Translated as “open-air living”, friluftsliv makes perfect sense in Norway’s natural splendour. Locals give their take on the passion.

Slartibartfast, a planet designer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, won an award for his work on Norway and it is not hard to see why. Skewered with a thousand still, blue fjords and stacked with the sort of pointy, snow-topped mountains you do not often see, outside children’s drawings, it is a huge and empty land inlaid with a host of scenic riches.

I first went there as a freshly certified ex-student, on a camping trip in an ancient Saab, and every morning I unzipped the tent to blink at a new wonderland. I did not know it then, but that trip was my initiation into friluftsliv – the peculiarly Norwegian fixation with “open-air living”. Friluftsliv lies somewhere between a hearty pastime and a state religion, the word celebrating Norway’s boundless natural splendour and its inhabitants’ active appreciation of it, across snow, through forest and over fjord. A backpack is generally involved.

Not much has changed since that trip. The countryside in the central-western province of Møre and Romsdal does not roll but rears, in magnificent staccato blurts. Mountains shoot up out of a fjord, then slam straight down into the one behind. Waterfalls vault from towering precipices and glaciers cling to steeply pitched highland valleys. The towns in this part of Norway, such as Ålesund where my journey begins, play a cameo role as a comely scatter of roofs at the foot of a sweeping mountain-top panorama. The town of Volda is trim but bland and, at the moment of visiting, almost eerily quiet.

“The magic is in new experiences, so do something you’ve never done – go out in a kayak, camp in the wild.”

In her two years at Volda’s university, Randi Ødegården has not seen a great deal of the town. Her bachelor course has largely involved hiking, skiing and paddling through its surrounding mountains, forests and deep blue waters. At 23, she is just one exam away from qualifying with a degree in friluftsliv.

“It means different things to different people,” says Randi, a cheerful farmer’s daughter who hails from the southern municipality of Vang. She pours black coffee into our Moomin mugs. “For me, friluftsliv is about simplicity in nature, about getting away from it all,” she says. “Going out for a week with everything I need on my back. It’s emotional and spiritual as much as physical.”

Friluftsliv begins on Randi’s doorstep. Her wooden cabin stands at the steep edge of town, backed by birch and fir woods brightly speckled with flora, and fronted by an expansive view of the fjord and its facing mountains. As we talk, I watch them being slowly claimed by the leaky low cloud that will hang above for days, decapitating many of the loftier vistas and obliging me to borrow clothing and footwear from more sensibly prepared people. “But bad weather makes the best friluftsliv,” says Randi, brightly. “You learn more and get better satisfaction when you take a bigger challenge.”

As Randi explains, spending time in the outdoors was not a choice for generations gone by. At the turn of the 20th century, Norway ranked as the poorest country in Europe – a far-flung rural nation that did not stride out into the wilderness for fun, but from agricultural necessity. 2Everyone lived outside then, so by instinct we knew how to make a difficult hike or a skiing journey. Then Norway became industrialised and those skills were lost.”

It was not until the 1960s that time-rich, cash-rich Norwegians began to pine for the fjords and the old outdoor ways, but when they set off into the valleys with a tent on their backs, they found they didn’t know what they were doing. “A lot of people were getting lost and having accidents,” says Randi. “The government saw the need to re-educate, and now, even from kindergarten, children here learn how to cook outdoors, how to dress right, how to navigate.” Randi and many of her fellow students are aiming for a career in this sphere of education.

“Don’t take a camera, and don’t post about it on Facebook – just climb a hill or do a walk, and keep the experience for yourself.”

