The Naked Nation: How the Finnish Do the Sauna

by Satu Vänskä-Westgarth on January 13, 2014 · 20 comments

Sauna views in Finland I @SatuVW I Destination Unknown

Take a typical Finn. Stoic. Man (or woman) of a few words. Unbeknown to the joys of small-talk but full of “sisu”, a quality Finns are said to possess and which, according to Wikipedia, entails “deciding on a course of action and then sticking to that decision against repeated failures”.

While Finns like to hold on to their personal space which can be described as vast, it only takes a small, dark room where the temperatures soar above 80C (176F) and you can find several of this nation’s representatives sitting side by side or should I said butt to butt, naked, on the top wooden benches of a sauna. Mind you, they might still not mutter a word other than the short question of “löylyä?”, which for a brit would translate as “would you mind if I threw some more water on the stones”. The only right answer here is kyllä, yes. And if you are as adventurous as my 2-year old is, you continue with lisää, lisää, asking for more and more.

For someone who grew up with sauna, literally, as we had one in our house just like pretty much every one does, sauna is an institution. I wasn’t born in the sauna, like my father and his siblings were in the rural Finland of the 50’s, but sauna was and is a place where families start the weekend and wrap it up, warm up after a cold day on the skis and enjoy the lake views at their summer house’s sauna with dips in the cold water in between.

The decisions and negotiations concerning our little nation have also at times been crafted in sauna, and the failure of Finland’s flagship company, Nokia, has been partly blamed on the corporate culture “where important deals are usually brokered during visits to the sauna.”

The first thing I do when I return to Finland is, not surprisingly, hit the sauna, and so it was this past weekend as well. While laying down on the worn wooden top bench of my parent’s sauna, I thought back to some of the topics that have come up with my foreign friends who have visited Finland, and have naturally not given the choice whether to give sauna a go or not. Sauna is always a go.

Typical Finnish sauna I @SatuVW I Destination Unknown

Do I need to go naked in the sauna?

Yes. And no.

In all the public saunas where you have separate sides for women and men, swimming costumes in saunas are prohibited. However, if you enter a mixed sauna, often you take that decision yourself based on what you are the most comfortable with. With group of friends, especially of the same-sex, you always go naked and at times with mixed groups too. If sauna is part of the party menu sometimes men and women will take turns in using the sauna. And families naturally go naked together until the kids are of certain age. What that age is even I can’t even remember, the transition from family sauna to “ladies first” happened smoothly sometime before puberty.

What’s the optimal temperature?

Sixty degrees celsius (140F) is the absolute minimum while 80-100C (176-212F) is the optimal, depending on the sauna. There are huge differences between electricity and wood heated saunas, without even getting to the small technical details of how well the sauna is ventilated and other factors only real sauna connoisseurs would know. If you enter the sauna at 80C you should be safe.

Finnish lakeside sauna I @SatuVW I Destination Unknown

How do you DO sauna?

Take a quick shower. Enter the sauna and climb to the top bench – you might as well start here. Sit down and sit back. Throw water on the stones and ENJOY.

There are no rules regarding how long you should, could or can stay in, it’s all down to personal preferences. I for one often run in and out, enjoying either sitting and chatting on the veranda, swimming in the lake and sometimes braving it in the winter for a quick dip in the hole in the ice. Rolling in the snow is also a great way to freshen up in the winter months and will leave your skin tingling for a while.

If the heat gets too tough, you can always move down a step or two, and it is important to remember to stay hydrated. The drink of choice for many a Finn is beer, but I prefer my beer to wait just outside the sauna for me, nice and cold, while I take my bottle of water in the sauna with me. That said, there are specific beer holders that will keep your drink cool in the sauna as well.

Birch twigs or “vihta” (also called “vasta” in the eastern parts of the country) are used especially in the summer months for extra relaxation and to get the circulation going on full blast. The concept is simple. You either beat yourself gently with the twigs from head to toe, front and back, or give your friend a helping hand. And again, enjoy.

In the winter you can buy these frozen in any well-stocked supermarket.

Cooling saunabeer in Finland I @SatuVW I Destination Unknown

What else can you do in the sauna?

While the dim lighting and cozy atmosphere might spur some romantic intentions, with the continuous and at times intense heat it is often best to leave that side of things to the “saunakammari”, the room adjoined to sauna where you get changed and can enjoy some refreshing drinks also. However, this is really not what the Finnish sauna is all about.

