If you’re not familiar with Burning Man you’re likely either under the age of 12 or have been living under a rock for most of your life. Just in case, here’s a bit of history; Burning Man is an annual event that takes place in “Black Rock City” which is a temporary city erected in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It was started by a group of guys in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco where they had a giant bonfire to “burn the man”. “The man” was a 9-foot wooden man and he has since grown to be around 40 feet. Why they burned “the man” is widely disputed and doesn’t really matter anymore since it’s just become an excuse for people to pay a bunch of money to dress up in costumes, roll around in dust, and spend a week being whoever or whatever they want to be.
I’ve been aware of Burning Man since I was in high school and my curiosity of the goings-on of the festival made it an early entry to my bucket list. I envisioned dusty, naked hippies taking large amounts of acid and driving around on giant art cars bumping electric dance music. I was finally able to make the trip in 2016 and as it turns out, my vision wasn’t too far off. It’s a bunch of rich kids (with tickets at over $400 each that include nothing but the pleasure of entering the fake city, you’ve gotta have some cash to make the trek) wearing nipple pasties or “shirt-cocking” (yes, it’s exactly as it sounds), high on drugs, riding on bikes or art cars and snapping selfies.
Before I left for a week on the playa, a friend said to me “get lost, and then you’ll find yourself”. Well I did get lost (but only because the layout is super confusing initially) and I found that Burning Man isn’t really my jam. But I made some pretty major mistakes on my first go-around so someday I’d like to try again and hopefully find out what all the hype is about. So if it’s your first time at Burning Man, learn from my mistakes before you go and avoid making the same ones I did!
Burning Man: A Few Basics
- Burning Man takes place the week before Labor Day every year. They burn the man on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and then the temple on the Sunday, and most people head home on Monday.
- The process for actually obtaining tickets is pretty strange/confusing/annoying. First, you create a “burner profile”. Then, on the “main sale” date (it takes place sometime in March) you’ll get into an online queue at the designated time. Then they have a random selection process as to who can buy tickets and who can’t (you’ll sit at your computer and wait for a LONG time before you find out). Each person is only allowed to buy 2 tickets and 1 parking pass. When we went, somehow I got in but Nick and our 5 other friends were denied. So if you have a group of people who all want to go, good luck.
- The only things that are actually sold at Burning Man are ice and coffee.
- Burning Man is all about the gifts. You can’t sell things or offer trade for things. But you should plan on bringing some extras to gift to others. Maybe that is handmade bracelets or extra mimosa fixings or grilled cheese sandwiches. As you wander across the playa and through the various camps around Burning Man you’ll be amazed at the things people will offer you with no expectation of any form of reciprocation. It is one of many incredible things that makes Burning Man a truly unique experience.
- Black Rock City is laid out like a clock; half of the circle is for camping and the other half is considered “deep playa” which is a giant open space reserved for the epic art installations.
- There are some “guiding principles” of Burning Man and people like to talk about them a lot. Read them before you go so you understand what everyone is talking about.
- Costumes with a lot of small pieces that can easily fall off (i.e. feathers or sequins) are frowned upon. Burners call litter “MOOP” (Matter Out Of Place) and they get all judgy about it.
My Burning Man Packing List
- Your ticket – they will not accept anything other than your official paper ticket and it would be horrifying to have to drive all they way back home to get it.
- So. Many. Costumes. – I started prepping my costumes 6 months before BM. I went all handmade and all original and it was a ridiculous amount of work (but worth it for the epic photos).
- Booze – mimosas for breakfast, beer with lunch, and cocktails for dinner (and bring plenty extra to share with your new burner friends)
- Food – the only things you can buy at Burning Man are ice and coffee. If you run out of food or water you’ll likely find kind souls who will feed and water you but I wouldn’t recommend relying on that.
- Water – again, you can’t buy water here (though as your ice melts you’ll have a fresh supply). So you’ll need to plan for drinking water and showering water (if you choose that choice). We brought 2 gallons per person per day which ended up being WAY too much (but we never showered soooo…). If you plan on showering you’ll need a contraption to catch the grey water and let it evaporate in the sun (no dirty water on the playa) – a kiddie pool works pretty well for this.
- Tent and shade structure – it gets HOT starting around 8am. And you’ll likely need a nap in the afternoon. Shade is an absolute priority on the playa.
- Load of sunscreen – see above.
- Actual shoes – the dust of the playa virtually destroys everything it touches so the less of your tootsies that you expose to it, the better. Flip flops are only really good for late night trips to the loo.
