Surviving Burning Man
Burning Man inspired me to revive my Survival Series, a resource highlighting my favorite festivals and parties around the world. Previously I’ve featured Sunjam, an intimate annual rave on a deserted Central American island, and The Full Moon Party, Southeast Asia’s most infamous monthly blowout.
What: Burning Man is infamously impossible to describe, though I did take a stab at it. It is most easily explained as a week-long festival in the remote Nevadan desert — a festival grounded in not music but in art, community, self-expression, and a set of guiding principles.
In many ways Burning Man is more of a temporary pop up city than a party — there are bars, barber shops, and bike repair stops all set up by big-hearted Burners. One notable quirk that sets Black Rock City aside from any other metropolis is that nothing is for sale and everything is given freely — Gifting is one of the core ten principles.
Burning Man began in 1986 with a group of twenty friends gathering on Baker’s Beach in San Francisco, a party that culminated in the burning of an eight foot wooden “man.” Today, Burning Man attracts a crowd of 68,000 from all corners of the world and still reaches a fever pitch with the Saturday night burning of The Man — though these days, he reaches nearly ninety feet.
Who: Attendance is currently capped at 68,000 — and tickets are getting increasingly hard to wrangle as the event grows in popularity. Black Rock City is diverse in nationality, age, and socio-economic status. One of the ten principles is Radical Inclusion — it is literally impossible not to belong.
Where: Black Rock City, a temporary city built in the Black Rock Desert, located 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada. The nearest towns are Empire and Gerlach, populations 217 and 206, respectively.
When: Burning Man is always held the week prior to and including Labor Day weekend. In 2013 the dates were Monday, August 26th to Monday, September 2nd, though some attendees apply for early arrival passes to help set up their camps. Decompression parties are held by Regional networks around the world after the event.
Cost: Burning Man is a significant investment, though the cost can vary. The ticket alone is almost $400, which is one fee that no one can avoid – aside, I suppose, from those who qualify for low income tickets at half price.
Transportation and supplies will make up the rest of the cost. I wrote a full post on my own personal cost breakdown from Burning Man, which totaled around $1,500.
As previously mentioned, one unique aspect of Burning Man is the gifting culture – nothing can be bought or sold at Burning Man other than the ice and coffee sold at Center Camp. While the principle of radical self reliance dictates that every participant should bring what they need to get through the week, food, alcohol and other items that would normally blow a festival budget are given freely at Burning Man.
Getting There: Getting to Black Rock City is a mission, and a journey in itself. The first step is getting to Nevada, or another neighboring state. Reno is the closest but not always the cheapest commercial airport (Black Rock City does have a temporary airport of its own where chartered and private flights can land). Reno stores also often run out of necessities like water and batteries leading up to the event. My group flew from New York to Sacramento, which was the cheapest option and ideal for supply shopping.
An RV is an ideal option, but won’t work for everyone. Even if one had been within our budget (it wasn’t), my crew were all under 25 and therefore legally barred from renting one. In fact, we couldn’t rent anything but a small sedan, with a hefty “underage” fee tacked on top. We quickly settled on renting a U-Haul, which worked out to be both affordable and practical, as it had space for five people, five sets of luggage, five bikes, seventy five gallons of water, and weeks’ supply of food. U-Haul does not condone using their vehicles to attend Burning Man and we read stories of reservations being denied by employees who put the dates and the dreadlocks of the renters together and figured out what the intended use was, but we had no problems. That may have been luck, or it may have been renting in Sacramento vs. Reno.
Entering and exiting Black Rock City is associated with one word – traffic. What else would you expect from a 68,000 person event located along a one lane highway? Though Black Rock City is technically only two hours or so from Reno, it took us ten hours to reach our camp on the way in and over twelve hours to reach Reno on the way back. Be mentally prepared.
Staying Alive: Staying alive at Burning Man takes a bit more preparation than your typical routine of hitting the ATM with the comfort of knowing you can buy yourself out of any problem. The Black Rock City desert is a harsh and inhospitable environment — it is searing hot in the day, bitterly cold at night, and extremely dusty always.
