Every year, tens of thousands of free thinkers and adventurous individuals celebrate life in one of the most remote and inhospitable corners of the U.S.
Attendees can expect deep personal growth, potential spiritual enlightenment, and the wildest party on earth - if you have the endurance for it.
These are ideals to strive towards, not rigid guidelines. The perfect "Burner" (as attendees of the festival are known) will follow these principles in their daily life, thus improving the quality of society as a whole. Creating the biggest celebration on earth requires an enormous communal effort, which demands quite a bit of planning, investment, and manual labor out of every attendee.
"Our community's ethos is build on the values reflected in the 10 Principles. Burning Man is understood not as an event, but as referring to a way of life lived consistently with these 10 Principles. They are meant to be taken as a whole, as a set of commonly understood values that have arisen out of the history of the Burning Man experience." - Burning Man Survival Guide, 2013
A good way to start understanding Burning Man would be to consider these ten principles. The Burner way of life starts here.
Burning Man takes place once a year at the end of August in the Black Rock Desert, located in Northwestern Nevada. Most people (myself included) know two things about Nevada - Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam. Well, Burning Man takes place about as far from those places as you can get in Nevada.
The Black Rock Desert is about 125 miles North of Reno. There is a two lane highway that winds through the slowly flattening terrain, until you arrive at a landscape feature known as the Playa.
This area was once a vast lake, filled by glaciers sliding down the Rocky Mountains. Tectonic shifts over time eventually caused the lake to dry up, and by about 20,000 years ago, the area had become what we see today - essentially a giant bowl of superfine sand, hundreds of feet deep, which spends fifty weeks of the year baking in the hot-hot sun.
The playa actually does receive some rain every year in the early summer, which can cover the vast flatness with about a centimeter of water. This promptly dries up, and refreshes the previously loose surface to its trademark hard-packed patterns.
In 1991, a group of a few dozen friends decided to move their summer solstice bonfire gathering from a beach near San Francisco to a much more remote and spiritual location. In the first years, invitation to Burning Man was spread by word of mouth alone. The festival of like-minded individuals grew by multitudes each year. In 2013, Black Rock City boasted a population of over 60,000 from all over the world.
Burning Man was also a lawless, anarchistic experience in the early days. In 1996, the organization founded Black Rock City LLC, and enacted some actual organization to the event. In 2011, the LLC began the three year process to become a nonprofit organization Burning Man Project, to further agree with the de-commodification principle, among other reasons.
The rules remain largely unchanged today. Mankind does still need certain laws to live by, and there are 8 concrete guidelines for the Burning Man festival.
Some might claim these laws impede freedom and the spirit of the event, but I personally felt much safer understanding that these eight factors are guaranteed. Combine them with the 10 principles and then I could start to understand Burning Man as a real thing that I was going to experience.
Clearly there is quite a bit to be said about Burning Man as a vacation, an adventure, and as a way of life. One could spend days narrating their experience and still not scratch the surface. With this in mind, I will attempt to narrate my own first-time experience and what I took away from it.
Getting to Black Rock City is an endurance test of its own. The location is about a two hour drive north of Reno, but it can take up to twelve hours to actually get there on opening day. The two lane road leading north becomes increasingly clogged with Burner cars - packed and decorated to the extreme, towing interesting disassembled structures. Traffic will slow to a crawl, and even stop for hours long before you actually turn off the paved road. Tiny towns along the way cater to the festival well, by offering glowsticks and LED lights, as well as a last chance at supplying gas and water.
The entry process (and exit of course) is epicly tedious. Driving cars is limited to coming in and going out - Burners traverse the camp by using bikes primarily. Driving any speed above a crawl will kick up enormous clouds of dust, so a strict 5mph limit is obeyed willingly.
To facilitate the smooth setup of Black Rock City, cars enter in small groups, so one can expect to wait in line for upwards of six hours. Drivers hop out of their cars and chat with their neighbors. Excitement is high, despite the ridiculously early hours.
Upon finally reaching the gate, you meet a pleasant woman in her mid forties with pink braided hair beneath a dusty straw hat, and dark black goggles reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter. She gathers that this is your first time at Burning Man, and explodes with excitement. You and her are now running towards a makeshift bell hanging in front of the grand entrance to BRC. You are told to lie down on the playa, and make dust-angels. You roll over onto your front and make more, as your new playa-friend throws a handful of dust onto your back. You rise to your feet, approach the chunk of iron hanging from a rope with a small sledgehammer, proclaim "I am no longer a virgin" as loud as possible, and ring the heavy chunk of metal like a bell as hard as you can.
