Canal Boat Essentials for American and British Canals


Canal boat essentials

In the UK, Europe and parts of the US flat-bottomed industrial canal boats have used to distribute freight and transport people on canals for centuries. These days canals are used more by recreational watercraft than working boats. Canal boating offers a very different experience from any other form of boating. So, if you intend to take the canal networks you need to know which essential items you need to take with you on your boat.

Essential items to source before setting off

These days fairly large flat-bottomed recreational boats, and the odd kayak, make up the vast majority of traffic on canals. Although there are working boats found on some canals, especially in Europe, most canal boats are recreational vessels.

If you are new to boating on canals, even if you navigate other types of inland waterways, you will probably be surprised at the laid back pace, extremely calm water conditions and the satisfying combination of urban and rural scenery that only a canal can offer. Canals also offer better access to amenities than other types of waterways. But, although a resupply spot is never far away  there are still some things you need to have at hand before you set off.

If you are intending to hire or to buy a canal boat, then you need to make sure you take care of the essentials before you hit the water. Having all the must-have essentials on board will ensure that you can boat safely, legally and comfortably and will never be caught short.

In this article, we share lists of canal boat essentials every canal boater needs from permits to equipment.

Paperwork you will need to have on board

It all starts with having the correct paperwork. You cannot just buy a boat and start cruising up and down the canal networks of your chosen State, or country. In almost all instances you will need a permit or license to operate a motorboat on canals.

Let’s have a look at the essential legal documents you need in order to use the canal networks.

On American waterways

There are 11 states in the USA that have canal networks that you can travel on. So what do you need to use these canals in the US?

  • Canal license. This is not really a permit; it can be thought of as being more of a contribution to the canal network than a standard permit. The license fee is used to help maintain the canal network and is therefore welcomed by almost all canal users.
  • Appropriate safety equipment. You are legally required to carry appropriate safety equipment when operating a motorboat on canals in the North America. The basic safety equipment items you need are:
    • PFDs. A Personal Floatation Device is required for all passengers. This is usually a life jacket or vest.
    • Throwable PFD. A flotation device that can be thrown from the boat to help a passenger who has went overboard.
    • Fire extinguishers. If your boat has a motor or any type of cooking system then you are required to have the minimum complement of USCG approved marine grade fire extinguishers.
    • Navigation lights. Appropriate navigation lights are required on all vessels that will be used in reduced visibility and/or at night.
    • Sound producing device. A horn or other sound device (even a simple whistle) is required by law to warn other water users of your presence.
  • Boat registration. Your canal boat will need to be registered, and may need to be titled depending on your state. When the boat is registered in one state it will not need to be registered in another state if you are only visiting (usually covers you for a 60 – 90 day period). The regulations that apply to a Jon boat apply to a canal boat as well so you may want to read our article on that.
  • Fishing permit. Permit requirements for fishing will vary from state to state.

On British waterways

If you are planning to go on a canal boating vacation in Britain, (we give 10 top reasons to do that here), then you will almost certainly end-up cruising the canals on a Narrowboat. Other canal boats are available but a narrowboat is ideally suited to the very narrow and shallow canals of the British Isles (UK and Ireland). But, regardless of the type of canal boat you use you are required to have slightly different documentation than what is required for using American canals.

What you need:

  • Cruising licence. To cruise canals legally in Britain you will need to purchase a licence from the Canal and Rivers Trust or the Environment Agency depending on the location of your canal. You are required by law to have your licence on your person while cruising.
  • Boat safety certificate.  This should also be kept on-board and certifies that your boat has been assessed by a marine specialist within the last 12 months and is safe to use. The company that hires you a boat should produce this for you. If you own the canal boat you will be responsible for obtaining it yourself. This paperwork covers:
    • Gas safety.
    • Fuel safety.
    • Safety gear.
    • All onboard electrical equipment works safely.
  • Evidence of an approved mooring.  This is needed unless you intend to be continuously on the move.
  • A valid insurance policy.  Insurance is a standard requirement for using British canals. Your hire company will also provide you with this.

