Travel: Small Groups on Foot

151214BoromirDespite what you may have heard from certain Gondorian captains, one does sometimes have to simply walk into Mordor.

In the first installment of the travel series we looked at some basic issues involved in travel in a pre-industrial world. Today we tackle the kind of travel that most people did most of the time in the pre-modern world: overland journeys by foot in small groups (or alone). We have a few basic questions to ask: How far could they go? How fast could they get there? How much stuff could they take with them? And what did it take to make the journey successfully?

How far?

Pretty much as far as there’s land to travel on. This is how Homo sapiens settled most of the inhabitable world. Early humans traveled out of central Africa and reached the rest of the world by traveling mostly in small extended family groups on foot or in boats. They figured out how to travel across every terrain on earth, from the Sahara desert to the Arctic ice cap.

Those who traveled the farthest reached Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America by 10,000 years ago, a journey of more than 30,000 kilometers by land and/or coastal waterways. While no individual made that entire trip, generations of travelers and settlers accomplished the journey. As Steven Wright put it: “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.”

How fast?

Speed of foot travel depends on many factors, including how far you have to go, the conditions of travel, and how much weight you have to carry.

Modern athletes, running unencumbered on good roads with support teams behind them, can travel a kilometer in under three minutes (the record is currently held by Noah Ngeny at 2:12). Estimating three minutes to a kilometer, that comes to a speed of 20 km/h. Longer-distance running gives us similar results. Record times for marathon running come close to two hours (current record: Dennis Kipruto Kimetto at 2:03:57), which works out to a speed of around 20 km/h as well.

Some pre-modern travelers enjoyed similar conditions, such as the chasqui runners who carried messages around the Incan empire, who trained to run up to 240 km in a day. They had the benefit of traveling light on the empire’s extensive network of roads and bridges and of finding rest and refreshment in the messenger stations maintained along the route at state expense. (D’Altroy 2002)

A similar speed is recorded for the ancient Greek runner Philippides, who ran from Athens to Sparta before the battle of Marathon to beg for Spartan aid against the Persians (not, contrary to popular legend, from the battlefield back to Athens). His exact time is not recorded, but he reportedly arrived in Sparta the day after leaving Athens, about 240 km away. (Herodotus, Histories 6.106)

Most people traveling by foot, however, were not professional runners traveling light at state expense. People who had to make long journeys on foot carrying gear and supplies, stopping to make their own arrangements for food and sleeping, went at a slower pace.

Modern hiking and hillwalking provides useful comparisons. “Naismith’s rule,” devised by the Scottish mountaineer William Naismith in 1892, offers a good rule of thumb. The time to hike a trail—assuming fair conditions, no unforeseen delays, and travelers in suitable physical shape—can be calculated at 1 hour for every five kilometers of distance, plus one hour for every 600 meters ascent. Experienced hikers may be able to move a little faster and those less practiced will go slower, but a walking pace of 4-5 km/h is a good place to start from.

Terrain and weather make a big difference to walking speed. While 4-5 km/h can be expected on decent trails over relatively open country in good conditions, rough terrain, poor trails (or no trail), and bad weather can reduce walking speed to as little as 2 km/h (or less, for extremely harsh conditions).

Aside from the question of how fast a traveler can walk, there’s also the question of how far a traveler can go in a day. Everyone has to stop to eat and sleep and those who have not trained their bodies for sustained exertion need to stop and rest to avoid injury. Many modern hikers on the Appalachian Trail, for example, cover 20-25 kilometers in a typical day of walking, with some days stretching up to 40 kilometers. Pre-modern people, though, even those who weren’t trained runners, were much more accustomed to traveling by foot than most of us are today. The Roman poet Horace, writing about a journey from Rome to Brindisium, calls himself a “slowpoke” (“ignavus”) for covering only 20 kilometers on his first day out from Rome and implies that more energetic travelers could go 40 kilometers in a day as a matter of course. (Horace, Satires 1.5.5-6)

How much stuff?

