I WAS PURELY lucky when I got my first ticket to Burning Man. The only people I knew going were my best friend from Canada, a fellow traveler from Sweden (“Hey, want to go to Burning Man with me?” “Sure, why not?”), and a friend from university who lived in China. We knew little to nothing about Burning Man — I didn’t even know it was in Nevada or that people wore costumes.

It took 9 months of planning, but by the time we hit the playa, we had become a core group of 10, flying in from 5 different countries, all connected by one or two degrees of separation, joining a theme camp of 30+ Burners, and were knowledgeable about everything from reserve tanks and gray water on our RV to the fastest exodus strategies. I was often panicky, but I had read many articles on the Internet about Burning Man several times over, and my theme camp had dozens of spreadsheets with packing lists upon packing lists.

Photo by author

After my time at Burning Man, I thought it’d be a shame not to share it with as many future Burners as possible. Here’s my definitive practical guide to Burning Man, all the things I wish I had known then, and everything I know now that will help you plan your first burn.

Pre-Playa

  • Theme camps

    Joining a theme camp was a great idea for us as virgins, but not necessary and take a lot of effort. They supplied dinner every night and most of our water, and it was great to have an extended home base every night. We got in because a friend of ours was mutual friends with a guy based in SF who was starting a new camp and needed people, so we all filled out applications, interviewed (virtually), and were accepted. You can also search online for prominent theme camps and email them about applying to join. Try attending regional burns before the real thing to meet other burners, too. You can also join “Hoverlandia,” a camp for Burners without camps who have taken the Burner Express bus.

  • Tent or RV?

    RV all the way. Reserve it out of Reno, SF, San Jose, or LA months in advance. Tents got hot and dusty. Just spend on the RV, it was worth every penny.

  • Food

    You probably need less food and more water than you think you do, but it does depend on your eating habits. This is what we did in my RV: a big meal when we woke up (PB&J, coconut water, pretzels, applesauce, apples) and dinner (fried rice, curry, chicken skewers, all cooked at home in SF and frozen, defrosted, and served within minutes). We also had granola bars, apples, nuts, and chips for on-the-go snacks.

  • Water

    Bring 3 gallons/person. Once a day, have a liter with electrolytes and another liter with Gatorade powder. Chug a liter of coconut water every morning, too. If you run out of water, you can buy ice (coffee and ice are the only things you can buy out there) and let it melt. Bring a Nalgene bottle or camelback for water and a small cup for other drinks you’ll get as gifts.

  • Alcohol

    Do not bring your own alcohol. Every camp is basically a bar and there’s a lot of free booze! Unless you’re a booze maniac (not a good idea out there in the desert), you won’t need any of your own.

  • Substances

    Bring your own, it’s not easy or smart to find them out there. Know where you stand on drugs before you hit the playa. Psychedelics should be taken with a lot of care, intent, good company, and a positive mindset. Some of us would argue that the playa is NOT the best environment for hallucinogens — unless you’re an experienced user.

  • Costumes

    Only bring what you feel AMAZING in, and you can re-purpose items. I was surprised at how much of a back-seat fashion took at the event after all the glamorous Instagram pictures I had seen. Be practical and prioritize comfort. I ordered a lot of stuff off Iheartraves.com, did Ebay for cheap fur coats, and discovered that thrift shops in Hollywood the week before the event were incredibly well stocked. Note that hats, leotards, sequin bras, shiny leggings, face jewels, booty shorts, bandanas, and fanny packs are staples.

  • Photo by author

  • Night costumes

    This year it ranged from being warm enough to wear shorts, to nights where I shivered in my fur and thermals. Bring a thick, huge, warm playa coat and one that’s a little thinner. Have thermals to go underneath, dress in layers, and bring warm hats, socks, and gloves.

  • Lights

    Do not underestimate the amount of lights you’ll need to be seen at night (it’s completely dark out in the desert). Bring tons of lights for your bike: for each wheel, the body, and the handle bars. Bring fur to decorate your bike, too. You want to be able to pick it out from a crowd of tens of thousands of others. And make sure you have LED lights woven into all of your costumes, too. Every virgin underestimates this and it can be a huge problem not to be seen at night (getting in accidents, losing your friends, losing your bike, etc.)

  • Jewelery

    Don’t bring it, no one sees it anyway, and the alkali dust ruined some of my silver from India.

  • Camera

    I have a DSLR, but I did not bring it out at Burning Man. Any camera that isn’t a cell phone will be destroyed by the dust. Your call.

