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Finnish sauna culture

If you have visited Finland, or you are planning to visit, you might have heard about the Finnish sauna culture.

Sauna is a strong part of the Finnish lifestyle and we have over 2 million saunas in a land with 5.5 million people. By Webster's definition, a sauna is 1: a Finnish steam bath in which the steam is provided by water thrown on hot stones (löylyä): a bathhouse or room used for such a bath. 2: a dry heat bath: a room or cabinet used for such a bath.

By a Finn's definition, it's the place you strip down and go to sweat it out and relax. Why would you ever want to go into an 80°C room to sweat it out you ask? Well, it's hard to explain – you just have to try for yourself! Or with us on our sauna and national park hike!

In this article, we will take a look at the who, what, where, when and whys of the sauna.

The sauna belongs in our daily lives, like sleeping or eating. I could say that every Finn – or 99% (the 1% being newborn babies...?) – have been in a sauna. This also includes toddlers. I was around 1-year old when I visited the sauna the first time. It's no wonder that I love saunas and still go weekly. My family calls me “saunakettu” (sauna fox) because I love my saunas HOT and if I had the chance, I would go every day. (I have no idea how saunas and foxes go together though..)

Saunas are not only a part of our daily lives but play a role in some Finnish holiday celebrations. It is part of our holiday traditions during Christmas and midsummer celebrations. Midsummer is one of my favourite holidays of the year and requires a minimum of two saunas per day over the course of a long weekend. It may not be set in stone but that is how we do it. The Christmas sauna is a sort of transition from the regular working week mindset into holiday mode. After the Christmas sauna, the festivities begin!

History of Finnish sauna

The oldest of Finnish saunas were made as pits in the ground and date back to several thousand years ago. Unfortunately, there is no written history of how the first sauna in Finland came to be. But there are remnants of saunas that were so-called “ground pit saunas” and were used during the stone age.

Eventually the saunas were built above ground level and sauna was usually the first building of the house. All you needed to build a sauna was ground, three walls, an entryway which can be covered, a turf or animal hide based roof, and rocks heated by fire. From then on, the sauna has been improvised and naturally progressed to what we have today. As wood stoves became the norm and building qualities improved, the sauna became a full-time dwelling, especially during the winter. (saunaregion.fi)

Early on, the sauna had found its place in the daily life of Finns. Not only as a bathhouse or winter dwelling but a place for birth, death, and taking care of the sick. It started to work its way into our traditions and stories.

During iron age, the smoke saunas (no chimney) had come along way and were very popular till the 1930s. Wood saunas with chimneys became popular around the 18th century and from around the 1860s upon the great migrations to the US I found an interesting article excerpt in regards to what the locals had thought about the newly landed immigrants and their mysterious sauna building.

" "Always there was one little building too many. Generally, it was a square, squat log house, which seemed to be half in the ground, with a wide door and a blind window." The writer fails to find any sin beyond a certain standoffishness in the Finns he talks to, but he freely quotes the guide, a man named Hall, for a more sinister view of these people of the marsh edges: "The Christian Finns are all right... like the Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes we have in this State... But the black Finns *(Their term of reference to the evil sauna worshippers) of Embarrass(Minnesota) are not Christians at all. They believe in witchcraft. Every family has its own witch-house close by its living-quarters. And as often as a good Christian says his prayers, these black Finns visit their little witch-houses. It is a funny sight to see the whole family, each one wrapped in a large white sheet, going to this little house to pray to some deity. Now, these black Finns, too, are good workers, but we know enough about them to keep away from them." " (Text is taken from The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition by Michael Nordskog)

After the second world war, a revolutionary invention was released: The electric sauna. It meant that you can heat up sauna fast and safely without burning wood. (saunaregion.fi) Nowadays the smoke saunas are the oldest types of saunas in Finland and normally held in the highest esteem among the Finnish.
There are many types of saunas but the most common ones are electric and wooden with smoke saunas trailing behind.

Let's look at the main differences between these three saunas:

Wooden sauna

Traditional Finnish sauna. The sauna will be heated up to 80-110°C by burning wood inside a sauna stove. It takes about 45 minutes before the sauna will be ready, and you keep burning wood while you are in the sauna and smoke comes out of a chimney.

Steam is created by throwing water on the rocks (löyly) which are being heated on top of the sauna stove. You want to have the sauna hot and keep burning the wood while in the sauna so that rock will stay hot and continue to create steam. After enough saunas you will start to recognize the right sizzling sound the water creates when hitting the rocks, it is a very sad moment in time when you throw water on the rocks expecting to hear that "SSSSSSZZZH" and only get the sound of a splash.

Most commonly you will find wooden saunas in cottages and houses, but not in apartment buildings. Owning a wood sauna means you will have some extra work cut out for you – mainly, chopping wood.

The heat of wooden saunas varies greatly on the size and shape of the sauna but more often than not delivers a full and strong heat. In combination with the burning of the wood and the heat, it is a very relaxing experience.

Electric sauna

Electric saunas have been available since the 1950s (saunaregion.fi) and they are very common in apartments and homes. Easy to warm up, you just turn on the switch and it takes about 45 mins for the sauna to be ready. Easy to use, safe and creates a dry heat.

