Lapland isn’t just home to Santa’s magical reindeer but thousands of others too and since prehistoric times, they’ve been crucial to the Sami people for survival - providing food, clothing, transport and provisions. The Finnish reindeer is the largest of the species, some as heavy as 300kg, and have adapted wide feet to help walk through the snow and narrow antlers so they’re able to move through trees more easily. A strong sense of smell lets them find food (preferably lichen), even when it’s over 60cm under the snow. In the winter, they grow out their facial hair to cover their mouths so their muzzles don’t freeze whilst they forage. Or maybe they’re just copying Santa’s big bushy beard!
Reindeer have one of the largest migratory journeys of any land animal, some travelling over 3,000 miles a year as they move in search of fresh pastures and new areas to forage. Since they’re so often on the move, new-born calves have to learn to walk very quickly – they’re usually able to run less than 90 minutes after birth, Bambi eat your heart out!
The reindeer herders all have their own distinctive symbol which they mark on their reindeer’s ear so they know which belong to them. In Finland there are an estimated 16,000 different marks.
Reindeer meat is very popular across Lapland and you can’t visit the area without it cropping up on the menu, just make sure not to tell the kids that they’re eating one of Rudolph’s friends! A healthy, lean meat, it’s most commonly sautéed with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam or smoked over an open fire.
Top 10 Reindeer Facts:
1. There are more reindeer than people in Lapland.
2. They are fast - a one-day-old reindeer can outrun an Olympic sprinter. Adults can reach speeds of 50mph and swim at 6.2 miles per hour (that’s faster than Michael Phelps!)
3. The Sami, the native people of northern Finland, rely on reindeer and have around 400 words for the food, tools and other products and parts taken from reindeer.
4. They have special hooves which adjust to the seasons. In the summer, the ground is wet so their foot pads soften to provide them with extra grip. In the winter, these pads tighten which allows the rim of their hooves to dig into the snow and ice to provide traction.
5. Many species of reindeer have knees which make a clicking noise as they walk so that migrating groups can stay together, even in the thickest whiteout. Babies, however, don’t click until they are about a year old so that they are not vulnerable to predators. It’s not just Rudolph’s bright red nose that helps to guide reindeer through foggy winter’s nights!
6. Reindeer are the only type of deer in which both male and female reindeer have antlers. Females retain their antlers until they give birth in the spring while male reindeer shed theirs each winter. Reindeer are also the only mammals that grow new sets of antlers annually.
7. Like a human’s fingerprint, no two reindeer antlers are exactly the same
8. To survive the incredibly low temperatures of northern Finland, reindeer have developed the ability to divert cold blood to their legs whilst keeping their core warm.
9. Reindeer are the only mammals whose eyes are known to change colour. The eyes are gold during the summer when the reindeer experience almost constant sunlight, but in the darkness of winter their retinas become less reflective and their eyes appear blue.
10. Never ask a reindeer herder how many reindeer he has, it’s like asking his salary and is considered very rude!!
One more for luck:
11. In order to give out all of his presents on Christmas Eve, Santa and his reindeer will be travelling at 10,703,437.5km/hr, or about 1,800 miles per second!
Reindeer sleigh rides
A visit to Lapland isn’t complete without a reindeer sleigh ride, exploring the stunning Finnish scenery by using the method of transport that the Sami people have used for thousands of years. As you glide across the snow, with only the sounds of the reindeer’s breath and hooves for company, you’ll have never felt closer to nature! Kids will love being pulled along by some of Rudolph’s friends, just like Santa does when he comes to deliver presents on Christmas Eve.
In minutes you can be far away from the resort, snuggled under a warm rug and enjoying the wild landscape and the skies above you. Lapland is one of the best vantage points to see the breath-taking Northern Lights. Nothing’s more atmospheric than viewing the aurora from the back of a sleigh being pulled through the wilderness by reindeer, with a warm drink in your hand and a blanket on your lap. A true once in a lifetime experience!
After some simple instructions from a genuine reindeer herder and being introduced to your reindeer, you’re usually able to drive your own sleigh which is a thrilling experience as you dash through the snow and manoeuvre your way through the scenic forest, in control of these majestic animals. If you catch the sleigh-riding bug, you can even take the international reindeer driver’s license and Arctic Circle Crossing Certificate!
You can sometimes take part in the local winter sport, which is the white-knuckle activity of reindeer racing. Racers are on skis hanging on for dear life behind a specifically trained racing reindeer (a bit like Arctic drag racing). The reindeer love the game though and they gallop with big smiles on their faces. However, considering that they can reach speeds of up to 70km per hour, this is not a sport for the faint-hearted!
