Features of smart saunas

By Michelle Kelly »Michelle Kelly

April 11th, 2011



Guest post by Martin Zibauer

In the May issue of Cottage Life, Susan Nerberg outlines key features to include in your sauna design. Having grown up in Sweden, with a cottage in Finland, Susan has had ample sauna experience. She’s even tried a traditional savusauna, or smoke sauna, where an open fire in a chimneyless building heats a pile of rocks. After the fire is put out, and the smoke clears, the bathers enjoy the residual heat.

Though a sauna can be as simple as a room with a fire, there’s much you can do to improve the experience and make the sauna more efficient. If you’re hungry for more design ideas, Michael Nordskog’s new book, The Opposite of Cold, looks at the history and design of saunas in North America. The book focusses on the area surrounding the western Great Lakes–northwestern Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan–where many Finnish immigrants settled, starting slowly in the mid-19th century, with large groups arriving in Canada in the 1920s and 1950s.

Click here to view the gallery.

The many photographs in the book, some archival but most by Aaron W. Hautala, depict a full range from humble cottage sauna shacks (I mean shack in the most affectionate sense) to elaborate rooms in modern spas. Architect David Salmela’s saunas feature prominently (and he offered Susan some tips for her article). He’s built more than thirty saunas, including the Emerson Sauna, which won a prestigious American prize, The National AIA Honor Award for Architecture. It’s part of the photo gallery above.

We have three copies of The Opposite of Cold to give away (but you can also find it in bookstores or order it online from the usual suspects). For a chance to win the book, leave a comment below–just tell us how you feel about the age-old cultural conundrum for North American sauna owners: Is nudity in your sauna required (it’s traditional), banned (no one wants to see Grandpa or fourth-cousin Margaret in the buff) or optional? Cheekiness encouraged.


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Apr. 23, 2011

11:43 pm

Clothing optional - depending on the occasion, who the guests, if any, are. We have saunas on Nippissing and in Pensylvania. We have had plenty of mixed saunas with some remaining in suits and some nude and it works just fine for all involved. The relaxation is the ultimate benefit and the nudity really becomes a minor part of it. However, nude is the best way to enjoy the full benefit of the sweat, the loyly, the vihta and the cooling off between sweats. We avoid the alcohol and food until after we have enjoyed sauna.


Apr. 22, 2011

9:06 am

Well what can I say, we as a Finnish family have always bathed in the sauna Finnish style - nude. I'll never forget one time my boyfriend walked into the sauna and my dad was perched on the top bench without a stitch of clothes. We bathed with other Finnish friends in the nude, but is optional. Usually we bathe in genders as well as a group. It really is better in the nude and especially with wet birch twigs whacked against your skin. How invigorating and what a hoot with my friends!!

Prairie Boy

Apr. 21, 2011

6:04 pm

I was raised in the Prairies were most of the water activities were at small rivers or soft bottomed lakes that could be mistaked for large swamps. Weeds and bloodsuckers were a problem so you learned to swim vertical to the surface so your feet never touched the nasty weeds and you carried a salt shaker to the lake in case one of those letches latched on to you while swimming. My wife is from Finnish decent and grew up with a "camp" in northern Ontario near Espanola. Saunas (pronounced Sow-naa...I was corrected regularly) were the norm for them and was the first building erected on the lake many years ago, but it took this Prairie Boy a long time to jump into the lake after dark and even longer to do it naked. This was especially true when I was told there were snapping turtles somewhere down there! Several years later, I have been converted and now I am often the first one to jump in. When my wife was growing up, it was not uncommon for 3 generations to have a sauna together in the buff. Women first then men after. I have never been totally comfortable with this and prefer to either bath in the nude with my wife or alone.


Apr. 20, 2011

3:44 pm

Our sauna on Six Mile Lake is about to introduce it's third generation! In the 60's when my father-in-law returned from visiting relatives in Thunder Bay and announced that he was going to build a sauna and the heater was on a train at that moment on its way to Toronto. We were all less than enthusiastic! My own experience with a sauna was at Vic Tanny's gym where it was electric and quite unpleasant. The heater arrived, the building was built and the beers were opened! It is now a family tradition - after working all day we head to sauna to bond, steam, laugh, tell stories and swim. It's my favourite time of the day. And now I'm expecting my first grandchild - a boy - and I can't wait til he's old enough to join the rest of the family huddled together in our little steaming shack. Oh and nudity...I think that the generations would agree that we're better off not getting 'that' intimate. We love your magazine articles, pictures and recipes. Keep up the good work.



