With a dozen 7 – 14 night boat trips around the UK under my belt, I feel like I’m quite experienced at packing for boating holidays. My main waterway is the Norfolk Broads, with the Thames river coming up second as my most travelled boating holiday. I’d love to spend more time on the Brecon Canals, and other Canals in the UK as well, and I’ve also been up to Scotland, but not had much boating up there. One thing that’s consistent between all the boating holidays I’ve been on is that there’s not much space, and when I first started going, I definitely overpacked. At first I had no idea what to pack for a boating holiday, but now I’m experienced it’s a lot easier to pack.
One tip for choosing your boat in the first place is if there’s an option for an extra bedroom at a similar price to what you’re already paying and you don’t want to pack super light, having a spare bedroom for storage is very handy, but not always something that’s possible to do. Likewise if you’re planning on using the convertible sofa that most boats have as a bedroom, remember this will reduce your storage as the person sleeping in this cabin won’t have any dedicated bedroom storage.
I’ve written this extensive guide for you to consider what to pack on your family boating holiday. I hope it helps!
Pack your clothes lightly and I highly recommend using packing bags and a soft bag such as duffel bags, or even just using shopping bags over using a hard suitcase, especially if you’re traveling by car so don’t need to worry about your luggage getting damaged. I use these clothes packing bags and then pop them into colourful shopping bags from TKMaxx. Space is an absolute premium on boats and you don’t want to unpack and then find there’s no where to store your giant hard suitcase all week, leaving it taking up valuable floor space. Small bags can be popped in drawers and cupboards and there’s often space under the bed.
This photo shows an example of a cabin on a Norfolk Broads boat, as you can see, there’s not a lot of storage space – although you can pop things under the bed.
If you do need to take a hard suitcase you could unpack before you head off onto the river and then put the suitcase back in the car, or ask if the boatyard has a space they can store them in. But this does mean you won’t be able to pack in advance of arriving back at the boatyard so make sure you leave time on the final day.
Assess carefully what you’ll need for the week and do not overpack.
- Normal clothes such as trousers, shorts, t-shirts, a jumper for colder nights, socks, underwear.
- Waterproof clothes if the weather isn’t looking bright and sunny for the full week (and let’s face it, with the speed British weather changes, a light waterproof jacket is never going to go amiss).
- Thermal clothes if you’re traveling very early or late in the season when it’s still cold – there’s not a lot of heating overnight and thermals are very small to pack.
- Sturdy safe shoes for boating – leave the flip flops and the heels at home! I take two sturdy pairs of trainers. One pair might get damp, so it’s always good to have a second.
- Sun hat that secures around the chin so it doesn’t blow away.
- Towels – most boats do not come with towels included. Check, but if not, remember to take a towel for everyone.
- Tea towel
- Favourite cooking items. You might be planning on eating out a lot, but I personally always take my favourite frying pan and also my own tea mugs. Tea in a strange mug is never quite the same for me! But again, pack light, so limit yourself.
- Washing up liquid and sponge. Sometimes the boat comes with this, but sometimes it doesn’t. If not, you can pick this up from any shop along the river so it’s not a big deal, but if you’re traveling in a car and it’s no hassle to add, you might wish to pack ahead.
- Roll of black bags. A roll of black bags can always be useful in my experience. Handy not just for rubbish but for things like dirty or wet clothes, or just sitting on outside if the seating area is damp and you don’t want to get a towel wet! Just make sure all plastic and rubbish goes back with you and nothing is left behind or goes in the water, so don’t leave a black bag outside on seating unattended as the wind will take it.
- Bottle opener / Corkscrew / Can opener. This is the number one item that seems to be missing in kitchens and is relatively small to pack if you can. Always annoying to open a can or bottle and you can’t find one!
Other items you might want to pack
- Binoculars. A must if you plan on doing any bird watching. This is the pair I have, they are mini travel sized, but still very sturdy and can be used by younger members of the family too. Full size pairs might be too big for the kids to use.
- Torch. The torch on your phone may not be bright enough for night time exploring and might be low or out of charge at the end of the day. If you’re going to be heading far from the boat at night, if you’re walking the dog in the dark, etc. then I’d recommend a strong torch.
- Phone Charger and any electrical equipment you plan on taking. Definitely don’t want to leave this behind. Check what charging ports your boat has. When I first started boating we needed cigarette lighter type attachments! But these days boats usually come with standard 3 pin plugs, and may even have USB charging points.
- Evening entertainment. I personally like to take a few board games with me. Or you might prefer books or DVDs if your boat comes with a DVD player. Most boats do come with a TV with basic free services.
