Burning Man Tips for the First Timers

There is no substitute to reading official Survival Guide but it does leaves out many things. So instead of writing my detailed trip report I thought about all the mistakes I’d made and converting them to tips. Here it goes…

  1. Sun shelter (things that look like REI Alcove) is absolutely essential if you just have a camping tent. I would however not recommend REI Alcove itself because it broke after withstanding 3 days of sandstorms. Obviously you also need nice camping chair to go with it.
  2. Regular tent stacks are not very useful to secure tents on playa. I didn’t believed that and my tent almost came out in sandstorms. The correct way to secure tent in playa is using something called “rebars”. You need 4 rebars for a regular camping tent, each 3” long and 1/2” wide. You need another 4 or 6 for sun shelter. Stores like Home Depot would cut the metal rod for you in these sizes. Of course, you will need big hammer as well to stack them (they don’t have pointy end). Finally, it’s a hazard to leave other end of these rusty metal rods open so you must stick a tennis ball or empty bottles on end of the rod that is sticking out.
  3. Sandstorms! In 2009 there were 3 full days of sandstorms. If you never seen one then here’s how it works: About 20-60 foot tall wall of sand that comes at you at anywhere between 10 miles to 40 miles an hour. The visibility typically drops to 5ft to 50ft and you see brownish sand everywhere around you. This can last for up to 8 hours straight. It actually looks cool and as a matter of fact I intentionally spent lots of time inside sandstorm taking photos (note: Many SLRs are not dust proof). Even on severe storm days almost everyone continued their activities as if it was normal weather. But they were prepared. Here’s what you need to be prepared:

