What is ‘friluftsliv’? How an idea of outdoor living could help us this winter

Get outside, says this Norwegian concept that promises to make the pandemic’s colder months more bearable.

By Jen Rose Smith
Published 12 Sept 2020, 09:19 BST
The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air living, encourages outdoor adventures for all ages in all weather. ...

The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air living, encourages outdoor adventures for all ages in all weather. Mina Floriana Read and her father, Alexander, regularly explore Norway’s backcountry sites, such as Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park.


Photograph by Alexander Read

Even as a toddler, Mina Floriana Read was an accomplished troll hunter.

She learned the skill from her father, Alexander Read, who helps her look for the (maybe) mythological creatures on their hikes in Norway’s backcountry. The senior Read tends to favor rugged trekking gear; Mina Floriana, now nearly five years old, often prefers a pink tutu.

The pair have undertaken serious expeditions together, including a 57-day winter trek when Mina Floriana was two. Along the way, they’ve won a prestigious Norwegian wilderness award. In her short life, Mina Floriana has spent more than 300 nights sleeping in a tent.

In Norway this is not as outlandish as it might seem in other nations. The Reads are simply following the concept of friluftsliv, which translates roughly to “open-air living” and is deeply engrained in the country’s heritage.

From the remote Arctic to urban Oslo, friluftsliv means a commitment to celebrating time outdoors, no matter the weather forecast. “It’s the most natural thing for me because I’m Norwegian,” says Alexander, who documents their father-daughter journeys on Instagram.

The idea is as Norwegian as cross-country skis and aquavit. But amid a pandemic that’s upended rhythms of daily life around the globe, friluftsliv might also be a model for coming more safely—and sanely—through the northern hemisphere’s approaching winter season.

Norwegian inspiration

While early lockdown measures have succeeded in keeping Norway’s coronavirus case numbers relatively low (less than 12,000 to date), there have been some recent spikes. That has Norwegians looking to the country’s outdoorsy traditions for respite from the enclosed spaces where the virus transmits more easily.

A positive attitude and proper clothes for the conditions are key to successful outdoor exploits, says Alexander Read, shown with Mina Floriana Read in Norway’s Rondane National Park.

Photograph by Lars Petter Skillestad

They’re not alone. During the summer months, people around the world have shifted life outdoors. Americans have suddenly become obsessed with camping. In the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, streets and squares turned into a vast, open-air café. Teachers in mountainous Kashmir took their classes outside, where students worked against a sawtooth backdrop of Himalayan peaks. In Wales, Snowdon saw its busiest weekend in living memory.

But winter is coming, and those pandemic-friendly arrangements will soon bring a chill. This has left some contemplating a choice between risking infection at indoor gatherings or spending a long, cold season in relative isolation.

Norwegian friluftsliv offers an alternative, full of cold-hardy inspiration for a frigid time of year. Like the cabin-cozy word hygge, which spurred a worldwide run on candles and fuzzy blankets, it’s proof that mindset can transform the way we experience our world.

A way of life

“Friluftsliv is more than just an activity, it’s a kind of lifestyle,” says Lasse Heimdal, secretary general of Norsk Friluftsliv, an organisation representing 5,000 outdoors groups in Norway. “It’s very tied to our culture and what it means to be a Norwegian.”

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is generally credited with inventing the term in the 1859 poem “On the Heights,” which recounts a farmer’s yearlong trek through the wilderness. By the end of the poem, the protagonist ditches civilization for good.

But Heimdal says friluftsliv isn’t just for hard-core athletes and intrepid explorers. Friluftsliv can also mean long strolls with friends, picnics, a leisurely afternoon bike ride, or walking the dog on a chilly morning. There’s even a special word, utepils, for drinking a beer outdoors.

“Most people think it’s healthy, it’s social,” Heimdal says. “You get kind of a time-out from cell phones and computers … being outdoors and in nature, it’s one of the best places to relax.”

The happiness quotient

Friluftsliv may help explain the country’s enviable ranking among the world’s happiest places. (In the UN’s 2020 World Happiness Report, Norway came in at number five. The Norwegian centers of Bergen and Oslo made the top ten of the world’s happiest cities.)

Experts have long known that time outdoors makes you happy. Spending just two hours a week in natural environments such as parks or green spaces boosts well-being, according to a 2019 paper published in the journal Nature.

The concept of friluftsliv has a natural advantage during a pandemic. While enjoying the outdoors in cooler weather, people can avoid enclosed spaces where the virus spreads more easily.

Photograph by Stanislaw Pytel, Getty Images

The benefit goes beyond good mood though. Spending time in the outdoors can also help heal the kind of grief and trauma emerging as the virus races through communities worldwide. Past disease outbreaks left many grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and experts warn that this one could do the same.

For those left traumatised by COVID-19, a little bit of friluftsliv could be an effective prescription. Military veterans dealing with PTSD have found relief in nature-assisted therapies that range from gardening to white-water rafting. Some therapies addressing bereavement and loss also look for relief in the natural world.

Change your clothes—and your mind

Despite their country’s astonishing natural beauty, Norwegians don’t always have it easy when it comes to getting out. Even in summer, days of rain can drench the countryside. Up north, winter hides the sun for a long, polar night. But complain to a Norwegian about the weather, and you’ll likely hear a cheery refrain: “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing!” (In Norwegian, it rhymes.)

Locals have more than long johns and wool hats to protect them against the elements, however. They also have what Stanford University health psychologist Kari Leibowitz calls “positive wintertime mindset.”

Embracing friluftsliv doesn’t have to mean hard-core expeditions; it can be as simple as a family hike through some nearby woods.

Photograph by Jure Gasparic, Alamy Stock Photo

Somebody with this attitude “sees the opportunities of the season,” says Leibowitz, who learned to live with the dark and cold when she spent a year in Norway’s Arctic city of Tromsø. “In Norway that focuses a lot on being outdoors, even when the weather is cold, or wet, or snowy.”

While studies show that lack of daylight can cause seasonal depression in many high-latitude places, Tromsø residents are actually pretty happy about life at 69° North. To Leibowitz, it’s evidence that what you believe about winter—your mindset—can transform your experience of it.

Mindsets can be quite malleable. Growing up on the Jersey Shore, Leibowitz dreaded winter. Although her time in Tromsø didn’t exactly turn her into an Arctic explorer, she saw her own perspective shift over time.

Her advice? Look for, and talk about, something you like about the winter, even if it’s just how pretty fresh snow looks. “When you say something out loud, it changes the way you think about it,” she says.

Taking the first step

In the recent book Friluftsliv: Connect With Nature the Norwegian Way, author Oliver Luke Delorie offers a broad perspective on finding wonder in a sense of place, whether you’re playing in the snow or watching a storm.

It’s okay to start small. Amid the pandemic, channeling some friluftsliv could mean brisk walks on blustery days, or bundling up for a winter picnic in the park. Consider bringing meetings outdoors and scouring Google Maps for nearby green spaces. (Remember to practice social distancing and comply with any local policies related to COVID-19.)

Delorie suggests looking to the wintry weather as a way to connect with the world around you. “Weather is a wondrous phenomenon,” he says. “Pay attention to the elements and watch how you start appreciating where you are in space and time.”

If you have access to truly wild places, seek them out. Otherwise, find bits of nature and beauty chinked into the urban landscape around your home. “Open the door, step outside, and take a deep breath,” writes Delorie in the book’s introduction. Then say it: “I’m going friluftsliving.”

Based in Vermont, travel writer Jen Rose Smith covers outdoor adventure, remote places, and traditional cuisine for CNN, the Washington Post, Outside, and others. Follow her on Instagram.

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