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Why Detroit Should Adopt Norway's "Friluftsliv" Lifestyle this Winter

In honor of the Winter Solstice, here is Expedition Detroit's guide to harnessing the physical, mental, and cultural benefits of Norway's transformative "Friluftsliv" approach to winter recreation.

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"Yeah...these definitely aren't waterproof."


It's 9 a.m. sharp and I've just reached the Vidden trailhead in Europe's rainiest city: Bergen, Norway. A ~10 mile trek across the roof of Bergen lies ahead, starting with 1,300 steps to reach Bergen's highest point, Ulriken. I had assumed my brand new trail shoes were waterproof; the unmistakable sponging noise emanating from my feet dictated otherwise.


At the halfway point on those stairs, I turned around to admire a nonexistent vista of Bergen that the thick mist robbed me of. The density of the cloud cover shrouded over the world below, save only the barren hillside and carefully-placed stone steps within my immediate vicinity. Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" played on a loop in my head, and since I had found myself alone in this cloud country, I decided to sing along:


"There's a lady who's su-"


Just seconds into belting my best Robert Plant impression, the show ended as I realized that I was not alone on the stairs. A figure dressed in all white emerged from the mist below, climbing at an alarmingly quick pace. I had read about the "legendary athleticism" of Norwegians, so seeing this figure trekking up the hill lit that competitive fire burning within every American. Soaked shoes be damned, I was going to beat this person up the mountain.


Yeah...I didn't. A few minutes later I found myself on the side of the trail, giving him a courteous "Hallo" as he ran right past me and up the stairs. In my defense, this was clearly not his first time on this trail - the dude was decked out in trail running swag, dressed more for an Olympic heat than a casual morning trek like yours truly. He ran up this slick stairs like a mountain goat - and was heading back down before I could even summit.

Beyond upholding the national stereotype, what impressed me the most about this particular Norwegian wasn't his pace, technique, or sponsors, but simply that he was out there in those conditions. And he wasn't alone - as I completed the Vidden Trek, I crossed paths with countless Norwegians of all ages enjoying downpour conditions along the trail. From young school children to elderly couples, they ventured through the windswept, rain-clogged terrain like a bluebird summer's day. I tried to emulate the locals by seizing every recreational opportunity that day, including a "true summit" of Mt. Ulriken.


Back in the States, a quick Google search unveiled that my experience wasn't some rare encounter with extraordinary outdoor enthusiasts. Norway, along with Scandinavia as a whole, has adopted a social construct known as "Friluftsliv" (pronounced "free-loofts-liv"). While this word translates roughly to "open-air living" or "free air life," its practical application to Norway's year-round outdoor culture, quality of life, and national heritage has fundamentally changed the country for the better. In fact, despite experiencing more rain, cold, and less daylight than most countries on earth, Norway consistently ranks as one of the world's happiest countries.


As we in the Detroit region head into our "dark season" - which, again, is significantly tamer than Norway's - we would immensely benefit from a wholesale adoption their friluftsliv lifestyle. Just like Scandinavia, the Great Lakes region as a whole is blessed with a four season climate that perfectly supports year-round recreation (verifiably one of many reasons for a century of Scandinavian emigration to the Great Lakes). We already have the temporal elements, recreational infrastructure, and world-class destinations to reap the benefits of friluftsliv.


All that we're missing is the cultural component - the critical missing piece that this article is intended to remedy.

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INTRODUCING FRILUFTSLIV: NORWAY'S FAVORITE PASTTIME

Centuries of Norwegians have instilled an integral love for nature in humanity's most sustainable way: habitual and generational introduction to seasonal recreation. Similar to the modern father who teaches their child to hunt or mother that skies just behind her toddler, Norwegians recognized the purely recreational benefits of spending time in nature long before the term friluftsliv was first penned by Henrik Ibsen in 1859. In doing so, Ibsen simply wanted to create a name for his country's love of spending time in remote locations for spiritual and physical well-being.


The Norwegian government, on the other hand, decided to formalize their citizens' connection with nature. The government created a set of laws that codified Norwegians' right to enjoy friluftsliv, including the famous "Right to Roam." The government also sponsors "libraries" where outdoor enthusiasts can "check out" outdoor gear. Even Norway's educational system has followed suit, including the establishment of several outdoor kindergartens (friluftsbarnehager) where the children spend 80% of the time outdoors, and the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree in friluftsliv.


According to Norway's official tourism site, friluftsliv is not "just a thing," but rather "a whole philosophy, a way life." Friluftsliv represents a "commitment to celebrate time outdoors, no matter your age, physical condition, and regardless of the season and weather forecast." Better yet, there's no wrong way to friluftsliv - regardless of whether a Norwegian has embarked on a multi-day cross-country skiing expedition or is spending an afternoon relaxing in their hammock, the universal goal of a successful friluftsliv endeavor involves "relaxing, refreshing, and re-energizing."


