How Norwegian ‘Friluftsliv’ Can Inspire You to Get Outside More
“It's unreal,” she says. “We're on this chain of islands and these huge peaks come straight out of the water.”
The Montana-born artist, who owns and operates Rachel Pohl Art, moved to Lofoten a year and a half ago with her husband. There, she makes it a point to get outside and enjoy the awe-inspiring views every day—a practice Norwegians call “friluftsliv” (pronounced “free-loofs-leaf”).
Literally speaking, the Scandinavian phrase translates to “open air living,” but it encompasses a broader philosophy that prioritizes spending time outside.
“Friluftsliv is this idea that no matter what, you spend at least some part of every day out in nature. It's not even a question,” Pohl explains.
“We live in the arctic part of Norway where we can have 30 days straight of rain without seeing the sun. But kids and families and everyone always still go outside—it's amazing.”
A deeply ingrained practice
Thor Hesselberg, who runs the Rockman Swimrun, is a Norwegian endurance athlete living in Stavanger. He says the concept of friluftsliv is so deeply embedded in Norwegian culture that it’s hard to think of specific examples—it’s in everything they do.
“We don't really stop to consider it because it's just who we are,” the Oslo native explains.
Like many places blessed with beautiful scenery, outdoor sports are popular throughout Norway. In the summertime, the trails and waterways fill with people hiking, backpacking, trail running, kayaking, boating, fishing, berry picking, and mushroom foraging. In the winter, things like cross country skiing, ice skating, and sledding dominate the landscape.
Outdoor activities are so well loved that they often extend beyond daylight hours, especially if there’s a special occasion for it. A late-night snow flurry, for example, in a town without much snowfall might send residents grabbing their toboggans long after dark and trekking up the hills to go sledding. (“The middle of the night might be the only time we have,” Hesselberg explains.)
“Each day you sleep, you eat, you go to work—you do your day-to-day activities,” Hesselberg explains. “But you always find half an hour or 45 minutes to go outdoors and use your body. You spend time in nature and keep an active, healthy lifestyle so you can live a long life.”
There are gyms in Norway, but it’s more common for people to head to the mountains. “That's your gym. That’s your exercise,” Pohl says.
It helps that there’s practically no such thing as a “fair weather” Norwegian. In fact, a common local phrase declares “There’s no bad weather, only bad layers.” The aphorism is meant to suggest that as long as you’re wearing the right clothes and know how to layer, you can always have fun outside.
“It's very normal for it to be pouring rain and to see a family with a little baby out hiking in the mountains,” Pohl notes. “In America, that’s becoming more desirable and aspirational, but here it's the way of life. It's their baseline. They’ll go outside in any weather—they just wear good raincoats.”
Friluftsliv is for everyone
“You see parents with babies in backpacks trekking up these steep, rugged trails and it's not really a second thought. Young kids are hiking alongside them at very young ages and there's this trust that they're going to be OK. Then you have the older generation of people who are 80-plus and still schlepping up the mountain.”
Pohl has observed this phenomenon as well, noting that even though Norway is home to some of the fittest people on earth, there’s a sense of contentment with simply sitting outside and doing nothing.
It is different from in North America where the focus of going outside is often on conquering mountains or summiting peaks.
“We get a lot of messaging in the U.S. about what being outdoorsy looks like,” she says. “We are told that it’s about being fit, athletic, able-bodied. But there are so many more ways to interact with nature that have nothing to do with what we look like, where we come from, or how much we know about ice climbing.
“Being over here, I’ve learned that you can have really beautiful, meaningful experiences outdoors without needing to be extreme.”
“There's this underlying current of appreciation and reverence for nature,” she says. “And not only for the good weather or good times—the northern lights and all that. But also for the harsh weather. Learning how to dance with the storms, the hurricanes, the ice, the rain. All of it. It's a whole way of living and existing.”
When you practice friluftsliv you are a humble student of nature, she says, taking time to listen, look, and pay attention. The idea is to ask yourself how you can serve nature rather than the other way around.
“Nature gives us so much. It gives us our food, it gives us our gym, it’s our therapy. It's all of these things. It is important to appreciate it.”
Closeness to nature
“It’s not like in some places where you have to drive through a big city and then through the suburbs to get to nature,” Pohl observes. “You walk right out your front door and you're there. That is so unique and special.”
Within 15 to 30 minutes, you can be fully immersed in the wilderness—and not the well-manicured kind that people in the U.S are familiar with.
“Most of your trail system is man-made,” Hesselberg says. “Ours are made by animals and nature.”
He explains that Norwegians use existing wildlife trails that have been blazed by moose or other animals instead of creating new paths. It is one of several ways that Norwegian trail systems are distinct from those in North America.
“We don't really have rangers in the same sense because we don't really have a national park system. Most of the trail system is managed by the Norwegian Trekking Association (NTA), which does this on a voluntary basis—it’s something we call dugnad [a concept describing the responsibility each citizen has to help out and contribute].
“It’s different from in the United States where rangers are paid to keep up trails. Here, it’s the local community—people who care about the outdoors and spend free time helping others enjoy them.”
