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Winter Travel

In my wip, the setting is a mountainous but pretty well populated land. There are several towns and one sizable hub city all within easy (for the time and place) traveling distance of each other. The main roads connecting them are well traveled, fairly well maintained, and have plenty of roadside inns at decent intervals.

Modern transportation doesn't exist. No motor vehicles. Travel over land is by foot or beast. They have the wheel, so horse drawn carriages, donkey carts, and the like could be used.

Because this is a mountainous region, with some drastic changes in elevation between some of these towns and cities, winter conditions vary greatly from place to place. The highest elevations get a serious snowpack - if ski resorts existed in this world, they could keep them open probably five months of the year, on average - while the lowest only see occasional dustings that don't stick for more than a day or two.

Sledges could be used for winter transportation at the high elevations, but in the lowlands, there wouldn't be enough snow for them. Wheeled transport would be used instead, I would think, throughout the year. But wheels would be useless up in the snow.

So here's my question: if people are traveling from the lowlands, where there's little or no snow, up to where there's lots of snow, how would they do it? There's a pressing reason for this trip; it can't just be delayed until the snow is gone. A sledge would be very useful, perhaps completely indispensible, when they get into the snowpack, but it couldn't be used before then.

Would they change conveyances along the way? What might the setup be?
 
Wouldn't social and cultural developments already take care of this? Assuming that towns and villages already communicate, already engage in trade between them, etc., workarounds would already exist. I would guess some capitalistic souls would have outposts, halfway points, whatever, that kept sledges handy for those going north and horses, carts, and carriages for those going south. Perhaps you could have inns providing this service, if not just simple providers who set up shop between the regions. To protect their investments (i.e. to recover sledges, horses, carts, etc.) perhaps the providers have individuals working as guides, drivers, and so forth, who are sent north or south with anyone purchasing these services.

Edit: Of course, anyone with cause to travel between regions regularly might have their own personal outposts, homesteads, friends and business partners stationed between, or whatever, and have stashes of equipment ready to be used.
 
Wouldn't social and cultural developments already take care of this? Assuming that towns and villages already communicate, already engage in trade between them, etc., workarounds would already exist. I would guess some capitalistic souls would have outposts, halfway points, whatever, that kept sledges handy for those going north and horses, carts, and carriages for those going south. Perhaps you could have inns providing this service, if not just simple providers who set up shop between the regions. To protect their investments (i.e. to recover sledges, horses, carts, etc.) perhaps the providers have individuals working as guides, drivers, and so forth, who are sent north or south with anyone purchasing these services.
Yes, some kind of way station where you could switch over sounds about right. I'd thought there might be something like that.

Still exploring, too. If anyone has another idea, feel free to share!

A possible pitfall of the way station idea: where exactly the snow line is would change over the course of the winter. A major snowstorm could bring it several miles lower than usual, or some unseasonably warm weather could push it higher. What might they use in the in between space? How would it be ensured that the way station is in the right place?

And what might they use in late winter/early spring, when the snow is getting too slushy for a sledge but conditions aren't hospitable to wheels yet?
 

Insolent Lad

Maester
Were I carrying goods into steep mountainous territory, with or without snow, I would probably be using a train of pack animals rather than anything with either wheels or skids. Unless there were really good roads and those might be cleared of heavy snow by whoever maintained them.
 
Were I carrying goods into steep mountainous territory, with or without snow, I would probably be using a train of pack animals rather than anything with either wheels or skids. Unless there were really good roads and those might be cleared of heavy snow by whoever maintained them.
That brings up another point: would it be possible to clear the roads of snow, given the level of technology? How might they do it?

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole with that. Seems the first snowplows came along in the nineteenth century - so yes, plowing without motor vehicles is possible - but they were designed, and used, for clearing city streets. A mountain road would be rather different.

An interesting tidbit here:
before 1862, people didn’t use snow plows, they used snow rollers. The way people travelled through snow was by attaching skis to their horse-drawn carts and carriages. Snow rollers were huge, horse-drawn wheels that would flatten out the snow, making it easier for the carts with skis to move through the winter roads.

Photo of a snow roller here: Scenes From the History of Snow Removal

I'm not sure that contraption makes much sense for a mountain road, though. Or would it?

Pack animals, though: if the snow is heavy, the animals might get stuck in it.
 
