Setting Up a Home Sauna and Cold Plunge

The most consequential purchase in my life in 2020? Installing a Finnish barrel sauna in my backyard in the Bay Area.

Over the past few years, I’ve been enjoying sauna more and more: Relishing hotels that offered them. Luxuriating in the steam room at the local Equinox gym several times a week. And making special treks to public saunas such as the Archimedes Banya in San Francisco or the vast Munich facility I visited last Christmas or bath houses in Turkey and Japan.

There’s something about sweating and then cold plunging — the contrast between the two — that I find incredibly relaxing and energizing.

Not that I’ve exactly made a new discovery here. Sweat traditions have been around forever, from the Native American sweat lodges to the bathhouses of Russia, Turkey, Finland, Japan, and elsewhere. For hundreds of years, in every corner of the globe, people have purposively sweat in search of benefits such as basic relaxation, skin health, cardiovascular health, and more. Pick a desired health outcome and there’s certainly many anecdotes, maybe even a study, that supports sauna’s salutary effects. The timeless popularity of sauna has been complemented in most of these places by a recognition of the energizing power of contrast: high heat and then low cold. Sauna + jumping in a cold lake, for example.

So among the many unfortunate consequences of Covid-19, one that hit me especially hard: all the saunas and gyms are closed! It finally felt right to invest in getting my own sauna for my own backyard. After a bit of research, I purchased an outdoor barrel sauna from Almost Heaven Saunas.

The sauna arrived on a pallet, and a hired handyman assembled it in 5-6 hours. It’s a two-person sauna but it really just fits one person comfortably. An electrician had to run an upgraded power line out to connect to the Harvia heater inside the sauna — that took another half-day.

It’s beautiful:

In concert with the sauna, I bought a 150 gallon stock tank to serve as a cold plunge. I fill it up with garden hose water. No ice. It’s cold enough with simple hose water in the Bay Area. I put a little hydrogen peroxide in the water to keep it clean and empty it out every 10 days or so and re-fill with fresh water.  I haven’t done a DIY freezer set up yet; nor splurged on a super expensive dedicated cold plunge. For now, it does the trick.

In the two months I’ve had the sauna, I’ve used it about every other day. It’s glorious. Routine: 10-15 mins in the sauna at 180-200 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold plunge for 2-3 minutes while slowing inhaling and exhaling. Sit and rest for a few minutes and stare up at the enormous redwood tree in my backyard. Drink water. Then sauna again. The “stare up at the enormous redwood tree” is a real step in the process. I really hadn’t fully appreciated its majesty before the sauna routine. There’s something about warming back up after a plunge, sitting in the recliner chair, and staring up that produces a light spiritual experience:

As I was preparing to receive the sauna, I read a great book called The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress and the Key to Human Resilience by Scott Carney. The wedge refers to the space between stimulus and response. For example, on the cold plunge experience: “At some point I told myself that it wasn’t cold that I was feeling on my skin; the muscle-tensing sensation caused by my environment was joy itself. This mental trick transmuted the entire experience. I consciously assigned a meaning to my sensations, and that alone made me more resilient.”

Scott takes a tour of different environments that produce stress and writes about their effect on the body. Among other things, Scott trained with Wim Hof.

Another excerpt from Scott:

“A person can choose a life path of muted sensations, avoiding pain and living indoors protected by a cocoon of technological comfort. That person can work a 40-hour work week, fully fund a retirement plan, carry acceptable insurance, dutifully pay taxes, have a few children and ultimately die comfortably in bed. This is the default life plan that many Americans follow.”

I also read Jesse Coomer’s e-book on cold exposure, which is a helpful overview of how to think about cold plunging and a cold practice in general.

If you’re getting interested in sauna, I’d recommend the Sauna Times, and the Sauna Talk podcast which is a delight to listen to for any sauna enthusiasts. If you’re interested in cold exposure, start by taking cold showers (do the last 1-2 minutes of your shower with just cold water) and focus on your breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Cold showers alone can be a tremendous boost to energy.

Some requests on my end:

  • I’m looking for tips on good sand timers (clocks) that won’t melt or get stuck inside the sauna. The one I bought has sand that’s jammed.
  • I’m interested in doing a sauna tour in Finland (or elsewhere). I.e. spend a week traveling and check out different saunas/bathhouses in the country. Any suggestions welcome.
  • If any entrepreneurs want to create a Soho House like business for sauna, let me know. Or a D2C business that involves sauna or cold plunges. Americans are slowly waking up to sauna and I bet there will be some interesting businesses built in the space.

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