Apr. 17, 2011

9:51 am

Great photos! I enjoyed the article and the replies! Many of the saunas looked huge...or was it perhaps just the camera angle that made them look that way. I imagine you'd need a pretty well insulated or draft free place if they're going to be that big! We love our sauna and if it's just hubby and I and the channel isn't too busy with boats passing by, we will definitely sauna in the nude. Other family members and/or company are not required to sauna in the buff. Because we usually gather on the deck and chat in between steams, it's more comfortable to keep our suits on. Right now, we only use our sauna from May to October. Our sauna is pretty old and has lots of ir leaks. One of these days we hope to renovate and insulate. Then we can look forward to year-round loyly!!


Apr. 16, 2011

10:29 am

Sauna sauna cedar bow, We're gonna get you anyhow. If you sauna in the nude, We won't think that you are rude. But if you sauna with a suit, That just fine but not as cute! We have a traditional wood fired log sauna on our island on Whitestone Lake. The sauna always serves as the highlight of the day for us when at the cottage. We have no hydro or plumbing on the island so the sauna serves multiple functions for us. It provide all the hot water we need for doing our dishes, allows us to wash up at the end of the day and most importantly is great social event when with friends or family, or a heart felt quiet time as a couple. When sharing the sauna with family, the suits are always on. When I'm there with just my of my buddies, the suits are usually off. And when my wife and I are there with our friends, the suits are definitely optional depending on the crowd! Like many have said, as the night goes on, people tend to get more relaxed and the towels stay in the change room. Everyone who works up the nerve to try it for the first time generally ends up loving the experience - especially the mad dash down the dock and into the refreshing cool water of the lake. My wife and I have purchashed what we call 'touche towels ' for our close friends that visit the cottage often so that everyone has one with their name on it. When with friends, we usually sauna at night and have only the soft lighting of the occasional oil lamp. So even though people are in the buff, there's still some sense of discreetness. Except for when there's a bright full moon sining down on you out on the dock! And of course, when it's just my wife and I sharing a sauna, its just the birthday suits for us.


Apr. 16, 2011

2:31 am

After relaxing in luxurious heat, a cold plunge in a northern lake feels like floating in silk. Finish off by wrapping yourself in a towel or robe, then sit down and relax on the dock while you cool down, taking in the view. You’ve reached sauna perfection if you can watch the setting sun’s last rays light the shoreline with a golden hue. You wouldn’t wear a bathing suit when you take a bath or shower so you shouldn’t wear one when you have a sauna because you’re bathing. Unlike a quick tub or shower though, a Finish sauna is a truly marvelous bathing ritual to be enjoyed and savored. That being said, depending on who’s at the cottage or how busy lake traffic is some modesty may be required. We are Ontarians after all so things are done tactfully with a discreet attitude.


Apr. 15, 2011

7:24 pm

Our sauna habits changed when our kids hit puberty: suddenly suits seemed appropriate. When it's all adults, it depends on the visiting couple's choice. To date, our prediction rate has been 100% accurate!


Apr. 15, 2011

11:21 am

We live in such an uptight society! No wonder children have eating disorders and such low self esteem. If we all would relax a little about our bodies an show the next generation...."Its really no big deal!" then they to would grow up feeling quite comfortable in their skin. I can remember the first time I skinny dipped...probably when I was around 9. It was the most liberating "fun" you could have with out your clothes on! Same with sauna time, once you've tried it you never go back, for your friends who aren't comfy no big deal let'm where their suits, but it just ain't the same! If you take the "sex" out of being naked then it's really quite comfortable....Europeans have been doing it for centuries! Happy Sauna Time everyone!


Apr. 14, 2011

11:21 am

My parents are from Finland and they have always had a sauna in the house. When we were little we were always naked in the sauna. Company never wore clothing either. When we are visiting my parents the adults are nude but the children always wear towels. At our cottage we don't usually go in the sauna unless we are going to swim in the lake. We alternate between swimming and sitting in the sauna. We usually wear bathing suits until we are finished swimming. We take off our bathing suits, warm up and then dry off.

Otter Cove

Apr. 14, 2011

9:56 am

I've always supported the towel optional sauna, but definitely preferred having a sauna nude with or without friends. Recently in a group sauna a friend started focussing on my wife's body and raving about it. I found that rather creepy. I was surprised at my reaction.

Neil P.