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Edit: Of course, anyone with cause to travel between regions regularly might have their own personal outposts, homesteads, friends and business partners stationed between, or whatever, and have stashes of equipment ready to be used.
Regularly. My story includes characters who do not make that trip regularly, at least not in the winter, but now suddenly they have a need to do it. If a lot of travel between those places is happening, public infrastructure to facilitate it makes sense. Winter probably wouldn't be the main travel season, but if the need arises, people would do it, and there would always be someone somewhere who needs to.
 

Mad Swede

Inkling
In my wip, the setting is a mountainous but pretty well populated land. There are several towns and one sizable hub city all within easy (for the time and place) traveling distance of each other. The main roads connecting them are well traveled, fairly well maintained, and have plenty of roadside inns at decent intervals.

Modern transportation doesn't exist. No motor vehicles. Travel over land is by foot or beast. They have the wheel, so horse drawn carriages, donkey carts, and the like could be used.

Because this is a mountainous region, with some drastic changes in elevation between some of these towns and cities, winter conditions vary greatly from place to place. The highest elevations get a serious snowpack - if ski resorts existed in this world, they could keep them open probably five months of the year, on average - while the lowest only see occasional dustings that don't stick for more than a day or two.

Sledges could be used for winter transportation at the high elevations, but in the lowlands, there wouldn't be enough snow for them. Wheeled transport would be used instead, I would think, throughout the year. But wheels would be useless up in the snow.

So here's my question: if people are traveling from the lowlands, where there's little or no snow, up to where there's lots of snow, how would they do it? There's a pressing reason for this trip; it can't just be delayed until the snow is gone. A sledge would be very useful, perhaps completely indispensible, when they get into the snowpack, but it couldn't be used before then.

Would they change conveyances along the way? What might the setup be?
OK, writing this with my grandparents tales in mind and with my own experiences of travel in deep snow.

If you're travelling as a group or alone with just your personal possessions then you'd probably ride. Generally you'll use your own horses, you don't usually leave them anywhere if you can avoid it because good horses cost money. If the snow is very deep you may have to use snow shoes or skis (skis are faster), simply because you can't use horses. Going on foot (or skis or snow shoes) limits how much you can carry, and you'd have to make a choice about what is essential for your journey and what you can leave behind.

If there is some form of mail coach or stage coach service then you might use this, but it's likely to be expensive. Such a mail service might use pack horses in deep snow, but it might also use a sleigh. You'd probably have to change horses more often if the snow is deep, and you won't travel as fast.
At least here in Sweden inns (värdshus or gästgiverier) were spaced based on normal winter conditions, and in poor weather could very quickly become crowded.

The weather will be an issue in winter. In a severe snow storm you will be stuck in one place for several days - and if you get caught in the open by a storm then your chances of survival depend very much on how quickly you can build or dig a shelter and then find wood enough to burn to keep it warm. Freezing to death is a real risk. The other big risk may be dehydration. Dry cold weather is every bit as dangerous as heat in a desert and for the same reasons - you must drink plenty of water.

As a general rule here in Sweden, people didn't travel long distances in winter unless it was absolutely essential. Most would try to get such journeys out of the way before the first snow or delay them until spring.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
These posts give you an idea of the range of what might happen. Mountain travel in winter is chancy, so I'd be looking mainly at what the story needs. If we just need to get over the mountains to the next plot point, then our Intrepid Travelers meet some local guides or hostler who will get them where they need to be. Doesn't even have to cost--it could be an old debt or favor. Whatever the story needs.

If you want something to happen along the way, then you have a whole shopping list of possibilities. Their guide is killed and they get lost. A snowstorm shuts them in. A hostile noble holds a pass. A critical bridge has washed away. Or road has collapsed, forcing them back and around. Giants attack them <g>.

You might put some thought to how they get to the mountains. Are they moving hearth and home, so they have a wagon or two loaded with possessions? Have they fled in the night with just the clothes on their backs? Do they arrive with their own horses or mules? Those could play into whatever arrangement they come to with the locals. However you play it, though, there will be a point where to go on is going to be beyond the ability of the Intrepids. That's when the locals come into play. There, too, do your characters arrive at a tiny village or a mountain town? Or have they pressed on despite all warnings only to find themselves stranded in a traveler's inn with no way forward? (except something magical; or underground)

Lots of possibilities. Whatever the story needs.
 