- Pack of clothes pegs. I personally shove about 10 clothes pegs in with my packing. This helps hang up wet items or I use it for sealing half open bags of crisps etc.
- Sunglasses – even if it’s not sunny there can be a lot of glare on the water, so I’d recommend anyone who is planning on driving the boat has a pair of sunglasses.
- Duck Food. I buy this Swan and Duck food on Amazon. You shouldn’t feed ducks bread, but with a good quality food you can still have loads of fun feeding them. I also have an article here on what else you can feed them that’s healthy.
- Fishing equipment – if you plan on fishing! Do check what the rules are for the waterway you’re on as fishing can be limited and require licenses in many areas.
- Maps. Back in the old days I used to take lots of maps and tide timetables with me. If you can get signal – which most waterways do these days – then you can usually find it online or use Apps, but it never hurts to have a physical guide. You can either go for a full OS guide, or just print some basic maps out.
- Hot water bottle. If you’re coming in Spring or Autumn, a hot water bottle per person is an easy way to warm up the bed at night.
Packing for Kids
You might be here because you’re planning on a family boating holiday. Taking kids on the Norfolk Broads or inviting the whole family on the Thames can be an amazing time! I travel with my son (currently 5 years old) and my mother (and the husband too, he’s the designated driver), and we love our boating holidays. But having kids on board does present extra challenges. Try to pack something that will keep them entertained, as kids aren’t necessarily as enamored of sitting outside relaxing in the scenery the way we are. I pack an iPad and a Nintendo Switch and plenty of family appropriate board games and books. For younger kids don’t forget a cuddly toy or two and a favourite toy to help them adjust and sleep at night.
The boat yard will provide a life jacket for everyone on board, including kids, but if you need any extras for younger children like a high chair, bed rails or a travel cot, make sure you contact the boatyard in advance.
I have written all my tips for river boating holidays with kids as well.
Packing for a dog
If you’re taking a dog with you then you’ll want to make sure you have a few things for them as well.
- Dog food, food bowl and water bowl
- A dog towel or two – they’re going to get WET!
- Dog food and treats.
- Dog poop bags – and plenty of them to last the week. Make sure you take dog poop bags back to the boat if you can’t find a public bin.
- Harness and lead, and possibly a spare.
- Life jacket. I think a pet life jacket is an essential, even if your dog is a strong swimmer, there can be strong currents on some waterways, and it can also be hard to lift your dog out of the water. A life jacket has a handle to lift them by. A lot of boatyards do have dog life jackets you can hire to save you buying one, so check in advance.
Bathroom products – health and toiletries
There are some things you’ll want to take in terms of health and toiletries. Remember again not to overpack because bathrooms on boats are generally very small, but finding specific products on the waterways can be difficult, and you don’t want to be in pain and realize you have no painkillers! I’d recommend having a single waterproof bag you can keep in the bathroom with everything in that can easily be zipped up and moved out of the way when you have a shower. If you’re a family all packing stuff together, you may find that the usual bathroom washbags are way too small. Rather than take a washbag each, I often use a waterproof picnic bag as my shared bathroom bag!
- Shower products
- Toilet Rolls
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Shaving gear if you shave
- Feminine hygiene products
- Small first aid kit
- Sunscreen and aftersun
- Insect repellant
- Over the counter painkillers and other items you might need such as hayfever tablets, antacids, diarrhea tablets, insect bite cream, etc.
- Prescription medication
This is obviously a personal thing, but I like to take a bit of food with me. You can either buy it before you travel depending on how much space is in the car or how far you’re traveling, head to a local supermarket once you’ve arrived at the boat before you depart, or relying on stores local to the river. Local stores will have the basics, but generally are limited and more expensive. If you’re on any sort of special diet – for example I’m gluten free – then you may well want to take things with you. I would try to at least take with you enough for the first night and breakfast the next day.
I would recommend taking small things like tea, coffee, your sweetener, hot chocolate etc. from home at the very least. Then you could add some basics like bread, milk, pasta, breakfast items. Part baked rolls keep really well, potatoes for a quick jacket potato, ready meals if your boat comes with a microwave, etc. and of course plenty of snacks to keep you going!
But don’t worry too much about the food situation. You’re not going to starve on any of the UK’s waterways, there will always be a shop somewhere along the way, and pubs are usually quite plentiful.
I hope this guide has helped you decide what to pack for your holiday – whether it’s on the Norfolk Broads, the Thames, the canal waterways or anywhere else in the world. You’re going to have a fantastic time!