A major concern is dehydration. Plan to bring 1-2 gallons of water per person per day, and ensure you have a way to transport that heavy volume. Thanks to the gifting culture there is little chance that you will starve at Burning Man, but remember the principle of radical self reliance – bring enough food to get you through the week (and some to share with your neighbores, too!)
The dust that makes up The Playa is alkaline based and can be harsh on skin. “Playa foot,” a condition when dust seeps into the bottom of the foot creating painful cracks and sores, is common. Bring a small spray bottle filled with vinegar to stave it off, as well as closed toed shoes or boots.
One of the beautiful things about Burning Man is the lack of regulations — no one is going to tell you that you can’t climb all over that two story wolf sculpture. That said, no one is going to tell you that you can’t climb all over that two story wolf sculpture! Remember that unlike the rest of America, just because you didn’t have to sign a waiver and use a safety harness doesn’t mean it’s safe. Use common sense to avoid accidents.
Drugs are a prevalent part of Burning Man. In light of the deaths at Electric Zoo in the same week as Burning Man, my friends and I discussed the fact that there are relatively few fatal accidents Black Rock City if you consider the amount of people, the harsh conditions, and the heavy presence of drugs. We suspect that this has to do with the breed of participants – the intensity of Burning Man discourages casual first timers, and attracts those that have experimented enough to know their limits. With that in mind, most Burners are more concerned about getting caught than getting whisked away in an ambulance — law enforcement is all over Burning Man and there is a heavy risk of a hefty fine.
From much of my research it seems that one of the most dangerous parts of Burning Man is leaving. As previously mentioned, traffic is intense and people are at the wheel for twelve hours at a time after a week of three hours of sleep per night. Traffic accidents are all too common. Don’t drive tired.
Alex in Wanderland’s Burning Man Tips
Participation is a major part of Burning Man, and they make it pretty easy for you. Even if you don’t join a theme camp, create a personal project, or contribute to an art car, you can always participate via volunteering or simple gifting. There are volunteer positions for every passion, and gifting can be as simple as buying an industrial tub of chapstick and handing them out to parched looking Burners.
For anyone who has ever wished Halloween lasted all week long — this is your chance. I loved putting together my outfits every day, and just sitting on The Playa and watching all the other costumed people go by. I was inspired, and can’t wait to double my efforts next time.
2. Prepare for Night
I spent so much time preparing for the heat and dust storms of the day, I didn’t think too much about the specific needs of the night. I should have packed much warmer clothes, and much more substantial light. Next time, I look forward to the creative challenge of creating bright and cozy evening ensembles.
3. Plan Buffer Days
Getting to Burning Man was a gradual process for us. We flew into Sacramento on a Saturday night, spent Sunday supply shopping and driving to Reno, and then woke up at 4:00am on Monday to drive to Black Rock City. We left Burning Man at 9pm on Sunday and drove through the night, spend Monday cleaning the U-Haul, getting rid of excess supplies, and getting ourselves back to Sacramento, where we spent the night before early flights on Tuesday. Don’t think you can fly into Reno Monday morning and be feet down on The Playa by Monday afternoon.
4. Bring More Water, and Less Food
Halfway through the week there were camps putting out cardboard “Need H20!” signs. Bring more than you think you need — you can always gift it later. We used 65 gallons between the five of us, and gave away the final ten. We way overestimated how much food we’d need, specifically in the form of produce. This is the desert, ya’ll — that kale ain’t gonna last.
As for getting the water in ya, buying a Camelback was one of the best decisions I made for Burning Man. And the best one everyone else apparently made as well — I saw more people with floppy straws hanging over their shoulders than not. It’s the best way to avoid hydration and the hassle of carrying a water bottle simultaneously. Bonus tip: If you want to indulge in gifted beverages throughout the day, bring a cup with a carabiner on it to clip to your bike or belt.