Unsurprisingly, friluftsliv constitutes Norway's most preferred recreational activity, with a reported 90% participation rate. Seriously. And, with participation figures that high, Norway boasts equally impressive data regarding the physical and mental benefits of its recreational culture.

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MENTAL AND PHYSICAL BENEFITS OF FRILUFTSLIV

This should hopefully come as a shock to no one, but regular physical exercise is extremely good for you. This is a point that the Expedition Detroit team tries to reinforce across the entirety of our platform, including Dr. Eric Reilly's fantastic article on the longevity benefits of hiking that we strongly recommend for everyone to read.


Thanks to friluftsliv, Norwegians have reaped these health benefits for generations. Norway's population enjoys a verifiably good health status: the country's life expectancy of 83.3 years is the highest in Europe, its has one of the lowest rates of deaths from treatable causes among Europe, and 75% of the population is categorized as being "in good health."


When discussing winter recreation, however, we place slightly more emphasis on the measurable mental health benefits of friluftsliv. As we mentioned prior, engaging in friluftsliv isn't limited in Norway to specific activities, demographics, or seasons. Anyone, at any point in the year, time of day, or temporal condition, can engage in a friluftsliv adventure. As you may have predicted, the mental health benefits from such accessibility - especially during winter - are astonishing.


Norwegian studies have demonstrated that just being in outdoor spaces for extended periods of time reduce anxiety and improve cognition. In a 2020 survey, 90% of Norwegians stated that they felt less stressed and in a better mood after spending time in nature - regardless of their recreational activity of choice. In 2023, the U.N.'s "World Happiness Report" ranked Norway as the seventh happiest country in the world, while both Bergen and Oslo placed among the top 10 happiest cities


Specifically with regard to the mental health benefits of winter recreation, health psychologist Kari Leibowitz, PhD noted an interesting fact regarding Norway's population. Her work found that "the further north people lived, the more positive their view of winter was – and that this mindset that ‘winter is wonderful’ was associated with life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing.”


Here's the wildest part: that data comes from cities like Tromsø where the sun does not rise between November 21st and January 21st. Despite the perpetual darkness, locals actually report lower levels of wintertime depression due to continuing to engage in recreational activities like hiking, dogsledding, skiing, whale watching, and viewing the Northern Lights.

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HOW DETROITERS CAN ADOPT FRILUFTSLIV THIS WINTER

Now that we've inundated you with more Norwegian recreational knowledge than you ever wanted to learn, one looming question remains:


If Norway can harness the physical and mental benefits of prolonged winter, then why can't we..?


Spoiler alert: not only can the Detroit region successfully adapt the friluftsliv lifestyle to our outdoor culture, but we would be fools not to.


The health statistics regarding the Detroit region are disappointing at best when compared to Norway's high-flying stats. The average life expectancy within the City of Detroit has dropped to 69 over the last decade, Seasonal Affective Disorder ("SAD") hospitalizes an estimated 500,000 Americans each year, and historically marginalized demographics within the Detroit region like Black and Hispanic residents are statistically more likely to encounter severe and incapacitating symptoms of SAD - while paradoxically having less access to beneficial treatments.


Will the widespread adoption of friluftsliv remedy these societal ills overnight? We wish so, but sadly, no. As we have covered, it took even the Norwegians centuries for the outdoor lifestyle to fundamentally permeate and change its culture. But hardly anything good in life comes quickly, and in light of the explosive growth that Detroit's outdoor industry is continuing to experience post-pandemic, NOW represents the perfect opportunity to start implementing friluftsliv's core components into our wintry recreational ecosystem.


Here are four friluftsliv actions that you can start adopting today:

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1. DRESS APPROPRIATELY FOR THE CONDITIONS |

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.


At the core of Norway's outdoor cultural phenomenon lies one simple belief: "There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing." I learned this lesson firsthand while hiking 10+ miles in water-logged hiking shoes. Others have learned through nearly freezing to death, both in Scandinavia and throughout the Great Lakes region.


Friends, here's the best news: you do not need to re-learn this lesson. When it comes to cold weather recreation, the name of the game is simply dressing in layers.


  • Base Layer ("underwear layer"): Arguably most important layer; goal is to wick sweat off your skin.

  • Middle Layer ("insulating layer"): Should retain body heat to protect you from the cold.

  • Outer Layer ("shell layer"): Largely weather-dependent; shields you from wind, snow, sleet, and rain - and provides extra insulation.

Specifically for the Detroit region, your middle layer should provide enough warmth to handle freezing temperatures. Likewise, your outer layer should be waterproof for sleet and snowy conditions. For visibility purposes, also look for jackets that have reflective attributes like reflective logos and other hits that light sources will pick up.


The final clothing items that you should include in your winter recreation gear checklist are for your extremities. Regardless of whether your middle or outer layer features a hood, we always recommend a warm beanie or similar hat to cover your head and ears. Gloves or mittens are also an essential, especially if you plan to carry trekking poles with you. Last but certainly not least, don't forget warm and durable hiking socks to ground your trek.


