Worldbuilding

Land Travel Before Engines

The Lord of the Rings features realistic overland travel.

Many fantasy stories involve traveling from one city to another, often in worlds without engine technology. Before cars and trains, traveling over land was exhausting and dangerous. The logistics of a trip were completely different from today. Here’s what you should know before your characters wander through an enchanted forest or sneak into enemy territory.

Why Did People Travel Over Land?

This would be so much easier if we had a river. This would be so much easier if we had a river. The sad plants agree.

Because no water routes were available.

Without engines, land travel was slow and punishing. Water transportation was unquestionably superior. If your characters can get closer to their destination via rivers, lakes, or ocean,* they will. Many nations, such as the US and China, even built canal networks to aid transportation in densely populated areas.

However, canals were limited to mostly coastal low-lying areas. If the destination was inside a large continent and all of the rivers ran perpendicular to the direction of travel, people would be forced to travel over land. When exploring western America, Lewis and Clark hoped that they would be able to travel almost exclusively by rivers. But after they had traveled to the end of the Missouri River, they were unable to locate another water route heading west. They were forced to cross the Rockies on horseback instead. In cases where rivers are available in your world, you’ll need to provide a reason why your characters don’t use them. Perhaps traveling by river would leave the heroes too exposed in hostile areas.

Usable Roads Were Uncommon

Roman Road Glanum Roman Road by SiefkinDR used under CC BY-SA 3.0

In general, people only had access to good roads if they lived in a powerful nation. Reliable transportation required enormous coordination, and nations had a strong incentive to invest in it. If nothing else, they needed their messengers to reach their destinations in order to govern effectively. But before modern technology, only a nation at the top of its game could make roads work.

Building and maintaining roads was expensive. Creating roads was an enormous construction project requiring engineering, cartography, and plentiful labor. Then the roads would be ground down by travelers, weathered by erosion, cracked by rounds of freezing and thawing, blocked by fallen trees and landslides, lost under floods, broken by roots, you name it. On the other hand, if you want your world to be filled with broken, semi-passable roads, go to town. For instance, after the Roman Empire disintegrated, people used unmaintained Roman roads for centuries. But unfortunately for them, roads in bad repair are not very useful.

Wheels require a smooth, level path. If your society doesn’t have roads in good order, your characters can’t use wheels when they travel. There are a few exceptions, such as our American settlers moving west. Cross-country routes like the Oregon Trail became famous because they were the only routes across the continent that wheels could move on. That was possible because most of the route was over flat prairie. While the trails were not paved, they had previously been worn down by traders. So if your land is treeless and flat, go for wheels and well-known routes. Otherwise, no powerful empire = no carts, chariots, or wagons.

Roads Are Difficult to Keep Secure

Bandits

Security concerns influenced whether or not a government built and maintained roads. The Roman Empire needed roads not only for conquering new territory but also for keeping their growing empire under control. By contrast, in ancient Japan the government protected some regions by leaving rivers without bridges. As a result, many lower-class people couldn’t travel across the country.

Generally, a strong government meant more security. Preventing illegal tolls and keeping bandits away required not just patrols, but diplomacy or conquest. If the region was ruled by independent nations or the government didn’t have a firm leash on local authorities, travel could be closed off. Roads became useless when travelers were taxed by every one of a dozen fiefdoms along their journey, much less robbed, captured, or killed. The famous Silk Road, an overland trading route that branched all the way from eastern China to the Mediterranean Sea, often depended on the Chinese Empire to stay open. When the Chinese lost important parts of the route to neighbors, trade ceased. To protect merchants, China even extended the Great Wall to better cover the route.

To improve security, travelers going in the same direction would usually stick together. Large groups sent out advance and rear guards to watch for thieves. When only a few people had to manage many animals or a lot of baggage, bells might be strategically placed to act as alarms.

Meetings between travelers and locals were filled with uncertainty. Language barriers were common, and each locality might have its own laws that travelers didn’t know about. When entering foreign cities, travelers might need special permits to get through the city gates. When encountering locals in more isolated areas, there was a high risk that one party could take advantage of the other, causing fear and hostility. On the other hand, travelers might be grateful for assistance from locals, and locals might be excited by the presence of travelers from places they’d never been to.

Most Travelers Didn’t Stay at Inns

Looks homey. Looks homey.

The commodities available along a road varied greatly by the popularity of the route and the level of government investment. For a nation that invested in its roads, it was typical to have government way stations to serve couriers and other government officials. They might house messengers for the night or provide relay services by offering fresh horses or other messengers waiting by. In ancient Japan, fruit trees were even planted along some roads to offer travelers shade and refreshment.

