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How to Take a Sauna?

5x7 outdoor sauna

Enhancing Your Dry Sauna Experience

The best saunas you take are often in the one you own … for privacy and you shape the experience

Here are few suggestions on taking a great sauna:

At home, I enjoy a 5'x7' outdoor sauna with a Polar HNVR 80SC Sauna Heater with PSC External Controls and a far infrared light box, shown at right.

Pre-Sauna Preparation

Eating or drinking before a sauna

The heat of the sauna makes you sweat and with that go toxins and water, but also electrolytes. Electrolyies support electrical energy necessary for many functions, including muscle contractions and transmission of nerve impulses. Electrolyies are composed of glucose, sodium and potassium. So prepare your body for the heat.

To prepare I eat lightly. I find that drinking some soup broth is perfect to prepare for a sauna. Since, most probably won't have a pot of soup on, just eat a light snack. Drinking alcohol generally is dehydrating, so definitely moderate your usage. I find I prefer drinking afterward. 

Preparing the sauna

I like to heat up my sauna for at least 25 minutes before I enter –  longer in the winter as my sauna is outdoors. About 140º-170º is a comfortable temperature for most sauna bathers to enter. Sometimes I like to do some light yoga or mild stretches while its getting warmer. I use a 15 minute sand timer, so I know how long I have been in. Of course, I have a thermometer and hygrometer to measure humidity, too. And I bring two towels usually to keep my benches clean, and a small towel to wipe sweat.

Sauna sand timer

Proper Venting – Sauna heaters draw cool air from a bottom vent while some hot air exits at the top vent. This brings in fresh oxygen to the sauna bathers. At higher elevations, oxygen is very important. So make sure to open your top vent as soon as you enter, or about 5 times every hour. Most of the time I just leave it cracked about 1” or more.

Always respect your own limits:

  • Enter AND exit at the right temperature for you!

  • If you're ever feeling even slightly light-headed it is time to conclude your bathing session.

  • Drink water regularly, before you sauna. Don't wait til you're thirsty!

A note on good hydration: Avoid eating a meal, a snack is OK about 30-45 minutes before a sauna. Drink before getting thirsty. Water by itself is fine but better to replace your electrolytes with water plus a touch of salt and lime. Other options are liquids like fermented sauerkraut brine (the juice left in the jar) is full of amino acids, salts and powerful antioxidants – very refreshing! And actually makes a good dirty martini. RAW coconut water is full of electrolytes — raw is always best. Another favorite is Dr Bragg's Apple Cider Vinegar drink with honey.

IMPORTANT: Always take a sauna in the nude ( or minimal clothes ). If you're wearing clothes, you may actually overheat because you're not allowing your body its natural coolant ... i.e. sweating, as well as releasing toxins.

Extra Healthy Infrared Heat in the Sauna

infrared light on sauna lower bench

In addition to the traditional dry heat of the rocks, in my sauna I added far infrared sauna lights to the lower benches. It acts as a booster heat source as well as a healthy heat source. It's a great option but certainly not required.

These lights are great because they heat up to their highest temperature (about ~115º F.) in 2 seconds (count ‘em one, two) and heat the sauna up faster. Also far infrared heat light penetrates deep into the body. This feels very soothing on injuries or sore body parts.

At some point, I get too hot on the top bench where it’s often 165º F. to 180º F. If so, I just move down to the lower bench which shelves my infrared lights. I lay down with my back to the infrared lights and continue a deep sweat while breathing cooler air. I can't tell you how much more relaxing this has made my sauna experience. Always use infrared lights on bare skin to feel the deep penetrating heat.

Read more about Infrared Sauna Basics and Infrared Light Sauna Therapy Health Benefits.


Get the Sauna Steamy!

sauna hat

A good blast of steam in the sauna

Steam heats the sauna up and opens the lungs. Simply, use a ladle to drizzle cool water onto the hot rocks — best with sauna oil like eucalyptus. Never use your hand! Steam is very hot and humid.

On this note, I was asked once: What’s the hottest sauna you’ve ever been in?

