Getting Naked in a Swedish Sauna

If you haven’t got naked in a sauna with a group of strangers then you haven’t experienced Sweden properly.

Be honest now. Did you click on this page expecting to be titillated by erotic tales and salacious images? If you did, I have one thing to say to you …

GOTCHA!!

This post is going to be about naked people in Swedish saunas – the title’s not a total lie – but not in the way you were expecting, so you may as well click away now.

Apparently, having a title like the one above could prove to be very good for my SEO as it’s full of the kinds of search words that many people use when trawling the internet. So, if you have clicked on my blog because of the words ‘naked’, ‘Swedish’ and ‘sauna’, well thank you very much, you’ve helped me out and you’re now free to leave.

However, if you do have a genuine interest in what happens in a Swedish sauna, then this is the place for you.

We have saunas in Britain. They’re not particularly popular and I can understand why.

Brits do not know how to sauna.

I’ve been in saunas in Britain (they’re usually found in gyms) and not been particularly enamoured with my experiences. I’ve also been in saunas in Germany and loved them.

Here’s a rundown of a British sauna experience.

  • Saunas tend to be found in gyms and are used (not regularly or by many people) after a gym session when the person is already sweaty.
  • Some are single-sex and some are mixed.
  • Everyone gets changed into swimwear before entering the sauna (even if there’s no pool or they’re not planning on a swim).
  • Sometimes they may have a towel wrapped all the way around them in addition to their swimwear.
  • The person enters the sauna, sits on the wooden bench and wonders what exactly it is they’re supposed to be doing.
  • The temperature isn’t particularly hot and no-one knows how to get it hotter.
  • Despite the temperature the person in the sauna starts to feel hot and isn’t sure how they should behave or how long they should stay.
  • Eventually the person leaves the sauna, has a shower (not an icy cold one), gets dressed and goes home. A few people may stand under the shower for a minute or two and then return to the sauna for a second bout before getting dressed.

This is boring.

When this was my only experience of saunas I couldn’t understand the point of them. I’d occasionally go to one in the hope that I’d suddenly ‘get it’ and a whole new world of relaxing and beneficial experiences would be opened up to me. It didn’t happen.

It was only when I left the UK that I started to get an inkling into the delights of saunas. As mentioned above, it was in Germany that I first experienced saunas done properly. I could spend hours in a spa wandering from sauna to sauna – each one hotter than the last – pouring water on the coals to create steam, building up my tolerance to the heat and the steam penetrating my pores and diving under a cold shower or taking time out by sitting in a warm pool whenever it got too much.

It felt relaxing and calming. It also felt liberating.

Liberating? Why liberating?

Because to sauna in Germany you need to get naked. It’s not clothes-optional; naked is compulsory. And they’re usually mixed-sex.

I can almost feel the waves of horror and cringing from British and American readers coming down the cyber-waves, the repulsion is that strong.

Before writing this post, I did a lot of research on other similar posts – if anyone looks at my search history they’re going to find a lot of dodgy sounding searches like, ‘mixed-sex naked sauna’, ‘Swedish naked sauna’ and ‘stripping off in the sauna’. I found some interesting and relevant posts. I also found a lot of posts of the type the people I addressed in my first paragraph were looking for. Some of them were quite interesting too.

I was most interested in reading the comments on the relevant posts as it’s the issues and beliefs raised in those that I want to address here.

Comments tended to be anti rather than pro naked mixed saunas and the reasons given fell into several broad categories.

  • Religious reasons (I’m not even going to try to argue against these as I’d rather spend my time in a rational debate)
  • It’s unhygienic
  • Who wants to look at hairy/flabby/old people? – It’s not sexy
  • Lack of confidence
  • Confusion over the etiquette and not wanting to commit a major faux-pas
  • It must be full of people on the pull and/or swingers; everyone’s there for sex; you don’t want people to think you’re a prude if you decline; you are a prude; you’re just asking to be assaulted; everyone’s going to be ogling everyone else.
  • I won’t know where to look

Can I just say if you’re thinking any of the above and you’re a Brit or American you would likely be correct in your own country. This is because our cultural upbringing has conditioned us to associate nudity with sex.

