Episode 16: Learn About Travel Over Water
Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how to determine travel times for horses, wagons, people and more through various kinds of terrains and what can slow us down, and how.
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- How to determine travel times for various modes of locomotion, such as walking, wagon, horses, and flying
- How terrain can modify travel times
- What makes terrain irrelevant to travel times
- Why birds (or dragons) can’t always go in a straight line
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Episode 16 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number sixteen. Today’s topic talks about how to determine travel times for horses, wagons, people and more through various kinds of terrains and what can slow us down, and how. This material and more is discussed in chapter 7 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.
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Now, in the intro, I mentioned that we are talking about a fantasy setting here, but really, any setting where we don’t have modern technology will do because we’re going to be talking about things like walking, being in a wagon and riding horses that are encumbered to one degree or another by supplies and armor – armor for the horse and knights who are wearing full plate armor, for example. In a typical science fiction setting, we’re not going to have that problem because people are going to be using machines to get somewhere. If people are using machines like those that we have here on Earth, then you don’t really need me to explain how fast a car goes because we all know that. If you have invented a technology, well then, you can pretty much invent how fast that’s actually going to go and therefore, again, I can’t really second guess what speeds you’re going to decide on. So, that’s something that you can basically invent and not have to worry about being realistic. Maybe I shouldn’t put it that way, but what I mean is that no one can call you on it and tell you that your imaginary engine that only exists in your setting goes a different speed because they can’t say that. You’re the one who created it, therefore you are the one who decides how this actually works.
In that sense, you’re kind of on your own. I don’t mean to abandon you there, but it’s actually kind of a good thing because you can make this up and not worry about it too much. On the other hand, if you’ve got a fantasy setting or another kind of setting where we don’t have even modern technology, there are things like horses and wagons, and we should know how fast people can actually go on these. In your science fiction setting, you might still need to understand the stuff that’s in this particular episode because even though your characters might have faster ways of getting around, like a ship, that ship can always crash or break down and, as a result, your characters might be reduced to walking, using a wagon, a horse or similar animal of your own invention.
Now, some of us may not need to worry about this anyway because if we don’t have a map that we’re going to release with our story, and if we don’t intend on doing a lot of stories there, then we may not need to worry about this too much. But it kind of depends on what you say. If you say that it is 250 miles between one place and another and your characters are going to get there by walking, and they’re going to do that in 2 days, that’s not going to happen. A simple way around this problem is to not tell people how many miles or kilometers it is from one place to another. You could do the opposite and tell people how many miles it is, but not tell them how long it takes to get there, but that’s not something that we usually want to do in a story. People want to know how long it’s going to take. Not because they care about how long the journey’s actually going to be, but because the characters are going to be going a certain number of days and we’re probably going to be showing a certain amount of that travel time.
So, if we have a choice between not mentioning the distance or not mentioning the time frame, the distance is the one we’re not going to mention. Now, if we want to be a little more accurate and give people some more sense of realism or that we know what we’re talking about, then we want to start thinking about the combination of them and acknowledging both of those and being accurate. And by being accurate, I don’t mean exactly 26 hours to walk from one place to another. You know, we want to be within a range such as 22 to maybe 28 hours. One of the ways we can use that kind of range is we might want to just suggest that the characters can make it in a leisurely fashion or they might have to really hurry to get there. If we have some understanding of how long it might really take, we can get an understanding of which way we might want to spin that. In other words, this can help us characterize the journey.
If we understand that it could take between 22 and 28 hours to get there, depending on circumstances, and we need them to get there in 22 hours, then we can characterize this as them being in a hurry and they just need to get on with this. Most of us have some difficulty understanding what’s realistic, and that’s the goal of this podcast episode and the corresponding chapter of the Creating Places book.
On that note, I am going to tell you right now there is a lot of detail in charts that I have in the book that I’m not going to cover in this podcast just because it’s kind of hard to describe charts of information. But I’m still going to give you the explanations and give you the understanding of how these things work, and maybe by the end we’ll go through at least one of these charts so you’ll see how it can be applied.
Another note I’m going to make here is that most of the Earth uses the metric system, but I’m going to just talk in miles mostly because that’s what I’m more familiar with and I’m here in the United States. If you pick up a copy of Creating Places, I do have the calculations in both measurements. And one of the things about it is that the amount of time it takes to go doesn’t change. It’s really just which set of numbers you’re using. Understanding the principles is universal. For those of you who do have a map, I would also recommend writing the words “not drawn to scale” on that map just because that gives us a little bit of leeway.
