Special Burning Man Survival and Thrival Guide for First Timers

  • August 23, 2017

Burning Man provides an environment that is unlike anything I have found elsewhere on the planet. The ethos of the community combined with the ruggedness of the environment present equal parts challenge and opportunity for exploration.

As I prepare for my second Burning Man experience in just a few days, I put down some of my thoughts to help the first-timers in our camp. If it helps others too, great!

Every experience at Burning Man is unique. As you’ll see, the immensity of Black Rock City (BRC) is incomprehensible until you get there. Even if you were to attempt to chart a specific path, the environment with its sporadic dust storms, bouts of heat, fluid nature, and even rain will challenge any attempt at planning.

This is why one of the first things you learn at BM is to go with the flow.

Trying to meetup with people at other camps is usually a huge waste of time and typically very frustrating.

If you’re at BM, chances are you know other people there that are not in your camp. Trying to find them is a challenge and can easily eat up a full day with no promise for success. Cell phones typically don’t work and even when they do, most people correctly choose not to use them. Communication is tough and in a place as rugged and flowing as BM, depending on people being in a certain place at a certain time is a bad bet.

Same thing goes for activities. Upon arriving on the playa, you will receive a dense book filled with all the scheduled things going on around the playa throughout the week. It’s daunting. Peruse the book and pick one or two things to check out, if you’d like. Trying to schedule the whole time there is a mistake because inevitably you’ll get diverted leaving you with a sense of ‘missing out’. Know this: YOU WILL MISS OUT ON MANY THINGS! You can’t possibly be everywhere at all times so you may as well embrace it from the beginning.

The alternative, meandering through BM using only serendipity as your guide without expectation, virtually guarantees success. There is no other event in the modern world where leaving experience to chance is the preferred method, especially for first-timers.

The differences between the Default World(1) to BM are significant. It is hard to describe how rugged and inhospitable the playa is. Given that every single thing needs to be transported in and out for the event, the question of whether there is a less ideal place to hold a 60k person event comes to mind frequently. It’s hard to imagine as a newcomer because you only hear positive reviews of the experiences from devirginized burners but make no mistake, the playa is as extreme natural environment as it gets.

Surviving is the first step and thriving is the second. You can’t thrive if you can’t survive first.

Survival is about preparation and thriving is 100% attitude.

Mental Prepation

Read the damn Survival Guide. Yes, it’s long but it is also concise given all that you need to know. There are some very important things to understand prior to arriving on the playa in order to be mentally prepared. It’s important to know how big the event is, how well it is organised, where you will poop, how to arrive, how to exit, what’s frowned upon, what’s encouraged, where to turn if you or someone needs help, personal safety, etc.

Read the frickin Survival Guide! If you don’t recognize the importance of spending 20 mins required to read the guide before heading into one of the most unusual and challenging environments, you don’t deserve to survive. But you also shouldn’t come because then you are relying on the community to support you without doing your fair share.

Know what BM is not! This may even be more important than knowing what Burning Man is because the public perception of BM, while understandably perceived, doesn’t begin to capture what the experience is or what life is like on the playa. Burning Man is NOT a music festival. Burning Man is not a drug fueled sex fest. Burning Man is not about nudity or celebrities or fashion, even if some elements of those things exist on the playa. Burning Man is not about bartering for food and experiences. Burning Man has not become commercialized despite what people tell you.

Burning Man is a time and place for like-minded people to live among various forms of expression while eschewing certain elements of the Default World (transactions, social status, judgement, to name a few). Expression is in the form of creating art, experiencing art, and being among art. Art is huge at BM and in a way, BM is one huge participatory art piece.

Music is one form of artistic expression which means there is music at BM. But it is in no way central and if you don’t want to hear anything louder than personal music, a burner could easily do so.

Art cars and mutant vehicles are another form of artistic expression and are a core element of Burning Man. Art cars are cars/trucks/buses/boats that have been converted to rolling art pieces. Some shoot fire, most have lights and others are small, 2-person transports. Many of them form their own intimate party and can be hopped on and off as you choose. They don’t have a specific route but roam the playa through the night.

