Saunas make up a major part of Swedish culture. A traditional Swedish sauna is a place to relax the body, enjoy some wonderful health benefits, and socialize with friends.
Saunas are found all over Sweden, and they are a proud and authentic Scandinavian experience. While saunas may all seem the same, there are many different types of saunas and sauna customs that exist.
In this guide, we’ll focus on traditional Swedish saunas, and explain everything you need to know about using them. Once you try your first Swedish sauna experience, you might even be inspired to install your own sauna at home.
Also known as a bastu, a traditional Swedish sauna is a small room filled with dry heat. These sauna rooms have an entirely wooden interior, and they use hot rocks to provide heat. Sauna users can splash water onto the hot rocks to create steam and humidity. Adding water to the rocks increases the heat of the sauna. The heat in these saunas is also adjustable with the heat controls.
Saunas have been a part of people’s regular routines in Sweden since the 5th century. Saunas were first set up in hollows on mountain slopes and were heated with fire. Today, Swedish saunas are constructed out of wood and use electricity. In Sweden, there are many public and private saunas. Using these saunas is a regular ritual for Swedes, and it’s a process that comes with specific sauna etiquette.
Using a Swedish sauna is often complemented by taking a plunge in an icy pool. This rapid heating and cooling of the body is thought to provide various benefits. Sitting in a hot Swedish sauna result in a deep sweat, which helps to remove toxins and increase blood flow.
People use saunas in the hopes of reaping benefits like pain management, skin rejuvenation, improved metabolism, muscle relaxation and recovery, and enhanced immune and cardiovascular functioning.
Swedish saunas are considered a way to improve sleep and manage stress too. Saunas are also a kind of meditative experience, providing a calming break out of people’s busy daily lives.
Saunas are found all over Sweden. If you’ve never stepped into a bastu before, then you know that it can be a slightly intimidating experience.
Here are some important rules to keep in mind when using a traditional Swedish sauna.
Disrobing is standard practice in a traditional Swedish sauna. Nudity is a normal practice for Swedes when using a sauna. In fact, wearing clothes inside a traditional Swedish sauna will be more strange than being naked.
If you are not used to nudity, ensure to keep your gaze above shoulder level. Alternately, locate mixed male-female Swedish saunas that allow swimwear.
Always take a shower before getting into a traditional Swedish sauna. It’s important that everyone enters the sauna while they’re clean to keep the sauna hygienic and odor-free. In many cases, people will take a swim and then a shower before entering the sauna.
Always bring a towel to a Swedish sauna. You will wear a towel between coming in and out of the sauna. You will also want to sit on the towel while you’re in the sauna. This is much more comfortable than sitting on dry wood.
It’s also important to bring a towel to a Swedish sauna as you can use it to catch sweat that falls off your body. This makes the sauna experience more hygienic for everyone involved.
You will sweat a lot when sitting in a Swedish sauna. Because your body will be losing so much moisture, it’s important to stay hydrated throughout the sauna experience. Bring a bottle of water in with you and drink it during your sauna session. Many Swedish saunas also have drinking water taps inside the sauna.
Because Swedes enjoy saunas as a social experience, many people will bring beer into the sauna to drink with their friends. If this sounds like fun to you, just make sure that the sauna you use allows for this. Also be careful with how much beer you consume, as alcohol can dehydrate the body even further.
When you enter the sauna, all you need to do is find a comfortable place to sit and relax. The higher up you sit, the hotter it will be. Feel free to chat with other sauna users if they are being social, or just sit quietly by yourself.
You can splash water over the hot rocks in the sauna to increase the heat and humidity. There will be a large scoop and water bucket next to the rocks for this.
Always try to be aware of how much time you spend inside the sauna. Saunas can be very healthy, but overdoing them could also result in dehydration and feeling light-headed. Many sauna users will duck out every 15 minutes or so to grab some fresh air and cool down. If you are new to using Swedish saunas, then taking regular breaks is encouraged.
Once your sauna session is over, you’ll need to clean up and cool your body back down. Taking a cool shower straight after a sauna is standard practice. This closes the pores back up and cleans off the sweat.
Make sure you drink a lot of water after your sauna session to replenish lost liquids. It’s also important that you get up slowly from the sauna, and don’t exert too much energy until your body is rehydrated.
Building a traditional Swedish sauna is not as difficult as it might seem. If you would like to enjoy your own private Swedish bastu, then there are two different ways that you could build one.
