Photo: Terje Rakke/Nordic Life -
Fjord Tours Articles / 6 Dec 2019

How the Sami people survied Norway's harsh winters

Anyone who has ever traveled to the Arctic for a Northern Light tour knows that it can get insanely cold, especially during the winter season. However, the indigenous Sami people have populated the Arctic Circle for hundreds of years. This begs the question— how were they able to survive the harsh weather for so long?

Here are the traditional tactics used by the Sami people that helped them withstand Norway's coldest months.

Photo: David Kinsella / Www.Visithelgeland.Com


On first visiting a Sami settlement, people often mistake many of structures for strange-looking tipis. Even though they look like just that, the traditional lavvu are a feat of engineering that were strategically designed by the Sami people to help them survive cold temperatures and strong winds.

Since there are very few trees within the Arctic Circle, Sami people had to find a way to adequately protect themselves from the strong gusts of wind. Had they used the more traditional tipi shape, it would have easily been knocked over and blown into oblivion by the high winds. That is why they designed the lavvu to have a slightly less vertical shape, which made it much harder to level. In fact, these structures are so effective at providing protection against the harsh winter environment that they are still occasionally used by Sami people when camping.


Photo: Jørn Tomter / Www.Nordnorge.Com

The Sami people also built stronger structures, which looked very similar, known as a goahti. The goahti was often constructed in a similar fashion to a lavvu, but was covered with a combination of fabric, peat moss, or timber. Since these structures were larger and therefore harder to efficiently break down and transport, they interfered with the deep-seated nomadic lifestyle of Sami culture. Therefore, they weren’t as popular as the more portable lavvu. 

Traditional Clothing

As useful as the lavvu was, it only protected the Sami people as long as they were inside. As soon as they stepped outside to do things like hunt, gather, and move from place to place, they became vulnerable to the unruly Norwegian winters. Thankfully, their traditional gákti clothing was usually enough to keep them from getting too cold, even after spending a couple of hours outside.

Photo: Nina Helland / Hurtigruten

Originally, these outfits were designed using a combination of reindeer leather and sinews. However, the modern version of the gákti is made of cotton, wool, or silk instead. This outfit would typically have women wearing a dress accompanied by a fringed shawl and a pair of boots. The Sami men would possess a similar outfit only with a shorter jacket skirt as compared to the females’ dresses.

Although this outfit was perfectly capable of protecting them from Norwegian weather for the majority of the year, the winter would prove to be a little too much. This is when they would pair the gákti with a coat made of reindeer fur as well as a pair of leggings.

Photo: Ørjan Bertelsen / Www.Nordnorge.Com

By using this combination of the lavvu and their traditional clothing, the Sami people have flourished for hundreds of years in the Arctic territory. Plan your trip to Northern Norway today to see, first hand, how they did that by visiting their settlements and learning more about their culture by joining in on a reindeer sledding tour in Tromsø.