These posts give you an idea of the range of what might happen. Mountain travel in winter is chancy, so I'd be looking mainly at what the story needs.
What the story needs is for the characters to get where they're going. Actually, what I'm looking to do right now is make the fact that they've arrived where they were going, and that they don't seem to think anything of making that trip in the wintertime, make sense.

The hub city is on a high plateau. Some of the surrounding towns in the network of roads are lower, some are higher, some are at roughly the same elevation. When the snow arrives and how much of it there is depends mostly on the elevation - the higher you are, the sooner in the year the snow falls, the longer it lasts, and the deeper it gets - although there are other factors too.

People go in and out of the city for business reasons. And personal reasons. Because the city is an administrative hub, and the seat of several important institutions - it has the only university in the region, it's the seat of the provincial government, several regional guilds are headquartered there (in this area, the trade guilds are regional rather than town specific), it has the region's only temples to certain deities that draw pilgrimage (the villages also have temples, but theirs are smaller and don't cover everything) - there are many reasons people could have to go to and from there, throughout the year. Non-time sensitive trips don't have to be made in the winter, but plenty of time sensitive reasons for travel come up.

In the chapter I'm going over right now, a family, who lives in one of the lower lying villages, has come to the city. It's almost the winter solstice. It's snowy - one of them remarks on how much snow there is here, when it hasn't snowed at all yet at home. They're doing several things on this trip: visiting a relative who lives in the city, arranging an apprenticeship for one of the kids (the person they need to talk to is there, and least busy at this time of year), and, while they're at it, participating in a temple rite that's only held at the winter solstice and only at a particular temple in the city.

But that only makes sense if wintertime travel is easy enough that they're not going to be too worried about getting there intact, or getting back home after. That doesn't mean it has to be easy by our standards, just doable and not too intense, especially considering that there are children along (the youngest is about 7).

Their travel doesn't have to be described in any detail, but I want to have it in the back of my mind how they would have done it. And it could be relevant later: there may be other wintertime trips later, for one character or another, and those could go smoothly or run into hitches, depending on what the plot demands.
 
If there is some form of mail coach or stage coach service then you might use this, but it's likely to be expensive. Such a mail service might use pack horses in deep snow, but it might also use a sleigh. You'd probably have to change horses more often if the snow is deep, and you won't travel as fast.
Yes, I'd been thinking along the lines of stagecoach service. I suppose the cost might be comparable to buying a plane ticket today? That is, not something the average person can afford every day, but within most people's budgets for occasional trips.

The weather will be an issue in winter. In a severe snow storm you will be stuck in one place for several days - and if you get caught in the open by a storm then your chances of survival depend very much on how quickly you can build or dig a shelter and then find wood enough to burn to keep it warm. Freezing to death is a real risk. The other big risk may be dehydration. Dry cold weather is every bit as dangerous as heat in a desert and for the same reasons - you must drink plenty of water.
To be fair, it's an issue with modern winter travel too. Plenty of Christmastime travelers get stranded on the road in snowstorms. Or stuck in the airport because of weather interfering with the flights. And plenty of people still do it.

I have decided, for that reason, that while the winter solstice is a holiday in this world, with some similarity to Christmas (which is actually a winter solstice holiday, originally) it's not the big one of the year that everyone goes home for if they possibly can. If they have a holiday like that, they'd have it at a different time of year, when travel is easier.
 
I think distance, how frequent the roads are travelled and difficulty of the roads are important factors.

Snow will slow you down, and you don't want to camp outside in winter, so the distance you're willing to travel will be shorter, at least between inns or towns. As Mad Swede mentions, if travel is reasonably frequent, then local infrastructure will have adapted and you'll find inns spaced apart to be reachable in normal winter conditions.

Frequency of travel plays a role because if you're the only one then you'll be making your way through meter deep, soft snow, which is hard going even with skies, snow shoes or a horse. If a road is well travelled then the snow will be compacted and reasonably easy to travel on. In the North of Finland they don't get rid of all the snow on the roads outside cities. They mainly compact it and get rid of all the loose snow. This makes for a hard enough surface to drive a car on at high speeds (assuming special tires).

Difficulty of the roads I'm mainly thinking steepness. Finland is flat, so driving on snow is fairly easy. If you get steep roads then friction becomes an ever bigger factor, which makes driving more difficult. There's passes in the alps which even today close in winter conditions simply because of their steepness.

