Sauna and Survival by D.F.D.

Let’s get the first thing out of the way: Sauna is pronounced SOWnuh, not SAWnuh. The incorrect pronunciation is sure to “trigger” any Finn you meet, so beware!

The sauna, or banya in Russia, used to fill incredibly important functions in remote areas, and is a fine example of an older technology that we should all be familiar with. Nowadays saunas are seen more as a luxury, at least in America, but in Finland are considered a necessity. Once you learn some of the properties of saunas I think you’ll see why you should at very least know how to build one. I’ll also go through a few tips for how to properly construct a sauna, although no 2 saunas are alike. Throughout this article, I’ll be talking specifically about wood fired saunas, as obviously an electric or gas sauna isn’t viable for post-TEOTWAWKI.

The old saying is: 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food. we’ve all probably heard this. But how long can one go without bathing? I don’t know there is any right answer to that question, but what I do know is that without washing properly you are at much greater risk from sickness or having a fellow group member smother you do death with a pillow because you smell so bad. In fact, it is theorized that the Black Plague largely passed over Russia due to their fondness for banya baths. Bathing is going to be a longer term survival issue, and there’s no point of saving yourself from the cannibal bikers if you die later of a compromised immune system. Don’t think of cleanliness as a luxury, but as a necessity.

Advantages of Sauna

The way most of us are taking baths or showers right now won’t be efficient without inexpensive, convenient fuel and water. Hot water will be out of the question for most of us post-TEOTWAWKI, plus you need soap, and depending on your facilities, you can only bathe one person at a time. Now, I’ve taken plenty of baths on longer hunting trips that consisted of a quick dip in cold water, some soap in a few areas, and another quick rinse, but this isn’t especially effective. Here’s what’s great about a sauna and why they’ve been favored by people in remote areas for centuries if not millennia: They can get your whole body clean because they open up every pore, they take minimal water, it takes minimal work to prepare one (excepting firewood cutting and splitting), and it is very enjoyable.

The principal of a sauna is very simple. You have a heat source in a fairly small enclosed area where people go in and sweat. You’re literally bathing in your own perspiration. Saunas usually have stones over the heat source where the occupants can ladle water to create steam, thus elevating the temperature. Generally the temperature should be between 180 F and 230 F. Although everyone has their own way to take sauna, traditionally one goes in and out several times for breaks, often pouring cold water over themselves in between, or sometimes even taking a plunge into a cold creek or even into a hole cut into lake ice. Some people will even wash themselves with soap in the sauna, although this is not necessary. The main advantages over bathing with water are: higher level of cleanliness, soap is not needed, and depending on the size of your sauna, more than one person can bathe at a time, some larger saunas can hold as many as 20. Children are fine in the sauna too, but if it is too hot for them, simply put a tub of water in the corner for them to splash around in.

For Good Circulation

Besides getting your skin clean and fresh, the sauna can be immensely beneficial to other parts of your body: your muscles, tendons and joints, because sauna pushes so much blood into your extremities. Your heart, because the hot cold sauna cycle is like exercise. Your lungs, because the hot air opens them up and cleans them out (certain oils can be added to the steam water to enhance this: peppermint, eucalyptus, birch and tea tree oils are best). Your liver, because it removes all of the junk from your skin (the liver is responsible for cleaning the skin). I don’t have any prove for this, but I also believe sauna aids in keeping you warm in cold climates as it gets your skin breathing and keeps the small blood vessels near your skin surface open. Sauna can also prevent sickness by giving you an artificial fever of sorts. Since I started taking sauna regularly, I get sick even less than before. As they say in Sweden: “If a disease can’t be cured by vodka, tar, and sauna, it will surely be fatal.”

Besides the utility of saunas for bathing, they used to perform many other important functions on isolated farms. Saunas are self-sterilizing due to the high temperatures they reach, making them an ideal place for delivering babies and treating wounds at lower heat. This is a benefit that should not be overlooked, as achieving sanitary conditions can be very difficult even in modern hospitals. They could also be important for simply keeping compromised people warm; post-TEOTWAWKI it may not be effective to keep your main dwelling at a comfy 70 degrees due to fuel conservation, but keeping a smaller sauna “hospital room” warm could be more viable while a sick member of the group recovers.

On the Finnish farm, the sauna also served as a morgue. Not only was a sauna considered practically a sacred building, and thus an acceptable place to keep loved one’s bodies before burial, any germs created by the body could easily be killed by lighting the sauna later.