You have now begun to experience Burning Man.
Black Rock City is more than just a group of campsites - it aims at being a functional city, if only for that one week. Burners carry in everything they need for the whole week, and always have efficient plans for packing out every bit of it at the end.
People set up theme camps which function like surreal bars or coffee shops that couldn't ever function in real life. It is a bit like a counter-culture tailgate party, but there is no sporting event drawing people in. Camps might offer carnival type games or psychic readings. The larger more elaborate camps will have enormous dance floors and elaborate sound systems. Locally famous DJs often perform nightly, but Burning Man is not specifically a music venue. Performers may gain respect and word-of-mouth advertising, but they do not sell tickets. Everyone who is performing at Burning Man is there because they want to experience the festival themselves
Everything is done in the spirit of joy and friendship and gift-giving. Being free of monetary woes is a wonderful sensation.
Camps range in size from 1 to over 100 individuals. Burners will organize around a theme, and bring in artwork, costumes, gifts, and often alcohol all based around that theme.
One of the most-commonly misunderstood aspects of Black Rock City is the Gifting Economy and the De-Commodification. It is understood that everyone has brought with them what they need to have a good time this week - Radical Self Reliance - and it is traditional to bring a surplus of something to give away. This is a gift that is given with no intention of receiving an equal return. It is given because it increases joy in the world.
De-Commodification means that Burning Man rejects all corporate sponsorship and all advertising. There are no Coke machines and no Starbucks, and never will be. No one is intended to turn a profit, and no one can exclude others by charging entry fees to their camps. It is also traditional to cover up any brand names on your clothes and your vehicles with duct tape or other solution.
But the clothing is a different discussion altogether...
It is enough to say that, for the week of Burning Man, money does not exist. Everyone has spent the year planning and investing, and now they are here, and all they have to do is give and enjoy.
In order to survive Burning Man, you will need several things - way too many to list here and every burner has their own individual needs. Mainly, you will need a few obvious things - food, water, toiletries, clothes, shelter, a ticket, and a way to get there. Having said that, here are some absolute necessities you may not immediately think of.
One that you do not mind defacing and possibly destroying at the end of the week. You need fat tires for the playa surface, and you need to be capable of riding for close to twenty miles or more per day. The playa dust is like talc, and it gets into everything. Your bike will have this crud in every single mechanism, and some say nothing is ever quite the same after a visit to BRC. Many people choose to rent bikes, or buy a bike and donate it after the burn. More devoted burners will own a bike specifically for this event, which they might leave in a storage locker in Reno for the winter, along with other large Burning Man structures and sculptures.
I am very familiar with bicycle commuting in a large city. I brought every bike light I own with me, as well as several more LEDs and other lights I have collected over the years. There are no streetlights in Black Rock City, and no traffic signals at all. The only real rule is that bicycles have the right of way, and all other vehicles are limited to 5 mph. Everything else is total chaos, but it generally works fine, because no one is really moving too fast or with much urgency. Lighting ones bicycle is an artform and a game all at once. Burners do incredible things with LEDs and EL wire, which create truly awesome effects in the night. You cannot have too many lights. Your lights will identify you in the darkness, and you will spend a lot of time following the unique patterns that your friends create.
A tent alone is not enough, and a pop-out awning that most RVs have is too flimsy for the winds. You need to have a semi-permeable fabric draped over a well-secured structure. There are a number of popular ways to accomplish this, and burner veterans are quick to advise novices with good designs. Dome structures tend to be the most ideal, if you can figure out how to transport one to the desert. Creating a shade above your tent can be the difference between comfort and misery at 2:00pm. The Shade Structure is also a symbol of your temporary home, and your camp's cooperation. It also represents the year of planning finally coming to fruition. Expect to have some minor sticker-shock when you shop for agricultural-grade semi-permeable shade cloth.
Burning Man is all-inclusive and celebrates self expression, so there is no wrong answer to the clothing question, in a sense. The only problem is having too many options, and coming up with great ideas too late. I always get a sense of regret each Halloween, seeing terrific ideas implemented well, and thinking "oh wow, i should do that next year!" over and over. For Black Rock City, you can wear anything you want, including nothing at all. Burners spend all year with their eyes open to any possible little bit to add to their Burning Man costumes. Ideally you are looking for things that are devoid of any branding, completely unique and well fitting, and hopefully comfortable in the desert heat as well as the cool of the evenings. You want to be colorful, and you want to have lights. You should have some sort of theme, and you need to be able to carry a small bag with you containing water and supplies for the day. Most importantly, you need actual functional goggles as well as a dust-mask at all times. You should get both clear and shaded goggles, and if you wear corrective lenses, I recommend just getting a pair that fits over your glasses. Carrying a lens cloth at all times worked pretty well for me also.