You can also visit nearby reindeer farms which are a great way to find out more about the animals and the livelihoods of the Sami people who rely on them, while young ones will enjoy being able to feed and pet the reindeer close up.
Lapland Reindeer Farms
Riekkovaara Reindeer Farm (Saariselkä)
Very close to Saariselkä, the Riekkovaara Reindeer Farm is a great place to interact with the Lapland reindeer and their herders, before going on a magical reindeer safari through the stunning landscape. Once you return and have warmed up over a hot drink and a campfire, you will even receive your own International Reindeer Driving Licence! For even more convenience, you can sometimes be picked up from your accommodation in Saariselkä and returned at the end of the experience.
Joiku-Kotsamo Reindeer Farm (Saariselkä)
Take a reindeer ride into the wilderness with the chance to enjoy a meal and coffee in the tranquil surroundings of the Saariselkä forests. Learn to drive the reindeer yourselves and receive a reindeer driving licence. Visit the Reindeer Farm and find out about the fascinating Sami people and their customs, before meeting the reindeer and even getting to throw a Lasso! After this you can sample some traditional local delicacies (including reindeer!) and hot drinks before hearing a Sami joik – a musical performance that dates back hundreds of years.
Luonto Loma Reindeer Safari (Saariselkä)
Operating since 1982, experience the Saariselkä scenery in the most traditional and serene way with a beautiful reindeer safari, even getting the opportunity to drive the sleigh yourself. Afterwards return to a cosy “kota” (traditional Sami tent) where you can enjoy warm crowberry juice while hearing the fascinating stories of your herder and his way of life.
Lapland Safaris (Saariselkä, Ylläs, Levi)
With centres in Saariselkä, Ylläs and Levi, you’re never too far away from a Lapland Safari. Go on a reindeer safari and travel effortlessly through the Finnish nature. In Saariselkä, you can journey to an authentic reindeer farm hidden deep inside the forest, where you can find out more about these majestic animals and the traditional herders who look after them.
An hour from Iso-Syöte is the Ranua Zoo, the most northern zoo in the world, where you can not only see reindeer but also wolverine, lynx, wolves and even polar bears.
Ruka Safaris (Ruka)
Take a snowmobile ride to a local reindeer farm just outside Ruka, where you can learn about the animals and feed them, have a go at lasso throwing, before learning to drive the reindeer and sleigh for yourself. On your return you are awarded with a reindeer riding diploma and have the chance to visit a traditional hut where you can warm up with a hot drink and even taste reindeer sausage.
Hotel Iso-Syöte (Iso-Syöte)
At the top of the Iso-Syöte hill, this hotel looks over the Syöte national park and offers all kinds of reindeer safaris right from its doorstep. Journey through atmospheric forests and over frozen lakes in the traditional Sami mode of transport.
Wolverine Fell Wilderness and Nature (Levi)
Established in 2000, Wolverine Fell Wilderness and Nature is located just outside Levi and gives you the chance to have a unique reindeer experience. Go for a sled ride a nd have the opportunity to dash through the snow, driving the reindeer for yourself, or spend the day with the herders as they round up the reindeer. You can get to see first-hand how the experienced herders group together hundreds of reindeer and expertly use theirs lassos before having a go yourself! You can also get to meet the newly born calves, and watch how the herders specially mark their reindeer in order to identify them.
Ounashievari Reindeer Farm (Levi)
Located just a few minutes outside Levi, you can meet and feed the reindeer at this farm before going on a sleigh ride with animals, either driving them yourself or relaxing in the carriage while one of the guides drives for you. Stop for a break in an authentic tepee where you can enjoy a warm drink and fry sausages over an open fire before returning to the farm.
Take a magical evening reindeer sleigh ride and get the chance to witness the breath-taking Northern Lights in the most natural and peaceful surroundings. After the ride, head to a traditional Lappish tent to hear the herders’ stories about their lives and the reindeer while enjoying a hot drink and pancakes.
Salla Reindeer Park (Salla)
Experience two hundred hectares of the stunning Salla landscape at the Salla Reindeer Park, by harnessing and steering your own reindeer sleigh through the forests and snow. Take an evening ride to go in hunt of the Northern Lights which, if you’re lucky enough, is a once in a lifetime experience. Have a go at feeding the reindeer, and find out all about the animals and the Sami people whose livelihoods depend on them.