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Living afloat on the waterways

Living on a boat

Many people choose living afloat on our canals and rivers as a permanent situation. Some people cruise continuously, some are permanently moored and others mix the two to suit themselves. A suitably equipped narrow boat or cruiser is becoming more and more popular as a permanent home.

People who choose to live afloat come from all walks of life and opt for many different types of boat as their main dwelling.  They are attracted to the lifestyle for many reasons, including the economic benefits of combining home and pleasure, and the closeness to nature.

Living on a boat can be a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience for those who have a passion for boating and the waterways environment.  It’s worth remembering however, that it’s a labour of love.  It’s not an easy or particularly cheap option, therefore it’s important to seriously consider all the implications before making a decision. 

Things to consider


You will need a licence for the navigation authority for the river or canal that you plan to be based on, and visitor licences for any waterways in different navigation authority ownership that you may wish to visit.


If you want to live in one place, so you can attend college or get to your place of work, for example, and not be continually moving your home around, you need to find a mooring (preferably before you take the plunge and buy a boat). Suitable moorings in popular areas such as London are scarce and can be very expensive.

Alternatively, on Canal & River Trust waterways  you can declare yourself as ‘continuously cruising’, which means you don’t have to pay for a mooring, but you will need to move your boat at least every 14 days (sooner if moored at a visitor mooring which specifies a shorter period).  And this doesn’t just mean moving round the bend to the next road access point. If you have a job based in one place, or other local commitments such as school for your children, this isn’t a practical option, and you should look for a permanent mooring. 


In order to obtain a licence you will need to take out at least third party insurance. However, if all your worldly goods are on board you may wish to take out full insurance on the contents too.  Boat fires and boat sinkings are both things that can and do happen. Boats also tend to be less secure than houses and boaters often find things stolen from their roofs or decks even if the cabin hasn’t been broken into. If the boat is more than 20 years old then most insurance companies will insist on regular hull surveys (out of the water) – a considerable expense. 


Firstly it’s important to consider if you have the practical skills needed for living afloat? For instance, can you fix the engine, or bilge pump, or water pump when it breaks down?  Or will that be an additional expense? Secondly, can you actually steer and manoeuvre the size of vessel you are contemplating? Why not book yourself on an RYA Helmsman course to learn some useful skills?

Boat safety

Boat fires and carbon monoxide poisoning occur on board boats for various reasons.  Above all, when living on a boat, you need to be aware of your own safety and not block air vents or escape routes.  In addition, you will need to pay for a Boat Safety Examination every four years when living afloat.  After that you must heed the advice of the examiner in keeping your boat safe for you and other users of the waterway.  Boat fires happen more often than you might think, and could happen on a boat moored next to you, however safe your own boat is.


Filling up the water tank is something that you will have to do more frequently than you might think if you are living aboard.  Plus it could be some hours boating to the nearest water point.  You’ll very quickly become conscious of the amount of water you use washing up or having a shower.


It’s a good idea to have two sources of heat so that one can be a backup in the event of running out of fuel or something breaking down. Diesel and gas can be used for heating systems, and most boats also have a solid fuel stoves which can burn wood as well as solid fuel.  Smokeless fuel is now required by law when you are in a smokeless zone, and it’s a good idea anyway to avoid annoying local residents. You will have to think about how you will transport solid fuel, gas and diesel, if you not moored at a boatyard that sells them.


What type of toilet does the boat have, and is it the best type for you? A pump out tank needs emptying less often but can only be emptied at certain places, with a cost involved. A cassette-style toilet has a small portable tank that you have to empty yourself and will need to be emptied more often.  Emptying can be done at no cost at sanitary stations provided by the navigation authority. It’s a smelly job and not for the faint hearted, but it does have the benefit of being more portable, so if you can’t get the boat itself to a disposal point you can still carry a full cassette there.  Composting toilets have become more fashionable, but disposal of the contents is a more complex situation.


Internet access and mobile phone signal are things everyone takes for granted these days.  When living afloat however, you will need to think about how these are going to work for you on a boat.  And it is worth remembering a steel cabin’s tendency to affect signal. There are various solutions available and you should research them if technology of this type is important to you.

