What is a Hopper Barge?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 29 October 2019
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A hopper barge is a marine vessel designed for transporting dry bulk goods, ranging from garbage to grains. There are several variations on the hopper barge design intended for different applications and environments. These barges are primarily designed for use on lakes and rivers, although they can sometimes be towed out to sea, as long as they are moved through relatively calm waters and across short distances.

The hopper barge has no source of power. These barges are moved by tugs and other craft that push and pull them where they are needed. Barges in general tend to be slow moving and cumbersome because they are designed in the way most efficient for cargo, not for speed. Other boaters need to be careful around barges as they lack maneuverability and can get into accidents. If visibility is poor, and a tug operator may not be aware of the navigation hazard posed by a small craft.


The basic hopper barge design is a box, a square or rectangular barge with a number of compartments. Some box barges have covers that can be snapped or rolled over the compartments in order to protect the contents, while others are left open. Doors at the bottom allow the barge to dump its contents at the destination. A variation, the raked barge, has the same arrangement of compartments, but one or both ends of the barge are raked so that it moves through the water more smoothly. This reduces the total cargo the barge can carry, but does stabilize it on the water.

In a variation known as a split hopper barge, the entire barge is hinged. It can be split in two to load and unload cargo. This design has to be extremely stable so that the barge does not capsize when it is split and cargo is moved. If the barge is not designed properly, it can wallow or sink, especially when cargo is dumped too fast and the weight of half the barge rapidly decreases.

Also known as a dump scow, the hopper barge is a common sign on waterways used for transport. Hopper barges are used to move large loads of a variety of commodities. Shipment via barge tends to be relatively low cost, although it is also slower than using other types of vessels. Shippers with special needs, such as cargo that needs unique handling, can work out specific arrangements with barge companies to get their cargo loaded on the most appropriate barge.


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Post 1

Once I canoed down the entire length of the Mississippi river from Minnesota to New Orleans. Over the course of the voyage I must have seen hundred of hopper barges.

In most cases you can't tell what is one the barge. Lots of them are just stacked up with tons of shipping containers.

But you can't miss the barges themselves, it feels like they are half as wide as the river.

One time I kind of zoned out and one came up behind me without me realizing it. I usually got over the the side of the river when they turned up anywhere on the river but I just missed it this time. It felt like it was a thousand feet high and whole football field wide. My canoe felt so small next to it. I was able to get out of the way but I was really shaking.

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