When you travel you have to be prepared for cultural norms to differ to those you are used to. Attitudes differ from place to place and that includes attitudes to nudity.

Saunas are a way of life in Scandinavia. Many people, particularly in the north, have a sauna at home. Lots of people have cabins by lakes and these often have a sauna, even if they don’t have electricity or running water. Many of the STF huts along the Kungsleden have saunas.

It’s hard to avoid having a sauna experience if you spend more than a few days in Sweden, particularly if your time is spent in the north. And why would you want to avoid experiencing something that is so integral to the culture of the country you are travelling in?

So, what makes Swedish saunas so special?

The best saunas are the traditional wood-fired ones. In buildings, such as a hotel or hostel, the sauna will usually be electric. It will have ‘coals’ that you can pour water on to create steam, but lacks the atmosphere and aroma of a wood-fired one. Cooling off in an indoor sauna usually involves standing under a shower, whereas the wood-fired saunas are more likely to be found beside a lake which you can jump into to cool off.

Although I had several saunas in Sweden this summer whilst I was walking the Kungsleden trail, only one was the traditional sort. This was so wonderful it has now spoilt all other saunas for me.

I’d walked all day. I’d not had a shower for a week. For the first time I decided to stay in a hut rather than camp. Part of the reason was because I’d been told this particular hut had a sauna.

The sauna was in a wooden hut at the side of the lake. It was on for a few hours each evening. The first hour was a men only session and this was followed by a women only session. After these segregated sessions it was opened up to everyone.

I got there towards the end of the women’s session. Just inside the door is the changing area with a bench and hooks for hanging clothes on. I removed my clothes (yes, all of them) and moved into the middle part of the hut which had a couple of long benches lined with buckets and bowls of water. This is the washing area.

The sauna itself is at the far end of the hut through a wooden door. I could hear women’s voices and when I opened the door I was greeted by a line of naked women sitting along the top bench. They were older women (I know this because I’d met them earlier in the day along the trail and they’d told me they were all senior citizens) and were all shapes and sizes.

I sat on the lower bench as this is where it’s cooler, heat does rise after all, and I wasn’t sure how I’d cope with a mega-hot Scandinavian sauna. The conversation was lively and animated. Arms and legs were stretched, sweat dripped, faces looked flushed. Everyone was completely comfortable and relaxed. We could have been sat around a table in a bar or coffee shop (well, except for dripping sweat part).

Every few minutes someone would use the scoop to pour water from a bucket over the coals of the woodburner in the corner. The flames of the woodburner flickered and the steam hissed and meandered through the room.

Around the outside of the woodburner was a tank filled with water. This water had been heated by the fire to boiling temperature and using a tap it was possible to run some of this hot water into a bowl which could then be taken to the washing area and mixed with cold water to get a nice temperature of water to wash with.

A couple of the women went out to the lake and refilled the buckets of cold water whilst they were out there. They came back in glowing and squeezed back onto the top bench to warm up again.

I wanted to try jumping in the lake, but this was the one part of the sauna ritual that scared me. I hate being cold and jumping in an ice cold lake holds no attraction for me at all. But it had to be tried.

I picked my way across the narrow strip of stony beach and walked into the lake. As the water lapped over the tops of my feet, I gasped and froze (literally and figuratively), turned and ran back into the sauna. Yes, I’m a complete wimp.

Instead of jumping in the lake, I made do with pouring cold lake water over myself in the washing area. I shivered and went back into the sauna to warm up.

It was almost the end of the women’s hour, but I’d only been in the sauna for about 15 minutes. The women left to wash with warm water and get dressed. I stayed in the sauna alone watching the flames start to die down. It was mesmerising watching the fire and I felt really relaxed. Now I had the sauna to myself I could stretch my legs out along the bench and lean my head against the top bench. My eyes started to close.

