Trying to explain Burning Man to someone who has never been is like trying to explain color to a blind person.
Burning Man is a gathering of the spicy, creative people who “come home” to Black Rock City, Nevada, for one week a year to share wildly artistic creations and to play, dance, and live in the moment dressed, or undressed, in whatever style suits them.
It was originally created on the beaches of San Francisco before moving to the Black Rock Desert, a dried-up lake bed known as the playa. This is where some 48,000 people gather to create a bustling city that breathes art and interaction 24 hours a day for seven days each year.
Hardcore burners spend months, if not all year, planning, scheming, building, and sewing for Black Rock City’s art cars, art installations, and elaborate camps.
If you want to know everything you need to be as prepared as possible for the playa, keep reading.
1. How to get a ticket
The main ticket sale usually opens in January and sells out within a few hours. You are not able to get tickets this way, you still have a chance to register for the OMG Sale. Don’t buy tickets off Craiglist; most of the time they are either scalpers selling for way over face value (against the ideals of the event) or scammers (the ticket you buy may have come from a pile of deleted numbers, which means you might get to Gate and have your ticket register as invalid). Your best bet is to ask around among people you know might be going.
Don’t make the trip twice, make sure you have your tickets! If you don’t have a ticket, you cannot wait at Gate for your friend to bring it to you. You cannot buy one at the entry point or see if anyone hasn’t claimed their Will Call ticket. The only thing that happens is that you must return to Reno. Whoever’s car you have come in will have to turn around and take you back because they are not legally allowed to drive away and leave you at Gate; even if you just met a few hours ago in the airport. Your action (or inaction) will leave you in the literal dust. You cannot wait in Gerlach (the closest town) because there is nowhere for you to stay.
A shade structureThe Black Rock Desert is not designed to sustain human life. It is hot, flat, windy, dusty, devoid of vegetation and water, and very inhospitable.
Get creative…it is essential to have some escape from the sun – and something that can sustain high winds.
LightsLantern, tiki torches, Christmas lights, flashlights, strands of LED lights, a few packs of glow sticks, headlamp, etc. If not for aesthetics, you need to be well lit when walking and riding your bike around the Playa at night. You certainly don’t want to get hit by an art car or someone else not paying attention on their bike.
A huge coolerBring all the coolers you own. Store food (after a Costco mission) in a few of the smaller ones and pack the big one with ice. (You will be able to buy ice in BRC but it’s expensive and a pain to carry back to your camp from Center Camp. Bring as much ice as possible. Dry Ice is even better.
A pack of large ziplock bags
For food, for wet face cloths, for any electronics that you wish to protect from the dust.
FoodYou want to bring things that are easy to prepare and have a lot of calories — there might be days where you only get one real meal. No-prep foods that don’t require heating or water, such as trail mix and cereal, are great. Just remember that anything that goes out with you either needs to be consumed or brought back out of the desert with you. I would recommend planning every meal before you go shopping and bringing things that compress well or burn.
WaterPlan to drink a gallon of water per day. Yes, a gallon per day per person is a shit-ton, but if you are not constantly drinking water you will get dehydrated. Bring a camelback hydration system for when you’re cruising around on your bike.
A BikeBurning Man is massive and you will want to go and do things that are very far away from each other.
GogglesSandstorms are serious. Search eBay for used military goggles with switchable night-time lenses for whiteouts at night.
SunblockEven if you’re going for that deep, dark, Black Rock Desert tan, bring some high SPF for your face and shoulders. The sun is eff-ing hot.
Multiple bottles of hand sanitizerYou will be eating and drinking and using porto-potties that a lot of other people are using. Keep the hands clean at all times.
WipesThese will be life)savers, especially if you don’t have access to a shower. You can pack some small wet cloth in zip lock bags and stick them in your cooler to avoid single-use items.
get-black-rock-city– Bring functional clothes and leave the brand names at home.
– Bring layers. It will get both very hot and very cold.
– Sturdy rather than stylish shoes. As Burners say, “Your costume ends at the ankles.”
– Hats to protect yourself from the sun.
– Sunglasses. The brand-less, gas station kinds are best.
– A bandanna that is big enough to tie around your neck.
