A Guide to Boating in Winter

Created on 12/11/2014

Updated 5th October 2018

There are many advantages to boating in the winter – you are very unlikely to find yourself in a queue for locks, even on the more popular waterways, and the weather can be lovely (and after all, it can be pretty wet and horrible in the summer sometimes!).  There’s nothing quite like spending Christmas or New Year afloat to add a more exciting element to the festive season and to burn off some calories after all the Christmas parties.

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


The most important thing is to take 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.  

You also need to take extra care if boating in the dark, or in thick fog, and allow plenty of time, particularly when operating locks.  

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 (immersion in very cold water is more likely to lead to life-threatening situations).  It’s always a good idea to wear a lifejacket if boating on rivers or larger waterways. 

Photo: Visibility can be poor on a foggy day. (photo by Alison Smedley)

Keep warm and safe

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.  Whilst the chances are you will be able to stock up at a boatyard or from one of the various trading boats that sell solid fuel, diesel and gas, 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 the winter, and with solid fuel stoves it’s a good time of year to get the flue brushes out and sweep the chimney.

Photo: Don't forget to wrap up warm.

Ice breaking

Boating 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 difficult to steer round bends as the boat will just keep cutting through the ice in a straight line – 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.  

Photo: Breaking ice at Tring Summit, Grand Union Canal.

When the ice gets to a certain thickness it’s probably time to tie up and call it a day!  If you get stuck in thick ice, use boat poles to break the ice manually in front and behind the boat, and you can then take a run up at it to break through a bit more, in order to get to a sensible place to tie up until it thaws.  

If you do have to moor up to await a thaw, don’t forget to drain down the water systems, including the water pump, if you are leaving the boat.

Photo: When the ice gets really thick its probably a good idea to tie up somewhere until it thaws. Paper Mill on the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation by Roy Chandler


Rivers, and even some canals, can be affected by strong flows and flood conditions.  If there is heavy rain before you set off, or once you are underway, you will need to 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.  

Canal & River Trust issue stoppage or restriction notices when flood locks are brought into operation or when a navigation is closed due to flood conditions.  You can sign up to receive emails advising you of stoppages and restrictions on particular waterways, or you can check this information at any time on CRT's website.

The Environment Agency issues Strong Stream Advice whenever flows reach a level that could be hazardous to boaters on its navigations.  When Strong Stream Advice is in force, red flags, signs and warning lights at various lock sites are activated.  

Up to date information on any strong stream warnings in force on Environment Agency navigations can be obtained by telephoning EA's Floodline Information Service on 0845 988 1188.  EA operate a messaging system to inform boaters by telephone message, text or email, to advise when Strong Stream Advice has been issued or cancelled. You can sign up for these on EA’s website for Anglian Waterways and for the River Thames.

Photo: Flooding on the Thames at Wallingford by Bobby Silverwood

Boating in the dark

With shorter days at this time of year, you might well find yourself boating through the dusk and into the night.  

Boating in the dark (and indeed boating all through the night) is allowed under CRT byelaws, and by most other navigation authorities, but 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 do 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 the oncoming boat and vice versa, so be prepared to turn your headlight off if you think it will help the oncoming boat.

Whilst a headlight alone is sufficient on the narrow canal system, on larger waterways, rivers and freight waterways navigation lights are also required.  These should consist of a masthead light (not a headlight), a red light on the port side and a green light on the starboard side, along with a white stern light.  Detailed information about requirements for navigation lights on different waterways can be found on the IWA website.

Try to consider moored boats and the people who may be 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 having to shout to your crew, and slow well 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. 

Night boating on rivers or larger waterways can bring other challenges, and you will need to be on the look out for weir signs and navigation channels that may not be so obvious in the dark.

Winter sunset on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal at Slimbridge by Peter Raymond Llewellyn


Most planned maintenance work is carried out by navigation authorities during the winter months.  Plan ahead and check that there aren’t any stoppages planned for maintenance works that will affect your route or prevent you returning to your home mooring.

Photo: Winter stoppage at Dowley Gap, Bingley (photo taken by Peter Scott)

When you get back to your mooring

Unless you are boating throughout the winter, you will need to winterise your boat when you come to the end of your boating trip, see our article on winterising your boat for some handy tips.

Tags: How-to Guides, Boating, Things to Do