Decolonising outdoor recreation

André Horgen
Department of Sports, Physical Education and Outdoor Studies
University of South-Eastern Norway

André Horgen works as a lecturer at the University of South-Eastern Norway, campus Bø, and teaches a bachelor’s and master’s degree in outdoor recreation. His research and development work focuses on safety, risk and accidents, outdoor life guidance and cultural-historical perspectives on outdoor life. Horgen has extensive experience from practical work with outdoor life guidance in various habitat types.

In November 2021, students of ‘friluftsliv’, outdoor recreation, from the Bø campus of the University of South-Eastern Norway arranged a day for subject critique concerning education in sport and outdoor recreation. This initiative arose from a letter from a group of students of outdoor recreation to the faculty about structural discrimination in the subject. During the day, participants heard that ‘friluftsliv’ has its origins in colonialism, and that it is a colonial business which should be decolonised. In a pamphlet which was distributed at the meeting, En introduksjon til avkolonisering av akademia [An introduction to the decolonisation of academia] (2020), the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) defines decolonisation as political work which involves asking critical questions, re-evaluating established truths and throwing light on structures of power. Decolonisation in a Norwegian context is a political process which focuses on racism, the hidden curriculum, and Sami issues. According to SAIH, those of us who are in ‘privileged positions’ in academia have a duty to equip ourselves with the necessary knowledge for this.

As one who has worked, among other things, on the culture of Norwegian hiking (turkultur) and the traditions of Norwegian outdoor recreation using discourse analysis, my first thought was that a lot of critical questions had already been framed, challenging established truths and casting light on power structures in outdoor recreation. Nevertheless, my academic curiosity was aroused and I began to think about how an analysis could be carried out which had its starting point in decolonisation. In researching possible ways forward, it occurred to me that there were certain issues which might perhaps be resolved through open and constructive discussion. First – How are we to understand the supposed colonialist origin of outdoor recreation?

Does it mean that outdoor recreation emerged in Norway at the same time as Denmark-Norway was a colonial power?1 Was it the case that, as some in the Norwegian cultural sector assert, that ‘Denmark-Norway’s time as a colonial power created a value system in which exclusion, racism and contempt for the weak are central?’ (Frank Rossavik in Aftenposten2 December 2021). If so, Norway’s role in the European colonial system needs to be shored up. According to Professor Terje Tvedt, Norway did not enter into ‘organised, exploitative relationships’ as a colonial power. Of course, some Norwegians worked for or alongside colonists and slave traders, but that doesn’t make Norway a colonial power or a slave nation. On the contrary, Norway’s position in relation to Denmark can be likened to that of a colony or the client state of a colonial power (Tvedt, 2020, p 232). This is contrary to the assertion of SAIH that Norway was not a colony but in union with Denmark (2020, p 13).

Some Norwegians worked for or alongside colonists and slave traders, but that doesn’t make Norway a colonial power or a slave nation.

Irrespective of Norway’s status, some will perhaps claim that we now live in a state of ‘coloniality’ with its origins in the Denmark-Norway period, in which we are shaped by power relationships and the ideology derived from them. These relationships imply that we are superior to other cultures. SAIH asserts, for example, that ‘irrespective of our class background, skin colour, gender or ethnicity, we have all internalised concepts of white, western superiority’ (2020, 29). Such a starting point can imply a belief that outdoor recreation is shaped by the colonial period, is structured by systematic (white) oppression, and is a white custom, as we see for example asserted in some American circles with roots in critical race theory. If it is accepted a priori that such connections exist, it will no doubt be possible to find some kind of empirical evidence that can be creatively spun around this narrative, even though the connections do not necessarily exist.

Opponents of the view that such connections exist will assert that history is being filtered from a contemporary politico-ideological perspective. They will deny the validity of such a writing of history in terms of colonialism, and in so doing destroy the basis for a colonial understanding of the present. Discussion of the colonialist origins of outdoor recreation can thus quickly get bogged down in disagreements about the character of both history and the present.

