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Sami Reindeer Herding Experience in Norway

Updated: Apr 11

Are you planning a trip to Norway and thinking about how you can meet the Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic? If you are looking for a real adventure in the European last wilderness, read this story to know how to visit the Sami.

My wife and I just came back from 4 days with Nils and his team above the arctic circle in Norway. What an adventure with Visit Natives! In my experience, this is one of the most exciting, truly authentic, off the grid, filled with once-in-a-lifetime sights, trips I have ever been on (and I have travelled most of the globe for the last 20+ years).

A little more detail: Our trip began when Jorn picked us up from the Alta airport and became our full-time tour guide for our four-day trip. Jorn is pure Norwegian and a great balance to Nils who is pure Sami. We traveled 2 hours south of Alta to a guest cabin that was in the last small community before we began the snowmobile journey further into the tundra. Nils meet us at the cabin and began our emersion into the Sami herder community. We got lucky because a fellow guest at the cabin was training for a major dog sledding contest and we were introduced to nine of the happiest dogs I had ever met. It was not part of the scheduled program, but we got a great ad hoc exposure to dog sledding.

There is a YouTube video that describes this experience: It is excellent and very accurate. Obviously, natural events dictate the specific activities for each day, but there is never a lack of new and exciting things to do.

After a great dinner of locally caught trout, we were off to the reindeer herd for a night's visit. There is no exaggeration that you are ‘up close and personal with the heard. My wife became a center of attraction (some strategically placed hay helped) and was surrounded by a few hundred reindeer, many 6 inches away. Again, we got lucky with the weather and got a fantastic aurora borealis show for over an hour. This northern light show happened twice in three nights.

The cabin was simple but well-heated, with an excellent shower facility across the walkway.

One note on the cold. You do need to pay attention to the list sent regarding what to bring, but Nils also has some loaner boots, hats, etc. We came prepared, but I cannot remember one activity that I wasn’t warned about and dry. The saying is there is no such thing as bad weather – it is simply bad close.

The next morning was a traditional breakfast of reindeer, local berries, and fresh-baked bread. Nils took me out via snowmobile to inspect the head; the vistas were majestic. By mid-afternoon, it was time to prepare for the last leg of our journey to Nils cabin at the traditional winter pastures. This was a 2-hour snowmobile journey with my wife and our supplies behind in a sled. We saw the herds spread out over the tundra about an hour into the journey. Intermingled is a better description of our experience. Born let me drive the snowmobile, and I learned the fine art of managing reindeer congestion.

The cabin was very nice. Yes, it was simple, but it had three bedrooms, a well-heated kitchen, and a generator for a few hours of electricity. Certainly, there was no running water, and bathrooms were a brisk walk through fresh snow, but we were prepared for this; it was all part of the experience.

Nils also built a traditional hut near the cabin, which is typical of how Sami families lived 100 years ago. I am sure Nils would allow the more adventurous to stay there overnight, but the cabin was just fine for us. Eventually, it was time for us to return through the same route we came and time to say goodbye to a fabulous adventure.

One thing that this description of the events in our stay doesn’t effectively convey is the fact that between Jorn and Nils, we had 1 and a half full-time guides throughout our entire four days. There was so much time for discussion of Sami culture, current Sami challenges, reindeer husbandry, history of Sami and Norwegian interaction, and yes, some exchange on American politics. I have never had a trip where I gained as much insight into the true lifestyle that was so different than the one I live.

Finally, way too much information: Our trip was in mid-February. Approximately one month before our trip, a climate event caused a major crisis for the Sami herders. There was a dramatic heatwave in this section of Norway that traditionally is at least 20 degrees below freezing. During the heatwave, there were strong rains followed by a sudden return to freezing. This covered the entire tundra with a sheet of ice 1 – 2 inches thick then covered with the traditional snowfall.

I learned that the reason the reindeer migrate to the winter pastures is the ground is covered in lichen which is the food for the winter. The reindeer’s hooves have evolved to be perfect snow shovels to uncover the lichen. Due to the ice covering the reindeer could not get to the lichen and would not make it through the winter. This became a national crisis and caused government action to help save what could be an annihilation event for the reindeer.

The challenge is to get the manufactured reindeer pellets and hay to the herds. A daily four-hour trek by snowmobile would not be possible. Nil and many of his fellow Sami were forced to migrate the herds across the tundra to large (multi kilometers in area) corrals closer to the roads where the food could be delivered. Nils and his brother needed to feed the reindeer twice a day spreading multi-ton bags of pellets. Some of the Sami herders left their herds in the traditional pastures hoping the reindeer would survive until the spring thaw. During our trip it looked as if the Sami that has hoped for the best were losing reindeer daily. One can only hope for the situation to improve.

In terms of our trip, it did change the itinerary. Normally we would have spent more time at Nils cabin and less at the guest cabins. We experience feeding the reindeer with pellets and hay but saw that the traditional herds were smaller than some of the pictures we had seen. In the end, I felt we had been exceptionally lucky and saw ‘once in a lifetime events. It is a testimony to Nils that he was creative and flexible in assuring a most thrilling adventure.

Thank you, Kevin, for sharing your experience with others. You can book this experience with us in Norway. You can also contact us for further details. We'll make your Arctic stay the most authentic, memorable, and fun!

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