The steps listed outline the methods for preparing a traditional Finnish sauna, something I observed from a local guide and later performed myself multiple times during a 7-day excursion in the Lapland area of northern Finland during the winter months.
The excursion itself centered around driving teams of dogs from point to point over a 200+ km journey, with stopping points each night at small cabins. This being the wilderness, there is no running water or electricity.
At each cabin there would be a small adjoining building housing a sauna. In place of showering, the sauna is used to clean oneself before retiring to bed.
Preparing the sauna for use involves gathering small bits of wood, often required to be split from logs supplied from a woodshed and using them to fire up the sauna’s stove. The heat from the stove subsequently heats up coals that, when water is poured over them, feed steam into the sauna. Given that the coals take approximately 45 minutes to heat properly, water is then gathered from an adjacent source, typically a lake (Finland’s marshy, water-dotted landscape provides ideal terrain for this).
By winter, however, this water is frozen many inches thick and covered in feet of snow. Therefore, retrieving the necessary amounts of water takes considerable effort:
A sled bearing three large buckets (around 3ft tall) is brought to a large hole in the ice that is left covered when not in use, preserving the hole from freezing shut. A heavy wooden pick with a metallic end (overall resembling a spear) is used to clear whatever thin layer of ice is in the way. The three buckets are then filled bit by bit (using smaller buckets) until full. Two buckets are brought to the sauna, the other to the cabin to be used for drinking water.
In the sauna, the two buckets of freezing lake water are set aside as sources for the coals and for personal washing. A metal kettle sitting over the stove is then filled to be brought to a boil.
The sauna itself is constructed almost entirely from wood, with the floorboards evenly spaced out as to allow water to seep through and be funneled outside. Two tiers of wooden benches line one side. Considering that hot air rises, choosing the higher or lower bench is a matter of heat preference. Water is then poured onto the now-hot coals using a wooden ladle. The more water is poured, the more steam is produced. And therefore, the room becomes hotter, prompting greater amounts of sweat from the body. How much water is poured is another matter of preference.
Finnish custom involves entering the sauna nude, often times with a beer. Sharing the space with others, men or women, is not considered a taboo, and conversation between occupants is a typical tool to pass the time more easily. However, communal occupancy is not entirely expected, as one may request individual privacy in the sauna to no insult.
When one is finished, often known once the body is completely covered in sweat (a process that generally takes 30 minutes), one then stands over the drainage floorboards and douses themselves with a mixture of the adjacent freezing lake water and boiling kettle water. Once the sweat is completely washed away, it is time to dry off, re-dress and return to the cabin. However, it is also another alternative Finnish custom to either jump in the lake (if safe and if there is a place to enter) or roll around in the snow, as opposed to dousing oneself with water.
Although the prevalence of the sauna is a mainstay of outsider’s perceptions of Finnish culture, understanding it as a substitute for showers/running water in wilderness areas illustrates a purpose originally rooted in practical function, not mere leisure (as the sauna’s centrality to luxurious spas in the Western hemisphere might initially lead one to believe). However, with the custom of drinking a beer or holding conversations while steaming, one could argue that the Finns have allowed a distinct concession of leisure to their system of bathing.