I was enjoying this sauna. There’s something about a wood fire and having a lake (even though I’d not jumped in it) that adds to the experience. It’s more sensory than sitting in a room with an electric heater and the whole experience feels more natural.

I decided I’d stay watching the last flickering flames until the fire died down so much it started to become cool and then I’d enjoy washing my body and hair with warm water.

I heard the outer door open and two male voices. I recognised them as a couple of guys I’d spoken to earlier, a Finn and an American. As I listened to them move about, obviously removing their clothing, the American asked,

‘Er, is it nude?’

‘Yes,’ the Finn replied sounding definite.

As they opened the door to the sauna and we said hi, I told them the fire was close to going out and they’d need more wood if they wanted a good sauna.

The Finnish guy took control. The Finns take their saunas even more seriously than the Swedes. In fact, the word ‘sauna’ is Finnish. The Swedes call it a ‘bastu’. He brought wood in from the pile in the washing room and got the fire stoked up. He spent quite a bit of time blowing and poking at it until the flames were roaring. Then he poured water over the coals on the top making sure it landed near the pipe in the middle. The coals hissed and the steam billowed. The temperature steadily rose.

Once he was satisfied he sat with his American friend and we chatted. I’d only been intending to stay in the sauna a few more minutes, but now I didn’t want to leave. The smell of the woodsmoke (always a favourite smell of mine), the steam, the flames, the intense heat. Finally I really understood what saunas were about.

The guys had told me there was a group up at the huts planning to come down to the sauna too. As they arrived and started to fill up the space I decided it was time to leave. I’d been in there a lot longer than I’d intended and it was only fair to make room for others. I filled a bowl with hot water and enjoyed washing myself and washing my hair with hot soapy water rather than the cold lake water I’d been used to over the past few weeks.

I felt so clean and refreshed and energised. I wanted to have a sauna like this every day. And I decided I definitely want to go to Finland to try the saunas there.

Now that I’ve told you about my best Swedish sauna experience, let me address some of the concerns mentioned above that people may have.

It’s unhygienic

Not really. If you are going to an electric indoor sauna there are showers you can use before entering. In the outdoor wood fire sauna there were buckets of water that could be used to wet yourself before entering the main part of the sauna. Just pouring a bit of water over yourself might not get you clean, but it’s still not a problem because you’ll be sat on your towel anyway. And you’ll be having a good wash with warm water afterwards.

Who wants to look at hairy/flabby/old people? – It’s not sexy

It doesn’t matter what anyone looks like. You’re not there to look at other people’s bodies and they’re not there to look at yours. It’s got nothing to do with being sexy.

Lack of confidence

It can be quite unnerving to strip off in public particularly in front of the opposite sex, if you’ve grown up in a culture that equates nudity with lewd behaviour and/or sex. If you are self-critical of your body you might be embarrassed at the thought of others seeing it. In countries where having a sauna naked is the norm, the other people in the sauna will be far more likely to notice you if you are acting coy and squirming about trying to cover yourself. Act normal and you’ll be fine.

Confusion over the etiquette and not wanting to commit a major faux-pas

In some of the more international style spas it might be acceptable or even compulsory to wear a swimsuit. Outside of the sauna it is not the done thing to walk around naked. Just because you’ve seen your neighbours or friends in the nuddy in the sauna does not mean it’s now okay to walk round the supermarket in your birthday suit. If you’re not sure of what to do and what’s expected then just ask someone.

It must be full of people on the pull and/or swingers; everyone’s there for sex; you don’t want people to think you’re a prude if you decline; you are a prude; you’re just asking to be assaulted; everyone’s going to be ogling everyone else.