The easiest way is to simply purchase a premade sauna kit and set it up. These kits include a prefabricated sauna design and a sauna heater. You can simply pop them up as freestanding sauna buildings, or use sauna kits to convert existing spaces into a sauna.
You could turn a spare room or a garden shed into a perfectly functioning traditional Swedish sauna. You could even purchase a mobile sauna kit that fits onto a trailer.
The other option is to go the more DIY route and build the entire sauna yourself. To do this, you will need to start by identifying a site. This needs to be on flat ground, and you need enough space to build a sauna room that is at least about 7 feet high and 6 feet wide. If you want your Swedish dry sauna to be more of a social space, then you will need to make it bigger.
You will need to create a concrete base for the sauna, and erect the frame. If you are building a Swedish traditional outdoor sauna, the sauna should be made from wood such as aspen, nordic spruce, or cedar.
A very important part of building a traditional Swedish sauna is insulating the walls properly. This is essential for keeping the heat in. Swedish saunas use certain types of wood for this specific reason. The floor of the sauna will generally be tiled. Then, you need to build wooden benches around the sauna. These should be positioned in a step-like design, as to accommodate more people.
The great thing about building your own sauna is that you can include any unique design elements that you want. This could include things like windows, a pitched ceiling for better heat circulation, a drain for easier cleaning, a glass door, or more.
Once the sauna walls have been erected and properly insulated, you will need to add the sauna heater. You could choose an electric or wood-burning sauna heater.
It’s possible to use repurposed materials when building a sauna. Just make sure that they can withstand the heat and humidity. For example, try not to use woods with knots in the grain, as the knots will expand when the wood heats up. This can be very uncomfortable to sit against.
Just like the Swedes, Estonians also have a strong sauna culture. While an Estonian sauna may look very similar to a traditional Swedish sauna, there are a few key differences.
The saunas are the same in that they both use dry heat to heat up a small wooden sauna cabin. Both types of saunas use hot rocks, which can be splashed with water to create steam.
The main unique feature of Estonian saunas is that traditionally they take a smoke sauna design. This is when there is no chimney in the sauna, and the smoke that rises from the wood circulates through the sauna. These saunas can get extremely hot. A Swedish dry sauna does not use this smoke design.
Estonian saunas use a stove made from Estonian slate. The stove in an Estonian sauna is also placed higher than in a Swedish sauna – usually around a person’s chest height. These saunas also have larger benches than a traditional Swedish sauna, as Estonians prefer to lie down on the wider benches.
Estonians use a sauna whisk. This is made from either birch, juniper, or oak branches. Sauna users hit themselves with the whisk to promote blood circulation while using the sauna. A traditional Swedish sauna does not use a whisk.
Another important part of Estonian sauna culture is taking an ice swim between hot sauna sessions. While icy dips are common with Swedish sauna users, Estonians take longer swims in the ice.
Sauna use is also incredibly popular in Finland. Just like a traditional Swedish sauna, Finnish saunas are small hot cabins lined with wood. Both saunas use hot rocks to heat up the cabin. However, there are a few key differences.
Most notably, a Swedish dry sauna is exactly what the name suggests – a sauna that uses dry heat. Yes, Swedes do splash the rocks to create steam in the sauna, but the sauna itself is more of a hot and dry experience.
In Finland, saunas are more wet and steamy. In many cases, Finnish saunas also use a smoke design (like Estonian saunas), to create a hot and smokey experience.
|Finnish Sauna||Swedish Sauna|
|Wet/dry temperament||Finnish saunas are wet||Swedish saunas are dry|
|Heat design||Uses a smoke design||Uses dry heat|
|Birch twig use||Finnish saunas use a “vihta” (a bunch of birch twigs that you dip into cold water and slap your skin with)||A traditional Swedish sauna experience does not use these bundles of twigs|
|Regularity||Using a sauna in Finland is usually a weekly activity with family||Saunas in Sweden are generally only used occasionally with friends|
|Usage||Finns use saunas as part of their weekly hygiene routine||Swedes use saunas more for relaxation or after a workout|
A traditional Swedish sauna experience can be a wonderful thing. Beyond the many potential health benefits, sauna sessions can be incredibly relaxing and meditative. They’re an excellent way to hit pause on the day and let your body unwind.
You don’t have to visit Scandinavia to enjoy one of these sauna experiences either. With the right sauna kit or design, building your own private sauna is very doable. This could result in endless sauna sessions, which can be great as social experiences or as a peaceful private escape.
Either way, if you haven’t tried a traditional Swedish sauna, then it’s certainly worth finding one and giving it a go. You’ll soon see why this is such a popular activity.