Cold nights, damp mornings and snow, lots of snow.
Come on, let’s get real. Living on a canal boat in winter is a challenge.
Along with it brings extra clothing, mud, slippery surfaces and careful planning, down to the smallest details.
Have you ordered enough fuel for the solid fuel burner? Have you checked that the gas bottle is full? Do you have warm clothing on hand? What happens if you get frozen in? How full is the diesel tank?
See! Winter on a boat is a chore, right?
Wrong! And let me explain why.
Enjoy the Canal’s Seasons
What do I mean by that?
Well, winter should be enjoyed as much as any other season. There are things about winter that are priceless. For starters, you get to wrap up warm, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a scarf or a thick winter coat.
Then there’s the scenery. Living on a canal boat during the winter makes you feel closer to the elements and nature.
And there’s the snowfall. Christmas card scenes of rolling hills covered in white frosting as smoke curls upwards from the boat’s stove chimney. Doesn’t it make you feel all warm inside?
Call it what you want, but we boaters like a bit of adversity. Partly, it’s why we chose this life. It builds character and makes you feel like you could take anything on and win.
Enjoy the Canal Boat Community
I’m not saying the community spirit vanishes during other seasons, but in winter, you need friends more than ever.
Let me demonstrate a sense of our canal community:
I recently met a couple of boaters on my travels and we struck up a friendship. After meeting for the third time, I was invited to a gathering along a towpath to celebrate someone’s birthday (and eat delicious curry).
I didn’t know the birthday boy, nor did I know anyone else that well, but I went anyway. By the end of the evening, we were the best of friends. Okay, I admit that several alcoholic beverages had passed my lips, but we had to keep warm somehow.
Now that’s what I mean by “Community.” These sort of encounters rarely happen on dry land. And I can honestly say that in my first year of living on a canal boat, I’ve befriended more people than in the entire 48 years of my life previously.
Practical Tips for Living on a Canal Boat in Winter
Being winter-smart is more than romantic ideas, so now it’s time to get practical. If you want to have fun living on a canal boat in the winter, you have to approach everything with a sense of preparedness.
Canal boats have water tanks that typically last two to three weeks, if you’re careful with your usage. And because you have to move the vessel to a water point every time you want to fill up, it can become difficult in the icy depths of winter.
Frugality is crucial to make your boating experience fun. No one wants to run short of water, especially if there’s the chance your boat could get iced in.
How can you conserve water?
- Recycle what water you can. Use the water you boil food with to top up the toilet’s flush tank. Do you need to throw the water away or can you use it to grow vegetables and plants? Always think beyond a single use.
- Buy a water container big enough to take 100 to 200 liters of water, and store it on the boat. The average person can get by on 150 to 200 liters of water a week so it should extend your need for a fill-up.
- Hand-wash as many clothes as possible. You’ll only use one or two bowls instead of liters and liters through the washing machine.
Top tip: When boiling eggs in the morning, I use the same water the next day (rather than throwing it away and filling up each morning). It doesn’t affect my eggs’ flavor and I use one pan of water instead of three or four.
Water Pipe Insulation
Make sure your water pipes aren’t going to freeze. Otherwise, you could find burst pipes and water inside the boat.
To prevent this, buy inexpensive pipe insulation from any good DIY store. The good news is that this insulation is universal and easy to fit.
Top tip: The best way to avoid split pipes is to always keep a warm boat, that way the pipes never freeze.
All-Weather Winter Clothing
Consider not just warm clothing, but also all-weather clothing. While it snows here in England, the truth is it’s more likely to be raining, so all-weather gear is crucial. Remember, the fun stops when you start to feel wet and cold.
Keeping your hands and feet dry and warm is crucial. Also, invest in a hat, and preferably one that covers your ears.
Top tip: The body loses most heat through the chest, and not the head and feet as previously thought. So invest in a well-insulated coat (check price on Amazon) to minimize heat loss. And buy a pair of wellington boots (check price on Amazon) because the canal side can get muddy in winter.
Clean Fuel Tank
Ever heard of diesel bug? It’s caused by moisture in the fuel tank, creating the right conditions for bacterial growth. In essence, if you don’t keep your fuel tank topped up, diesel bug can cause you a whole heap of headaches.
And that’s got to kill the fun, right?
Diesel bug, if allowed to form, will eventually kill your engine. It will block fuel injectors and filters, and your engine will lose power.
Top tip: If you can’t keep the tank full, invest in a diesel bug additive like Killem Biocide (check price on Amazon), that kills the growth of bacteria and prevents the formation of slime in the tank.
Wood and Smokeless Coal
Nothing quite beats the cozy glow of your stove’s fire to banish the winter chills. But it’s more than that. When the solid fuel stove is the primary source of heat on a canal boat, stocking up on firewood and smokeless coal is essential for an enjoyable winter.
Try and buy your coal as early in the season as possible. That way you should get better deals as retailers try and ramp up sales. When it comes to the wood, never buy wet wood, as the excessive smoke it generates will clog your chimney with thick soot, which leads to a fire of a different kind, and no one wants that.
Top tip: Forage wood from the forests and bushes along the canal side. You’ll find heaps of fallen branches and kindling along the way. Also, invest in a good hand-saw (check price on Amazon). But do make sure you allow the wood to dry before burning it.
Break Downs and Malfunction During Winter
Every boater needs a basic toolbox. If you don’t, then here are some essential boat tools to own.
- Screwdrivers (check price on Amazon): Cross head and flat head
If the unfortunate does happen and you grind to a halt, who are you going to call? No, not Ghostbusters! Keep the number of an emergency professional handy, especially if it’s something you can’t fix yourself. I have the number of a marine engineer, who handles most aspects on the boat. If I break down, I know help is at hand.
Top tip: Enroll in a boat maintenance course to deal with the simpler fixes so you can avoid a costly unwanted call out. These courses cover subjects like engine maintenance, basic electrics and basic plumbing.
Canal Boat Safety During Winters
If you can, try and moor near other boats. Remember we talked about community, well in winter, you need that community more than ever, especially if there is an emergency.
It’s also important to look for spots with good phone signal, and internet access. If you need to call someone asap, it’s no good finding that you are in a place with no service.
Also, make sure that you don’t neglect your supplies. And I’m not just talking food; matches, candles, batteries, extra blankets, basically all the stuff that you might need to see through a winter.
Top tip: Keep a bright torch (check price on Amazon) because canal sides aren’t lit. You’ll find yourself wandering along in the pitch dark, and you don’t want to fall in the canal, so a good torch is an essential bit of kit.
I get that this lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine, but if you think there’s an ounce of curiosity inside you, and you’d like to give it a go, go for it!
I started this post by painting a horror story of cold nights, snow and ice. But I’ll end by saying this: While some elements of life on a boat in the winter are harsh, in the main, it’s the most enjoyable time of the year to be on a boat.
I’m closer to nature, the environment, I make great friends with shared experiences, and best of all, I impact the planet in a tiny way.
I get to enjoy the fruits of the lifestyle I’ve chosen because I am sensible and practical and believe in being prepared. Nothing is as easy as it looks, that much I can assure you, but then again, things that are worth doing are never easy anyway.
Would I change anything?
Not one bit of it!
Is living on a canal boat in winter is more fun than you think?
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.