Seriously? If this is what you think a sauna is like you have been looking at the wrong websites. It is HOT in the sauna (and I don’t mean sexy hot). It is SWEATY in the sauna. You won’t even want to have bits of your own body touching the other bits, you certainly won’t want to have anyone else’s touching you. Ordinary people go to the sauna, not just young super-models. The sauna will be full of people of all ages and all shapes and sizes. Even if you have the body of a super-model you will have a bright red face from the heat. The last thing you or anyone else will think of doing is trying to pick someone up.

I won’t know where to look

Where do you normally look when you’re talking to someone? Just because you’re in a sauna and not wearing clothes doesn’t mean you have to look any differently at people. Because everyone acts so normal it doesn’t feel weird for long. Before you know it, you’ll be interacting in a normal way and the fact that everyone is naked, including yourself, will be irrelevant.

I mentioned above feeling liberated when naked in a sauna. This might sound weird if you’ve never experienced it. I probably feel more self-conscious about my bodily imperfections when I’m wearing a swimsuit. Or even a full set of clothes. When everyone is naked it’s a level playing field. Everyone is in their natural state and no-one is perfect. And of course you don’t have to worry about ‘does my bum look big in this?’ if you’re not wearing anything for your bum to look big in.

As well, wearing a swimsuit or wrapping a towel round your body just gets uncomfortable in a really hot sauna. The last thing you want when you’re that hot and sticky is material clinging to you. So not feeling uncomfortable helps with that feeling of liberation too.

Finally, just in case you still haven’t understood anything I’ve said above and you still think anything to do with nudity must be sleazy, let me say in capitals NUDITY DOES NOT HAVE TO MEAN SEX. It’s just the way you’ve been brought up that makes you think that.

So if you get the chance to go to a sauna in Scandinavia, Finland, Germany or any country where saunas are taken seriously, jump at it. Relish in doing something you can’t do in your own country. Relax. Let it all hang out. Liberate yourself.

Have you experienced a sauna in another country? What did you think? Are there any you recommend?

Author: Anne

Join me in my journey to live a life less boring, one challenge at a time. Author of the forthcoming book 'Walking the Kungsleden: One Woman's Solo Wander Through the Swedish Arctic'.

5 thoughts on “Getting Naked in a Swedish Sauna”

  1. I do wish that you British would stop refering to the sauna rocks as “coals”. You are the only ones who keep calling them that and I would think that the British, of all people, would know what coals are and what happens if you throw water on them… They are rocks, or stones, some types are better than others.

    Also whatever real sauna culture there is in Sweden, it is probably imported from Finland (or inherited from the Finnish minority), as apparently saunas were forbidden in Sweden during the 18th century and disappeared. Finns didn’t understand the language or the orders and probably wouldn’t have cared anyway, so they remained in Finland, still as the best type of a sauna, the smoke sauna. And Finns generally tend to think that Swedish saunas are not warm enough, there are jokes about it, too… I wouldn’t even be so sure that saunas are a way of life in Sweden as they are in Finland where practically everyone has access to a sauna at least in the same building and many work places have them, too.

    1. I was using the word ‘coals’ in a more generic way, but I’ll try to remember to call them rocks in future. The sauna I described got so much hotter when the Finnish guy took control of it – much hotter than when I was sharing it with the Swedish women. This is why I really want to try a Finnish sauna now. I imagine a Finnish sauna to be the ultimate sauna experience!

  2. I live in Germany and I have enjoyed your article about swedish sunas very much. In Germany you will mostly find Saunas heated with electricity but they still have the same relaxing effect as swedish Saunas. You can easily find saunas in public indoor swimming pools but also in hotels. Most enjoyable are the saunas outside of the main building. After the sauna experience you can step outside into the fresh air and cool down under the shower or in a cold water basin. We usually do not talk in the sauna itself and put our mind to the heat and to the relaxing effect. Every hour water with a certain incense, like eucalyptus, mint, rosemary is poured over the coal. The sauna I usually visit offers a salt and oil body rub during a small break where everybody steps outside. I am looking forward to my first visit to the sauna this winter!

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