Finns like their summer places and villas. They call them summer cottages or summer cabins (kesämökki), or just cabins if the place can ve used during cold winter months. There are about 500,000 such places in the country of 175,000 lakes and 5.6 million people.
Some of these cabins are fancier with all amenities whereas some won’t have running water or electricity. The average size is only about 50m2 (500 sq ft) but some places are obviously bigger. However, it is safe to say that all these cabins feature at least one sauna. Typically the sauna is in a separate building by the lake and has a wood-fired stove. About 75% of these lakehouses are connected to the grid but only about 15% of them have a running water and a sewer so the drinking water is often brought in canisters (50% of cases). This as such sets certain requirements for saunas too. A wood-fired stove with a connected water heater is often the only viable combo.
This blog introduces one such place and talks a bit about sauna and cabin culture in Finland. After all, when Finns are asked what they did at their summer cabin during their vacation, most say that they saunaed a lot.
Chopping firewood is one of the popular chores at a summer place. There’s always something to do: harvesting the forest, cutting logs, chopping firewood, drying it, you name it. There are many uses for this firewood. You typically use birch for heating a fireplace because it provides more energy and doesn’t have resin (doesn’t crackle). Pine and spruce can be burned as well and they make great sauna firewood for summer when you don’t necessarily need all that heating energy. Then you obviously cook on fire or make lumberjack’s candles (often translated as Swedish torch, what a shame) or nying (rakovalkea in Finnish).
It is quite common that saunas at these summer places are built in separate buildings. This is partly because you were often allowed to build a sauna building closer to a lake but had to build the main building a litte bit further up the hill. Needless to say, some saunas like this one here has amazing location and view to the lake.
Another thing you’ll notice that the seats are almost always about 4-5 feet from the ceiling so your head will be close to the ceiling. This is because ideally you should keep your feet at the level or the top of the heater or above. Also, the hot steam goes up in the sauna so you want to keep your upper body as close to the ceiling as possible. I’ve seen many 8 ft high saunas in the U.S where the feet are kept on the floor and you have easily more than 4ft space above your head. That is waste if space: always build the seat as high up as you can for perfect löyly.
Shower and Other Amenities
The most common way to shower in these saunas is to dip in a lake. In winter you have to get an ice saw to make a hole through the ice. Chainsaw is handy for this job too.
Most saunas also have a water heater attached to the stove. You bring cold water from the lake or from a well to the sauna and mix it with boiling water to rinse after the sauna.
Lake water is not good to pour on the stones because it tends to smell and make the room dirty so always use either drinking water, raining water, water from a well or melt the water from snow. Generally speaking, the warmer the löyly water, the better: ice-cold water cools down the rocks pretty easy. I always place the löyly bucket on the seat whenI start heating up the sauna.
Temperature and Construction
Many of these saunas have log walls. These logs suck a lot of heat so you need to size the stove accordingly: 8m3 sauna needs a 12m3 heater. Similarly, if there are many windows or a big glass door, you’ll need a bigger stove. Harvia provides a nice calculator on their site to find the right stove.
As mentioned, saunaing is often the main hobby at the cabin. People usually do all kinds of chores during the day and then just go to sauna and eat in the evening. This is why many people don’t want a scorching hot 100°C sauna but rather spend more time in a 70-degree room chatting. People have different preferences though. The Finnish way tends to be a bit lower temperature but more intense steam. In winter time, many want to pour even more water so that everyone is basically forced to leave the sauna and plunge in a frozen lake.
Some friendly competition on who can take the most steam is always fun (we don’t sign waivers, btw) but generally sauna is not a competition. Except that it was in Finland for about ten years in the early 2000’s but that did not end well.
Cabin saunas are not always the best saunas in Finland. They surely are often idyllic and have a great location but many saunas made in the 60’s and 70’s are poorly ventilated and therefore the steam doesn’t flow as it should. I have always personally preferred sauna buildings made out of logs because they tend to breathe better. You still want to make sure that the draining and ventilation is well done. In the picture below, you can see one solution to bring fresh air in the room through an additional ventilation pipe. Small things like that can make a bit difference. In the same picture you see a typical floor in a Finnish sauna: sloped concrete and a drain. There is always a drain because we wash ourselves often in a sauna especially in winter. You don’t want to make that concrete floor and ice rink in winter or leave that water standing in summer.
How to experience a Finnish mökkisauna?
As with anything, if you know the right people you will always get the best travel experience. Many Finns like to keep their summer places quite private but many Finns also like to invite friends to their cabin. You can also rent these cabins in two ways. Firstly, many camping areas have cabin next to each other. Great choice if you want to hang out with strangers. There are also websites like huvila.net and lomarengas.fi to look up rental cabins that are sometimes more isolated and authentic. I’m sure there’s something on AirBnB and similar too.