Friluftsliv – what is it and how can it help us?

Over the past few years, a group of Scandinavian words has escaped the region’s borders and made themselves known to the rest of the world. Words like “hygge”, “smorgasbord” and all of the nonsensical IKEA names have crept into mainstream media. “Friluftsliv” is one of those words and is – like hygge – much more than just a word.

Directly translated to English, it means ‘free air life’ and was first introduced by the
Norwegian writer, Henrik Ibsen’s 1871 poem, På viddene (“On the ridges” or “On the fells”).

8 minutes to read

by Emil Ronning / July 10th, 2020

So what is friluftsliv, exactly?

The concept, philosophy and participation in friluftsliv plays a major role in the identity of people in the Nordic region. In this article, I will attempt to explain the essence of the phenomenon – although it can be hard to capture a lot of the nuances in writing.

Quote: “I believe that friluftsliv, first and foremost, is about feeling the joy of being in nature, alone or with others, experiencing pleasure and harmony with the surroundings – being in nature and doing something that is meaningful.” – Børge Dahle

How did friluftsliv begin and how does it work?

A very large proportion of the population of the Nordic countries lives in a sort of ‘mutual state’ with nature. In old times, stories and myths about the wretched and/or divine in nature instilled respect and slight fear in people in rural areas. With stories about trolls hiding under mountains, one was much less inclined to venture into nature. This is in contrast to the imperialist mindset of the British, who saw nature as something to be conquered.

In recent years, the English term ‘slow adventure’ has popped up around the world and is probably the definition that comes closest to the main concept of friluftsliv. Rooted in the green movement of the 1960s and 1970s, ‘deep ecology’ and eco-philosophical values became the driving force for friluftsliv and slow adventure, with the goal being to “win friends for nature”.

Friluftsliv - a group of friends around a campfire - the photo has some lens flare, suggesting early morning or early evening

Experience without distraction

The thought was – and still is – based on the idea that you take care of what you love, and that you cannot love something that you do not know and have not experienced. So to truly treat Earth with care and respect, you have to go into nature to experience it yourself. It is not enough to simply read about it or watch nature documentaries. That word, “experience”, is at the heart of everything friluftsliv stands for.

The idea is to be fully present in the moment. So whether you are cross-country skiing, cooking food under an open sky over a fire or portable stove, or hiking many miles for days on end, presence and connection are key. By spending time in nature without the distractions of modern life, your mind is free to focus on the immediate things; staying warm in winter, patterns in the leaves, animal footprints in the soil and much more.

Friluftsliv pinterest pin

To break friluftsliv down a bit, I’ve set out some of the basic concepts and ideas below:

Tumbling and fumbling

Friluftsliv is about lifelong learning and is driven by the process instead of a finished ‘product’. You learn as you go and no one has all the answers. Knowledge is passed on from
the more experienced to the less experienced and very often from generation to generation. Teachings are usually informal and not very structured. Instead, the lessons come by “tumbling and fumbling”, that is, trying different methods and reflecting upon the experience.

Learning by doing

It is much more valuable and a better experience to learn to make a fire by trying rather than theorising. Trying, failing, trying again and reflecting upon why it works or doesn’t work, often leads to better skills and higher satisfaction. Also, the majority of the learning comes from, and in, real-world situations. You will learn to read a map way better by being in the area the map covers, rather than at the dining table.

Friluftsliv  – simple living in a complicated world

Friluftsliv is about making do with less and spending time in free nature, undisturbed by modern society. By stripping life back to basics and focusing on what is important here and now, not worrying about money and material possessions, and removing the stress of deadlines, sales numbers and bad news in the media, it becomes easier to be present in the moment and experience life more deeply.

Friluftsliv is a way of living more simply in an overly complicated world, spending time on what makes you happy and thrive.

Friluftsliv and “doing by ability”

In friluftsliv, we plan our adventures according to the skills and abilities of the group or individual. Embarking on a task or activity that is way above your ability level, is a surefire way to get yourself into danger or fail massively and have a bad experience. By doing things that are within our skill level, we are less likely to put ourselves and others in danger.