Apr. 13, 2011

8:13 pm

The sauna was just part of my life growing up. In Thunder Bay, where I grew up, many town people have cottages or camps as the locals call them. If you boat along any shore of any lake within 100-km radius of Thunder Bay- you will notice something a bit different along the shorefronts. Almost every cottage also has a small building close to the shoreline each having a smoking chimney on the hottest day in July. They are all wood-burning saunas and it is part of the Finnish influence in and around Thunder Bay. I spent most of my childhood summers swimming in the lake by the camp and running back and forth between the lake and sauna to warm up. The bravest moment and one that came with a lot of pride and bragging rights was which of the 3 brothers would be the first one in the lake in the Spring and the last one in, in the Fall. Of course it is much easier breaking a layer of ice off the lake in mid April and jumping in, when you know that you can run as fast as humanly possible into a 75 C sauna afterwards to quickly warm up. When I was 10 my Grandmother took me to Finland. My cousins thinking they would initiate their Canadian cousin cooked him in the sauna and shared a laugh as I could no longer bear the + 90 C heat and quickly vacated the sauna. Ten years ago, I bought a very rugged 2-acre lakeside lot in Quebec with the intention of eventually building a cottage on it. Now we haven’t built the dream cottage yet, but I have managed to build a sleep cabin as well as a ---you guessed it a little building near the water that has a smoking chimney in the hottest day of July. It is the only one of the lake, and is quite an anomaly. My 3 children can’t spend enough time in it and I would imagine that they will continue to appreciate the solace and peaceful times in a sauna throughout their lifetime. I tell you there is nothing better than having a hot sauna and the sitting on the porch watching the steam come off your body, while listening to the sound of a nearby loon. Having a bottle of beer to re-hydrate puts the icing on the cake. Nude- no doubt!



Apr. 13, 2011

9:40 am

Our sauna is clothing optional - if you insist on wearing them you can. If my, our, anyone's nudity offends you, I am happy to keep the fire going so you can sauna later. Old, young, parents, kids, teenagers, old wrinkly prunes - it's never been an issue. Close your eyes...it'll help you relax - lol.



Apr. 13, 2011

8:13 am

We are Finnish heritage but CANADIAN. At the cottage where swimming happens in between "loyly", most keep their swimming attire on or if the whole family is involved, but in the evenings, or if with our partners, we always go in the nude, its part of the expereince! At home, its always in the nude with my spouse and little kids. The bigger kids go on their own, girls first and then boys last, they enjoy the most "loyly"! Usually by the time they hit their teens, they start going on their own, which is normal! In the winter, the hole is drilled and in they go, BUT now we entice our finn friends, real CANADIANS go into the hole without heating up!!! My husband will prove it! ;), and heat up after!

stan slater

Apr. 12, 2011

9:19 pm

I think depending on the individual and how much they had to drink will factor into the decision as to bare all. Stan


Apr. 12, 2011

7:43 pm

Well....here is the story that happened this past winter in northern ontario. We live in a little place rightly named Strange Township. My hubby and I were enjoying a few glasses of wine in our rustic little sauna on a beautiful winter evening as the snow fell from the sky. I must say hubby might have had one to many and insisted on wandering around the yard as I sat back and enjoyed the steamy heat. He returned at one point and when I asked "where were you and what took so long"? He simply replied "I was chatting with the plow man". I just chuckled and carried on.....Well we awoke in morning and hubby rolled over and gazed out the window, his first words "hmmmm the yard was plowed last night" totally oblivious of the previous evening. I waited a few hours before reminding him. Well he obviously did not offend the plow man too much as the yard was plowed next time it snowed, but as word spread thru our little community cars drove much slower past the house, some even honk hoping to see hubby out for his evening walk....oh did I forget to mention....We do sauna buck naked!


Apr. 12, 2011

5:48 pm

It's real simple! If you are in a group - all must be happy to go nude. If by yourself - go for it!


Apr. 12, 2011

1:53 pm

A northern Minnesota (Ely, MN) sauna user here! I am happy and comfortable au natural with my women friends, but never in mixed group. Nothing feels better to me than a sauna followed by dip in the lake, even through the ice. In northern Sweden I wore a towel in a women's sauna and received weird looks.


Apr. 12, 2011

1:38 pm

We have a home sauna which hubby and I mostly use. I have no problem if someone else wants to use it in the buff on their own, but please spare me the details and keep me out of it!