Despite that, when I do a map, even if I put those words on there, I actually intend it to be to scale because I’m going to go ahead and measure stuff and figure out, “Okay, one inch equals twenty-five miles in my world,” and then I’m going to use that as a way of figuring out the relative distances, but I don’t necessarily tell my audience that just because there’s always going to be that guy who’s a smart ass who comes along saying, “Well, you know, I’ve looked and this is not that distance,” or whatever. So, just to avoid that kind of bologna, I sometimes want to put “not drawn to scale” on my maps.
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The first mode of travel I’m going to talk about is one that’s available to most of us, and that is walking. The basic problem with walking is how long it takes to get from one place to another, and the fact that you’re going to have to carry anything you want to take with you. These days, it’s so much easier to bring a lot of luggage, but back in the day on Earth, people traveled pretty light – if they traveled at all.
And most of that traveling was done by foot to places that were in a relatively short distance of each other. It was fairly common for people to have never traveled outside a small range. This is something that is arguably overlooked in fantasy because most people just don’t have that big of an understanding about what the rest of the world is like, and of course, information in such a setting doesn’t travel nearly as well or accurately as it does today.
What I’m getting at there is that there’s a tremendous amount of ignorance about what’s really going on in the rest of the world, and reliance upon just rumors and what people are saying. And who knows how often people are accurate? Another thing to keep in mind is that people have to be relatively healthy to make such a journey. Most of the people who were doing such traveling were going to be, probably, between the ages of 10 and 40, given that the lifespan wasn’t particularly long back then and, in fact, 40 could be considered rather old to be doing such a thing.
You will have to decide what the fitness level is for the people in your world and how much getting around by foot they really do. I would recommend making a kind of general note in your world building file for this particular setting, just saying that people don’t travel outside 100 miles very often, and when they travel, they generally do so by foot. In such a setting, someone could reasonably claim to have traveled really far and wide without actually having gone terribly far. They could say they’ve been to the other side of the world when they have never gone more than 500 miles away, but even that amount of knowledge is so far in excess of what other people have.
This seems like a good opportunity for someone who’s a skilled liar to acquire a reputation for having traveled farther and to places where they never have been, and then, next thing they know, someone like the king has said, “Hey, I understand you’ve been to this kingdom so far away. We need someone who understands that place and who’s been there, so we’re going to send you.” And that person is realizing, “Oops, I don’t actually know that place. I lied, but I can’t admit it.” So, you know, this is something we can do with our stories.
So, we’re talking about walking – and I do mean walking. Most people are not going to run any measurable distance on a journey unless they are trained warriors or messengers. It’s just not realistic and, of course, it’s kind of hard to run when you’re carrying something like a big backpack on your back. So, that’s also going to be a problem. If you were to create a chart of how long it takes to walk between two locations and how long it takes to run between two locations, well, I wouldn’t actually create that column that says running because they’re not going to be able to do that for very long. I would just assume that someone who is trained to do that kind of thing would be able to do it in maybe a few hours less. Again, we need ballparks here, not dead-on accuracy.
Typically, in our stories, we don’t want travel between two locations to be terribly easy. What I’m thinking of here is things like monsters or nasty species who are out there and who could attack our characters. This could certainly impact our travel time if we are afraid of attracting the attention of any such thing, and we are therefore trying to move quietly. It might also mean that we have to hide for prolonged periods of time. It also likely means that our characters will have weapons. It might not be all of our characters. The typical adventuring party, yes. We’re going to have weapons. But if it’s someone like a merchant who just needs to get from one place to another to do business, not necessarily bringing a wagon of supplies with him, but just maybe going to meet someone that he wants to arrange a business deal with, he may not have weapons, or be good at them, so, of course, he may hire someone to accompany him. But not everyone’s going to have a weapon.
Bear in mind that some places are obviously safer or more dangerous than others. In addition, we might have formal messengers who are acting on the behalf of a king, for example, and we may decide for whatever reason that we have a law where those messengers cannot be molested in any way. And, therefore, they may not actually have a whole lot of weapons with them if that law is reasonably followed. If it’s not followed, then of course they will have it, but that’s going to cause other problems if no one’s really enforcing that law. But I’m just tossing this out as something else to consider. We may have messengers who are able to go without wearing a lot of armor or carrying a lot of weapons because the area’s relatively safe and most people do not interfere with them. These are all factors that can speed up or hinder their ability to travel quickly.