3. How to get to Black Rock City
Photo by Scott Sporleder
This is the easiest and lowest-cost option. This way, you have space to bring as many supplies as you can fit: your camping equipment, your clothing, and all the reusable items you need to make the experience as low-waste to no-waste as possible. Driving has a lower carbon footprint than plane travel; however, keep in mind that the roads you take to get to Burning Man are narrow and heavily-traveled by long-distance truckers. You may be sleep-deprived going in or out, and there is no pulling over on the side of highway 447.
Note that traffic is also very congested around Black Rock City before and after the event, as 70,000 people travel on a remote country highway designed for occasional truck traffic (you’ll likely wait 6-8 hours).
This usually means catching a flight to Reno and finding some kind of transportation to the event from there. You have multiple options: you can rideshare with someone who has a car and wants to reduce their gas costs by bringing in other participants (check the ePlaya rideshare board); you can rent a car from any of the usual car rental agencies; or you could take a transit service.
For those with the means, Burner Express and a few other services offer private flights to the Black Rock City Airport. For a much larger fee, you can really skip the lines and fly direct from small airports in Nevada and California, bringing a very small amount of luggage. If you have a friend who’s a pilot and has a ticket, you might be able to coerce them into flying there and taking you, which will save you a bundle. Be warned, though: I have a friend who’s a professional pilot, and he says that the downdrafts of the dry lakebed make it a very difficult takeoff and landing, so expect some bumps.
Use the bus services
There are two bus services operating rides to Burning Man: the Burner Express, which is a shuttle service provided by the event for people traveling from San Francisco or Reno; and the Green Tortoise. The Burner Express has been provided by the organization in an effort to reduce the carbon footprint; they are aware that tens of thousands of individual cars flooding the area with exhaust does nothing for the environment and are trying to encourage public transit by offering a chance to skip the lines. Burner Express only allows two bags (and a bike add-on, if you pay extra) and bypasses normal Gate traffic, which saves you easily 8-12 hours of waiting in line. The Green Tortoise is a package deal; for a larger fee, they offer a spot in their camp, transport from San Francisco or Reno, and meals. Green Tortoise does not get access to the special bus access lane, so you sit in line with everyone else.
4. Where to stay
Life is much easier if you stay within a larger, organized camp. Some theme camps are always looking for members, so check the ePlaya listings for options. A ticket is not included, but you will have an infrastructure and a place to stay (you will need to bring your tent, but generally, the kitchen, shade cloth, storage, and water situation will be dealt with.) Many camps charge member dues, and it would be swell of you to be there for either set-up or tear-down. You get extra mega bonus points if you do both, and will probably be invited back with a red-carpet rollout for the following year.
Areas of the city are designated as available to anyone who wants to plunk down a tent, and you don’t have to ask permission — these areas are clearly labelled on the map you receive in your booklet when you go through the Gate. You will meet new friends no matter where you camp, but you may need to rely on your neighbors more if you’re in open camping, since you don’t have an existing infrastructure to help you out.
If you have more than one tent, I would suggest bringing two. Anything left “out in the elements” will be covered in dust within 20 minutes of arriving on the Playa. It’s nice to have one tent to sleep in and one to store all your stuff in.
The wind is no joke in the Black Rock Desert — I’ve also seen tents cartwheeling down the Playa like tumbleweeds. When setting up your tent you need to batten down the hatches and expect the worst.For larger tents, it’s a good idea to bring skinny rebars, which can be bent and driven down deep into the Playa to hold your tent in place.
Don’t forget to bring a tarp to go under your tent, sleeping pads, pillow, and a warm sleeping bag (yes, it is hot most of the time, but around 3 AM temperatures plummet and it can get very cold.)
Rent a RV
A RV has a generator and the air-con will save your life and make you lots of friends. And it can mean the difference between getting sandblasted in a Black Rock windstorm to being inside, rolling doobies and cooking quesadillas.
Unfortunately, RVs are crazy expensive for this week because every rental place knows about Burning Man. If you can’t afford to rent an RV the traditional way, I’ve had luck scanning Craigslist for RVs that are listed “for sale,” and cold calling each owner to see if he would be interested in making a quick $1200 for a one-week rental before putting it right back on the market. If you can pull this off and split the cost between friends it’s well worth it.