It was the Banya5 in Seattle. They heat their sauna from 220º to 240º F. Yep! About as hot as you can handle, but ONLY because the humidity is very low, about 30% and never above 40%. It’s so hot you can’t move your hands too fast through the air else your fingernails start to overheat. Many seasoned sauna bathers, use scrubby gloves to protect themselves, and a wool sauna hat to protect your hair and head from the heat.

If you love steam, then some water is likely to exit the bottom of the sauna heater – it’s OK, they’re made for this. I put a tray there to catch the extra water, only because my sauna doesn’t have a floor drain.

I like to add eucalyptus or lavender oil to water in the ladle, NEVER directly on the sauna rocks. Essential oils are volatile and will catch fire, so you must mix with water before adding onto the rocks.

I ALWAYS use organic real essential oils, not fragrances. Steam with oils open the lungs and give a delicious aroma to the sauna.

Sauna Bathe – Don't Just Sauna!

sauna body brush

A good sauna is about having a good sweat – especially in the cold weather.

I find I sweat much more quickly and profusely if I splash some water on my scalp and torso to start.

Later I like to use a body brush clean the skin and to move lymph thru my body. Most people don’t know you have 4-5x more lymph in your body than blood. Lymph is a fluid that surrounds every cell in your body and helps carry off the cell’s waste.

There are several ways to move lymph: Breathing, hanging upside down, getting massage, exercising and scrubbing your skin. I move the lymph by simply brushing the skin, always toward the stomach area. Thusly, you are pushing the body’s waste products toward the organs where they’ll be excreted.

After 15 minutes in the sauna, I sometimes take a quick break from the sauna or at least rotate the timer. When finished, I finish bathing by taking a cool rinse or for the brave… take a cold plunge, ideally in water about 50-55º F. And for the adventurous, make snow angels in the raw and smile while you do it… before re-entering the sauna. 

Sauna Together

Sauna bathers with sauna hats chewing the fat

How many sauna bathers does it take to change a light bulb?

Of course two – one to change the bulb and the other to sweat the details. OK nevermind that.

While some solo saunas I take are a reflective or meditative experience and certainly give me plenty of room to spread out, it’s great to enjoy a saunas in good company and at spas or in cultures with long sauna traditions. The Dutch cultures are quite reformed in their sauna / spa cultures and quite comfortable with shared nakedness. 

sauna venik, branches with leaves to use in the sauna

Besides enjoying anything together, there are some other healthy ways to enjoy the sauna together. One of them is tapotement (definition: rapid and repeated striking of the body as a technique in massage) with venik.

Many sauna cultures use bundles of branches with leaves in the sauna to lightly lash, beat and brush each other. Russians call these venik, typically cut from birch or oak or even eucalyptus. This lashing action brings blood to the surface, removes old skin and moves lymph through the body – most invigorating! An alternative is the Sauna Bamboo Whisks

How to prepare the venik? I like to moisten the venik in a steamy towel about 30 minutes before I sauna. Then I put the venik in a bucket with some warm water to soak. When the leaves are softened, shake off excess water off then lightly brush and beat your partner. The skin may redden slightly but should not hurt. The rhythm of the branches thru the air and across a body sometimes sounds like a train leaving the station. See the video at left to view the venik massage, or platza techiques.

The water in the bucket will start to look like tea. You can use this water on the sauna heater to create steam with a lovely woody aroma. Make sure you strain any leaves out else they may making a slight burning odor. Not for everyone, but try it. A good bundle of venik should last about half a dozen sessions. If the leaves are mostly gone, then it's time for a new one.

In Scandinavian cultures, they rarely stop at two sauna bathers. They have a long tradition of enjoying the sauna together with friends and/or family. The ritual of heating the sauna, chatting and bathing is just good quality time spent together – no technology, just reconnecting with one another. Saunas are a great way to enjoy a languid chat or just get comfortable in silence.

We hope you’ll take many saunas around the world, and we’d love to hear your stories.


Supporting Articles

  1. The Sauna Experience
  2. A doctor's piece on Benefits of Sauna and How to Sauna by Dr Lynch on January 13, 2015.
  3. Article on good reasons to drink fermented cabbage juice. January 24, 2012.
  4. Discusses Venik massage techniques.
  5. Watch Venik massage videos on YouTube.
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