CANOEING ON CANALS
We paddled on the Canal Lateral a la Loire, Canal Du Centre and the Canal Du Rhone Au Rhin (Rhone-Rhine Canal). These canals were used as a means to connect the rivers Loire, Saône and Rhine. We would not advise paddling on canals for any reason other than to link rivers. Why canoe on a canal when France as hundreds of amazing rivers on offer? Canal paddling also requires a lot of physical stamina due to the countless difficult portages. In short: do not paddle on one of these canals unless extremely necessary.
What maps did you use?
Because canals are designed for boats they each have maps marking everything you need. We used NAVICARTE maps, there is another company called FLUVIACARTE, and many others. You can buy them online for the canal you want or at the start of each canal by visiting a captinére where they sell boating goods. These maps mark out mooring points, places for filling water, where the locks are and the distances in between them.
Do you need a river permit?
No. You are allowed on the canals, just not in the locks. This is with the exception of the Eastern section of the Rhone-Rhine Canal (though we paddled on it anyway and just got told off a couple of times) and the Grand Alsace Canal, which runs parallel to the Rhine and is very strictly forbidden and closely watched. To obtain a river permit on all canals you have to be a motorised boat and a canoe is not. You get no permit, no lock key, and each lock you have to unload your canoe, lift it out, and walk around.
Where are there locks on the canal?
They are all marked very clearly on canal maps with distances given in between.
How do you get around the locks?
There is no method to getting around the locks, but it is not easy, especially since most are surrounded by thick stinging nettles and steep banks. There is a towpath running along the entire canal you can walk on once you are up the banks. Getting the canoe in and out of the water requires a lot of patience, creativity and strength.
If you are extremely lucky you might reach a lock at the same time as a boat. If you have a grumpy lock keeper who is a stickler to the rules you might still have to portage around but if they are friendly you can enter the lock and accompany the boat in its passage. Easy. This does not happen often.
Are there other obstacles on the canals?
There are boats on the canals of course but these are slow moving and small. The Rhone-Rhine canal is intertwined with the river Doubs. This has weirs alongside the canals locks. If you choose to take the river route these weirs are still marked on your map and there are sign posts and buoys to warn you.
Canoe storage when stopping in villages?
Take a long bike lock. When leaving the canoe we would always lock it to something using a long bike lock and took our paddles with us. As for leaving bags in the canoe, we learnt this lesson the hard way. Admittedly the city of Tour on the river Loire is no village, but we had loads of our gear stolen from our dry bags, including tent and sleeping bags, when we visited the city for an afternoon. From then on whenever we stopped anywhere we locked the canoe and took both of our large dry bags with us. That meant the canoe was left alone with only food in it, easily replaced. Other than Tour we never encountered any problems.
Canoe storage at night?
At night you have a few options. You can camp somewhere quietly without anyone noticing, or you can stop at one of the boats mooring points where there is a water supply, power supply and toilets. At the mooring points you can chat with other friendly boaters and use the facilities, though if there is someone in charge it is best to ask first. A canoe on the canal is NOT a common sight! Here we simply slept with the canoe rolled over next to our tent. We could also store a few things under it at night time to keep them dry, sometimes using a bike lock to hold everything together. Both at mooring stops and wild-camping this was a simple and effective thing to do.
Canoe storage in cities?
Again, use a trusty bike lock and lock the canoe to something. If you are not staying in a campsite our advice is NOT to lock the canoe and leave it by the canal for more than a day while you stay in a hotel. Talk to the hotel and ask them about storage, ask in the tourist info, but for safety in the city be sure to find somewhere. We often used the friendly people on couchsurfing.org or warmshowers.org - online communities set up by travellers to help travellers. If your in need of a friend to help you out abroad, these are the websites to use.
Also be prepared for a walk. Cities are not built around canals so check the map carefully to make sure you do actually go through the city and not just near it, we made that mistake more than once.
Do I need a water purifier?
No. On the canals there are plenty of places to stop to fill up water and most are marked on the canal maps. With a good amount of water storage (we had about 10ltrs) you'll be fine. Do not drink the canal water for very obvious reasons.
Have more questions?
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Following this advice?
These FAQ pages are intended to answer your common questions but reflect out-dated knowledge from our experiences in 2013. This advice is also limited to the select few canals that we travelled on. Things may be different today. James Warner Smith and Nathan Wilkins do not take responsibility for anybody that follows our advice without seeking further, professional guidance and cannot be held responsible for any loss, damage, injury or death that occurs as a result of following this information. Please be cautious, act responsibly and canoe safely.