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Monday, July 3, 2017

Medieval Monday: Travel Distance in a Day | Allison D. Reid

Originally posted by Allison D. Reid:

medieval-horseBack in January, I put together a post on horses and their role in medieval society, and another on travel. Today’s post is a bit unusual, but it relates to both of those. It will be particularly interesting to those of you who are also writers, and are constantly trying to figure out distances. How far can my character travel in a day by horseback, or on foot. How about an army? How does terrain and weather affect travel distances? I was thinking along these lines over the weekend while working on my next book. I did a little poking around online, and found this awesome thread in a forum from five years ago. The best credit I can give to the writers/researchers is to include the forum page and their forum usernames. But whoever they are, I thank them for putting this together, as I am guessing it took a lot of time and wasn’t all that easy. Even if you aren’t a writer, this is pretty fascinating stuff.

Anyway, here is the information, taken from I hope you find it interesting and possibly useful as well.
How far can a horse travel in one day: by fifty
Strangely I was doing a little research on how far a horse can realistically travel in one day and after much google-fu it seems to depend very much on the type of horse, conditioning (i.e. is it used for long distance travel all the time, rather than been standing in a field for months, or only used for racing, etc..) and condition (i.e. is it well fed and watered), as well as how heavy a load and the terrain involved.
…anyway this is the list of distances (in miles per day) I’ve come up with from a variety of sources that I shall be using personally:
On Roads / trails
Level or rolling terrain: 40
Hilly terrain: 30
Mountainous terrain: 20
Off-Road (or unkempt trails etc)
Level/rolling grasslands: 30
Hilly grasslands: 25
Level/rolling forest/thick scrub: 20
Very hilly forest/thick scrub: 15
Un-blazed Mountain passes: 10
Marshland: 10
  • An average quality horse, of a breed suitable for riding, conditioned for overland travel and in good condition.
  • Roads and trails are in good condition and up kept by whatever local authority deals with them.
  • Weather is good to fair, and travelers are riding for around ten hours a day.
Halve these distances for a horse pulling a cart or for a very heavily laden horse (e.g. a fully armoured knight who insists on wearing his armour all day rather than having it stowed on a second baggage horse as would be normal!).
Add half again for specially trained horses and riders who are prepared to push hard (rangers, scouts and messangers, etc…) though do bear in mind that horses cannot be pushed like this for more than a few days at a time. You can add a bit more again to this distance if the breed of horse is exceptionally suitable for this sort of thing, but I’d say 2 to 2.5 times the base is the absolute maximum without some sort of magical assistance!
Poor weather such as heavy rain or wind should reduce distances by about one quarter, and very poor conditions like heavy snow or gale force winds, etc.. should reduce distances by at least half if not more.
Finding a place to ford a small river or swimming your horse across a larger river should knock a couple of miles off the day’s journey, other unique obstacles might have a similar reduction. (as a guide remember a horse walks at around 4 miles per hour (compared to a human average of around 2.5 – 3mph) so if the obstacle takes half an hour to deal with that’s a couple of miles lost.
Out of interest
The Tevis cup is a 100-mile-in-one-day competition which goes over some quite rugged and mountainous trail terrain in the western states of USA… but they do it on very special Arab horses, with little or no baggage and even the winning times are usually around 17 hours!

