Tracking Rudolph: Reindeer Tracks & Sign

Tracking Rudolph: Reindeer Tracks & Sign

Two reindeer in the middle distance on a trail
Reindeer in the forests of northern Sweden. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, known as Caribou in North America, are a widespread northern hemisphere species of deer, which are found in the boreal forest, mountains and tundra.

The sub-species most familiar in Scandinavia and Northern Europe (and which have been reintroduced into Scotland) are specifically Eurasian Tundra Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus tarandus, which occur from Fennoscandia all the way east through northern Russia to the Bering Strait.

Reindeer in the Cairngorms
Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus tarandus, on the Cairngorm plateau, Scotland. August, 2007. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Reindeer in the boreal forest in Sweden
Lone reindeer in the boreal forest. It was likely drawn close to our camp due to the disturbance we had caused. Sweden, February 2009. Photo: Paul Kirtley

They are closely related to Alaskan Caribou, Rangifer tarandus granti, Barren-ground Caribou, Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus, Peary Caribou, Rangifer tarandus pearyi, and Svalbard Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus platyrhnchus, Eurasian Forest Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus fennicus and North American Woodland Caribou, Rangifer tarandus caribou.

Caribou stuffed display at Manitoba Museum
Caribou display at the Manitoba Museum. Photo: Paul Kirtley

The majority of Eurasian Tundra Reindeer are semi-domesticated or domesticated. Indigenous northern peoples such as the Sami in Fennoscandia and the Nenets and Evenks of Russia have coexisted with and relied upon semi-domesticated reindeer for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Sami man with domesticated reindeer on a lead
Per-Eric Kuoljok, a Sami man, with a domesticated reindeer. Sweden, 2015. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Reindeer have been valued by humans for even longer, providing meat, skins, antler, bones, sinew and more to stone age hunters.

There are some wild herds of Eurasian Tundra Reindeer remaining. Norway has Europe’s southernmost population of wild reindeer on the Hardangervidda and in the Setesdal mountains.

Reindeer through the clouds in near white out conditions in Norway
The first time I caught a glimpse of wild reindeer in Norway during a ski tour in the Setestdal Mountains, February 2007. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Winter mountain environment in Norway.  Snow for many miles.
The winter mountain environment in Norway in which reindeer live. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Reindeer in the distance in a snowy Norwegian mountain environment
You may not have noticed the herd of reindeer in the photograph above. Here, zoomed in, you can see them just below the ridge line in the distance. Setesdal Mountains, Norway, 2010. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Reindeer on a snowy mountainside
At first glance you might just see rocks. A group of wild reindeer in the Setesdal Mountains, Norway, 2010. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Most modern Western societies associate reindeer with Christmas and the most famous of them is, of course Rudolph, with its fabled red nose.

Interestingly though, unlike the vast majority of deer species, reindeer have furry noses.

Close up portrait of a reindeer
unlike the vast majority of deer species, reindeer have furry noses. Sweden, 2015. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Reindeer are extremely well-adapted to the cold.

Indeed, reindeer fur is extremely suited to keeping the animal warm. Their hairs are hollow, containing air and their winter coat is thick.

Reindeer even have a chamber for holding heat, and moisture, from their exhaled breath so as to warm and humidify the air they are breathing in.

Reindeer in the mountains in Sweden with boral forest in the background lower down
Reindeer can be in small groups as well as larger herds, These semi domesticated animals were spotted in the mountains above boreal forest in northern Sweden. February 2013. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Reindeer Tracks & Sign In Detail

Reindeer Tracks – Reindeer Footprints

People are often surprised that reindeer at not particularly big, especially without their antlers, I know I certainly was. What also surprises, though, is quite how big their feet are. At first they look ungainly and out of proportion but if you’ve ever walked on snowshoes, you’ll realise how useful big feet are in deep snow.

Not only are reindeer feet are quite large for the size of animal, they are also quite rounded, each side of the hoof describing a crescent, which make the footprint as a whole look almost circular.

This makes reindeer footprints very distinctive in shape. An additional distinction is that reindeer dewclaws are quite low down the leg and therefore often visible in the foot impression left behind, even on relatively hard surfaces.

Reindeer tracks on a trail leading into a snowy forest in Sweden
Reindeer tracks on a winter trail in northern Sweden, 2004. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Reindeer tracks in deep snow amongst the trees
Reindeer tracks in deep snow. They had been feeding on lichen in the trees. Sweden, 2011. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Reindeer tracks in deep snow
Reindeer tracks in deep snow. Sweden, February 2011. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Reindeer tracks in the hard snow of Norwegian mountains
Reindeer tracks in the compacted snow of the mountains of Norway, 2010. Photo: Paul Kritley.
Reindeer tracks in a dusting of snow
Reindeer tracks in light snow that has fallen on top of harder snow. Norway, March 2010. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Reindeer tracks
Note the breadth of the reindeer tracks plus the placement of one foot over the other. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Impression of reindeer lower leg in snow
Here a perfect impression of the lower leg of a reindeer as it walks off our compacted snow shoe trail into the deeper, uncompacted snow. Note how large and wide the foot is. Sweden, March 2012. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Circular reindeer footrprints
The almost circular footprints of the same reindeer as made the impression in the photo above. Sweden, March 2012. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Reindeer tracks through virgin snow across a river in Sweden
Reindeer tracks across a frozen river in northern Sweden. Februrary 2009. Photo: Paul Kirtley/
Reindeer clear print including dew claws in soft snow
A print of a reindeer hoof in soft, fluffy snow. Note the impression of the dew claws to the left. The animal was travelling from left to right of the photograph. Setesdal Mountains, Norway, March 2010. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Reindeer Feeding Sign

Reindeer on the Cairngorm plateau
Reindeer feeding high in the Cairngorm mountains, Scotland, August 2007. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Reindeer feed on lichen, notably reindeer moss in the hills but also various species of “old man’s beard” in the forests.

