Building a Backcountry Sauna Deep in the Mountains

Outdoor sauna in Canada's backcountry

As any outdoor enthusiast will attest, there’s something about spending the day exerting yourself in nature, that can leave your soul feeling satiated and your body utterly depleted. 

Muscles you didn’t know existed ache in a sort of masochistic pleasure. You feel alive, whole, immersed in the physical. This is how humans are supposed to spend their time, you think to yourself, while simultaneously wishing for a way to soothe your tired body.

Only, you’re in the backcountry about a gazillion miles from civilization. All you can do is sit around the campfire with your friends and reflect on the epic day you just had.

All told, that’s not the worst way to spend the evening. But, what if you could stretch out in a sauna after a day of solid hiking or skiing? Hopping out occasionally to dive into an icy lake.

The centuries old practice of sauna bathing is well known for its myriad health benefits. Post-exercise, it can be wonderfully rejuvenating for tired muscles. Even more so when coupled with a cold plunge.

As a long time advocate of hot/cold therapy, Kris, Nootka’s head honcho and chief imagineer, thought having a backcountry sauna to dive into after skiing would be just the ticket. 

Heli-Sauna-Skiing: What Inspired This Crazy Idea?

Kris and his cohort joked that it would be really amazing if a sauna could be flown up to a mountain peak and enjoyed from on high. But, as his friends keep learning, you can’t make a throwaway statement around Kris and expect him to forget about it. 

Kris likes to build stuff and when an idea takes hold, you can either follow him or miss out on all the fun. And let’s face it, nobody wants to miss out on the fun. 

What followed was an epic project involving a sketch, some basic math and a trip to Home Depot, and ended with a group of friends enjoying a sauna at the top of Mt. Currie after some first class skiing. 

5 Tips for Building an Outdoor Sauna

If all this talk of sauna bathing in the backcountry has you jonesing for your own sweat box, Kris has five tips for building an outdoor sauna from scratch. 

For non-DIY types, we’ve included a list of out of the way lodges with saunas further down. (We won’t be offended if you skip ahead.)

1. Preparation Is Key

Take your time preparing for the build. It can be tempting to rush this phase to get to the fun part of actually building the sauna. Resist the urge. Measure twice, cut once, as the saying goes. 

2. Choose Your Wood Carefully

Assess the wood carefully. Inspect each piece to ensure it’s not warped or bowed and that it’s as free from knots as possible. Clear cedar is the best, although your pocket might not agree.

3. Use the Correct Tools

Given the size of the project, you’ll need tools that are up for the challenge. Even if you’re a passionate DIYer with a fully kitted out workshop, it’s still advisable to hire an industrial router.   

4. Be Fire Smart

If you plan on using a wood-fired stove in your outdoor sauna you’ll need to check with your municipality to see if you need a permit. A fire extinguisher is also a must.

5. Bonus Points for Upcycling 

Using recycled materials is beneficial for the environment and your budget. Things like the strapping, door, window and even the stove can be sourced second hand with a bit of sleuthing.

Backcountry Lodges and Cabins With Saunas

Amiskwi Lodge: a backcountry lodge with a wood fired sauna in Alberta, Canada

Not everyone wants to build their own sauna. And of those that possess the desire and the woodworking smarts to attempt it, the chances of having a helicopter friend who’ll tote your new toy to [insert your favourite backcountry destination] are pretty much zero. 

Which is why we took it upon ourselves to round up a list of backcountry lodges that have a sauna for tired, muscle-weary guests. You’re welcome.

Whitecap Lodge – Pemberton, BC

Located near Whistler — not too far from Mt. Currie where Kris and co. enjoyed their own backcountry sauna — Whitecap Alpine is a dream destination for outdoor enthusiasts. 

From alpine and tree skiing to summer trekking and mountaineering, there’s no shortage of choices for the adventurous spirit. And what better way to end off a long day in the mountains than by relaxing in their sauna. 

Perched on a large boulder within a glacial lake at over 6000 ft, you can take in the views and revel in the fact that tomorrow you’ll be out there again.  

Assiniboine Lodge – Canmore, AB

Built in 1928, Assiniboine Lodge was North America’s first backcountry ski lodge. The lodge is conveniently located 26 kilometres from the nearest road and is accessible only by helicopter, hiking or skiing. 

While completely off-grid, Assinboine Lodge is not without its creature comforts. Guests can look forward to daily guided hiking and ski touring, homemade hearty food, warm showers and a very welcome sauna at the end of the day.

