The word “sauna” comes from Finnish and is often associated with Finland, where it is certainly a central feature of the culture. But the tradition of sauna (or “bastu” in Swedish) is also very important in Swedish society. It is also an ever-popular activity for travellers on holiday in Sweden!
Saunas are found in many private houses in Sweden, and are also a common feature in log cabins available for hire or at mountain stations during for example, an extended dog sledding or hiking tour. Plunging into a cold lake or rolling in the snow before retreating to the warmth of the sauna is a truly unique and invigorating experience!
The development of the sauna
Evidence of the first saunas in Finland date back to around the 5th century. At their earliest beginnings, saunas were hollows in the side of a slope, containing a fireplace with heated stones. Steam was produced by throwing water onto the stones.
The advent of the industrial revolution led to saunas being constructed as wooden buildings heated by metal stoves, reaching temperatures of 90 degrees C or higher. Due to the availability of hot water and hygienic nature of its interior, the sauna became a popular place for women to give birth. The sauna traditionally also has spiritual connotations – a place for worshipping the dead, healing illnesses and even casting love spells!
The modern sauna
Today, saunas are either wood-fired (still the option favoured by many sauna lovers) or heated by an electric stove. Sauna still plays a very important part in the cultures of Sweden and Finland, as well as many other countries – you will often find a group of friends sharing an evening together in the sauna with a crate of beer (though note that alcohol should be consumed with extreme caution in saunas, due to the risks associated with accident and dehydration!).
The perceived temperature inside the sauna can be varied in one of three main ways:
- By throwing water onto the heater, creating steam, raising the level of humidity and making the body produce more sweat.
- Sitting lower or higher when in the sauna (as heat rises, it is considerably hotter on the upper bench!)
- Increasing the duration spent inside the sauna.
Those unused to taking sauna may find that temperatures and durations favoured by locals unbearable! It is important to be aware of your body and to expose yourself to temperatures and durations and that you find pleasant and comfortable.
Do I need to be naked?
Not necessarily! Family members or groups of friends will very commonly take sauna together unclothed or with just a towel – nudity in saunas in Sweden and Finland is of a distinctly non-sexual nature. Public saunas in Sweden are often single-sex, and in other public areas such as mountain stations, it is common to take your sauna wearing a swimsuit.
Taking a sauna after a long day in the Swedish outdoors is the perfect tonic for tired muscles and guaranteed to lift the spirits! Nature Travels offers a number of holidays in Sweden featuring sauna facilities, from our Log Cabin Escape in Värmland to Northern Lights Dog Sledding in Lapland.
The Nature Travels Team