Quick fact – the average horse and the average person travel about the same distance per day. As in, giving your hero a horse may not actually bring them to the epic battle faster than they’d have gotten there on foot. No, I didn’t make that up. Hollywood, gaming houses, and other media tell us otherwise, so we just believe it to be true. But it isn’t. 🙂
Our characters move around. A lot. So, you’d think all writers would know realistic travel times by heart. Okay fine, not all do. That said, don’t feel bad if you’ve put your protagonist on the back of a supersonic horse – all of us fall into that snare at some point or another (I do all the time, and I’m writing this post 😜).
Let’s break down realistic travel speeds and times today, shall we?
Travel on foot
Let’s start with the average person, who has an average body mass and doesn’t exercise much. They’re not particularly fit, but not totally unfit either.
This person can walk 20-30 km (10-20 miles) per day, at a maintainable walking speed of roughly 5 km/hour (3 m/h) across even terrain.
A fit person can walk up to 50 km (30 miles) per day, at a maintainable pace of roughly 9 km/h (6 m/h) across even terrain.
People who are obese, old or very young could walk 20 km (10 miles) per day, but probably won’t exceed a walking speed of 3 km/h (2 m/h), and will need more pauses in between. Small children can be carried some of the way, but few adults would be able to carry them all the way and maintain a faster walking speed. My daughter, who is almost 5, is pretty walking fit, but is seldom able to walk more than 6 km (3.5 m) continuously.
Travel on horseback
An average horse, the kind your dashing hero will find at a roadside farm, can travel about 30-50 km (20-30 miles) per day across even terrain. This horse will probably stick to a walking pace all day long, with some breaks in between. Don’t expect the farm horse to gallop all the way to the palace, that’s not happening.
A fit horse, used to travel, can go 80-100 km (50-60 miles) per day, and will be able to trot more often. These horses still need to be rested and walked, but won’t need this as often as average horses. Trained horses will also be able to canter for longer than average horses, but like all athletes who sprint at great speeds, they won’t be able to canter for extended periods of time. As for galloping, they’ll get away from danger but will need to rest when they’re safe.
Horses walk at the same average speed as a human, roughly 5-6 km/h, or 3-4 m/h. Their trotting speed is around 13 km/h (8 m/h) and their cantering speed averages at 16-27 km/h (10-17 m/h). The gallop averages at around 40-48 km/h (25-30 m/h) BUT horses seldom gallop more than 1.5-3 km (1-2 miles) at a time.
As with humans, the speeds and distances horses can travel depend on their breed, fitness level and age, and will also be impacted by the weight the horse has to carry. If the horse is Shadowfax, nothing can outrun him. 🙂
All averages above rely on even terrains. Add any kind of terrain variations, and the distance and travelling speeds will decrease. So, if your characters are climbing a mountain, navigating a bog, or even hiking through tall grass, they’ll probably lose more time finding their footing and make slower progress. They’ll also have to lead their horses through these terrains, which can be tricky if the horses aren’t trained.
The same can be said for weather. Throw a rainstorm at a travelling party and they move a little slower. Make that a blizzard, and they’re stuck in a cave somewhere, waiting out the storm. They can lose days in extreme heat too, and if they’re forced to travel by night in the name of not boiling alive, they’ll lose time because they don’t see as well as those who travel by day.
Also consider the weight they’re carrying – both people and horses. Most fantasy novels call for the characters to bring all they need on their trek in backpacks. Initially, these packs will be heavier, but will lose weight as the contents are consumed. It’ll take the characters a while to become used to these packs if they’ve never carried them before, which will slow them down. If your characters are lucky enough to bring an extra horse along to carry the load, they’ll travel faster.
Then, armour. On foot, a rogue in leather armour will make better time than a knight in chainmail or plate. The seasoned knight will probably be able to cross greater distances than the knight recruit, who isn’t used to wearing full armour all the time. On horseback, this could even out a little, since the knight’s horse will likely be of a more muscular breed, but it will depend on the rogue’s horse.
The average person isn’t used to walking for extended periods of time, so will definitely develop blisters on their feet and have chafed skin for a while, which will impact the walking speed. This person will also suffer from muscle pains in their legs, butt and back for about a week before the pain will subside and they’ll be able to walk faster, across greater distances per day. The fitter the person, the less likely that they’ll have stiff muscles, but the blisters could still be a problem, depending on their clothing.
As an extension of the last point, the average person, unused to riding, will have chafed thighs and aches and pains for a while before they become riding fit. Your soft noble lady won’t be able to go as far on horseback as your trained knight, and she’ll need breaks more often. At the same time, your hardened viking, used to the ship’s deck, will likely have the same problem as the noble lady – no matter how fighting fit the viking is, they might still not be riding fit, which means chafed thighs.
And that’s about it from me for today. Until next time.