5. Key expressions and concepts every Burner should know
Photo: Scott Sporleder
Burners don’t go to an “art festival” in the middle of the desert…they go home to the playa.
Burners don’t just show up or attend…they participate.
Burners don’t enter the festival…they (finally, finally) get to the Gate.
If it’s your first time, it’s never referred to as your “first time”…Instead, you’re a virgin.
Burners don’t leave trash around…they collect moop (misplaced objects) and carry it out with them.
Burners don’t go to the edge of the world…they go to The Fence.
Burners don’t live in houses…they live in camps.
Burners don’t catch taxis…they hop on Art Cars for a lift.
For a Burner, “art” doesn’t go in a museum…Art is what gets torched.
Burners don’t run through sprinklers…they run behind the water truck.
Burners don’t have rich, obnoxious neighbors…they have Turnkey camps.
Burners don’t ride in Critical Mass on Friday evening…they ride in Critical Tits.
Burners don’t leave the playa when the festival is over…they return to Default.
Kids can go to Burning Man for free until they’re twelve. This saves you almost $500 and hours of waiting in line for a ticket. Anyone under 18 must go with a parent or legal guardian, so don’t consider bringing someone else’s kid to the event: it’s big, and there’s a lot of potentially hazardous situations. If your kid is close to the ticket cutoff, you will likely be asked for proof of age.
Kids are adaptable and love new experiences.
There are so many reasons to bring your children to this fantastic event. You might just not consider the idea of taking separate vacations, but you might also want to intentionally introduce them to a creative, collaborative experiment in community. There are enormous, one-of-a-kind experiences to be had in the Black Rock Desert, and your kids can fill with wonder when they get to ride on a dragon art car or get invited to hula hoop in Center Camp. Kids don’t have expectations the way adults do, and they live in the moment — both skills we should likely cultivate more — so they will roll with the punches way more than you will. Most people adore seeing kids and babies on-playa, so you might be surprised how many new friends will entertain and engage your child.
Follow the survival guide.
Kids need lots of rest, especially if they’re overheated. They need comfortable clothes, and a way to get around. Don’t just plan your own playa bike: pimp their stroller or bike trailer (or bike, depending on age). Make sure they take some time every day to rest in the shade. It can be tempting to just run all over the place and get worn out; kids need to pace themselves as much as adults. Burning Man published a Family Survival Guide which will serve you well.
There is a whole village dedicated to parents with kids. It’s called Kidsville. Parents and their children are welcome to sign up to stay there and use the village infrastructure. There are regular daily events specifically for children, several trampolines, and a generally blasé attitude towards a toddler shrieking in the night. They are often placed near Hushville (the quiet village), so it tends to be relatively quiet nearby (at least, not close to the large-scale sound camps). Kidsville provides ID bracelets for every kid camping there, which ensures that if they get lost, they will be easily returned.
Read what other parents have to say.
Check out the kids’ page of the Burning Man Journal and read firsthand accounts from parents and kids. Many other people have experienced this and come through it just fine; you will not be the first and you won’t be the last. Burning Man welcomes you and your children, and we hope to see pictures of dusty kids with big smiles when you get back.
7. How to make Burning more sustainable
It bears repeating: Burning Man is a leave-no-trace event. Pack it in, pack it out. The problem is that most people bring way too much stuff. Most of the stuff that people buy especially for this event is nonreusable, cheap garbage which often just ends up junked when you can’t get the dust off it. Don’t buy a bunch of disposable camp equipment with the idea that you’ll throw it in the trash (or donate it to a secondhand store in Reno — Goodwill does not want your super dusty broken armchair).
Try to bring reusable supplies wherever possible. Get good quality headlamps instead of cheap ones that break, and try to pitch in or trade with other people whenever possible. The Kiwanis Club of Reno has a bike reservation program: $50 and you pick up a bike from them at their volunteer-run location before the event, and you can drop it back off afterwards. You could also take it with you if you want; they only ask you not abandon it on the playa. Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart in Reno also frequently take back unopened food and water starting the final Sunday of the event. If you have a lot of things you want to get rid of, check out this excellent local list of organizations that will take donations. Homeless shelters and soup kitchens would love your (functional, undamaged) items to give to their recipients.
