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The Bare Facts about Finnish Sauna

What would you say to this proposition? You’re invited to go to a little wooden room that is heated to nearly 100°C and get naked with the rest of your group, where you will sit sweating our your impurities, cooling off occasionally with a roll in the snow or dip in a frozen lake (while still naked), and eating and drinking in between. In other words, you’re invited to experience the Finnish sauna!

Jdombs-Travels-Finnish-Sauna-1“Stop being so American today,” Tim joked to me. We were traveling with a small group of people we had only known for a few days in Finnish Lapland and the evening activities involved dinner and Finnish sauna. I spent an entire afternoon stressing out about exactly what was going to happen because, first, a little something was lost in transition and it sounded like we were having dinner in the sauna. Second, American as it may be, I was not okay getting naked with people I still had to spend several days with.

There are just over 5 million people living in Finland and there are an estimated 2 million saunas in the country. To say the Finnish sauna is essential to understanding the culture would be an understatement. In the old days, saunas were a practical place for Finns to wash when there was no hot running water during the long, cold winters. Finnish saunas are considered sterile places, and we heard a story or two of people even being born in saunas. There is even a Finnish Sauna Society, founded in 1937, that preserves the tradition of the native sauna culture.

I would never be admitted as a member. Luckily, my worries that had quickly made sauna a stressful experience instead of a relaxing one were unfounded. As our group sat down to the buffet dinner, we discussed what everyone would be comfortable with. We decided the guys and girls would go to sauna separately and I heaved a huge sigh of relief.

Jdombs-Travels-Finnish-Sauna-4A typical weekend night consists of a buffet spread much like ours with different types of fish, some reindeer, salad, and maybe a pot of salmon soup. You eat and drink a little, go to the sauna, take a dip in the lake or river (or roll in the snow when the ice becomes thin and unsafe), return to the sauna, and then repeat it all.

Jdombs-Travels-Finnish-Sauna-2The five of us girls decided we’d go in our towels and did have a relaxing sauna experience as we all bonded and dished what we never would amongst the men. The men, according to Tim, bared it all. In between, we all sat around in our towels eating and drinking.

Jdombs-Travels-Finnish-Sauna-3When on a group tour with LappOne as we were, the group always discusses what will be comfortable for everyone and it varies from group to group. I only wish the communication about that would have been a bit better because then I wouldn’t have had an entire afternoon being stressed.

So, back to the question I started this post off with. Would you bare it all in the Finnish sauna?

Our time in Finland and Sweden was hosted by LappOne, who offers a variety of holidays to Lapland. As always, all opinions are entirely our own.**JdombsTravels.com readers can save 10% on any LappOne booking with the promo code JDOMB until May 31, 2013.

Jennifer Dombrowski

Jennifer Dombrowski is a location independent globe trotter who is based in Prata di Pordenone, Italy. She works as a social media and communications strategist and is an award-winning travel writer. She is also a travel correspondent on Traveling on the American Forces Radio Network. Jdomb's Travels was named one of the top travel blogs to watch by the Huffington Post and has been featured by top publications such as CNN, Buzzfeed , and The Telegraph. Her iPhoneograpy has also been featured on publications such as USA Today and Travel + Leisure. Google+

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27 comments

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  1. Matthew Hirtes

    Great post, Jennifer. In answer to your question, I would. Actually, I did already. It wasn’t in Finland. Although it felt like the spa director thought it was. I wrote about my experience here: http://www.puretravel.com/Guide/Travel_writing_competition/Travel_Writing_Competition_2012_Entries_Page2/Cock_and_ball%28s%29

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    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Funny how the men seem okay with it and the women not so much! Definitely interesting how different cultures react to the situation.

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  2. Sofie

    Just like you I wouldn’t feel comfortable getting naked with people I barely know.
    It also seems a bit strange to eat and then go in again, no?
    I think I’d probably overeat and then get sick with the heat:D

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    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    The eating was fine. It’s really light food and you eat just a little at a time. There’s no set amount of time you have to stay in the sauna. But I’m not sure I’d ever be okay getting naked with a bunch of people I hardly know.

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  3. Ali

    I’m not big on the naked thing either. I don’t even like changing into my bathing suit in those big open locker rooms. As much as I try to branch out and push past my comfort zone, the American in me just can’t handle all that naked. I also get overheated pretty easily and I’m not sure long I could stand to be in the sauna, but that’s a whole other issue!

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    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I’m okay with a group of girls being naked together in the sauna. It’s the mixed group that I’m not okay with. As much as everyone claims it’s not sexual, I think it’s natural to look. I wouldn’t want other men seeing me and I also wouldn’t want Tim looking at other women.

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    Eleanna Reply:

    I don’t know what you mean when you say that you decided that men and women would be separated, in Finland men and women never go to the sauna together naked unless we are talking about small children. Or a couple of course.

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    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Perhaps because we were a group traveling together? We had the option to decide to all go together or alternate men and women.