- Air mattress and bedding – do I need to explain this? Well maybe you don’t plan on sleeping but if you do, you’ll need some things.
- Bicycle – Black Rock City is HUGE. Like, an actual city. So if you tried to walk from one end to the other and back again it would take you the entire day. If you don’t have a bike you’ll likely have a very strange and sad experience that is limited to your immediate neighborhood or you’ll need to catch a ride on random art cars. There are several hundred communal “Yellow Bikes” that are provided for free – but it takes a lot of luck to happen upon one when you need it. If you’re planning on “shirt cocking”, add some extra fluff to your bike seat.
- A bike lock – not that anyone is intentionally stealing, some people just get too drunk and wander off with the wrong bike. Since no one is purposely trying to steal your bike, a lightweight lock will suffice. A simple combination lock is much better than one requiring a key.
- Lights – lights to illuminate your bike are pretty important to avoid late night crashes. Also, having a headlight for trips to the porto and lights to hang around your tent are necessary. Luci lights are amazing for Burning Man as they will recharge in the sun during the day to be ready at night. And they are super compact when it comes time to pack up!
- Toilet paper – occasionally you’ll be lucky enough to find a dry roll of toilet paper in one of the freaking disgusting, dilapidated porto potties but I wouldn’t count on it. Plan on bringing your own. Single ply is the only ply for the portos.
- Lots and lots of baby wipes – you will never be so dirty in your entire life as you will be during a week at Burning Man. If you bring enough water and you’re with a group they may have a solar shower contraption or you can stick to nightly baby wipe hippie showers like me.
- Goggles and a bandanna to cover your nose/mouth – dust storms are inevitable at Burning Man and if you happen to get caught in one you will need to immediately stop what you’re doing and attempt to find shelter to wait it out. You can’t see more than a foot in front of your face so attempting to go anywhere is impossible (and potentially dangerous because art cars can’t see you either).
- Extra batteries or solar charger – the only way to get electricity at Burning Man is through solar power or a generator (or some type of converter on your bike). Unless you have a very large solar panel you’ll have a hard time charging things. Plus anything you leave outside is at the mercy of a surprise dust storm. Best to bring spare batteries for any lights or headlamps plus a battery that can recharge your cell phone and camera battery. We took an Anker Astro E7 26800mAh Portable Charger and it lasted all week!
- Tupperware – the best way to keep your valuables dust-free is to store them in tupperware containers and seal them up tight when you leave for the day.
Now on to the pros and cons of my choices…
Drive to Black Rock City?
- With the amount of stuff you’ll need to bring, flying isn’t really an option. We drove a large Ford Bronco and it’s never been pack so full as when we went to Burning Man. There is no way we would have been able to carpool, bus, or fly with the amount of junk we brought. Granted, we definitely overpacked, but since BM is in the middle of nowhere, it’s better to be over-prepared than under.
- It’s a LONG drive. No matter where you’re coming from, the Black Rock Desert is in the middle of nowhere. Which is why it’s the ideal location for such a large festival.
- The traffic getting into “Black Rock City” is horrendous. Every person who passes into Black Rock City must have their paper ticket scanned and their car searched for spare people. Then they must be greeted by the welcome committee which involves getting out of their car, banging on a gong, and doing “dust angels” to be all zen with the playa. And more than 70,000 people have to do all of those things. We arrived on Saturday, the day before opening day and waited for 4 HOURS. In our car. In line.
Drive, but don’t plan on going on opening day. Wait until Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday to avoid the line to get in. Also, stock up on road sodas and adult diapers.
Camp in a tent at Burning Man?
- It’s easy to pack. If you plan on driving to Burning Man, your car will crammed with all of your necessities for the week and a tent won’t take up too much room.
- It’s easy to assemble. Even really large tents are reasonable fast and easy to put together.
- It’s cheap. If you don’t have a motorhome or a converted campervan, renting one is crazy expensive. Especially if they have an inkling that you’ll be taking it to BM (the dust is REALLY rough on both the interior and the exterior of any vehicle). Most nearby rental agencies charge an extra damage/cleaning fee if they figure out that you’re taking it to Burning Man.
- You will sleep on top of a layer of dust every night. Tents are breathable… good for not dying in your sleep, bad for keeping out millions of tiny dust particles.
