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Can ‘friluftsliv’ help get us through the pandemic winter?

Try warming up to it the Norwegian way

Norway is hiking central, home to Europe’s largest trail network. You’re never far from a hiking trail in Norway.
Norway is hiking central, home to Europe’s largest trail network. You’re never far from a hiking trail in Norway.Marius Dalseg Saetre

Remember all those sun-splashed afternoons when you sat under a shady tree with your bubble buddies and someone said, “Isn’t this great?” And someone else Debbie Downer-ed with, “But what will we do when winter comes?” Ah, good times, good times!

Well, guess what, folks? It’s here. Fourteen inches of snow fell on Mount Washington last weekend, and the wind chill was zero degrees. La Nina notwithstanding, it’s only a matter of time before the temperatures dip, the winds howl, and the snow flies. (Today in some places!) Meanwhile, the pandemic is still raging, and the medical experts are warning it will only get worse as we all head inside with our potentially toxic droplets. What can we do? Here’s one solution: We can take a cue from our friends in Norway and embrace friluftsliv.

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Pronounced “free-loofts-liv,” the word translates to “open-air living,” and was coined by Norwegian playwright/poet Henrik Ibsen in the 1850s. The idea is to connect with nature and embrace the outdoors every day, no matter what the weather. “Norway is cold and dark during the winter, and ‘winter-friluftsliv’ is a part of our DNA,” says Trygve Sunde Kolderup, head of sustainability for the Norwegian Trekking Association, Norway’s largest outdoor activities organization.

“To cope, we have to learn to appreciate outdoor activities in the winter.”

You don’t need to be a hard-core adventurist to get into the spirit of it, Sunde Kolderup says. “In summer or winter, friluftsliv is about enjoying outdoor activities in the nearest forest or beach. It’s about a hike in the outskirts of the city, making a bonfire at the beach, or skiing on the cross-country slopes.” Friluftsliv even encompasses low-key pursuits like winter picnics and chilling in a sauna. (Note: Never make a bonfire on the beach or in the woods without checking local regulations.)

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Norway’s outdoor lifestyle seems to pay off. In the United Nation’s 2020 World Happiness Report, Norway came in fifth. And lest you think it is only residents of remote, picture-book villages who are giddy with joy, consider that Norway’s urban centers, Bergen and Oslo, were among the world’s happiest cities. “[The Norwegian Trekking Association] has been working hard to facilitate ‘urban friluftsliv’ — outdoor experiences very close to the city,” Sunde Kolderup says. Even a cabin getaway is doable in the city; among the 500-plus trekking association-operated huts and cabins in Norway, one of the most popular is located just a few kilometers outside of Oslo’s city center. It is located near a tram station and has views of city skyline.

The mental health benefits of being outdoors have been well publicized in recent years, including a Nature report in 2019 that concluded that spending just two hours per week in nature promotes well-being. Whether you live in Bergen or Beantown, that can’t hurt. “We conducted a poll and discovered that four out of 10 Norwegians say the outdoors and nature have become smore important for them as a result of COVID-19,” Sunde Kolderup notes.

If Norwegians can find the joy in a polar winter, we should be able to manage it, no? Here’s some advice.

Go out every day, even for a few minutes

“I try very hard to get outside every day for my mental health,” says Clare Arentzen, an outdoor guide and instructor for the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club; www.outdoors.org.) “Getting outside takes the stress away, and that’s especially important right now.” Of course, Arentzen is a naturalist in the White Mountain National Forest, so she’s tuned into the outdoors. But she’s seen winter haters who become believers during a winter excursion, excited by what they observe.

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“Animal tracks are everywhere, and you can see things you can’t ordinarily see, like pine martens and snowshoe hares,” Arentzen says. “The snow on the ground makes things quiet, so you can get closer to wildlife.” Even in cities and suburbs, you’ll see different birds in the winter.

There’s no need to go out for long expeditions, Sunde Kolderup says. “Start with a soft adventure and get used to it.” And bring along good food and warm beverages to help keep you toasty. “One of the best tricks for staying warm in the winter is to stay fed and hydrated,” Arentzen notes.

Get in touch with your inner naturalist

Arentzen recommends an app called iNaturalist (www.inaturalist.org; the AMC is not affiliated with it) for taking pictures of birds, mushrooms, and plants to learn what’s around where you live and see how it changes seasonally. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s crowd-sourced, so you post what you see on your profile and other people can help you identify it,” she says. It helps increase your awareness and tune into the small beauties of winter.

A hike along the Mashpee River Reservation is a great way to tune into the beauty of the Cape in winter.
A hike along the Mashpee River Reservation is a great way to tune into the beauty of the Cape in winter.The Trustees of Reservations

Bond with a buddy

If you plan to go for a winter hike by yourself, you won’t do it. Invite a friend, and you won’t chump out. Plus, “it’s a lot more powerful to experience nature with friends,” Arentzen says. “Being in nature together is a really strong bonding experience for humans.”

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Find the thing that will get you hooked on winter

It’s like what they say about working out; if you find an activity you like, you’ll stick with it. The same is true of winter sports. “Look at winter as a great opportunity to try something new,” Arentzen says; say, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or running in the city. “Find the thing that’s going to hook you,” she says, even if it means renting equipment until you find your winter love match.

Find the thing that's going to hook you, such as snowshoeing.
Find the thing that's going to hook you, such as snowshoeing.Thomas Peipert/Associated Press

Dress the part

None of the above will work if you’re freezing to death. It’s shocking how many people who live in our region don’t understand how to dress for the weather, Arentzen says. The AMC offers outdoor skills classes that include gearing up. By now, we all know the virtues of layering clothing: a thin base layer (never cotton, which gets wet and stays wet), followed by a fleece or wool jacket, followed by an insulating (puffy) layer, topped with a waterproof, windproof shell layer. “If you combine those, you’ll be so comfortable,” Arentzen says.

One of the big mistakes people make is wearing thick wool socks under their hiking boots, she says — “you’ll cut off your circulation and your feet will get cold.” Thin wool socks and insulated waterproof hiking boots are the perfect combo. As for hats, “we usually recommend a fleece hat or tightly knit hat, not a loosely knit fashion hat,” she notes. Look for a snug fit around the ears. Layer your gloves, too. Find some fleece or wool liner gloves with tech-compatible fingers as a base layer, and add a pair of insulated gloves on top to keep you warm, Arentzen says. That way, you can use your phone and take pictures and your body heat won’t escape.

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Boost your outdoor intel

Still not feeling it? Take an outdoor skills class to build confidence. AMC and other organizations offer courses in outdoor intel that aren’t survival courses but offer useful basics, like what to put into your pack, how to plan a route, and how to use a map and compass. “It’s very empowering, and will really help you embrace winter,” Arentzen says.

As for us, we’ll be embracing our inner Norwegian, and Googling how to build a sauna.

For more information: www.visitnorway.com; https://english.dnt.no.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com