As for how, animal, skies and snowshoes have been mentioned. Though I think the last two are not how you make a family trip (with a 7 year old) unless you have no other choice. I wouldn't underestimate a horse drawn carriage. You could either use wider, spiked wheels which have some traction on compacted snow, similar to winter tires for cars today. Or you could have it mounted on skies to turn it into a sledge. Or have a mechanism in place which allows you to switch between the two. Use wheels when there's not enough slow, lower the skies when the snow becomes to plentiful to use the wheels. That's what I'd go with.
 
I wouldn't underestimate a horse drawn carriage. You could either use wider, spiked wheels which have some traction on compacted snow, similar to winter tires for cars today. Or you could have it mounted on skies to turn it into a sledge. Or have a mechanism in place which allows you to switch between the two. Use wheels when there's not enough slow, lower the skies when the snow becomes to plentiful to use the wheels. That's what I'd go with.
I like that idea!

As long as the technology isn't motorized and could conceivably be produced by small craftsmen (no heavy industry and no factory systems exist in this world), it's fine to include. Obviously, carriages and wheels and skis all qualify.

Switching wheels to skis would be essentially the same as stopping to put chains on the tires. Could be done on the side of the road, there wouldn't necessarily have to be an inn right there (though it would be convenient if there is... a warm up and rest and maybe meal stop for the passengers).
 

Mad Swede

Inkling
I like that idea!

As long as the technology isn't motorized and could conceivably be produced by small craftsmen (no heavy industry and no factory systems exist in this world), it's fine to include. Obviously, carriages and wheels and skis all qualify.

Switching wheels to skis would be essentially the same as stopping to put chains on the tires. Could be done on the side of the road, there wouldn't necessarily have to be an inn right there (though it would be convenient if there is... a warm up and rest and maybe meal stop for the passengers).
Um, maybe. We have that sort of arrangement on some of the trailers we use in the army over here, and it requires a fairly large cylinder of compressed air or a coupled hydraulic line from the towing vehicle (usually some form of tracked vehicle) to make it work. In your setting you'd probably have to unload the coach first, otherwise it will be too heavy for the people to lift the coach off its wheels and onto its skis. Remember that when you lower the skis you'll want to lock them in position and that means first lifting the coach high enough so you can lower and lock the skis and then lowering the coach again. And the skis will need to be lower than the bottom of the wheels, so that you can either take the wheels off or keep them out of the snow. That will need quite a lift, especially if the coach has any form of wheel springs. The mechanism will also add quite a lot to the empty weight of the coach, so you might need more horses to pull it - and that costs money.

You'd want to avoid spiked wheels. They will be make the coach much harder to pull on the road when there's no snow, and once on the snow they won't work if the snow is soft (like it will be when the snow is fresh). Skis or a sleigh are a better bet. So perhaps the people running the stage coach have certain inns where you can swap from a coach to a sleigh in the winter?
 

Mad Swede

Inkling
What the story needs is for the characters to get where they're going. Actually, what I'm looking to do right now is make the fact that they've arrived where they were going, and that they don't seem to think anything of making that trip in the wintertime, make sense.

The hub city is on a high plateau. Some of the surrounding towns in the network of roads are lower, some are higher, some are at roughly the same elevation. When the snow arrives and how much of it there is depends mostly on the elevation - the higher you are, the sooner in the year the snow falls, the longer it lasts, and the deeper it gets - although there are other factors too.

People go in and out of the city for business reasons. And personal reasons. Because the city is an administrative hub, and the seat of several important institutions - it has the only university in the region, it's the seat of the provincial government, several regional guilds are headquartered there (in this area, the trade guilds are regional rather than town specific), it has the region's only temples to certain deities that draw pilgrimage (the villages also have temples, but theirs are smaller and don't cover everything) - there are many reasons people could have to go to and from there, throughout the year. Non-time sensitive trips don't have to be made in the winter, but plenty of time sensitive reasons for travel come up.

In the chapter I'm going over right now, a family, who lives in one of the lower lying villages, has come to the city. It's almost the winter solstice. It's snowy - one of them remarks on how much snow there is here, when it hasn't snowed at all yet at home. They're doing several things on this trip: visiting a relative who lives in the city, arranging an apprenticeship for one of the kids (the person they need to talk to is there, and least busy at this time of year), and, while they're at it, participating in a temple rite that's only held at the winter solstice and only at a particular temple in the city.