Apr. 12, 2011

1:34 pm

Ours is a traditional sauna that we always call, "the Steamer". We have always worn bathing suits, as the steamer usually goes most of the day while waterskiing, sail boarding, outside working-from when we were little tots. When on our own, during the night or midweek with no neighbours on the lake or around, the suits are optional.


Apr. 12, 2011

11:39 am

Sauna for two is always nude 3 or more could be thought crude, In Beaver Bay We let them do as they may If the flag is out Nudity is about!

Al W

Apr. 12, 2011

11:24 am

Clearly nude is the only way to really enjoy the full effects of the sauna. Having said that, with us almost everything is optional - with or without a towel, men only, women only, mixed together, whatever. The only rule is that before you enter, you know what is happening inside. Most surprises are fun, but not all. :-)


Apr. 12, 2011

10:52 am

I think nude is the way to go. The sauna at our cottage is right at the lake. One time a few of us were in the sauna all naked, it was late on a Sunday just after supper. We opened the door and got about 5 feet into our run to jump into the lake only to be faced by a pontoon boat in which the local realtor was showing a family the cottages on the lake. I bet they didn't buy when they saw us!


Apr. 12, 2011

10:32 am

Part of the enjoyment in having guests with us is their comfort. The sauna is a restful, healing place and we want everyone who'd like to share in the experience to be comfortable. Having towels and big fluffy robes for everyone is a must. And how many towels or robes stay on or come off is up to the individuals.


Apr. 12, 2011

10:26 am

To me, a cottage without a sauna simply isn't a cottage. From the time I was a toddler, sitting in a large basin on the sauna floor, sauna time was an integral part of family time at the cottage. Visiting relatives in Finland as a teen, I got to experience the sauna in both urban Finland and cottage country. Years later, when I had children of my own, they were introduced at a very young age, sitting in a basin on the floor. Today, my grown sons love the sauna, proclaiming that anything other than a wood fired, rock steam oven just doesn't measure up. You never feel as clean as after a sauna at the cottage!

Jean-François Carrey

Apr. 12, 2011

10:19 am

Thanks for this article! I think nudity is a cultural thing. I think if someone wants to be nude...go ahead. But if you see someone go nude and your uncomfortable, well, that's your problem. JF


Apr. 12, 2011

10:09 am

Our sauna sees a lot of traffic during the summer months with children and adults from around the lake dropping by for a swim and sauna, so most everyone wears a bathing suit. At times when we expect some privacy we will sauna without suits, but this is usually outside of normal swimming season and often after a day of heavy cottage work.


Apr. 12, 2011

9:44 am

Would you wear clothing to take a shower? Would you drink copious amounts of vodka and run from your bath into a hole in the ice lake? Would you tie together birch switches and swat your children in a room that is 110 degrees C? Would you jump naked into a nothern river with the full moon your only light? Would you pour water onto rocks that are scorched from direct fireflame? Answer these questions and you will know if nudity bothers you.

Eric T.

Apr. 12, 2011

9:13 am

Our cottage in the Gatineau’s features a clothes optional sauna. While the kids view a nude sweat & dip as a real treat, the adults have different habits… A few observations: mixed company is always suit on. When the ladies gather for a “spa” weekend, there are different orders of dress, but most often topless at a maximum. When the guys gather for fishing or poker, it’s almost exclusively suits on. The one notable exception is my Northern Ontario friend who, upon his first visit, had the misfortune of walking in last without a suit to a chorus of heckling… Our sauna has evolved into quite a sophisticated set of connected outbuilding that maximizes the sauna, nature and relaxation experience. While that set up will not change soon, I am intrigued by the Emerson sauna featured in some of those great pictures. If I ever start over, I would consider…


Apr. 12, 2011

9:11 am

Our cottage sauna was built by a Finnish man on the lake, so we've got the real deal, wood fired, cedar walled, large multi-layer benches, so how could you not treat tradition with tradition, it's nude for us, and all our guests. The only option for the shy ones is to cover with a towel while sitting, although there is still the naked run down the long dock to plung into the cooling lake, so usually after one or two dips the towels come off and you can really relax.


Apr. 12, 2011

9:05 am

My parents immigrated to Canada from Estonia/Sweden, where saunas are not just a mode for bathing, but a family/friends event. The evening begins with girls and ladies going first, then followed by the boys and men. We continued this tradition here in Muskoka, at our cottage, and today the tradition of ladies first continues. Nothing beats the feeling of jumping into the cool lake from a hot and steamy sauna, in the buff. Bathing suits are not banned for newcomers, but there is generally no turning back when anyone gives the "freedom" method a try.