How far can a person walk in one day: by fifty
Ok, well to weigh in in similar style to my earlier post…
Again from my reading around on the matter overland travel by foot again depends on a number of human factors such as the condition and experience of the walker as well as environmental and terrain considerations.
Equipment and preparedness would also have a bearing… Modern hiking boots, ultra-light camping equipment and freeze dried trail rations as compared to hob-nailed roman sandals and hard tack, or even pre-historic fur wrapped feet and foraging as you go would all have a dramatic effect on distances covered!
But working on an earliest Roman through to a latest pre-19thC sort of period, and with some other rather broad assumptions again (such as average human walking speed of 3 mph) this is the list of distances (in miles per day) that I would tentatively suggest:
On Roads / trailsLevel or rolling terrain: 20
Hilly terrain: 14
Mountainous terrain: 9
Off-Road (or unkempt trails etc)Level/rolling grasslands: 15
Hilly grasslands: 12
Level/rolling forest/thick scrub: 8
Very hilly forest/thick scrub: 6
Un-blazed Mountain passes: 6
Marshland: 5
  • A young to middle aged man of average height and build, in good physical condition and used to walking for long distances, Equipped with good walking footwear and other hiking equipment appropriate to the era.
  • Roads and trails are in good condition and up kept by whatever local authority deals with them.
  • Weather is good to fair, and travellers are walking for around 7-8 hours a day.
Reduce these distances by around a quarter for a heavily laden man.
Add a quarter to half again for very experienced hikers.
As with mounted travel, exceptionally experienced and/or physically capable men might be able to do significantly more as a one off forced march, but twice the base is probably a reasonable maximum and I would expect them to take be walking for up to 20 hours and be utterly exhausted at the end of it!
Out of interest
Naismith’s rule is a ‘rule of thumb’ for planning a hiking expedition by calculating how long it will take to walk the route, including ascents. The basic rule is:
“Allow 1 hour for every 3 miles forward, plus 1 hour for every 2000 feet of ascent”.
I’ve read anything from 15 to 25 miles per day quoted in many places for a fully laden Roman Legionary, but 15 miles seems more common though with time to break camp and rebuild it after the days march factored in most sources reckon they were only marching for a round 5 hours a day anyway. (There are some sources that suggestion 50 mile forced marches were possible for the Legions but many dismiss this as an exaggeration)
And just to show how subjective and ‘as a guide only’ this sort of table is:
The world record for the marathon distance of just over 26 miles is a mere 2 hours and 8 minutes!
Ulysse Grant thought a forced march of 20 miles in a day was generally not a good idea if troops were expected to fight at the end of it
The British SAS selection ‘Test week’ concludes with ‘Endurance’, a 40 mile march across the Brecon Beacons (very hilly / mountainous terrain, famed for its bad weather) – completed in less than 20 hours whilst loaded in excess of fifty five pounds of equipment, plus water, food and rifle.

More Info: by rdanhenry
Over long distances, there are very few animals that the human (in proper condition) cannot outpace. Horses, however, are no slouches themselves at long distances. I would say you probably get about the same rates on foot or by horse, assuming conditions do not hinder the horse unduly (you’ll never get a horse up Everest and a man can fit through more closely grown trees). The great advantage of mounted travel is that somebody else is doing the work. You also generally use a beast of burden, which can handle more weight than a man.
Dean Karnazes “Ran 3,000 miles (4,800 km) across the United States from Disneyland to New York City in 75 days, running 40 to 50 miles per day, 2011” per Wikipedia. (
Armies will travel much slower, due to the amount of equipment required, including considerations of food for such large groups. Armies generally include wagons, which will always be slower than simply and horse and rider. Smaller bands of travelers who are less burdened will go faster. Maximum rates require that one be essentially unburdened; running over 100 miles in a day is simply not done with a backpack.
I’d say 20-40 miles per day on a good road and no hampering conditions is about what you can expect with a normal group either on foot or mounted. Conditions will often make travel slower. Don’t forget that weather will have an effect; travel can be slowed considerably if the skies are unfriendly. The need to obtain food is more of a problem with horses, if there is no ready grazing. How elaborate the encampment preparations are will also have an affect on travel rate, as will daylight hours, as both influence hours spent in travel. An army that fortifies its encampment will be more secure, but travel slower, than one that simply throws down its bedrolls, sets a watch, and sleeps.
And as fifty’s post points out, there is a difference between how far you will travel in a day if you simply need to get where you are going and how fast you go if you need to reserve enough strength to do battle or otherwise exert yourself when done with the journey. Peaceful pilgrims in a peaceful land will outpace an army or a group of “adventurers” exploring wilderness. There are many factors, which is why historical numbers vary so much.

I don’t recall where I read it, but I remember learning that the effective control radius for a Medieval castle is about 20 miles: the distance that a mounted force can travel in a single day and still be able to fight when they arrive.
Somewhere around here is a very nice analysis of settlement density in an English county, originally posted by Gidde I believe, that included some numbers of travel distance and time. If I recall correctly, the average distance between settlements was roughly half a day’s walk, such that a person could go to the next town, make some trades, and be back home before dark.

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