We’re all now familiar with the Nordic hug that is hygge, but for many Scandinavians the idea of getting outdoors and connecting with nature is far more central to their culture than bowls of porridge and Fair Isle sweaters. It’s a concept known as friluftsliv and it was first popularised by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in the 19th century, when he created a character that searched for solitude in nature to help clarify his thoughts. Loosely translated as ‘free air life’, Danes, Finns and Swedes have come to regard it as an essential part of their lifestyle.
While Nordic countries offer access to acres of wilderness (and the occasional mountain cabin), as well as sympathetic employers who incentivise staff to get outside during working hours, it might be hard to see how we can achieve the same slice of friluftsliv on our small island. But before you sigh that you live in an apartment and can only enjoy nature in the local park, be reassured that it’s less about the rugged, and more about a general immersion in nature – be it on or off the beaten track.
“Friluftsliv can be an amazing view or the accomplishment of a goal – picking hedgerow fruit, going for a hilltop hike, breathing in the ocean air,” says Norwegian life coach Anne Eriksen. “But it can also be shovelling snow, digging in the ground or moving stones. It’s the freedom not to think or worry, to just ‘be’ and watch, and master your next step,” she explains.
Heather Ricks, a Scottish-born writer who has been living in Sweden since 2004, agrees that friluftsliv is more of a way of life than a pastime. “That’s the beauty of it: there is no boundary to what it constitutes,” she says. “In many ways, it is a state of mind or a way of thinking, more than what you ‘do’.” In a world of tech, tweets and being stuck at our desks, getting into nature can have important body benefits. But as well as the physical virtues of moving across different terrain, it can also boost our mental health.
“Putting down the phone or laptop and being outside creates a sense of presence, brings families together and helps us forget our busy lives for a moment,” says Isabella Arendt from The Happiness Research Institute in Denmark. “Finding peace and quiet and living an active and healthy life are all factors in increasing happiness.”
Friluftsliv isn’t just about a sense of calm though. “Being in nature helps you take risks, take chances, do something unexpected and step out of your comfort zone,” says nutritional therapist and Scandinavia’s ‘long-life guru’, Thorbjörg Hafsteinsdóttir . “For me, friluftsliv also brings courage and mental strength.” Read on to find how you can live your best friluftsliv, wherever you are…
With many parts of Scandinavia carpeted in forest, moving mindfully through trees and woodland therapies are a big part of the culture. ‘Forest Schools’ began as a Nordic tradition, getting children closer to nature by taking the classroom outdoors.
In the countryside: there are now many of these schools across the UK too. Find adult social forestry courses via Outdoor Tribe in Northamptonshire or The World Outside at Bodenham Arboretum. You could also visit your local forest therapist.
In the city: if you are miles from a forest, think small. With more than eight million trees, London is classified as an urban forest with one tree for every person living there, and most cities will have green spaces and pocket parks. “Find your local park and explore every detail,” says Anne Eriksen. “Touch the trees, smell the flowers, lie on the grass, climb anything possible so you can view it from different levels. Hug a tree. It’s said that hugging one will connect your solar plexus to the tree’s chakra.” Can’t get outdoors? Several studies have found the benefits of forest immersion – including slowing heart rate and lowering blood pressure – can be harnessed at home using cedar and pine essential oils.
Connection to wildlife in all its forms is central to the friluftsliv philosophy.
In the countryside: with their mountains, fjords and craggy coastlines, Nordic countries have plenty of flora and fauna to explore – yet so do we! A trip to the countryside or the coast will fill your cup.
In the city: The Wildlife Trusts run regular events in cities across the UK, to help us get closer to the birds and bees in our own urban backyard. Activities include everything from pond dipping and hedgehog discovery days to dawn chorus walks.
Find a freedom zone
Whether it’s a mud run or a mud bath, Scandinavians are encouraged from an early age to get messy in the great outdoors in order to stimulate imagination and experimentation. In Denmark, there are even ‘junk playgrounds’ where children can forage for scraps to build recycled crafts.
In the countryside: next time it rains, don your wellies and head outside for a muddy walk, seeing where your feet take you, and what you find along the way that you can use for creative projects.
In the city: even a 20-minute dip into ‘messy play’ has been shown to promote creative thinking and relaxation. Run your hands through some fragrant shrubs at the park, build a sandcastle, or re-pot a plant. The Creekside Education Trust organise regular low tide walks in the mud at Deptford Creek, or go native and join the Barefoot Walking Brigade.
