Outdoor Sauna: A Guide for First-Timers
Outdoor saunas are essentially just a healthier stand-in for indoor steam rooms. The only difference is that an outdoor sauna doesn’t have the same moist heat you’ll find inside because it instead relies on natural, dry heat from the sun. It’s an extremely popular activity in Finland, where people spend hours outside sweating their troubles away—but if you live in a place with harsh winters, you might want to try taking your sauna indoors. That’s where this guide comes in. We’ll help you understand the ins and outs of this surprising, fun activity and provide you with all the instructions and tips you’ll need to get started.
Are you ready for some sauna goodness? Let’s get started:
What Makes Finnish Saunas So Popular?
The obvious answer is that people in Finland love the heat, but the reality is a little more complicated than that. What really drives saunas into such hot demand is actually a series of factors that have come together over decades to create a unique social phenomenon—one that even foreigners can enjoy while living in Finland.
- The first factor is the country’s unusual relationship with nature. Even though Finland is one of the most forested countries in Europe, it has remarkably low levels of biodiversity—and that’s because nearly 75% of the population lives in the southern third of the country. People are so densely packed there, you can almost hear them breathing down your neck. Combine this lack of space with long, freezing winters and it’s easy to see why Finns are so eager to get outside whenever they can. It serves as a welcome break from their often screen-dominated lives.
- A second factor is related to Finland’s love of technology and design. The country is full of creative people who are passionate about how things look—both inside and out. This desire for clean lines extends to the sauna itself, which is usually made of flat, white-painted tiles. The result is a minimalist feel that can be quite beautiful by itself—and only then.
- The third factor is perhaps the most significant, because it helps explain why Finnish saunas are so different from anything else outside Finland. Let’s start with the heat itself. Unlike traditional steam rooms, Finnish saunas are not heated by hot rocks or hot water pipes hidden in the floor or ceiling. Instead, they make use of radiant energy—the same energy you get from sunlight … but on steroids. Infrared energy is invisible to the naked eye, but it’s everywhere. Even on a cold winter day, you can feel it warming up the air around you. But this is just the beginning. This radiant energy is so strong it can pass through window glass—which is why Finnish saunas are usually placed outside, where they’re easily warmed by the sun. When they’re heated properly, they reach temperatures higher than 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82 degrees Celsius).
- The last factor that’s unique to saunas in Finland is the building materials used. Though wooden saunas are common in other countries, the Finnish version is the only one made of white-painted ceramic tiles. They’re known as kuusikivi, which means “pine tree” in Finnish. The tile design itself has an interesting history—the word kuusi is actually a blend of four Finnish words that mean “corn,” “threshold,” “crown,” and “waterfall.”
The full first word, korni , actually means ear of grain and is a reference to the way the tiles’ horizontal lines look like rows of corn husks. This also helps explain how the other words came about: threshold ( kynnyksen ) is a reference to the tiles that rest on top of each other at the very entrance, crown ( kruunu ) is a reference to how they sit up high like a roof, and waterfall ( lähteet ) comes from how water droplets cascade down them when the sauna door is opened and closed—hence why you should always cover your head and hair before going inside.
Finland’s outdoor saunas aren’t the only ones you’ll find in Europe. In fact, they’re a fairly recent invention that dates back to a time when there was a strong cultural exchange between the country and Sweden—which had a similar wooden sauna tradition. The first Finnish saunas were basically just wooden versions of their Swedish counterparts, which were built on stilts. But as Finland developed its own unique culture, their buildings gradually evolved into the towering white towers we see today.
Boasting such a unique history, Finnish saunas are hard to miss when you’re traveling through the country. But if you live in a place with harsh winters, you might want to take your sauna indoors. Either way, we recommend giving these outdoor hot tubs a try. You may be surprised by how much time and money they’ll save you in the long run.
What Kinds of Sauna Options Are Available?
Though there are dozens of different configurations for running an indoor sauna at home, there are basically two camps when it comes to outdoor saunas—wooden and white-tiled kuusikivi.
An outdoor wooden sauna consists of a wooden tent. Inside, you’ll find a furnace that heats up rocks that are then placed into the center of the tent—kind of like how you’d light a campfire. The rocks are replaced with new ones once they’re no longer hot enough to provide sauna heat for more than 15 minutes.
Saunas made of black-painted logs are also common in Finland, though they can be difficult to find outside the country. They’re a little easier to build, but quite a bit less common, and it’s not uncommon for people to travel across the country for a sauna experience in my hometown of Oulu. If you live in Sweden, you can even find some saunas that are built entirely from wood salvaged from old factories. Similarly, sauna tents made from rectangular blocks of wood can be found in many regions—especially in sparsely-populated northern parts of the country.
If you want an outdoor white-tiled sauna instead, there are few options that are easier to build than kuusikivi. They require minimal cutting and are designed to be installed on almost any type of ground. The only real problem with them is the weight—which explains why you have to have a sturdy base or foundation before installing them.
They’re basically just giant slabs of ceramic tiled that are stacked one after another to create a towering heatable space. Their walls are usually between four and eight feet high, so they’re not really suitable for lying down in. But given how easy they are to build, it’s hard not to imagine these saunas being used wherever there’s an empty patch of ground—or even along the banks of rivers or lakes where people like to camp or fish.