One activity that often figures quite highly on people’s Arctic bucket lists is the chance to visit a reindeer farm!
Reindeer have been an important part of the culture of this part of the world for a long time. The original inhabitants of Northern Norway, the Sami people, have been herding reindeer for centuries.
Whether you visit a Sami camp to learn about the traditional Sami culture and way of life, meet and greet reindeer, or go reindeer sledding, you’ll have an incredible time learning about this unique part of Northern Norwegian culture.
Who Are the Sami People?
The Sami people are the Indigenous people of the far reaches of Northern Europe, who can trace their history back at least 3,500 years in the Fenno-Scandinavia region, which includes Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia.
The region which the Sami people inhabit and have tended for thousands of years is called Sápmi in the most widely-spoken dialect of the Sami language, Northern Sami.
This mostly overlaps the region that, in English, is known as Lapland — a term not preferred by the Sami people, as it 1) erases their culture and 2) is thought to be derived from an offensive word for the Sami.
As per a note on dictionary.com:
“Though Lapp, Laplander, and Lappish are still in use, the people themselves consider these terms to be offensive. They use the name Sami. The reason for the perceived offensiveness of these terms is their possible etymology from an Old Swedish word meaning “piece or patch,” alluding to the patched clothes that the impoverished Sami wore in the past. Lapland is still the acceptable name for the region inhabited by the Sami, though the Sami call it Sapmi.”
The history of how Scandinavian and Nordic settlers treated the Sami people is quite sad. Sami people suffered a similar fate to the Indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada, who were forcibly removed from their land, sent to boarding schools to strip them of their religion and language, and discriminated against both in law and in practice.
The fact that the Sami people are still here today, practicing their culture, speaking their language, and wearing their traditional clothing is not something we should take for granted. It’s the result of their resilience and passion for preserving their identity and way of life.
Taking a Sami tour is one way that we as tourists can preserve the Indigenous culture of the Sami people and ensure that the story of the Sami people is not forgotten.
The Importance of Reindeer in Sami Culture
The relationship between the Sami people and the reindeer they herd is an integral part of their way of life to this day, and it has been for many hundreds of years — thousands, actually.
While the Sami still herd reindeer for subsistence as well as animal agriculture (reindeer is a popular meat in Norway), tourism has become another important part of the economic circle of reindeer farming.
As climate change has affected the Arctic at a rate more notable than other parts of the world, reindeer herding has become more difficult — and more expensive.
The change in the climate has meant that many of the reindeer’s traditional food sources have dried up, and the Sami reindeer herders have had to supplement their diet, which was previously all provided by the land.
As a result, tourism involving reindeer plays an important role in the winter, when the reindeer would have a difficult time finding food and their Sami herders would often have to supplement it with additional food.
At this time, many Sami herders bring their reindeer down from places further north — mostly around Karasjok, considered the Sami capital of Norway — down to Tromso so that tourists exploring “The Paris of the North” can do a day trip to visit reindeer.
In my view, reindeer tourism doesn’t take away from the tradition of Sami reindeer herding but makes it more sustainable, giving reindeer herders access to other ways to making an income at a time when climate change and Norwegian policies are threatening the traditional practice of reindeer herding.
Is Reindeer Sledding in Norway Ethical?
The question of ethics is always a difficult one and one that I try to answer for myself each time I partake in an animal activity.
For me, there are two questions I evaluate when determining if I think an animal activity is ethical. The first question is: are these animals domesticated or is this going against their nature? After that question is answered, the next question is: is the activity harmful for their wellbeing?
I’ll start by answering the first question. The Sami people have herded reindeer for well over a thousand years. The exact start of when Sami began to herd reindeer is uncertain, but the earliest recorded history of the Sami interacting with reindeer was in the 800s.
As per an article about reindeer herding: “In the 800s the Norwegian chief Ottar visited King Alfred and the English court and Ottar related to the king about the Sámi and that reindeer were domesticated and managed in herds. This is the first written source of domesticated reindeer husbandry and is often referred to. However archaeological research is consistently pushing the date of domestication of reindeer and the development of reindeer herding further back in time.” (Source)
So we’ve established that the Sami people have herded and domesticated reindeer for at least 1,200 years — perhaps even as many as 7,000 years — long enough to say that these reindeer have been fairly thoroughly domesticated. The next question is, is reindeer sledding harmful?
Reindeer are strong animals that weigh up to 400 lbs. Prior to tourists enjoying reindeer sledding as an activity, semi-nomadic Sami herders would use reindeer sleds to transport materials across the Arctic landscapes.
Reindeer sledding for tourist enjoyment is not really much different than what the Sami were doing naturally before, transporting their housing materials, food, and other goods as they herded reindeer.
In fact, the conditions for reindeer in tourism are almost certainly a good deal better than the conditions for reindeer not in tourism. The reindeer on the reindeer farms do not have to go far or fast, and they pull the sleds for approx. 10-30 minutes maximum before resting.
