Friluftsliv: how to embrace the long cold winter

Do as the Scandinavians do with a little “friluftsliv” – get outside to enjoy this time of year, says Chris Carter.

“Much as we Scandinavians are famous for our love of hygge – that cosy hunkering down in our woollen socks, with our candles lit, sheltered from the elements – we are just as passionate about going outdoors in rain, sleet or snow,” says happiness researcher Meik Wiking in The Sunday Times. This love of outdoor living is known as friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liew; literally “free-air life”). Henrik Ibsen popularised the term in the 1850s and today Scandinavians use it to refer to everything from a woodland run on your lunch break to joining friends for a lakeside sauna. “As the nights draw in and coronavirus restrictions limit indoor socialising for so many people in Britain, it is not hygge but friluftsliv that will get you through the winter months.” 

The secret to happiness

Friluftsliv is more than just an activity, it’s a kind of lifestyle,” Lasse Heimdal, secretary general of Norsk Friluftsliv, an organisation representing 5,000 outdoors groups in Norway, tells Jen Rose Smith of National Geographic. “It’s very tied to our culture and what it means to be a Norwegian.” That might go some way towards explaining why Norwegians are such a happy bunch, says Rose Smith – they ranked fifth in this year’s UN World Happiness Report. And it’s not as if they have it easy with the weather, either. Even in summer, days of rain can drench the countryside. “Up north, winter hides the sun for a long, polar night.” But you’ll seldom hear a Norwegian complain as they enjoy their country’s great natural beauty whatever the weather.  

Norwegians in the northern city of Tromsø, for example, “see the winter as a special time of year full of opportunities for enjoyment and fulfilment, rather than a limiting time of year to dread”, says Kari Leibowitz, a psychologist, in The New York Times. “Embracing winter is a hallmark of Scandinavian family life.” So, dress for the weather and get outside. “You feel refreshed, you feel maybe a little bit robust and vital, and you feel the benefits of being in contact with the elements”, Ida Solhaug, a psychology researcher at the University of Tromsø, tells Leibowitz. Coming together to “celebrate the darkness” by sitting around a socially distanced bonfire is “not only a Covid-19 friendly way to gather, it can be deeply meaningful”, says Leibowitz. It is a “mindful moment, an opportunity to pause and enjoy”.

Wild about Britain

Loch Moidart

Loch Moidart: a perfect spot for indulging in friluftsliv

Loch Moidart

As beautiful as Norway is, for most of us it is currently off-limits due to travel restrictions. The country is currently on the UK government’s “safe list”, but visitors from Britain have to quarantine for ten days on arrival. No matter – friluftsliv is an approach to life that can be just as easily practised at home. 

You might choose to “spend your days scrambling [along] coastal and woodland paths” in the Scottish Highlands, go “seal and squirrel spotting” and take “bracing dips in the loch, with evenings relaxing by the fire pit”, says Hannah Summers in The Times. Eilean Shona is a car-free private island with wild moors, open hills and secluded paths, right by Loch Moidart on the west coast. The Timber Cottage is a “stylish space for two”, with a Victorian roll-top bath, rugs from Marrakesh and Egyptian cotton bed linen. (Seven nights’ self-catering from £900 – eileanshona.com.)

Crofter’s Cabin, on a rural farm in Northumberland, is also “ideal for couples”, says Laura Hampson in the Evening Standard. “The sunshine hits the veranda perfectly during the day” and there’s a wood-fired hot tub for relaxing in after a day out and about. (From £160 a night – woodlandchaseglamping.co.uk.)

“Gazing out at a wild wintery sea can be a more exhilarating return to nature,” says Gemma Bowes in The Guardian. Carswell Farm Holiday Cottages’ new beach hut occupies an “incredible” spot in Devon, right by its own private cove – “perfect for some winter skinny-dipping, with a wood-fired hot tub on the deck to warm up in afterwards”. (From £358 for a two-night weekend or four nights midweek – carswellcottages.com.)

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