The first written descriptions of saunas first appeared around 1112 AD and featured the original savusaunas, or “smoke saunas,” which were earth pits dug into a hillside or slope. They were heated by a pile of rocks that would absorb heat from a large amount of wood that would be left to burn for 6-8 hours. After the fire was extinguished and smoke let out, the rocks would hold and maintain the residual heat for up to 12 hours. Modern saunas emerged during the industrial revolution along with the popularization of wood-burning metal stoves which allowed users to heat the rocks much quicker.
Today, saunas have spread across the world and continue to rise in popularity as more studies reveal their potential health benefits. There are even associations dedicated to preserving and promoting the art of sauna, one of which includes the International Sauna Association based out of Helsinki whose mission is to globalize the practice of heat bathing.
There have been numerous studies that confirm the physiological health benefits of regular heat therapy. According to a 2020 study from Coventry University in the United Kingdom, heat therapy, such as sauna or hot bath use, can lead to lower blood pressure, improved blood flow, better blood sugar, and reduced inflammation. In 2018 the Mayo Clinic found that regular sauna use can reduce the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and heart attacks by 37 to 83 percent. They also found a 60 percent reduced risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s. The University of Eastern Finland has also completed numerous studies that have concluded these same benefits including reduced risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and hypertension. While saunas cannot help with weight loss or muscle mass, they can create long-term health benefits and increase overall body health.
Types of Backyard Saunas:
1) Dry Saunas vs Steam Rooms
Traditional saunas are typically heated between 150*F to 195*F and remain at around 10% humidity. You can optionally sprinkle water on the rocks to bring the humidity above 60%, but they will never reach the same percentage as a steam room. Steam rooms, also called Turkish Baths, are usually kept between 110*F to 120*F with 100% humidity. While not as many studies have been done on steam rooms, some doctors suspect they have similar health benefits to saunas.
Steam rooms operate at a lower temperature, but the 100% humidity prevents your sweat from evaporating and can cause them to feel much hotter than a traditional sauna. In general, steam rooms are thought to help more with congestion or sinus problems and saunas are thought to be better for those with conditions aggravated by humidity.
2) Wood-burning vs Electric
A big choice for most at-home sauna owners is whether they want an electric or wood-burning sauna. While electric saunas are more convenient, wood-burning saunas offer a more traditional experience that some heat-bathers aren’t willing to pass up.
Electric saunas are easy to operate, simple, and precise. A quick flip of a switch and heat will begin filling your sauna to an exact temperature. They also offer a much cleaner and more efficient heating source with less emissions. The lack of wood means you won’t have to regularly clean soot, ashes, or debris from your sauna, and you can instead sit back and enjoy. However, they are still hooked up to your home’s electricity and can increase your utility bills, especially depending on the area you live in. Due to their dependence on electricity, they may not be a good option for someone who lives in a remote region or with frequent power outages.
Wood-burning heaters offer a much more authentic experience and they are typically much cheaper. Their initial start-up cost is more budget-friendly, and if you live in an area with an abundant wood supply then the heating cost could also potentially be lower than an electric sauna. Wood produces a softer, more natural heat accompanied by the pleasant smell of a campfire and many enthusiasts believe these are quintessential components of a true sauna experience. Wood-burning saunas are also better for people who live in remote areas and may not have access to reliable electricity. However, they will require a chimney or flue for proper ventilation, regular cleaning, and higher maintenance demands due to firewood preparation and storage. They can also produce inconsistent heat especially depending on the quality of the wood used. It is important to note that wood-burning saunas require more prep work and planning and may be a hassle for those in a hurry.
3) Traditional Finnish Sauna
Sometimes called wet saunas, Traditional Finnish saunas are the original heat bathing design hailing from Finland. Today, they are often comprised of a small wood cabin and an electric heat source, although it’s not uncommon for them to use a more traditional wood-burning stove. These saunas often come with a bucket full of water and a ladle to pour water over the heated rocks and create steam.
4) Barrel Sauna
Barrel saunas are a popular style of home sauna that often come in kits that you can put together yourself. The roundness of a barrel sauna may look strange, but the shape leads to quicker heating times and better air circulation to create a more even heat. They are often considered to be better at withstanding inclement weather due to their sturdy design that naturally sheds water.
5) Infrared Sauna
While infrared saunas are becoming more and more popular along with the rise in red light therapy, they are not officially considered saunas by most Finnish sauna organizations. They use infrared lamps and electromagnetic radiation to heat your body rather than the surrounding air. Temperatures in these saunas typically fall between 104 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, but people still experience the same bodily reaction under these conditions. They are wonderful options for people who may struggle with the intense heat of a more traditional sauna.
No sauna is complete without the bells and whistles. While all of these are optional, they add a flair of luxury to the average sauna-goer’s session.
If you’re looking for a heat-bathing experience that’s big enough for the whole family, this traditional sauna in Finland features a bench that wraps around the heating element so everyone can be optimally close.
This barrel sauna in Packwood, Washington adds multicolored lights, candles, and exotic plants to create a fun and quirky atmosphere reminiscent of a tropical getaway.
If you’re looking for ways to increase your relaxation, this option in Everett, Washington includes a large window to look out over the nearby landscape while you sweat.
A modern take on a classic, this wood-burning sauna is a traditional Finnish style with a cedar interior and simple wood plank exterior. The nearby greenery and wood supply also create an organic environment that’s perfect for meditation.
This is a beautiful example of what modern-day saunas can be, especially with some good inspiration and imagination. Its custom design is simple, clean, and elegant and includes large windows with a cedar interior.
Leverage agile frameworks
Serenity Homes Enchanting Cabin, Ruby, New York, United States