How to Make a Sweat Bath in the Wilderness

Want to build your own steam room in the wilderness? These simple instructions will tell you how to do so for relaxation or a thorough cleansing while roughing it. It's actually very easy and fun if done safely.


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    Select a suitable open area. Find a level spot, preferably rocky (to avoid a muddy mess), with enough space for a four-person (or larger) tent and a large fire several feet away. It should also be near a clear stream or pond if possible.
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    Cut the bottom off of an old dome tent. Leave a 6–12 inch (15.2–30.5 cm) border around the bottom so that the tent will hold its shape better when assembled.
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    Assemble the tent. Set it up the same as you would if it had a bottom. You may need to stack rocks at the corners of the tent to hold the poles in place.
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    Collect rocks. Find several large igneous rocks. DO NOT use rocks from a river or creek, as they WILL explode and burn your body badly. (see Warnings below)
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    Heat the rocks. Build a large fire several feet from the tent (see Warnings below). Once the fire has built up a lot of hot coals, place several of the rocks in the bed of coals and continue to fuel the fire around them for 30-45 minutes.
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    Build a rock-ring inside the tent. Make sure that nothing hot will touch the side of the tent or the people in it. (See Warnings.) Place a pan of cold water next to the rock ring.
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    Transfer the rocks. Use heavy leather work gloves and a pitchfork (or a sturdy camp shovel if no pitchfork is available) to remove the red-hot rocks from the fire pit and place them carefully into the rock-ring inside the tent. It's a good idea to sweep and/or blow on the stones to remove any ash, dust and embers that might go into the lodge and then into your lungs.
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    Get inside the tent. Zip it shut from inside, leaving a small air hole.
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    Make Steam. Pour water slowly over hot rocks to create steam. Repeat until the tent is hot and steamy. Enjoy your sweat bath for 15 - 20 minutes.
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    Bathe in cool water. (Optional) Exit your sweat bath and jump into a pool of clean, cool water and enjoy the marvelous cleansing effect. This may be the cleanest you'll ever feel in the wilderness, even without soap.


  • Adjust the humidity by sprinkling small amounts of water over the hot stones. Pouring too much water on at once might produce enough steam to cause severe skin burns, and will cool the stones on contact.
  • For an extra kick, collect wild herbs such as sage, and steep in the water before pouring over hot rocks. However, there may also be a risk posed by modern chemical pesticides. When sweet grass, cedar, or certain other plants are sprinkled on the hot rocks, any pesticides accumulated on them may be turned into airborne toxins. That would not be good.
  • If possible, build the sweat lodge on rocky but level ground, near a river if possible. This will help make the sweat lodge experience both safer and more enjoyable.
  • Use a rain fly or plastic tarp over the tent to help keep the steam inside as it builds up, but don't forget to leave an air hole.
  • Sit on a towel or mat for comfort and cleanliness.
  • If you want more heat, sit on your knees or squat - heat rises.
  • Due to some of the extra gear needed, it is best to do this when on a paddling, horseback, or car-camping wilderness trip. It's fun, but probably not worth carrying the extra gear yourself on a lengthy backpacking trip.
  • An alternative to using the old dome tent is to wrap a large tarp around a teepee frame of wooden poles. Use rocks to weight down the edges of the tarp and secure with cord to make as airtight as possible.


  • Be careful selecting rocks! Many Native Americans use volcanic rocks, but not other types (see below).
  • Remember to rehydrate with plenty of water.
  • Rocks which have been immersed in water for a long time can trap water inside them, which can cause the rock to explode when heated to high temperatures. Avoid using ANY rocks that have been soaking in river or streams.
  • It is very important to get fresh air into the tent; there have been cases of people not surviving in a sweat lodge due to having the tent closed up too tight.
  • Don't stay in the hot steam too long, as this can be dangerous past twenty minutes.
  • Be careful handling the hot rocks. Don't burn yourself or anything else in the process.
  • Be careful building a fire. Learn how to start a fire safely and properly.
  • Make sure you're not breaking any fire codes or other restrictions in the wilderness area where you are.
  • Avoid alcohol or heavy meals before entering steam bath.
  • Use only smooth, non-porous river rocks. Porous or cracked rocks could split and shatter from the extreme heat changes.
  • Be sure to return the rocks to the places where you found them to preserve the natural features of the setting and incredible pristine beauty of the wilderness.
  • Keep the fire far enough away from the tent to make sure it doesn't catch fire.

Things You'll Need

  • Old tent
  • Scissors
  • Smooth non-porous river rocks
  • Water pan
  • Heavy leather work gloves
  • Sturdy camp shovel
  • Fire starting materials and plentiful wood

Sources and Citations

  • Wikipedia entry on Native American sweat lodges - Although though Native Americans originally built sweat lodges for use as ceremonial saunas, these instructions do not cover that sort of sweat lodge. If you would like to build a sweat lodge for ceremonial purposes, you will need to follow a separate set of instructions.
  • Cyber Bohemia's Sweat Page - An extensive site about the history and health benefits of various styles of sweat baths from around the world.

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