UPDATE: This post has been updated under the title, 'Breaking Camp,' and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essays, available for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.
I can remember a fishing trip with my father when I was a young teen into the mountains, a place called Abraham Lake. The lake is really only a wide, deep part of the Athabaska River, the same that flows north through Alberta to join the Peace River, that becomes the Slave river before it flows into Great Slave Lake, and ultimately across the Northwest Territories as the Mackenzie river. But none of that is important right now. I include it only because I’ve always been enamoured with that sort of thing, even when I was very young ... that the water flowing past me at this moment went this far and to this place. But I’ll restrain myself and continue.
Abraham Lake in the late month of May is some 60 miles in length and exists as a ribbon between a solid rock wall and a wide sand flat about a mile in width. The road ends at the edge of the sand flat, and if you don’t want to break the law (my father is a stickler about these things, and so am I) you carry what you need across the sand flat the mile or so to the lake. Except that you expressly do not carry it right up to the banks of the lake, for good reason.
The sand is rippled and hard, and the ridges can be felt even through the soles of hiking boots. The elevation is above 5,000 feet and in May the weather is still cold.
You carry the tent and the stove, your goods and your tools across the sand. To fish the lake, you need a flat bottom boat, and you need to haul this too. You stop and make camp at least two hundred yards from the Lake. This is because, in May, the snow is starting to melt in the mountains above the lake, and the water level of the lake is steadily rising. The sand flat is not quite level ... but it is level enough that the lake swells some 50 to 75 yards every 12 hours.
Thus, the distance you must walk to get water to wash at night is a lot less in the morning.
We were there for the weekend, and we moved our camp three times. The memory of doing that struck me first thing when I hit upon the point of this post – that being, the problems and tribulations of breaking camp, with some notes about how much time it’s likely to take.
Now, most of this is straight off the top of my head. And I haven’t done great amounts of research on every feature, so if I am grossly wrong and the gentle reader thinks so, pipe up. But it seems to me that a lot of things are going to take quite some time ... and that these things are almost always ignored.
For example, horses. I can remember that prior to horseriding lessons – not taken by me, but by a girl I knew – the time that an arriving student was expected to take was 20 minutes before the riding could begin. I can’t say all that this involved; the very least would have to include saddling the animal, arranging the harness, setting the bit in the animal’s mouth, an awareness for any irregularities that might indicate a parasitic infestation or a disease ... which then might mean the animal cannot be ridden at all, or that something should be done at once. When was the last time in your campaign a cleric expended a cure light wounds spell first thing in the morning because a horse's leg was sprained? Surely the likelihood of this goes up when there's more people in the party, and therefore more horses.
Plus the reference for 20 minutes assumes the horse is in the stable. What if it has been a windy night and one, or all of the horses have broken free, and must be tracked down? Ever happen in your campaign? A horse getting away was not all that uncommon. Add to it the wear and tear on the saddle, harness and bit - because they aren't hung neatly in a barn somewhere - and the repairs that need to be made that morning because it wasn't noticed the night before, we're talking potentially more time. It would only take one party member having to jury-rig the bridle one morning to slow up everyone.
Oh, and there's watering and feeding the horses. If the horse has been kept sheltered all night in an arroyo, it hasn't been out in the field eating, has it? Seems to me this is going to take time. Someone has to fetch water ... and no only for the horses, but for anyone in the party who wants to wash, or for cleaning the cooking utensils.
Yes, cooking. When camping, we used to cook on a Coleman stove; somewhat heavy, but light enough to pack and very effective. A party doesn't need to cook a breakfast meal, but cold food in the medieval period wasn't especially healthy. Bread was regularly filled with little nasties, as was the meat, and cooking was a way of keeping a party healthier.
It takes 10 minutes to bring a fire to a place where it will cook food, and during that time preparations can be made. If you will accept 15 minutes to cook the food (5 or 10 if you're not particular), and 10 minutes to eat the food, wash the dishes in the water someone has fetched, plus another 10 minutes to pack all the cooking equipment up and dig out the fire (depending on what environment you're in), someone in the party is going to spend at least a half an hour doing nothing but being the cook.
