Hugo resident brings portability to a popular wellness practice.
In these long winter months, Minnesotans are known to embrace the cold. Polar plunges, ice baths and cold showers are all common wellness practices. And often, these routines are paired with something a bit more enjoyable to the broader public: the sauna.
First brought to America by the Finns, the sauna has been a part of cultural life in various northern climes for more than 2,000 years. As technology and lifestyle have rapidly evolved in recent decades, sauna-lovers continue to redefine the practice.
Hugo resident Eric Simmons has spent the last five years developing a portable wood-fired sauna. The resulting Skylight Sauna Tent is an insulated pop-up model that offers a 200-degree sweat. This increasingly popular type of wood-fired sauna provides an accessible and affordable way to get into the practice—and share it with your friends and family—without committing to a permanent structure.
Simmons often keeps his tent up in his backyard to use in the evenings, but it’s also become a mainstay on family excursions. “If we go out on a camping trip with other families, everybody loves the sauna tent coming along,” Simmons says. “It’s been a new avenue to stay connected with friends.”
Embracing the North
A lifelong Minnesotan, Simmons had his first exposure to saunas as a college student at University of Minnesota-Duluth. He soon discovered his love for the sauna practice for both its social and health benefits—as a “destresser” and post-workout ritual. After a close friend purchased a Russian-made pop-up sauna tent in 2018, Simmons was inspired to create his own version for the booming Midwest sauna community.
It took years of researching, making modifications, branding and finding manufacturers before Ox Sweat Sauna officially launched in July 2023. From sewing stove pipe holes in ice house tents with his grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine to finally finding manufacturers, it’s been a long and exciting process of learning. Simmons says, “I’ve learned on the fly as I’ve needed to here. I would say it still feels really small, but it seems like there’s a lot of interest.”
Meeting on the Bench
For Simmons, a single father of two young daughters with a full-time job in school administration, Ox Sweat Sauna provides an enjoyable means to share his love of saunas with his community. “To me, that’s the most meaningful part, the opportunity to ‘meet on the bench,’” he says “ … You don’t have your cell phone on you; it’s just fun to meet new people and chat with people in that way.”
On a recent weekend camping trip to Prescott, Wisconsin, with his college friends and their families, Simmons says he enjoyed seeing how the pop-up sauna tent provided a means to connect in a deeper way. “The sauna was running all day Saturday, all of Friday night. I felt like I was able to have a closeness with friends. I got to hear about how friends are doing in life,” Simmons says. “We’re all years and years outside of college … and I learned a lot more and got a lot closer with those friends.”
Even his daughters are learning to love the sauna in short bursts, though Simmons thinks they most enjoy setting up the tent as a fort. They even help with fulfillment, putting stickers on boxes in the garage that serves as the Ox Sweat Sauna headquarters. “My girls gave me a wood sign with the Ox Sweat logo on it and their handprints on the back for Father’s Day [last] year,” Simmons says. “They told me that we needed a store sign, and that was my first insight into what my kids are taking away from this sauna tent work.”
While Simmons is still figuring out his long-term goals for Ox Sweat Sauna, he says he’s excited for the opportunities—in business and community connection—to come: “I’m hoping that the sauna tent business grows, and that I’m able to grow along with it.”
Sweating Like an Ox
Wondering how a portable wood-fired sauna works? The process is straightforward. Simmons says, “A lot of people use these on a regular basis at home, and a lot of people use these to go out and adventure in some very beautiful places in nature.”
The tent: Made with two layers of denier fabric with synthetic insulation to hold in heat, the tent includes a stove jack with a silicone and fiberglass material that is heat resistant. The four-person tents are 6 feet by 6 feet and 7 feet tall.
The stove: The suitcase-style sauna stove is fully portable, with a chimney that comes apart in six sections, foldable legs and handles on both ends of the stove. It weighs in at just under 50 pounds and can heat up to 200 degrees within 20 minutes.
To use: Make sure to select a location that’s flat, stable and away from anything flammable. “Set up the tent a safe distance away from any buildings or trees,” Simmons says. “You’re burning wood, so it’s a good idea to be aware of your surroundings.” Bring rocks to lay on top of the stove’s grate, kindling and dry hardwood to light the fire. “Five-gallon buckets work well to carry wood and rocks, and two of them can also double as a sauna bench with a 2 by 6 [foot] board on top,” Simmons says. Inside temperature can be controlled by adjusting ventilation and the amount of wood burning.
This history of the sauna is layered. Nearly two millennia ago, the earliest versions of the sauna were winter pit dwellings dug into hills, where Scandinavians survived the brutal landscape by heating rooms with steam—a method that also sterilized the space. Over time, the practice became a ritualized hygienic and spiritual practice. The traditional Finnish sauna is the most common today, involving short exposures of five to 20 minutes alongside periods of cooling off and rehydration.
Today, the sauna is revered for its potential health benefits, including reduced risk of vascular and neurocognitive diseases and treatment of arthritis, headaches and cold symptoms.
Consult your primary care physician or other qualified healthcare provider to discuss sauna usage.