Restrictions You May Incur When Cruising The UKs Canal System
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Tue Nov 24, 2015 at 3:43pm

If you own a narrow boat or you are going to hire one for a holiday, then you may be planning on cruising the canal system. It’s wise to know about the restrictions you may come across on the system to ensure you get the most out of your journey. Depending on your boats size this will determine where you will be able to travel, as some locks, canals, bridges and tunnels will have an impact on whether you can pass by.

Also at certain times and and parts of the canal system there may be restrictions due to maintenance work.

The average narrow boat is up to 57 feet long and 10ft 6" wide and is pretty much able to travel the whole network without hitting any problems. But what about longer and wider boats, in this article we will look at the restrictions that may apply if cruising a larger vessel.

We have complied a list of some of the UK canals and the maximum size of boat that can use it. Find out more here.

Bridges and Tunnels:

Bridges - When traveling the waterways you will come across a range of bridges during your journey. You will find that some are fixed and others will need to be moved to allow you to pass. It is advisable to check your map to see what bridges you will come accross on your planned journey.  

Bridges often tend to have low headroom and if cruising on the river, the weather conditions upstream may have an effect on the rivers water level. So what may be passable today might not be possible tomorrow if the water level rises further upstream.

Tunnels - At the entrance of each tunnel you will have either a traffic light system or simple instructions to follow. Tunnels are restricted to either allow one or sometimes two boats to travel through at the same time, so make sure you are aware of each tunnels limitations before entering.  

Look out for the changing profile – tunnels are rarely straight and therefore the headroom can change. Keep at least two minutes (at normal cruising speed) or about 500ft away from any boat in front of you. If it’s two-way traffic, keep a watch out for on coming boats and pass slowly on the right.  

More useful tunnel information can be found here 


Keep everyone off the roof and within the profile of the boat to ensure no injuries when passing under low bridges or tunnels.


Throughout the waterway system you will come across many locks. Some canals have more than others. The canals with many locks are often very popular with boaters as they can be rather fun to operate! But before you set off you need to be aware that locks come in a variety of sizes and not all boats can pass through them. So it's important to know about each lock or you could potentially get stuck!

Don't assume that because a certain length boat has navigated a lock that another boat of the same size can also pass through. Not only the length matters, but also the shape of the boats bow, stern and hull can sometimes make a difference on whether the boat can pass through. If you are squeezing through locks small changes to the lock such as strengthening the gates could make the lock impassable for you. So you need to take great care to ensure that the boat does not get stuck up on any part of the lock as the water rises or falls.

It's a worthwhile investment to purchase some canal guides to inform you of features such as locks, towpaths, boating facilities. They also provide a background to the history, wildlife, pubs and nearby attractions of each waterway. The classic guides are the Nicholson ones, but there are plenty of others to choose from. Check out Amazon for more ideas.

More information about locks can be found here

Winter Stoppages:

During the winter months the Canal and River Trust carries out maintenance work along the canal system to keep the network in tip top condition. This is great news for us all but it can have a negative too, this being that it can restrict cruising while the work is being carried out. However by referring to the Canal & River Trust website you can view all the restrictions and plan your journey accordingly.

The weather:

During the winter months the canal can freeze and it is not advisable to try and cruise during this time. Find out more about winter cruising in this article  

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