Alternatively, could the question be about whether outdoor recreation was used for colonisation through Norwegian expeditions which contributed to territorial conquest? The first Norwegian expedition which is usually seen in the context of friluftsliv was Fridtjof Nansen’s Greenland journey in 1888. The fact that Nansen is associated with outdoor recreation does not make the journey a recreational trip, however. The Greenland journey was not an excursion for its own sake. Sure enough, Knut Hamsun called the journey a sportsbragd (a sporting achievement), but that was a put-down in an effort to devalue a journey which was first and foremost a scientific expedition. The personnel on the journey included the Sami reindeer herders Samuel Johannesen Balto and Ole Nilsen Ravna. Were they participants in a colonial project? Did Sami and Norwegians contribute to the colonisation of the Inuit in Greenland? If so, it must have been as a continuation of the colonisation which Denmark had begun in 1721. The discussion about Norway’s role as a colonial power again becomes relevant. Was it the case that it was Norway which brought a claim for Greenland into the union with Denmark, as SAIH asserts? (2020, p 13). The answers to these questions founder again on disagreements about Norway’s status as client state or colonial power.

A similar discussion can be had about the journeys of Roald Amundsen, Helge Ingstad and Thor Heyerdahl. Were these recreational trips, or scientific expeditions? Probably both at the same time, especially for Ingstad and Heyerdahl. The discussion can also encompass the first significant Norwegian ascent in the Himalayas, that of Kabru by Rubenson and Monrad-Aas in 1907. Did these expeditions contribute to the territorial conquest and/or to proclaiming that Europeans were superior to other cultures? In Amundsen’s case, yes to conquering territory, but only unpopulated stretches of the Antarctic. There was only sea ice in the polar sea, and his sea journeys through the north-west and north-east passages took place along the coasts of the Danish, British and Russian colonial empires. None of the others contributed to the conquest of territory.

How far the expeditions promulgated the superiority of Europeans to other cultures again depends on the researcher’s politico-ideological standpoint. Perhaps it is possible to find examples of language which describe the cultures they encountered in unflattering terms. On the other hand, it is possible, in the case of all those named above, to discover the will and ability to learn from local cultures. Nansen was already in 1888 clear that Norwegians were among the last ‘of the many tribes’ to use skis, which is an early example of the decolonisation of the history of Norwegian skiing. In practice, this contributed to the use by Norwegian polar explorers of clothes and tools from Sami and Inuit cultures, something which has been identified as a success factor. By contrast, the British polar expeditions were much more dismissive of local cultures. But, again, how this is interpreted is dependent on the politico-ideological lens. Was it in fact the British who did the right thing by abstaining from the unjustified (?) appropriation and misuse of others’ cultural production? Did the British abstain from cultural appropriation, or was it their arrogant ‘coloniality’ which prevented them from making use of effective, local technology? Most likely the latter, but the discussion doesn’t stop there. When it comes to Norwegian use of Sami and Inuit technology, it is debatable how far this was one people’s legitimate adoption of others’ cultural production. In which case, was it an uncontroversial cultural amalgamation, or does an unequal power relationship mean that it was cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation, as is well known, is a concept which is usually applied when the adoption has gone from a minority to a majority group in the context of a colonial relationship.

Nansen was already in 1888 clear that Norwegians were among the last ‘of the many tribes’ to use skis, which is an early example of the decolonisation of the history of Norwegian skiing.

The question about the alleged colonial origin of outdoor recreation can also turn to whether our ‘outdoor life heroes’ have contributed to the creation of a value system centred on exclusion, racism and contempt for weakness. The short answer is ‘perhaps’. Amundsen’s character comes across badly in recent biographies. If his texts are studied through the lens of decolonisation, it is hardly surprising that he comes out badly. Indeed, it is possible to find turns of phrase from several of the canonical writers about the outdoor life which many would avoid today. Discourse analysis from the perspective of decolonisation of the texts of our polar heroes and writers about outdoor recreation would be an interesting and informative research project in its own right, but to demand that people in the past should speak and write like we do would be both unhistorical and inhuman.

