When seeking inspiration for a new line of travel packs, KUHL founder Kevin Boyle was drawn to the rugged design of Norwegian military backpacks—boxy waxed-canvas rucksacks with leather straps. “Those timeless classics are super functional and never go out of style,” he said. But it wasn’t only the style points that drew him in—it was also Nordic mountain culture.
Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden—have long lived in tandem with their rugged landscapes, and that outdoor influence has slowly crept across the globe. This passion for the outdoors is summed up in the Nordic concept of “friluftsliv” ( free-luufts-leav), which translates to “free air life.” It’s more than just the practice of getting outside for exercise—it’s "a philosophical lifestyle based on experiences of the freedom in nature and the spiritual connectedness with the landscape," according to Friluftsliv: The Scandinavian Philosophy of Outdoor Life.
Since the dawn of Nordic culture, the Nordic people have seen themselves as nature loving, both for exercise and connection, wrote Hans Gelter in that same study. Gelter believes that same self image is also reflected in “allemansrätten,” the right to public access. For example, everyone is allowed to respectfully access land, even private land, in Sweden and Norway.
“The landscape helped shape the cultural heritage for centuries,” said Fred Poyner IV, collections manager for Seattle's new Nordic Museum. With a large amount of land and a small population, the outdoors simply beckoned. “Keeping active is something you do, and you do it outside,” he said. Today, according to Gelter, with so much space available for recreation, even urbanites in Nordic countries are close to wide open spaces.
This idea of physical and spiritual well-being connected to the outdoors trickles down to every aspect of Nordic life. Today Swedish businesses have even built it into their pay structure. “Businesses have a legal obligation, union negotiated obligations and internal policies helping and encouraging their employees to have everyday balance,” writes Angeliqa Mejstedt, who runs the Swedish outdoor blog, Vandringsbloggen. She says that all businesses provide a mandatory 25 days of vacation for Swedish employees and many encourage outdoor meetings and shared outdoor activities.
In addition to the outdoor-focused lifestyle, many notable gear innovations have come from Nordic countries, along with the creation of outdoor activities. “There is a sense of innovation with the Nordic people,” Poyner said. “There is a historic value of having to make do with the materials at hand. … It forced Nordic people to develop innovation as a cultural concept.”
In 1850, wood-carvers in Telemark, Norway, created the first bow-shaped cambered skis for easier maneuverability on snowy slopes, bringing skiing into the modern era. In 1860, Norwegian farm-laborer Sondre Norheim built the first binding with a heel strap.
Norway also helped popularize ski jumping, with Norheim winning what has been called the first ski-jumping competition with prizes, in Ofte, Norway, in 1866.
In a Stockholm blacksmith shop in 1892, F.W. Lindqvist and J.V. Svenson developed the world's first soot-free kerosene stove and named it Primus, meaning first. Sweden-based Primus is now beloved across the globe for its intelligent stove designs.
Founded in 1908, Bergans of Norway began with a backpack. Ole F. Bergan was an inventor, patenting a total of 45 inventions over his lifetime. But the rucksack with a frame was his most famous. From that first design, the company expanded to include frames for carrying children, mountain-ready clothing, sleeping bags, tents and even canoes. Over the years, the company has helped outfit expeditions, including Roald Amundsen’s 1911 trip to the South Pole and Sir Edmund Hillary’s historic 1953 Mount Everest ascent.
Among the most well-known Nordic brands in the U.S., the Swedish company Fjällräven became one of the first companies to commercially make and distribute framed backpacks in 1950—transforming the way in which people backpacked by making it more comfortable than ever before. From the small town of Örnsköldsvik, Fjällräven has expanded globally, with gear available in more than 30 countries.
KUHL, based in Utah, draws from the alpine spirit of Nordic culture in its latest line of packs, the Maraudr Series, which includes the Ruksack, Duffel, BackPak and Karryall. The company took inspiration not only from the timeless design of Norwegian military bags, but also from the materials. According to Boyle, the Norwegian polar explorers used cotton canvas woven tight and treated with wax oils to create a water-resistant barrier. When the weave got wet, it would swell, trapping most of the liquid on the outside of the material.
KUHL used that design in their modern packs, blending cotton with nylon to create a material that’s lighter, stronger and more quick-drying than the original packs. They also created nylon webbing that has the look of the traditional cotton-and-leather strapping with the durability of modern materials. Even the hardware is custom made, to provide the same feel that the historical buckles had. Summed up, everything about these modern, technical pieces harkens back to their inspiration.
When asked why, Boyle said, “it reminds us of the moments we spent with our grandpas or uncles.” The gear Nordic people used reminds us all of that outdoor culture. “For us, these packs are celebrating that culture,” Boyle said. And what a culture to celebrate.