“Reindeer are fascinating creatures. Although I have to say that – they’re our lifeblood!” our Sami guide, Per, told us, as we sat around long tables in a fire-heated hut, having devoured a vegetable soup or, for meat eaters, reindeer stew.
Virtually any child from the age of two in Europe, the USA and many other countries all over the world knows exactly what a reindeer is. Santa’s helpers, of course!
While folklore has caused reindeer to be attached to Santa Claus, they’re actually owned by Scandinavia’s indigenous Sami population and have been an important part of Sami life for millenniums.
And there are a variety of experiences and tours that you can take from Tromsø to see these beautiful creatures; I experienced a couple on my recent trip to Norway, and I’ll go into them – and the significance of these creatures – in this blog post!
About reindeer in Tromsø and northern Norway
To understand reindeer’s significance in Norway, you first need to understand a little about the Sami people.
Sami are an indigenous group from northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and a small part of Russia.
They’ve populated this part of the world for thousands of years; and they were tragically oppressed throughout history, which meant that their settlements moved further north.
Today, Sami culture is celebrated – although of course there is always more to learn – and Sami people live around the country, although their culture is most celebrated in the north.
Reindeer are also native to this part of the world, and Sami people traditionally relied on these animals for food, clothing, and transportation. Over thousands of years, the animals have become domesticated and nowadays, only Sami people can own reindeer.
Reindeer herding has been a way of life for centuries and is still practiced today. This means that reindeer only stay in Tromsø for the winter period; in the summer, they move inland where it is cooler.
This makes visiting reindeer one of the best things to do in Tromsø in the winter.
Can you see the reindeer in Tromsø?
You probably won’t see any reindeer walking around Tromsø city centre (unless you’re in town for an organised activity like the reindeer racing), but you can certainly book tours to see them in the nearby vicinity.
However, you can only partake in these activities in the winter months; in the summertime, most reindeer are moved further inland.
So make sure to tick this activity off if you’re visiting Norway in the winter months!
How to see reindeer in Tromsø
Reindeer are an integral part of Sami culture, and being in the Arctic, Tromsø boasts a plethora of opportunities to see them up close.
Visit Sami camps to see reindeer, go on guided tours with herders, or enjoy a reindeer sledding adventure in the wilderness.
Winter is the best time to see reindeer in Tromsø, and you can sometimes even see northern lights dancing over the landscape.
Go to a Sami camp
On our last evening in Tromsø, we partook in a tour that departed from the city to a nearby Sami camp.
We boarded a bus in the city and drove through the Arctic wilderness, finally stopping outside a traditional Lavvu.
“I’ll be your guide tonight”, our guide, Per, stepped onto the bus and welcomed us. “We’ll see the reindeer first!”.
We were offered warm, thermal suits to keep us warm in the bracing Arctic wind, and were taken to the reindeer enclosure. Here, some 300 reindeer were waiting hungrily for their food; as soon as the first unsuspecting tourists entered with a bucket, they pounced.
All reindeer were keen for food, but they were relatively gentle, nudging their way past tourists’ arms to uncover what was in the buckets.
But with around 300 reindeer all searching for food, it was a little overwhelming!
Once my first bucket was finished, I opted to not get another one and just stood on the sidelines, observing the creatures (they aren’t interested in any tourists who aren’t carrying food!).
There’s usually a chance for reindeer sledding at the Sami camp, but this wasn’t possible when we were there due to the snow being too slushy (it would have been too heavy for the reindeer). You might even catch a glimpse of the northern lights while you’re here!
Once the feeding experience terminated, we sat down to a hot bowl of stew – veggie for vegetarians, reindeer for meat-eaters – and heard some stories about Sami culture and traditions.
Book a reindeer sledding experience
Reindeer sledding experiences are also arranged by Sami people, but these excursions purely focus on taking tourists across the surreal Arctic landscape.
This tour is an excellent way to not only experience reindeer, but also see some of the incredible scenery around Tromsø. You’ll hop into the sled and dash across the landscape, seeing the creatures speed along up close.