Another alternative understanding of the assertion that the outdoor recreation has a colonial origin would be to suggest that Norwegians took it over from the colonial power, Great Britain. Great Britain’s colonial past has been rightly criticised. However, Tvedt (2020) has shown that Britain’s exercise of colonial power took many forms, and he criticises various attempts to take issue with the colonial period in general as Eurocentric and lacking nuance. But there is no room for a discussion about Britain’s position and role in comparison with other colonial powers here. In this context, we can be sure that Norway was not a British colony, although British hunting, fishing and mountaineering have had a big influence on Norwegian outdoor recreation. Whether this qualifies as ‘the colonial origins of friluftsliv’ is doubtful. Is it simply a case of the wholly legitimate transfer of cultural practices? Does the fact that the British also engaged in these sporting activities in their colonies, thereby spreading them to all corners of the globe, make them ‘colonial’? If so, what are the implications for the present? These are often highly valued activities in those cultures which have adopted them. We know their origin and history well. Do we need some kind of reconciliation with any alleged colonial origin they might have?

The other challenging question which occurred to me was ‘How can we understand outdoor recreation today as a colonialist business?’ Is outdoor recreation for example, used by a privileged majority population to suppress Sami culture? Outdoor recreation has historically been for the upper classes. Nowadays, it is more egalitarian, but the chances of anyone being brought up to take part in outdoor recreation are greater for those who have more leisure time, are better off, better educated, live in more densely populated areas and have parents and grandparents who were born in Norway. Place of residence, in town or country, also has some significance for the activities people are brought up with. Age and gender have less significance, other than in a few specific activities.

As regards ethnicity, which comes particularly into play in the question of decolonisation, various groups have come to participate more in friluftsliv in Norway, in step with their increasing wealth. We do not have studies of participants in outdoor recreation over a long period of time which distinguish between different ethnicities. Consequently, it is unclear how far Sami or other groups are distinct in one way or another. Probably these questions, for all groups, revolve around leisure time, wealth, education, place of residence and socialisation. There is probably variations to be found in participation in and motivation for the outdoor life in all groups. These variations within groups imply that it is just as crude and misleading to speak of ‘a Sami perspective on outdoor recreation’ as it is of ‘a Norwegian perspective on outdoor recreation’. How far variations in preferences for different activities are due to place of residence, ethnicity, family background and/or other variables is difficult to chart, and it is difficult to weigh these factors against each other. For example, is a preference for motorised outdoor activity primarily due to rural living or to class, and/or does it have something to do with ethnicity?

It is beyond doubt that Sami culture and the Sami population have been subjected to oppression by the Norwegian state and to a policy of assimilation to Norwegian culture. But whether outdoor recreation has been used by the privileged majority population to oppress Sami people has not been researched, as far as I know. An assertion that Sami culture is invisible in Norwegian outdoor recreation and its literature can be cited as evidence that there has been – or still is – such repression. An investigation of whether this is the case would therefore need to have sufficient scope for other explanations than ethnic oppression to come into play. There is only space here for a superficial exploration of the subject.

Discourse analysis from the perspective of decolonisation of the texts of our polar heroes and writers about friluftsliv would be an interesting and informative research project in its own right, but to demand that people in the past should speak and write like us would be both unhistorical and inhuman.

There is apparently no word in the Sami languages which corresponds to the term ‘friluftsliv’. This is probably due to the fact that outdoor recreation, or trips in nature for their own sake, had no place in the historical Sami culture, just as this type of activity had no place in Norwegian country districts or fishing villages until well into the 20th century. ‘Outdoor recreation’ as a concept was not widespread among better-off citizens, who had developed a culture of hiking from the early 19th century, before about 1970. Even the most hard-bitten member of DNT (Den Norske Turistforening [The Norwegian Trekking Association]) had always largely spoken of tur and ‘mountain journeys as sport and exercise’.