Something else to consider is that in a fantasy setting, or something similar, we often have imaginary species like elves. Well, the elves are roughly the same height as humans, so their ability to travel is not going to be hugely impacted and different from ours just because they might be six inches taller. On the other hand, dwarves are quite a bit shorter than us and their ability to travel quickly might be impacted. It will literally take them more steps to make the same journey. This could not only slow them, but it could have an endurance issue where they just can’t travel as far in a single day.
Whether we use these species or we invent our own, we should pay a little bit of attention to this. Maybe we have a group of four humans who could make the journey in 20 hours, but they’ve got a dwarf with them. Due to this, it could take them 25 hours. And some of them might be chaffing about this as they’re traveling. Either they are constantly giving the dwarf grief that he needs to hurry up, or the dwarf needs to take breaks more often and the others feel fine and they don’t want to deal with this.
If you’re creating a chart of travel times, you may want to have a column for humans versus another species. If everyone is to stick together, the entire group must move at the pace of the slowest person. There is a way around this. We could decide that the dwarves might take longer to make the trip, but they have more endurance and, therefore, they can actually walk longer. If a human would be exhausted in eight hours, well, the dwarf might be able to go ten hours. Since the humans are forced to walk a little bit slower, they might also be able to go ten hours.
So, let’s talk some numbers. How far can the typical human walk reliably, day after day, without needing to rest or be exhausted after they’re done? The answer is 12 miles. We can obviously do more than that in a single day, but we might be exhausted. In fact, we could do so much in a single day that we might be bedridden for a few days after that. So, we do have some leeway here, but we should be aware of the impact that this is going to have on our character if they go beyond that. A Roman legion back in the day could do 14 to 20 miles per day, but they were trained to do this. The average human could do 20 miles a day, but they’re going to be exhausted. Keep these numbers in mind. They’re going to be very useful to you.
Let’s switch gears to riding a horse. Now, you may have another form of animal that’s very similar to that, but we’re just going to talk about horses because that’s what we have here on Earth. Actually, there are other animals, like the donkey or the elephant, but the same principles are going to apply. And if we’ve invented something, it’s going to be similar in that it has a base number of miles per day that it can reasonably travel.
So, with a horse or another animal, we have three basic levels of encumbrance, which is basically light, medium, and heavy. What I mean by encumbrance is how much stuff that horse is actually carrying. As you would imagine, the more you’re carrying, the more it’s going to slow you down and the more it’s going to wear on you and reduce your endurance. That, in turn, is going to affect how many miles a day you can actually travel. This is one reason you might see a traveler portrayed as having a horse with them, but the horse is a pack animal that is carrying all their luggage, basically, and the human is still walking.
For minimal gear, such as spare clothes, maybe a sword, some utensils and some water, this is going to be the lightest load and the person who can travel the farthest in a day on a horse. With a horse, that’s going to be roughly 30 to 40 miles. We’re talking about 30 to 40 miles, day after day, without that horse needing to rest. By contrast, we may have a fully armored knight who is wearing plate armor and has multiple swords, maybe a lance, and it might be a warhorse that he’s riding where that warhorse is also fully armored with plate armor. This is, actually, one reason you might see such a horse not having that much stuff on them when there’s no battle that’s expected, and there is a secondary horse that is being used as a pack animal, where that horse is lugging around all this stuff so that the warhorse is fresh and gets suited up in time for the actual fight. In any case, such a warhorse that is fully armored like that, and is carrying someone else who is also fully armored, is going to have far less endurance and speed.
Then there’s the middle ground between these, and that might be someone who is only wearing chainmail, a shield, and maybe just one sword. And if the horse is armored, it might just be wearing leather.
There are specialized horses that can go over 100 miles per day for several days in a row, and the Pony Express in the United States is one such version of this. However, such a horse was basically incapable of doing much of anything for several days after that. When these riders would reach the next station, they would trade that horse in for a fresh one so that they could continue going at the breakneck speed.
If we’re using horses to pull a wagon, the wagon can travel somewhere between 15 to 25 miles per day when there are no roads. If we want to slow them down, we can just have the wagon get stuck in mud, for example. Roads tend to spend things up, but we may be talking about dirt roads because cobblestones can actually be really brutal on the entire structure of a wagon, causing things to kind of rattle loose.