After doing my research and participating in a reindeer sledding tour with a Sami guide during my trip to Tromso, I concluded that reindeer sledding is within my personal ethical guidelines.
While reindeer don’t seem to love pulling a sleigh the same way husky sled dogs do (does anyone?), I’d say it’s similar to donkeys or mules pulling a cart (and far better than riding a donkey or mule). If you’re OK with that, I don’t see why this is any different.
That said, if you’re uncomfortable with reindeer sledding, you can still learn about Sami culture, meet the reindeer, and support the Sami guides who run these tours. In the section below where I list the different tours, I’ll explain which tours involve reindeer sledding and which are just reindeer feeding and culture tours.
The Best Tromso Tours for Reindeer Experiences
The following tours are what I recommend for reindeer sleigh rides in Tromso as well as Sami culture tours.
Note that these tours are outdoor activities, and while the lavvu (Sami tent) will be nice and warm, outdoors it will not be!
Wear warm clothes and winter boots so you can focus on the experience. Remember, in Norway, they have a saying: there is no bad weather, only bad clothing!
These tours are all available to be booked online with free cancellation, so be sure to book these tours and other Tromso sightseeing and excursions a few weeks ahead of time if you can.
You have nothing to lose by booking early with the free cancellation policy on both GetYourGuide (24 hours in advance) and Manawa (10 days in advance), and you run the risk of tours being sold out if you wait.
Tromso Arctic Reindeer – Sledding Tour
This is the exact tour I did on my trip to Tromso. I opted for a 10-minute reindeer sled experience because I wanted to see it for myself in order to write about it from my perspective and determine whether I would recommend it to others.
While I had a blast dog sledding in Tromso, reindeer sledding is way different. It’s slower and less engaging than doing a self-drive dog sled tour. The reindeer plod along slowly, slower than a horse carriage ride would be, but at a smooth pace. The views are beautiful though: fjords, snow, and mountains everywhere you look.
It’s an interesting experience, but I don’t think sledding is particularly essential. I do think kids would really love it though, but for adults, it’s a bit boring. To put it simply: I would go dog sledding over and over again — I would go reindeer sledding once.
That said, while I found the reindeer sledding part of the experience a little lackluster, I loved the other aspects of the tour. I really enjoyed getting to feed the reindeer from the buckets. Getting to see them up close and personal is delightful!
My favorite part of the tour, though, had nothing to do with the reindeer and everything to do with our Sami guide. He was very young, maybe in his early 20s, and his dedication to preserving Sami culture, stories, traditions, and language was really moving.
He shared a lot with us, more than he had to, including stories of the prejudice that he and other Sami experience for wearing their traditional clothes or speaking their language.
I was honored that he shared his story with us so honestly. As someone deeply curious about Sami history and culture, I was grateful that he didn’t shy away from sharing some of the negative historical and present-day aspects of Norwegian-Sami relations to make tourists more comfortable.
In addition to hearing his stories of struggle, we heard stories of immense pride and resilience, and some humor as well. Our guide was also very funny, joking about modern Sami reindeer herders and how they now use drones to help them herd!
We also got to experience several cultural elements of Sami life: sitting around the fire in a lavvu (a traditional Sami tent) with our hot drinks, eating a traditional hot meal from Sami culture (reindeer stew, called bidos in Sami), and hearing the beautiful joik, a type of Sami song that seeks to “reflect or evoke a person, animal, or place.”
I loved my tour and while the reindeer sledding isn’t essential to enjoying it, I’m glad I tried it regardless.
Tromso Arctic Reindeer – Feeding & Culture Tour
This is the same tour company but without the reindeer sledding aspect.
The structure and timing of the tour is the same — there’s a free pick up at the Radisson Blu Hotel meeting point (address: Sjøgata 7), which shuttles you to the reindeer farm.
The only difference is that you are not given a colored wristband that indicates that you will be doing sledding later in the tour.
You get the whole experience besides the sled ride, though: you get to visit the reindeer camp on a small group tour, you can try your hand at lasso-throwing, feed the reindeer and pose for photos with them, drink warm drinks in the lavvo, eat a traditional meal, etc. (Note: vegetarian options are available).
Tromso Arctic Reindeer – Reindeer Tour with a Chance of Northern Lights
This is also the same tour company but done at night so that you have a chance of seeing the aurora while you visit the reindeer camp!
Frankly, Tromso has a lot of cloud cover which makes it hard to see the Northern lights from a stationary place, so you may not be able to see the Northern lights from the reindeer ranch, even if there is a lot of solar activity.
During my week in Tromso, I tried to spot the Northern lights many times, and I saw them three times in a week: once on the water on a fjord cruise, once over the city from my Airbnb window, and once on an aurora chasing tour all the way over the Finnish border!
If your trip to Tromso is primarily to see the Northern lights, then I would suggest doing a minibus tour where you chase the lights at least once or twice during your stay.
If you have extra time and want more chances to see the lights, then a reindeer tour at night would be a good option. However, I wouldn’t do a Sami reindeer tour at night in place of a dedicated aurora tour, only in addition to it.