Nudity, female AND male, is common at BM but by no means is expected. People choose to be nude or partially nude in order to express some part of them but that’s all there is to it, a personal expression. Nudity is not consent. BM is meant to be a safe place for all expression and nudity is no different.

Physical preparation

You don’t need to go on a diet before BM, that’s not important. What is extremely important is bringing the right gear. The playa is unforgiving. Every year the weather is different and it cannot be predicted.

You MUST be prepared for any environment that include extreme heat, cold, sun, dust, and wind. You also MUST have good shelter and enough food and water for the time that you are there. There are no stores or places to run out to if you forget something. You will not be able to leave the playa outside of a true emergency. Read that last sentence again. You cannot simply run out to the store if you forget something or need something last-minute. Yes, other folks on the playa are ready and willing to help but you shouldn’t rely on them.

There are countless gear guides online so I won’t go into the depths of what you need. Experienced burners have their opinions but until you develop your own opinions AFTER attending, you should consider the following list of items mandatory:

  1. Dust mask
  2. Goggles
  3. CamelBak
  4. Travel mug
  5. Bike and lock
  6. Bike lights
  7. Headlamp
  8. Clothing for 40 deg weather
  9. Clothing for 90 deg weather
  10. Food and water for days on playa
  11. Shelter
  12. Sun shields (hat, sun screen, sunglasses)
  13. Shoes that you can stand and walk in for 5+ hours a day

Great outfits add some fun to the Burning Man experience but they aren’t critical to surviving. All the pictures from BM look like everyone is professionally styled but the reality is that it is very mixed. People there are mainly very comfortable with free flowing clothes that they can wear day after day and night after night. Then they have a couple of funky accessories for style but that’s about it.

As a first timer, you are probably going to buy and bring too much stuff. On the playa, you’ll probably only wear a couple different outfits. Or maybe even just one!

If you are going to bring some fun stuff, bring real clothes, not Halloween costumes. Note, everything you bring to the playa will be consumed by dust, sometimes irreparably. One good tip is to bring street clothes and put them in a Ziploc bag that you only open once you are off the playa. That way, you have at least one clean thing to wear on the flight back home.

Thriving

It’s all about attitude. Burning Man is an ideal place for personal exploration. Some people have transformative experiences but don’t put it on yourself that that’s what you need to make Burning Man worth it.

Just getting there is a success! To maximize your time, here is what I would suggest:

  1. Be conscious of the 10 principles while you are on the playa and do your best to uphold them. Prior to getting on the playa, they can be a bit abstract but each one will have context provided after spending some time on the playa. By upholding the principles, it is one way of giving back to the community. You will also experience the event as the organizers intended.
  2. Try to leave as much of the Default World in the Default World as possible. Specifically, don’t carry your cell phone around, don’t talk about your day job or ask other people about theirs, and try to stay away from current events. What you do also affects other people so even if you are okay talking about your life, others come to Burning Man precisely to have an alternative experience. If you don’t know how to start a conversation without pat questions like where are you from or what do you do, try asking how many burns a person has been to or offering that it is your first time and if they know of any must-dos.
  3. Default to yes. Do you want to ride this art car? Yes! Do you want to check out that nail painting camp? yes! Do you want to learn Bangra? yes! It’s very okay to have boundaries, it’s your experience and nobody elses. But, BM is a chance to try things that you probably wouldn’t have in the Default World.\
  4. Hug instead of shaking hands! Meet people and don’t hesitate going to say hello to strangers. BM is the best environment in the world to meet new people. Likewise, be open to strangers saying hello to you.

First timer FAQ

Q: What do I use the CamelBak for and why a travel mug?
A: It’s very hot during the day and since there are no water fountains, a CamelBak provides a convenient way to carry enough water on your person for the day. Or else you dehydrate and be miserable or worse. Not everybody has a CamelBak out there but most people do. The travel mug is to take advantage of the myriad of food and beverages offered by camps on the playa. They expect you to have your own mug/bowl because disposable stuff is bad for the environment and liable to become MOOP.