The more you plan, the less waste you have. Don’t leave things until the last minute and assume the playa will provide. Radical self-reliance starts at home. Bring reusable water bottles that can double as coffee cups. Leave food in the sun to dry out and burn it in the burn barrels scattered around the city. Carpool or take as much public transit as possible and encourage friends to do the same. Pooling our resources and relying on the community is not just the best way to build an amazing and enjoyable event, it’s also better for the future of our planet.
While not everybody goes to Burning Man expecting to have a ton of sex, sex is available, shameless, and no-strings-attached. In between all the high ideals of personal responsibility and reliance is the reality of a lot of people in booty shorts and nipple pasties, many of whom have decidedly open relationship arrangements.
There are whole camps whose entire purpose rotates around getting people to have sex in them:
“And then there’s only love” is home to the infamous Orgy Dome — which is actually an Orgy Costco Carport, which sounds a lot less sexy. A safe, sane, and consensual spot for singles, couples, triples and more to engage with other willing participants, the founders screen entrants for sobriety and willingness to participate.
Camp Beaverton (an all queer woman camp) runs an annual Strap-On-A-Thon, where queer ladies of every bent are invited to come and get their strap-ons on.
The Down Low Club (replacing the old school tent “Stiffy Lube”) is a place for queer dudes of all flavors to come get some on-site service, and is open 24/7 during the entire event, while queer camp Comfort & Joy reportedly has the occasional orgy tent set up…although nothing you can count on.
Even if you’re not participating in an all-hands gropefest, chances are you can find partners for some sexy experiences just by being open to suggestion.
Theoretically, Burning Man law enforcement could give you a ticket for “public lewdness” — which means don’t get it on in full view of the Esplanade and every passing police car. Try to keep your fun under a tent, behind a yurt door, or at the very least, elevated in a hammock. I have yet to spend a Burn Night without finding people prone on the playa having dusty intercourse, which is actually a terrible idea; aside from the alkaline dust getting all up in your goodies, no vehicles can see you when you’re lying flat and unlit at night. You will get hit by a speeding bicycle, an art car, or all of the above.
Just because sex is everywhere at Burning Man doesn’t mean you must participate in it. Nobody has the right to make you feel uncomfortable. You don’t have to walk around naked, kiss strangers at the Kissing Booth (although I do recommend the Hug Deli because everyone is so enthusiastic), or even shake hands with someone just because they said they like your dragon onesie. Your body is your own and so is your Burn; make of it whatever you want. If that includes hopping into Orgy Dome or hunkering down in camp with your monogamous partner, you’re doing it right either way.
9. Why you’ll want to come again and again and again…
This will be my eighth year at Burning Man, which still makes me somewhat of a newbie, considering the twenty-plus year veteran “Burners” out there. The difference, though, is that I never want to see the same place twice. I don’t understand the notion of the vacation home or the timeshare. While I understand the need to visit friends and family, I don’t see why anyone would want to go to the same place on every vacation? Aside from a small stint of frequenting Grateful Dead concerts in my twenties, I have tried to avoid repeat experiences, favoring the excitement of the unknown
Not so with Black Rock City. Even though I could spend the time and money going somewhere I have never been — say Bolivia or Barbados — I can’t seem to stop myself from going to Burning Man instead.
Those longtime Burners will complain, “It’s not like it used to be,” but that’s what keeps me coming back. Or maybe it is the sameness juxtaposed by the unknown.
My first year at Burning Man, I bicycled around in awe at the car-turned flying carpet, the metal women worshipping an oil rig, the gigantic Hummer (called Bummer) with the psychedelic paint job, the skeleton tree stretching its brittle bones into the desert sky. I marveled at the expanse of the Black Rock desert playa, the dust storms that would begin as a wave on the horizon and then tumble over everything, coating the world with a fine white film. I loved the way everything was a gift: the art, the yoga and geology classes, the DJ dance parties, the bacon and Bloody Marys, the red sun rising from the dust. For a week, no one was trying to sell me anything, and if there’s no other reason for going to Burning Man, escaping getting and spending is enough. I say this fully acknowledging that we ride around on our Walmart beach cruisers and sit in our Costco camp chairs, making the escape from consumer culture nothing more than a dusty, dub-step illusion. But this illusion allows us to imagine an alternative reality, and that’s a start. It’s enough to make me question the way I live my life, the gifts I can offer to the world, and what it means to expect nothing in return.
