Travel distance and time guesstimates14 min read

Travel distance and time guesstimates14 min read

A good way to get an overview of your world in terms of size, is to imagine how long it would take a party to travel from town A to city B. However when I was thinking about this, I realised that I have no idea about how many miles a person can travel in a day. Or what a reasonable pace is for a person to keep walking in for an entire day.

A quick internet search also showed that many people had different opinions on this and that the question is not as easy as ‘how long does it take my hero to travel 10 miles?’. There is a whole lot more to take into consideration when calculating such a thing. Since I’m not an experienced hiker nor a scientist, everything you will read in this post are guesstimates rather than facts. However they are good enough for me to use, so I believe you’ll find them useful as well.

Breakdown

I’m first going to talk about all the factors that you need to think about when making guesstimates about this. There are a lot and some may be easily overlooked. However they are all important and they all have an impact on the travel time for distance x.

After that, I’ll talk about travelling by foot, by horse and by coach.

After that I’ll talk a bit about various historical sources on travelling, conditioning and methods. Talking about the plus and downsides of each, and giving you some real world examples that you can use in your world building.

At the end of each type of travel, you’ll also find a table overview of speeds with certain situations applied to them, to get a general idea.

Factors

Not everybody is the same, people have different levels of stamina, muscle strength and other things. Some people are also used, or conditioned, to do certain things while others aren’t. A soldier is trained in marching for example while peasant Bob certainly is not. Aside of that, age, gender, physical build and racial traits are also factors that can change the result.

The terrain and hiking facilities also change depending on your location. Flat plains are much easier to walk on than dense forests, steep hills or even mountains. Well kept trails and roads is also much better ground to travel on than just nature’s carpet.

These are all things you need to consider and work out for your own world setting and species/ races, here is a list of the things that I think have the biggest impact.

  • Race/ species-specific traits (e.g. Dwarves have higher stamina than humans perhaps?)
  • Physical build of the person(s)
  • Age of the person(s)
  • Health of the person(s)
  • (in)experience of the person(s) (e.g. an experienced hiker or conditioned soldier?)
  • Equipment (e.g. good footwear, hiking equipment, food, water,  …)
  • Quality of the roads and trails (kept <> unkempt, stone roads <> muddy trail, …)
  • Type of terrain (hilly, forested <> flat, plains <> mountains, …)
  • Weather conditions (good/fair <> bad/stormy)

Travelling by foot

 

Normal people

Let’s start with ‘normal’ people. Normal meaning a person like you or me, who is healthy. Normal people can walk about 3 miles an hour (4.8 km/h), which is considered to be a ‘steady’ pace, on flat and easy ground (e.g. roads, trails, …). If he/she has the stamina to keep this pace for 12 hours, they can travel 36 miles a day (57.9 km).

However this isn’t a realistic guesstimate at all. Yes you could walk this in one day but you’ll be wrecked the next day. I once walked 40 miles (64 km) in a day for a sponsored walk, and I was wrecked at the end. A more realistic travel distance per day would be around 20 miles (32 km) on flat and easy ground. A normal, healthy person who isn’t used to travelling long distances should still be able to walk this on a daily basis.

This is assuming they have a road to walk on of course, or very easy, flat ground. The worse the terrain/ facilities get, the lower your miles travelled per day become. If your hero needs to travel to a bog, don’t expect him to cover more ground than a meagre 5 miles a day.

Also keep in mind that normal people are mostly not used to hike with heavy backpacks or armour, be it equipped or in a bag. Things like this will slow them down as well, even if they are walking on perfect terrain.

This is also assuming that the weather is nice and fair. When winter and autumn arrive and the weather becomes harsh, it will start to take your hero considerably more time to travel distances. It is possible that at some point travel will become impossible for your hero due to the cold weather, exhaustion and the lack of resting stops. Keep this in mind when you have a world setting with a ‘far north’ in it.

Soldiers and experienced hikers

Soldiers, experienced hikers or other people that are trained and conditioned for walking long distances or travelling in full march while being fully packed and armoured, are of course much better at it. They can travel much longer distances in the same time frame because they have better stamina and can walk longer, keep a higher pace and need less resting.

However they are impeded by the same external limits though. Terrain, pack load (armour, backpack, …) and weather still can have a negative effect on their speed and distance travelled per day. Although they might be conditioned for it, it will still leave a mark in the performance of the troops/ travellers.

Armies

Let’s take a look at the Roman legions as a point of reference, to see how armies travel.