Nature is beautiful and wonderful, but nature can also be incredibly dangerous.
By taking something on that is within our capacity, we are more likely to feel successful and a sense of mastery and accomplishment. 

Failing, but not too spectacularly

If we try to do something that is way above our level, chances are we won’t succeed. What’s more, it might make us avoid those activities in the future. As mentioned previously, failing is a part of friluftsliv (and a part of living). But failing so badly that you never want to do something again is not something to aim for.

Now, this does not mean that we shouldn’t push ourselves, but we should aim to keep it within the realm of your abilities. As with many things in life, the age-old saying “know thyself” is very much at the forefront of this.

So if you have never hiked more than a day at a time, a week-long trip in the mountains might be a bit too much, to begin with, and it would be a better idea to start off a bit more slowly.

A group walking in single file next to a river

Nature as a relationship partner – no conquering allowed!

Being in nature the friluftsliv way, is one of immersion and humbleness. Rather than seeing nature purely as resources that will further our technology, increase our status, economy and living standards, we should aim to think of Nature as a relationship partner – with a
capital ‘N’ and where all is equal. Nature has intrinsic value purely by its existence, and whether we humans are on this planet or not. We must not forget that we come from Nature and that there is no need for conquering and enslaving our roots.

And speaking of conquering…

Adventure vs. Objective

In friluftsliv, we usually speak of adventures instead of trips with set-in-stone objectives or trips as a “means to an end”. On an adventure, every part of the way is valuable and an experience in itself, no matter how simple or difficult the adventure may be. When you have an objective, there is a goal, and if do not reach your goal, the whole trip might be seen as a failure. 

On an adventure, the way is the goal. With an objective, the way leads to the goal. An adventure is flexible and accommodating. An objective is rigid and structured. On an adventure, with no set goal, you are able to be fully present in the moment. On a trip with a clearly defined objective, you are always looking forward to, dreaming of and anticipating what it will feel like when you reach your goal, not allowing yourself to experience what is just right in front of you, because your sight is fixed on something further away.

a long line of hikers walking into the distance in the snow

Image credit: Guro Midtmageli


Friluftsliv and the journey forward

Friluftsliv is incredibly diverse and difficult to explain without experiencing it, but the Canadian writer, educator and guide Bob Henderson, has been studying the field for many years and summarises friluftsliv much better than I can, so I will leave him to it: 

“Friluftsliv is a way, not a skill. Friluftsliv is acknowledged as a possible therapy for the human soul. Friluftsliv is always experiential. Friluftsliv is not adventure programming. The adventure in friluftsliv is more in keeping with an adventure of the spirit connecting with a place and a tradition. Friluftsliv is an idea and an activity. Behind all these stories is the simple joy of being in nature. This is the first principle of friluftsliv. So simple, it is elusive and mysterious for our modern ways. Nature is primary to friluftsliv – not a backdrop or a ‘sparring partner.’” – Bob Henderson.

Friluftsliv – what next?

If you are interested in learning more, the next article (which will be published on Friday 17th July at 9am BST) will look at how to participate in friliuftsliv.

If you can’t wait until next time and would like to read or watch more now, here is a small collection of books and resources that might interest you:

Nature First – Outdoor Life the Friluftsliv Way, by Henderson, B. & Vikander, N. (book)

TEDx – How Norwegian friluftsliv brings out the best in people.

Finding Friluftsliv // a documentary. 

Nature and Culture – Change with Joy 

Looking for some ideas to help you get outside and connect with nature? Try our 30 days wild ideas for inspiration.


Photos kindly provided by Guro Midtmageli.
See her work here:
Instagram – Guroo


About the author

Friluftsliv - young man in a NOrdic-style sweater on a boat

Image credit: Guro Midtmageli

Emil is Danish and lives on the west coast of Norway, where he has just finished his bachelor’s degree in Friluftsliv & Nature Guiding. In his spare time and when he feels like it (which is sometimes not that much) he skis, hikes, cycles and does other random things
outside. Emil is also a music nerd (see his website Tuesday Tapes for a weekly mixtape that disappears after 7 days!), very interested in culture and constantly debating whether he should live in a city or somewhere in nature.

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