The tour also offers a chance to see huskies and learn a little about Sami culture. You can book the tour here.
Stay in town for the reindeer racing championships
If you’re in town in mid-February, visit the Norwegian reindeer racing championship!
This high-energy competition pits the fastest and strongest reindeer against each other.
Each reindeer takes turns to dash along the track and is timed while it pulls its Sami owner on skis.
You’ll not only experience the adrenaline-fueled races themselves but glimpse into the cultural heritage of the Sami people.
Sami people have been herding and racing reindeer for centuries, and you’ll hear their national anthem at the end of the day; the racing happens around Sami national day.
Facts about the reindeer in Tromsø
Just for fun (and to give you an idea about what to expect when you see Tromsø’s reindeer population), here are some facts!
Reindeer eyes are reflective
Due to the darkness in the winter in northern Scandinavia, reindeer’s eyes absorb hours of daylight so they can see in the dark, changing twice per year.
This means that their eyes reflect – Per, our Sami guide told us that “In the evenings when they’re happy and have been fed, I can’t hear them, but when I shine a light I see hundreds of eyes – it’s like a horror movie!”.
Female reindeer are the only type of deer that have antlers
Both male and female reindeer have antlers – but no other type of female deer has them. Both genders lose their antlers once a year.
The females lose their antlers when they give birth. They fall of their head naturally around a day or two after their baby is born, and they eat their own antlers for nutrition.
Males lose their antlers during mating season; female reindeer seem to appreciate a man with strong antlers, so they stay on until mating is complete.
Sami people use all parts of a reindeer
Reindeer meat is a speciality in Norway, and Sami people don’t waste any part of it.
They eat most of the reindeer (including its heart) and make clothes with their tendons! The only part of a reindeer they do not use is the kidney.
There are five main reindeer predators
Sami people have five main reindeer predators to contend with.
Some, like brown bears and lynx, aren’t too much of a nuisance in the north (Per offered some sage advice for if we see a brown bear in Norway: “run downhill, as they won’t be able to follow you – their feet will knock together and they’ll trip over!”).
Wolves can be a bit of an issue in northern Norway, not least because of the gruesome way that they train their young to hunt; they tear out reindeer’s eyes and give them to their cubs to play with!
Per was most concerned about wolverines, telling us that they make a hissing sound like an angry cat before they attack, which is the sign for humans to leave! Although they are tiny, they have 100kg of hunting power and can crush reindeer’s necks. “They are my nemesis,” he told us somberly.
Eagles are officially the most common reindeer predator (although Per considered wolverines to be the worst); they can pick up baby reindeer when they weigh 10 kg and can puncture the lungs of a fully-grown reindeer.
“This is the way of nature. Who are we to change it?”
Anyone can be a reindeer herder, but only Sami people can own reindeer
Per told us that one of his most-asked questions from tourists is “can I be a reindeer herder too?”.
“You were reindeer herders tonight”, he told us, referring to when we entered the pen and gingerly fed 300 eager creatures from plastic buckets.
“If you want to come and help some more, be my guest! However, you can’t own reindeer. Not even all Sami people can own reindeer”.
Anyone who owns reindeer not only must be Sami but their parents or grandparents must have also had reindeer herding as their primary occupation. “I can be a reindeer herder because my grandparents were”, Per told us. “But if my children don’t want to be, then my family will no longer be a reindeer herding family”.
All you need to know about reindeer in Tromsø!
Reindeer aren’t just characters from Christmas tales; in Tromsø, they’re indispensable for everyday life.
Indigenous people have lived in harmony with reindeer for millenniums. Originally used for transport and food, they’re now a fundamental part of Sami culture and identity.
Just outside of Tromsø, there’s a myriad of activities and excursions to see reindeer in their proudest and most elegant.
Whether you want to visit a Sami camp to learn about their connection with the creatures, jump in a sled and be transported through the snowy landscape by the animals or stay in town for the reindeer racing championships, your stay will only be enhanced by learning about reindeer in Tromsø.