Apr. 12, 2011

9:04 am

I've been enjoying saunas all my life (55 years).. seems as years have gone by, society is getting shyer.. I have a sign on the door stating "clothing optional"..so far only single bathers or couples alone have gone suits off. For myself, I feel nothing is better then a hot sauna and run down to the cold lake in the buff..not sure how the neighbours feel but for me I'm free!


Apr. 12, 2011

9:01 am

We have a sauna both at home and at the cottage. Best venue ever for a relaxed evening with friends and family. We who make the sauna ritual part of our lives always ask the newbies if they mind my wife and I being nude in the sauna, assuring them that they can don towels or bathing suits or whatever. The answer is always, "no...we don't mind if you're naked, but..". Some disrobe shyly, others fling off their clothes with complete abandon but quite a few elect to wrap up in a towel upon first entry. Half way into the sauna, especially after one or the other of us has run out and taken the lake plunge, the bashful towels always come off and before you know it, it's all smiles and comments like "I admit I was very nervous when you asked us if we wanted to have a sauna and didn't think I would be able to take off my clothes in front of 'strangers', but you know...wearing a towel in a room full of naked people is what's embarrassing. I love it! Let's go for a skinny dip."

Ken Protulipac

Apr. 12, 2011

8:11 am

Sauna Nudity Normally when it's sauna time, we tend to resolve the nudity question using the common sense approach, when there are kids involved we make it a rule that bathing suits must be worn, but when you want a intimate evening with your better half a nude sauna together is a great start to a great evening. Regards, Ken Protulipac


Apr. 12, 2011

8:07 am

Nudity is optional, but since I am a hermit it is not a big deal.


Apr. 12, 2011

7:53 am

My husband and I spend a fair bit of time alone at our cottage since our children are grown and grandchildren are busy with school and other activities. So we are able to enjoy our sauna au naturel much of the time. When other people come up for a visit, whether family or friends we keep our bathing suits on. So far no one else has opted to take a sauna in the buff.


Apr. 12, 2011

7:18 am

Nudity not required nor encouraged with large groups. Vodka and plenty of food in between steams is a must....which may in itself, cause the suits to come off!


Apr. 12, 2011

7:12 am

Nude is of course the preferred mode of dress or undress but some are shy. The usual shyness remedy, a chilled bottle of a favourite white wine, works well in most cases. Failing the first remedy another bottle may be administered to overcome bashfulness. If all fails then the state of undress becomes optional along with maybe another bottle of the cure. This "procedure has worked well in the past and is highly recommended to ensure a good sauna experience is enjoyed by all.


Apr. 12, 2011

6:59 am

The only way to enjoy a Sauna in the nude. When we lived in Thunder Bay we would go to Kangas Sauna with our friends and rent one of their larges saunas. We also had a small 4 person sauna in our home and visited friends cottages. We always sauna in the nude, no one thought anything about it. Wood heated saunas are the best but the electric ones are still a good option. A friend of ours had a arm chair built out of snow and would run out of the Sauna and rest in the snow chair. Saunas were a relaxing experience and now we live in Eastern Ontario we miss them as they were a regular part of our lives for almost 25 years.


Apr. 12, 2011

6:43 am

I enjoyed your article and several pictures of many variations of Saunas. We have a Barrel Sauna at our Stoney Lake cottage and I would commonly refer to it as "Sharon's Spa". We use our Sauna year round, albeit, you will not see me jumping through the ice into the lake but I have moved the loose ice away to make room for a "dunk". We had a picture of a loon/lake stain glass window installed in the door so it is very relaxing. All in all, I plan to always have a Sauna as it is decondant, clean, and energy efficient as compared to a hot tub!


Apr. 12, 2011

6:30 am

Steaming in the sauna then jumping into the lake is one of my son's favourite things about visiting our friend's cottage. As there are often multiple families and multiple generations, nude sweating is not usually practiced. Also, an abundance of Pike and the odd snapping turtle make human trolling a potential hazard! Loved the photos, thanks! Jim



Apr. 12, 2011

6:24 am

Honestly, I have no problem with nudity in the sauna. However as mentioned there are some people you just don't want to see naked :) So in the end(no pun intended) I think you have to have an agreement with those who are coming in the sauna with you at the time.


Apr. 12, 2011

2:56 am

We have a cottage on Lake Superior, just north of Sault Ste Marie. We say 'don't tell us about what we don't know.' If you're in a group wear your suit, but if you're by yourself, no one will know.

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