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How to: Prepare for Burning Man

Nevada Travel
by Leigh Shulman Aug 24, 2011
Burning Man starts in less than a week and you’ve just decided you wanted to go. Or you’ve been foolish enough to put off preparation for now, because how much preparation do you really need for a week in the desert with no food, no water, searing heat and dust storms?

MY FIRST YEAR, I sifted through four different lists, one was about 60 pages long — no exaggeration – and included things like hard boiled eggs, shoe goo, and a wooden plank to put in the kiddie pool.

I mean, isn’t this supposed to be about radical self-reliance? It’s not about showing up in the desert having spent all your money on random things that some hardened burner told you that you needed because, quite frankly, he was fucking with you. It’s impossible to know what you’re really going to need.

Many lists, lots of advice, and three Burning Man preps later, I give you my definitive guide to last minute first-timer Burning Man preparation.

The number one rule for Burning Man though is no expectations. Seriously, don’t even bother imagining what you’ll find beyond the welcoming gates of BRC. Just focus on the details of packing and when you get there, you’ll get what you get.

Must have and must do

These are the things you must have for survival and basic comfort.

Goggles that are sealed on all sides. The eye protectors you get at Home Depot have too many holes and dust will get in and destroy your eyes. The lenses should be clear, too. It’s hard enough to see in a nighttime dust storm without an extra layer of dark.

Tip: Buy them for cheap at army navy stores.

Scarf to cover your mouth and protect your face in dust storms.

Tickets. You will not be allowed in the gate without them. If you bring someone with you who doesn’t have a ticket, none of you will be allowed in.

Keys. If you’re driving, bring an extra car key. I suggest tying one to the steering wheel with a piece of wire or attaching one to the underside of your car with a carabiner.

Boots. Don’t think you can flip onto the playa in sandals. Your feet will suffer terribly. Your feet will crack, burn, turn white and faster than you can imagine, you will develop the dreaded playa foot.

And don’t forget some solid long socks to wear underneath.

Tent with 12-inch rebar stakes to hold it down. Don’t rely on the flimsy metal pins that come with the tent. You’ll want to cover any mesh on the tent prior to arriving on the playa. Old sheets and duct tape work well enough for this.

Sleeping bag. It gets cold on the playa. It can go below freezing.

You’ll anticipate some things. Others, you’ll realize why you needed it the moment you reach the playa and kick yourself for not realizing sooner. Others, you had no idea.

Water. 1.5 to 2 gallons per day is enough for drinking, cooking and bathing.

Something to carry water with you wherever you go on the playa. I have a Camelbak. Never go anywhere without it. You never know when a dust storm happens or you’re distracted or any other number of things and next thing you know you’re desiccated.

Food (see the what to eat section below)

Sunblock. Self explanatory. You’re in the desert. There’s shade, but there’s a lot more sun. I suggest the spray kind; it’s easier to apply. The cream gets all dusty and unpleasant to spread.

Bike. Yes, you can get away without having one. Plenty do. There are also community bikes available. It is, though, an enormous benefit to have one. Walking from one end of Black Rock City to the other is fun the first night or two, but not in the heat of day when you’re running out of water. And not in the middle of the night when it’s cold and you have no idea where you are.

Remember to bring a lock, too. Burning Man has grown. People steal now.

Lights. It’s dark on the playa and that shining moving cowboy hat art car isn’t going to see you unless you mark yourself clearly. Ever heard the term “darkwad”? It’s kind of dumb, I know, but you’ll still feel like an asshole when a group of people scream this at you in the middle of the night.

Make sure you have lights for your body – Front and back Also for your bike. Front and back. It’s also helpful to have a flashlight or two, a head lamp and a tent lamp to hang in your tent.

This year, I got mine from coolneon. You have to do some soldering of your own but they have a great beginners pack and also a 10 dollar light package to light both the front of your bike. I’ve had bad luck with lighting the last two years. Nothing ever worked out. It’s my first year dealing with coolneon, but hoping it works.

Batteries, extras or rechargeable for any electronics. For one, all your lights. Rechargeable are good too, but you’ll have to find a camp that has a solar or regular recharger. Most people are kind enough to help you out.

Spray bottle to fill with half vinegar and water to neutralize playa dust and keep it from burning and cracking your skin to leather.

Towel. Things dry quickly in Black Rock City, so it doesn’t have to be big or particularly plush.

Lotion and lip protectant. Keep your skin hydrated too.


Travel mug for drinks out and about on the playa. Or for coffee at center camp. I found one of those pill boxes with retractable cup. It fits in a tiny pocket. Very useful.

Saline nose spray and Visine. Your mucous membranes will thank you.