- Nothing in the tent will ever be the same again (and don’t even try to keep the tent). The playa dust will be in every crevice of your body and everything you brought with you. It’s not even worth trying to salvage. Do as Frozen Elsa did and “let it gooooo.”
- You’ll hear EVERYTHING. Las Vegas may be the “city that never sleeps”, but Black Rock City is like the obnoxious younger sibling that not only won’t sleep but wants to kick you every 30 seconds to ensure that you don’t get any shut-eye either. If you’re in a tent you’ll be lulled to slumber by EDM (electric dance music) pumping in your eardrums and laser lights dancing across your rooftop.
- You’ll still need shade. Tents provide a semblance of protection against the elements but have serious difficultly avoiding becoming sweat infernos beginning at sunrise and then boiling until dusk. Bring a tarp and some rebar to hide beneath but make sure to cut some holes in the tarp least it get picked up by a dust storm and carried violently across the playa.
- You’ll need to use the camp porta-potties. While waiting in the 4-HOUR-LONG car line just to get into Black Rock City I decided to have a beer or 10 while I waited patiently in the scorching heat which meant that I eventually had to use the ladies room. There were a few portas along the route and I’ve never seen a toilet so full of funk in my entire life. And let’s get one thing straight – Burning Man takes place on a playa which is a stretch of dry lake bed as far as the eye can see. No plants. No trees. No shelter to squat. And no pee-privacy, like, ever. The porta-potty company that Burning Man uses saves their most despicable and unsanitary porta-potties just for this annual event and squatting just isn’t really an option so…
Rent a campervan. Reserve it well in advance as every type of large vehicle within several hundred miles of Black Rock City will be booked the week of Burning Man.
Join an established themed camp?
- You’ll know other people there. The people are what make Burning Man so special so why not get to know more of them!
- You’ll cook meals together. Or if you’re in a fancy enough camp you’ll have a kitchen crew cooking. And generally not just cooking spaghetti either. Our camp chef was making elaborate meals that were sustainably grown and non-gmo and all that hippie jazz.
- They will think of things that you won’t. Like a water station for hand washing, tooth brushing, and dish washing. By the end of the week it will be full of gross, old food scraps and out of soap but it’s better than nothing.
- They will provide lots of shady tent space for lounging. You won’t always want to be zooming around the playa on your huffy, sometimes you’ll just want to chill out on an inflatable unicorn. If you’re on your own you’ll probably have to find some random other camp to hang with (that’s pretty fun too) but if you’ve joined a camp they’ve likely got loads of shady space and furniture at your disposal.
- They help to make your first “burn” less intimidating. They’ve already been there and done that.
- You’ll make friends for life. And they’ll probably give you a silly “burner name”. Mine was Rip Cord because I knew when it was time to pull it and head to a hotel.
- You’ll have to actually WORK. And not just while you’re at Burning Man. Large theme camps have loads of structures and equipment, and they needed to test all of their gear beginning months in advance to make sure they had all of the parts and that everything worked right. And for good reason – if you get out to the playa and realize you’ve left a very important screw at home, you’re pretty much screwed. So almost every Saturday leading up to the big day we had a “work party” where we would assemble and then disassemble various tents and structures. It was not exactly my ideal way to spend a weekend. Plus we signed up for the “set-up” crew so we had to arrive to camp early to set everything up which meant that we were on the playa (and unshowered) for an extra 2 days. If you join a camp you can expect to work several shifts throughout the week doing jobs such as set-up, tear-down, bartender, cook, clean-up, etc.
- There is a meal schedule that you must either plan for or starve. Some camps (including ours) have set meal times and if you don’t show up for them then you are on your own to scrounge for food. Plus it was considered a big no-no to raid the kitchen at our camp. We found it incredibly difficult to ever make it in time. At 9am (breakfast) we were generally zooming around deep playa because we’d gotten up for sunrise since there weren’t a million people everywhere so it was the best time to explore. During lunch time we were too hot to eat. And I’ve never seen more beautiful sunrises than on the playa so our camp’s strict 7pm dinnertime made it impossible to get to an epic sunrise location in time. So we paid for really elaborate, expensive meals and generally ended up eating the $3 pretzels that we brought from home. Each camp handles meal time a little differently, but you can expect it to add a bit more structure to your week at Burning Man (which can be good or bad).
- It adds even more expense to your trip. Tickets just to get into Burning Man are outrageously expensive (we paid $450/person plus $80 to park) and then we paid an extra $600/person to join our camp. Plus you have loads of other expenses to get ready so be prepared to break the bank.
