Saunas abound the world over in many shapes and forms, but perhaps nowhere else are they as heavily ingrained into the local culture as Finland. In fact we have the Finns to thank for giving us the word. In the past, and still in many rural areas, they were the only practical way to wash with sub zero temperatures outside and no running water. Still today it is possible to find people who were born in the sauna (unheated of course) as it was a sterile place with access to hot water.
There are plenty to go around too. In a country of only around 5.3 million people there are an estimated 2 million saunas so tracking one down is no problem, whether it be a modern contraption in an office block or a hand built wooden hut in the countryside. In fact it might be hard not to find yourself in one as they are used for a surprising array of social occasions.
So, if you do hear the words ‘what about a sauna?’, throw care (and your clothes) to the wind and jump right in because if you don’t you will miss out on one of the most quintessentially Northern European experiences there is.
Here is some basic information you should know before you step into the steam.
Don’t be shy
Saunas are meant to be taken in the nude, this can seem a little daunting but the Finns are very used to social nudity and no one is judging you. Getting naked with some business clients or friends you have only just met is perfectly normal, what better way to get to know each other! Leave your clothes hanging up in the entrance room and take a quick shower before entering. If you still feel shy it is OK to wear a towel, especially if you’re in a mixed sex sauna. In fact a good tip is to take in a towel to sit on, as the wooden seats can sometimes get pretty hot for bare bums.
Bring on the heat
The type you are most likely to encounter, and probably the best, use a wood burner with a chimney. You might be requested to bring in a few more logs while you’re out to keep the fire stocked. There are also smoke saunas where you get in after most of the smoke has left and the hot coals and smoky aroma do the work. Electrically heated saunas can also be found but they aren’t quite as much fun. The Finnish sauna society recommends between 80 to 100 degrees Celsius although many people prefer it around 70.
On the heated stove you will find a basket or tray of rocks which retain the heat for a long time. If you feel the need for more steam take one of the ladles and scoop some water from the bucket on top of them. This creates a blast of hot steam that really hits you, just try and relax and don’t get flustered, even if it’s hard to breath. You can also use this bucket and scoop to gently pour water on yourself if you’re feeling way too hot. The cool water feels pretty amazing and it should be fine to take a gulp or too if you’re feeling parched.
Escape for a breather
If you feel you’re getting way overheated and need a break just pop outside. Many saunas have a middle room which is enclosed but not heated to leave your clothes and relax between bouts. Of course the real way to do it is to jump straight into a lake or roll in the snow until you cool down sufficiently, then get back in. This is done many times for a really long, relaxed and amazingly invigorating experience. Just be careful of icy snow as it can be very abrasive to your tender heated skin.
Exfoliate and circulate
Sometimes you may be given a bunch of ‘vihta’ with which to gently flagellate yourself after dipping them in water. This is to increase circulation and create a pleasant aroma, so not as kinky as it sounds. You might also come across all manner of exfoliating devices with which to brush away all that dead skin. It’s also fine to ask I’ll scrub your back if you scrub mine. Occasionally the tradition of the washing lady still exists, she will scrub you down with no room left for shyness. Rarely will you have a felt so clean and glowing.
As a social activity beer and saunas go hand in hand. That said it’s probably best not to drink too much strong beer or you will dehydrate pretty sharpish. Ice cold low alcohol beer is usually the preference and of course you can always down a mouthful of water once in a while when dowsing yourself down. As the Finnish sauna society say “the sauna leaves you not only content but also thirsty and hungry.” So after you’ve been in and out enough times and had your final wash down with a bit of shampoo, let yourself dry fully, put on your clothes and head out to carry on the party with some homely Finnish food and drink. Clean as a whistle.
Sauna’s are found all over the world. Where has been your best steamy experience?