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I have a character who lives on the outskirts of a large empire and he has to travel to the capital. By horseback, how far could my character realistically travel in a day? How far could he travel in two weeks on average? What if he had a dozen men traveling with him? On the outskirts of the empire it is mostly farmland, but the closer one gets to the capital the denser the population becomes and the more cities are encountered. How would that affect travel and travel time?

Also, how far would a person get on foot if they traveled for a day? What about two weeks?

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  • $\begingroup$ We probably need to know more about the infrastructure. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Jan 10 '17 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ There's already a question about traveling by horseback. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Jan 10 '17 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ I read this as "time travel" and was very confused. $\endgroup$ – Draconis Jan 10 '17 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ Just a note: for many people, "medieval" means something more like the Early Modern period (about 1650 to 1750). In the real Middle Ages there were essentially no paved roads whatsoever, except sometimes, in some times and in some rare places, the ancient Roman roads. (For example, in Italy the Roman roads were still usable.) Overland travel in the Middle Ages was slooow and expensive. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 10 '17 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ Just as a side note too--if the character and the people with him have never travelled that route, there WILL be delays because they won't know what to expect and how to supply correctly. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Jan 16 '17 at 0:56
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If by "medieval" the question really means the European Middle Ages, say around 1200, then long-distance overland travel is an adventure in itself. How far one could travel overland in two weeks during the Middle Ages depends on several factors: where is the travel taking place; in what season is the travel to take place; and how rich is the traveler.

A fact of life in the European Middle Ages is that there are no paved roads, except the network of Roman roads which where sometimes still usable, mostly in Italy, but, up until the 10th-12th century, also occasionally elsewhere. By and large, overland travel in the Middle Ages would be considered cross-country today. Another fact of life in the European Middle Ages is that overland travel is dangerous and expensive; one should avoid traveling alone, and if one carries any visible merchandise they should expect to pay tolls/customs to the various feudal robber barons en route.

The wise traveler would seek to use water-borne transport whenever possible, even if than means that they must take a detour. Travel by sea or by river boat was much faster and much less dangerous than overland travel.

  • Where does the travel take place? It's one thing to travel in England or France, another in Italy and a very different one in Russia. Some parts of some European states had reasonably many and reasonably good inns. Others not so much. If the travel takes place along a well-traveled route (say the route from London to York, or from Paris to Rome), then the traveler can expect to sleep in an inn at least two nights out of three; if the travel takes places along a not-so-well-traveled route, then they must be prepared to sleep rough.

  • The season is extremely important. In those times and places when and where there was real winter travel was very difficult in winter, say from December to March. (From about 1300 to about 1800 England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany and central and northern France had real winters with frost and lots of snow.) Spring and autumn rains would transform the unpaved roads into mud pits.

  • A very rich traveler, or a traveler in the employ of a rich lord could have spare horses, enabling them to cover about 50% longer distance per day than a ordinarily-rich traveler.

Overall, I would say that the expected travel distance per day, in summer, in the good parts of England or France or Germany would be:

  • Travel on foot, with luggage: 15 km / 9 miles. (75 km / 46 miles per week)

  • Travel on foot, minimum luggage: 20-22 km / 12.5-14 miles. (100-110 km, 65 miles per week)

  • Travel on horseback, no spare horse: 30-40 km, 19-25 miles. (150-200 km, 95-125 miles per week)

  • Travel on horseback, with a spare horse: 40-60 km, 25-37 miles. (200-300 km, 125-185 miles per week)

A well-seasoned traveler could keep this speed for 5 days per week, taking two days off to rest themselves and their horses.

Historically, in the late Middle Ages (end of the 16th century), Spanish infantry was expected to march from Italy to the Low Countries along the well-circulated and quite safe Spanish Road at an average speed of about 23 km/14 miles per day, taking 6 weeks to cover 1000 km (620 miles) from Milan to Flanders. The Wikipedia article lists the time taken by a number of expeditions; the slowest took 60 days (16 km / 10 miles per day on average), while the fastest took 34 days.

