Canal boat interior layouts

I’ll start with traditional narrowboats because by far and away they have the most variations in their designs. Widebeams and cabin cruisers will be mentioned further down this page.

Interior layouts on narrowboats generally follow two basic templates yet amazingly there will be a vast array of differences between any two such boats you pick to compare.

First there’s what is called the “trad” layout. Not to be confused with the trad stern exterior design, the traditional room layout means the bedroom is at the back of the boat so it’s the first cabin you come into when stepping down from the stern.

Then there’ll usually be a bathroom, followed by dinette, kitchen and saloon area though which of those is in which order can be variable; often the kitchen would be followed by a dinette, with the saloon at the front of the boat leading to the well deck.

My own boat was peculiar in having the dinette after the bathroom, then the kitchen, then the saloon. It was annoying because having the kitchen in the middle breaks up the socialising space such that on the rare occasions when I invited people over, I couldn’t use the dinette and saloon as one big sitting space.

The trad layout is so-called because on the old working boats, the single boatman’s cabin was at the back and this contained the beds (as well as everything else, to be fair; most of the boat was given over to cargo space)

These days, the trad layout is largely eschewed by many in favour of the “reverse” layout. Simply put this has the bedroom at the front of the boat with the living areas at the back, typically starting with the kitchen nearest the stern, then a dinette and the saloon right in the middle (followed as you go forwards by the bathroom and then the bed as mentioned already)

Reverse layouts are usually found on cruiser, semi-trad and semi-cruiser stern boats, in other words those where the passengers and crew embark from the back. Keeping the bedroom up front means those people don’t then traipse through that room as they go through to the rest of the boat but go straight into the living areas.

Trad stern boats often have a trad layout and would probably have guests come aboard through the well deck into the saloon at the front but because they would have to come through the bedroom to get to the steering position at the back, it feels like a less private layout.

Although trad and reverse are the main genres, exactly how the rooms are divided up is the subject of much variation, along with second bedrooms (often with bunks for children), second bathrooms and utility spaces (presuming the boat is long enough to fit these in).

Ultimately the way things are set out will have come down to the person who commissioned the boat from the builder[1].

For widebeam craft, the reverse layout is de rigeur and it’s almost certain you’ll enter to a kitchen with dining area, followed by a saloon, then bathroom and bedroom at the bow. Very occasionally this layout is not followed but it’s uncommon.

Cabin cruisers almost universally have a cockpit at the rear (though some do have an extra cabin right at the back, with the cockpit in the middle), followed by an entirely open-plan living area comprising dinette, galley and V-shaped sleeping area in the bow. There is almost no variation in this whatsoever, just slightly different sizes of each area (such as a bigger or smaller galley)

One important aspect to consider is headroom. Not usually a problem on widebeam boats (at least unless you are exceptionally tall), even most narrowboats tend to accommodate people up to a couple of inches over 6′ at least, as long as you’re standing in the middle (the roof tends to slope to either side) but there are some, generally older boats, where less than 6′ is available. For fibreglass cabin cruisers, it’s often the case that headroom is cramped and the cabin more of a sitting or ‘crouched over’ area so be warned!

Apart from cruisers then, let’s have a look at what you would find within each area in turn:-


I’ll briefly start with widebeam boats because they have the luxury of space and thus will fit the saloon much like a household lounge; one or even two sofas, coffee tables, bookshelves and so on.

In a narrowboat the main living area will usually have either a traditional sofa (often a sofa bed) laid lengthways along one side of the cabin or a pair of “captain’s” chairs which can usually rotate and swivel.

Alternatively, some saloons have a built-in L-shaped seating area which can usually be adapted into a double bed as well as doing duty as a dining area if a table is placed next to it. Such an arrangement is often found on shorter boats which lack the space for a separate dinette.

The drawback to the built-in L-shaped sofa is that they can be less comfortable than standalone chairs or sofabeds and they’re immovable.

The benefit is that they tend to have storage underneath, accessed either by lifting the cushions or by opening doors on the sides of the unit. Captain’s chairs lack this facility and sofa-beds may not offer it due to the bed mechanism taking up that storage space.

