Basking in a sauna for a while has been proven to offer a number of different health benefits, but not everyone can afford one. Instead, why not build one?
But isn’t it difficult? For a basic one, no. Absolutely not. In simplest terms, you’ll be creating an insulated room that you can heat up enough to make you sweat when you’re inside it.
This guide will walk you through the whole process start to finish.
You can use a number of different materials to build yours, depending on what you have around you. We like to use local supplies whenever possible, and I’m guessing you probably do too! As a result, the supplies list a bit further on is a serving suggestion. Adapt them to suit what you have nearby.
Naturally, what we’re using in rural Quebec will be quite different from what may be available in New Mexico, Iceland, or Turkey, etc.
Key Aspects of a Sauna
- It needs to be heated fairly quickly and easily
- There should be cracks and gaps around to allow air flow
- You should be able to get comfortable
Those air gaps aren’t just serving suggestions, either. We need air to breathe, and the sauna’s closed environment means that a whole lot of carbon dioxide can build up really quickly. Add that to the relaxed atmosphere that can make sauna-goers nice and sleepy, and you’ll have a recipe for disaster.
When you’re planning your sauna, ensure that the air gaps are integral aspects of the design—not afterthoughts.
The structure that we’re building on our property is an Algonquin-style “sweat lodge” kind of design. We live on Weskarini Algonquin First Nation (Wàwàckeciriniwak) land, and wanted to pay homage to the First Peoples here by creating a structure in a traditional form, using local materials.
We’re using ours for health and meditation (with the guidance of an Indigenous elder friend of ours), but we won’t incorporate any of the sacred herbs or spiritual practices used by the First Peoples.
Those aren’t ours to use.
This tutorial is for the same size sauna that we’re in the process of building. It’ll be around 10 feet in diameter, so that’s what we’re aiming for in terms of materials. If you’re making yours bigger or smaller, adapt your materials accordingly.
What You’ll Need
- Saw or branch cutter
- 14+ young saplings for the main structure: we used maple because it’s abundant here, but you can use birch or bamboo if needs must. They should be at least 8 feet long so you can lash them together over the central fire area. You’ll use 12 of these for the main structure, but keep 2 on hand in case something snaps.
- Additional young saplings to hold the wall bits in place. Thinner, slightly younger saplings are ideal for this, but you can also use bamboo or thicker willow whips if needed.
- Strong cordage or twine to lash the saplings together: you can use soaked willow bark for this, as well as soaked sinew or leather strips. We’re using heavy soaked sinew, which we will coat in pine pitch glue once it dries to secure it into place.
- Heat-safe rocks: you need heat- and fire-resistant rocks for the fire. We’re using basalt, but you can also use fire bricks. Like if you happen to have any broken bits leftover from that cob oven you’ve already built…
- Coverings: it’s up to you what you want to use to cover your structure. Some people use layers of bark, but we’re using old woolen blankets that we had in storage. You can use heavy cotton painter’s canvas, but you’ll need to layer it a few times. Also, avoid plastics, like tarps or synthetic fabrics. Aim for natural materials, so you’re not inhaling off-gassed toxins.
- Comfy things to sit on: we like to use a pile of cedar boughs covered with soft blankets but to each their own ecstasy.
- Dry oak or maple wood to burn
- Heat-proof bucket, tongs, and heavy gloves for moving hot rocks
6 Steps to Building a Sauna
Got your supplies ready? Let’s get to work.
Step 1: Map Out the Sauna Placement
Clear the area where you want your sauna to be. Remove any large branches and twigs, and use a broom to sweep away leaves and other detritus. You want to be working on bare soil here. Remember that leaves and other bits are quite combustible, and we’re going to be building a fire inside a structure.
Take some of that twine and measure out 5 feet, plus about 4″. Tie 2″ of that to a large stick and drive that thing into the middle of where you want to build around. Then use another 2″ to tie the other end to a different, longer stick. Walk backward until the line is taut, press that new stick to the ground, and walk in a circle to create a circumference line in the soil.
You may have to walk around a few times to establish a strong circle in the soil. That’s cool, put on some music if you have a portable speaker, make it fun.