And it won't be one of the spellcasters ... at least, not if the day before was spent in battle. They'll be memorizing. I have a rule that for each spell used, the caster must - after resting - spend 15 minutes per spell level regaining the use of the spell. A 5th level spell can therefore take an hour and a quarter. I recognize that a lot of readers don't use spell memorization; I, however, am a traditional guy. It is a very effective way to limit the use of magic, particularly in the outdoors, and for playability reasons I'm not likely to toss it and give spellcasters even more influence over my campaign. They have enough, thank you. At any rate, while someone else is cooking and getting the water and making small repairs (not just the harnesses, but of anything that might be found to be damaged), the spellcasters will be praying and studying.
Which is okay. They can do that while the fighters are getting their armor on. I've seen estimates for putting on full plate that range from 4 to 40 minutes ... with the shorter time presuming that help is provided. I won't settle on a number - some show-off will jump in and tell me how I'm wrong, so what's the point? If people want to give a number, I'll sit back and appreciate it. In any event, we're talking about some time spent here, that isn't spent taking down the tent.
A square tent of the sort typically seen in most cheesy depictions of the middle ages is about 8 feet in diameter and would take at least 15-25 minutes to empty out, pull down, fold and wrap in a manner that it could be easily unwrapped the following night. it will make a fairly substantial package, since it would be made of canvas, and would possibly fit on someone's horse ... provided that character's other equipment was dispersed on someone else's horse. Who gets to carry the tent today, and forgo access to their more delicate equipment?
Very well. Along with ablutions, which are in any case optional (do your disease rates increase without washing, or are they flat numbers based on no one doing so in the medieval period?), there's always the occasional bit of respect/religious action given to the gods. A quick prayer, a carpet that needs unfolding for said prayer, the rolling up of said carpet again ... yes, perhaps its only 5 minutes, but in most religions its not only the clerics who are expected to pray. But most players are woeful athiests, like their DM, so there's usually no reprecussions for disrespect.
So, the water has returned and you water the animals and wash down anything that needs to be washed. All the equipment used for breakfast, sleeping, waking, changing clothes and so on is steadily repacked. The order inside backpacks is carefully managed, bedrolls are rolled, spellbooks are placed back in their metal boxes under lock and key, weapons are rehung into their places on the mounts and on the character's own bodies.
Getting dressed for me, real world, is a rush whirlwind that lasts 13 minutes every morning. The actual putting on clothes time, plus gathering things I'll need at the office, is 6 minutes. Somehow, I think it takes longer if you have to put on three belts, hang weapons all over your body, wrap your clothing around your special parts and tie everything (not just your shoes), prepare for heavy weather, fit your belt pouch carefully into its place and so on. It must take everyone at least 20 minutes just to get up to the status of formidable destroyer of monsters ... and of course, in D&D, no one ever forgets anything. The third dagger on the second belt is always in its place, always, without fail, and the DM never says, "Oh, you forgot to put it there today. Remember, you were using it yesterday to pick the pits out of the plums you were eating, and before you crashed you tossed it in the back pack by your bedroll so it would stay dry. It's still there, safe and sound, 20 feet from where you're standing right now."
This never happens.
Another consideration, while everyone else is gathering up all the bits and pieces from last night's debauchery (three plums each and chili peppers in the beans, hoo boy, what a party!), someone might want to get the party's bearings, make some notes about where north is and the angle between north and that distant hill top being used as a reference bench, consult a map or two. This stuff takes time. Not only that, while we pick up the camp, we don't dare start through this forest or along this mountain track without someone doing a little scouting ahead, to save time. So that's potentially an hour to start out, ascertain what the best path is from here, and head back - probably best done by the ranger who eschews armor (smart lad!), since he takes less time to get ready.
While he's out in about then, the last note I'll make goes back to the gathering of things together. There's always one more thing to do. It may be bottled things sitting in the nearby river so they'll keep cold, or berries and nuts to be gathered for the long day's travel, or herbs that are needed for a poltice or two on a bad scratch (saving the spells - and 15 minutes work memorizing - for worse things), ropes used to tie back inconvenient branches, strings used to wrap together bundles of branches to help form a wind-break, collapsible baskets or sacks filled with dirt to weigh down the tents on a windy night, etcetera.
The process of breaking down a camp - along with putting one up - is an annoying, tedious process, something the characters go through every day and which gets very little recognition as a plot point in the game. It is as though the world stops for two, two and a half hours, since that is never the moment the monster attacks, nothing ever gets left behind at the previous camp and nothing ever goes wrong.
Comforting to know that as soon as we get up in the morning, we live in a perfect world. At least, until we start moving again.