Staying in one place vs. traveling around specifically to see the best lights possible is a whole different experience!
That said, if your time in Tromso is really short and you are trying to figure out what are some activities to enjoy during the day vs. at night, there’s nothing really specific about the reindeer tour that wouldn’t be good at night!
The tour is all about meeting the reindeer and enjoying learning about Sami culture as opposed to seeing the scenery around you, so it’s a good option for doing at nighttime.
Aurora Alps – Reindeer Sledding Day Trip
I didn’t get the chance to try this tour on my trip to Tromso, but it seems rather similar to the tour by Tromso Arctic Reindeer in terms of itinerary and activities.
The price point is slightly higher, but it’s a longer tour that you can enjoy at a more leisurely pace — 6 hours as opposed to 4 hours.
I’d suggest going with Tromso Arctic Reindeer as that’s what I did and loved, and I thought 4 hours was plenty of time, but if that’s all booked up, this is a great option!
Transfers, meals, and drinks are included in the tour. Pick up is at the Scandic Ishavshotel (address: Fredrik Langes gate 2).
Aurora Alps – Reindeer Sledding and Northern Lights Trip
This is the same company but they also run a Northern lights nighttime tour.
It’s located further out from Tromso than Tromso Arctic Reindeer’s farm, so it may have a better chance of seeing the Northern lights!
If you’re looking for a reindeer sledding Northern lights tour, this is the one I would pick — it’s a longer tour and it’s further out from Tromso so your lights chances are a little better.
More Tromso Resources and Tips
I have several other posts that can help you plan the perfect trip to Tromso!
– Dog Sledding in Tromso: Everything You Need to Know
– What to Wear when Visiting Northern Norway in Winter
– 30 Fantastic Things to Do in Tromso in Winter
– 13 Unique Ways to See the Northern Lights in Tromso
– … and more on the way!
I also have a few suggestions for where to eat, drink, and sleep in Tromso!
Where to Stay in Tromso
Arctic Glamping: For a stay that’s truly memorable, look no further than the epic Camp North Tour for a glamping experience, Arctic-style! Stay in heated yurt-style glamping tents, complete with cozy carpeting, comfortable beds heated with reindeer pelts, and panels that open up into the aurora above you so you can watch the Northern lights dance overhead from your bed! It’s not located in Tromso proper, but transfers or free parking are provided. Buffet breakfast and a traditional dinner are both included.
>> Check reviews from verified guests, look at photos, and book your room here!
Budget: The best budget option in Tromso is hands-down Smarthotel Tromso. It’s right in the heart of central Tromso, so it’s easy to get to all your activities, it has all the things you need in a hotel — 24 hour reception, comfortable beds, a work desk, and food available in the lobby.
>> Check reviews from verified guests, see photos, and book your room here.
Mid-Range: If you want to stay in a chic boutique hotel that’s not overly fancy, Thon Hotel Polar is a fabulous choice. The decor is irreverent yet modern with an Arctic theme, many with vibrant pops of color that make the hotel have a lot more personality. Breakfast is included and there is also a restaurant on-site should you want to dine in. As a plus: the location couldn’t be better!
>> Check reviews from verified guests, look at photos, and book your room here
Luxury: There are three Clarion Collection hotels in Tromso, but the nicest of the three seems to be Clarion Collection Hotel Aurora. Why? It’s harborfront and has an incredible rooftop jacuzzi where you can try to spot the Northern lights! Rooms are luxurious and modern with updated bathrooms, and the facilities include a gym, free afternoon coffee with waffles, and a light evening meal as part of your stay.
>> Check reviews from verified guests, look at photos, and book your room today!
Where to Eat in Tromso
Budget: For a delicious meal on a budget in Tromso, you’ve got to eat at Burgr! Their burgers are delicious and it’s well-priced so you can easily enjoy dinner for around $20 USD (yup, that’s budget in Tromso!)
Mid-Range: For a slightly more upscale meal in Tromso that still isn’t too pricy, I loved Mathallen. They have delicious daily specials including a really affordable lunch special option. The design is really lovely and the food is great! I loved the fish gratin special I enjoyed at lunch one day.
Another great mid-range choice is Bardus Bistro – the reindeer open face sandwich is delicious (if you can stand to eat reindeer after meeting them, that is!)
Luxury: For a special meal, try Fiskekompaniet, a delicious harborside restaurant specializing in seafood! Prices are on the high side, but the food is exquisite and beautifully plated. It’s a can’t-miss!
Where to Drink in Tromso
Ølhallen: This is the most popular pub in Tromso. It has a huge variety of craft beer and a long history as the longest-running bar in Tromso. The beer is expensive — it’s Norway, it can’t be helped — but the pub has a lovely vibe and has great bartenders.
Kjeller 5: Located right next to Ølhallen, this is a great place to get some craft beers to go to enjoy back at the hotel! It’s good on a budget as the prices are a lot lower for consuming beer at home vs. at a pub.