    • You have to have sun glasses with minimum open space around lenses. I had Tifosi Ventoux and they worked kind of OK. A retainer is also essential not to loose them (remember there are no shops to buy extra pair).
    • Mask for the nose and mouth. I used Buff bandana so I can pull it up all the way to sunglasses. Next time I would also be using this, this or this mask so I can be absolutely worry free about staying longer out in dust storms.
    • Hat with cord and visor. This will allow you to walk heads down while visor protects your face. I used this hat and it’s absolutely the best hat I’ve ever owned. Added advantage of this hat is that it’s veil can be put in the direction of wind.
  4. As a first timer I found that 4 nights provides a very good breadth and depth for the experience. The reason it’s perfect is because you have to carry less food and water, not worry too much about getting shower and you still get to see nearly everything that’s out there. I would strongly recommend against staying less than 3 nights.
  5. Make a stop at Reno at least for a night before heading towards Black Rock City. Besides mini-Las Vegas style environment, you can also visit REI, Walmart and Walgreens to get the gear, water, grocery and so on. Pepermill Resort is where I stayed overnight because it’s cheapest awesome hotel in Reno.
  6. A compass is very useful to have to get on the right street when coming back in the night far away from playa.
  7. If you have 3-season camping tent you are probably in trouble. These tents usually have mesh in the walls for ventilation and they have rain fly to protect against rain. This arrangement however is pretty useless to protect against sandstorms. On a typical stormy day I would get about half inch layer of sand inside my 3 season tent and I had to spend an hour every night cleaning things up. Make sure you have duct tapes and things to cover up. Everything outside tent should be tied to rebars so it doesn’t fly away with storms.
  8. Weather at burning man is 110F+. It’s normally not possible to sleep inside the tent after 10 AM. It’s not unusual to stay up until 3 AM. Nights are cold and you will need a fleece jacket. I’d 30 degree rated bag which was bit warmer but worked fine. BTW, try to bring sleeping bag liner to avoid it getting sweaty.
  9. As a first timer it might be hard to understand culture of gifts. For example, someone I don’t know at all would give me something and I would be confused if I should really take it. This can spoil the experience for the giver and the taker. Here’s how it works: If someone gives you a gift, take it with a smile without hesitation and give them a gift in return. It’s that simple. The only thing to remember is to bring bunch of gifts that you can easily carry around. Here are some of the examples of gifts: Custom stickers with your favorite quotes, necklaces, bead jewelry, things that glows, Trillion Dollars Notes, candies, custom printed postcards and so on. A single major mistake first timers make is not to bring gifts to give away.
  10. Bicycles would be your savior. If you can’t bring from home then rent or steal from Reno. BRC is really huge and you would be lucky if you could walk just one street a day. Most events that I was interested usually were many miles apart and it’s impossible to make it on time without bicycle. Besides you really don’t want to get tired after walking 10 miles just to attend couple of events.
  11. As soon as you enter gate you will be handed a map and booklet of events. The map is easy to understand because of it’s semi-circle streets. Any location is specified by using hand of clock and name of the street. The 6 o’clock is the center while 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock are two ends of semi-circle. The street names are different every year depending on the theme.
  12. There is NO assigned camping sites at Burning Man (except for theme camps). Normally all except outer two streets are occupied within first couple of days. When I arrived on Wednesday evening I decided to keep as much distance from outer road as possible because that’s where all the cars keep passing by. But I did not wanted to be too inside because the view of vast playa on the outer street is awesome. I also wanted to stay in middle so distance to get on any side is minimized. Always consider if your neighbors have enough space around their tent to put picnic table or chairs or grills or another car. The best space I found on Wednesday night was at 7:15 and Kinship.
  13. If someone asks you “which camp are you in?” then that usually means “what is the name of your camp?”. You can consult with your neighbor to decide on some name for group camp and put on the sign. You can also tell the location such as 7:15 & Kinship like other first timers do.
  14. The iPhone & AT&T did worked with full 4 bars at Black Rock City in 2009. It’s really really a good choice to turn it off and resist temptation to tweet/facebook for your entire stay.
  15. Here’s one of the most disgusting part of my Burning Man experience: The place I choose to camp was up-winds in the path of potty patties. That means every time wind blew even a little it would smell really really bad. It was horrible. Fortunately I came to my tent only to sleep when smell was gone. It’s really worth to make sure you avoid such smelly spaces.
  16. Don’t wear jeans at Burning Man! Many places that do not allow jeans believe that they are too “casual” for them but at Burning Man you don’t want to wear jeans because they would be too “formal”! I wore my normal jeans on first night and felt so out of place and formal that it was embarrassing. If you must wear jeans then take your old jeans, paint them or tear them or whatever. Shorts are semi-casual options at Burning Man.
  17. The list of events at Burning Man is overwhelming. You do not have to go crazy to attend as many events as possible and it’s best to chose no more than 3 events per day to attend. It’s good idea to reserve one day just sit back at your tent and look at vast playa in mild warm wind :).
  18. Cooking at Burning Man can get tricky because of sandstorms. I’d bought my camping stove which didn’t work out in storms. Fortunately more prepared folks did cooking in their camps and gave away lots of free food. I’d also bought some non-perishable stuff like bananas, milk powder, Sahale snacks, bars, chips and so on. One last option for food is to go back to town via bus or car but that might ruin your experience. Fortunately I did not had that option because I didn’t had car and I never found the bus. One good outcome was that I lost few pounds! Next time I might just buy or rent a grill because it work better in dust storms.
  19. I estimated 1.5 gallon of water per day per person and it worked out well for me.
  20. You can meet and greet your neighbors without feeling awkward. When you cook meal, offer some to them. Always have at least two gifts to give away to your two neighbors while departing. Example of gifts are some sketch you made while at Burning Man or other art work or a poem or your favorite book or some photo you took.
  21. Yes, you do need kitchen sink! You will need it to brush teeth, wash hands etc. It’s not OK to spill water with soap on playa floor but if your sink is small and soap biodegradable then you would be ok to collect water in it and then go to outer street to flung it away
  22. Most people do not shower at Burning Man (or so I think). There are few elaborate large camps that set up showers and some even offer them to others as well. But in general, don’t expect showers. Alternative is wet towel to wipe off of your body.
  23. Many camps on inner circle serves free drinks to anyone who wants but you need to bring your own cup. It helps a lot if you have a cup with lid.
  24. There is a place everybody refers to as “The Temple”. It’s located beyond The Man and many first timers would even miss it because they usually don’t go beyond The Man (it’s a LONG walk too). The Temple is truly sacred in many aspects without being connected to even the concept of religion. It’s humbling and even moving to spend a day at the temple. The Temple burns on next day after The Man burns and more spectacularly.
  25. Burning Man usually has 35,000+ people which causes 2 to 4 hours of traffic jams while leaving. While it’s fun to see the parade of every RV ever made, the time with least traffic to leave Burning Man is on Saturday night after The Man burns. But the flip side is that you will miss even more spectacular burn of The Temple which is on Sunday night. Another flip side of leaving on Saturday night is that you run huge risk of falling sleep while driving. When I left on Saturday night I saw at least 3 accidents on the way and so I decided to just pull over and sleep anyway. For my next time, I would be leaving on Monday late afternoon.

Finally here are pictures from my trip which hopefully would give some idea about what to expect.

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