What the finished product looks like.
Let me just preface this one by saying how fricken awesome these backcountry saunas are. Absolutely everybody should try this at some point because they never disappoint. Can you imagine coming back from a full day of hiking, feeling like your legs have just been beaten, and hopping into a homemade sauna nestled in the woods? Or what about having a sauna on the beach after a full day of paddling? I’m more than willing to bet both of these scenarios sound awesome to you. If not, I can’t help ya. To me, there’s nothing quite like enjoying one of the luxuries of the city out in the middle of nowhere, especially when you’ve really earned it.
WHAT DO YOU NEED?
- A big tarp (16×16 ft minimum). If you have a couple of them, even better.
- A lot of firewood. A half cord would be perfect..
- A few grapefruit sized rocks
- A Shovel or spare pot
- Some duct tape (optional)
- Some baling wire (optional)
- Some serious ingenuity.
Ok, so this sounds like it could be a pain for any backpacking scenario when space is limited. And yeah, you’re right. Bringing a big tarp can be a challenge when you have to carry it around for a week on your back. But I’ve done it before on shorter trips and it’s worked out great. For a bare bones approach to building a sauna, all you really need is a big tarp. This is assuming you’ll be able to find some firewood.
Some Pro Gear Tips
You definitely want your tarps to be fairly fresh. I’ve been in a sauna situation where we used an old beat up tarp and it was really hard to keep the sauna hot. If you don’t have any new(ish) tarps, you can also double tarp it. This works like a charm. The second pro tip is that duct tape will make your life sooo much easier when building your sauna. Often, there will be loose tarp ends that need to be held in place, and for my money duct tape is the winner. Just be careful not to go overboard on the duct tape or it can be a real mess to take down!
STEP 1: PICK A GOOD LOCATION
You definitely want to spend some time looking for a great spot to build your sauna. Location can really make or break the experience. Most importantly, you need to make sure you have access to lots of firewood. When I say lots, what I really mean is that whenever you think you have enough, grab waaay more. Trust me on this. In my experience, you want to be able to burn about a half cord of firewood. Or at minimum, about a wheelbarrow full. The bigger you can make your fire, the better the sauna. It takes some serious heat to get your rocks hot enough to have a truly great sauna. Which leads me to my next point – make sure you have access to medium sized rocks. In most places this shouldn’t be an issue, but it would really suck to spend the time building an epic sauna only to realize there are no rocks anywhere! Lastly, you definitely want to be super close to some sort of water source. There’s absolutely nothing better than being able to exit the sauna feeling like you’re about to pass out, and jumping straight into some cold water. The best bush sauna I’ve ever built was actually done so that the entrance of the sauna opened up right into a lake. Waves lapping up on the tarp. It was magic.
The best sauna ever
Plus you’ll eventually need water to drizzle on your hot rocks. If you’re a real pro, you should even look out for natural features that you could potentially use as a base for your tarp structure. Keep an eye out for upturned tree roots (stumps), big boulders, or fallen trees. These things can all act as the base of your structure if you get creative about it.
STEP 2: BUILDING YOUR STRUCTURE
Alright, this is the part that always requires some serious ingenuity. There’s not much I can really say here because every situation is completely different, but I’m gonna try to steer you in the right direction with a couple great strategies. Just think about this as The end goal is to have a tarp structure that’s completely airtight (as best as you can anyways). The better seal you have at the top of your sauna, the hotter it’ll stay. Heat rises (duh) and it’ll escape if you do a half assed job. Finally, you want there to be an opening or flap that you can close, as well as enough room for a big pile of hot rocks, and everyone to sit down.
Step 2.1: Building Your Structure Skeleton
With that in mind, start looking around for things that you might be able to use to build your structure. In my experience, using ‘rooty’ driftwood stumps that have washed up on the beach is a great place to start. You can stand them up and use them as the 4 corners of your structure. Sometimes this is all you need. Other times, you can just push 4 good pieces of driftwood deep into the sand and they’ll hold pretty steady. You may need to connect the 4 corners with smaller pieces of wood in order to keep the tarp where you want it, and for extra stability. If you want to really get after it, you can build a structure by tying pieces of wood (small trees) together using baling wire or even duct tape. With this strategy you can often make a strong enough structure that you don’t need the 4 corners to be dug into the ground. Essentially you could pick up and place your structure wherever you want it. I’ve done this a few times and it’s always worth the time.
