Top 10 Tips for Houseboating the Erie Canal

Houseboating the Erie Canal was one of the most fun and interesting vacations I’ve ever taken.  Since returning, I’ve had some time to think about our trip, and I wanted to share my top 10 tips for having the best time possible while houseboating the Erie Canal.  I hope you’ll plan your own vacation on a Mid-Lakes Navigation canalboat soon and can use these tips to get started!

1. Choose your travel companion(s) wisely!

You’re going to have a slow journey on the canal and you’re not going to see much traffic, which means you’re going to be spending a lot of quiet time with your travel companion in a relatively small space (that you can’t leave!)  The trip would probably be fun with small kids if you have enough activities to keep them occupied while underway, but I could see this vacation maybe being less exciting for teenagers, especially if they’re of the moody and bored variety!  If you have kids, you know them best and how they’ll handle lots of idle time. Whoever you’re traveling with, be sure you enjoy their company!

2. Review your materials in advance.

You will receive an engine manual, estimated travel times, and additional information about the various towns along the canal and where you’re permitted to dock. While you don’t necessarily need to create a full itinerary like I did, you should know which locks and bridges you’re traveling through and which bridges have roaming operators so you can minimize your wait time at bridges.  Lock and bridge passages take time, so you can’t just plan your travel time based on mileage alone. You can find a lot of great information for trip-planning on the New York State Canal Corporation’s website, including a map, charts, and a list of all the locks and bridges on the canal.  And knowing and understanding your boat’s equipment will help you identify if anything seems unusual or out of the ordinary.

3. Decide which towns you’d like to visit.

While you can certainly head out on the canal without a plan (though you shouldn’t), it’s a good idea to research the towns you’d most like to visit and make at least a general itinerary.  Many of the towns on the canal are smaller and may have limited options available for dining and entertainment, but if you know this information in advance, you can ensure you have groceries to cook and dine on-board, do some biking, or plan other activities to keep you entertained during the evening.  

Lovely Fairport, NY after an evening rain.
Lovely Fairport, NY after an evening rain.

4. But also have a backup plan in case you can’t reach your preferred destination.

Despite having the perfect itinerary in place, there could still be bad weather or bridge or lock closures that could prevent you from reaching the town of your choice.  If you’ve done a little research on the various canal towns, you’ll at least know what other options are nearby. You can also sign up for alerts and notices for any closures on the canal so that you won’t arrive at a bridge only to find it inoperable!

5. Learn some knots and the basics of boat-handling.

Though you’ll receive a thorough orientation from the Mid-Lakes staff, if you’ve never driven a boat, you should spend a little time on YouTube before your trip learning some basics, like how to do a cleat hitch or secure your dock lines to a piling, so you can safely dock your boat in a variety of situations.  Also, your boat comes with a tiller and in case you don’t already know, you basically point a tiller in the opposite direction you want to go, which can take a little getting used to.  

6. Buy more ice than you think you’ll need.

Your boat will be equipped with a mini-fridge, but it’s not likely going to be big enough to keep all your items cold.  You’re going to need to bring drinking water and any other beverages you’ll want to keep you hydrated during your travels, so you’ll need to buy ice every day to fill up your provided cooler.  We never had any trouble finding a gas station, grocery store, or mini-mart nearby where we could stock up, and I brought reusable canvas grocery bags for carrying bagged ice since they’re sturdier than plastic. If you’re traveling the canal in the middle of summer like we were, your ice is going to melt fast and you don’t want to be disappointed to wake up in the morning to find you now only have water in your cooler!

7. Take your dockings, lockings, and bridge passages slowly.

Although your boat tops off at 6 mph, you should still always slow down (a lot) as you approach bridges, locks, and docks.  That way, if you are having trouble shifting between forward and reverse or have any mechanical issues, you’ll be able to slow or stop your boat safely.  Also, if you don’t slow down, you’re basically going to look like an amateur at best or a total jerk at worst. Taking things slowly is not only safe, but it also shows your respect for your fellow boaters and the professionals working the locks and bridges on the canal.

8. Take breaks on long runs and take turns driving.

If you’re planning to transit more than 4-6 hours a day, you should definitely plan to take a break to stretch your legs.  We had one long day where we were really delayed by the lift bridges, and we were so exhausted by the time we arrived at our destination.  We definitely regretted not taking a break that day, so plan some breaks even if just for a half hour.  Also, you’ll be traveling slowly which means you’ll be looking at the same scenery for awhile which can make you tired after awhile.  Share the driving so that you can all stay fresh on your journey.

A farmhouse along the western section of the Erie Canal
Some of the beautiful scenery along the Erie Canal

9. Bring citronella and bug spray

The canal doesn’t really have much current, which means at night, you’re basically going to be sitting on mostly still water.  And still water means mosquitos! To avoid being eaten alive, bring some citronella and bug spray so you can sit outside on your boat in the evening, watching the sunset and enjoying the cooler air.

10. Help out your fellow boaters.

We were pleasantly surprised to be greeted into town by fellow boaters who offered to catch our dock lines for us and help us maneuver into tight dock spaces.  Admittedly, some of the strangers were probably trying to ensure the renters didn’t hit their own boats, but in many cases, other Mid-Lakes renters were the ones to help us and we returned the favor for others.  Certainly, if someone doesn’t want your help, that’s fine, but there’s a friendly group of boaters on the canal who all seem to look out for each other, so try to join in on that culture and lend a hand when you’re able!



And with that, folks, we’ve concluded our adventure on the Erie Canal!  I hope you will make it out to the canal in the future and will have as much fun as we did.  If you think you’ll take the journey to the west of Mid-Lakes’ marina, check out our full itinerary from our week on the canal or read the rest of the posts in the series for more ideas and inspiration.  

Happy canaling!

For more in the Erie Canal Houseboating series:

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