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The last mode of travel that we’re going to talk about is flying. We tend to assume that anything flying is going to do so in a straight line, and we even have an expression that something is, say, 20 miles “as straight as the crow flies.” Well, I can tell you that if that crow has to go over a mountain, it’s not going to go in a straight line. It’s probably going to go around the mountain. This will depend on how tall that mountain is. Even real birds struggle to climb over the Himalayas because those are so tall. We have a tendency to depict dragons as being all-powerful, but one way to make them a little more realistic is that they might also have trouble getting over mountains. And, in fact, that’s probably true. If you ignore the impossibility of dragons flying at all, because they’re so big and so heavy, we could still make them have trouble getting over these mountains just because they are so heavy. There’s not that much air. It’s thinner air. It’s going to be that much harder for their wings to propel them over them. A dragon being forced to go around is one way to make them more realistic.
If we don’t like that idea and we want some sort of explanation for how they can just easily go over really tall mountains, we can just decide that they are magical beings and that this aids them in doing so. We may or may not want to explain that to people because some people don’t really like it when there’s an explanation for something. Or, at least, they don’t like it when we explain something implausible. By the way, you may remember from a previous episode that the tallest mountains are those that are on the interior of the continent rather than at the coast.
A hostile territory can also change the flight pattern. Let’s say that dragons are rideable and that two adjacent kingdoms have people who can ride those dragons, and those two kingdoms are hostile to each other. The people in one of those kingdoms might want to fly around the other one rather than over it to get to a destination on the other side. A lone dragon may be afraid to fly through an area that is inhabited by many other dragons, especially if those other dragons are hostile or territorial. As I say that, it occurs to me that most people seem to want to portray dragons as being fearless, but that’s not realistic either.
Now, on Earth, all animals that are capable of carrying a rider are imaginary, but none of them would be affected by the terrain except for these really tall mountains, so they could fly right over roads, forests, rolling hills or deserts without really being impacted by these. If there are nasty things living in a forest, well, this flying animal could just go right over it, at least if it’s going high enough.
Understand Travel by Flight
When we’re trying to figure out how far an invented animal could travel in a day, it’s a good idea to understand how a real Earth animal can do so and start from there. A carrier pigeon goes about 50 miles an hour and can cover up to 700 miles in a day. A hawk can go about 20 to 40 miles an hour during migration. We don’t really care how fast they’re going when they’re diving down at prey because that’s not a travel concern, and that’s what we’re focusing on here.
If we have invented a humanoid species that has wings, bear in mind that it’s not going to be nearly as aerodynamic as a bird. The same is really true of a dragon. Some of them are shown as having four giant legs, not to mention that giant body. This is not really an aerodynamic shape compared to a bird. Without magic, not only is something shaped like a bird going to be faster, but it’s going to have more maneuverability in the air.
And that brings us to something that has almost no maneuverability in the air, and that’s the airship. Now, these are also known by other names like blimps and dirigibles. Some of these might actually exist in a fantasy setting, and they could certainly do so in a science fiction one. We could decide that magic is powering such a vessel to some degree. A large airship like the Hindenburg had a high speed of about 84 miles an hour, but 70 miles per hour was the maximum speed for the smaller ones and most of them typically cruised between 30 and 50 miles per hour. In other words, that cruising speed is what we’re typically going to use. The largest of these could fly as high as 24,000 feet, which means they are, theoretically, able to fly over any mountain range on Earth. However, in reality, they didn’t typically go that high and that would also cause problems such as the payload could reduce how high they can go.
Most of them tended to operate mainly between something like 1,500 and 8,000 feet. Passenger ships were typically for sightseeing and, therefore, they flew much lower, such as under 650 feet. These can typically fly in a straight line, and most of them had a duration of about 24 to 50 hours, but the Hindenburg could actually fly over 100 hours, although that was typically only done when they were crossing an ocean.
By contrast, there is the balloon which just drifts with the wind. They cannot be propelled through the air, and they cannot control their flight path. Or, I should say, they have very limited ability to control the flight path. They also go pretty slow, averaging somewhere between three to six miles per hour. Then, of course, there’s the airplane, but I’m not going to cover that in this episode anymore than I did so in the book because the variety of planes is so extreme that trying to summarize them would not serve a world builder well.
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The Impact of Terrain
We’ve already talked a little bit about obstacles that terrain can cause, but I want to touch on this a little bit more. If our characters need to travel through a forest, then there is an assumption that this forest could slow them down depending on how thick the underbrush is. This makes perfect sense, but one thing that we should consider is that there may be roads through that forest. If there are, then it doesn’t really matter how much underbrush is off to the side of that road because the road itself is mostly clear, unless something like a tree has fallen down over the path and we have wagons.