Extra toilet paper. One ply. The port-o-potties are surprisingly well maintained, but when they do run out of toilet paper, well, you know.

Ziploc bags. Your stuff will get dusty no matter what you do, but big plastic bags will help make finding what you want easier. Also make sure to keep one sealed with a set of post playa clothes.

Where to Shop

Most people get to Burning Man via Reno and San Francisco. I suggest collecting what you already have at home and bringing it with you. Then, shop in San Francisco if at all possible.

My favorite stores: Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Walmart, Kmart, Target, dollar stores.

If you shop in Reno, I suggest getting there a day early and make sure you have transportation, even if that means renting a car with a group of others. There are also shuttles to the main places and you can get rides through the Playa Ride Share.

If you choose to go shopping in Reno the day before Burning Man starts, prepare to fight your way through busy corridors of every store in town. Be prepared to be leave with half of what you intended to get. Because you are not the only one who had the bright idea to just pick up everything in Reno.

What to carry with you when you leave your camp

Must have: Dust goggles, scarf to put over your mouth during dust storms, water, and an empty cup.

Plus to have: snacks. Utility knife. Cards with your information. Small gifts to give away. Your travel mug.

I strap on an army utility belt, I got it for about 10 dollars at the local army navy in Atlanta. They come with pockets you can attach, and they have holes and metal loops for carabiners. I attach all my stuff to the belt, swing on my Camelbak and I’m good to go for hours.

What to wear above the boots

Day wear. Light clothing. Underwear. Light light shirts. Nothing at all. Thin scarves to cover you from the sun. Whatever else you want.

Night wear. You’ll want a coat. Fur is always fun – to keep you warm. Also long sleeved shirts and pants, leggings, thick long socks. Stuff to layer up as it gets colder.

Costumes, costumes, costumes. You can borrow, make intricate ones or just do something simple. One guy I know wore a different pair of colored briefs every day with a matching towel as a cape. Another guy spray painted an old suit with gold metallic spray paint. A mixture of random underwear, shiny or furry fabrics, bath robes and such can always pull together into something fun. People also give away clothes on the playa.

My new costumes for this year are Barbie and a couple different versions of robots and a wolverine-human hybrid inspired by a short story by Paul di Filipo. Yeah, sorry, that’s how I roll.

Just remember, no feathers, loose glitter or anything that can easily fall apart and end up as garbage on the playa.

What to eat

I have yet to find myself hungry in the desert. All I really want is protein and salt. So easy snacks are nuts and beef jerky. Bacon is a boon on the playa. Nothing tastes quite like it, especially with coffee first thing in the morning.

Dried fruit is also durable and easy to pack. You can also pick up those food pouches – Trader Joe’s has some good cheap ones – of Indian and other kinds of food. Put it out in the sun for an hour, then just open and eat. Crackers are also good. Bread goes stale quickly.

Beyond that, it’s your choice. You can bring a cooler, pack it with ice from center camp to keep your boiled eggs, which I’m told keep extremely well, fruits, vegetables, cheese sticks, freezer pops.

Peanut butter pretzels with nutella are an amazing snack. So is licorice.

Stay in touch and emergency contacts

It’s very difficult to contact people on the playa. What I suggest is the minute you reach BRC, go to center camp and register your name and camp address so you can be more easily found.

Then, your loved ones outside of Burning Man can either e-mail the BRC emergency contact 911(at)burningman(dot)com or the Black Rock City Rangers rangers(at)burningman(dot)com

In order to find you, they will need to know your camp location plus any and all names you may go by on the playa. Real names. Playa names. Make yourself memorable to the people in your camp and you have a better chance of being found.

Those of us with children who are staying with relatives and friends: I leave our health insurance information and a power of attorney/medical release form so that whoever acts as guardian of your child(ren) will be able to make medical choices in your absence.


These are the articles I suggest people read that will leave you prepared and give you some ideas of extras, but won’t leave you in a quivering mass of confusion wondering whether your Burning Man experience will be ruined because you didn’t think it would be important to bring your own kiddie pool.

The Indie Travel How to Pack For Burning Man List
Ten Steps to Prepare Yourself Mentally and Physically for Burning Man
Matador’s Ultimate Burning Man Packing List
What To Expect Beyond Packing

You’ll anticipate some things. Others, you’ll realize why you needed it the moment you reach the playa and kick yourself for not realizing sooner. Others, you had no idea.

Bottom line? Once you leave the regular world for the glitter and bacon of Black Rock City, there are no guarantees. Let go and realize that you are going to a different place where different rules apply. Things won’t be clear or clean or organized. But if you’ve prepared well, it’s all good. Or whatever.

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