Especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, more and more people have been looking for ways to relax, unwind and destress. For many, those efforts take the form of the tried and true methods of yoga, meditation and general exercise. But for others who are looking to take slightly more extreme measures for their health and well-being, there is the option of adding an outdoor sauna to their backyard.
Even if you’ve never considered constructing a sauna on your own property, you’re probably at least familiar with the concept of them. Maybe you’ve visited a sauna at a health club or hotel spa, or perhaps you have a friend who swears they make for the best hangover cure. Whatever the case, the general concept of a sauna — essentially sitting in a really hot room and sweating out bad vibes — is a pretty familiar one and one that you may want to consider making a more regular part of your routine.
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What Is a Sauna?
Although saunas may seem like a new-age concept, they’ve actually been around for a long, long time. The sauna, along with the word itself, originated in Finland. There, the act of spending time in a sauna has been a crucial part of the culture for allegedly thousands of years. Some estimates put the number of saunas in Finland at 3 million, which accounts for one for every 1.8 people in the nation of 5.5 million.
But you don’t have to be Finnish to enjoy a sauna. The concept of a sauna is pretty straightforward. You get a room where you can sit down, typically with a few other people, sans clothes. You use some heating source — traditionally wood, now often electric — to heat that room to close to 200 degrees. You ladle some water over a basket of hot rocks placed over your heating source to increase the humidity. And you sweat. A lot.
Sauna vs Steam Room
The two terms may be used interchangeably, but a sauna is not technically a steam room. The difference is that a steam room provides its heat through steam, naturally, creating a far more humid and less-hot atmosphere than a sauna, with the emphasis being more on the high humidity than the hot temperature. A sauna, meanwhile, provides dry heat at much higher temperatures. And while controlling humidity by way of lading water onto hot rocks is very much a part of having a sauna, the experience is considerably less, uh, steamy than a steam room, and the heat is the main draw.
Types of Saunas
Your classic saunas, based on traditional Finnish saunas, are powered by wood stoves. They're inexpensive to run compared to other options and provide very high temperatures. However, they don't offer as much precision temperature control compared to more modern systems, they require more upkeep and you'll definitely need to have a chimney installed for ventilation.
A more modern take on the traditional sauna, electric saunas simply swap out the wood-powered heat source for an electric one. By doing so, you're likely looking at a higher cost of operation, but in exchange, you're getting easy, no-fuss operation and greater control over your experience. Some systems even add precise humidity control to go along with your tailored temperatures.
This one is a bit controversial, as traditionalists will tell you that infrared saunas aren't saunas at all. The newest type of sauna (or "sauna," if you're so inclined), infrared saunas heat your body directly via thermal radiation. This results in a much lower ambient temperature in the sauna itself compared to traditional saunas, and these lower temperatures allow you to stay in the sauna longer before you'll have to worry about any health risks like dehydration.
The Benefits of a Sauna
Although the idea of sitting in a 200-degree room may seem counterintuitive to your health, numerous studies have shown the opposite to be true. Exposing oneself to the deliberate heat of a sauna increases the heart rate and has been shown to improve cardiovascular health overall. Not only that, but a 2019 study by the peer-reviewed journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine showed that individuals with cardiac risk factors had lower resting heart rates after a sauna session compared to before. Additionally, a 2018 study in the peer-reviewed BMC Medicine online journal showed an inverse relationship between cardiac mortality risk and sauna use, with the risk of death decreasing as sauna use increased. Many studies have also shown strong evidence linking sauna use to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, reduce the risk of dementia and stroke, improve cardiovascular function, decrease stress and improve mood, and reduce all-cause mortality, i.e., you're less likely to die if you sauna regularly.
You'll also hear from many sauna-users that, anecdotally, they just feel better after a sauna. "I installed our barrel sauna in my backyard about 2 years ago and I try to use it 3-4 times a week," says Nicholas Jensen, co-owner of sauna brand Redwood Outdoors. "The sauna is a place where I go to relax and clear my mind ... I always feel so much better after a session. I am a more calm and mindful person as a result of my sauna routine. I’ve also noticed that there is a big social aspect to having a sauna. At least once or twice a week I will share a sauna with either my wife or a friend. This is such a great time to just sit and chat, without phones or endless distractions. It's a great low-key way to spend quality time with other important people in your life."
The Risks of a Sauna
This isn't to say that saunas are some kind of magic health bullet. There are risks involved. Sitting in a sauna for too long can lead to dehydration and hyperthermia (the opposite of hypothermia, where your body is too hot, potentially leading to heat stroke). Children and those who are pregnant are advised against using saunas at all, and the direct heat exposure associated with saunas has also been shown to cause a temporary reduction in sperm counts. Additionally, you should be especially apprehensive about the health claims made by some proponents of infrared spas. Enthusiasts for infrared therapy will claim that thermal radiation does everything from promoting weight loss to "detoxifying" the body to even curing diseases. These types of claims are lacking in scientific evidence, and any claim of infrared saunas offering greater health benefits than traditional saunas should be taken with a grain of salt.
Plunge Sauna: The fitness recovery-minded brand behind our favorite cold plunge tub is coming out with a sauna, and boy does it look promising. It's got a max temperature of 230°F, flip-up benches with ergonomic backrests, includes a Humm electric heater, can be used indoors and out and offers temperature control via an app.