  • Contact lenses

    I strongly recommend wearing dailies, especially Total One dailies. I didn’t even wear goggles in some dust storms and those babies kept the dust out. (I had horrible experiences earlier in the week with my Acuvue brand dailies.) Bring spare pairs and solution with you at all times. Have multiple goggles and keep one in a plastic bag to switch out mid-week. They might get lost or just too dusty to properly clean and those things will save your life.

  • Photo by author

  • Gifts

    I didn’t go with physical gifts because I panicked and didn’t know what to do. So I always had extra food, water, sunscreen, and baby wipes and offered those to everyone all the time and that was really appreciated. I listened and asked lots of questions, gave great hugs, and helped people whenever I saw them needing help. Best physical gifts I’d bring for next year would be practical, like food, old school cameras that develop the photo instantly, and LED lights — there were many “darkwads”/virgins out there who didn’t bring enough lights and really needed them. Bracelets and trinkets were less appreciated and created more waste in the end.

  • Other items

    Put everything that’s not meant for the playa in a sealed bag, put it in your suitcase, and don’t touch it or open it until you leave. Dust will kill it. Better yet, pack exclusively for Burning Man and leave everything else at home.

On-Playa

  • Getting there

    You’re going to have to wait if you’re driving in, so just plan for it. We drove in on Sunday, waited 6 hours in line, drove out on Monday after Temple Burn, and waited 8 hours out. It’s actually really fun, jumping in and out of the RV, socializing with other cars, gifting cold beers, standing on top of the RV to see the line. The energy is amazing. If you’re not driving in, take the Burner Express bus. For about $100, you skip all the lines and it’s an easy couple of hours to Reno or 6 hours to SF.

  • Set-up

    You will probably need to dedicate at least two full days to the set-up and break-down of your camp. No one told me this before I arrived, so I was chomping at the bit to change into costumes and hit the playa right away. Think of Burning Man as a 5 day-festival with 2-3 days of on-playa prep. Sunday/Monday is dead out there, and if you bike around you’ll see that everyone else is still setting up their camps/art/art cars/etc. Sunday and possibly Monday after temple burn will also be dedicated to break-down.

  • Food

    Always pack snacks in your day pack and replenish before long nights/mornings. Granola bars and apples are great — just make sure you pack enough to share!

  • Shower

    I didn’t shower all week, even with the RV. The heat is dry that your sweat evaporates almost immediately, and if you get wet the dust will cake on your hair and skin, so I just skipped it.

  • Hair

    If you love your hair, put a leave-in conditioner in, braid it, and keep it back for the whole time, otherwise, it’ll dreadlock and become caked with dust. When it comes time to take it down, take one braid out at a time, stroke that section with vinegar, and then wash thoroughly.

  • Hands and feet

    Never let your feet touch the playa dust. I had 16 pairs of socks with me, one for each day and one for each night, and wore grubby sneakers — not fancy fashion boots like you see in some pictures — and 99% of everyone else is wearing the same. Consider fingerless gloves for your hands, too. Don’t get a manicure because your hands get gross very quickly. Your cuticles will crack and probably bleed, but they recover fast. Keep hand cream and a nail clipper by your bed every night.

  • Nose

    The nasal spray recommendation is no joke, half the people in my RV had nose bleeds from the dust and my nose burned like hell by mid-week.

  • Fanny pack

    Best thing I did was have a fanny pack for my phone, wallet, and any other valuables and kept it strapped to my body day and night. Because…

  • You will lose everything

    Try to be organized going in. Bring only what you really need, have outfits packed in plastic zip locks and labeled “Day 1,” “Night 1,” etc., but inevitably, “Where are my goggles/baby wipes/jewelry?” will echo throughout your RV, starting the second you pile in to drive to the playa.

  • The police

    The media likes to hype up what a police state Burning Man has become. I only heard of one incident of a guy getting caught with his stash and fined $600, but he was snorting in broad daylight. There are police out there because they know that many people are using substances. Don’t worry about the police if you’re smart. “I don’t consent to a search” is a good phrase to abide by.

  • Structure your week

    Don’t ruin your burn by partying too hard early on. My advice is to keep normal waking and sleeping hours Monday-Thursday, do all the workshops (all sessions will stop by Friday) during the days, explore a little bit at night but don’t stay out late, and then party non-stop Thursday through Sunday. The days at Burning Man are a lot of fun, the workshops are world-class, and that’s when you really build connections with other Burners. If anything, wake up at 8 AM, go rave for a couple hours at Robot Heart, and start your day after that. Again, you’ll figure out what works for you, but placing some priority on sleep early on and having somewhat of a plan for your week really helps set a good, healthy foundation for a rewarding burn.

