Narrow boat holidays for beginners

It is easy to think “how hard can it be?” or “it’s fine, the owners will tell us what to do” when booking narrow boat holidays but for beginners there are some things you should seriously consider before heading out on the water for the first time. We did our first trip last weekend, alongside my parents who have been doing it for years, and it really brought it home to us that whilst we loved the idea of a narrow boat holiday being in charge of a 60ft boat might be a whole different ball game. And not just because I am more used to being charge of steering a Mini rather than a 60ft narrow boat.

If you are thinking “help I have booked a canal holiday, now what?” or “we have booked a narrow boat holiday what do I need to know?” here is what we learned, and what we think you should know before you go.


Start off by thinking about which canal you want to cruise along, and what you want to do on the trip. Do you want to have long stretches of cruising, seeing the countryside? Do you want short trips and the ability to moor up and explore local towns? Do you want be totally self sufficient or do you want to eat out in canal side cafes and pubs three times a day? Answering all of those questions will then allow you to narrow down where exactly you want your holiday to be. You might want to do some scenic parts of the countryside so the Kennet and Avon Canal around Devizes would be perfect. Or you might want to venture further north on the Avon to Stratford on Avon and spend time wandering around the town. Or how about heading down to Wales and doing the picturesque Llangollen?

Use a reputable local company

Location chosen find a local reputable company who have different options for boats, and emergency numbers etc should you need them. Find a company that has a variety of boats to choose from, they often have different lay outs (some with a deck outside for an evening G&T for example) or two bathrooms (a must if there are two couples). My parents booked ours through Foxhangers as they were on the Kennet and Avon Canal, joining friends who had their own boat. A company they hadn’t used before but who were more than happy to explain how everything on the boat worked, where to get water, where to leave rubbish at the end of the trip, and who supplied boats with pretty much everything you needed. They also have a whole section on their website for novice boaters with videos that really helped.

Buy a Nicholson’s guide

I had never heard of Nicholson’s Canal Guides but oh my goodness what incredible books they are, honestly don’t even consider doing a narrow boat holiday without one. They are detailed maps that show you where the locks and bridges are on the route, where the winding holes are to turn around (apparently you can’t just turn them around wherever you like in the middle of the canal. Who knew?) and point local points of interests too. Buy one before you go and have a rough idea of what you want to do each day mapped out in your head.

Route / plan for your trip

Now you know you can’t turn around just anywhere you need to work out where you will turn around during your trip and if it will be before or after the half way point. Will it take longer to get back because it might be busier? If you have a number of locks to navigate that might take a while etc. It is well worth having a rough idea of where you will be mooring up each night (or certainly aiming towards), where you will turn around and where you will spend your last night if you need to return your boat at 9am on the final day as we had to.

Go with friends!

We really benefitted from there being four of us on our trip. It meant my dad could be in charge of steering / navigating and looking after the boat itself, whilst Mr helped rope the boat in the locks, keep a look out, and jump down to help with the locks. Mum and I would then go ahead to the next lock and make sure it was ready for him to enter or chat to other narrow boaters about going in together. If it had just been the two of us that would have been really hard work, especially as novices. There is so much to learn and it really is quite physical at times so it was nice to know the load was shared between us all. If you can go with friends then I would definitely suggest doing that.

Be prepared to talk to strangers

There is a real camaraderie on the canal and everybody chats to everybody else. Cheery waves to people moored up having a coffee, “ooh that smells delicious” to people having a barbecue on the canal path, “who’s a gorgeous boy” to every dog you meet (and you will meet loads) and “gosh you have quite the harvest there” to owners who live on their boats and use their roof for growing strawberries, radishes, tomatoes and flowers. You will be talking to them all. You will be chatting to other people at locks, making agreements to go ahead and do the locks if they stay and do this one, sharing locks (obviously it is quicker with two boats going in rather than doing one at a time, if you are in the lock and and can see a boat coming, wait for it. It’s an unwritten rule), taking it turns on swing bridges the lot. Be prepared to chat. It’s lovely. And so not like being on the Tube!

Things to take:

  • Gloves. Hands get cold when holding a windlass (used for opening sluices on the locks) or a lock handle so take gloves, especially gardening type gloves as they allow you to still feel what you are holding and they don’t get too wet. Grip and warmth are a must, even in the summer.
  • Waterproofs. Some boats might provide them but it is well worth taking your own, inducing wellies.
  • Life jackets. You might not feel you need one, and to be honest, most people dont wear them as the canal is often only a few meters deep but I would recommend them for children, and for dogs. If your dog falls in the canal you need to be able to get them out and with reeds and overgrowth that isnt always so straight forward. With a life jacket on you, you have something to grab hold of / hook a stick through.
  • Cards or board games. Evenings are long and you deserve to relax after a day of locks and walking. So take cards or books as even though your boat might have TV you might not always get the reception to watch it.
  • Painkillers. You will be working muscles you didnt know you had and might feel it in the morning so better to be prepared.
  • Food and drink. Bear in mind that you will have to carry anything you buy (hence many people who live on their boats having wheel barrows on the top, its a make shift supermarket trolley) along the way so it is better to start the trip with all the essentials. Do a meal plan, including snacks and assume you wont be able to buy stuff en route. That way you will always have a slice of cake or a bag of crisps when needed. Narrow boats have stacks of storage so there will always be a drawer to shove stuff in. And if you dont eat it you can always take it home with you.
  • DON’T TAKE: your own electrical items. There will be a converter on board that converts the batteries to 220 v power and the boat owners will insist that you dont use your own electrical items (beyond charging phones or iPads). If you do have to take your own then clear it with them first. I took my own hair dryer and couldn’t use it for this reason.
  • Wear trainers. They are non slip on the boat, wont fall off, give good support, and are comfy when walking the canal path and grip when you are pushing heavy lock gates.

Once you have been out, be prepared for really getting bitten by the bug of canal boating and then wistfully dreaming about owning your own when you retire. They really infectious!

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