What you don’t need:

  • A fishing license. In Scotland and Ireland you can fish from a canal boat at any time of the year. In England and Wales there may be some restrictions at specific times of the year. If there are restrictions in place during the period in which you will travel, all you need to do is obtain an Environmental Agency fishing licence from a local Post Office – this should be obtained before you go on vacation as it takes time to process the license and get it to you. If you are booking a canal boat vacation through a 3rd party be sure they take care of this for you several weeks before you embark.
  • A boat operator’s license. You do not need to take a test to prove you can drive a boat (like you do with a road vehicle).

The canal boat experience in the British Isles is somewhat different from America. Most Americans are shocked when they discover that there is no law against operating a canal boat while drinking alcohol in the UK and Ireland.

Although you can drink and operate a canal boat legally in the British Isles we seriously advise against it. Alcohol and moving boats don’t mix well. There are alcohol related accidents, and even deaths, every year. In fact, it is believed that 20% of all boating deaths in the UK are alcohol related.

So, abstain from alcohol while the boat is traveling. At the very least make sure the driver of the boat refrains from alcohol until the boat is moored for the night. It is perfectly fine to indulge in some alcohol when the boat is securely moored and will not be moving again that day.

narrowboat coming out of tunnel
British narrow boat on canal

Your essential canal boat equipment list

Canal boats, including narrowboats (which also exist in the USA), are pretty large vessels. Although they are designed and adapted for compact, but comfortable boating in confined waters, they are long boats with a good amount of storage space – think of them as a large RV on the water. With a canal boat, you can, therefore, carry more gear and accommodate more passengers than in most other motor-powered inland recreational vessels.

Canal boat essential basics

  • A windlass. This device enables you to open and close locks. Keep two in case you lose one or drop it in the canal.
  • Additional/emergency fuel. Store some extra fuel in a safe container for emergencies.
  • Oil and grease. Keep some oil or grease for lubricating the mechanical parts of your boat.
  • Gas or wood. You wouldn’t believe how many people forget to bring basic heat/cooking fuel. Depending on the boat type of you are using, you will need either gas or wood for heating and cooking. Don’t forget to pack some firelighters!
  • Lighter. Those wood sticks ain’t gonna light themselves.
  • Long poles. A pole is great for checking depth, pushing your boat away from obstructions and punting your boat if your engine breaks down. Make sure there is one on your boat before you push off.
  • Fuel and water. Cheap, small dipsticks are a great way to check your fuel and freshwater levels and should be carried incase your gauges don’t work or are not installed on your boat.
  • Lump hammers. Seriously, get at least one lump hammer for driving in your mooring stakes deeply and other tasks that may arise.
  • Mooring stakes.  Although your boat may come supplied with mooring sticks some do not, and it is a good idea to keep at least three spares onboard anyway.
  • Mooring rope or chain. Ensure your boat comes with with spares.
  • Lighting. You need to pack a good searchlight, or deck light, and don’t forget to pack some small handheld flashlights for the tow-path at night.
  • Fresh water. Don’t forget to carry extra fresh water for cooking and cleaning. This will need to be topped up at regular intervals.
  • Manual pump. A bilge pump in case the onboard pump fails.
  • Maps and guides. You need these for planning your route.
  • Compass. To go with your maps.
  • Bedding. You will want your own bedding if you are renting a canal boat.
  • Throws for the seating. You may also want to cover the onboard sofa and chairs.
  • Towels. Must-have items.
  • Dish cloths. For cleaning and drying dishes.

Essential safety and security equipment

  • Lifejackets or Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs). Even though canals are shallow and many canal users do not wear PFDs outside the USA, life jackets are becoming increasingly recognized as a necessity while on the water.
  • Life belts. These are great to aid in the retrieval of people who fall in the water.
  • Fire extinguishers and a fire blanket.
  • Padlocks and keys. Need to to keep your vessel secure.
  • Cork key fobs. These are extremely cheap items that every boater should use. A boat key fob helps your keys to float if they fall in the water.
  • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. These early warning systems are especially important if you are woodburning onboard or using gas cookers. Make sure your boat is fitted with these before leaving on it.
  • First Aid Kit. A rental boat will probably have a basic kit onboard but you should consider getting a boating first aid kit which is superior and cheap.
  • Utility gloves. Gloves are great for protecting your hands when dealing with messy stuff like fuel or sanitation. They also give you additional grip when opening locks, driving in mooring sticks and pulling on moor ropes.

