Dust, Wind, and Fire – How to Survive Burning Man

A seven-day party on an ancient lake bed? Why not? Burning Man is all about radical self-reliance. Find out how to do it right.

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Burning Man sculpture Photo © Ellen Hall

Chances are you’ve heard about Burning Man (if you have friends who have been, you’ve definitely heard about it). Every year, creative souls and free spirits from all over gather in Nevada’s remote Black Rock Desert and transform the flat, arid playa into a temporary city dedicated to art, music, dance, community, and of course, fire.

This event, which began as a fire ceremony on a San Francisco beach in 1986 and moved to the Nevada desert in 1990, reflects ten basic principles, including radical inclusion, radical self-expression, and communal effort.

If you appreciate art and creativity in all its forms, don’t mind roughing it a bit, and think it would be cool to stumble across a pop-up disco, carnival-themed bar, or flame-belching sculpture in the middle of nowhere, Burning Man might be for you. Some burners think it’s become too big and corporate (this year’s permit allows up to 70,000 participants), while for others, it remains the high point of their year. Personally, I think everyone should experience Burning Man at least once, if you’re open to that kind of thing.

But while the event is all about letting your freak flag fly, don’t think you can just buy a ticket and show up. Enjoying Burning Man properly and safely takes advance preparation. Here are our tips for making the most of it.

First Rule of Burning Man: Stay Hydrated

We can’t stress this enough. The playa is very hot and dry, and once you’re at Black Rock City, miles from the nearest town, there is no water available. Dehydration is one of the most common causes of illness at Burning Man, so come prepared. Bring at least 1.5 gallons of drinking water per person per day, plus more for washing dishes and cursory bathing. (Don’t try to stay squeaky-clean on the playa. It’s futile – and you can’t dump your gray water on the playa anyway, so the less you produce, the better.)

Drugs and Alcohol at Burning Man

From discos to parades to massive bonfires, Burning Man is in many ways one endless party, and quite a lot of alcohol and drug consumption (legal and otherwise) goes on. If you choose to partake, be responsible – the playa is rife with potential ways to hurt yourself, even when sober. Keep in mind that injuries, sickness, or death related to the abuse of drugs or alcohol generally won’t be covered by travel insurance, and may not be covered by your personal health insurance either. 

Avoiding Health Hazards at Burning Man

Burning Man is an inhibitions-lowering place, but that’s no reason to lose all sense. Use sunblock religiously, carry a flashlight at night, and keep perishable foods chilled. Take care of yourself and your friends. Practice safe sex ­– an STD is not the playa memory you want to take home.

Remember to bring a first-aid kit with bandages, antibiotic ointment, aloe vera, saline eye wash, tweezers, and other basics for minor injuries, as well as medications for allergies, diarrhea, etc. and any prescription meds you're taking (keep these in the bottle you received from your pharmacist at all times). Wear glasses or contact lenses? Don’t forget an extra pair or two.

If you’re seriously ill or injured, head to one of the six medical stations at Black Rock City, which are staffed with emergency medical personnel 24 hours a day. For extremely serious situations, evacuation by plane, helicopter, or ambulance to a hospital in Reno is possible. If you need to be evacuated and have World Nomads travel insurance, you (or someone else) must contact our emergency assistance team as soon as reasonably possible.

The bike arch at Burning Man. Photo credit: Ellen Hall

Burning Man Food Guide

The only items for sale on the playa are ice and coffee, so you need to bring all of your own food and beverages. Non-perishables are easiest – for a hot meal, toss a pre-cooked Indian meal pouch (available at South Asian groceries) on your car dashboard and let it warm up for a few hours. You can make quesadillas this way, too.

Dust Storms at Burning Man

The playa is covered with fine, alkaline dust and is prone to high winds, so you can expect a dust storm or several during your visit. Come equipped with goggles and a dust mask or bandana, and keep them on you at all times. Dust storms often create whiteout conditions, so don’t attempt to drive, and if you are out on the playa and can’t see any landmarks, stay put so you don’t get lost. The best thing to do is hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.

Planning to tent camp? Know this – normal tent stakes are no match for the desert winds. Bring some 20-inch lengths of rebar to stake down your tent and keep it from becoming a tumbleweed. Be sure to cover the end of the stakes with plastic bottles or some other soft material, to prevent injury if someone stumbles into them.