Forage & feast
Nordic cuisine is rooted in seasonal and locally gathered ingredients, with wild food sourcing skills passed down the generations. Using freshly picked mushrooms or wild garlic in a meal is as normal for Scandinavians as shopping at the supermarket is for us urbanites.
In the countryside: many ingredients are available for picking in our woodland and countryside – The Woodland Trust has a great guide to foraging safely and sustainably.
In the city: our city parks, allotment fringes and back gardens are ripe for the picking, with tasty chickweed, ground elder, dandelion, bitter cress and wild sorrel among the delicious offerings. You can find free fruit in London via Fruit City’s map, or you can try a guided walk (www.goforaging.co.uk). You can even rent your own fruit tree (www.rentacherrytree.co.uk)!
Instead of an hour in a fitness class, an active lifestyle is seamlessly inserted into every walk of life in Nordic countries. More than 50% of Swedes walk every day, and 30% cycle to work. “I love the Fritidsbanken or ‘freetime bank’ in Sweden,” says Heather Ricks, “They’re libraries of donated sports equipment that people can use for free. Anything that might have previously prevented you from participating is there.”
In the countryside: while walking to work might not be doable along country lanes, there will be walks that you can do right from your front door. Try iFootpath, a great app which has over 950 digital walking guides across the UK, for inspiration (£1.99, iOS/Android). Check out our walking app recommendations.
In the city: an increasing number of cities offer bike hire and bike-sharing schemes (find yours via cyclinguk.org) and many city parks now host outdoor gyms (www.tgogc.com) where you can get fit in the fresh air. Or why not try some Nordic walking with the experts at www.exercise-anywhere.com?
Eat al fresco
“Here in Sweden we have grill places in all the local parks where you come together with strangers to cook,” says Heather Ricks. “The friluftsliv way is not to impress with fancy food but just to grab a packet of buns and a thermos and socialise with friends and family.”
In the countryside: “When you go for a walk, bring a backpack with a small camping gas set, a frying pan and ready-made pancake mixture.” suggests Anne. “Enjoying fresh pancakes outside is such a treat!”
In the city: grab a picnic and research the most scenic parks in the city to enjoy your food with a view. Try St Paul’s Square, Birmingham or the urban orchard at St John’s Gardens, Manchester. You can also cook up an al fresco feast, but mind where you light your barbecue – most cities will have designated outdoor cooking zones.
Embrace the weather
Though half of Scandinavia is at the mercy of the polar climate (where temperatures can drop to an icy -22°C), this doesn’t stop Finns, Danes and Swedes from getting outdoors. “There is no hesitation to go for a walk when it is minus five. In fact, that would just make it better!” says Anne.
In the countryside: Anne recommends taking a blanket to wrap up in on your adventures. Not only will it keep you warm in cold conditions, but you can also use it to sit on. Layer up your clothes and make sure that you’re prepared for any weather. “Then, admire the water drops, feel the rain on your face, feel the wind wanting to blow you away and the forces of nature,” she says.
In the city: Though our city streets tend to be warmer, dare to bare and try some outdoor swimming. “Almost all swimming pools in Iceland are outdoors,” says Thorbjörg. “I swim in all seasons and it’s magical during winter when it’s snowing.” Wild Swim can advise on city lidos and outdoor pools near you.
Being mindful of the sounds of the natural world is a big part of friluftsliv.
In the countryside: “Take a quiet moment in a quiet place by yourself and simply listen to the noises of what’s going on around you,” suggests Thorbjörg.
In the city: “Instead of taking the bus, go for a walk and notice the sights and the smells, even if that’s traffic lights and cars,” says Thorbjörg. Try not to plug in to your phone – listening to natural sounds rather than headphones can have positive benefits. A study by Brighton and Sussex Medical School found that it lowered our fight-or-flight instincts and activated our rest-and-digest mode.
Catch a sunset
This completely free pleasure is something Nordic cultures do not take for granted. In Norway and Sweden, you can witness some of the most colourful sunsets in the world, not to mention the glowing aurora borealis, or northern lights.
In the countryside: find a vista where you have an unobstructed view of the sky, then settle down and enjoy the sight of the countryside bathed in a golden glow.
In the city: while not unobstructed, the city offers its own spectacular views of the horizon. Pick a spot that faces west and soak it up. Try the Wheel of Manchester, Blackpool Tower, Primrose Hill, or #brumhenge – the perfect sunset spot in Birmingham.