The ancient wellness practice of heat bathing has been around from time immemorial. And there’s no sign that that worldwide appreciation for sauna (pronounced "sow-nuh,") is slowing down. The ritual of simply relaxing in a hot tub of water or in a heated room continues to grow in popularity as more people are drawn to this peaceful method of cleansing from the inside out. For the most American proof there is, consider that even Walmart sells saunas now.
The sauna’s modern aesthetic and crisp natural touches have an enduring form of design that makes it just as appealing in your backyard as it does in a remote landscape. Fortunately, it’s never been easier to buy and install a sauna or sauna kit at home, delivering easy access to total rejuvenation whenever you like.
For the full rundown on all things sauna, read on as we answer common questions and dive into details in our comprehensive guide to owning a sauna at home. If you're simply looking for recommendations on the best outdoor sauna to buy, scroll on down to the bottom.
[For another ancient form of relaxation and wellness, check out our guide to wood fired hot tubs.]
What is a Sauna?
A sauna is a small or large room that uses mainly dry heat and some humidity to dramatically increase core temperature and perspiration in sauna users. An electric stove in the sauna heats up the room to an average temperature of 180 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit through ambient heat, in addition to a stone stove (sometimes the two are combined, other times they’re separated) that is used to increase humidity to up to 25-40% in a sauna by pouring water from a bucket and ladle over the hot sauna stones to create steam for further perspiration. Most saunas use a thermometer to measure the heat and a hygrometer to measure the amount of water vapor in the air. Saunas are versatile enough that they can be installed indoors or outdoors.
Depending on the size of the room, there is at least one bench in a sauna, sometimes two, with an ergonomic backrest where users can choose to sit lower for lower heat, or higher up to experience a hotter temperature since the radiant heat and humidity rise to the top of the sauna. The same idea goes for how close a user is in proximity to the sauna heater or stone stove.
Different Types of Sauna
There are several different types of saunas, of course. For the purpose of this guide, we’re focusing on the most popular home saunas, which vary in terms of heating method.
Traditional Finnish sauna - Hailing from Finland, the traditional Finnish sauna uses an electric heater, and sometimes, a wood stove, to create ambient heat. Moisture is involved to add humidity. It’s the most common modern home sauna you’ll find on the market today.
Dry sauna - A dry sauna is exactly the same as a traditional sauna, but it doesn’t use water to create a hotter, more humid atmosphere.
Infrared sauna - An infrared sauna differs from traditional saunas by using infrared heaters to emit infrared light that gives off enough ambient heat to heat up a sauna. The infrared heat will be lower—about 104-140 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it more comfortable for some. Indoor and outdoor infrared saunas are available.
Barrel saunas and cedar saunas are two popular styles of home saunas and home sauna kits that are defined more by their design rather than heating method.
An outdoor barrel sauna has a cylindrical shape with curved walls and sometimes a glass front or tempered glass door to take in the scenery. Adding a shingle roof will improve weatherproofing, as sometimes rainfall can sneak between the curved tongue and groove knotty pine or cedar slats. It’s appealing round design is a welcome departure from the typical boxy shape of many outdoor saunas and also efficient with heat distribution. For a cabin getaway, a two person barrel sauna is as dreamy as it gets.
Cedar saunas are another popular form of backyard saunas that are constructed with, surprise, cedar wood. The rustic clear western red cedar wood is durable, decay-resistant and holds up great against moisture, and beyond having a rich, earthy hue, is wonderfully aromatic during repeat sauna sessions. It’s not uncommon to find barrel cedar saunas that combine the best of both sweat bathing design worlds.
Wood Burning vs Electric Saunas
When considering a sauna for your home, cabin, cottage, etc, the power source is key. Wood burning saunas are fun and romantic, but can be a pain to monitor while they heat up (plus you have to be proficient at building fires and have quality firewood on hand). The experience of heating of your own sauna with wood you chopped is certainly one not to miss. And the smell of a fire while in a cedar sauna is impossible to beat.
But, electric saunas are efficient, fast, and can be used year round—even during "fire season" aka summer in most of the West these days. By relying on your conventional power grid, many electric heaters can be turned on remote with proprietary apps or simple smart outlets from Home Depot. Harvia makes both types of sauna stoves and is well regarded in the space.
What’s the History of Saunas?
Saunas originated in European countries with colder climates some 2,000 years ago — the traditional Finnish saunas preceded the Estonian, Russian, and Latvian sweat baths, and is the style of sauna that is still the most popular today.
Primitive and functional, they were built into a mound of earth and heated by a fireplace with sauna stones to throw water over. Over the years, the technology changed and designs evolved (you can even get your hands on a gondola converted into a sauna), but the traditional Finnish sauna remained as a way of life and ritual in Nordic and Scandinavian culture. Today, saunas are still considered a regular part of everyday life that improves wellbeing, promotes relaxation, and offers a communal space to gather and simply be. In public, sauna etiquette usually means being respectful of other bathers’ peace and quiet, always sitting on a clean towel, and of course, giving a nod or grunt if you fancy pouring more hot water over the sauna stone.
What are the Health Benefits of Saunas?
