winter boating

iwa word on the waterways

winter 2019

The clocks have now gone back, it is getting dark by mid-afternoon and the temperature has noticeably dropped, which can only mean one thing... winter is upon us.

While many people think of boating as a fair-weather pastime, there are some who are on their boat come rain or shine or even, for the very hardy, through snow and freezing conditions.

Boating in the winter brings some challenges, but as long as you are well prepared, it is a wonderful time to be out on the water, there are very few queues for locks for one thing! Boating in the dark also requires a bit more thought and preparation, but brings a peace to the water which is quite magical. Here we look at some tips for boating both in the winter and in the dark.

winter boating

There are a few practical things that boaters should bear in mind, especially if you’ve not been boating in wintry conditions before.


Llangollen canal above Grindley Brook in snowTake extra care when working locks and stepping on and off the boat in rain, ice or snow, as surfaces are likely to be slippery.

Wear shoes with a good grip and even if you don’t wear a lifejacket the rest of the year, it can be a good idea for winter boating, particularly if boating in the dark or in very cold temperatures. Make sure you’ve got plenty of warm clothes, waterproofs, food and supplies for hot drinks on board.

Nothing beats a cosy cabin at the end of a cold day’s boating, so whatever type of cabin heating your boat has, make sure you set off with plenty of fuel. You don’t want to get iced in somewhere without enough fuel to keep you warm.

Never be tempted to block up your cabin ventilation, however cold it is outside, due to the dangers of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. IWA advises that all boaters fit a carbon monoxide alarm on their boats. With diesel heaters, it can be a good idea to clean out the fuel filters before winter boating and with solid fuel stoves it’s important to sweep the chimney.

boating through ice

boating through ice on grand union canalBoating through ice can be fun – there’s a lovely distinctive tinkling sound when breaking through relatively thin ice. It’s important to take it steady past moored boats and be extra careful if passing GRP or wooden boats.

Breaking ice at the sides of the boat (from the bows) can be helpful if you are concerned about any damage to moored boats.

When the ice gets a bit thicker you will find it hard to steer, especially around bends. You will need to stop, and manually break the ice (using a boat pole) in front and to the side of the boat in the direction you want to turn, and on the opposite side at the back of the boat.

If the ice is too thick, it is safer to moor up where you can.


Rivers, and even some canals, can be affected by strong flows and flood conditions. Keep a close eye on conditions and plan ahead to identify safe locations where you will be able to moor up until water levels reduce. Navigation Authorities including Canal & River Trust and the Environment Agency will issue stoppage or restriction notices whenever flows reach a level that could be hazardous to boaters. The best place to find out information is on the relevant navigation authority’s website. If the weather is bad, we advise that you check the website on a regular basis and ensure you sign up for any messaging system (text, email) on the route you are taking.

winter stoppages

Don’t forget to check for other stoppages for maintenance works which often take place over the winter months.

boating in the dark

With shorter days at this time of year, you might find yourself boating in the dark. While boating in the dark is allowed under Canal & River Trust byelaws, and by most other navigation authorities, most hire boat companies prohibit it so if you are on a hire boat holiday in the winter you will need to make sure your schedule allows for you mooring up before it gets dark.

There’s nothing to stop privately owned boats boating through the night, and it can make an otherwise uneventful stretch of waterway much more interesting!

But you need to be extra careful – allow plenty of time and make sure you are prepared before you set off.

Ensure your boat has a good headlight, as without it you won’t see where you are going and could cause damage to your own or other craft. If it is difficult to see which way the canal goes ahead of you, use the towpath as a guide as you are more likely to see the towpath in low light levels.

Should you come across a boat coming the other way, be aware that your headlight might dazzle them and vice versa, so be prepared to turn your headlight off if you think it will help the oncoming boat.

Try to consider moored boats and the people on board – especially if boating late into the evening, through the night or very early in the morning.

Sound travels on the water, so avoid shouting to your crew, and slow right down passed moored boats (even slower than you would when boating during the day) to minimise disturbance. Head torches are great inventions and extremely useful when boating in the dark, especially when operating locks.

Don’t forget plenty of batteries for your torches.

All in all, with a bit of common sense and some good preparation, winter boating can be a safe and enjoyable experience. We wish you all the best, should you be setting off any time soon.

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About Jo Henderson

Jo writes on behalf of the Inland Waterways Association, the membership charity that works to protect and restore the country's 6,500 miles of canals and rivers. IWA is a national organisation with a network of volunteers and branches who deploy their expertise and knowledge to work constructively with navigation authorities, government and other organisations.