But that only makes sense if wintertime travel is easy enough that they're not going to be too worried about getting there intact, or getting back home after. That doesn't mean it has to be easy by our standards, just doable and not too intense, especially considering that there are children along (the youngest is about 7).

Their travel doesn't have to be described in any detail, but I want to have it in the back of my mind how they would have done it. And it could be relevant later: there may be other wintertime trips later, for one character or another, and those could go smoothly or run into hitches, depending on what the plot demands.
A small but perthaps awkward question. If that city is so high up that it has snow for five or six months, how do they keep it supplied with food? Where does the food come from? Storage may be a real issue, never mind the logistics of getting enoigh food grown, harvested and transported to the city in the space of six or seven months.
 
A small but perthaps awkward question. If that city is so high up that it has snow for five or six months, how do they keep it supplied with food? Where does the food come from? Storage may be a real issue, never mind the logistics of getting enoigh food grown, harvested and transported to the city in the space of six or seven months.
How do you think cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg have survived? They have about that long a snow season. And unlike in my wip, they're surrounded by land where the climate is no different. They don't have regions with longer growing seasons within travel distance.

But I didn't say the city has snow for five or six months. The highest elevations do, but the city is not the highest. Its snow season would be somewhat shorter. Longer and more plentiful than the lower elevations, but not snowed in half the year.
 
Um, maybe. We have that sort of arrangement on some of the trailers we use in the army over here, and it requires a fairly large cylinder of compressed air or a coupled hydraulic line from the towing vehicle (usually some form of tracked vehicle) to make it work. In your setting you'd probably have to unload the coach first, otherwise it will be too heavy for the people to lift the coach off its wheels and onto its skis. Remember that when you lower the skis you'll want to lock them in position and that means first lifting the coach high enough so you can lower and lock the skis and then lowering the coach again.
Sounds similar to jacking a car up to change tires. Or to install tire chains.
And the skis will need to be lower than the bottom of the wheels, so that you can either take the wheels off or keep them out of the snow. That will need quite a lift, especially if the coach has any form of wheel springs.
I wonder if the wheels could be tucked up, like an airplane's wheels are when it's in the air. On airplanes, it's motorized, of course, but surely a manual system for that could be rigged as well? A theory to play with.

The mechanism will also add quite a lot to the empty weight of the coach, so you might need more horses to pull it - and that costs money.
Or a stronger breed of horse. In fantasy, such could exist. Or maybe they use oxen instead. That would make for slower travel, but oxen can pull heavier loads and pull them for longer.
 
My suggestion wasn't just a fancy idea. They actually do exist in the real world, without too much technology attached. See for instance the following tourist trap from Seefeld in Austria:
pferdeschlitten-oberhofalm-3.jpg

Note the use of both wheels (tires here since they're more comfortable) and skies.

Yes, you probably want to go with a lighter coach / carriage. But it can work and it doesn't even have to be a lot of labor. To lower the skies, make use of the wheels dropping into the snow more than the skies.So drive on snow until your wheels sink in ever so slightly. Lower the skies until they press down and share the load with the wheels, then raise the wheels. You only need minimal movement in that case, which shouldn't be too hard. Though you probably want everyone to get out when you do it.
 
Ah... so it is like stopping to put the chains on, isn't it? Or even easier.

And it looks like the same vehicle could be used year round. The skis just wouldn't be deployed when there's no snow. Another advantage.
 

Mad Swede

Inkling
How do you think cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg have survived? They have about that long a snow season. And unlike in my wip, they're surrounded by land where the climate is no different. They don't have regions with longer growing seasons within travel distance.

But I didn't say the city has snow for five or six months. The highest elevations do, but the city is not the highest. Its snow season would be somewhat shorter. Longer and more plentiful than the lower elevations, but not snowed in half the year.
And you think Stockholm or Umeå don't have a climate like that? ;)

The point I'm trying to make is that a hard winter climate limits how big a city can be in the sort of setting you're talking about. These days it's fairly easy to keep cities supplied in winter, especially when trucks and trains can carry tens or even thousands of tons of grain. But back in the days of horse drawn carts it didn't work, because you couldn't physically bring that much food to the city even if you could produce it.
 
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