Step 2: Establish Where the Poles Will Be
Determine where you want the sweat lodge doorway to be. For some Indigenous peoples, the doorway traditionally faced east, but ours faces southwest, as it offers a beautiful view of the nearby river and mountains.
Create markings in the soil to delineate the doorway, making it about 2 feet wide. If you need it bigger than that to accommodate larger bodies, that’s cool: adjust to your own needs.
The first poles will be placed to one side of the doorway, and those will be attached to poles directly opposite. Wherever you place a pole, you’ll want to ensure that there’s another one directly opposite. Aim to place yours so they create an evenly spaced grid, bisecting each other’s arches perpendicularly, at regular intervals.
Step 3: Dig Out the Rock Pit
Use that trusty spade of yours to dig a pit right in the middle of your space. It should be a couple of feet across, and about a foot deep. It should be big enough to be able to hold the hot rocks while still offering enough space for you to sit around it without burning yourself.
Some people like to line their rock pits with clay, but it’s not absolutely necessary.
Step 4: Create the Frame
Dig shallow holes for the pole ends to fit into and lash them together over the central point. It’s a good idea to lash them in a few different places to distribute tension.
Once the vertical frame is constructed, it’s time to create the horizontal supports.
Remember that doorway you delineated? Start on one side of it, lashing a young sapling into place about 2 feet off the ground. Then, work your way around the structure, attaching the horizontal poles to the vertical ones as you go. Stop when you get to the other side of that doorway, and use your saw or branch cutter to clip off any leftover bits.
Step 5: Cover it Up!
Lay the blankets (or canvases, etc.) over the structure, overlapping them so they stay in place. If you find that they’re slipping, poke some holes in the fabric and lash it into place with twine or cordage. Make sure you keep track of where the doorway is and aim to place part of the covering in such a way that it can be lifted or “peeled back” easily so you can get out.
A sauna can get claustrophobic at times, and you don’t want to have a panic attack searching for the doorway if you’re overheating.
Step 6: Sort Out the Fire Pit and Get Burning
Once you’ve got the structure sorted, it’s time to prep the fire pit. You’ll do this several feet outside the structure.
Dig another shallow pit that’s big enough to create a healthy fire. Inside it, lay down a layer of flammable kindling-type things so the wood ignites easily. We like to use a big pile of birch bark strips (taken from fallen trees, of course). On top of this, we create a square grid of aged maple wood.
On top of that, we layer some big basalt stones or fire bricks, followed by another layer of wood—this time, a bit smaller. Then another layer of stones, followed by a cone of wood. Start this burning at least two hours before you plan on having the sauna.
Once all the wood has burned off, those rocks are likely hot enough to use. Test them by sprinkling them with water: if steam pours off them, you’re good. At this point, you’ll need to move them into the sauna’s rock pit.
Put on those heavy gloves and use tongs (or moose antlers) to move them into the heat-proof bucket. If you don’t have one, a cast iron cooking pot will do. Carefully move them into the sauna enclosure a couple at a time, and transfer them into the hot rock pit you prepared. Seriously, be so careful not to burn yourself.
Once they’re all in there, you’re ready for sauna time! Get cosy around the hot rocks, close the doorway, and enjoy.
Research Proper, Healthy Sauna Use and Self Care
Make sure to do proper research before using a sauna so you know how to prepare yourself for it. It may be wise to check with your healthcare provider to make sure that exposure to extreme heat isn’t going to cause any health issues.
Drink a big glass of water before you go into the sauna, and take a big water bottle with you. Just make sure the water is lukewarm rather than cold. Although cold, crisp, sweet water might be gorgeous when you feel like you’re baking, it can shock your system. Aim for room temperature instead.
Only add a bit of water to the hot rocks at a time, and only if you want to. You can absolutely have a dry sauna instead of a steamy one.
Take plenty of air breaks as needed, and don’t try to force yourself to stay in longer to prove that you’re a badass. Saunas are wonderful to promote detoxification and alleviate stress and tension. Use yours wisely and carefully, on your own terms, with respect and love.