Amiskwi Lodge – Canmore, AB

Also in Canmore, Alberta, Amiskwi Lodge lies within walking distance of Assiniboine Lodge on the Yoho National Park boundary. At 2,104 metres (6,900 ft), you can expect some truly spectacular scenery while hiking, skiing and snowboarding. 

A self-guided and self-catered lodge, Amiskwi has all the amenities you need, the most notable of which is a wood fired sauna.

Blanket Glacier Chalet – Monashee Mountains, BC

Blanket Glacier Chalet offers rustic comfort for those looking for an all inclusive backcountry experience. Access to this remote chalet is via helicopter only. While completely off-grid, they’ve covered the basics to ensure a happy stay. 

Certified and experienced guides, private dorm-style sleeping accommodations, all the food you can eat and, wait for it, a 10-person wood-fired sauna replete with a change room and a shower with hot and cold water.

Mistaya Lodge – Golden, BC

Nestled deep in the Canadian Rockies, Mistaya Lodge offers the ultimate trifecta of comfort, solitude and alpine adventure. Surrounded by pristine peaks, glaciers, and alpine meadows, the helicopter access lodge is perfect for hiking, guided ski touring, snowshoeing and mountaineering. 

At the end of each day there’s a welcome sauna to look forward to, a place to put up your feet and a delicious home-cooked meal to satiate the appetite you worked up on the slopes. Backcountry bliss.

Portable and DIY Saunas for Camping

Camping at night in the wilderness

If you can’t see your way clear to building a barrel sauna from scratch and don’t live in close proximity to the lodges mentioned above, then perhaps you’d like to try your hand at setting up a portable camping sauna.

With both store-bought and DIY options available to you, enjoying your very own adventure sauna might not be that much of a stretch after all. Which one you choose will depend on your budget and the amount of work you’re willing to put in.

Building a Temporary Camping Sauna

It’s worth noting upfront that going this route is time-consuming and not without effort. In other words, you have to really want it. 

Other than the tarp, you’ll be sourcing everything else you need from your surroundings. Some people use tent poles for the structure, while others prefer using whatever nature has made available.

Your camping sauna needs to be near water and as close as possible to where you’ll be heating the rocks. If the terrain is dry, nix the project. The last thing you want is to cause a fire.

Next, you’ll need to start a fire (preferably in an existing pit) and then collect rocks to heat up. When selecting rocks, be sure not to use any that are wet. As the guys at Roark learned the hard way, they have a nasty habit of exploding.

While the rocks are heating, it’s time to build your sauna shelter. Erect the tent poles (or whatever you’re using for the frame) and then drape the tarp over and secure it to the ground. Don’t make it too big or it won’t heat up nicely.

When the rocks are well heated, transfer them (carefully) to the structure and put more on the fire so you have them on hand when the first round cools down. Strip down as far as you want, get inside and seal the door.

This is the part you’ve been waiting for. Pour water on the rocks and revel in the bliss of it all. When it gets too hot, as it invariably will, hop out and take a dip in the river. 

Remember to drink plenty of water. You don’t want to ruin an amazing experience by dehydrating yourself. And don’t overstay your welcome, either. It can be tempting to stay in there for long periods of time but it’s not advisable from a health perspective.

For a more in depth guide on building a camp sauna, British Columbia Magazine has a camp sauna how-to. Overhang Adventures also has some tips for making a camp sauna that you should find helpful.

Portable Tent Saunas That Will Have You Reaching for Your Credit Card

If the thought of channelling Bear Grillis just to have a sauna is too much, you’re going to love these portable tent saunas. Granted, a tent sauna does sound like more of a toy when compared to your classic cedar barrel sauna.

But, Outside Online (the magazine that consistently delivers world class adventure journalism) reviewed one of them and came back with some pretty decent feedback.

The Russian-made Morzh held up well in the midst of a Chicago blizzard. On one of the coldest days (-6 degrees and negative double digits windchill), the ambient temperature in the tent hit 200 degrees (F) in half an hour.

Weighing in at 56.2 pounds (including the stove) it’s not too out there to think you could hike it into a remote corner of backcountry wilderness with some friends. It’s not ‘break the bank’ expensive either. According to Outside, the price starts at $659. 

Closing Thoughts on the Subject of Backcountry Saunas

We’ve certainly given you lots to think about in this post. Whatever your budget, skill level or desired comfort factor, there are plenty of sauna options out there. There is, however, one other route you can take and that’s a barrel sauna kit.

Sauna kits are great. They’re a step up from the DIY or portable camping sauna and a lot less challenging than going the ‘from scratch’ route. Think of it as the Goldilocks option. 

If that sounds appealing to you, get in touch with us and we’ll tell you more about them. Alternatively, browse our FAQs for more information.

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