Fjord focus: is Norway’s friluftsliv the answer to surviving a second lockdown?


First things first, let’s tackle the pronunciation. “It’s free-luftz-leev, ” says Lasse Heimdal, repeating the word four times on the phone from the relatively balmy Oslo (14C, sunny) until I obtain it right.

Heimdal is the general secretary of the Norwegian Association for Outdoor Organisations, otherwise referred to as Norsk Friluftsliv. It is a large, voluntary organisation that promotes friluftsliv – or “free-air life” – in the country and, it seems, beyond.

While I find it difficult to pronounce, friluftsliv is simple to define and subsequently assimilate – assuming you have an all-weather jacket, some decent socks as well as perhaps a car. “For Norwegians, friluftsliv is less about what you do and much more about what your location is, ” that he says, pointing – I imagine – to the crystal-clear fjords and pines of his hometown’s outskirts. “For me, it is about disconnecting from daily stress, being area of the cultural ‘we’ and existing in what I call nature – an ‘escape room’” as though the woods were an extension of his own home. Heimdal partakes in friluftsliv up to 3 x a week.

Instructive rather than conceptual, typical friluftsliv activities include relaxing, fishing, hiking, sleeping in “camping hammocks” (not tents) and picking cloudberries. Its symbol is the campfire and its mantra is “man’s right to roam”. In many ways, I say, friluftsliv sounds not quite the same as Love Island. Heimdal isn’t familiar with Love Island.

Searching the window of my flat as a couple fight on the road about childcare, I can understand why the idea of “open-air living” drums up nearly a million hashtags on Instagram, warranted a profile in National Geographic magazine and appears, according to Heimdal, on two out of every three on line dating profiles in Norway. Given the change in weather, I am also able to see why it really is set to overhaul hygge as our Scandinavian word du jour given just how much time we’ve spent indoors since March.

Unsurprisingly, friluftsliv has been the runaway hit of what Heimdal identifies as “corona season”; that he says one in three Norwegians increased their outdoor time since March – quite a feat given that the common Norwegian visits the great outdoors at least 3 x a week. Such was the demand for outdoor kit that, after many Norwegian shops shut in March, the government had to recall furloughed staff at camping and sports retailers and also hire extra workers.

While early lockdown measures succeeded in keeping Norway’s number of coronavirus cases relatively low, there’s been a recent upsurge in cases. Fortuitously, it is easy to maintain social distancing while camping. As yet, says Heimdal, there were no recorded cases of the virus being transmitted for the duration of a friluftsliv-based excursion. “We do maybe not think an excessive amount of about this corona stuff, ” he says of his fellow friluftsliv-lovers.

The pull of friluftsliv has been at the heart of Norwegian culture for decades. Henrik Ibsen’s poem On the Heights, considered to contain the first mention of the term, follows the dilemma of a farmer torn between life on the farm then one more, well, friluftsliv. The 2019 Norwegian TELEVISION thriller Twin features two brothers, one of whom is more friluftsliv compared to the other – with devastating effect.

We’ve been here before, of course. Look behind a cultural fad these days and you’ll likely look for a Scandinavian, trying to sell candles (hygge) or harping on about work-life balance (lagom). As Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, a Danish lecturer at University College London, told me during peak-hygge in 2017, Norwegians love metonymy, or substituting a word for an idea. “In Britain, it is harder to acknowledge one word to cover particular sensibilities across social, geographic and cultural differences”. He also told me that Scandinavians have a knack for “self-mythologising” which may explain their reach. Still while hygge and lagom remain nebulous as terms yet marketable as products, friluftsliv is nearly too broad to commodify.

It really is correctly the tension between city and nature that makes the idea of friluftsliv even more relevant; once we head into yet another lockdown just six months following the first one was imposed, the pull of the outside has never been stronger. It really is particularly desirable given that the idea is wholly experiential, and free; the experience economy, beloved by millennials, plummeted into recession when we stopped going out in March.

I ask Tom Rønning, an Oslo resident who works in IT, if one can be friluftsliv. No, he says, but you could be a friluftsliv type of person. It really is about the safety of nature, the end of doomscrolling and the invaluable lesson of brutal Scandinavian winters (there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothes). As for the clothes, “gorpcore” – that confection of style, Patagonia and chunky hiking socks – probably needed a new outlet. This one is more sustainable: in Norway, Heimdal informs me, they have government-sponsored “libraries” for borrowing hiking gear.

It is possible to view friluftsliv as an activity of the prosperous and bourgeois, particularly if you are sitting in a garden-less flat miles from any green space. Also, a cabin is simply another home – and we realize how we experience those (the Norwegian government barred the usage of them through the more serious elements of lockdown). Then there is the knottier business of Norway being a country that shouts loudly about environmentalism while also creating a lot of money from oil.

Heimdal, however, is more interested in friluftsliv’s role in Norway’s mental health. “It is [warm] now however in a few weeks, it’ll be below zero. We have very challenging weather, so we’ve a life style that suits that which is section of it. Nevertheless, you have to understand that depression is really a problem here, ” that he says of the country’s famously dark winters. “This is why in school we teach our kids how to dress for the cold, so we can begin looking at the issue early. ” It is a reason Heimdal thinks we should move our offices outside.

Still, friluftsliv isn’t for everyone. Rønning lives 100 metres from the woods and usually sees deer and moose outside his house, yet he “can probably count on one hand just how many times I have already been in a cabin in my own adult life”.