Arctic hunter-gatherers and reindeer breeders, the Nenets traditionally rely upon three resources: game, fish, and reindeer. Hunting wild reindeer seems to have been of particular importance in the past (as it still is among the Nganasan), but it has been largely replaced by systematic reindeer breeding, small-scale among the Forest Nenets and large-scale among the Tundra Nenets. Today the reindeer herds within the Tundra Nenets territory amount to at least one-third of the total reindeer stock in the Russian North. Not all of the local reindeer, however, are controlled by the Nenets: since the last century part of the trade has been in the hands of immigrant Komi (so-called Izhma Komi) reindeer breeders. Since forced collectivization (in the 1930s), Nenets reindeer breeders have found themselves in an especially difficult position economically, for the officially permitted number of private household reindeer has not been sufficient for subsistence. This has speeded the process known as the "lumpenization" of the Nenets, as also observed among the other small minorities of the Far North. (The term "lumpenization" was originally used by Marxist theoreticians to refer to the deterioration of the economic and social position of the proletariat under capitalist conditions, but, ironically enough, it is currently often applied to describe the effects of Marxism itself upon the fate of Soviet minority peoples, notably the small minorities of the Far North.) For the average Tundra Nenets there have traditionally been few choices of alternative occupation. Along the arctic seacoast, however, sea-mammal hunting has some economic significance to the local Nenets.
Intensive reindeer breeding among the Nenets has only become possible through the simultaneous development of an effective system of transport. Although dugout canoes in summer and skis in winter have been sufficient for short individual trips, the constant long-distance movements required by the seasonal cycle of the wandering reindeer have led to the perfection of the so-called Samoyed sledge, used both in winter on the snow and in summer on the bare ground. The sledge is normally drawn by one to seven reindeer, although dogs are also occasionally harnessed by the westernmost Tundra Nenets. The Samoyed sledge is characterized by a very elegant general construction, with flexible joints, very long and narrow runners, and high backward-leaning stakes. For specialized purposes, a number of sophisticated variant types are used, such as the women's sledge and the household sledge. During collective migrations, several sledges are tied together to form a caravan.