Whether such a space is useful to you depends on how many people will be aboard, for how long, and whether there is ample storage elsewhere.

Speaking of storage, also found in the saloon will be some form of shelving for books, ornaments and the like, as well as a cupboard or two, typically in the corners of the cabin, onto which might be placed a small television set if such a thing is to your liking.

A common alternative location for a TV on a narrowboat is having it placed onto a bracket on one side wall, opposite the sofa, which saves people having to turn their chairs or lie lengthways on a sofa to peer at a set positioned at one end of the cabin.

TV aerials could form an entire chapter themselves but generally boaters either have a basic multi-directional wire contraption magnetically stuck to the roof, or more elaborate conventional TV aerials on extendable poles which are put up when moored and brought down when on the move (lest they get ripped off going under a bridge or through a tunnel!).

Some boats even have satellite dishes with electrically mechanised auto-tuning systems so you can just push a button and the dish goes up, rotates and locks onto the satellite automatically.

In these days of Internet video however, it’s debatable whether such systems are worth the expense as you can generally watch the satellite shows with a subscription to a streaming service and a decent 4G antenna on the boat.

Being the hub of the boat, having some form of heating in the saloon is essential. Traditionally this includes a multifuel stove, that is a cast iron stove on an insulated stand with chimney directly up to the outside which will burn dried wood or coal briquettes.

Such stoves are typically rated at about 4-5kW and will easily bring the main cabin space of even a long narrowboat up to a point where those on board end up throwing open the doors and windows and even shedding clothes in an attempt to cool down. Trust me, there is no reason to be cold on a narrowboat even in winter!

Sometimes these stoves have a boiler mounted to the back which heats water, sent down metal pipes along the length of the boat – often by gravity, sometimes by electric pump – to radiators in the further cabins. This is an excellent way of distributing the prodigious amount of warmth the stoves can generate but the pipework can often look rather unattractive even when attempts are made to hide it.

For this reason, and for backup in case no coal or wood is available, some boats provide radiator heating via a separate diesel-fired unit. The most common brands you will see bandied around include Eberspacher and Webasto and by and large they work identically.

Usually mounted in the engine room and run from a timer just like a home central heating system, these heaters sip little fuel and can not only heat the radiators but often the hot water for the boat as well. The downside is they can be absurdly noisy, like a jet engine taking off, though oddly they are sometimes quieter outside the boat than they are inside so usually you need have no fear of disturbing your neighbours when the heater comes on at 6am.

Gas-fired (propane) radiator systems, generally made by a firm called Alde, are found on some boats. These are quiet but use an awful lot of gas which is expensive, so these are not generally popular and are often taken out and replaced with diesel units.

Going back to solid fuel stoves briefly, they are popular because they’re traditional, easy to fuel (all marinas and wharfs sell coal or the boater will often collect fallen wood from the towpath though the strict legality of this depends on what is collected and from where but that’s another story). They’re also very warming just to look at with the fire blazing away.

The downsides are that the heat is concentrated in one spot rather than evenly throughout the boat, sometimes leading to a too-hot saloon and a slightly chilly bedroom, and the amount of ash they create leads to an amazing amount of dust throughout the boat. Honestly, you have never seen so much dirt everywhere as you have during winter with the stove going.

Stoves used to be cheap to run, even if you bought coal rather than forage for wood. The price of a bag used to be about £13 when I was afloat – it’s since shot up. A 25kg bag now costs, around £20 and will last, if it’s very cold and the stove is run 24/7, for about 4 days. I found I’d buy 6-8 bags a month during November, December and January, with much less in the autumnal and early Spring months.

For those who like the idea of a stove in the saloon but can’t cope with the mess and constant cleaning out of the ash pan, an alternative is the diesel stove.

Not to be confused with the diesel heaters already mentioned, a diesel stove looks like a round aluminium waste bin (or the 2013 Apple Mac Pro!) with a chimney on it and runs purely from a diesel tank, often but not always a separate tank to the one used for the boat engine. They can throw out just as much heat as a log-burner and have none of the dirt and dust issues but the flame is less visually appealing and the cost of diesel is much more expensive than coal.