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2. CONTINUE RECREATING OUTDOORS |

Friluftsliv is more than just an activity, it’s a lifestyle.

Now that you're fully-outfitted for the cold, the next step is both the simplest and hardest: keep recreating outdoors. As any Norwegian can attest, a "friluftsliv offseason" simply does not exist. Rain or shine, snow or mud, even light or dark, every day provides an opportunity for engaging in friluftsliv.


Again, here's the most beautiful component regarding the friluftsliv lifestyle: the goal is finding peace and quiet, not necessarily breaking a sweat. Friluftsliv is purposefully inclusive - in fact, we can't think of a more disability-friendly activity than simply pursuing the act of being present in nature. A winter friluftsliv outing could include a slow hike along your favorite snow-covered trail, cross-country skiing, fat tire mountain biking, ice skating, ice fishing, ice bathing (more on that in a minute), stargazing, or simply sitting by a campfire.


BOOK A GUIDED HIKE WITH EXPEDITION DETROIT THIS WINTER!


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3. BUILD RESILIENCY BY NORMALIZING DIFFICULTY |

Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.


Alright...here's where we add a special Expedition Detroit twist on the friluftsliv ethos. One which Norwegian professional athletes have harnessed and utilized to dominate the Winter Olympics for nearly a century. A component that we vow to encourage as friluftsliv hopefully catches on throughout our region.


Winter recreation provides the perfect opportunity to build resiliency. Grit. Toughness. Fortitude. All of the basic components required to excel in a sport, venture, pursuit, and life as a whole.


Okay, we'll tone it back for a second. Just by simply engaging in friluftsliv during our winter months, you will instill some degree of resiliency into your life. Winter in Detroit is cold, and therefore uncomfortable. By consistently encountering that discomfort, you will gradually normalize facing adversity - and overcoming it. If we as a community were to comprehensively adopt that approach to our daily life, then only God knows what we other challenges we could overcome.


Here are three ways that you could introduce resiliency into your wintertime recreational agenda:

  • TAKE ICE BATHS. Yes, believe the hype that you've seen all over social media. Taking regular ice baths (i.e., at least 11 minutes per week) have been purported to reduce inflammation and swelling, boost your mood, relieve sore muscles, aid in recovery, support immunity, and generally improve mental health.*

  • CAMP OUTDOORS. Camping season does not end during the warmer months. In fact, simply sleeping outside throughout the year has proven to improve immune system functionality and speed up metabolic rates. During winter, studies show that continuing to camp in cold conditions helps reduce inflammation, improve our brain's cognitive functionality, and further increase metabolism as the body burns more fat to keep warm.

  • LEARN A NEW SPORT. When the snow starts falling and the ice freezes over, a whole new world of outdoor recreation comes alive. The Detroit region provides ample, beginner-friendly terrain for new skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, and fat tire mountain bikers to hone their new skills. Better yet, the act of acquiring a new skillset has been proven to diminish the onset of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and other memory-affecting ailments.

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4. PERFECT YOUR "HYGGE" RECOVERY ROUTINE |

Balancing intensity with deep rest and recovery keeps you fresh and strong


In Robin Sharma's incredible book The 5AM Club, its fictitious protagonist Stone Riley provides a lifetime's supply of wisdom to his two pupils. While the majority of his lessons center on self-optimization and productivity, one particular lesson addresses the same but through an entirely different lens. One that provides the "ying" to resiliency's "yang."


"You really must learn how to balance working intensity and brilliantly with deep rest and recovery so you can remain fresh and strong over a long career."


For Scandinavians, the restful component to friluftsliv's activism - and one that's especially important during the winter months - involves the concept of "hygge" (Danish, pronounced "hoo-guh"). Simply put, hygge embodies "the pursuit of joy and coziness." Think snow-covered rustic cabins, roaring indoor fires, big mugs of hot cocoa, thick blankets, great books, friends, family - a perfect escape from the often harsh realities of the season.


Why should hygge be incorporated into the inherently outdoor lifestyle of friluftsliv...? In one word, recovery. Even the most ardent and expeditious of endurance athletes need a period of rest for their bodies and minds to heal from the demands of their life's pursuit. As such, we owe it to ourselves to create our own version of hygge this winter. A place where we can recover, unwind, and feel rejuvenated for the adventures ahead.


For us at Expedition Detroit, our favorite version of hygge as of late has been utilizing a portable sauna after our workouts. While ice baths are largely recommended pre-work out, post-work out sauna sessions have been demonstrated to promote muscle recovery, improve heart health, and aid in relaxation. Please always hydrate before using a sauna, and experts recommend staying in for no longer than 10-20 minutes.

 

*Note: Medical experts recommend avoiding ice baths if you have a history of heart problems.


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