There are more saunas than cars in Finland. In fact, Finn’s love is so great there’s probably even saunas made from cars. Consequently, if you’re a visitor or a recent arrival, you’ll need to give sauna a go. That’s the unwritten law and if you ignore it you risk suspicious stares at best, the silent treatment at worse, (and Finnish silent treatment can last for years). Happily, help is at hand in the form of this handy guide I’ve put together to ensure your first time is one to remember for all the right reasons.
Don’t wear clothes
Public nudity can take time to get used to. Practise in your own home with friends and family if necessary. If you don’t have time for this, remember sauna is pretty dark and nobody is looking at you… that is unless you stroll in with a pair of Bermuda shorts or a neon thong.
Don’t sit on the highest bench
Heat rises. The higher you are in the sauna, the more likely it will feel as if your skin is being seared off. Lips and fingertips are most susceptible to this world of sizzling pain. Only the very hardcore sit up top. Their nerve ending have long been destroyed by years of exposure to löyly, the cute Finnish name for skin burning sauna steam
Don’t put your feet in the water bucket or drink from it
This is the sacred sauna water and no matter how desperate you are to chill off or how parched you are from the incessant heat, the water in that bucket is for one thing, and one thing only, to make you hotter.
Don’t moan about the heat
The heat is the whole point of a sauna. Saying a sauna is too hot is like saying your shower is too wet. If the sizzling embrace of the löyly is causing you to feel faint, don’t wait until you faceplant onto the sauna floor. Sit yourself on the lowest bench and breathe slowly and calmly. Wasting your breath sighing and moaning about how scorching it is will only make you, and the other occupants, feel worse.
Don’t go mad with the löyly water
One of the great temptations, when you go to your first Finnish sauna, is to go crazy throwing water on the rocks. There’s something deeply satisfying about the whooshing of steam and the sudden rush of heat, but do it too much and the consequences can be extreme. Not only do you fry your skin, you also soon turn a very bright lobster red. Not a good look for anyone, (unless of course you’re English in which case it’s the expected holiday colour).
Just don’t. The likelihood is you’re from a country where communal nudity isn’t a national pastime, but staring is still rude. One of the greatest things about sauna is that it destroys the myth of body beautiful and shows nobody’s perfect. If have stare at something look at your hands as they go an ever-increasing deep shade of rose.
It might be minus 25 outside and so cold your nipples retreat back into your body. It doesn’t matter. Swimming is what makes sauna so special. The ying to löyly’s yang. People say Finland is a country of extremes and freezing your balls off (if you have them) after experiencing heat, which makes your sweat sweat is as extreme as you get. So, don’t be shy. Take the plunge. Your body will say thank you.
Joel Willans is the Co-Founder of Ink Tank Media and creator of Very Finnish Problems. Author of Spellbound: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men and 101 Very Finnish Problems: A foreigner’s guide to surviving in Finland, his prize-winning fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and collections worldwide. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.