Instead, you could fry up couple of sausages on the “kiuas”, the stove with the hot rocks in the sauna, but make sure you use a specific frying bag designed for this use. For optimal taste make diagonal cuts and insert cheese slices and tomatoes in them before pouring a good measure of beer on top. Wait 20 minutes and you have a meal to go with that sauna beer!

Typical Finnish sauna I @SatuVW I Destination Unknown

Want to know more?

As said, sauna is an institution and there are many takes on the perfect way to savor the sauna experience and this topic is huge. The best way to learn the ins and outs, the rights and wrongs and the intuitive ways in which the Finns navigate the “to go naked or not” issue is to come to Finland and have a sauna. Preferably with a native.

Good resources for more information:

Images: Hannele Vänskä (thanks mom!) 

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan (@VibrantIreland) January 13, 2014 at 9:06 AM

I was sweating just reading this 😉
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Satu Vänskä-Westgarth January 13, 2014 at 10:05 PM

Ha ha, well that’s a good sign I think, you are getting ready for the sauna experience!
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Adam Pervez January 13, 2014 at 1:53 PM

Great article! I’ve been to Helsinki, but didn’t get a chance to enjoy the sauna culture there. I’ve only used saunas in Denmark, but I think it’s not the same. Next time!
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Satu Vänskä-Westgarth January 13, 2014 at 10:16 PM

Thanks for stopping by Adam!! You should definitely come back to experience the “real” sauna, there are many public sauna’s in Helsinki that are worth the visit. :)
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Reeta @houseofanais January 13, 2014 at 6:44 PM

Love this article Satu – I’ve just been telling some people about the sausages in the sauna. Not sure if they believed me so I better send a link to your story!
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Satu Vänskä-Westgarth January 13, 2014 at 10:17 PM

Ha ha, I think they are not the first ones to quite get it, but in those days I still used to eat meat I quite liked it. You could also prepare veggies that way but it’s not quite the same.
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Andi of My Beautiful Adventures January 13, 2014 at 8:55 PM

I’m such a huge fan of saunas. I wish we had more of a sauna culture in the US.
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Satu Vänskä-Westgarth January 13, 2014 at 10:18 PM

I remember going to a sauna in the States where the sign outside prohibited throwing water on the stones. And then I noticed it was a Finnish made “kiuas”! I was quite gutted and might have smuggled in my water bottle for couple of quick splashes on the hot stones.
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Rika | Cubicle Throwdown January 15, 2014 at 3:18 AM

I feel like living in the Caribbean is a non-stop sauna world, so I might save this for when I visit Finland :) I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear about cooking sausages in a sauna, but it makes perfect sense and is hilariously awesome!!
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Satu Vänskä-Westgarth January 15, 2014 at 8:40 AM

Ha ha, yes do! And you should definitely test those sausages then 😉
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Leigh Powell Hines @Hinessightblog January 23, 2014 at 5:01 AM

This is such an interesting post, Satu.
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Satu Vänskä-Westgarth January 29, 2014 at 9:03 AM

Thanks Leigh! You should come for a visit to Finland so that me & Katja could take you on a sauna experience! :)
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Stig Jensen February 20, 2014 at 11:16 AM

I visited Finnland for the first time a few weeks ago, and really enjoyed it. I wish we had those public suanas in Norway, it was a really cool experience, especially the ice bathing- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpQNGPgKQds

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Satu Vänskä-Westgarth February 22, 2014 at 1:32 PM

I’m happy to hear you had a good trip, I REALLY miss “proper” saunas back in Norway. Maybe it would be a good business idea to set up a sauna bar or similar…? :) Our internet connection here in NZ is so slow that I can’t get that video going, I need to try it later!
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Stig Jensen February 22, 2014 at 3:47 PM

I guess it is a cultural thing there…don`t know if the norwegians would go for it…would`nt dare investing in it…
Yeah…the internet on New Zealand is horrific….It`s just me icebathing, so not a big deal :)
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Satu Vänskä-Westgarth February 24, 2014 at 8:58 PM

You icebathing sounds pretty extreme, I need to check it out! :)

And yeah, I’m not putting my pennies on saunabar in Norway, although it could be such a novelty and oddity that it COULD even work! Maybe if I lived in Oslo…..
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Heidi Wagoner October 2, 2014 at 7:55 AM

Too funny. We had a little experiment of our own in Spain. Not sure what I would do.
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Satu Vänskä-Westgarth October 2, 2014 at 11:37 AM

As said, it all comes naturally… At least to a Finn! :)
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