A single sauna session is typically 8-15 minutes long, just enough time to thoroughly heat up the body’s core temperature to increase circulation and heart rate. This inherently improves cardiovascular health and brings fresh blood flow throughout the entire body. Not only does the bump in circulation and heat relieve muscle tension, but it has been proven to lower blood pressure and enhance mood, which can inadvertently boost immunity.
Like any good sweat, the perspiration acts as a deep cleanse for the skin, giving regular steam sauna users a healthy glow. It’s recommended to enjoy a few rounds of sauna, with 10 minute breaks in between for water, cooling off, showering or even cold plunging, before going back for another session.
How do I Buy and Install a Sauna?
There are two options for purchasing your own home or backyard sauna: prefab saunas (professionally designed, precisely cut, and partially assembled upon delivery) or a custom-made sauna. While a custom sauna provides much more freedom for fitting a sauna into your space, thanks to modern day designs, a prefab sauna kit can be relatively easy to install.
Whether it’s an indoor sauna or an outdoor sauna, the primary factors to consider before buying is how much usable space is available, the flooring or foundation, and electricity. Indoor saunas need a good waterproof floor or foundation, and enough space for the sauna itself, as well as room for a tempered glass door or wooden door to swing open. For an electric stove, it’s essential to make sure that the sauna has adequate and safe electric hookups.
Before buying an outdoor sauna kit, check with your local legislation to make sure you’re aware of regulations, building codes, or permits that might be required. Without the concern of making it fit into an indoor space, the top priority for installing a freestanding outdoor sauna is finding a safe and reliable source of power for the electric stove and lighting. No matter what you decide to buy, always check in with the manufacturer for a comprehensive plan and installation information.
From traditional wooden sauna bucket and felt sauna hat to luxe bath robes, 100% cotton towels, essential oils, and maybe even a bluetooth speaker, what you bring with you to sauna is your choice—and capable of really improving your experience. See our full list of recommended sauna accoutrement in our new sauna accessories guide here.
8 Outdoor Saunas of All Shapes & Sizes (Yes, Including Barrel Saunas) You Can Buy Right Now
Whether purchasing for your home's backyard or to elevate the coziness of a cabin in the woods, a sauna is an investment you won't regret making. Of course, the style, size, and type of sauna that's right for you will depend on many different factors. Do your due diligence. In the meantime, the following are our top picks for the best home saunas, selected to offer a variety of styles. Enjoy!
The Backcountry Hut Company
This freestanding prefab outdoor sauna can easily fit four people and is crafted in British Columbia from sustainably sourced clear cedar and clad in a durable stainless steel. But the best part? It's plug-and-play design is delivered on a flatbed truck ready to connect to your existing electrical system and fire up. No assembly required. The high design and easy of use comes with a similarly elevated price tag—order yours for ~$35,000 USD. (Read more about the Canadian Backcountry Hut Company here.)
Dundalk Leisure Craft
What an epic name, Leisure Craft. Available in a range of sizes and styles, we especially love the panorama barrel sauna for its aesthetic design, efficiency, and of course, big bubble window that invites the outdoors in. Each USA-made kit is made from durable western red cedar and arrives ready to assemble in 4-6 hours with minimal tools. Prices start at $4,000 USD and work up to ~$13,500 for larger models.
Almost Heaven Saunas
Made in the US since 1977, this aptly named manufacturer offers a range of indoor and outdoor saunas with some of the more accessible prices we've seen. The 4-person sauna with covered front porch with seats is out our top pick—currently on sale for $7,275 down from $14,000. Most designs are compatible with both wood-burning stove or electric as a heating source.
Redwood Outdoors Cedar Cube Sauna Kit
Redwood Outdoors offers a beautiful selection of home saunas in a range of shapes, sizes, and costs. Of course, their classic barrel sauna with panoramic window is great. But we’re especially loving this funky cedar cube sauna kit. Designed to be easy build by just a couple of people in an afternoon with minimal tools, the unique Canadian cedar cube sauna comes with a Harvia electric heater that can heat up to 195 F in under an hour. The shape is efficient, elegant, and fits up to six people. The cube sauna sells for $8,999 USD. (Use Code "FIELD250" for $250 off orders $3,500+.)
BZB Cabins and Outdoors
BZB’s large selection of prefabricated cabin, sauna, and hot tub kits lets you choose from a classic barrel sauna, oval cabin sauna, igloo-shaped sauna, even a spacious two-room sauna and a portable sauna on wheels. The Estonian company offers customizations and even a rental service for those who want to try out a sauna for the day. Prices start at $5,850 USD.
For an extremely luxe option, these sleek prefab saunas are available with a wood fired or electric heating source and are clad in high-quality cedar on the interior and a black cedar siding on the exterior. The Aire+ is big enough to fit six people, plus, the a small porch with an overhang for cooling off, or an option to add a shower. The price is $47,000 USD.
Hudson Valley-based Den caters to those looking for a more DIY approach to the sauna experience, offering sauna plans for those looking to build their own. Best part is, plans start at just $199 and are styled in the same sleek modern design as their A-Frame cabin plans. The Den sauna features separate changing and sauna rooms and is configurable for on or off-grid locations, and does not include the additional cost of materials and labor.
An igloo-esque shape puts a fun and unique twist on the typical sauna design. Available in a single, double, or triple size, you can also customize your sauna by choosing the interior and exterior paint color as well as the heat source. Starts at $12,000 USD.