canal boat tips

Canal Boat Tips: Little Hacks That Make a Big Difference

Boating tips and hacks are the best cheats, bar none.

And as boaters, we learn a hack or two as we become more experienced. We pick up handy tips along the way that make life seem simpler.

Well, I like to think of my specific canal boat tips and “hacks” as timesaving solutions to positively impact your boating life and improve your experiences.

Here are some of the best cheats and hacks I’ve learned in my first year of living on a canal boat.

Canal Boat Tips: Little Hacks That Make a Big Difference

Canal Boat Tips: On the Boat

Saving Energy on Your Canal Boat

Living on a boat is all about having less impact on the planet, so what better way to kick off than talking about saving energy.

canal boat tips

Fit LED bulbs  LED bulbs use a fraction of the power of a standard bulb, but you lose none of the light. These Philips 8-Watt LEDs (check price on Amazon) are the equivalent of a single 60-watt standard bulb. And the bonus is they last longer.

canal boat tips

Get solar lights — These can be bought for very little and last indefinitely. I have two LED solar lights (check price on Amazon) that hang in my pram cover, giving me as much light as the LED bulbs in the boat. The solar panel sits on the roof, and the battery unit that it plugs into also has a USB charging point to charge any number of electrical gadgets. And it’s all free!

Turn off your fridge  Take advantage of the colder months by investing in a plastic box with a lid and placing your chilled food in the box outside the boat. It also makes a great beer chiller. Sure, in the warmer months, you’ll have to turn the fridge back on, but you’ll save roughly three months energy usage throughout the year.

Keep your fridge full  Turning the fridge off isn’t an option for some, so another handy tip is to keep the refrigerator full if you’re leaving it switched on. The fridge draws power to cool the interior air, and with less air to chill, it reaches and stays at the correct temperature more efficiently, and that’s good for your batteries.

Don’t leave electrical items on standby  Standby is a modern convenience phenomenon that sticks two fingers up to energy saving.

When I was a kid, appliances and electronics had an off button only. Now, everything has a standby setting. You’d be surprised how much a TV on standby draws from your battery bank. If you’re leaving the boat for a while or just looking for the best energy consumption you can get, turn all electrical items off at the plug when they’re not in use.

Creating Energy on Your Canal Boat

Keep your solar panels clean  You’d be amazed how much energy gets lost through poorly cleaned solar panels. Over time, dirt and debris collect on the roof of your boat, caking your solar panels in grime.

Keep them clean, because of the reduction in efficiency. A dirty solar panel can be up to 20 percent less effective.

Always keep your batteries above 50 percent charge — It’s a well-known fact that lead-acid batteries don’t like being drained below 50 percent, and you could argue that 70 percent was the lowest base point.

Whatever the limit, and that will depend on the type of battery you have, make sure that you keep them charged. And remember that in colder weather, batteries are less efficient especially lithium.

Lithium batteries like the warmth  If you’ve installed lithium batteries, don’t make the mistake of placing them in the vacant spot where the old battery bank was, especially if that spot is in an exposed part of the boat like the engine bay.

Find a warm place inside the vessel, because lithium batteries don’t perform in cold weather, and that will be a waste of a significant sum of money.

Canal Boat Cooking Tips

canal boat tips

Cook on the solid-fuel stove  Most canal boats have a solid-fuel stove to provide heat. What better way to save energy than investing in a cast iron cooking pot (check price on Amazon) to place on the top, using the heat from the fire to cook stews and casseroles.

I’ve made many meals this way and the results have been fantastic.

canal boat tips

Boil water on the stove — Invest in a kettle with a cast iron base (check price on Amazon). Like cooking on the stove, place the kettle on there too. That way you’ll have a great meal, and a piping hot tea to wash it down.

Best of all, you did it with the energy that was already warming your boat. Triple win!

Cook double portions  When cooking, try to make double portions. The downside is it means having the same meal twice in a row, but the beauty is that the next day, all you have to do is warm it through, saving loads of gas.

Canal Boat Maintenance Tips

Brush leaves off your roof — Wet leaves collect in the water drainage gullies on your boat in the fall, especially the roof. If you don’t keep these drainage channels free of debris, you’re going to suffer corrosion.

Keep a broom handy to brush them away.

Keep spare paint  Invest in a couple of paint cans to keep on top of scuffs and scratches. If you’re not careful, those minor blemishes can become tomorrows rust problem.

Use old stockings and tights — Cut up old stockings and with an elastic band, wrap then around the mushroom vents to stop spiders entering the boat. The vents can still do their job, and you don’t get any nasty surprises.

