Formerly most of the Evenki population was nomadic, with camps of one to three families traveling over vast areas in search of new pastures for their reindeer. The population density was extremely sparse, averaging only about one person for every 250 square kilometers. For the brief summers, the herds were led through the forests and marshlands; mosses, lichens, shrubs, and dwarf willows provided the main foodstuffs for the animals. Many of the herders would also move northward into the treeless frozen plains, or tundra, where the reindeer would feed on willow shoots, reeds, and lichens. The goal of the summer feeding was to fatten the animals as much as possible in preparation for the coming months.
The herders would lead their animals back to the forests for the winters, which lasted from early October until May or June. During these months, the reindeer had to paw through the snow for lichen, or "reindeer moss," nearly their only food for the winter. Since the trampling of the herds tended to pack down the snow and thus make it impenetrable, the animals had to be kept constantly on the move, covering a great expanse of land.
Despite these extensive migrations, larger groups would still gather a number of times during the year (during reindeer calving season, rut, etc.) for collective labor and celebrations.
The housing of the reindeer herders consisted of conical tents covered with birch bark in the summer and reindeer or moose hides in the winter—small in either case (sleeping room for two or three adults and several children). Early in this century canvas began to replace these materials. Permanent storage facilities were built along routes of migration, so that seasonal clothing and equipment could be cached when not in use. The horse Evenki lived in felt or birch-bark yurts similar to those used by Mongolians.
The Soviet state pursued a policy of sedentarization of nomads. From the 1930s to the 1950s many native villages were established and women, children, and elders were variously encouraged or coerced to settle in these, whereas men of working age continued to herd and hunt. Since the 1950s there has been a trend to consolidate these hamlets into larger villages. Herders and hunters still spend a large proportion of their time in the bush, however, sometimes with their spouses and children not old enough to be in school.