Burning Man and how to prepare for going there


"Like living inside Cirque du Soleil for a week'"

"A convention of mad geniuses"

"A city that feels like a small village hosting the biggest party on the planet"

"A giant, high tech potlatch"

"Mecca for the 'In dust we trust' cult"


Burning Man is so unlike any other festival, and so spectacular and surreal that no matter how much you have heard or read about it before you go for the first time, it will probably be a very different experience from what you had expected. It is the most amazing, preposterous thing that humans do that I know of.  A week after you return you may wonder if it really happened. 


Many people have the impression that burners (and contradancers) are somewhat nicer than average people.  In both subcultures, patience, tolerance and cooperation is required, and the worst jerks have a terrible time and usually don't come back.  Burning Man is not a utopia, and may even have a little more than its share of lost souls and bad politics, but comraderie prevails and the event really is the defacto home, family and church for its subculture. There is a somewhat higher level of alcohol and drug use compared to the average folk/ contra event. However if you are not looking for it, you may barely notice. Most people are sober most of the time, and even when "under the influence" they are infinitely friendlier, more respectful and better behaved than for instance any football game crowd I have ever been near.  Incidents of individuals coming onto the dancefloor who are too "impaired" to contradance have been a rarity/ non-issue - in practice almost everyone remains aware of what they are capable of.   

If you have brought new people to contradances for as long as I have, you develop an instinct for recognizing 'latent' dancers.  I look at burners and see thousands of alternativish folks that are likely potential new contradancers at least half of whom are under 35.   Our camp has hordes of people thanking us every year for introducing them to contradancing and for providing an alternative to the ubiquitous Playa electronic dance music scene.  

When many people hear that Burning Man is 70,000 people they envision a large crowd, but spread over a 2 mile diameter city there are actually very few places and times (other than near the burns) when it feels crowded.  Burners include folks from across the spectra (belief/ lifestyle/ you name it), and hail from every corner of the world.  You are very likely to easily find sympatico interesting strangers to socialize with.  While not crime-free, the city feels very safe, and there is a smattering of burners with their (seemingly rather well behaved) children.

BUT you absolutely need to learn about, and take very seriously, the dangers of the extreme Playa environment – READ THIS ENTIRE WEBPAGE and then the preparation guides.  

Some of the more important considerations:

Contact lens wearers need to be really paranoid about the fine alkali Playa dust which gets into everything – see the discussion here. It is very easy to get a scratched and infected cornea. If at all possible, bring a pair of glasses as a back up or a substitute.

If you allow this corrosive alkali dust to stay on your skin, your skin will dry out and crack. Emollient can keep the cracking from getting worse but your skin will remain slightly cracked and bleeding for the rest of the time you are at Burning Man no matter how much emollient you put on.

Although a very small minority can get away with going barefoot, most will be hobbled by 'Playa foot' and it is probably not worth the risk of trying even if you go barefoot everywhere else.   Don't let your hands stay dusty for longer than 20 minutes or so.  Washing with dilute vinegar is best.  If you have sensitive skin (and it is safest to assume that you do), put skin cream on your hands and feet twice a day STARTING ON DAY ONE.

If you fail to wear a dust mask at the first sign of a dust storm you may be coughing for the rest of the time you are there (some people are much more sensitive than others).

Put on goggles during dust storms especially if you wear contacts.

Put as much of your stuff as possible in garbage bags and ziplocks and expect that dust will get into all your belongings anyway.

It is pitch dark at night in most places with nasty metal stakes and guy wires to trip over everywhere – bring your own headlamp (much more useful for working at night than a flashlight).   And you need to festoon yourself and your bike with lights at night or one of the thousands of bicycles hurtling everywhere will run into you.

This is high desert – prepare for a temperature range of 40-110 F. (Happily it is usually very comfortable from dusk to midnight). There will be shade structures for erecting tents underneath. This will make it slightly more likely that you will be able to sleep for the first few hours of the morning. It will be difficult at best to sleep in your car (maybe at night with blankets toward dawn).

Humidity is usually around 2-10% - assume you are already dehydrated and keep drinking water (bring a canteen, camelbak, zahato, porro…). They say to 'drink until you piss clear', but if you do, you will be running to the portapotties (which may be a 5 minute walk) all night long. Find a balance, and bring a container to pee into (there is a camp that supplies an appropriate funnel for women).

Bring earplugs for sleeping because it will be noisy all night. Even so be prepared to lose a lot of sleep even if you normally sleep easily.   

If you fail to use sunscreen and wear a hat, you will burn.

Burning Man is the world's largest Leave No Trace event – all MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) i.e. every bit of garbage, every cigarette butt, every human artifact of any kind that is visible to the naked eye is removed – if not by the participants then by volunteers after the event.

Camps that leave MOOP behind are not welcome back, and everyone needs to be constantly vigilant. It is best to avoid having MOOP hit the ground in the first place. That includes every tiny food scrap during preparation and eating. Plastic should be put down to capture every bit of sawdust generated by drilling. Do not bring feathers, glitter, or plants. Trim your nails, beard, etc. before you get there.

On the Playa there are no decomposing organisms to take care of minor detritus.

A fundamental Burner principle is radical self-reliance. Bring all of your own necessities, except for what the Camp is specifically providing. We have a small number of bicycles, tents, etc. - let us know if you would like us to reserve any of the equipment (preference given to those for whom bringing their own is a hardship).

The traffic bottleneck at the entrance means that coming and going you will be in your car for a minimum of one hour (if early arrival) or five hours (otherwise). The record is something like 26 hours. Arrive with plenty of fuel in your car - waiting in line going out will consume more time and fuel than you think, and you don’t want to face the lines at the nearby gas stations. Also assume the worst and have a day’s worth of food and water. These waits are the worst part of Burning Man but are less horrible than they sound – the party starts in line and people get to know each other. Bring a book anyway.