What makes a Sauna?

You’ve either heard it or said it yourself dozens of times in your life: “It feels like a sauna in here”. A valid feeling, since it’s true – many situations may feel very much like that, like stepping into a car on a hot summer day. But are there conditions for what makes a REAL Finnish sauna?

You’ve either heard it or said it yourself dozens of times in your life: “It feels like a sauna in here”. A valid feeling, since it’s true – many situations may feel very much like that, like stepping into a car on a hot summer day. But are there conditions for what makes a REAL Finnish sauna?

Me? I think that there are. The misappropriation of the name “sauna” is something that’s been grinding my gears for a while now, and hasn’t been touched on in either of my two previous sauna articles, so I’m going to get right down to it…

It all began when I was mindlessly stumbling along the You tubes, going from one sauna video to another. A great many of them were by non-finnish americans. Travelers, adventurers, do-it-yourselfers, fitness gurus. To be honest, it disgusted me how much misinformation there is out there regarding something which has nonetheless been co-opted and turned into a trendy pastime.

For example, more than one video compared steam rooms vs saunas and proceeded to rant about “wet heat vs dry heat”. They called the sauna “dry heat”. It is not dry. When you step into any freshly heated sauna, you are stepping into somewhere between 40 to 60 percent relative humidity from the start. The moment you throw water on the rocks? Expect it to rocket up to 80 or so, and steadily increase the more you repeat. That process of throwing water is, my friends, a mandatory part of sauna. If it’s not done, then guess what? You’re not in one. The folks might be correct in that there are differences between the sauna and steam room, but that isn’t actually one of them.

If you’re going to use our name, know our rules and know the facts. And if you aren’t going to respect them, then it’s simple: Don’t call whatever it is you do a “sauna”, also don’t go making garbage up about something you know nothing about. Educate yourself before you try to teach people… Otherwise you are just contributing to the watering down of a tradition which millions consider very important. It’s not so for no reason – after all, this institution has been honed over hundreds of years, and we have the research to back up that sauna specifically has amazing benefits when followed “The Finnish Way”.

The following are NOT saunas:

  • – Infra-red heat rooms
  • – Rooms without a stove covered in rocks
  • – Personal devices which create heat and steam around your body only
  • – Rooms where you are not allowed to access the stove or throw water on it

The following ARE saunas:

  • – Cabin with a wood stove covered with round stones, a chimney and high wood bench.
  • – Room, usually in basement, with an electric stove and thermostat, otherwise identical.
  • – Structure with a stone oven but no chimney, called “smoke sauna” or “savusauna”.

The following CAN be saunas:

(provided they meet the stove rules and provide the necessary heat)

  • – Tents
  • – Trailers
  • – Native Tipis
  • – Sheds
  • – Any closed in structure where you can sit your naked ass down somewhere.

Do you need to be naked? No… but it’s preferred. Because the point is to let the whole body be exposed to the elements and release sweat and toxins. If you are protecting part of your body just for the sake of modesty, you are going to sacrifice some of that benefit.

A sauna needs a stove that generates steam. Rocks are an efficient way of holding in heat and turning water into steam when it’s thrown on top. If you were to just have a flat metal surface, it would be more of a sauce pan and the water would not dissipate quickly enough. If you put something like a kettle on top or in the middle of the rocks, as some people do, you will lose efficiency. Some people like to boil wieners, sausage or “saunalenkki” while enjoying a session; this is ok, but understand that it works best if your sauna is not full of leaks already.

I went to a Swedish sauna that had cracks all over the place and could barely pull its temperature up north of 40c / 105F. I cannot understand for the life of me, how anyone could enjoy this for the purpose of sauna. I rearranged the rocks and immediately the efficiency improved, heating up to 60c / 140F in about an hour. Still not great, but at least meets the conditions necessary to function and generate steam. The tent I use currently to get my fix, is capable of exceeding 100c / 212F within 20 minutes of being lit. That is efficiency. If I don’t want to use all that heat, I add ventilation.

Sauna heat gets into your bones and keeps you warm the rest of the night. That’s when you know you’ve had a real sauna.

My particular product is also called a “Banya” because it’s developed in Siberia. Banya is the Russian equivalent of what we call sauna. Which brings me to the next point. I make the joke sometimes, that the only difference between the Russian banya and the Finnish sauna, is the silly hat. If you’ve never seen what I mean, here it is.


Many cultures and traditions have similar practices. They may each call it their own thing. Native American Sweat lodges also heat rocks to produce steam. They may have more of a spiritual component to them usually, but the Finnish sauna has also been called a holy place by some. I have no qualm with calling either a Banya or sweat lodge “sauna”, because they have the correct elements, and you get a sense of their ancient roots – they evolved the same way sauna did and for the same purposes and thus became similar because that’s what works the best. You cannot say the same of many gimmicky health trends which are done in the name of convenience, or so that someone does not get sued. When you go into a sauna you must do so with the acknowledgement that it is a potentially dangerous place, and you must have respect for it. People try to take the good parts of the sauna and package them in a safe, marketable way and leave out the bad. You can’t.

There is a lot of flexibility within the guidelines I’ve laid out above for what you can do in a sauna. You can give it its own personality, by decorating it the way you want. You can arrange the layout the way you want. You can bathe with soap and shampoo directly inside, even mount a shower on the wall, as some Finns do – or not. You can whack your back with young birch branches, or not. You can use candles, mix essences with the water, all kinds of things.

The sauna is supposed to be an occasion to cleanse your body and also your spirit. By all means learn to meditate and use this whole experience as a unique venue to escape your daily stresses. Family and friends are optional. Give it a try alone and you might be amazed at the inspiration which comes to you in this unique environment – when it is done correctly, that is. When it isn’t, you may find that it was a bad experience which you’d prefer to not repeat any time soon. And who could blame you? But it’s not that hard to do right, if you know the rules.

I’m not a person who is big on rules. Many times I’d rather break or ignore them. But there are times when they are there for a reason, and this is one of them. Because if you break them, fine. But just remember that what you experienced might not have been the Finnish sauna. Just some cheap facsimile.

P.S.  It’s pronounced sauna.  

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