“Some cabins will leave food for you and it's an honor system,” Blakeson says. “You write down your name and what you took, and then they send you a bill. Since Leave No Trace is such a part of the culture, people are conscientious of cleaning up after themselves, so this type of system can be used without being abused.”
A pre-Viking mandate
Recreationalists must be respectful of landowners and follow certain guidelines; however, in rural areas you can typically camp in tents for up to two days within 500 feet of inhabited dwellings. You can also swim, kayak, rowboat, and sail in most rivers, lakes, and oceans. Fishing and foraging is almost always free and protected under the law.
“It’s the foundation of how society is built—that nature is something for everybody,” Hesselberg explains. “Even though somebody might own the land, it is still accessible, and people have the right to use it. It allows everybody to walk freely and experience nature.”
One of the results is that planning outdoor excursions is typically a simple and hassle-free process. Blakeson says she’s witnessed this in action on multiple occasions.
“They don't overthink it,” she observes. “They'll decide to go on an overnight camping trip with some friends the same day. They just pack a bag and go. It's not this long process where they have to get a park permit, reserve a campsite, get everything lined up.”
In grade school, friluftsliv is an integral part of physical education programs and many schools test for competency in areas like skiing, swimming, and skating. At the university level, Norwegians can receive three-year bachelor's degrees in friluftsliv, and PhD programs have used it as a focus of their research.
In the workplace, friluftsliv is widely practiced as well.
“Orientation meetings for jobs will be in a mountain cabin instead of a dark urban space,” Blakeson says. “Norwegians value work-life balance. If it's a nice powder ski day, the boss might let their employees off early to go enjoy the day.”
Blakeson says that when she first arrived, it took her some time to adjust to a work culture that’s so different from her own.
“I remember feeling frustrated when I first moved here that I didn’t get immediate email responses,” she recalls. “In America, people are on their emails all hours of the day—they’ll reply to work emails in the middle of the night. But here they have very clear boundaries. After 5 p.m., you're not going to get a response. They make other things a priority.”
Benefits of the outdoors
Spending time outside has been shown to provide numerous benefits to your health. Beyond the obvious physical benefits like cardiovascular exercise, strength building, vitamin D exposure, and staying fit after 40, there are subtler implications such as reduced stress and anxiety, decreased levels of depression, and increased focus and attention. In fact, spending time outside is so good for your mental health that some psychiatrists “prescribe” time in nature as part of their treatment plans.
Being outside is thought to benefit your immune system, help improve sleep, and regulate your circadian rhythm. There have been cases of nature helping people overcome addiction, find strength during breast cancer treatment, and navigate various mental health challenges.
Blakeson says she’s seen it have an impressive impact on people during her guided tours. “I guide a lot of people from the U.S. that are working these high stress corporate jobs. We go out into the mountains and we disconnect from work and cell phones, and it’s incredible seeing the shift in people’s energy. Being in nature is such a potent remedy. By the third day, it's a night and day difference. I see this transition where they are able to breathe and slow down.”
Lessons from friluftsliv
“Spending time outdoors has been such a part of my routine and habit for so many years, but I've learned to slow down more,” Blakeson says. “I am practicing greater awareness when I'm out there.”
Pohl has seen it appear not only in her personal life but professionally, too, where she paints in nature, often spending dozens of hours on one piece.
“I realize that my work and the concept of friluftsliv have been running parallel to one another since before I knew the term,” she says. “That’s how I have always painted, and even more so since moving over here. It’s a slow, methodical process.
“I think in order to get the most meaning out of an experience, you have to slow down. You can't go to a viewpoint, take a photo, and leave. That's not friluftsliv. Friluftsliv is about the slow burn, the simmer.
“I grew up connecting with nature a lot, but living here it's so much more tangible.”
A philosophy for anyone
“It doesn’t have to be anything big,” she says. “It can be a 10-minute walk in the local park. Instead of that coffee shop date, take your friend to the park and walk together. The important thing is to make getting outside and breathing fresh air a priority.”
Pohl agrees, noting that the key to becoming more outdoorsy is to begin with something simple and build from there.
“You don’t need to fly to Norway and go hiking through fjords. There’s no need to create more stress to have less stress. Go sit on a park bench or walk through the grass. Take your shoes off and put your feet in the cold water before you start cold plunging. It can be simple. There are so many ways that we can have meaningful connections with nature.”
Once it becomes a habit, the benefits start multiplying exponentially. Pohl says that in her own life, it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of the outdoors.
“It’s where I relieve stress, connect with myself, and remember who I am,” she says. “It gives me so much perspective. Every time I go out in nature, I'm reminded that my problems can feel big, but they're not, in the grand scheme of things. That's really comforting for me.
“Our bodies are wired to have connection with nature. We are made up of the same elements. We are supposed to be out in the cold. We're supposed to experience this whole range of different experiences in nature.”
From Hesselberg’s point of view, friluftsliv holds a special place in the lives of all Norwegians.
“As humans, we all need to have certain ways that we recharge. And Norwegians recharge by being close to nature.
“In a lot of societies, religion is really important, but Norwegians in general are not so religious. Maybe friluftsliv is where we find our spirit.”