Some governments would allow the nobility to use their way stations or mandate that people living near the road had to host nobles that came through. However, it was common for traveling nobility to stay at the homes of other nobles who lived nearby. This was done even when the hosts were off traveling themselves.

Routes that were popular with traders would have businesses such as inns to accommodate them. Often these businesses would pop up around government way stations, occasionally even growing into full-fledged cities. In ancient Rome, some of the private hostels that were near imperial stations had reputations as dangerous dens of villainy, while others were very comfortable. Along The Silk Road, some of the caravanserais that hosted camel caravans sheltered traders for free. They made their money selling food and supplies, charging fees for animal handling, and selling animal dung as fuel.

Lower class travelers usually couldn’t afford an inn when they reached populated areas. They stayed at temples, monasteries, hospitals, or hospices. Many early hospitals and hospices were multi-purpose institutions that housed travelers, the sick, and the poor. They were usually run by religious institutions.

Small towns and villages often didn’t have inns or hospitals. In these cases, travelers might be housed by locals if there wasn’t fear or suspicion between them. Otherwise, they’d sleep out in the open. I’ll describe that more later.

People Frequently Traveled on Foot

Before engines, all overland travel relied on animal power. Often those animals were humans. That’s because many lower-class travelers couldn’t afford to buy animals, pack animals could have trouble with rough terrain or narrow spaces, and in some places like early South America, there were no domesticated animals that could bear the weight of a person.

However, people traveling on foot are not slow. That is, not in comparison to other methods. It was uncommon for any overland travel to go much faster than human walking speed. That’s because when we’re fit, humans are the epitome of endurance; any animals that move faster than us have to rest sooner. The only way to send anything significantly faster over land was with relay systems. Theoretically, a relay of horses and riders would provide the quickest land travel, but the fastest we have on record was actually a relay of human runners. In the ancient Inca Empire, a network of human runners carried messages 150 miles a day, over mountains too. They used good roads and changed out at way stations that were a few miles apart.

The biggest challenge of traveling without animals was carrying baggage. This was especially true because most foot travelers weren’t professional athletes like the Incan couriers. You might be able to put a pack on someone’s front, back, and head, but you can’t expect them to walk all day like that. But if there were good roads or flat, treeless terrain, people could use wheels without animals. For instance, some of the impoverished Mormons moving west in colonial America pulled handcarts. They sound small, but they’re not: imagine a wheelbarrow with wheels five feet in diameter. The handcart usually carried 250 lbs but could go up to 500 lbs. About five people would share one handcart, though it was only pulled by one person at a time. Where wheels aren’t practical, travelers might also use a carrying pole or yoke.

Despite walking the entire way, many travelers went without shoes during mild weather. That’s right: your characters could travel hobbit style. That’s because shoes would wear out after a lot of walking or get muddy and stained. Strangely, those who went barefoot often brought shoes with them and put them on once they reached their destination. It probably wasn’t polite to visit their host with muddy feet.

Animals Required Thoughtful Management

Cowboys

When animals were available, affordable, and capable of managing the terrain, they were invariably used. Unless the traveler needed them regularly, animals were typically purchased before a journey and sold after.

If animals were used to carry both packs and people (because wheels weren’t practical), then travelers typically needed at least two animals per person. Otherwise, a single animal would carry baggage, and their human owner would walk with them. Some animals like oxen move slower than walking speed anyway.

Animals could be plagued by a variety of problems. Like people, animals that weren’t used to travel had to build up their strength and endurance. Handlers who weren’t careful could wear them out by pushing them too hard early in the journey. After traveling a while, hooves or pads might wear down, making an animal lame. The typical remedy for this was to wrap hide around the tender foot. Animals also have to eat and drink. Often water and feed could be found along the journey, but camel caravans would have to bring feed on trips over bare desert, and horses need higher quality feed than what is found in most places.

If you’re narrating travel that includes animals, I recommend choosing an animal and then researching travel with that animal specifically. We have an article that will help you choose your animal species here. The species makes a large difference to the travel experience. For instance, because camels were so difficult to load and get moving, camel caravans would start early in the morning and ride without stopping until dark. Travelers would often sleep while riding. In contrast, when westward settlers used oxen to pull their wagons, they were advised to stop and unhitch their animals for shorter rests at night and midday, because oxen had trouble with the afternoon heat.

Navigators Didn’t Always Use Maps

Would you trust this to get you where you're going? Would you trust this to get you where you’re going?