General Canal Boat Tips

Keep spare gas canisters — Always keep a spare in the gas locker for those moments when the gas runs out.

canal boat tips

Invest in water containers — Buy a good quality food-grade water storage container (check price on Amazon) to increase your water storage capacity.

My boat has a 170-gallon water tank (about 800 liters) and to supplement this, I’ve invested in two water storage containers that hold 100 liters each. This has increased my water storage capacity by 200 liters, or to put it another way, a week extra before I have to fill up again.

Carry spares — Keep as many spares as possible: Alternator belts, light bulbs, engine oil, anti-freeze, water pumps… you get the picture.

Keep your fuel tank full — On the subject of spares, keep a can of spare fuel to top up the tank. If you can’t keep the fuel tank topped up, invest in a proper fuel treatment to avoid diesel bug.

Diesel bug is where your fuel becomes gloopy and unusable due to contamination. It’s especially prevalent on canal boats in the winter due to higher levels of moisture in the tank.

Canal Boat Tips: Off the Boat

canal boat tips

Invest in a sturdy trolley — Get an all-terrain trolley (check price on Amazon) to carry items along the towpath.

If you’re moored far from a car park, shopping can be very heavy by the time you reach the boat, but with a trolley, it removes the strain.

Collect wood — Never miss the opportunity to collect fallen branches on the canal side. Most canals border or run through dense woodland, so the number of fallen trees is remarkable, which means free wood for the fire.

And if you invested in a sturdy trolley, you’ll have the means to carry it.

Plan ahead — If you’re moving the boat, don’t just chance it that you’ll find somewhere to moor when you reach your destination.

Walk the route and see first. Canal boats move so slowly that you’ll almost never do more than 4 miles in a single trip, so planning the way should be easy.

Canal Boat Tips: Moving the Boat

Have a lookout — Station someone on the front of the boat to look for oncoming obstructions. And if you can, work out an acceptable sequence of hand signals first to make communicating easier.

Keep the center line close — The center line is the easiest way to pull the boat towards the bank. Have the center line accessible to the skipper and ready to throw to the crew member ashore as your mooring up. It also makes negotiating lock landings easier too.

Use markers to make steering easier — When using a tiller as you steer a canal boat, the left is right and right is left. Move the tiller to the left and the craft turns right, and vice versa. It can be confusing when you first take charge of the steering.

Tape two arrows to the lockers in front of you (where it’s visible) with the left arrow pointing right and the right arrow pointing left. That way, you’ll soon get the hang of the way the boat steers.

Reversing can clear the propeller — If you suspect something has wrapped around the propeller, stick the canal boat into reverse. It can have the effect of unwinding the debris and freeing it. This isn’t always the case, but it’s undoubtedly worth a try.

Otherwise, the alternative is to stick your hand into the weed hatch, and no one likes that idea.

Getting grounded — If you find yourself grounded, don’t panic. Throw the boat into reverse and back it up. It works 99 percent of the time.

Canal Boat Tips: Mooring Up

Have enough mooring pins — In winter the ground becomes very soggy, so have enough mooring pins to ensure passing boats won’t pull them out from the bank, leaving your vessel adrift. The best way to secure the boat is to hammer the pins into the ground in an X formation.

Make the pins easy to see at night — Tie something reflective to the mooring pins, so they are visible in the dark. That way, no one will trip on them as they stroll by.

Have spare rope handy — Keep spare marine rope onboard to make springs when you moor up. Springs help to dampen the movement of the boat as other vessels pass it, which also means less stress on your mooring pins.

Keep two planks — Keep two planks on the boat so that when you have to moor far from the bank, it doesn’t feel like a death-defying challenge to embark and disembark from the boat. Also, keep one of those planks accessible from the stern to make mooring up easier.

canal boat tips

Carry a sharp pair of shears Garden shears (check price on Amazon) are essential, especially in the summer when the vegetation has sprung up. Often, you’ll need to cut back some of the plant life to moor up comfortably.

Weeds like nettles and brambles can grow quickly on the canal side, and it’ll be you getting stung.

Final Thoughts

There are many additional tricks to make your canal boating experience a pleasant one. These tips are only the ones I’ve learned in the last year.

Even if you take on board a couple of suggestions, I hope it makes your life easier.

Happy boating!


Mark Weir lives on a canal boat in the heart of England, with his wife, Julie, and his grumpy dog, Eric. Mark likes to travel the waterways in his wide-beam barge, filming his exploits as he travels. Julie paints the wildlife, and Eric likes to bark, mostly.