- You may not be stoked on their “gift” to the playa. Different camps plan different events to essentially “give back” to the playa. Some host giant parties, others set-up a full-on cafe and serve fancy espresso drinks (all completely free of course), some offer slushy champagne cocktails that are heavenly in the middle of a hot and dusty day. One outrageously amazing camp held “belligerent butt-fighting competitions.” Our camp had “party pole parties”. So they had a bunch of stuffed animals and some big poles and passersby would cut holes in the stuffed animal’s butts and shove them on the end of a pole. Apparently you take them to parties so your friends can find you. Lots of people loved it, but I had a hard time getting excited about it.
Consider joining a camp but do your research first to make sure you are clear on the rules/guidelines/costs/expectations of the group. And know that you don’t NEED to join a camp to have a great time.
See Black Rock City from the air?
- Airplane rides are offered daily and are free! There are several private pilots who offer free rides around the playa every morning. Theoretically you can head over to the airstrip, put your name on a list, and be up in a tiny plane in a matter of a few hours.
- The view of the city from above is unreal. You can’t really appreciate just how immaculately the city is organized when you are in the thick of it.
- Unless you are a cute, solo girl, your chances of actually getting on a plane are slim. Nick and I had heard that we should go really early in the morning to get our name on the list. So for two mornings in a row we arrived bright and early before 7am, got our name on a list, and waited. For hours. The pilots can be lazy and hungover and arrive at varying times (can you blame them?). And then they like to stop flying around 11am. And, for good reason, they offer preference to their friends or to cute, half-naked girls. We waited from 7am-11am both days and never got on a plane.
We didn’t get on one of the planes I mentioned above but we DID manage to get on a plane that was taking skydivers up. The skydiving camp was right across from ours so we wandered over with some bloody mary fixings and hung out with them. They were super friendly and actually ran on a schedule and took us on an epic ride. Find their camp and follow in our footsteps! (Plus their skydiving outfits will provide you with endless entertainment…)
Wake up for sunrise and then party until the wee hours?
- The wee hours of the morning and the wee hours of the evening are VERY different experiences. One of my favorite things about Burning Man was sunrise. Most people party late and sleep until noon so there is a peaceful calm in the early morning hours. We’d have most of the art structures in deep playa all to ourselves and occasionally stumble upon a random burner serving up hot chocolate or coffee out in the middle of nowhere. And sunsets are spectacular. And when it gets dark, the lights come out and the playa transforms into a circus freakshow of laser lights and thumping music. Many of the art structures look completely different at night than they do during the day and you definitely need to witness both.
- Sunrise and sunset on the playa may be the most beautiful that you’ll ever see in your entire life. Seriously, the colors are epic. You’ll hate to go even one day without seeing both.
- It’s exhausting. If you try to wake up for sunrise every day and stay up to party every night, you’ll wind up half-assing both and not really enjoying yourself. A mid-afternoon nap would be a good choice but it’s so hot that it’s not exactly realistic unless you are sleeping in a camper and pumping the aircon.
Don’t try to do it all every day. Choose one day for an early morning followed by a busy day and then relax in the evening. And another day to save up your energy for a big night out.
Go early and stay for an entire week?
- The playa just gets busier as the week goes on. So if you arrive really early, it’s a bit of a different vibe and it can be cool to see when it’s still slightly calm. If you are a part of the “set-up crew” for an established camp you can get early arrival passes and it’s REALLY crazy to see the giant art installations being built.
- You’ll really get your moneys worth. Like I said, your ticket price only covers your entrance to the playa (which is free and wide open the other 51 weeks of the year). So the longer you go, the less you end up paying on a per-day basis.
- That’s a LONG time to be that dirty. We arrived on Saturday, one day before BM officially opened, to set-up. We planned on leaving on Labor Day. That means we would have been living on the playa for 10 days. By Wednesday I decided that if I didn’t have a shower and a good nights sleep that I would shrivel up and die so we drove an hour and a half to the nearest hotel and stayed one glorious night there.
- It all kind of runs together. As with all things, unfortunately the novelty of Burning Man wears off eventually.
5 days is really the maximum that one regular, sane, non-burner can last on the playa IMHO. I think my mind, body, and spirit would have been much happier if we had arrived on Thursday and left late Sunday night or early Monday morning.
Burning Man is a crazy, weird, amazing, horrifying experience and most definitely worth seeing at least once in your life. Definitely GO, but if it’s your first time at Burning Man do it right!