  • Psychedelics

    It’s a thing here, some people do it, many don’t. If you’re going to go on a trip, it’s probably better to do it earlier in the week when there are fewer people around. I imagine 70,000 people on bikes in the darkness with electric peacocks and fire-breathing dragons floating around might be a lot to handle.

  • Bike

    Do not go to Robot Heart at 5 AM and casually leave your bike locked up with all the others. You’ll never know where you parked it once the sun comes up. Hundreds of people (virgins) lose their bikes like that every morning (or anytime on the playa when there’s a big event), so be conscious of where you park it. Everything moves out there — the art cars, the DJ, the other bikes, you name it. Park next to the toilets, the trash fence, or permanent art installations — they are practically the only things that don’t move. Decorate your bike so you can see it easily (turn it upside down to make it stand out more). Always lock your bike. Bikes disappear all the time and you don’t want to lose yours — it’s the biggest asset you have out there.

Post-Playa and miscellaneous thoughts

  • Clean-up

    Vinegar will help clean everything: hair, skin, clothes, bags. The dust will come off most things, but I tossed a lot of cheaper items rather than try to clean them. I had an expensive tote bag that was white when I left the playa, but a morning soaking in vinegar and water brought it right back to life.

  • Cost

    How much does going to Burning Man really cost? Here’s a rough estimate based on our camp: $500 for the ticket and vehicle pass, $800 each for RV, $350 each for food, $450 to join a theme camp, $500 on costumes, and roundtrip airfare for me was $400 = $3000 for 8 days. It’s not cheap, and with gifts, gas, and other last-minute purchases I spent closer to $3,500. Worth it, but I’ll do it for easily a grand less next year.

  • Expectations

    You’re going to have expectations, whether or not you think you do. I spent 2-3 days thinking I wasn’t having the “right burn” or the burn I wanted because I had underlying expectations. It’s hard to fight, so just know that you’ll feel discombobulated at first as you reconcile your expectations with reality.

  • Sex

    Almost everyone in my camp came in prioritizing having some kind of interesting sexual experience at first, but as the event went on, everyone realized that Burning Man isn’t really about that. A recent survey showed that only 15% of participants wound up having a “hook up” experience with someone they didn’t know prior to Burning Man.

  • Intuition

    Burning Man provides an ideal environment to experiment in listening to your intuition. You have total freedom to explore an entirely new world. Once you start listening to little clues, engaging with more people, and following your gut, you enter into the “flow” and the playa rewards everyone who is in that “flow.” It’s impossible to explain, so just remind yourself to be open to the flow.

  • Photo: Kate

  • The thing I wished someone had told me

    It’s going to take you 2-4 days to “adjust” to the playa. You will think you’re doing it all wrong, not having the burn you should be having, missing out on stuff, etc., and you probably are, but THAT’S PART OF IT. Relax and know it’s all teaching you something.

  • Tears

    You’re going to cry at some point, and you’re not going to see it coming. The playa will break you down and break you open.

  • Self-expressions

    Think of “radical self-expression” (one of the 10 principles of Burning Man) in terms of costumes and speech. I learned a lot about how to honestly and frankly and succinctly communicate what I wanted, needed, and was feeling at all times. That was a huge gift I received and gave to the playa.

  • Fun stuff I wish I had known

    There’s an airport at BRC and the pilots give free flights if you show up there — they are especially keen to give sunset or sunrise flights to couples who want to join the Mile High Club. If you are spiritual, head straight to Red Lightning and HBGB camps on Monday and get their schedule for the week. Don’t miss monkey chanting at HBGB.

  • Planning your days

    Personally, I had more fun when I woke up and, whenever I was ready to go, looked at the workshop manual and picked a destination. I never looked at what I had missed when I was sleeping or when I felt like roaming, but I found being a bit more purposeful led me to have better experiences than just biking around. I was always ready to abandon my plan for something else, but hitting the playa with a rough plan worked best for me. I also scheduled plenty of time to roam and just see what I found, but those times were when there weren’t any events in the book that appealed to me. Many would castigate me for writing about having a plan, but it’s just what worked for me because everything was so overwhelming.

Last and most important reminder before you hit the playa, you aren’t there to “check it out” — Burning Man requires FULL PARTICIPATION. You are an artist. You are part of the experience for someone and everyone! Be a part of that experience. Interact, connect, and give! For me, that sometimes meant running out into the playa and dragging someone to a dance party, or high-fiving everyone I passed on my bike, or bringing someone to a cool event I knew about, or telling them about the airport or other “secrets,” or just being random, silly, funny, interacting and playing, and making the experience special for the people around me.

I hope this helps, Virgin Burners-to-be, and I hope to see you on the playa.

This article originally appeared on Life Before 30 and is republished here with permission.

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