Another practical use for saunas which I plan to experiment with in the future is for drying green lumber and foods such as fruits, fish and meat.

Building a Sauna

Now we come to some basic principles of sauna building, and remember that these are just guidelines and I’d certainly recommend further reading for constructing a nicer sauna. My sauna is made with spruce logs and cedar lined, but one can make stick frame or even dug out saunas as well.

  • First, you need a heat source. There are purpose made stoves for this, but any wood stove should work. I prefer to use a barrel stove in my sauna (55 gallon drum stove kit).
  • But since at Survival Blog we are all about old and appropriate technology, take note of the old saunas, called “smoke saunas,” which used an open fire. This worked by lighting a fire inside the sauna surrounded by plenty of stones. When the stones got hot, the smoke would be vented out and the fire doused. The stones would then maintain the temperature. If you ever decide to do this, it is very important you use only hardwood for your fire, as the pitch in softwoods will make you cough your lungs out. This is why birch firewood is preferable and even medicinal. The Finnish army used a technique like this during the Winter War, by getting stones hot and then moving a canvas tent over them. While the invading Communist Russians were freezing solid, Finnish soldiers were taking breaks in between skirmishes for a stint in the makeshift sauna.
  • Fire departments call saunas “practice” because they tend to be left unattended and are not always constructed as carefully as a house. I’d recommend building your sauna as if you were going to live in it. Mine has heat shields, plenty of clearance between the stove and walls, and metalbestos pipe through the ceiling and roof.
  • Make sure there is some sort of vent, such as a gap under the door, so that your stove can breathe.
  • Keep your sauna ceiling low, 7 feet at the highest. Old saunas could be tiny, with roofs just high enough to sit in.
  • If you need a vapor barrier for any part of your sauna, use some sort of aluminum. Conventional plastic vapor barrier can melt.
  • Traditionally, saunas are lined with cedar, as this wood is rot resistant, not too dense as to retain excessive heat, and gives off a pleasant smell, although white spruce is also used. Other woods could be substituted, but whatever you use, make sure it will not off gas and irritate your lungs. Pine, for example, is a bad choice. Also make sure that the wood for your benches isn’t too dense. Poplar and cedar are preferred for this reason.
  • Although it’s become fashionable to put windows in saunas, this increases complexity due to all the heat changes in the environment. It also can make heat retention more difficult.
  • For stones, make sure to not just use any old rock you find. I used granite rocks from the river, but only after they had been heated and reheated many times around a fire pit to ensure they wouldn’t explode when I poured water over them. Sauna stones should not be much bigger than your fist.
  • If needed, dugout saunas can be constructed in trenches or in the side of a bank.

These are just the basics of sauna building, but it will get you started if you have the rest of the handy skills.

Besides the case for using saunas as a survival tool, they’re a very enjoyable activity during normal times, especially if you live in a cold climate. They’ve served as an inexpensive, simple pleasure for rural people in northern climates for hundreds of years, and the simple pleasures are really what we need to rediscover before Netflix turns off for good.

JWR Adds:  One often overlooked aspect of sauna is that it provides moisture deep into the respiratory system. So if anyone in your family suffers from chronic asthma or if they develop an acute respiratory illness, then having a sauna in a grid-down situation could literally be a life saver.  Essentially, you would take a heat-vapor treatment in a sauna under the same circumstances that you would use a cool mist nebulizer, sans medicine.  But of course omit any cold water plunges for anyone who is ill!




17 Comments

  1. Love the Sauna, I spent a summer in British Columbia bush on a ranch. The only running water we had was a creek we pumped out of for irrigating the garden. Every afternoon we fired up the sauna next to the glacier fed creek and took a blazing hot sauna for about an hour. Then plunged into the ice cold creek. I have never felt healthier. I have an infrared heated sauna now, but still prefer the wood fired type. I doesn’t require much of a structure, pallets, or bent willow branches make a simple structure and can be covered with a tarp or blankets. Native Americans answer to the Sauna, The sweat lodge.