For many people, me included, the benefits outweigh the cost and I would have a diesel stove over my solid fuel burner in an instant, I got so fed up with the hassle of the latter. Only the installation cost prohibited me ripping out the existing stove and putting in a diesel alternative from the likes of Refleks or Bubble.

Finally it’s worth sounding an environmental note that coal stoves are obviously considered to be a dirty fuel even when using smokeless coal, and there are moves afoot within the UK to ban or restrict them with some local councils enacting quite strict legislation about emissions. This could make it entirely unfeasible to use a stove at all so the future of the traditional stove has a distinct question mark hanging over it.


Somewhat paradoxically, a dedicated dining area is often not found in widebeam boats which prefer instead to have a larger kitchen with breakfast bar arrangement.

Equally, shorter narrowboats with less space may not have the room for a dedicated eating area but those that do – maybe boats of 55-feet length and over – will enjoy either a “Pullman” or L-shaped dinette, the former often also the choice for cabin cruiser boats.

Pullman style refers to two bench seats facing opposite each other with a table in between, in the style of the old Pullman railway carriages. As its name implies, an L-shaped dinette is two bench seats arranged into an L-shape, with the table alongside the length of the L.

Often a dinette will be raised by a few inches from the boat’s floor level so that those sitting at it can look more easily out of a side hatch at the canal, scenery, swans and so on as they eat.

Dinettes are a primary space for additional beds too, since by removing or dropping the table and infilling that space with a solid board and cushion, the dinette area usually makes into a compact double berth – just add sheets and pillows.

They’re also a prime spot for additional storage since each bench provides ample space underneath to put that spare bedding or anything else you might occasionally need access to. Generally you’d get to it by removing the seat cushions and pulling up the wooden lid of the bench. A bit awkward so not for everyday items but nonetheless very useful.

If the dinette is next to the kitchen – and it’s a rare and bizarre layout where this is not the case – then a pull-out drawer type freezer is sometimes built into the dinette, provided the boat has the wiring and power supply to support it.

One thing you’ll notice if coming to the world of narrowboats from motorhomes or caravans is how dated a lot of the thinking is in design aspects on the boat. Dinette tables are a prime example. In a modern motorhome, the tables can twist, swivel, go up, down, flip around, make toast, take phone calls… OK, I exaggerate but they’re very clever.

On boats they’re generally flat lumps of wood resting on one or two metal poles stuck into holes in the floor. They don’t move once in place and they’re awkward and heavy to lift out.

Occasionally you find a bit more inspiration but not much. For example, the end bench on a dinette that’s next to the saloon might in rare cases be able to flip its backrest so that the bench becomes part of the saloon seating. Such cleverness and thought is unfortunately rare, alas.

Boats built in the last ten years or so will likely have had the realisation that people often live and work on board, and may need to use laptops or charge phones even if they’re just on holiday. The dinette is the ideal space for this so a modern boat is likely to have mains (230 Volt AC) power sockets along with USB charging points at the side of the dining area. Older boats may not be so equipped and have to be updated, if it’s feasible to run suitable wiring which is not always easy.

Kitchen / galley

One of the most common questions I get asked about living aboard (after “is it cold in winter?”) is “how do you cook on a boat” as if somehow by stepping onto the canal you’ve abandoned all hope of gas, electricity or supermarkets and will have to forage for dead wildlife, roasted on a campfire on the towpath. It’s quite bizarre.

In reality, cooking on a boat is exactly the same as cooking in a house, just in a somewhat more cramped environment. Most, if not all, of the usual kitchen appliances will be at hand so fear not.

Incidentally, diehard boaters will no doubt be screaming at me for using the word “kitchen” when referring to a boat’s galley but I make no apologies because on narrowboats a lot of the terminology has remained a lot more land-based than marine. Hence kitchen and bathroom rather than “galley” and “heads”.

You can tell much about when a boat was constructed by what you find in the kitchen. They’ll all have a sink, cooker, hob and probably a grill[3]. Most will include a basic fridge albeit perhaps with a coolbox in lieu of a proper freezer.