5. Bike To The Ends of the Playa
The Playa is massive, and you’re going to want to explore. Don’t plan to rely on Community Bikes — I saw one all week, though granted I wasn’t looking for them. We bought ours in Reno and sold them again on the way out, resulting in what was basically a $50 “rental” for the week. It was worth every penny. And don’t get lulled into a false sense of security — you’re going to need a lock if you want those wheels to still be there when you’re ready to lead The Thunderdome.
6. Share the Despair
You might feel a lot of pressure at Burning Man to be having non-stop fun all the time — there’s almost an attitude at times that there’s something wrong with you if you aren’t. But this is a harsh environment and emotions will be amplified. It’s okay if you have some dark moments. You’re not alone.
7. Pack a Plan
There is no cell service on The Playa — if you’re traveling with friends, you’ll want a way to leave each other notes and connect. A white board outside the tent is the perfect way to let your fellow campers know you’ll be at Camp Sweaty Betty for the next few hours, or propose a group dinner at sunset. Bring a cheap watch to keep track of what time it is sans cell phone.
8. Sign up For JRS
Sign up for the Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletters — and at least scan them! They are long but do contain tons of information you’re going to want and need, especially as a first timer. They also give previews and hints of the events ahead. Once you’re at The Burn, check the Who What When guide for a list of daily activities.
9. Stay Up Until Sunrise
Most Burners won’t need a reminder for this. But regardless of your usual bedtime routine, set aside at least one night (or three) to stay up until you watch the sun rise over the Robot Heart art car.
10. Buy Your Tickets Now
Well, at least as soon as they go on sale. There are less tickets than there are hopeful Burners, so make sure you have the ticket release date marked on your calendar well ahead of time. If plans change and you can’t attend, you can easily unload your tickets through the STEP resale program.
And this concludes my Burning Man coverage… ’till next time!
Thanks for all the great info!! As a burning-man-virgin, it’s fun to see what it’s all about 🙂 Super informative, and great photos as always!
You’re welcome Dana! Good luck with your first Burn, whenever that may be!
Dear Alex, you are an accomplished writter, photographer and story teller.You seem like an exciting,fun,and are a beautiful young Lady;definitely with a bright future.Your blogs make you very likeable.You are YOUNG and no doubt impressionable …don’t be sold a ” bill of goods” or be too naive. Continue to do “your thing” as an adventurer, dreamer, and contributor to your followers life. I have been consideed a bit of a wild man, even thrown out of a few bars. I have tattoos … and I love to have fun. Alex, The burning man seemed like a ” great sell job” rationalizing decadents, bullshit, bad thinking” and mis-direction.I think you have too much class and are way too smart to make this trip again.Now if you were my girl-friend or Daughter,I would definitely discourage it. Talked to many who have been there and were turned off…WATCH OUT…this is a dangerous world of mis information.I’ll still continue to follow your great blog, and I think you are a great girl.Ya can post or not, no worries.Good luck, Stay safe.jb
I respectfully disagree, jb.
I understand your comment is intended as thoughtful caution but I don’t think young = naïve, especially to someone who is so well travelled. Travelers are also more experienced at making their own paths early in life. What you classify as decadents, BS & bad thinking others would say is release, entertainment and creativity. Sure it’s not for everyone, bad things and mistakes can happen anywhere. She’s written about it on here. Yet, the majority of people I know who’ve gone (after heeded some warnings) have returned even more open minded, socially fulfilled and learned a lot more about themselves.
John, I too have to respectfully disagree. I’d encourage you to read my Ten Reflection on the Ten Principles of Burning Man. It is much more than a week long rave in the desert and lots of thoughtfulness, kindness, community-building and other positive magical things happen there! The Playa is an intense place and it’s not for everyone… but it is for me. I’m already looking forward to returning.
Burning Man has in a few months gone from something I hear of this one time, to something I want to try! These tips are going to help A LOT when I finally make it to the Playa. Thanks for all your great info!
You’re welcome, Heather! Burners are generous and there is a wide wealth of information on the blogosphere for first time Burners! Good luck!