The Roman legions were expected to be able to travel 20 (32 km) miles a day, that is packed and loaded (Legionnaires needed to carry their own armour, clothing and other equipment). It was also possible to have them travel up to 25 (40) miles a day during so-called forced marches.

In normal circumstances the speed of a legion was also limited by the speed of the baggage train, the wagons that follow the army and keep all the supplies and tools. It wasn’t unusual for commanders to sent a part of the legion up front on the last part of the days travel to already go ahead and set up command (especially if they needed to be on time for strategic reasons) and have the baggage train arrive later.

A realistic guesstimate would be 18 to 20 miles (28 – 32 km) travelled per day as a legion. However, take note that this number can be much higher for the armies in your world. The Roman legions would only march for about 5 hours a day. They needed extra time before and after their travel to break up and set up their camps, so this was calculated in their travel time.

If a legion was marching towards a battle, and thus knew there was a big chance they would have to fight at the end of it, they tried to travel slower or less to spare the troops. They would aim more at 15 miles travelled per day in such a scenario because otherwise the travel would ask too much of the soldiers, impeding their fighting capabilities and decreasing the chance of victory in battle.

A last thing to keep in mind is that the duration of the march also contributes to the distance travelled. How much and how far they would have to travel defined the pace the legionnaires would need to keep up, as well as how many resting stops/ pauses they would get.

Message relay system

Travel for communication was common as well. Sometimes time was of the essence when delivering a message and you’d need the fastest way possible to get it to its destinations. A message relay system was used to very quickly send a message over long distances. The system worked with posts, or checkpoints, that were separated x amount of miles from each other. If we look at the example of the Inca Chasqi runners, these posts would be separated a mile from each other.

The Chasqi runners would run at their maximum speed and then pass on the message to the next runner, who would do the same thing. This created a very fast chain to deliver a message, while the runners were able to rest up before their next run.

A message delivered by the Chasqi runners could travel up to 174 miles (280 km) a day, making this a very fast way of communication.

Overview

To give this overview, I make a few assumptions about the traveller and his journey. Keep this in mind when you use this as a reference, as these numbers won’t apply to everybody.

  • A young to middle-aged man of average height and build, in good physical condition and used to walking for long distances. Equipped with good walking footwear and hiking equipment appropriate for the area.
  • Roads and trails are in good condition and kept by the local authorities.
  • The weather is good and fair.
  • The traveller(s) walk around 7-8 hours a day.

Here are some estimates to how many miles a day they would be able to travel. Reduce with 25% if they are heavily packed or wearing armour and add 25% if it is an experienced hiker or soldier.

On roads and trails

Level/ rolling terrain 20 miles
Hilly terrain 14 miles
Mountainous terrain 9 miles

Off-road or on unkempt trails/roads

Level/ rolling terrain 15 miles
Hilly grasslands 12 miles
Level/ rolling forest/ thick scrub 8 miles
Very hilly forest/ thick scrub 6 miles
Un-blazed mountain passes 6 miles
Marshland/ bog 5 miles

Exceptionally experienced and/or physically capable people might be able to increase the number significantly for the mountain travel. However this would be a single forced march, having them walk up to 20 hours in a day and be exhausted at the end of it. Twice the base is a reasonable maximum cap for this.

Naismith’s rule is a ‘rule of thumb’ for planning a hiking expedition by calculating how long it will take to walk the route, including ascents. The basic rule is:

Allow 1 hour for every 3 miles forward, plus 1 hour for every 2000 feet of ascent.

Travelling by horse

 

On horseback

Like people, horses differ greatly as well, from race to race and horse to horse. Some horse races are specifically bred to do a certain thing, like racing, farm work and so on. Aside of that a horse is raised and conditioned in a certain style, making it excellent at that sort of work but mediocre at best for other types of work.

Horses also have health issues and strong/ weak builds like humans do. Aside from all these factors, the endurance and stamina of a horse also depends on the skills of the rider, the season and weather, the possible geographical challenges and exhaustion, the riding and pack saddles fit and how often you rest and feed your horse(s).

These are again factors that you need to keep in mind. When peasant Bob jumps on the farm horse of his Uncle, he won’t get very far, very fast, unlike when a soldier would jump on his war horse.

If we take an “ideal” situation to start off from, a rider can travel about 15-25 miles a day. Also keep in mind that you don’t ride a horse like you drive a car. Riding a horse is intensive and exhausting, both for the rider as for the horse. Riders would ride only 5 days out of 7, keeping two days to rest up and get back to strength.