Playa dust gets everywhere – and I mean everywhere! Keep your car windows closed and your tent zipped, especially if you’ll be leaving your camp for a while. You might also consider throwing a sheet over your car engine to protect it (but be sure to remove it before starting your drive home!).

Keeping Cool on the Playa

The midday sun is very intense, and you won’t get much relief inside your tent. Some type of sturdy shade structure is key, because you’ll spend a lot of your time lounging under it while you wait for the “golden hour” when the sun starts to set and the playa really comes alive. Stake down your structure well unless you want to see what it looks like as a kite.

No Money at Burning Man

Your cash is no good on the playa. Other than ice, coffee, and tea, nothing is for sale, so if you see someone handing out beads or lip balm or handmade unicorn hats, they’re yours for the taking. You aren’t required to offer anything in return, but in the proper, communal spirit of the event, you should be prepared to contribute in some way, whether it’s food, entertainment, some type of service, or just helping your neighbors (who obviously didn’t read these tips) chase down their runaway tent.

Leave No Trace Behind

Say no to MOOP, or “matter out of place,” which means anything that’s not part of the natural environment. Take care not to leave behind any trash, glow sticks, googly eyes, gorilla costumes, or any other detritus from your adventures. Don’t bring items that can easily blow away, like loose glitter or feather boas; use only biodegradable, organic soap and dishwashing liquid; and pack out your grey water. As harsh as the playa may seem, it’s a fragile place, so tread as lightly as possible.

Night Temperatures at Burning Man

Though the days are toasty, the playa can get pretty cold once the sun goes down. Bring a warm sleeping bag, multiple layers of clothing, hats, boots – and get creative with it. This is your chance to wear that giant velour Willy Wonka top hat and faux-fur vest you’ve had lying around.

Burning Man Bike Ideas

The playa is a big place – and while you can get around by hopping aboard one of the giant “mutant vehicles” shaped like schooners or humongous snails or whatever else your fellow burners have dreamed up, you’ll also want a bike so you can travel more freely. Bring something functional, not fancy – it will take a beating from the dust, and like you, may never be the same after a few days on the playa. Many burners buy a used bike on Craigslist just for the event. Since there will be tens of thousands of other bikes there, it’s a good idea (as well as a fun project) to decorate yours so it stands out – wrap it in zebra-print fabric or something, and add a tall element like a bouquet of plastic flowers that can be seen from a distance. Always lock it when it’s not in use – bike thefts do happen, even in a kumbaya kind of place like Burning Man. Don’t forget a bike light or better yet, a headlamp, so you can find your way safely after dark.

Crime at Burning Man

Speaking of theft, it’s best to leave your valuables at home. The heat and dust will wreak havoc on cameras and laptops, there’s no Internet service at Black Rock City, and it’s also difficult to keep your items secure. If you are a victim of theft or any other crime, report it immediately to the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office, which has a presence at Black Rock City – you’ll most likely need a law enforcement report if you hope to file a claim with your insurance company. Bear in mind that while renters insurance might cover personal property taken from your car, travel insurance policies often exclude items stolen from a vehicle or left unattended.

Taking Photos at Burning Man

Burning Man is a judgment-free zone. If someone wants to ride in the topless bike parade, they should be able to do so without worrying that their picture will end up on the Internet. Out of courtesy and respect, always ask permission before taking someone’s photo. (This is good advice no matter where you go.) Also, if you’re offended by nudity, Burning Man is not for you.

Advice for Desert Driving

Unless you have a vehicle that’s specially licensed to drive on the playa, once at the event you’ll only be allowed to drive from the gates to your campsite and back out again. But there’s a lot of hot desert road on the way to Black Rock City, and you might find yourself in a lengthy traffic jam or two. Before you leave, check your car’s coolant fluid, belts, and hoses, and bring extra coolant on the road with you. Carry a cell phone and keep it charged, and don’t wait until your gas tank is almost empty to fill it up.

This is just a partial list – check out the official Burning Man Survival Guide for more tips.

Want to know more about the USA? Check out our podcast. Hang out with orcas in Alaska, follow the barbecue trail through the Deep South (with a vegetarian), strap on your skis in Colorado, and learn about the thriving Creole cowboy culture.

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