I went back to Burning Man a second year, expecting that everything would be different. But my favorite bar and cabaret sat in roughly the same spots on the semi-circled grid of streets. The Thunderdome still reported ZERO days since the last injury, Bummer was there with “wash me” fingered into the dusty windshield, and the bone tree still gleamed in the sun. Though it would be a waste of resources for these theme camps to remake themselves every year, I thought, somehow, they would. I was disappointed to see The Deep End, even though it had been my favorite daytime dancing spot. I adored Celestial Bodies bar and the lovely men who ran it, but I wanted to find a new favorite straight-friendly gay bar. I had expected a whole new city, but what I found was some of the same, but not all the same, forcing me to look harder for a new city, to pay attention, to fully occupy each minute as it came — a re-visioning of the place itself and of my place within that space.
The old timers continue to shake their heads and say, “It’s not how it used to be.” And thankfully so. Black Rock City isn’t a timeshare condo on the beach. The streets still curve along the hours of a clock but Estuary becomes Edsel or Edelweiss. “The Man” still stands at the center, but he is atop a different platform, sometimes taking stride (I am still waiting for the day I arrive to Black Rock City and see a Burning Woman instead). And the temple takes on a different design every year, decorated by new hopes and lamentations. The art installations erected across the playa always offer something new (since many of the previous year’s installations are burned, dismantled and donated, or find their way into other cities as permanent installations). And it’s that creativity, the unbelievable things humans can make from our minds and our hands that give me hope in the human race in spite of all the atrocious things we do to each other and to the planet. Everything at Burning Man is a work of art from the costumes to the large-scale art structures, from the fire-breathing dragon art cars to the parade of a thousand light-decorated bicycles wheeling under the black desert sky.
Photo by Scott Sporleder
When our friends ask my husband if he’s going to Burning Man, he says, “It’s not my thing.” The truth is you can’t know if it is “your thing” unless you go. It’s like saying you don’t like ice cream when you have never put it in your mouth. Or even seen it up close. Burning Man isn’t just one thing: Plenty of people party all night; others bring their small children and go to face-painting and snow cone camp. You can treat it like a giant rave, staying up all night (and yes doing drugs if that’s “your” thing; it just happens that I outgrew that around the time Jerry Garcia died) or you can get up early and do yoga (and then have a Bloody Mary with your bacon. Or a vegan sandwich with kombucha). You can have a different Burning Man every year, though I suppose you can have a different Paris every year. It just seems more likely at Burning Man, where everything is both the same and different—Celestial Bodies might be next to the Quixote Cabaret, or maybe it won’t. Nothing is ever for certain.
When I have worked greeter shifts, I have shouted “Welcome Home!” when people arrived at the gate, but the truth is I don’t think of the playa as home, at least not exactly. Burning Man comes with its own vocabulary of Burner-speak: The Man, The Burn, Home, Moop, Jack Rabbit Speaks, Decompression, and the list goes on. I am not opposed to Burner-speak because it gives people a sense of connection. And even if I don’t fully subscribe to it, I understand this business of home, that at Burning Man, you can be your very true self, as freaky as that may be, and no one will care. Home, then, is the place of the self — as schmaltzy as that sounds. Even schmaltzy is okay at Burning Man.
But Burning Man isn’t really home, nor is it vacation or travel; it isn’t a festival or a concert, an art exhibit or a theme park, though it certainly contains elements of all of these things. Every time I try to label Burning Man — the way people who haven’t been there, including my husband, tend to do — I can’t quite do it, except on a moment to moment basis. And maybe that’s another reason I keep returning to that ephemeral city in the desert, the place that challenges boundaries and defies categories, a place that forces the moment, as a famous poet once said, to its crisis. I want to stay tethered to each moment, to see it to its crisis. I want to leave the last moment behind in the dust. And let the next one in line wait at the horizon for its turn.