I like to play a little game with myself at Alaska social gatherings where I note the moment the conversation veers toward Costco. Typically, especially with people who don’t know each other well, the conversation starts with weather, shifts to common activities, then beelines to what is loved and missed on the shelves of every Alaskan’s favorite shopping destination.
In Palmer, where I live, things get really feisty when the discussion about the new Fred Meyer parking lot gets going.
And, finally, if the drinks are strong enough and the crowd has stamina, we get into controversial territory.
Hot tubs versus saunas.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t have a strong opinion on this when I first moved to Alaska. Maybe it’s just a symptom of how inexperienced I was — in other places I’ve lived, where the temperature is more moderate, both of those things sounded equally nice. A hot room versus a hot pool? I liked them both, for different reasons.
Hot tubs were a more social experience. I liked them for the view, and I especially loved hot tubs when it was especially cold or snowy out. The contrast between the hot, roiling water and cool air swirling on my skin — especially when my hair got icy enough to pull into crazy shapes — was soothing and exciting. I had many boisterous, long evenings in hot tubs with great friends, conversation and wine.
Saunas were more meditative. I loved the dry smell and the enclosed feeling of being in a small, dimly lit room with the beautiful glowing aesthetic of wood paneling all around. It inherently felt great to sweat, and I enjoyed how clean I felt after a sauna. I also liked that saunas felt secret — little rooms tucked away somewhere in a house, gym or yard, with a door that swung shut against all the noise in the outside world.
Now, when an Alaska dinner-party conversation gets into hot tub-versus-sauna territory, proponents on both sides will fiercely argue the benefits of their preference as though they can convince the other party to see the light.
Hot tubbers argue that saunas are boring. You can’t see northern lights from inside a box.
Sauna-ists say hot tubs are disgusting. They often don’t get cleaned enough, and instead of feeling clean afterward it feels like you need a shower.
The truth is, at least in the confines of this column, the sauna people are on the right side of history. Saunas are better.
Maybe I say this because a friend recently completed building his dream sauna in his backyard. It took years, donated materials, the help of friends and family (I like to take credit for the key role I played in taunting him that I looked forward to Sauna 2025, to motivate his progress) and of course some quality-control testers. My husband and I have consistently volunteered our services.
Now, like a true sauna snob, I use the term both as a noun and a verb. “What are you doing tonight, Alli?” “Oh, I’m going to the sauna to sauna.”
The benefits? Clearly, stress relief, and then not-so-clearly the many claims that saunas are good for immunity, cardiovascular health, pain relief and exercise recovery. Depending on the person, saunas are also known to be excellent for skin health. Hot tub benefits have significant overlap.
There’s also a claim that saunas assist with weight loss, although that seems to be because you lose buckets of water when you sit in a hot room and sweat. That water needs to be replaced, negating the weight loss. Still, it takes significant calories to keep up with increased blood flow caused by the heart working hard to cool your body down. During a sauna session of only 15 minutes, your heart rate can jump from a resting rate of about 55-60 to more than 100-150 beats per minute.
Of course, I scavenge for facts to support my claim that saunas are better than hot tubs because I want to be right about what I like. But at the end of the (cold) day, what I love about sauna-ing amounts to personal preference. I love the immediate, pervasive warmth. I love the dryness, the aesthetic of the wooden construction, and especially a crackling stove — although I will stoop to use an electric sauna, and though I haven’t ever tried an infrared I would be open to it.
I do see the appeal of hot tubs, and especially as a hot-springs enthusiast I like hot tubbing in certain situations. I don’t turn down invitations.
But when I have to choose a side during a heated dinner party conversation, I’m on Team Sauna.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.