If you’ve traveled to Canada, any Scandinavian country, or even a trendy hotel in Alaska, you may have noticed a new trend: Nordic spas. They’re the latest trend in wellness — and in aprés-ski, if you’re in Canada — and are all about easy self-care.

But what the heck are they?

If you take a look at social media images of Nordic spas, you’ll get the sense that they’re just huge hot springs, and that’s not totally wrong. Most Nordic spas are large facilities with outdoor several hot pools, several cold pools, with plenty of spaces to warm up and relax scattered throughout. They’re based on a principle of hot and cold hydrotherapy that dates way back to the Greeks, and likely before that. The idea is that by exposing your body to extremes — extreme heat, followed by extreme cold — you’ll give a mini shock to your system. Depending on who you ask, that experience can release endorphins, help soothe sore muscles, and even make your immune system a bit stronger.

If that sounds good, or at least sounds interesting, then here’s everything you need to know about nordic spas vs. regular spas, along with how to properly use a nordic spa to make sure you look like a pro on your very first visit.

What does a Nordic spa look like?

An overview of the outside spa complex

Photo: Scandinave Spa Whistler // Justa Jeskova

In the US, a spa usually means an indoor facility with multiple treatment rooms where trained professionals offer massages, facials, and other (usually expensive) body and skin treatments. High-end spas may have hot tubs, outdoor pools, or steam rooms and saunas, but those aren’t the spa’s focus — people are coming for one of the treatments. But at a Nordic spa, sometimes called a Scandinavian spa, the focus is on the facilities, not treatments (though those may be available).

Usually, you’ll arrive in the lobby and check in, where you’ll be given a towel and directed to the locker rooms. The locker rooms will usually lead to the outdoor spaces, including at least one hot therapy pool (heated likely to around 104 degrees Fahrenheit) and a cold pool, which will feel akin to a cold lake in the middle of January. There will also be some warm areas to relax, like a sauna, outdoor fire pit, solarium, steam room, or all of the above.

What do I wear?

people in robes sitting around a fire pit

Photo: Scandivane Spa Whistler // Justa Jeskova

While in the US, it’s common to go nude and walk around in just a robe, swimsuits are required at Nordic spas. This is because you’re sharing the hot and cold pools, steam rooms, and lounges with everyone else at the spa, which is likely dozens of people at any given time. It’s not like being in a US spa where the only guests will be the three or four people with appointments around the same time as you. It’s also polite to wear flip-flops or sandals when walking around, and you’ll almost certainly want to wear the spa-provided fluffy robe when you’re outside. Pools at Nordic spas always have hooks and storage areas nearby for everything you don’t want to take in the pool.

What’s the Nordic spa process?

The first part of the nordic spa experience is focused on heat

Photo: Scandinave Spa Whister // Chomlack Photo

At a spa in the US, the procedure is fairly standard: check in for your appointment, use the spa facilities if you’ve arrived a little early, then wait in the lounge for your service provider to tell you they’re ready. But at Nordic spas, the process is more at your leisure.

After checking in, you’ll be directed to the locker rooms, where you’ll need to rinse off and change into your swimsuit. Then, head outside and begin the hydrotherapy cycle: 15 minutes or so in a hot pool (some urban Nordic spas may instead only have a sauna), followed by a 10-to-15 second plunge in a cold pool, followed by at least 15 minutes of warm relaxing. At large spas, like the Scandinave Spa in Whistler, BC, you can combine those 15 minutes between outdoor fire pits, solariums, saunas, or warm indoor lounges. While it may be tempting to jump right back into the hot pool after walking out of the cold pool, the period of relaxation is not to be skipped. It’s the time during which your body recovers from the hot-to-cold shock. Your heart rate needs time to reset, as does your internal temperature and circulatory system.

You’ll repeat the hot-cold-relax process two or three times, which means you should plan on spending at least two hours at the spa.

Is it hard to do?

cold water waterfall at a nordic spa

Photo: Scandinave Spa Whistler // Justa Jeskova

It’s not hard, but you will probably have to fight the urge to jump out of the cold water pool too soon, especially during your first plunge. There will likely be a clock near the pool, so just keep your eyes on the time and power through — 15 seconds may sound like a long time, but it really isn’t. And the feeling of warmth coming back into your body during the following relaxation period is really quite pleasant — but only happens if you stay in the cold pool for the entire time.

