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How to build a backcountry sauna while camping

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There’s nothing better than getting back to basics—turning off your cell phone, forgetting about the world wide web, and spending time with Mother Nature. But even in the backcountry there are luxuries you don’t need to do without: a container of coffee and a flask full of libations are as essential to any camping trip as a sleeping bag and a tent. After a day of strenuous paddling, hiking, or climbing, nothing soothes aching muscles like a sauna. And packing one into the backcountry is easier than you think.

My introduction to the wilderness sweat lodge came via a former rafting guide. Whether paddling, riding, or fishing, he always has a tarp and webbing. And that’s all he needs. There’s plenty of rocks and water out in the woods, so the rest of the supplies are always close at hand. His saunas are the absolute hottest, steamiest sweat fests ever. Here’s how he does it.

Build a fire

Start a decent fire a couple hours before you want to have a sauna. Get your fire good and hot, and then find some decent-sized rocks—somewhere between the size of a softball and volleyball is best. About 6 to10 rocks should be great—the more you have, the more sauna time you’ll be able to enjoy. Carefully dump these into the middle of your fire without extinguishing it. Build up your fire around the rocks and keep it good and stoked over the next few hours.

Build a tent

The absolute easiest way to do this part of the sauna is to use an old two-pole dome tent and cut the floor out of it.

But if you don’t have a tent to sacrifice, a tarp and some webbing, or some rope, works. Tie some webbing about five feet up, from one tree to another. Throw the tarp over this line so you have an A-frame tent. Use dirt, rocks, or anything heavy to hold the two ends of the tarp on the ground. Get creative to seal up one end of the A-frame. Use dirt, rocks, moss, or whatever you can find to seal it as well as possible.

Dig a small hole in the center of the enclosed space for the rocks to go in. Build seating out of whatever you want, and make it as comfortable as you can for however many people you’ll be cramming into this sauna.

Be careful

This is where things get dangerous. You don’t want to burn yourself out in the woods, so be careful during all these steps. A metal bucket and thick, heat-proof gloves are very useful now.

Use a stick to push away your fire, revealing the pile of rocks. Very carefully, use your mitts and a stick to get these rocks into your bucket.

Carry your bucket to your tent and place the bucket in the hole in the centre of the enclosure. Have another bucket full of water.

Carefully get everyone inside the tent. Get the last person in to hold the opening of the enclosure shut. This won’t be a perfect seal, but will be close enough. Plus, if it gets too hot, it’ll be a great vent.

Get steamed

Once everyone is in, make sure everyone is ready and pour some water on the rocks. Steam will engulf everything. Enjoy. Add as much water as you want, douse it as many times as you want, and enjoy until the steam dissipates, or it gets too hot.

If you’re feeling courageous, carefully exit the tent, being very aware of the bucket full of hot rocks, and go jump in the lake.