However … step aboard the modern craft and all the wonders of the current kitchen age will likely be there too, especially on widebeams which tend to be fitted out like posh city apartments. Microwave ovens, standalone freezers, possibly even electric induction hobs and dishwashers may all be present.

Again, use of such high power electrical items hinges entirely on the boat’s electrical setup so I strongly urge a solid read of these pages about boat batteries and suchlike to get a better understanding of the constraints. Having to have a grasp of this stuff is one of the unfortunate requirements of boat living so you will need to take it in.

The kitchen on a widebeam will usually take up the whole of the back of the boat and will likely be in a very large U-shape with those aboard easily able to walk through the space to the saloon. It will probably include chairs for a breakfast bar on the saloon side of the kitchen counter-top. Many have space for centre islands for food preparation as well.

On a narrowboat, squeezing in the galley results in a variety of solutions, including units in a straight run on either side of a corridor (coincidentally known as a “galley kitchen”); a U-shaped layout with the corridor to the side, often narrowed slightly by a slim storage unit on the wall; or an L-shaped arrangement which is like the galley kitchen but with one of the units ending in a section which crosses part of the width of the boat.

Storage will be provided in various cupboards, always below gunwale level and often at eye level too to some degree. The more cupboards you have high up, the more you run the risk of it feeling somewhat cramped and enclosed though.

If having propane gas on a boat unnerves you, and explosive gas is certainly no trifling matter although the majority of boats do have it installed with no issues whatsoever (it’s one of the key items checked by the four-yearly Boat Safety Certificate scheme), then electric cooking is an option and you occasionally see boats for sale marked as “gas free”.

They may not necessarily be using electricity mind you because diesel cooking on a range stove is also feasible. If you’re a fan of such devices then their availability on boats will no doubt sway you immediately but if not then they can take a little getting used to but provide not only cooking but also hot water. They’re something you’ll either love or hate, I suspect.


As usual, fitting a bathroom into a widebeam is easy because there’s so much space. You’ll have a colossal shower, ceramic toilet, basin, plenty of cupboards and space to dance naked as you dry. Maybe that’s just me. Ahem.

On a narrowboat, you might be surprised at how much of the above you still get, minus – sadly – the dancing space. Narrowboat bathrooms in my experience are really rather good. Certainly the shower on mine was better than ones I’ve had in some houses.

You’ll find the bathroom is either a “walk through” or “off corridor”. The former takes up the entire width of the boat so that in order to go through to the cabins beyond , you have to walk through the bathroom. This obviously causes issues if someone is using the loo at the time but the upside is you get all the width of the boat as bathroom space.

The latter is like a conventional bathroom in that it’s a self-contained cabin taking up two-thirds of the width of the boat with a corridor leading past the bathroom to the rooms beyond taking up the final third of the boat. Widebeams use this format almost universally since they don’t need the walkthrough workaround for space.

While the walk through bathroom has more space than an off corridor design, you have the additional disadvantage that generally you can see directly into said bathroom from the living area and that means the toilet can be on display. I’m really not squeamish but I don’t really want to stare at the loo from the saloon or kitchen.

Yes you can shut the door to the bathroom but in winter that just shuts off the heating from the stove getting through to the bedroom. Unless you have a back boiler feeding radiators or want to run the radiator central heating as well as the stove, you’ll have a cold bedroom to look forward to. Brrrrrr.

Well-designed walkthrough bathrooms avoid this by placing the toilet on one of the walls in such a way that it’s hidden from direct view but you’d be surprised how many don’t do this.

There is a little-used alternative which is a hybrid of both bathroom styles. In this, the bathroom units take up two-thirds of the boat width, just like an off-corridor design but instead of being sealed into its own cabin, doors on the bathroom open outwards to shut the corridor off, thereby giving the bathroom user the full width for the aforementioned soggy dancing. Or whatever.

This hides the bathroom contents from view like an off-corridor and leaves space for warm air to flow through the boat but gives you the space of a walkthrough when someone is in there using the facilities. It’s odd that this isn’t seen more often.

