A Guide to World Building in Fantasy – Travel

There is a high chance your characters will go travelling, especially the adventurous types who love a good quest. I have discussed geography in world building in an earlier blog. This one will look at how best to traverse it.


Walking is the simplest and cheapest method of getting A to B. A stout walking stick is a practical aid and a weapon if your character gets into a spot of bother along the road. Opportune bandits and hungry predators are a constant anxiety to travellers, especially lone travellers. The other downside to walking is the terrain and weather can make the going difficult. However, footpaths may shave a few miles off the journey that a horse or a wagon may struggle to traverse.

Horse Ride or Horse and Cart*

*I use horses as an example, but you may have other fantastical creatures to use for transport.

Of course, if your character can grab a horse, then all the better. The problem is, getting a horse is like getting a car. You have the upfront costs to buy it, the running costs (feed, tack etc.), and somewhere to store it. Plus, different breeds are more suitable for specific tasks and age and gender will dictate the temperament. If your character can’t buy a horse outright, there is the option to hire (or steal) one.

Riding will (hopefully) make for a more comfortable journey, but is it faster? If your character has hired a mule to ride or hitched a horse to a cart, then probably not. Ah, but a horse can gallop, I hear you say. Remember when Théoden said, ‘It is a three-day gallop to Minas Tirith, and none of my riders can bear you as a burden?’ Sadly, galloping can’t work that way. They can only manage it for short bursts.

The terrain is going to be another issue. If your character is lucky, the ruler might even have the money and labour to build proper roads. Or they might be in a narrow lane, with their cart stuck for the third time in the mud or the wheel broken because of a crater sized pothole they never noticed in time. Seasons too will dictate travel in all aspects. Mountain passes may be snowed in during the winter. Roads flooded during the wetter months, or droughts drying up reliable water sources.

Another interesting thing (if you feel like pitting a character on foot against riders in a race) is horses and humans are fairly evenly matched. The Man versus Horse Marathon pits riders against runners and has had its fair share of horse and human winners.

What is the fastest way to travel across the land by horse?

Horse Relay is the fasted option. A rider would travel by horse for fast, short bursts and change horses frequently at staging posts. Riders travelled up to 250 km in a single day by this method. Unfortunately, this requires a lot of expense and organisation, but if your character is a prominent military player or a ruler, then no problem. If your character is a poor civilian, they will probably end up on the slow mule.

River Travel

We often see rivers in our modern reality as picturesque. Historically, they were utilised in the same way we use roads or railways. The Vikings, for example, were very good at using rivers to move further inland during their invasion of England. Rivers are not only good for moving people but also cargo. There may even be artificial canals they can use.

Maybe your character is lucky enough to have a boat of their own. Maybe they hitch a ride on a barge full of cargo. Or do they simply pay a ferryman to row them from one side of a river to the other? It might cost a bit more, but it will save their legs.

Rivers (and roads) attract settlements because of growing trade and travel. We can still find past reminders of old coach routes in British pub names like The London Inn. But what if your characters need to head out into the briny stuff?

By Sea

The sea comes with many perils, and if your characters rely on the wind and the ocean currents, restrictions may crop up when they can travel. Again, ports can develop into powerful settlements. A ship can sail with a belly load of local cargo to one location, sell it and buy something else and travel elsewhere or back home, where they can sell that and make a profit.

Travel by Fantastical Methods

Perhaps there are dragons or airships? Maybe magic negates a lot of the problems your characters suffer when travelling. The Wizard of Earthsea had a magic trick to fill the sails of his boat as he travelled about the place. Magic could work like a power source, and your fantasy world has a lot of mod-cons, like cars and aeroplanes. The easiest of all means to travel is teleportation. Or, remove the travel need entirely and go with telepathy.

Tools to help gauge travel times

Software like Apple, Bing and Google Maps give walking times when searching for directions. However, my favourite tool is ORBIS, which is Google Maps for Ancient Rome. Once you pick your starting point and destination, you can tweak it to a specific season and the fastest/shortest/cheapest options. You can also select the mode of transport by road (on foot, horse, military march etc.) and river and sea. Calculate the route, and it will show how many days it will take and also how much it will cost to feed your mule.

True, this is a map set in our ancient history. But it is a good starting point. If you have a general idea of the landmass size and the terrain your character will travel, this is an excellent tool to use as a starting point.

Making your own maps (who doesn’t love doing this?) is another useful way to get a sense of the geography and the vastness of the world you’re creating. An overlaying grid can represent a specific distance, or you can roughly work out travel times between locations depending on modes of transport.

How do your characters travel in their world? What other alternative methods of transport do they use? What tools do you use to work out travel times? 

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