Whether it’s carrying the One Ring to Mount Doom or sailing the Azure Sea, travel is an important part of a lot of fantasy stories and games. For those of us more accustomed to traveling by car, train, bus, and plane than by foot, horse, oxcart, or galleon, this poses a lot of practical problems. How far can your characters travel in a day? How long will it take them to get from point A to point B? And what do they need in order to make the journey successfully?
This is the introduction to a History for Writers series that looks at the evidence of history to help provide practical answers to your questions about travel in the pre-modern world. We’ll look at a few basic issues today. In future installments we’ll examine specific modes of travel, terrains, and problems.
Note that what we’re discussing here is based on real-world history, so it applies only to the extent that your world resembles historical conditions. If your characters travel by foot, horse, and sail, much of the information here will be directly applicable. If they have teleportation and magic carpets, adjust accordingly.
Here are a few basic issues that apply to just about any kind of travel in a pre-industrial world:
Number of travelers
As a general rule, the more people traveling, the slower the group will move. Partly this is because of the principle that a group can only move as fast as its slowest member. The more people in a party, the more chances there are for one of them to sprain an ankle, throw a horseshoe, or spring a leak in their boat, which will slow down the whole group. On the other hand, traveling with a small group, as opposed to traveling alone, means there are more people around to help fix the problems that can slow the group down. When talking about groups of a few dozen people or fewer, numbers can both help and hurt.
With large groups—like an army on the march, for example—there is also a bottleneck problem. The speed at which an army of ten thousand soldiers can march depends on how many people can fit through the narrowest point on the route of march at one time. Picture a room full of people all trying to leave through one door; the time it takes the whole group to get out of the room depends on how fast people can get through the door, not on how fast any individual in the group can move.
Amount of baggage
The more stuff you have to move, the more time it is likely to take. People can at least move themselves; stuff can’t.
The amount of gear people can carry on their persons varies from one individual to another, but the soldiers of ancient armies routinely carried up to 40 kg for extended marches, which is a useful benchmark. Horses and mules could carry up to 100 kg and camels up to 150 kg. Under exceptional conditions, people and animals could carry heavier loads, but only for short periods, slowly, and at risk of injury.
For transporting large amounts of cargo, waterborne travel is much more efficient. The enormous Chinese treasure ships of the Ming Dynasty had a capacity of 500 tons burden, equivalent to about 560 cubic meters of cargo space. If filled with a medium-weight commodity like grain, this would come to a carrying capacity of around 500,000 kg. The Roman grain ships that ran from Egypt to Italy were of a similar size. More typical trading ships in the age of sail were around 100 tons burden, around 90,000 kg of grain.
A merchant ship of 100 tons would need a crew of a few dozen, while carrying the same load overland would have taken over 3 million people or 9,000 horses. If you need to carry large loads, water is the way to go.
Food and water
A small group traveling through a peaceful and prosperous country may be able to rely on finding a convenient tavern or friendly house, but any large group needs to make careful plans for supplies along the way.
An adult human doing hard work (such as marching or fighting) needs around 3,600 calories and 70 grams of protein a day, plus at least 2 liters of water. More than this is good (for morale, if nothing else), but any less puts health at risk. For most ancient armies, this meant a daily ration of 1.5 kg of grain (in the form of bread, porridge, or the like) supplemented with a little meat, vegetables, beans, etc. (For comparison, this is essentially the same ration allotted to soldiers in the US Civil War.)
Enterprising locals along routes of travel and trade have always capitalized on the food needs of travelers, and large empires have often taken steps to ensure that those traveling on official business would have somewhere to rest and eat. The mansiones built along Roman roads in Europe or the caravanserais along the silk road in central Asia, for example, provided for travelers and their animals along major routes.
In most pre-modern societies, travel of any significant distance had a seasonal quality. Partly this came from the rhythms of the agricultural year. Unskilled laborers traveled with the ploughing and harvest seasons for work. Young animals were typically driven to market in the spring, fattened ones in the fall. Armies went on campaign in the summertime when less labor was needed on the farms and the enemy’s crops could be ravaged.
Weather also played a role. Winter snows closed many mountain passes. During rainy seasons (which happen at different times of year in different places) roads would get muddy and rivers swell up flooding fords and washing out bridges. Stormy seasons made travel by water treacherous. Seasonal winds, like the monsoons in the Indian Ocean, created annual patterns of movement.
People who depended on wild or domesticated animals might need to herd them from summer to winter pastures or follow the natural migration patterns.
These are a few of the issues to take into consideration when planning your characters’ travels. We’ll return to issues of travel in future posts and get into more detail about particular modes and kinds of travel. Until then, may the road rise up to meet you.
More on travel:
Post edited for style and to correct mathematical errors
Image: Arrival of a Caravan Outside The City of Morocco via Wikimedia (painting; by Edwin Lord Weeks)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.