Q: What’s MOOP and do I need to care about it?
A: It’s Matter Out Of Place and is basically trash. Yes, you need to care about it or else people will be yelling MOOP at you and eventually you’ll be shamed into realizing that it is easier to just be conscious about your trash than getting yelled at all the time. Plus, it really is the right thing to do.

Q: How dusty does it really get out there?
A: It varies from year to year but the year I went (2015) was insanely dusty. Like, you can’t see 10 ft in front of you dusty. Dust gets EVERYWHERE. It’s hard to describe but as long as you get good goggles and dust mask, you’ll manage fine. Have them with you at all times!

Q: Why do I need lights on my bike?
A: Lights prevent you from being run over by an art car or other bikers. They are very important! It’s dark in the desert and if you aren’t lit, you won’t be seen. It’s also important to have distinct lights on your bike because you’ll park your bike at night and finding it can be very tricky. There are thousands of bikes all around the playa! Anything to differentiate your bike from the others helps.

Q: How should I go for my first time? With a camp or by myself?
A: I would highly suggest trying to find a camp to go with. There is a special section in BRC for single campers but the vast majority are with a camp. IMHO, everything is better with people who you can share it with. Having a camp also greatly improves the planning experience because you can rely on more experienced people for the majority of logistics while you can focus on just getting there and living.

Q: Who goes to BM?
A: All kinds of people. Most of them are interesting. The range of people on the playa is surprising. There are couples in their 60s and 70s that just hang out at their RV all day and on the other side of the spectrum, there are even kids. There aren’t many kids but you’ll definitely see some. There is everything in between!

Q: Where do you pee and poop? What about showers or bathing?
A: There are plenty of porta potty stations throughout BRC that are diligently maintained by organization staff. There are no public showers on the playa unless you bring one. Some camps have showers but also remember that all gray water (i.e. shower run-off) must be contained and disposed of properly. People without showers typically use wipes to clean themselves.

Q: If it’s not a music festival or a drug-fueled sex fest, how would you describe Burning Man succinctly?
A: It’s an organized week of camping in the desert with 60k people focused on art and personal exploration.

Q: What’s the deal with bartering?
A: There actually isn’t that much bartering going on. Because everyone is radically self-reliant, most things exchanged between people are just given away and are part of the gifting culture.

Q: Isn’t Burning Man commercialized now? I heard it is really different from it used to be.
A: Brands of all kinds are shunned on the playa. People go so far as to cover the U-haul logo on their trucks so as not to inadvertently advertise. I don’t know what BM used to be because I wasn’t there but I am sure it is different now than before. It has evolved and some things like infrastructure are certainly better now than before. There are also a lot more people which means more art and more things going on. Honestly, I think that burners perpetuate the commercialization myth to protect it from people who probably wouldn’t contribute to the experience.

Q: Is Burning Man safe?
A: It’s a lot safer than a typical 60k person city but that doesn’t mean it is danger-free. With that many people, it’s inevitable that crimes are committed. Just because it feels safe, doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be conscious of their own personal safety. Be conscious and maintain a reasonable level of vigilance.

Q: Are there police or event staff around? What if there is an emergency?
A: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the primary government agency that protects the land which BRC is built on. They setup a special outpost during BM and definitely have a continuous presence in BRC. They generally keep to themselves unless there is a reason to get involved. Supposedly there are undercover police around too so be mindful. They bust camps not IDing people and serving alcohol to minors. Their presence may be a myth to keep people in check but it might not be so may as well be aware. BM also has volunteer rangers and their own staff that roam around to provide support to burners. Help is usually never too far away. They all have radios and can get support to people quickly.

Footnotes:

  1. The easiest thing is for people new to BM to refer to the rest of their life by saying things like ‘when I get back to normal life’ or ‘in the real world, blah blah blah’. Burners hate the idea that the rest of the year should be called normal and instead challenge that notion that it is normal by referring to it as the Default World, i.e. the world we have settled to live in but is in no way ideal or more normal than the world as we experience it in BRC.