The New Wave of Social Saunas

Mobile saunas are reinventing spa culture, making them more accessible in the process. Proponents of this new trend ask us to consider whether laughter may be just as relaxing as silence.

Text—Gabrielle Anctil
Cover image—Fabrice Cloutier

In Slavic mythology, each sauna visit involves a risk: the wily spirit Bannik, who lives in the banya, or bathhouse. To stay in his good graces, visitors must respect certain rules: you must never rush, or drink alcohol, and you should leave behind an offering of clean water, soap, and bundled birch branches.

Though they’re not usually policed by a wrathful spirit, the rules of contemporary saunas are not so different. They generally require that you bask in the steam quietly or in silence. While this rule once reflected a spiritual practice, today it’s often intended to promote relaxation.

But our days of sweating in silence may be numbered. Following a growing trend in Europe, North American saunas may soon reverberate with lively conversation. These big changes owe a lot to the rise of mobile saunas, a more freewheeling way to steam.

Saltwater Sauna, photo: George Cory

Sweating socially

There has been a sauna boom in Europe in recent years. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Norway, steamy cabins are popping up on the shores of lakes and rivers and in other public areas. In Oslo, floating saunas are all the rage among workers, who use their lunch breaks to take a steam and a plunge into the icy waters of the Norwegian capital’s harbourfront. You can easily find DIY instructions online for everything from building a backyard sauna from scratch to converting horse trailers into steam rooms on wheels.

But in Finland, love of the sauna is nothing new. It’s common there to spend the evening sweating it out with your family, friends, or colleagues. Want to catch up with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while? Chances are you’ll meet at the sauna. The Finns have even installed a sauna in their embassy in Washington — and it’s no surprise that the diplomatic events they hold are among the most popular in the U.S. capital.

Fire Salt Sea, photo: George Cory
Beach Box Brighton, photo: George Cory

Recently in the UK, small wooden sauna cabins on wheels have become immensely popular. These mobile saunas are built from a range of repurposed objects including old horse trailers, caravans, and buses, allowing them to be moved about as the seasons change or as their owners wish.

On Aberdeen Beach in northern Scotland, you can sometimes find the Haar Sauna. It was built and is operated by primary school teacher Callum Scott, who found an old horse trailer and decked it out in a locally sourced larch exterior cladding. “I wanted a sauna for the seaside, but also for touring the snowy mountains and coastal towns,” he told the Guardian in 2022. “I especially love the social aspect. It’s a safe space to meet friends in a relaxed atmosphere.”

In these lands rich in taverns, saunas are becoming “the new pub,” in the words of British author Caitlin Morgan.

Solstice Sauna, photo: Fabrice Cloutier

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Going the distance

On this side of the Atlantic, saunas are booming as well. “The Nordic spa industry is thriving in Québec. There are about 40 in the province,” says Frédérik Nissen, co-founder of Solstice Sauna, a mobile sauna stationed this winter on a beach in North Hatley, in the Eastern Townships, with plans to relocate come summer.

As soon as the first snowflakes have fallen, skiers race for the slopes, snowshoers make for the trails, and those who like to keep it cozy curl up next to the nearest window with hot chocolate and a good book. Saunas are one of many ways to enjoy our Northern climate and cold winters. Often situated outside the city, they allow for a direct connection with nature — especially when paired with a post-steam dip in an icy creek.

Solstice Sauna, photo: Gaëlle Royer

“When the weather is good, people linger outside and soak up some vitamin D,” says Nissen. “You don’t have to fly south to enjoy the sun!” What purer way to experience winter temperatures than lounging half-naked outdoors in January? When the cold air gets to be too much, you can always nip back inside to take in the landscape through the window, seated on a warm wooden bench.

Nissen wants to create steamy spaces where chatting is permitted, even encouraged, as it is in the UK’s mobile saunas. In Québec’s Nordic spas, there are generally rules against talking in order to ensure a peaceful atmosphere. But at Solstice Sauna, which opened in December 2022, there’s no need to whisper. According to Nissen, visitors haven’t been shy to take advantage of the opportunity to share some laughs while relaxing as a group.

A third home

While not all sauna sessions should be a party, the idea is to create a space where we can gather with friends outside our households and have unexpected run-ins, just as we might at a café, restaurant, or bar. “But unlike bars, saunas are good for your health,” adds Nissen. Studies show that going to a sauna a few times a week offers many benefits, including improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Social saunas recall the idea of the “third place,” a concept coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s. Third places are locations other than home and work that are financially accessible — they have to be free or cheap — and where conversation is the primary activity.

Solstice Sauna, photo: Fabrice Cloutier
Solstice Sauna, photo: Fabrice Cloutier

Thanks to decades of austerity and the accelerating effects of the pandemic, third spaces have been disappearing. Might these revamped saunas offer an alternative to bars, where tipsiness tends to foment ties? For the price of two pints, you can enjoy the perfect place to meet a stranger and chat for a few minutes, or a few hours, before heading home buoyed by new friendships.

“After a visit, someone once told me that every village should have its own public sauna,” says Frédérik Nissen. As saunas become more common, more people will be able to enjoy their benefits.

And as we wait for mobile saunas to become easily accessible to all, we’ll have to settle for seeking out these new salons ourselves. It’s a good idea to stay hydrated in the heat, so let’s raise a glass of water to the Finnish saying: all people are created equal, but nowhere more so than a sauna.

Gabrielle Anctil is an independent journalist. You can hear her on Moteur de recherche; read her words in Québec Science, BESIDE, and Continuité; and see her on Bataille pour la forêt (Savoir Média). She is the author of Loger à la même adresse, an essay published by XYZ. All year round, she can be found beaming on her bicycle.

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