A towboat is a boat designed for pushing barges. Towboats are characterized by a square bow with steel knees for pushing and powerful engines. They are most often seen on inland waterways and western rivers where they can push more than 50 large barges lashed together into a tow of varying shapes and sizes. Towboats that travel long distances (linehaul) include living quarters for the crew. Outside of the USA towboats are usually referred to as "push boats" or "pushers".
Towboats range in size from up to over . Most towboats can vary in length from to , and vary in width from to wide. Smaller boats are used in harbors, fleeting areas and around locks while larger boats operate in "line-haul" operations and inter-city routes. In the United States below St. Louis on the Lower Mississippi river, the river is open with no locks or impediments other than channel size and depth. So larger boats run this segment of the river with the maximum tow size of 42 barges southbound and 40+ northbound. A "box", so called due to the shape is x , a "rake", so called due to the raked bow end, is x . so 40 barges would be over long and occupy over of area.
In the United States above St. Louis on the Upper Mississippi River and on other rivers such as the Illinois, Ohio, Arkansas, Tennessee and Cumberland, boats can handle only up to 15 barges due the size of lock chambers. These boats tend to be limited to .
Boats that traverse the Intra-Coastal Waterway ((ICW)) are commonly referred to as ditch boats, and river boats are just that, river boats. ICW tows usually consist of 1 to 4 barges ranging in size, usually "strung out" end to end or "doubled up" side by side.
Towboats always push the fleet of barges, which are lashed together with steel cables usually to in thickness. The term towboat arises from steamboat days, when steamboat fortunes began to decline and to survive steamboats began to "tow" wooden barges alongside to earn additional revenue. Eventually the railroad expansion following the American Civil War ended the steamboat era.
Not to be confused with the historic boat type with the same name, also called horse-drawn boat.