Building the perfect gear for Burning Man is an entertaining yearlong hobby, and you can't start planning too early.
Upon entering Black Rock City, you will receive an extensive guide and some maps. You will be overwhelmed by the prospects of raising your shade structure and building your camp, as well as meeting new friends. Black Rock City is essentially a giant outdoor art museum that comes alive at night. You can spend the entire week wandering about and see several incredible things, but you will see more if you study the map and read the guide first. There are always going to be conflicting schedules of events, but there are hundreds of art installations that have actual names and stories to understand if you read up ahead of time. All of this information is unfortunately not compiled until Burning Man begins, so you can't do this preparation until you are actually inside Black Rock City.
The actual day-to-day life on the playa is a bit like camping in a giant art gallery. There are events all over the city at all times of day. Yoga classes at dawn, pub-crawls in the afternoon, and parades of art cars in the evening are all common sights.
The smartest thing to do is to get up early - around 7:00am. You get up and douse yourself in some hand sanitizer and brush your teeth over a large shallow black plastic tub, which functions as a greywater evaporator. You visit the public port-o-let that is about one city block away from your camp. You wait in line with topless women and guys wearing rabbit ears. You use a simple propane grill and cook whatever breakfast you could want.
You load up a gallon of water into your camelback water bag, grab the guidebook and the map. You close up your tent and make sure your campsite is secure enough to withstand high winds and dust storms. You douse yourself in sunscreen and then set out to see some art installations. Be sure to remember your daytime goggles, wide brim hat, and dust mask. You ought to bring your camera as well, but expect it to be filthy with playa dust by end of the week - just like everything else.
You can plan out your path, and attempt to see all the art, but you will likely never make it to half of it. The area is vast, and the list of official artwork and events is daunting. There is also a myriad of smaller camps offering impromptu experiences all along the way. Play darts for beer, write a wish on a stone, and exchange it for one written by another random burner left in a makeshift wishing well, bob for apples in ice cold water, sample some homemade honey, operate a gumball machine that distributed missions on paper, or have coffee in a makeshift hookah bar inside a traditional Bedouin tent. These are some of the random things I stopped and experienced on the way to official artworks.
There are installations, climbing structures, instructional classes, meetups for people with shared interests, and lots of music everywhere at all hours.
I spent my mornings just wandering from one interesting thing to another until it was 1:00 or so. I would return to our camp at that point, have a satisfying lunch, and generally take a nap from 2:00 until 5:00, when we would begin to plan the evening activities. The sunlight during these hours can be amazingly powerful. My eyes would not cooperate with my contacts, and I ended up wearing shaded goggles over my glasses. It was intense, but I eventually adjusted to the extremes, and found a system that worked.
Evenings began with a costume change, dinner, and then preparing our multiple bike lights. LED technology has an important role at Burning Man. In recent years, the so called EL-wire has become the staple of evening attire at Black Rock City. This is a flexible battery powered line of light which can be easily stitched to costumes, or wrapped around bicycles. The combination of 60,000 burners riding bikes lit up by EL-wire is a truly amazing site. The night is remarkably dark, being so far from actual city lights. Bike lights are mostly functioning to identify yourself in the night, and not for illuminating the road ahead. The camps are illuminated, but you are always one turn away from the open playa - a vast black nothingness that extends as far as you can see.
We would start at one hopping nightclub to another, indulging in the gifted drinks and enthusiastic DJs. There was a tremendous amount of dancing. We were never far from our evening water packs, as well as numerous Tecates and PBRs, the light and refreshing cheap beers of choice at Black Rock City. When we were exhausted, we would bike to the nearest art structure and sit around it as we considered its significance in the starlight.
The night ends whenever you are ready - the music is playing at all hours, and burners always ready for more. Louder camps are situated close to the center of Black Rock City, and the volume is not terrible out in the suburbs. Once arriving back at camp, you go through your typical nighttime activities, but you also make a point to wash your feet in a water and vinegar solution. The playa dust has a highly basic ph, and will cause a sort of chemical burn to your skin if you allow it. The vinegar neutralizes the dust and you can easily avoid the so-called playa-foot this way.
You may try and keep dust out of your tent by neurotically cleaning yourself before opening the flap, but it is a losing battle. After the first 24 hours your body will adjust to strangeness of the climate, and you will be mostly desensitized to the playa dust.