You can find these types of saunas everywhere, even in a small apartment, that’s why most of the saunas are electric ones. You throw löyly here same way than in a wooden sauna. The heat produced from an electric sauna can sometimes be described as harsh because of the nature of the room/surroundings and the dryness of the heat. Drier heat will feel much hotter on the skin. A good way to get around this is to water down the sauna seats and walls with your shower head (All saunas are normally connected to a shower room).

And remember – a bad sauna is better than no sauna.

Smoke sauna

An old style of sauna which takes several hours to warm up and has no chimney. While burning wood inside of the sauna, the smoke will fill the room covering the walls in black soot and smokey aroma.

When the sauna has been warmed up (approx. 6 hours), the fire will be put out, the smoke released through a vent in the roof and sauna open for business. The "kiuas" or rocks which are heated will normally be much larger than a wooden sauna and deliver a heat that can only be described as super smooth, soft and hot. Definitely, the best sauna type and very appreciated among Finnish sauna people.

Smoke saunas are ticking time bombs in fact and are known to burn down every 10 years or so. The black soot which collects on the wall will eventually take a spark from the fire and set the sauna ablaze.

One of my favourite things about the smoke sauna is that they are usually public which means the atmosphere inside is always lively and changing and usually the locations are great.

What to do in the sauna?

Depending on who you ask, there is either, no wrong way to have a sauna or there is only one way to have a sauna.

Normally Finns go to the sauna naked and there is nothing awkward about it – it is natural. Although, in public mixed saunas like the smoke sauna, bathing suits are required. In public saunas that are separated by gender, you go naked.

When you go to the sauna with your family or friends you are normally nude if it’s a mixed sauna and everyone is comfortable with it. Usually, we have separate sauna turns for women and men among friends and family as well.

When you are visiting a sauna with a Finn, just follow their lead and you will do just fine. Or you can wear a bathing suit to make you feel comfortable.

After heating up the sauna, have a quick shower before going in. Sit for a moment to adjust to the temperature of the room and throw water on the rocks, löyly, which will create the steam and the heat. Sit back and relax. Also, take enough breaks. During the break, you can go outside to cool down or swimming if possible. You will be sweating in a sauna so remember to drink water!

When you have been cooling down head back to the sauna and throw löyly. Löyly, heat, break, repeat. You can go to the sauna once or as many times as you feel comfortable, always listen to your body.

A bundle of fresh birch twigs/branches – called vihta or vasta – are also part of Finnish sauna culture. You can whip yourself with it, sounds strange, but believe me: it is really good for your skin. You can also mix some tar/pine/birch aroma oil with the sauna water so when you are throwing löyly you will get a smooth and relaxing smell.

When you have gotten enough of the sauna, it is time to shower, wash, and feel extra relaxed for the rest of the day.

What are the benefits of sauna?

Sauna is good for everyone, young and old. Most complications in the sauna come from heart problems and it is not recommended (at least hot ones). Sweating in a sauna cleans your skin and your body of toxins. The heat will help your muscle pains and your quality of sleep will increase. The most important benefits of the sauna are to help you relax and relieve stress. (saunaregion.fi)

Going ice swimming after the sauna is also good for your health. Regular swimming in ice-cold water increases your mood and energy balance, your tolerance for cold temperatures will improve, reduce blood pressure and decrease stress. Apparently, the change between cold and hot also helps maintain your skin elasticity by slowing down the cellular ageing process. (saunaregion.fi)

So many great reasons to visit a sauna and try ice swimming during the winter!

Where do I find a sauna?

Almost every house and cottage have a sauna, apartments have saunas as well and, normally, your apartment building has a common sauna for those who live in the building. You can reserve sauna time for yourself, one hour a week when the sauna is reserved just for you. When you are visiting Finland and if you know local people, you can ask if they could take you to the sauna.

If you don’t know locals or they don’t have own sauna to take you to, we have plenty of public saunas. You can buy a single-entry fee ticket for the sauna or rent the whole sauna venue where you can go with your friends. If you are staying in a hotel you might have a room with a sauna, or you can just ask your receptionist to guide you to the nearest public sauna. If you are not comfortable going to a sauna on your own, I recommend going with a guide/local.

There is no limit to where we can find places to build a sauna! We have built them in barrels, tents, floating docks, ice, and even on our Ferris wheel in Helsinki or if you prefer to sw(eat) there is also a sauna in burger king. You name it – we have it. The weirdest place I have ever seen a sauna was built inside of an old abandon car.

We organize smoke sauna experiences where you will get to experience an authentic Finnish smoke sauna with us and hike in a national park. And you don’t have to worry about being naked since it is a mixed public sauna a bathing suit is required. It is a really easy and laidback experience for you, especially for the first-timers. The smoke sauna is located by a lake so we will always go for a dip to cool down – even in the wintertime! Definitely, the most Finnish thing to do is to visit the sauna and go for a swim afterwards.

We wish you “hyviä löylyjä” for your next sauna trip!

Ps. We love the sauna so much that Finland has done a special 2-euro coin in the year 2018 about our sauna culture. Check the coin here.

Pictures by Harri Tarvainen/Visit Finland