Cabin cruisers are generally quite short boats and thus lacking in space. Whilst many will have at least a small compartment for a toilet, if there’s a shower it will be very compact indeed. And in some cases, the toilet will simply be a portable loo kept in a cupboard.

This brings us neatly onto a mention of what sort of toilets are found on canal boats and indeed it’s such a popular topic of conversation amongst boaters that it’s often said to be the number one discussion. For that reason I’ve devoted an entire section of this website to it, click here to read.


If a sumptuous room akin to that of a luxury hotel is what you desire, with long, wide bed and plenty of space to walk around it, lots of wardrobe space and a table for hair and make-up – then you’re going to have to look at widebeam boats. Typically found in the bow, widebeams provide enough space to have a homelike experience and a bed that’s truly magnificent.

Inevitably, of course, narrowboats are somewhat more restricted. The usual format is a bed of four feet wide (a narrow double) and perhaps six feet or so long, lined up lengthwise with the boat. This leaves a narrow corridor to squeeze past the bed to get to the bow or through to the other cabins, depending which way your boat is designed.

Many such beds have sliding extensions which can pull out as required to give an additional foot of width, with the extra mattress space being infilled with a dedicated long cushion kept on top of the bed when not in use. This does require faffing about with re-making the bed covers every time you use it though, so is not for the bone idle such as myself.

It is one of my pet dislikes of narrowboats that with the bed firmly squished up against the gunwale on one side, putting the linen on becomes an exercise in gymnastic ability. You have to sit atop the mattress and lever the corner up with one hand while slipping the sheet on with the other, before letting it go to spring back into place.

Such exertions are only slightly alleviated by using any slide-out extension to pull the mattress away from the side, as the bed frame itself remains in place and there’s no space at all to go round to the other side.

Another downside of the inline bed is that someone has to sleep next to the gunwale, which is the side of the boat and despite the insulation, is likely to give them a chill.

On that topic note also that mould and condensation can be a real problem on narrowboats in winter, doubly so where warm air meets something cold. On my boat I found the edge of the mattress pushed against the wall got very soggy purely down to moisture in the air condensing on the boat side and seeping into the fabric. The solution was to use the side extension to pull the mattress out by an inch or so, enabling better airflow down the far side.

Having wooden slats under the mattress rather than a solid base assists with airflow as well, and it can be worth adding ventilation grilles to the base of the bed, as well as to wardrobes so as to ward off mould developing on clothes or other goods stored in there.

Given all of the downsides of the inline bed, it’s no surprise that some folk would like a properly wide bed, with space either side of it and to that end the “cross bed” exists, where the width of the bed lies along the length of the boat, and the length of the bed is across the width (if that makes sense).

Immediately you get a better bed but at the cost of now having to either leap across the foot of it to get from one side to the other, or (as it is always designed), to fold up the bottom two feet of the bed out of the way when not in use, rather like the side extension on the inline bed described above.

The cross bed is bigger and much easier to put clean sheets on but has the downside of that repeated need to make up the infill section every night. Plus it may be too short for very tall folk as the maximum length is dictated by how much width is available, starting with the 6’10” of the narrowboat’s exterior, minus the steel thickness, insulation, and wood panelling.

On cabin cruisers, you may be fortunate enough to have a rear cabin which has space for at least a single permanent bunk. More often than not though, the bed will be formed in the bow as a so-called “V-berth”, named because the shape of two single berths at an angle to each other down the sides of the hull. Usually there will be a cushion that can infill the space between them to give a somewhat awkwardly-shaped double bed though this tends to have to be made up and deconstructed each evening / morning.

In tiny houses, so-called “murphy” beds are popular. With this design the bed lies, usually fully made up, vertically against the wall until it is needed, then folds down through 90 degrees to lie flat for use. Such beds are very rare in canal boats partly because the space under the bed is generally a valuable storage area so freeing it up by raising the bed wouldn’t achieve a benefit, and partly because of the shape of the boat sides aren’t ideal for such a design (curved in cruisers, Z-shaped for the gunwales in narrowboats)

Longer boats may be afforded the luxury of a second bedroom cabin; often laid out with bunk beds for children or occasional guests, these can double as an office space if designed accordingly.

