriate bedding is also critical. However, having the right equipment and knowledge for different weather is also a must – some training will help, but also use the many online canal boat forums to learn from the experience of others.

6. Breakdowns

Narrowboats and breakdowns tend to go hand-in-hand. As such, keeping a well-stocked tool kit and key spares on board is absolutely essential. Most narrow boats have older diesel engines which, luckily, are relatively simple to repair and maintain. Screwdrivers, wrenches, spanners, hammers, replacement filters and lubricants are key for regular maintenance of your narrowboat. Investing your time in learning the basics of canal boat maintenance and repair (even a short course in diesel engine repair), will help you to take to life onboard with more confidence, Also, having the contact details of a reliable engineer (or engineers up and down the waterway system) will save time and money in case of emergency breakdown.

7. Keep your fuel tank clean

One of the most common mechanical problems on a narrowboat is “diesel bug”. This is the term given to bacteria in the fuel tank. This bacteria has the potential to kill your engine in the long term as it blocks filters and fuel injectors. Make sure to combat this by keeping your fuel tank correctly topped up with good quality diesel. You can also avoid diesel bug by investing in a diesel biocide additive to kill the bacteria (easily bought online or at any good marina shop).

8. Staying warm on your canal boat

The fuel stove is the principal way to heat your canal boat, so ensuring you have enough smokeless coal and firewood is critical. Buy ahead to get the best deal and stock up as much as you are able to safely and securely store on board. Also, investing in fleece blankets and clothing can make you feel much more comfortable during the winter months.

9. Look out for pests and bugs

Spiders are often attracted to narrowboats and can become an unwanted onboard guest. Keeping mint aboard your boat has been proven to keep the spiders away – both as a plant or by using peppermint oil in key locations around the boat. Other bugs and nasties can be kept away by cleaning your narrow boat regularly (either follow the ‘Field Day’ schedule of a full and thorough clean every Friday each week or clean one small area thoroughly each day so the whole canal boat is cleaned once each week).

10. Keep your mattress and bedding dry

Moisture is inevitable on a narrowboat but has the potential not only to rot your boat from the inside, but also allows mould to thrive. Regular airing of the underside of your mattress and your bedding removes the possibility of moisture and mould. Allowing air to circulate around the mattress by making holes in the side of the base can also help. 

11. Be organised

Canal boats are small spaces so being organised is essential. Utilising all available space in new and inventive ways will allow you to store and easily access everything you might need whilst onboard. Avoid clutter and large collections of useless items – your time on a canal boat should feel simple, so having less ‘stuff’ and making the most of what you do have is a must. Take being on a canal boat as your opportunity to simplify your life and live more responsibly (but carefree).

12. Look into alternative energy

Making the most of what you do have is critical when on a canal boat and, in our view, investing in good quality solar panels for some of the big flat space atop your boat is a wise investment. Solar panels can top up your boat battery or be used to power those pieces of electric equipment you just can’t live without. An internet search of ‘solar panels for boats’ should provide you with plenty of choice.

Time on a canal boat can be very rewarding if you plan and prepare properly. In this simple guide we have included some of our top tips but every canal boat user will have their own – if you do, let us know what they are by completing our contact form and we will try and include them in our next update to this guide.

If you have any questions about how best to enjoy your time on a canal boat then contact one of the friendly team at Willowtree Marina on 020 8841 6585 or email