The practicalities of friluftsliv might be hardwired into the Norwegian psyche but, as I discover, it was the British who encouraged the concept into their hearts. A ferry over the Hjørundfjord takes me to the foot of the becoming (though presently invisible) peak of Slogen. In 1872 a young Yorkshireman named WC Slingsby spotted it while travelling through the area and in a popular account of his experience, rhapsodised the view from its summit as “one of the proudest in Europe”. Almost at once the area was thronged with wealthy British tourists, who saw in these peaceful, grand valleys the bucolic idyll they had lost in smoky, crowded Britain. The Victorians loved highland scenery, and this was the hard stuff: Scotland turned up to 11. Back then, the locals could not begin to understand why would ever scale a mountain unless you had lost a goat up one.

In Isfjorden, a tidy, silent little town a couple of hours to the north, the scenery has been cranked a few notches up the Tolkienometer – the mountains are taller and bleaker, crowned with jagged crags that rip at the sky.

I pull over when a slim and sprightly man beckons from a wooden porch. “I guess you can see why I live here,” says Stein P Aasheim, nodding at the near-vertical topography. He’s 60, with a gentle and unassuming manner that belies his status as one of Europe’s very hardest men. In 1985, Stein stood beside Sir Chris Bonington atop Everest. Later this year, he is to lead a Norwegian expedition to the South Pole, marking the centenary of Amundsen’s flag-planting triumph. In 2003, Stein, his wife and their two daughters – then aged six and 13 – spent a year in a trapper’s cabin in a remote, inhospitable corner of Spitzbergen, hunting seals and reindeer, and fending off polar bears. This is friluftsliv extreme, outdoor living at its ragged edge.

We drive to a snow-speckled plateau halfway up one of his favourite peaks, the witch-hatted Romsdalshorn. This is where Stein generally delivers his welcome address for the week-long mountain festival he holds every July. “We get about 10,000 here – a lot of families, people doing guided climbs and hikes,” he says. ‘”There are some easy mountains and some demanding ones.” A modest uphill scrabble offers us a view of the hugest and most demanding – the great black flank that is the Trollveggen (Troll Wall) – at 1,100 metres, the tallest vertical rock face in Europe. We are a good couple of miles away, but it still makes my innards lurch. No one made it up there until 1965, and since then dozens more – nearly all of them foreigners – have died on its precipitous slopes. Stein was once winched down 300 metres from the top to rescue an American climber marooned on a tiny shelf with a broken leg.

“A hundred years ago, the British taught us to love our mountains, but I think now we enjoy climbing more than anyone else,” says Stein. “A lot of guys from other countries won’t go up a mountain unless they can come down with some big drama to tell, like they almost died. We don’t get that. Friluftsliv is about having fun and avoiding those situations. And doing it for yourself, not to show off to the world about what you’ve done.” These people are as laid-back as their scenery is not.

Jostein and Åshild
“You can have an adventure right outside your door – if there’s a tree in your street, climb it.”

If Trollveggen is the challenging face of friluftsliv, the Herdalssetra Summer Farm is its old, weather-beaten one. “We still follow the Viking law,” says Åshild Dale, who every June, with husband Jostein Sande, leads 130 goats up from their village farm to this lonely pasture high up behind the Storfjord. “If you allow your animals to graze on the lowlands in the summer, they will have nothing to eat in the winter. It would be grass robbery!” The summer-farm tradition has lapsed in most parts of Norway, but the Dales have been taking their goats up to Herdalssetra since 1790. “Nothing has changed here for 1,000 years,” says Åshild, walking among the turf-roofed sheds and cottages. Some are built on Viking foundations, and there is still no electricity and no running water save for a stream that babbles through. “I want visitors to learn that this isn’t just how Norwegian life used to be, it’s how everybody’s life used to be.”

Herdalssetra is shared by half a dozen farmers, who from June to September transform the bleak highland valley into an idyll of cheery communal activity. By day there is goat-milking and cheese-making: the sweet, intensely calorific brown stuff that is the default fuel of friluftsliv. “And of course, it doesn’t really get dark,” says Åshild, “so at night we never stop singing and telling stories.” The only downside, as Jostein explains, is rounding up all the goats come autumn. “Some years I’m still up here on skis on Christmas Day, chasing a lost goat across a mountain. My job is a mix of agriculture and extreme sports.”