Several groups have had reason to point to exclusion and oppression in the wake of normative and narrow definitions of outdoor recreation which were launched in about 1970. These definitions have been called essentialist, ethnocentric, moralistic and androcentric by outdoor recreation researchers (Pedersen, 1999). There has been discussions about what does and doesn’t fall within the definition of ‘Norwegian friluftsliv’ since 1970. The scope was tentatively broadened to include both urban and rural activities in 1978. Work in nature, such as reindeer herding, agriculture and commercial fishing ended up on the margins of what was contained in the concept of ‘outdoor recreation’, but nevertheless fell just inside it (Breivik 1978). Since then, several of the received truths of outdoor recreation have been assessed and its power structure exposed, work which continues but which is unlikely to be completed quickly – that’s the academic way…

Reindeer herding, agriculture and commercial fishing were primarily to do with food production and so were outside the definition of outdoor recreation. Consequently, these activities were not given a central place in courses about outdoor recreation or on course reading lists. Thus it is possible to say that reindeer herding agriculture and commercial fishing have all been ‘excluded’, left out or ‘oppressed’ if you will. Even so, elements of these traditions have been taken up in several studies of outdoor recreation, in relation to the use of working boats, skis, lavvo and gammer (Sami tents and turf shelters), and various fishing tools etc. To a certain extent, the use of these tools has been associated with ethnological cultural exchange on a number of outdoor recreation courses.

How far Sami culture has been given sufficient attention in courses on outdoor recreation and on course reading lists has varied from one teaching institution to another. It is open to debate whether this is due to structural oppression and/or geography, local culture and/or chance. Recently, reindeer herding has begun to be offered in friluftsliv studies in Alta, Finmark. This is of course unproblematic, but not something which could be implemented in all teaching institutions. It is for other faculties to decide whether local agriculture and fishing belong on their curriculum. Choices and value judgements about the curriculum are being made all the time. The recurring question is rather whether an activity can be considered to be part of outdoor recreation or not. Reindeer herding, agriculture and commercial fishing are principally carried out for food production, but as part of outdoor recreation too, for example on a small scale as identity projects in leisure time. Whether these activities are included in outdoor recreation studies depends on choices and value judgements arising in discussion about the aims and objectives of education.

Can lower participation rates in outdoor recreation among non-European ethnic minorities be explained by these factors, or is outdoor recreation inherently a structurally oppressive practice, or are ethnic minorities in fact subject to direct discrimination by the majority population?

Whether outdoor recreation has been and is used by a privileged (white) majority population in order to oppress ethnic minorities other than the Sami could also be a question about outdoor recreation as colonialist business. The issue of outdoor recreation and skin colour became a live one in Norway in the wake of non-Western immigration, first from Pakistan and then from other parts of the world.

As I have said, the likelihood that someone has been brought up to take part in outdoor recreation is greater if they have more leisure time and greater wealth, are more highly educated, live in a centre of population and have parents and grandparents who were born in Norway. Do these factors explain the lower participation rates of non-European ethnic minorities in outdoor recreation, or is outdoor recreation intrinsically a structurally oppressive activity, or are ethnic minorities in fact subject to direct discrimination by the majority population?

These are big, relatively complicated questions, but there is not much indication that there is direct, systematic discrimination by the majority population. On the contrary, the Norwegian authorities and organisations are very keen to include everyone in outdoor recreation, as evidenced by a series of initiatives and outdoor recreation campaigns targeted at ethnic minorities. Of course, this does not mean that there cannot be direct racism between people who engage in outdoor recreation, but the dominant tendency is to provide support for ethnic minority participation in friluftsliv in Norway.

Outdoor recreation campaigns targeted at minority groups are based on a belief in the positive effects and benefits of outdoor recreation, a belief which is strong in Norwegian culture. Some claim, though, that the pressure and associated expectations that ethnic minorities can, indeed ought to take part in outdoor recreation is inappropriate on the verge of unreasonable. It is almost an expectation that participation in friluftsliv is a precondition for being Norwegian. It is thus more of a strategy for assimilation than inclusion. If this is the case, is it not then quite a strong expression of Eurocentricism and nationalism? We might speculate whether such an approach derives from a kind of underlying belief that everyone wants to copy ‘our outdoor recreation culture’, at least as long as they are not victims of some form or other of structural oppression. One way of understanding outdoor recreation as a ‘colonialist business’ is thus in its role as a means of conveying to ethnic minorities that our European and Norwegian culture of outdoor recreation is so important and ‘superior’ that any aversion to the outdoor life must be overcome, whatever the cost. Perhaps this shows that none of us is free from structural baggage, and that our own outdoor recreation behaviour is not at all as free from structures as we might imagine.