When travelers had sufficient money (as with traders) or were in a large group that pooled their resources (as with wagon trains), they usually hired a guide to help them navigate. Guides were typically locals who knew the area well and therefore navigated by landmarks. If travelers had to navigate without the help of a local, they might use a map, but before you give your character one, consider whether they would be widely available.

Maps were difficult to make. Before land travel was easy and common, people rarely knew much about the land outside where they lived. Cartography not only required vast knowledge of the terrain but also accurate ways to measure direction and distance. In your world, that will be easier or harder depending on the technology level. Even if accurate maps exist, they’ll be expensive unless printing presses are in widespread use.

Without maps, travelers used directions they’d been given. A navigator would reference local landmarks and determine direction by the Sun or the North Star at night. The wind direction was also helpful; when traveling through sand or fresh snow, wind will change the orientation of ripples or drifts. If an area didn’t have significant landmarks, a navigator had to judge where the travelers were by using only the direction of movement and a guess for how many miles were covered each day. This is known as dead reckoning, and it’s infamously inaccurate.

Travelers Needed to Bring the Right Tools

Seth_Kinman_Reclining

Rich or poor, travelers would require tools for long journeys. Unless travelers couldn’t afford better, their tools weren’t made of wood, which can rot and warp. Metal and leather are generally better choices for tools and accessories. Let’s go over some likely tools your characters might have.

  • Blades: At the very least, your character will need a knife. Not for fighting people, but for cutting things like food or animal hides. If the area is wooded, they’ll want an axe, hatchet, or small saw to cut firewood or fashion shelters.
  • Dishes: The minimum for long journeys is a pot or pan to cook with and a mug and spoon per person to eat with. They may also have plates and separate cups and bowls. They’ll probably have a kettle to heat water for hot drinks and to sanitize water they find. Since American settlers moving west brought flour and baked bread on the journey, they needed mixing bowls and baking pans.
  • Waterproof material: If it rains in the region, your characters will want a sheet of something waterproof. It could be waxed canvas (sometimes called a painted canvas or oiled canvas), India rubber, gutta-percha, or a modern tarp. Travelers used these to protect themselves from the rain and to collect it.
  • Containers for water: Travelers will want their own waterskin or gourd, and the group will probably need a bucket for gathering water when they make camp.
  • Matches: Maybe it’s just flint and steel, but they’ll want something to light fires. They could collect good sources of tinder like Birch bark as they travel and then use that to help build fires when conditions are poor.
  • Repair supplies: They might bring extra parts of their wagon or cart that could break, extra leather and an awl to fix saddles and straps, cloth and some sewing basics to repair clothes.
  • Medicines: Whatever remedies are common in your world will probably be brought on the trip.
  • Tent supplies: If your characters are erecting tents, not only will they want the cloth for the tent but also rope, a mallet, and picket pins. A tent is no good if it flies away as soon as the wind picks up. Ropes can also be used for hanging food out of reach of mischievous animals.

Travelers also had to bring clothes and animal gear. That varied dramatically based on the animals, culture, and weather. However, in cold and wet weather, cotton clothing was a very poor choice while wool or furs were stronger ones. For long journeys, travelers would need more than one set, because clothes wear out. Especially any clothing parts that are rubbing against a saddle.

Many Travelers Died of Thirst or Starvation

Not a drop to drink. Not a drop to drink. Dry River Bed in California by gin_e used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Getting food could go wrong in many ways. For one thing, inexperienced travelers didn’t always realize people need more food when walking all day than they do when they’re at home. Other travelers relied on foraging and had poor luck. Wild animals could steal food packs, or food could spoil too fast if the weather was warmer than expected.

Food varied by culture and by how often travelers could resupply. In general, dried foods were best for traveling because they are light.* Dried goods could be re-hydrated just by throwing them into a soup. Rice and pasta were ideal, but many other foods were practical if preserved properly. Meats were preserved by smoking, and butter by clarifying.* To preserve vegetables, American settlers would press them together into a cake, then bake them until they were dry. This would result in a hard rock half the size of a fist, that once hydrated provided a vegetable dish for four people.

Traders that had suppliers along the journey could buy fresh foods and eat them along the way. Camel caravans along the Silk Road might carry pasta or rice throughout the trip and then purchase dates and vegetables at waypoints. Travelers could help foods stay cool and fresh by putting them in a shady location such as under a wagon or by storing them in a heavy cloth bag that was kept wet.

