As much as I really wanted to come up with a title possessed of a bit more impact and brevity, I’m afraid this was the best I could come up with, but what it overdelivers in word count it compensates for in relevancy. Thanks to such a long and descriptive title, I don’t have any need to spend the first paragraph of this post doing silly things like introducing the topic that I’m going to be talking about, or framing the narrative I’m about to present. Instead, I get to ramble at unnecessary length about the mechanics of the title. Now, back on topic.
I spent a lot of time in the Scouting program growing up, going all the way through Cub Scouts and on through Boy Scouts and up to Eagle Scout. It was through Scouting that I fell in love with camping, not to mention gained the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to camp successfully (and comfortably, lest you think that camping is for some reason by necessity or implication an uncomfortable experience). For many years during that part of my life, I was camping once a month, every month, regardless of season, weather, or other supposed impediments. Later in my Scouting career, I started to get into backpacking, which is like camping, but even better. Backpacking lets you really get away from all of the people and fully immerse yourself in the wilderness experience, which happens to be why I enjoy camping so much in the first place.
In backpacking, you pick a trail or plot a course or choose a destination, you pack up everything you think you might need in a pack on your back, and you walk, with at least one overnight stop, until you reach wherever you’re going or complete the trail or finish the loop or whatever the finishing criteria happen to be. I’m convinced that this can be a lot of fun, and a very satisfying experience, for anyone, but it has the dual purpose for fantasy authors of being an educational one, because what I just described sound, oh, like the plot of just about any fantasy-adventure style story out there, or indeed any fantasy story where the characters pack up and go on a long journey. Here is why I think authors of such stories ought to go backpacking more often.
For most weekend backpacking trips, I’m able to get by with a pack somewhere between twenty and thirty five pounds, roughly. Depending on the weather, who I’m going with, and what kind of experience I’m looking for, those numbers can vary slightly up or down. Oftentimes, that pack, even at the low end, is pretty bulky, mostly because even the fancy backpacking sleeping gear I have takes up a fair amount of volume, despite its light weight. Furthermore, even at thirty pounds, carrying thirty pounds around on your back can a) grow tiring after a few miles over rough terrain, and b) gets surprisingly awkward and impeding when confronted with activities like scrambling, very steep grades, or really anything much different from the motion of hiking.
For longer trips, the pack will tend to be heavier. I know that there are ultralight backpackers out there who can do things like weeklong trips on a thirty pound pack, but for a week or more my pack will usually end up weighing in between forty and sixty pounds (a combination of me usually being the pack mule for the group with which I happen to be hiking, and my personal tendency towards slight over-preparedness). Under those conditions, with a decent trail (though sometimes with challenging terrain or a lot of elevation gain), twelve to fourteen miles makes for a really long, tiring day. When I did a two week backpacking trip a few years ago, we did between six and fourteen miles a day, but we were very careful to not put two fourteen mile days back to back – we were too exhausted after the first one to do it again the next morning. These weren’t short days, either – I usually would wake the group around 0430, and we wouldn’t get to camp until twelve hours later (with a stop for lunch and some scenic overlooks, granted).
The point at which I’m driving is this: most depictions of people walking from place to place in fantasy books are terribly unrealistic. For a start, very rarely do they carry any gear with them, though they often are described as preparing gear, or having gear. But how are they carrying it? Where are the sore shoulders and sweaty backs and the sense of being about the float away when you finally take off your pack at the end of the day? Then they proceed to cover thirty miles in a day, and are promptly ready to get up and do it again the following day. They’ll also casually go off-trail, which is also much, much harder than it usually looks. There are a lot of places where I’ve hiked off-trail (in the Rocky Mountains, even in Alaska) where without a trail your pace is slowed terribly, to sometimes as little as a mile an hour, and that’s hard going.
Now, there are some caveats, which are worth noting to be fair to fantasy characters. First and foremost, they aren’t likely to carry quite as much gear with them. One of the reasons everyone wore cloaks in those time periods is that cloaks serve as multi-purpose jackets, bedding, and blankets. Because there was less understanding of waterborne illnesses, and the water was probably cleaner anyway, and they had non-pampered immune systems, they probably don’t worry quite so much about always having some kind of water treatment system. With animal life more abundant, and trapping and hunting being a regular part of many daily routines, they likely also carried less food. And of course, they were probably in better shape for such activity than we are. Even though I often run up to forty miles in a week (more, back when I was training for marathons), I’ll still be at least a little sore from a weekend backpacking trip. It’s just a different motion and uses different muscles, and if you’re not doing it very regularly, it’s going to be hard.
So yes, there are some reasons why fantasy characters will find it to be a little bit different of an experience to backpack across, say, Middle-Earth, than would a modern adventurer. Less gear, though swords and armor weigh a lot (there’s a reason I don’t bring my cast iron cookware backpacking, no matter how much I might want to look like Samwise Gamgee). However, they’d also have less comfortable carrying mechanisms and footwear – while horses help, over long distances they’ll only go about as fast as a human, and sometimes be more trouble than they’re worth. They’d likely carry less food and water, but they’d still need to carry some – it takes time to gather more water, and it takes quite a bit of time to trap/hunt/gather dinner. They’ll be in better shape, especially if they’re often doing these sorts of adventures, but if the character came from a city, or even a town or village, they’ll likely not be in all that much better condition than I was. Under these circumstances, thirty miles in a day is about the outer edge of what I think is reasonable. It’s about what the Roman Legionnaires were able to do under a forced march.
I remember reading in Little House on the Prairie how Pa would trek the thirty miles into town to go trade for goods, and he would usually do that over three days, and he would do it once or twice a year. Think about your own circumstances – if you had to walk everywhere, how much longer would it take you to do things? Assume a half hour per mile (between two and three miles an hour is a pretty good pace for backpacking – I’ll usually assume two if I’m carrying any significant weight, since the point of the experience isn’t to rush). That probably adds at least two hours to your weekly trip to the grocery store. It might make your work commute impossible to do in a day. My point? The convenience of cars and other mechanized transportation devices has distorted our sense of distance. In the era of most fantasy books, going from one town to another was probably a multi-day, somewhat strenuous trip.
It wouldn’t be good to go too far into the weeds (literally or figuratively) in adventure-fantasy. I mean, what’s the point of having heroic characters if they’re going to get chafed shoulders just like I do? But I do think that it’s a good idea to consider these realities when you’re writing these kinds of stories or scenes, and consider accounting for them. At the very least, it should help you make transit times a little more realistic. You might even be able to make your story feel more real and compelling by including some of the emotions, sensations, and experiences you have yourself out on the trail. And that is why fantasy authors really ought to go backpacking more often.