Reindeer feeding area of disturbance in the mountains of Norway
Disturbance in an area of snow that has been blown thin by the wind, making access to the vegetation underneath relatively easy. Norway, March 2010. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Indeed if you cut down a dead standing tree with lichen on its branches this can attract reindeer into the area to feed. Lichen above the level at which the reindeer can feed will have been brought down to the level of the snow and the reindeer really value this as a food source in winter.

On numerous occasions I have harvested a dead standing pine for firewood, leaving small upper branches festooned with lichen in the snow. On returning the next day it is clear from the tracks and sign that reindeer have come into the area. Lots of footprints and disturbance are the obvious positive sign. Plus all the lichen has disappeared – the negative sign!

Man having just felled a pine tree in Sweden in winter
Chopping dead standing trees for firewood brings down branches with a good supply of lichen. Photo: Paul Kirtely
Usnea lichen
In forests, reindeer like to eat boreal lichens as well as ground vegetation. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Black beard tree lichen on the snow
Previously inaccessible tree lichen on the ground, will attract reindeer into the area. Photo: Paul Kirtley

If you clear an area of snow in the forest reindeer can be attracted to the uncovered vegetation. In my experience, this is particularly the case in years where the snow is very deep or if the snow has gone through several freeze-thaw cycles and is, therefore, crusty at some level or at multiple levels, thus making it hard for the reindeer to access what is under the snow.

Area of forest floor cleared of snow to reveal green vegetation.
Areas cleared of snow can be attractive to reindeer, particularly in years where the snow is deep or crusty. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Reindeer in deep snow in the forest
Reindeer in deep snow. Sweden, 2009. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Reindeer in the deep snow in the forest with its head buried in the snow
The snow is soft, even though it is deep, so the reindeer can get down to food underneath the snow. Sweden, 2009. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Reindeer are unique in that both sexes grow antlers. After the rut, females keep their antlers, while male deer drop their antlers. This gives some equality in competition for food. Some people also argue that it allows the deer to find more food, using the antlers to dig for vegetation.

Reindeer Droppings & Urine

Where reindeer have been active, you will likely see droppings and, if there is snow on the ground, clear signs of urination.

Reindeer droppings and tracks in snow
Reindeer droppings amongst tracks. Ski pole for scale. Norway, 2010.
Reindeer droppings
Reindeer droppings. Note the quantity. Also note the sign of urination. Norway 2010. Photo: Paul Kirtley.
Reindeer droppings in vegetation
Reindeer droppings in an area of cleared snow, where the animal has been attracted by the uncovered vegetation. Sweden, March 2012. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Reindeer droppings
These droppings are quite fresh – from the night before. Note they are really quite dark in colour. Also not the elongated, semi-cylindrical shape but also that the sides of many of the pellets are concave. Sweden, March 2012. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Reindeer droppings close up with reindeer hairs present
A closer view still of the droppings. Note also the presence of several reindeer hairs. Northern Sweden, March 2012. Photo: Paul Kirtley
Reindeer urination spot in the snow
Here a reindeer has been active on one of our compacted snowshoe trails. You can just make out some of the tracks. Much clearer still is the spot where the animal urinated. This colouration is typical. Sweden, March 2012. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

So, if Rudolph and chums do land on your roof or your lawn, you are now well equipped to spot their distinctive footprints as well as interpret what they’ve been up to…

Further Reading On Reindeer and Reindeer Tracks & Sign


Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog

PK Podcast 006: Winter Outdoor Life Tips, Thoughts And Perspectives

Bushcraft Take-Aways From The Manitoba Museum

Six Men, Three Boats and The Bloodvein: Canoeing A Wilderness River

Winter Magic: Return To The Northern Forest

How to Live In A Heated Tent

4 thoughts on “Tracking Rudolph: Reindeer Tracks & Sign

  1. A lot of them have fur on their horns too, at least the ones that I have come across in Lapland in Northern Finland. And they are very fond of lichen, often digging for them. They seem to have a nose for them even when under 2 metres of snow.

  2. Paul,

    I wish you a good and happy new year!!


    p.s. On television, on the news, I saw electric reindeers!!! (see: Boston dynamics 23-12-2015)

  3. Thanks Paul! I’ve seen caribou in Alaska and woodland caribou in NW Ontario. Really a thrill to see. I like how their tendons click when they walk also. This is good info you’ve given. Merry Christmas from North America.

  4. Hi Paul
    The reindeer is in-fact a caribou? I didn’t know this, very interesting as is all your world activities.
    There is a little known and small herd of mountain caribou in the Salmo Basin Wilderness on the
    northern Idaho-Washington, British Columbia borderland. The Scottish highland photos you
    include look similar to the terrain of the Canada-US Pasayten Wilderness tundra above timberline.
    Kind Regards
    Jim Watkins
    Pacific Northwest

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