 Personal-use essential items

  • Phone. Don’t put a complete ban on cell/mobile phones. Even if you force the kids to turn them off be sure to have at least one fully-charged phone onboard for emergencies. Having access to local websites on the Internet will also help you better plan your daily routes so you can better experience what the local area has to offer.
  • Waterproof phone cover. You can get different sized waterproof pouches for all our electronic equipment.
  • Cash. Carry some cash for last minute purchases from local mom-and-pop shops and taverns dotted along the canals.
  • British Waterways Key. Available in the UK, this key offers access to a network of canal-side showering, toilet and freshwater supply facilities.
  • Batteries and chargers. Canal boats have electrical outlets for charging phones and batteries for things like flashlights. If you are an American and planning to boat in the British Isles be sure to use a US to UK adapter so you can use their electrical sockets and grid. Note that if you are traveling to anywhere in the rest of Europe then you will need an European adapter.
  • Food. Have some food onboard even if you plan to eat at canal restaurants.
  • Clothing. Ideally dress in layers so you are prepared for all conditions. Wellies are handy too for working on locks and muddy towpaths.
  • Soft waterproof bags. Soft bags weigh less and are easier to store in the limited space on a boat.
  • Recreational equipment. Folding chairs, tents for camping, bicycles for cycling on towpaths and gaining access to further away spots of interest. Add anything else you think may be helpful for canalside pastimes.
  • Binoculars. Great for seeing the amazing local sights in more detail.
  • Camera. Don’t forget to get a cheap waterproof disposable camera. You can use this in situations where you would be more wary of using your expensive smartphone. A waterproof disposable camera is easily retrieved if dropped in the water without any damage to the camera or film inside. The pictures are surprisingly good quality as well.
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen. You need these even if you are an American vacationing in Britain or Ireland. Contrary to popular belief it doesn’t rain all the time in the British Isles (at least not in the summer); the summer months can be very hot and sunny and the humidity in the air means you are more prone to get sunburn.
  • Sunburn relief. See above.

Tools and maintenance essentials

These essential items are only for those of you who own their canal boat.

  • Tool kits. These are helpful for making any simple but necessary on the spot repairs to your boat.
  • Bitumen paint. This type of paint is an essential hull coating that can be painted directly onto the steel or on top of existing layers if you scrape your boat.
  • Marine and anti-rust paints.
  • Sandpaper. Great for prepping your surfaces for painting.
  • Repair kit. You need a simple repair kit for repairing any damage done to the weed hatch (point of access to the prop) and leaks.
  • PTFE tape. Sealant tape can come in very handy when you are surrounded by water.
  • Engine spares including:
    • Morse cables.
    • Fan belt.
    • Fuel filter.
  • Spare bulbs and fuses.
  • Spare starting batteries and multi-stage battery charger.

Rounding up

Canal boating is one of the most relaxed forms of boating you can try but as with all forms of boating, being properly equipped and legally covered is essential.

Ensure that you boat lawfully and have the correct licenses and permits.

Be sure you have all the essential items listed in this article. Some will be supplied with your rental boat while some others you will need to bring yourself (as outlined in the lists above).

Canal boats do need continual maintenance to perform properly, so having a good working knowledge of how the boat operates means that you can troubleshoot problems quickly and get back to enjoying your cruise should a problem develop out on the water.

The duration of a journey by canal boat can be as short or as long as you like and some people even live on canal boats long-term. With over 2000 miles of canal waterways in the UK, and 26 separate canals California alone, there’s a lot to explore. So get going!

Some resources and links for further information 

Canals associations

North American Canals– USA and Canada.

UK Canal & River Trust – England, Scotland and Wales.

Inland Waterway Association of Ireland – All-Ireland coverage.

Using a canal lock (key skill!)

 Canal boat maintenance

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