Unless traveling through a desert, travelers generally counted on finding water during the journey. Sometimes there were wells they could use, but otherwise they had to locate a source. Some ways to find water included:

  • Digging. In particular, digging in the dry bed of a former stream or in areas with moist soil or marshy plants.
  • Finding a dry stream bed and then walking upstream to where it’s still running.
  • Heading downhill, especially after a rainfall.
  • Looking at animal tracks or bird flight for where all the animals are going. In particular, some animals like deer drink water every day, so they have to stay close to a water supply.
  • Collecting dew by dragging a large cloth over dewy grass, then wringing it out.
  • Collecting rainwater or ice. (Knowledgeable characters shouldn’t eat ice without melting it first.)
  • Finding and eating juicy fruits and vegetables.

Dew, rainwater, and vegetable water were safe to drink. Shore water, standing water, and running water that people were using upstream would contain disease-carrying microbes. Some of those diseases, like cholera, could kill people in a matter of hours.* Other water sources, such as remote running streams and the middle of large lakes, carried some risk but not as much. That means that more often than not, your characters will have to sanitize their water to stay safe.

Water from questionable sources should be boiled to remove pathogens, then filtered with a cloth, or if cloth isn’t available, moss or grass. For an even finer filter that will improve taste, water can be run through a container of crushed charcoal.

Leaving at the right time of year could be critical to having enough food and water. Most wild fruits and vegetables could only be gathered at specific times. In temperate areas, leaving too early in the spring could mean flooded rivers that were dangerous to cross. On the other hand, leaving too late could mean traveling at the height of summer, when some rivers were dry.

Travelers Often Camped Outside

Cozy? Cozy?

When moving through sparsely populated areas, travelers would need to set up camp at night. They had a number of important considerations when choosing a site:

  • Security: In many places it was likely that someone might try to steal goods and animals, possibly even causing the animals to stampede. Choosing a site next to natural barriers like a river or bluff would make the camp more defensible and reduce issues with stampeding. Thick brush was avoided because it could hide enemies.
  • Shelter: Getting out of the wind could be important, particularly during a storm. A campsite that is sheltered from the wind would keep belongings from blowing away or help protect people from sand, snow, or rain. However, if the weather is pleasant and the area has lakes or marshes, some wind is desirable to keep bugs away. In addition, the right amount of wind will feed camp fires without blowing them out. In an area of westerly winds, campsites on the north or south side of a lake or other flat area will provide a moderate amount of wind.
  • Necessities: A campsite needed a source of water, feed for any animals, and fuel for fire. If firewood was not available, travelers would burn dung from their animals.

Cultures with migratory lifestyles had transportable structures like yurts or teepees, but people who had stationary lifestyles wouldn’t always use tents when they traveled. If the weather was good, they would simply sleep outside, next to the fire if it was cold. In cases of bad weather, experienced travelers would construct improvised shelters.

How shelters were made depended on the resources of the area. This could include burrowing in the sand, piling rocks, packing snow, or cutting large branches from trees. When it was rainy, a large, waterproof cloth would come in very handy when making shelters. At its simplest, it could be set up at a slant, blocking the direction the wind was coming from. It could also be laid over a simple structure to form a makeshift tent. If it was windy, an improvised tent would have to be tied to trees or staked to the ground.

Travelers Faced Many Dangers

A lot could go wrong during travels. Something as simple as a delay could cause travelers to run out of food or become blocked by impassable terrain. Here are some problems your characters might encounter on their journey.

  • Terrain: Travelers would often have to ford rivers, and that could cost property or lives, especially if the river was flooded. Mountain passes might be dangerous if the weather wasn’t right, and people and animals could sink into areas of marsh or mud. Roads that characters rely on could be buried or broken, forcing them to unload their wagons and haul all their goods around the blocked area.
  • Other people: Travelers could be beset by bandits, locals who act like bandits, unexpected taxes and tolls, or people who find them suspicious and won’t let them go further. The area travelers were passing through could be involved in a large-scale conflict, causing them to get caught in the cross fire.
  • Animals: Dangerous animals might pick off travelers who wander off alone. More likely, animals could make off with food. Travelers might also disturb bee nests or startle venomous snakes. Pack animals could become scared, running off with important supplies or causing dangerous stampedes.
  • Sickness: Travelers could get sick by drinking water without sanitizing it. Even in cities, wine was often safer than water. By being exposed to a different set of people with their own local diseases, travelers were likely to become ill even when they were careful. Animals could also become sick, potentially leaving travelers without enough beasts to pull their carts.
  • Weather: Travelers might have to deal with blizzards, sandstorms, or even wildfires. In many places, drastically changing temperatures between night and day could cause materials to warp or crack and require rapid adaptation. Travelers might have to cover their faces to keep out dust or spread sand over the ice to keep from slipping.