If this is the sense in which we mean that outdoor recreation is a colonialist business, and that ‘coloniality’ is problematic, perhaps the authorities and voluntary organisations should desist from campaigns which aim to increase ethnic minority participation in outdoor activity. My impression is that those who are keen to decolonise outdoor recreation, like most Norwegians, conceive of it as something entirely positive. All should take part in it, and not just have access to it. Hence underrepresentation in outdoor recreation, along with such barriers that minority populations might encounter, is an expression of structural oppression. Nevertheless, there is an important difference between everyone having the opportunity to participate in outdoor recreation and everyone doing so to an equal extent.

Should the majority population’s outdoor recreation and its organisations adapt to diverse cultures, or should minority cultures adapt to ‘our outdoor recreation culture’?

The extent to which structural discrimination/racism is weighed against demographic factors to explain participation, or lack of participation, in outdoor recreation will again depend on which politico-ideological lens is used. In studying the participation rates of various ethnic groups, it may be relevant to include in the analysis, alongside class and socialisation,

      • cultural and social differences in the perception of the natural world;
      • differing cultural evaluation of activity in nature as recreation;
      • cultural differences in what is considered to be a proper use of time and money, and what is regarded as dangerous or not dangerous;
      • cultural differences in what is considered suitable for boys and girls – which can explain gender-based differences in participation in outdoor recreation in some groups.

Those who emphasise structural discrimination/racism as an explanatory model may be inclined to the view that it is (racist) structures in outdoor recreation which exclude ethnic minorities. Examples of such ‘structures in outdoor recreation’ might be:

      • activities which have such a high technical threshold that they are almost impossible to master if they haven’t been continually practised since childhood (swimming, skiing);
      • situations which require partially exposed bodies, which make participation difficult for many people (bathing, sunbathing);
      • situations which involve members of different sexes sleeping in close proximity (camping trips, DNT cabins);
      • behaviour (so called microaggression) on the part of the majority population which exoticise outdoor recreation encounters with ethnic minorities with (over)enthusiastic greeting. For example, ‘great to see that you guys are out skiing too!’

In academia, such an approach makes itself known in explaining that the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities among students, teachers and in the curriculum is principally due to ‘the racist structures of friluftsliv’ and not class or basic socialisation.

Critics of structural discrimination as an explanation will raise questions and say that the aforementioned structural barriers are principally to be found ‘on the inside’ of minority cultures, and that they are made very explicit in encounters with Norwegian majority culture. The position taken in respect of the answers to these questions is probably significant for the solutions which are recommended. Should the majority population’s outdoor recreation and its organisations adapt to diverse cultures, or should minority cultures adapt to ‘our outdoor recreation culture’? This is above all a relevant question if outdoor recreation is seen as a good which all should engage with. Such questions are less important for sceptics of this approach, who are content with the view that outdoor recreation is fine for those who like it. Different groups have diverse interests – that’s ok but it doesn’t need to imply that any kind of structural oppression is happening.

Copyright © André Horgen 2022
Translation © Jeremy Crump 2022


Breivik, G. (1978). To tradisjoner i norsk friluftsliv. I G. Breivik, & H. Løvmo, Friluftsliv fra Fridtjof Nansen til våre dager (ss. 7-16). Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
Pedersen, K. (1999). “Det har bare vært naturlig”. Friluftsliv, kjønn og kulturelle brytninger. Phd. Alta: Norges Idrettshøgskole.
Studentenes og Akademikernes Internasjonale Hjelpefond. (2020). En introduksjon til avkolonisering av akademia. Studentenes og Akademikernes Internasjonale Hjelpefond.
Tvedt, T. (2020). Verdens historie. med fortiden som speil. J. M. Stenersens Forlag.


[1] Denmark–Norway was a personal union 1524–1533 and a dual monarchy (real union) 1537–1814 (Slagstad, Rune, 2004, “Shifting Knowledge Regimes: the Metamorphoses of Norwegian Reformism”, Thesis Eleven, 77 (1): 65–83). Editor’s note.


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