Moods of Norway
“Make sure you put some outdoor time into your daily routine. Also: wear good shoes and 80% wool socks!”

Amore profound contrast between the humble, timeless way of life showcased at Herdalssetra and that led by the three young men I meet next is hard to imagine. Their favourite words are “aloha” and “pretty cool features”, and they are wearing enormous red sunglasses and snowsuits decorated with multi-coloured tractors. Stefan Dahlkvist, Peder Børresen and Simen Staalnacke are the brains behind Moods of Norway, founded in 2003 and now a $40 million business selling extremely loud clothing through stores around the world. “But we’re still nice Norwegian country boys at heart,” insists Peder, who, like Simen, was raised in Stryn, a fjordside town that’s downbeat even by regional standards. Sure enough, their first indulgence when the big cheques came in was an old trawler. The second was an investment in Stryn’s summer-ski resort, 1,000 metres up on a glacier behind the town, outside whose clubhouse we’re now standing. Admittedly, both boat and clubhouse were swiftly painted pink.

“We love international fashion, and we love rural Norway,” says Peder. “It was such a cool challenge to mix them up. Tractors are everywhere in Norway, but what if the tractor was pink or gold?” Every pair of Moods of Norway sunglasses comes with a pretty neat feature: a cleaning cloth imprinted with Simen’s granny’s recipe for waffles. Stefan, who manages the firm’s flagship store in LA, marks every homecoming with “some heavy-duty friluftsliv”. He has just spent the night in a cave outside Stryn: “This famous medieval outlaw lived there for three years. It was cold and a bit scary, but what a buzz!” It is fair to say that Norwegian fashionistas are cut from a different cloth.

“Burn your TV, fill your pockets with chocolate and ham, and go for a big walk.”

Fifteen miles and a world away is mainland Europe’s largest glacier. Ruben Briksdal’s family has lived in its cool shadow for 500 years – his surname is actually borrowed from one of the Jostedal’s icy fingers, Briksdalsbreen. His grandfather began guiding tourists and travellers across the crevasses in 1966, and at 22, Ruben has already been doing the same for almost a decade. “I could do something else,” he says, “but my grandmother would kill me.” Ruben captures the sense of friluftsliv, combining a young spirit with old traditions. He has got a boy-band haircut but chews tobacco. “One Monday in school,” he says, “our teacher asked us what we’d done at the weekend. One kid said he’d played a video game and got to level six. So I said I’d got to the top level, and pointed out the window to the highest mountain.” These days, Ruben’s pastime takes him to friluftsliv’s lunatic fringe: he spends his winters climbing frozen waterfalls, “hanging from an ice axe with one hand while you screw in an 18cm bolt with the other”.

Our original intention was to paddle a boat up to his namesake glacier, but Ruben has decided we can do better than that. He unlocks a shed and begins pulling out ropes and crampons. I ask him where we are going. “To the top level,” he says, and nods at a great toothpaste-blue tongue sticking down from the clouds behind us.

And so, three hours later, we are 1,400 metres up the Bødal glacier, surrounded by billowy ice hills and giant slitted ice caves like the frozen Eye of Sauron. Ruben spots an ice shelf he simply has to climb, and before setting off, he twists a screw into the glacier and leaves me tied to it, like a dog outside a shop. Frigid gusts flap my trousers. I feel cold, slightly daft and a little terrified. Then suddenly, the sun shoots through a blue porthole behind my head, and at once the horizon is thronged with rows of stupendous side-lit peaks, marching off to the end of the world. It barely looks real, more like one of Slartibartfast’s preparatory dioramas. Twenty-three years ago I beheld such scenes and wondered if I would ever find a more beautiful country. I am still wondering.

Tim Moore is an acclaimed travel author and regular contributor to Lonely Planet Magazine.

The article 'Finding 'friluftsliv' in Norway' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.