High-density snow layers deteriorate grazing conditions for reindeer during winter. We compare two different methods for identifying past winters with difficult grazing conditions for reindeer in Kautokeino, northern Norway. A long-term climate analysis based on monthly values of precipitation and temperature (1900–2011) demonstrated that the reported winters were difficult to identify systematically. The processes leading to hard layers or ground-ice layers occur on daily, not monthly, timescales, and whether or not specific conditions are problematic depends on the development throughout the winter, not just on single values. To better analyse the weather conditions and development over time that favour the formation of high-density snow layers, we apply the multilayer model SNOWPACK over the period 1956–2010. We simulate the evolution of the snowpack by forcing the model with 6 hour interval meteorological data. The model output was analysed by summing up the vertical extent of the simulated high-density snow layers (>350 kg m–3) for each winter. These results were compared with historical records of difficult winter grazing conditions reported in the period 1956–2010. In particular, the heavy losses of reindeer during the catastrophic 1967/68 winter were caused by the occurrence of ground ice together with long snow-cover duration. This unfavourable coincidence is well reproduced by our model results, together with eight of the ten reported difficult winters.