    Tyty Reply:

    Men and women DO go to the sauna together, naked. Granted it’s not that common because public saunas are separated by gender but private saunas, usually at parties or cottage trips, is a whole other thing. Especially among students it’s quite popular. And no, there is nothing sexual about it. There are a couple of men I have met for the first or second time while being naked in a sauna with them. I actually prefer mixed saunas to girls only. They tend to last longer and the discussions are different.

  4. Leigh

    I’m not so big on the whole naked thing either. Give me a towel if you would. I can’t get over how many saunas there are in Finland. I wonder what health benefit – other than social camaraderie – there is.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Supposedly sauna is healthy for you. In summer, the Finns also bundle together branches from a certain type of tree and smack each other with them. It is supposed to stimulate circulation and also give off aromatherapy. And I’m with you on at least having the towel!

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    Tyty Reply:

    A real Finn doesn’t think about any health benefits, that’s an American thing I guess. We just know it feels good and you feel much cleaner and relaxed afterwards. Also wearing something in a sauna… no thanks. THAT would be uncomfortable.

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  5. Catherine Sweeney

    Yes, but I think I’d like to have the same kind of arrangement that your group had. If everyone was a total stranger & we wouldn’t see anyone again, I might not mind a mixed group. I do like the idea of sauna, swim, eat, drink, repeat!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    It almost baffles me that sauna is a very common way to have business meetings in Finland. Can you imagine in the US?! We have sexual harassment lawsuits for people just looking at each other wrong.

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  6. julia davies

    I’d be quite happy to bare all, after all my body is nothing special to either brag about or hide away.
    But rolling in the snow – no thanks!! Guess we all have differing hang ups!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    LOL! A roll in the snow is refreshing about getting so hot in the sauna! Good for you on being so comfortable in your own skin.

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  7. Nat

    I couldn’t do it even if it was only girls. Nudity is not something I am comfortable with now but ten years ago, would have been the first in there

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I remember reading your post about the Turkish baths, Natalie! I know many cultures are used to going nude, but it just doesn’t feel comfortable for me. Glad to hear I’m not alone!

    [Reply]

  8. Andrea

    I love the sauna – not so sure about sitting in the snow!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I get so hot in the sauna that a roll in the snow feels great! Supposedly there are health benefits in doing it too.

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  9. Elizabeth Carlson

    Fun! Looks less scary than the Turkish baths in Istanbul – scarred me for life!

    [Reply]

    Jdomb's Travels Reply:

    Haha Liz! We had an interesting experience in Jordan with the baths. So I can only imagine!

    [Reply]

  10. Kirsi

    I know how hard it can be for people to experience the nudity, or almost-nudity. As Eleanna replied, men and women aren´t nude when mixed. The relaxed perspective of nudity is something we Finns are born with, for us it´s the natural way of life and our close bonds with nature.

    At the same time it´s the opposite for the Finns, as much as we know that people abroad use to discuss our special view on nudity, we react a bit when travelling abroad and see how people can´t be as relaxed as we are with it. I think that our traditions form us in a way where we don´t see the body as much “stigmatised”. We girls (or boys) are born into those traditions and when the clothes are off in the sauna, you kind of “reveal” all about yourself, there´s nothing more “to hide”. It creates some kind of tight bonds and, especially, respect for other humans. At the same time, it´s a deeper spiritual thing for us, like it has been for ages, the same as for Indians and other native people who has sauna-like traditions.

    Culture is educating, that´s why it´s healthy to learn of each other so we can make that gap smaller between people on earth and avoid conflicts in the future :)

    All my best,
    Kirsi

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Great insight , Kirsi. I wish we Americans could have such a healthy outlook about nudity. I bet we’d all have much healthier body images. But it is drilled in us that nudity is unacceptable and sexual in nature just as it is the total opposite for you as Finns.

    [Reply]

  11. Sauna Times

    Awesome to get away from the bare issue and immerse oneself into the authentic Finnish experience!

    [Reply]

    Jdomb's Travels Reply:

    I tried but it just doesn't feel natural or relaxing to me. I was definitely content in my towel. :-)

    [Reply]

  12. ketut

    Why yes I would and kind of already done so. In Japan the commual hot spring baths are nudity required. You just choose family style or not. Full disclosure, I am a Finn and probably was in a sauna before I could walk. The family was always naked. When you got to a certain age you could choose to sauna alone if you wished. Nudity is not connected to sexuality.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I definitely get that, Ketut! For Americans though, it sort of gets burned into us that nudity is related to sexuality.

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  13. Bram | Travel. Experience. Live.

    I don’t think I would be comfortable being completely naked in front of strangers either. I so want to experience a real Finnish sauna though! It sounds like so much fun. And I bet you felt great afterwards :-)

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I was more than happy to bare it all with my husband in our private sauna. But when it comes to sitting around with others, I’ll take a towel please!

    [Reply]

  14. Eric

    It’s ridiculous how uncomfortable people are in their own skin. You should be proud of your body.

    (and one of the posts talks about their husband seeing naked women……if you think for even a second that your husband doesn’t look at naked women, then I have some land to sell you)

    [Reply]

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