In a previous episode, we talked about different kinds of forests, such as a savanna, a woodland or just your regular, old, run of the mill forest. Each one of these has a different density of underbrush. There’s a good reason to decide on what each forest is like before deciding on how hard it is to travel through it. On the other hand, something like rolling hills, foothills, and certainly mountains are going to slow everyone, regardless of whether there’s a road or not because you still have to go up and down. Even so, a road could help if it is in decent condition just because it’ll give a smoother surface that is more uniform and less unpredictable.
Now, when it comes to road, they are not like what we have in our modern times when we have asphalt, which is pretty smooth. In a fantasy setting in particular, we are more likely talking about cobblestones or a trail where the road is basically hardpacked earth. Unless it rains, a dirt road can be fairly reliable. However, there is always the issue of wear and tear on such a road because one area of it is going to be more worn down than another, and we’re not talking about an entire mile so much as every 10 feet there could be part of the road that is more depressed and, as a result, water has collected there and there’s more mud. Generally, it’s an unpredictable ride.
Horses also do not prefer hard asphalt or cobblestones. They would rather be walking on hardpacked earth. It’s preferable if there is a certain amount of grass there as well. The reason I mention this is that when we’re trying to figure out how long it would take for someone to get somewhere, or how much endurance they have, if there is an actual cobblestone road, and we’re talking about horses, they may not actually want to be on the road. The riders probably know that maybe they should be off to one side of the road.
So, even if there is a road, maybe it’s not being used because the riders are smarter than that. Any cobblestones, also, are not going to extend very far from a settlement just because it’s very expensive to create these. If you’re drawing a map of your world and you’re using lines to indicate where the roads are, you may want to use a solid line where there is a road, and then a dashed line where it’s only going to be a trail.
By trail, I mean something that’s not paved. Generally, you would only draw that dashed line a short distance, less than 10 miles from the actual settlement. And we’re really only talking cities or the larger towns that are even going to have these roads. Note that I’m really talking about roads that are outside the settlement. Inside the settlement, you might have more cobblestones. I haven’t mentioned this before because we’ve really been talking about travel between two destinations.
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Now, as I mentioned earlier, there is an entire chapter about travel over land in the Creating Places book, and there are a significant number of charts and calculations in there to figure out how long it takes to get from one place to another. What I did there is a typical setup for a fantasy world, so I did something like a riding horse, a lightly encumbered horse and then a heavy war horse, wagons, dragons, things like carrier pigeons and, of course, humans for walking. For each of these, I did some research on what the average travel time is, day after day, without being so fatigued that you can’t go any further the day after that. I used the term “base miles per day,” even if you’re talking about kilometers, to refer to this number.
What we want to do is have that number and then modify that based on terrain. I forget the numbers off the top of my head, but for humans it was base miles per day of 12, and then I would modify that by a number based on roads or heavy forest with no road through that forest, or rolling hills, to see how many miles per day you would actually travel based on that condition changing it. This allows me to approximate how long it might take. Now, in my main world that I’ve been building for 30 years called Llurien, I also calculated for the maps that 1 inch is something like 25 miles, therefore 2 inches is 50 miles and so on. I measured the distance between various locations so I have that information.
Using a spreadsheet I have, I can then calculate how long it takes to get from one place to another based on the terrain. When writing the Creating Places book, I took that spreadsheet and modified it, removing my information from my world and putting in some sample data. I give this spreadsheet away for free to anyone who joins the newsletter. What this means is that you can do the same thing with your setting. You can measure the distance between two places and input some numbers, and the spreadsheet will calculate for you how long it will take to get there by various modes of locomotion based on the terrain.
Now, some of that has a lot of work to it, and if I had it to do over again, I don’t know that I would, so there’s another tab on that spreadsheet where it’s a little bit more generic. What I mean is that instead of having every two points on my map laid out and how long that takes, I just have a kind of general chart that says, “Okay, this number of miles will take this long to do.” The advantage of that chart is that you don’t have to do any calculations at all, and not even really any measuring. You can just eyeball your map. Or, if you don’t have a map, just decide, “Okay, it’s 55 miles between these two places, and the chart says that would take this number of miles if you are traveling by this way.” And then you could add or subtract slightly from that if you don’t agree with my modifiers.
Basically, what I’m telling you is that a lot of this work has already been done for you and you can get it for free. If you really want to understand the nuts and bolts of how all of that works, you can buy the Creating Places book and there is quite a bit of stuff in Chapter 7, I believe, about how all of that works and what my thinking is on all of it.
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