For ages I couldn’t get my head around what Burning Man reminds me off, but now I know. It looks like something out of Star Wars. All these facemasks, goggles and mysterious ‘creatures’. 🙂
Ha! That is a great comparison, love it 🙂
Awesome! I’ve loved your coverage of this festival and finding out what it is all about. It looks amazing… but I don’t know if I would be up for it. Thanks for taking me there virtually!!
You are so welcome Sarah, thank you for reading and sharing and enjoying!
Great tips Alex!
One thing I like about traveling to certain countries or places is the lack of regulation. When I was in Nicaragua, I ripped down a beach on a ATV and made it back in time to enjoy all the bond fires on the beach. Coming home someone makes such a big deal waiting to get a cup of coffee or if you’re taking up too much of the sidewalk.
#3 – recovery is key
#4 – But I love kale
#6 – seriously good insight
#10 – Probably everyones biggest question
I totally agree. Last night here in Peru we were whipping around the sand dunes in a dune buggy that would never be allowed anywhere near the litigious USA, and we had the time of our lives! It’s nice to see people being allowed to make their own decisions.
I’ve never had a desire to go to Burning Man, but you definitely make it sound intriguing–I’ve been loving your posts about it! Great photos as always!
Thanks Jenna! It was a challenging experience to write about it. Glad I did it, glad I wrote about it, and now glad to start blogging about something a little more intuitive again 🙂
I’m SO glad you attended Burning Man! I’m somewhat obsessed with the thought of attending this magical festival of art and fun. This guide is, by far, the best I’ve read so far. Love all the pictures!
Wow thanks Morgan! That’s a huge compliment considering how many guides are published! Hope you make it there someday soon 🙂
I’ve read all of your posts about Burning Man – Im about to be going for the first time, so THANK YOU, theyve been very helpful! I was just wondering how you found your camp or if you know how other first time burners were able to find camps that would accept them? Thank you!! Keep up the awesome posts: )
Hey Wren! I found my camp through friends of friends, which seems to be a popular way to go. That being my first and (so far) only time at Burning Man, I don’t have much advice on how to do otherwise, though I’d guess Facebook groups would be a great way to start looking. Best of luck!
Wondering where you got those goggles 😀
Hey Lauren! I think we bought them on Amazon or Ebay, though it was a long time ago so I can’t be sure. Apologies!
When are you coming to London?
I have tons of friends there, so I’m sure I’ll be back soon!
I followed Burning Man this year for the first time ever. The Logistics of the entire event are pretty impressive, as you pointed out by your personal logistics. As impressive as the entire Festival is, my first question was…”Where are the bathrooms? How do you organize sanitation for 70,000 people?” I looked on the pictures and Live Stream for large installations of Portable Potties, but didn’t see any. Please don’t gross me out.
Hey Blake! Yes, there are porta potties. In fact, that’s pretty much the only infrastructure provided by your ticket price 🙂 They are at each “avenue” along the clock. Plus many people bring their own bathrooms in their RVs. Hope that helps explain!
Thanks…The guy who did the Streaming, I think he called himself Motorbike Matt, did a great job this year, so I’ll just watch his coverage again next year. Not really my crowd, but an interesting event and great Pyrotechnics. I really like your travel tales, especially the Diving and Snorkeling. I think you need to visit the South Pacific…or the Galapagos…some tropical paradise. Thanks for your fun stories.
Both those destinations are definitely on my list, so stay tuned and I’ll get there eventually 😛
A very helpful post thank you!
I’m very excited to be checking out Burning Man for the first time this year. I’d love to know how you found sleeping in the U Haul truck and dealing with the heat/dust/light etc. Any tips would be amazing 🙂
Watched again this year, and the quality of the Webcast was much improved. Loved the Galaxia project…I kinda hoped they would disassemble it and move it somewhere permanently…Sad to see that one burn.
We actually didn’t sleep in the U-Haul — it was WAY too hot. We slept in a tent next to it that was just for sleeping and used the U-Haul for getting ready, eating and preparing food, as a closet, etc. That helped keep dust out of the tent and keep it as a sanctuary just for sleeping <3 Hope you had an amazing burn!