Do Nordic spas have any proven wellness benefits?

Relaxing in the lounges

Photo: Scandinave Spa Whistler // Justa Jeskova

That depends who you ask, but one thing you can’t argue with is that Nordic spas are downright relaxing. The heat-focused parts of the experience are relaxing, and sitting in a bubbling hot tub after a day or two of skiing or hiking feels luxurious and cozy.

Beyond that, the science is out on the extent of the effects, though each of the various parts of the cycle has proven benefits. Immersion in hot water increases your blood flow, which can help ease pain and stiffness in sore muscles. It also increases your blood flow, and moving white blood cells through your body more efficiently likely gives a small boost to your body’s ability to fight off infections.

Plunging into a cold pool releases endorphins, which help reduce pain and — wait for it — stimulate a general feeling of contentment and happiness. So you may actually find that your 15 seconds in the cold pool are surprisingly pleasant.

“After breaking my back and all my ribs in a dirt bike-related crash, I found relief and relaxation to be one of the best remedies to clear my mind and to help me breathe. Being an athlete can make your mind race and it can be difficult turning off your brain. You want to push against the odds every chance you get and that is often not the best practice when trying to get yourself back to where you need to be. Hydrotherapy has helped both my mind and body to slow down,” says professional snowboarder (and Scandinave Spa regular) Jesse Millen.

Many Nordic spas have extended information about the benefits, so don’t be afraid to ask the spa staff any questions about the benefits or effects of soaking.

But can I get a massage?

Woman getting a massage

Photo: Cookie Studio/Shutterstock

It depends on the Nordic spa, but the answer is: probably. Canada’s line of luxury Nordic Spas, Scandinave Spa, offers a menu of wellness and recovery-focused massages, while Alyeska Resort in Alaska offers a Nordic spa alongside “Forest Therapy” massages.

How much do they cost?

Good news — while Nordic spas aren’t the kind of thing you’d spring for every afternoon, they’re much cheaper than paying for a massage. A day pass at the Whistler Scandinave Spa, which has two hot pools, three cold pools, a Nordic (cold) shower, two steam rooms, try dry saunas, two firepits, and one relaxation lounge with a fireplace is around $110 US for all-day access. It also offers discounts for mid-week or mid-day visits, ideal for vacationers on ski trips with flexible schedules. And if you’re Canadian, you’re in luck, as most of the cost of your visit or massage may be covered by your insurance.

More affordable Nordic spas still offer all the benefits of full spa complexes, though you’ll probably just have less space to spread out and fewer options for areas to relax. If you’re staying at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, a day pass to the indoor hydrotherapy pools is just $50, and Québec’s Strøm Spa starts around $59.

Where can I try a Nordic spa?

If you’re visiting the Great White North, you’re in luck: Canada has dozens of Nordic spas. The most well-known Nordic Spa chain is Scandinave Spa, though all four locations are unique in surroundings and design. Other good options in the country include the Siberia Station Spa in Québec City, Thermëa in Winnipeg, and the Kananaskis Spa in Alberta. In the US, your options are mostly limited to spas at hotels, like the Bellagio’s options or the Glen Ivy Hot Springs Resort in southern California. They’re much more common in northern Europe but may not be advertised as something outside of the norm, so browse the amenities of your hotel or spa of choice to see if they have a cold plunge pool. That usually indicates that some version of a Nordic experience is available.

Anything else to know?

couple relaxing in silence at nordic spa

Photo: Scandinave Spa Whistler // Chomlack Photo

In general, Nordic spas are a place to mentally unplug, and cell phones are usually banned (so leave them in your locker). You should always shower before entering the pools, and if there’s already one or two people in one of the small cold pools, it’s best to wait until that person is done (since you’ll only wait about 15 seconds). Some spas have silent/no-talking rules.

Make sure you’re well-hydrated before visiting a Nordic spa as the heat-focused segments can lead to dehydration. Many spas will have water and hot tea stations around the pools.

Otherwise, the etiquette is much like any other spa: try to ensure a tranquil experience for your fellow guests and give everyone their personal space when possible.