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  • $\begingroup$ Re "there are no paved roads", for horse travel you don't really want paved roads, as that's pretty hard on their hooves. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 11 '17 at 4:18
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf except there are horseshoes by this time and was big business for ferriers. By the time of the crusades bronze horseshoes were common. Even as far back as the Romans (who invented the horse boot) they were in use in one form or another. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Jan 11 '17 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf By the 1200-1300s they manufacture of massive amounts of iron horseshoes was in place. Roads can be hard on hooves, but they did have a way to mitigate that. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Jan 11 '17 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ I added some things in my answer, but yours is, by far the best +1 $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Jan 11 '17 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding "sleeping rough" - depending on how ingrained the concept of guest-right is in the area, you might be able to bum a hot meal and a spot under a roof off some peasants. $\endgroup$ – SPavel Jan 11 '17 at 17:00
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The biggest hurdle here is what Alex P pointed out--it all depends on WHERE and what TIME of year.

But I do have something to add to that: supplies. Real supplies and luggage means carts, and carts travel slower than men on horseback, an average of 15-10 miles per day, IF nothing goes wrong and there are no delays.

The numbers Alex P supplies are correct as the fastest times you could expect:

  • Travel on foot, with luggage: 15 km / 9 miles. (75 km / 46 miles per week)
    • Travel on foot, minimum luggage: 20-22 km / 12.5-14 miles. (100-110 km, 65 miles per week)
    • Travel on horseback, no spare horse: 30-40 km, 19-25 miles. (150-200 km, 95-125 miles per week)
    • Travel on horseback, with a spare horse: 40-60 km, 25-37 miles. (200-300 km, 125-185 miles per week)

Travel can be a lot slower though, especially if there aren't any inns for miles. Your riders will need provisions, and hunting is called poaching when it happens to be on a lord's land, and most of it was on a lord's land.

With a great rider or walker, these numbers can be pushed further--14 miles for a walker who is well supplied and experienced (like an infantry) or 30 miles for a rider. But pushing to the max can only happen for so long before there's a problem.

And, passage through lands largely depends on who you are and how much money you had, because on the better kept roads, there will be tolls and brigands.

Reasons for Delays

  • Lame horse
  • Broken axle
  • Ruined food supply
  • Stolen food & money
  • Festival Traffic: This one requires explaination. Festivals were big business in parts of Europe (in particular France) and could result in traffic jams stretching for miles.
  • Weather conditions
  • Lack of water
  • Illness of rider or horse

An experienced traveler will know what is worthwhile to carry and where to resupply for water, which is a large consideration for any journey.

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Depends on the infrastructure

The travel time would be highly dependent on the available infrastructure. Furthermore, the sea lanes and rivers would be very important - the differences can be enormous, and it's often faster to take a water route that's twice as long on the map as opposed to going over land; especially if you want to bring any goods or supplies and not just a person or message.

However, a useful tool that may help you is experimenting with the ORBIS model of travel throughout the Roman empire, which was rather well documented - pick circumstances that are similar to your story, and it will give reasonable estimates. Two weeks overland on horseback in good conditions on reasonable roads can cover ~800 km / 500 miles.

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I can give you half an answer (for on foot).

As a fairly strong hiker, you could happily cover tens of miles per day. If there are good roads, then you can go much faster than cross country - if he's fit and in a hurry, on road then 30 miles per day is perfectly attainable for someone used to walking. Carrying a load (especially if unused to it) and having to go off-road will slow you down considerably; 10 miles a day might be more realistic in the case of both.

Neither the men nor the presence of cities will make much difference (unless safety is a big consideration) - but whether we're looking at Roman-type roads or just some vague, theoretical footpaths will be the biggest variable.

I'm no horse expert, but I'd guess that increasing the above by 50% is probably quite reasonable.

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    $\begingroup$ Traveling on horseback can be anywhere between 50% and 200% (1.5× to 3×) faster per day than traveling on foot depending on whether (1) the traveler can change horses at post-stations every 12 to 15 miles or not, and (2) they are a good rider or not. And of course they can carry with them much more luggage if they have a horse. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 10 '17 at 23:05

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