Here’s what a great sauna structure looks like.
Another classic approach, if you’re not on a beach, would be to tie some webbing about five feet up, from one tree to another. Then, throw a tarp over this line so you have an A-frame tent. I would only do this as a last resort because it’s really hard to seal up the ends of your a-frame. Last approach would be the classic teepee. Super easy to do, with the only downside being that it’s really hard to seal the top of the sauna where all the poles meet. Also, keep in mind that because all the walls are essentially leaning in, you need to make a huge teepee in order for multiple people to fit inside. Keep in mind that you also need room for rocks in the middle. With all that said, I’m sure you can figure out your own way to do things. No two saunas I’ve built have ever been the same.
Another Pro Tip
Before you spend a lot of time building the skeleton for your sauna, make sure you have enough tarp to cover it completely. I’ve spent a couple hours building the “perfect” structure only to find out our tarp wasn’t nearly big enough to cover the whole thing. I’d suggest laying your tarp out and visualizing what kind of volume you think it can cover, before you start building. If you have two or more tarps the same strategy applies, it just becomes a bit harder to visualize.
STEP 3: COVER YOUR STRUCTURE AND SEAL IT
Throw your tarps over top of your structure and figure out a way to seal it perfectly. That means at the top, and at the bottom. If you’re on a beach, kick sand over the ends of the tarp that touch the ground. If you’re in the forest, you can seal the bottom with logs or whatever you can find. Stones can work as well. Once you think you’ve sealed your sauna perfectly. Give it a once over to really make sure. You don’t want any leaks at the top or bottom. If you spot a rip in your tarp, try to cover it with duct tape or seal it with another tarp.
I think we had to tape 4 tarps together for this one
STEP 4: BUILDING YOUR FIRE
After you’ve built your tarp structure, start to make the biggest fire that you can. You should do this well away from your sauna. Remember, it’s not the fire that will heat your sauna, it’s the rocks you place in your fire. If you haven’t already, now’s the time to gather 10-15 grapefruit sized rocks that will serve as your hot rocks. The rounder the rocks are, the better. A geologist once told me that rounder rocks are much less likely to explode when they get hot. Don’t ask me why, but I would listen..
We burned all this for one sauna.
As soon as you have a good collection of rocks, you should strategically place them in your fire as close to the center as possible. Continue to build your fire out around them for at least 30 minutes. I prefer to wait about an hour, and I find waiting longer really makes a difference in how hot your sauna gets. If you want to really take things to the next level, now is when you would heat up a whole bunch of water. The reason for this is to extend the life of your hot rocks. If you pour cold water on them, they get cold fairly quickly and it can be a bit of a letdown after the initial rush of awesomeness. Using hot water instead of cold can make your sauna session last twice as long.
Start your fire before you start building your sauna.
STEP 5: GAMETIME
Ok so your rocks have been heating up for about an hour now, and you should be able to see the hottest ones glowing red. If not, don’t worry. You’ll still have a good sauna. But just know that it could potentially be so much better.
Dismantling the fire to get the hot rocks out.
At this point you should have everyone get into the sauna and settle in. One person should be responsible for dismantling the fire and bringing all the hot rocks into the sauna. You can do this with a shovel if you have one, or with a spare pot. Be careful… These rocks are no joke! After all the rocks are in, seal up your tarp structure and start to slowly pour water onto your pile of rocks. Side note: you need at least 4 litres of water. The hotter your rocks are, the longer your sauna will last, and the more water you’ll need. I tend to bring in about 10 litres if I can. Make sure you don’t just dump all your water on at once, otherwise it’ll just get super steamy for a couple minutes and then your sauna will be over. In order to have the longest sauna you can, only dump on enough water to get the heat back up to the level you want. Every 30 seconds or so you’ll need to pour a little bit more on, but at least this way you can have a full 10 minute sauna!
STEP 6: JUMP INTO SOME WATER!