Boatman’s Cabin

In days of old, working narrowboats gave nearly all of the hull space over to cargo which meant a tiny living area right at the back. Believe it or not, entire families – usually including several children – would live, sleep, wash and eat within this compact area.

A double bed would fold out from a side cupboard for the adults; a small bunk would lie lengthways at the back. A stove in the corner provided heating, cooking and hot water (from a bucket – no water tank aboard!).

Today only the few folk maintaining fuel boats would opt to live in those conditions but the traditional boatman’s cabin is still found as a feature on classic, or classic-style, narrowboats. Those who love that kind of thing will adore it; personally I find it a poor use of space but I’m clearly a philistine.

You’ll almost certainly find a dedicated engine room immediately ahead of a boatman’s cabin which neatly brings us to this:-

Engine rooms

Engines are such a core part of boating that I’ve devoted separate pages to them. A brief mention here though that for most boats the engine room is less a room and more just the space under the rear deck, albeit enclosed by a cabin on “trad” stern boats.

For classic (and replica) boats however, a dedicated engine room is indeed a separate cabin space usually housing a substantial and much-loved vintage powerplant, often polished to within an inch of its life by an enthusiastic owner. These cabins tend to have side hatches which will be left open as the boat chugs along, in part for cooling but mostly so that other boaters can hear the engine’s slow-paced thump…thump…thump and peer in with awe at the majesty within.

Whilst a proper engine room restricts living space in a boat it certainly does make maintenance and servicing a lot easier than when you have it under the deckboards.

Other spaces

Apart from the main living cabins there are several other spaces often found on narrowboats.

At the bow there is usually a well deck, sometimes referred to as the cratch, with storage lockers/seating to the sides. Whilst many are open to the elements, others have a wooden or metal cratchboard above, from which a canvas or plastic cratch cover is hung, to provide cover from rain or wind.

Despite its promise as an elegant sitting space for tea and scones, this space often becomes a bit of a storage hub filled with debris, wet boots and muddy dogs.

At the back of a cruiser or semi-trad/cruiser, the deck area can be covered by a similar but bigger and more elaborate arrangement to the forward cratch cover, known as a pram[4] hood.

Such hoods generally do little for the aesthetic of the boat but provide very useful extra covered space when moored, especially in winter when they can be an entry porch area to leave muddy shoes and damp clothes etc.

The “look and feel”

Layout aside, when it comes to interior design you’ll find all manner of styles in canal boats. By and large it’s probably fair to say that widebeams follow the modern, contemporary “boutique hotel” feel perhaps with the odd touch of country cottage in terms of the wood stove. Cabin cruisers look much like caravans inside (“travel trailers” for my US readers)

Narrowboats vary enormously from very stark, contemporary, sleek minimalist designs to busy, cluttered homely[5] feelings. Many have wooden panelling throughout, some have part-painted, part-wood … the variety is simply enormous.

If you’re buying new then of course you can specify whatever you want, provided the builder is capable of delivering that scheme. If buying second-hand then it doesn’t really matter what the interior looks like because just like a house, you can re-decorate as you wish.

The main thing to worry about when buying a used boat is whether the hull is sound and if the engine has been looked after, because everything else about the boat is relatively easy to alter but if the fundamentals are poor then you’ve got a bad boat. More on that elsewhere on this website.

[1] Most narrowboats used to be individually designed to the very last detail. As a result they were very expensive. These days, with the reverse layout being so popular, some boat firms have begun turning out “standardised” boats to a set template. It means they can be produced more cheaply but the owner has little or no say in the design, yet for many folk the template will be based on best / most popular practice anyway so is likely to fit 90% of their needs and the savings outweigh any disadvantages.

[2] This word seems to puzzle my American viewers who would refer to a socialising space as the “salon”. In the UK, a salon is where you get your hair cut. The boat living area is most definitely the saloon.

[3] To my US audience, you’d call this a broiler

[4] For American readers, this would probably make more sense as “stroller” hood, the phrase coming from a comparison with the buggies that young children are pushed around in.

[5] USA readers; yes, that’s the correct term over here. I believe you’d say “homey”.