As a result of all of these problems, people and animals often died while they were traveling. Slowing down or stopping for the unfortunate few could lead to more deaths. Animals that couldn’t keep up were usually left to die, and people who perished were disposed of quickly.


Traveling over land without engines sucked. That was too bad for travelers back in the day but lucky for us. Terrible times make great stories. When your hero reaches the royal city, her presence will mean more because she had to navigate dangerous mountain paths, endure blizzards, and fight off local tyrants to get there.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

 

Comments

  1. disperser

    So, like, now I itch to undertake a quest.

    No enemies to slaughter or friends to visit, no goods I need or covet . . . hmm . . . anyone know whence agents breed? I aim to find their breeding grounds and corral me a couple of freshly hatched ones before they disperse into the wild and get calloused, grizzled, and all particular-like.

    Let’s see . . . Got a knife, portable and effective firearm, reliable firestick, got me decent boots, know my way around finding water, can’t cook worth beans but . . . hey! beans. That should provide me with enough gas . . . er . . . fuel for my quest.

    But, no companions. Trouble, they often be, plus, you know, beans . . .

  2. disperser

    Seriously, very good article. I know; it does sound as if I’m surprised. Don’t read anything into it. I’m easily surprised.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks! Articles like these take a lot of time to put together because of all the research that goes into it. I’m glad you enjoyed the result.

      • disperser

        It’s saved for future reference. With this kind of content, I don’t have much of an argument for not supporting your effort. No argument, actually.

  3. Tyson Adams

    Great article!

    It always makes me chuckle to see the epic scenes in movies with a character travelling, especially through deserts. I always think: they’ll be dead before they make it halfway across that first sand dune.

    I just wanted to add that animals like horses don’t travel anywhere near as fast as we like to think. They only ever travelled at a similar rate to a human (but riding was easier than walking) and they needed water regularly. Speaking to older farmers about their work horses, they spent most of the day taking their horses to and from water, not actually working. Gives you an idea about travel.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yeah, from what I hear horses are super high maintenance. Interesting anecdote about the farmers. The horses must have been really important to make spending so much time on water worth it.

      • Tyson Adams

        Yeah, they were important. There was no other way before mechanisation to haul the equipment or till the land. Farmers jumped at tractors for a reason.

        At work we have a timeline of the horse through to modern tractor for crop planting. Amazing the changes that have occurred in such a small chunk of human history.

  4. Adam J. Thaxton

    This is marvelous, and some of this stuff I’ve already known – it’s part of the reason I am so annoyed at so many RPGs trivializing survival on the road down into one or two hand-waved investments. Yes, it can make games get sloggy and gross, but if you’re running D&D like literally half the game should be trying to get along in the wilderness and solve travel problems.

  5. Alyssa Hollingsworth

    This is an awesome resource! Sometimes it does get boring to read the same old Journey Through Yon Fantasy Forest. I’d love to see more stories using some of those tips–even something like a fantasy Huckleberry Finn would be interesting.

    Alyssa Hollingsworth

  6. Efrem

    I enjoyed your article a lot! Gave me some good tips and reminders for things to prod my players about in the home-brew fantasy RPG I run.

    If you’re ever looking for an excellent source of inspiration and 100% vetted research on ancient technologies (including the use of horses, saddles, and other beasts of burden), pick up a copy of Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel by Frances & Joseph Gies:
    http://www.amazon.com/Cathedral-Forge-Waterwheel-Technology-Invention/dp/0060925817/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1455682296&sr=8-1&keywords=Cathedral%2C+Forge%2C+Waterwheel

    You absolutely cannot go wrong with that as a source of inspiration for gaming.

    Cheers!

  7. Sara L.

    Wow. This article couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m in the middle of revising a quest story (fantasy genre, of course); and while some of the points you mentioned are things I’ve considered, others never had until now. I’ll definitely keep this handy for the next draft – it’ll help me ensure the travel aspects of the story are accurate and realistic.

  8. Will Hahn

    Brilliant, comprehensive article. Is it something in the air, I wonder- I blogged just last week about the comparison between travel here (Alleged Real World) and in my fantasy setting. You’ve got the facts down pat, whereas I touched on the somewhat dehumanizing effect of modern travel and the reason fantasy authors often have to tell you about the journey, as opposed to just the destination. Thanks for the research!

    http://www.williamlhahn.com/posts/state-of-the-lands-getting-there/

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