  2. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s while living in Alaska, I was responsible for design work on renovating and making additions to old BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) schools for native Alaskan villages. I would be flown in by bush plane and have to camp out for a week at a time to work on these designs with the elders, teachers, etc. It was a kind gesture that some of the village girls would bring me a fresh trout from the river ice holes. Taking a sweat bath or Sauna was a regular experience..very social and enjoyable after I overcame my reticence for getting naked with strangers of another culture (I guess that would have been me in reality). Typically a barrel stove set in a bed of river rocks. The men would go first , then the women..-30F, no problem. The villagers referred to me as “white meats”. Somewhat unnerving but humorous. I felt a lot of affection for my “clients”.

  3. Saunas are not for everyone. Having lived in the jungle for awhile I find he idea and practice of being over heated to be over rated. I feel like passing out after a few minutes in a sauna at extremely high heat and humidity and listening to my body telling me to get out of there. Lengthy exposure to very high heat can elevate ones body temperature and we freak out if our body temp goes up a couple of degrees above 98.6F Brain damage can begin around103-4F I think one should consult a doctor before exposing children to this type of high heat. Osha would have a cow if you were exposed to 180-230F without protective gear. Personally I will go with stocking up on a lot of soap. That being said I suggest that you try sauna bathing a number of times before you buy or expend a lot of energy building one.

  4. Try to use knot free cedar where your back or backside will touch. The denser the wood, the higher the heat capacity. Knots can get really hot compared to the clear wood. Also 10 – 15 minutes tops, then cool off before the second visit. Your body core takes a while to cool down. The hop into cool water is really invigorating. In winter we use Crocs or flip flops on our feet to keep from walking on the cold snow. When the pool is frozen we set out buckets of water with a dipper. My father in law was on a destroyer escorting convoys to Murmansk in WWll. While in Russia they tried the saunas. When he returned home he built is own. The first time I met my wife, she said “want to come home and try the sauna?” I was hooked.

  5. I have severe COPD. I go to my Pulmonary Dr. next week. I’m going to ask him if sauna would help me. I have difficulty breathing in humid conditions but would really be interested if this might help. Does anyone out there have experience with this helping with COPD?

  6. As I’ve grow older I have started speaking my mind more, but try to keep pure opinion quiet. For some reason I was bothered when the author jumped on the pronunciation of sauna as if it was the most important part of the article. An online dictionary with a pronunciation option will disagree with his finnish opinion.

    1. Take it up with the Finns not me. It’s not the most important part, it’s a funny fact to get people engaged in the article.

      And please spare me the “I have access to a search engine so your decade of research is invalid’ stuff.

    2. Yes, I don’t speak Finnish. Sawna works for me. If I ever move to Finland I will be sure to pronounce it correctly. I personally would never use a Sauna. I hate to be hot. The warm dry heat of a fire is all I want.

    3. Relax Daddy Bob. If the author wishes to instruct us on the proper pronunciation of “SOW-NUH”, I am happy to be educated. As a regular user of the sauna at my local gym, I much appreciate this information. [Some deleted, for politeness.]

  7. That was an outstanding article! It was clear to me that the author had done his/her homework.

    Living in the Northeast and having plenty of lake effect snow, a sauna might be a nice addition to my yard. Thanks for the inspiration:-)

  8. The timing of this article is rather good, as I have often thought of digging into what it would take to be an advertiser here. For the record, I’ve been a daily reader for over 10 years. I own a cedar company and have lots of “outs” that lumber yards won’t carry, due to space, money, time, lengths, etc. Many of these items are shorts ie. 2′-6′ and are absolutley perfect for sauna use (among other things). My own is made of this material. Because of the lengths, we are learning that the “Amazon” model of shipping is actually very reasonable. Ie. Don’t have to be a millionaire to afford good cedar, unlike the popular notion. Would love to hear if the readership would find a direct cedar source valuable?
    Thanks in advance.

  9. Please be careful about taking the advice about the sauna being a sterilizer. It may get hot enough to kill some or even many bacteria, but many will be resistant and the temperature may not be consistent enough to take that to the bank. And viruses will just laugh and enjoy it. It’s fine in a “belt and suspenders” approach, but is no substitute for good sterile procedures.

  10. I found out, quite accidentally, that taking sauna rids one of …hangover… Adak, AK; I drank too much on 4th of July. I felt like I had been run over by a tank. I went to the gym and took a sauna, drinking copious amounts of water whilst therein. I came out feeling right as rain; honest injun!

    …Just a little “sailor wisdom…”

    A little “retired sailor wisdom;” don’t get drunk in the first place! Your body will thank you down the line!

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