'The Open-Air Life' Will Teach You the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv

Swedish-American author Linda Åkeson McGurk explains why and how to spend more time outside each day.

The Open-Air Life cover


  • Title: The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day
  • Author: Linda Åkeson McGurk
  • Publisher: Tarcher Perigee
  • Publish Date: November 1, 2022
  • Page Count: 272

Swedish-American author Linda Åkeson McGurk is back with another great book on the benefits of spending time outside. "The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day" takes a deep dive into the Scandinavian custom of daily exposure to the outdoors—time, location, and weather notwithstanding.

It is a follow-up to her popular 2017 book, "There's No Such Thing As Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom's Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge)" (reviewed here on Treehugger).

What Is Friluftsliv?

"Friluftsliv" is a compound of the Norwegian and Swedish words for "free," "air," and "life," hence Åkeson McGurk's translation as "the open-air life." It was first used in 1859 by a Norwegian playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen, and has since become a popular term used to describe a range of outdoor activities, from cross-country skiing and bushcraft to forest yoga, nature parkour, and gourmet cooking over a campfire. As such, it has joined the ranks of Scandinavian words that many of us North Americans now use to describe somewhat idealized, aspirational scenarios—like hygge (coziness), niksen (the art of doing nothing), and fika (a sweet snack break).

Ultimately, friluftsliv is about slowing down in nature. It does not require fancy equipment, distant travel, or motorized vehicles. Åkeson McGurk writes, "What friluftsliv does is encourage you to experience the outdoors in everyday life instead of thinking that nature is a destination to which you have to travel. It broadens our definition of 'nature' and encourages us to find it closer to home, sometimes where we least expect it." 

Why Does It Matter?

When we humans go outside, we thrive. Mental and physical health markers improve. Anxiety and depression plummet. Confidence surges. Children learn skills and have fun together with parents, who often find the tasks of cooking and entertaining their offspring to be less tedious outdoors. Workplace "walk-and-talk" meetings can drive creative breakthroughs. Mobile church services in nature inspire and fulfill. Personal health crises and grief can feel more manageable in nature. We even sleep better when our circadian rhythm is allowed to sync with the natural light-dark cycle.

Åkeson McGurk, who spent 15 years as an adult in the United States before returning to her native Sweden, is uniquely positioned to communicate effectively to an American audience, understanding how different cultural and geographic barriers may affect people's ability to get outside.

She admits that pursuing friluftsliv while living in rural Indiana was more challenging than in Sweden, where mountains, forests, and lakes exist just outside her door. But it is not an insurmountable challenge. You might be able to have a campfire cookout in your backyard or go for a walk in the neighborhood; there's usually a campsite or hiking trail within a short drive. Americans, however, are unable to roam or camp on private lands the way Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns do, where a unique law known as "allemansrätten" (or "the right to roam") gives everyone more or less universal access to land.

How to Embrace It

Still, that shouldn't deter you. Åkeson McGurk says friluftsliv can exist in different forms on weekdays, weekends, or vacations. No matter where or when it happens, it's defined by 10 basic principles:

1. Be one with nature.

2. Don't mind the weather (or the season).

3. Use your body.

4. Appreciate your nearby nature.

5. Learn useful skills.

6. Keep it simple.

7. Do not compete.

8. Disconnect to connect.

9. Propel yourself.

10. Nurture your sense of wonder.

The book is full of real-life examples of how people spend time outside, how they may have struggled to start doing so and to develop the relevant skills, and how they now recognize its benefits in their lives. Åkeson McGurk shares her own stories of outdoor adventures, as well as practical checklists and diagrams for survival skills like lighting fires, how to cook bread on a stick, and what to pack for camping. She even delves into the ever-practical skill of going to the bathroom in the woods.

It's Great for Kids

"The Open-Air Life" is part manifesto, part how-to, and entirely inspiring. I was only partway through it when I decided to have a spontaneous campfire night with my kids, instead of the Friday movie night they'd requested. It was unseasonably warm and beautiful, and we lit a roaring fire that became the centerpiece for our evening. We balanced bowls of lentil soup on our knees and visited with some friends who stopped by to share in the fun. Everyone went to bed happy and satisfied.

Friday campfire
Gleeful child with a burning stick.

K Martinko

I think this has particular relevance for parents who want to teach their kids resilience and independence in a world that tends to prioritize ease and comfort above all else. Outdoor experiences teach children how to operate in all kinds of weather and to develop ancient practical survival skills. Åkeson McGurk, who has two daughters of her own, believes that raising kids in an open-air lifestyle equips them well for the world:

"I don't want them to be afraid of trying hard things or to miss out on experiences because they lacked confidence. I also want them to have the knowledge and good judgment to know when something is too risky or it's time to call it quits, and those are skills that need to be practiced in the field. More than anything, I want my girls to know that happiness can come from within and that the biggest joy can be found in the simplest things."

I suspect that many people know that spending time outdoors always leaves us feeling better, but it can be hard to incorporate it into a daily routine. This book helps readers to figure out how to do it—and they'll certainly want to, after learning how so many others are managing it.

You can buy "The Open-Air Life" on Bookshop.org or at your local bookstore.