Northern Ontario Sauna Culture

Brave the harsh temperatures for the ultimate reward of a hot, refreshing sauna.

Saunas can help to increase blood flow, reduce aches and pain, and alleviate stress. A sauna is a perfect reason to gather with friends on a blustery Friday night after a long wintery work week in the north. It’s widely known as a traditional Finnish activity, but lines on a map do not confine the sauna. The tradition has long since been carried over to North America, and we continue to embrace it here in Northeastern Ontario.

Traditionally, saunas are made with wood and feature a few benches for seating, a heat source, and hot rocks to pour water over. Photo: Carrie Graham

Picture this: The temperature outside is reading well below the freezing mark, and you’re walking through snow in flip-flops (or bare feet if you’re one with a wilder side) with nothing but a towel wrapped around your naked (or near-naked) body. Your teeth are chattering and your breath is fogging your vision. Why are you doing this? Because: sauna. Sauna culture in Northeastern Ontario is prevalent year-round, but especially in the winter. You brave the harsh temperatures for the ultimate reward of a hot sauna.

Dashing into the sauna, you lay down your towel on a warm cedar bench and sit. Inhaling deeply, you close your eyes. Feeling the warmth surrounding you and the hot walls pressing into your muscles, relaxation descends. A splash of water on the hot rocks of the stove gets them sizzling loudly, and you take another deep breath.

Pat Yawney takes a quick and 
very refreshing dip!

After a few minutes, it’s time to cool off outside. Some will jump into the hole that's been cut in the ice with a chainsaw in advance for a breathtaking polar plunge; others might romp in the snow, and some will stand or sit calmly outside for a less shocking cool down. There are different types of sauna-goers: those who crave the most extreme changes in temperature, and those who enjoy a smoother transition. After the cool-down, it’s time to get warm again.

Sauna 101

Saunas can get hot, so make sure you keep a few key safety factors in mind. Photo: Carrie Graham

If you don’t have a lot of experience with the sauna, there are some things you should know. Saunas can get very hot, so:

  • Don’t do it alone
  • Don’t overdo it—staying in too long can lead to fainting and extreme dehydration
  • Start on the bottom bench where the air is slightly cooler
  • Start with short visits at a time—a few minutes in, and a few minutes out; you can work your way up with more experience
  • Listen to your body—if you’re feeling overheated or dizzy, take a breather outside
  • Drink water

Personal experience has taught me that the sauna helps with congestion. If you’re sick, find a nearby sauna. The warm air provides nasal relief and its calming effect will stay with you all the way to bedtime. Many, myself included, have reported that saunas help with falling into a deep sleep, making for a more refreshed you the next morning.

what to Bring Into A Sauna

Water, a towel, and waterproof footwear are all important pieces of sauna gear to bring with you. Photo: Carrie Graham

If you’re going to a sauna, below are some suggested items to bring for a great experience:

  • Bathing suit
  • Bathrobe and/or towel
  • Plastic/rubber flip-flops or sandals
  • Water

These are your basic items. Many people sauna naked, but a bathing suit is perfectly appropriate. A towel is great for sitting on in the sauna and a bathrobe is great when you step outside for a slower cool down—but it is totally optional because as if you’re jumping into icy water, the robe is clearly not coming with. The robe is also a nice comfort when first walking out to the sauna, as are the sandals.

Additional items:

  • Music
  • Aromatic oils
  • Sauna whisk

These are optional and based entirely on preference. Often silence is the music of choice, however, there are times when music is a perfect compliment. Aromatic oils provide another source of relaxation and enjoyment. My scents of choice include eucalyptus (especially when battling a cold), effervescent wintergreen, and soothing peppermint. There are many options available at your local sauna supply store. Squeeze a small amount into your water scoop and splash on the rocks of your stove, follow with another splash or two of water. This will create a steamy, fresh atmosphere in your sauna.

Last is the sauna whisk, a Finnish tradition. The whisk is generally made of young birch branches that have been tied together and soaked. The whisk is used for massage. Lightly beat your back with it (or take turns doing this with a friend) to increase blood flow, cleanse the skin, and experience a variety of other benefits. Birch is most commonly used, but there are other varieties, and even tutorials online on how to make your own.

Where to Sauna 

The sauna at Elk Lake Wilderness Resort in Elk Lake

Northeastern Ontario offers many sauna opportunities. Enjoy a day out in the elements and follow it up with a hot sauna at any of our accommodations open year-round.


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