SeeTen things I wish I knew before living on a canal boat

More things to consider if “continuous cruising”

Planning ahead

You will have to think about where you are going to move your boat to every time you move, and plan your progressive journey ahead. Some parts of the country, notably London and the Bath/Bristol area, are getting extremely overcrowded, making it very difficult to find a mooring when you do move.


If you own a car you will have to work out where you will keep it, and how you will retrieve it each time you move (a bicycle comes in very handy here).  You may also find that you will be using public transport a lot more – another added expense.


These days electricity is needed for everything from lighting the boat to running the pumps so you can have a shower, and for charging your mobile phone or tablet. Where is your electricity going to come from? You will need to either run your engine or a generator (both noisy) in order to keep your boat batteries topped up. Wind generators and solar panels can be useful additions to top the battery up, but both rely on certain weather conditions so cannot be relied upon solely. Finding a mooring which comes with an electricity supply is the best solution to this problem, if you think you are going to spend most of your time moored up and not travelling around the system.

Being a good neighbour

Do be considerate to your neighbours on land or water. Excessively smoking chimneys, generators or engines running for long periods and belongings spread across the towpath will not endear you to the local community.


Think of all the food (and drink!) that you consume, and then bear in mind that you are more than likely to have to carry it some distance from where you bought it.

Winter months

What will things be like in the winter? Make sure you have made plans for how you are going to cope.  Not all areas benefit from the services of a coal boat regularly plying up and down selling coal, diesel and offering pump outs. A spare portable type toilet (or extra cassette) in case you can’t get your tank pumped out, is a good idea, but bear in mind you will have to carry it along the towpath (although a wheelbarrow or trolley can come in handy here).

Personal security

Your personal security getting to and from the boat; will you feel safe walking along unfamiliar towpaths in the dark as you move around from place to place? Or would you be better off with a permanent mooring in a secure boatyard or mooring site?

Health services

You will need to consider what you are going to do if you need medical attention. While getting access to GP surgeries, dentists and hospital appointments is possible, it will always be harder if you are just passing through an area, and may hold up your planned schedule while you have to wait to be seen or for follow up appointments.


You can register to vote even if you do not have a permanent mooring or home address, by registering a “declaration of local connection”. This can be the place you were last registered, a boatyard you have used for maintenance, or somewhere you spend a lot of time.


When moored up in the middle of anywhere its always a good idea to know your exact location so that you can advise the emergency services should they be required due to an injury, illness, accident or fire.

What happens when you want to move back to the land?

Living on a boat should not be seen as a first step onto the housing ladder. Unlike property, even well built and maintained boats will not appreciate in value and are likely to lose value each year.


If you are tempted to ignore the rules and over-stay in one place, you will find yourself extremely unpopular with fellow boaters, which is a pity as the camaraderie between boaters is one of the special things about living afloat.  More importantly, Canal & River Trust can and will take action against offenders and you may ultimately end up in court and/or lose your boat.

Many of these problems are overcome if you have a permanent mooring, or if you are genuinely travelling around the waterways network. If you are continuously cruising your electricity will be generated as you boat along, and you will frequently pass shops, water points and boatyards.  Some Navigation Authorities such as Canal & River Trust offer winter mooring permits to boats that are otherwise “continuously cruising”, which mean that you can base yourself in one place for the colder months.

Waterway restoration

Restoring the UK’s blue infrastructure – our inherited network of navigable canals and rivers – is good for people and places.

Waterway underfunding

Hundreds of miles of waterways – along with their unique heritage and habitats – are currently starved of funding and rely on constant lobbying by us to safeguard their future.

Waterways affected by HS2

We’re campaigning to protect canals and rivers from the damaging effects of HS2, especially where the tranquillity of the waterways is under threat.

Funding of Canal & River Trust waterways

IWA was instrumental in Canal & River Trust receiving a sufficient funding package from Government when the new charity was set up in 2012 to run the waterways previously managed by British Waterways.