Overview

Let’s start with some average speeds for horses.

Walk 3 -5 mph
Trot 8-10 mph
Canter 15 mph
Gallop 25-30 mph

Again we will have some assumptions about the traveller and his journey.

  • The horse is of an average quality, of a breed suitable for riding, conditioned for overland travel and in general good condition.
  • Roads and trails are in good condition and kept by the local authorities.
  • Weather is good and fair. The traveller and his horse will be riding for 10 hours a day.

Here are again some estimates. Reduce by 50% when the horse is pulling a cart/ coach or when the horse is heavily laden (e.g. a fully armoured knight). Add 50% for specially trained horses and riders who are prepared to push hard (e.g. rangers, scouts and messengers). Though do bear in mind that horses cannot be pushed like this for more then a few days time. You can add more to the distance if the horse is exceptionable suitable for travelling but the maximum cap here would be 2-2.5 times the base without magical intervention.

When travelling in poor weather you should reduce the distance by 25% and when the journey is in very poor conditions (storms, heavy snow, …) reduce it by at least 50%, increasing depending on the severity of the weather.

Also keep in mind that you can lose distance by routing around obstacles like blocked roads or rivers.

On roads and trails

Level/ rolling terrain 40 miles
Hilly terrain 30 miles
Mountainous terrain 20 miles

Off-road or on unkempt trails/roads

Level/ rolling terrain 30 miles
Hilly grasslands 25 miles
Level/ rolling forest/ thick scrub 20 miles
Very hilly forest/ thick scrub 15 miles
Un-blazed mountain passes 10 miles
Marshland/ bog 10 miles

By cart

Travel by coach or carts was usually to transport goods and cargo. People travelling by coach and cart (in high speeds) was rare, because bad roads and trails resulted in a very uncomfortable journey.

Carts can be pulled by either horses oxen. The general rule here is that an Ox cart travels 50% less than a horse cart in the same time frame and region. A quick guess would be that horse carts travel 20 miles a day and an ox cart 10.

However how fast and far a horse cart can go depends largely on the cart/ coach attached to it. Mainly the quality and number of the wheels is an important variable.

A two-wheeled buggy for example will never reach more than 30 miles an hour. It is possible to go this fast with a buggy, but due to the speed it will soon become uncontrollable. A two-wheeled buggy also has a chance to buck you off the cart when you hit a bump in the road. And since both of the wheel hit the bump at the same time, it can also send the whole cart flying.

Four wheeled carriages are a better option, and preferably with iron-clad wheels instead of wooden. The speed you can reach is further dependent on the weight of the carriage and how many horses you use to drive it, but you can expect to reach up to 35-40 miles an hour.

Horse relay system

A horse relay system works the same way as the Chasqi runners system did. Again there are checkpoints and the runners are now riders. Each checkpoint will have a stable with multiple horses resting and ready to be used. The horses would also be conditioned and bred for this specific purpose. A rider would quickly travel from checkpoint to checkpoint, pushing the horse to its fullest.

Often the rider wouldn’t even change the saddles, jumping from horse to horse quickly as he reached the checkpoint, only taking along with him his bags.

A rider could travel up to 200 miles a day like this, but it is very exhausting for the rider. Even an expert rider wouldn’t be able to keep this up longer than 3 or 4 days before needing a resting day.

Some great examples of this system are the Pony express and the Roman Cursus Publicus.

The Mongolian army

The Mongolians were masters of horseback riding and horseback warfare. They were also one of the fasted moving armies, a Mongolian horsemen being able to travel 100 miles a day. This was something unheard of in their time and gave them a big tactical advantage.

They were able to do this because a typical Mongolian soldier owned and maintained about 4 horses. These horses would all accompany him on his travels. This allowed him to change horses while he was travelling, tiring them out less and greatly increasing the range he could travel with them.

Some information on roads

As you figured out by now, roads are a very important variable in travelling, and were also of great importance to kingdoms and empires to move their armies around. So I want to end this post with them. I think it would be a good thing to read a little bit on them, to see how they constructed these roads in those times, and how it all worked.

Here are two links to a great website with some key information about the roads of Rome. It talks about their construction, design and resources. It is an easy but good read and will get you familiar with crowned roads and how they were constructed.

Roads in Rome

Transport in Rome

Credits, references and used sources

All media I use is free to use, but I like to link back to the artists that share their work for free. Make sure to pay them a visit, as they certainly deserve it.

Same for the sources that I used.

morgansessions

indigo551

joaosilaas

Fifty at the cartographers guild