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No sweat: Why we bought a barrel sauna

January 18, 2022  ByJules Torti


Photo provided by the author

It was a no-brainer pandemic decision. My wife and I usually fling ourselves somewhere molten hot for at least a month in the winter. With travel restrictions stiffly in place due to Covid, we were left to our own devices, and that translated into bringing the equator into our very own backyard.

Kim and I had fallen in love with wood-fired saunas a decade before. Our first experience was at Hôtel de Glace (the Ice Hotel) in Quebec City. I was fretting about sleeping on an ice block bed covered in caribou skins. Our welcome drink was served in a carved ice “glass” – and while the Caribou (a sweet red wine and whiskey elixir favoured by French Canadians) was warming, the ice bed, ice walls and ice floor did not impart a cozy feeling. My teeth were instantly chattering.

The suites at the Ice Hotel hover around 3°C which is not my ideal temperate, ever. However, our chill-out stay at Hôtel de Glace was made more palatable with amenities like the outdoor hot tub (101°C) and the sauna (1,000°C – or so it felt). I spent more time in the sauna than the iceberg bed that night.

A year later, on a trip to Iceland, our affection for saunas was re-triggered. Blustery hikes were less daunting with thoughts of the mineral-rich geothermal hot springs and wood-fired saunas at Lake Myvatn’s Nature Baths to retreat to at day’s end. 

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A Work Perk
During my career as a massage therapist, I was magnetically drawn to working at spas that had saunas (especially when it was a staff perk to take advantage of them). Steam rooms always seemed too wet – but a dry sauna? I was known to slip in a few minutes before a massage treatment (in my uniform!) to warm my bones before my shift began.

Saunas seemed like such a blip in the massage therapy curriculum, lumped in with other modalities like actinotherapy and salt scrubs. Meanwhile, they are an incredibly accessible approach to self-care and a huge bonus for massage clients if you operate a home-based business.

Dry, Wet, Infrared, Smoke?
There are a few options for heating things up. Cedar barrel saunas come in different lengths, depending on your long-leggedness and how many people you want to sweat it out with. There are various bench configurations, window/skylight options, electric, wood, indoor and outdoor DIY or assembled kits.

We chose an energy-efficient, off-grid wood-fired sauna with a stove that is loaded from the exterior. Heating the space with wood requires 30 to 45 minutes prep time (depending on the outdoor temperature and your fire-making skills!). 

Infrared saunas are a popular indoor solution and are unique in that they heat the “black body” in the room. You! The air temperature isn’t as extreme as a traditional dry sauna, as electromagnetic radiation (via infrared panels) warms your body directly. The result is a sweat that is more intense, but at a lower temperature. This allows you to stay in the sauna longer, elevating your core temperature at a more gradual, tolerable rate.

For those who love the humidex, wet saunas are the fast ticket. They are dry saunas in disguise! Ladle water over the rocks and the temperature nearly visibly accentuates. The 100% humidity of a steam room prevents your sweat from evaporating but for many, the steam room can feel hotter even though the average temp is 43 to 49°C while a sauna can register at 71 to 93°C.

If you or your clientele suffer from frequent sinus or chest congestion, steam rooms are championed for their results. Saunas deliver in several ways: the naturally-induced fatigue can result in better sleep patterns. They’re detoxifying and can provide comforting relief from arthritic pain and muscle stiffness. They’re also a great space to disconnect and meditate.

The Poor Man’s Pharmacy
The Finnish know all about sweat equity – they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Suitably, “sauna” is the only Finnish word that is part of everyday English. For the Finns, saunas were the “poor man’s pharmacy” – they were a cure-all. Women gave birth in saunas because bacterial-resistant soot made them the cleanest “room” in the house. Incredibly, 99% of Finns take at least one sauna a week. Children respect the sauna from an early age, being warned to conduct themselves like they are in a church. It is a revered, holy experience in Finland – marriage and funeral rituals take place inside saunas too.

The stats are comparable to New Zealand’s human and sheep population. In Finland, there are 5.3 million people and 3.3 million saunas. There are even saunas deep in the belly of the earth, in mines. They are found in homes, factories and ships. There’s even a coveted sauna box at the hockey arena in Helsinki that permits sweating it out while watching a live hockey game.

In addition to wood-fired and electric saunas, Finns also adore traditional smoke saunas that take five hours to prepare. They create a signature black soot and “loyly” (the fragrant vapour released from water being thrown on the stones). The smoke sauna stoves do not have chimneys. Instead, the smoke clears through a small hole in the ceiling.

According to a BBC news article (“Why Finland loves saunas” by Mark Bosworth), “the Finnish parliament has its own sauna chamber for MPs to debate in, and all Finnish diplomatic and consular missions around the world have their own sauna.”

Mother Earth’s Connection
Of course, indigenous people have known of the whole mind and body purification of the sweat lodge for centuries. Pouring water on hot rocks enclosed in a dome that represents the womb of Mother Earth is a sacred ritual to disperse negative energy and imbalance in life. Traditionally, buffalo hides and furs were draped over a framework of bent saplings, cut to create the dome with a door that faced the east. Inside, a central firepit is steadily fed – the fire tender can pass 16 to 64 rocks inside and the number is always symbolic. The ceremony can last from late afternoon until dawn the next day. 

The ceremony is intended to deeply cleanse the spirit and is a vital part of fasting rituals and the Sun Dance. The firekeeper offers tobacco, leads prayers to the Creator and encourages participants to connect as healing spirits are invited into the sanctuary of the lodge through drumming and sacred offerings. Incredibly, until 1951, the Indian Act forbade the use of the sweat lodge in Canada. 

Stretching Out
Of course, there are unexpected twists to the sauna, like the tram sauna in Milano, Italy. Ten “passengers” can board the original carriage at the Termemilano spa. The tram spa was intended to be mobile so you could truly relax on your commute but city officials thought otherwise. In Finland, there’s a sauna bus that travels between airports!

Years ago, I wrote about experiencing a sand sauna in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt for this magazine. Local doctors boasted that a strict treatment plan of three to five days could cure rheumatism and arthritis. A simple 20-minute “sand sauna” in the searing hot sands of Gebel Dakrur was the fool-proof prescription. 

A remote beach in Norway claims fame as the “world’s largest public sauna” with sweat real estate for 150! I’m most amazed by the ingenuity of Finland though, and their ability to make saunas as accessible as possible. In 2015, the world’s first fast-food sauna opened in Helsinki in a Burger King. The 15-person sauna has a PlayStation 4, a 48-inch TV and the option to have a Whopper, fries and a Coke while you perspire. 

Gothenburg, Sweden has an underwater sauna while The Netherlands has a salt cave sauna with Himalayan Salt walls (which is entirely different than the salty fingers found in the Burger King sauna).

Whether you choose to embrace the Finn lifestyle and opt for a backyard barrel sauna or DIY indoor sauna kit, the decision is feel-good. The investment is in yourself: Whether it’s a self-care purchase or added element for your massage clientele, nothing compares to the full-body “om” that comes from time spent in a sauna. It has all the endorphins and deep body relaxation that a Swedish massage imparts – but this one is hands-free, making it an indulgent gift for weary massage therapists.  


Jules Torti is the author of Trail Mix: 920km on the Camino de Santiago (Rocky Mountain Books). She is also the Communications Architect at Wild Women Expeditions. Her winter office will be the barrel sauna in her backyard in Lion’s Head, Ontario.


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