People can lift and carry surprisingly large weights over short distances, but when thinking of long distance travel, the relevant question is how much weight a person can carry long distances day after day. The more you carry the slower you will go, the more often you will have to stop and rest, and the more likely you are to get injured along the way. Every person is different and what is a manageable load for one person will be too much for someone else. That said, the experiences of ancient travelers provide some basic benchmarks for what is a manageable load for long-distance travel on foot.

The Aztec empire a good place to start. Since Mesoamerica has no native animals suited for domestication as pack or draught animals and much of the Aztec empire was too mountainous for long-distance river transportation, carrying goods overland on foot was often the only viable option. A class of porters called tlamemes were specially trained to carry heavy loads of trade and tribute goods long distances. According to records, tlamemes trained to carry up to 23 kilos of cargo distances of 21-28 km per day through often rough and mountainous terrain. (van Teurenhout 2005, 94-5)

Similar loads and distances are recorded for Roman and Macedonian soldiers. Roman soldiers were drilled with 30 km marches carrying full loads of gear that amounted to between 20 and 25 kilos, although these marches were usually over well-maintained military roads. (Vegetius, De Re Militaria 1.27) Soldiers in Alexander the Great’s army carried loads of as much as 36 kilos for marches as long as 32 km, also largely on roads and other good terrain. (Engels 1978, 17)

In modern Nepal and Africa, people using traditional (head-supported) methods of carrying have been documented carrying up to 80 kilos distances of around 15 km per day in rough and mountainous terrain. (Bastien et al. 2005)

What does it take?

Time. Walking is the slowest way to travel long distances.

Food and water. A typical adult human doing hard work like traveling on foot needs about 3 kilos of food and water each day (barring magical foodstuffs like lembas bread). Remember that this is weight they have to carry in addition to whatever other gear they are taking with them. A character who has to carry all their own provisions with no opportunity to resupply will run out of food in less than two weeks. Foraging for food in the wild is difficult and takes precious time away from walking. If you want your characters to make it to their destination alive, one of the most important questions you have to ask is: where do they get their food and water?

Everything else is ultimately optional, but some things will make a big difference in how fast your characters can move and how difficult they find the journey. Good boots make a world of difference when you’re on your feet all day. Good weather and good roads also make traveling faster and easier. In the absence of well-marked roads it can be easy to get lost, especially in wooded areas where it is hard to spot landmarks in the terrain, so maps, signposts, or helpful locals can be very useful.

Thoughts for writers

Travel is one of the basic elements of life that has profoundly changed in the past century. In the modern industrialized world, we have become accustomed to travel by train, bus, car, and airplane. Without the experience of walking extended distances from childhood, we relate to the world in different ways.

I hope the evidence gathered here is useful, but if you want to understand how your characters perceive the world as walkers, there is no substitute for experience. If you’re not a seasoned hiker or walker already, get out and try walking in a terrain something like what your characters will travel through, if at all possible. Nothing gives you an appreciation for the challenges and pleasures long-distance walking quite like doing it yourself.

If you have the time, opportunity, and means, I thoroughly recommend the Hadrian’s Wall Path in Britain. It offers unspoiled natural beauty and some well-preserved archaeological sites. But anywhere you can spend a day or even a few hours walking will help you grasp some of what your characters face as they travel on foot.

More on travel:


Bastien, Guillaume, et al. “Energetics of Load Carrying in Nepalese Porters.” Science. (Vol. 308, July 17, 2005): 1755.

D’Altroy, Terrence. The Incas. Malden: Blackwell, 2002.

Engels, Donald W. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Herodotus, Histories.

Horace, Satires, 1.5.

Van Teurenhout, Dirk R. The Aztecs: New Perspecives. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

Vegetius, De Re Militaria.

Image: “One does not simply walk…” via Lisa is Busy Nerding

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.


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