So, you’re thinking about heading to the Playa for the first time? (Playa: The name for the vast expanse of dusty, flat earth that Burning Man takes place on. Strap in, you’re about to learn a whole lot of new vocab.) As a Virgin Burner, you’ll be in good company. In 2018 32% of attendees became citizens of Black Rock City for the very first time. Getting yourself adequately prepared and staying alive for eight days out there is not an easy feat, especially if you’re coming from outside the USA. It is a challenge that should not be underestimated. The Nevada Desert is a hostile environment; reaching temperatures of over 48ºC during the day, and well below 0ºC the same night; winds over 100km/h whipping up dust storms in a matter of seconds, rendering your visibility to almost zero, and that can continue for hours. If it sounds a little scary… good. A few nerves will help you get better prepared. It’s worth it, I promise.
It’s The Principle
Burning Man is built on a set of guiding principles. Real burners take these principles seriously, and any tension that exists between old school and new wave burners usually starts with the new kids not embracing the values. Familiarise yourself with the principles—it shows respect for the community and will ingratiate you with veterans.
There are a few very obvious faux pas that could identify you as a virgin burner in the worst kind of way. Black Rock City is a completely de-commodified community. Everything you receive is a gift, from the drinks at every bar to the vegan ice cream from a truck that just appeared through the dust cloud when you were about to die from the heat. A lot of people mistakenly think that Burning Man has a ‘barter economy’, but it’s actually based on gifting. You may be asked to trade a story or a secret for a shot of whiskey and pickle juice (the Pickle Back is a Burning Man delicacy!), but there is no expectation of getting anything in return for a gift. The only things you can buy at Burning Man are ice and coffee at Centre Camp. In your preparations, consider what gift you’re going to bring to Burning Man. This could be anything from your favourite drink to share, a helpful skill, or extra sets of sparkly nipple pasties to give out to new friends.
Another common first-timer blunder is not understanding the importance of lights. If you are walking or riding around after dark at Burning Man and you don’t have a lot of lights on your person, you are invisible. A giant art car shaped like a chameleon that shoots flames could run you over, or James Franco might smash into you on his bike, or worst of all, a veteran burner might call you a ‘dark wad’. Dark wad is a slur for someone who isn’t lit up enough to be visible. If you’re too dark on Playa, you’re endangering yourself as well as others, plus; it’s really fun finding creative ways to incorporate lights into your costumes.
Getting prepared for Burning Man and coming from overseas is a huge undertaking. But putting in the time and effort to get properly set up will be so worth it in the end, because you’ll have a safer and more relaxing Burn if you’re not stressed or panicked because you forgot something crucial. Going with a theme camp can be a great way to help make sure you will have access to everything you need, and help foster the sense of community that Burning Man is so famous for. Facebook groups and Reddit are great resources for finding a theme camp that might suit you. A proper theme camp will require you to contribute your time and effort during the Burn, not to be confused with the very controversial Plug and Play camps, where hundreds of thousands of dollars can buy you a very luxurious experience that is totally antithetical to the spirit of Burning Man.
Remember that you need to practice ‘radical self-reliance’, which means bringing everything you need to survive with you. This includes all of your food and water. A good amount of water to bring to Burning Man is about 1.5 gallons per person, per day. And don’t forget, you need to take everything out with you when you leave, including grey water.
Do not attempt Burning Man without a bicycle. Black Rock City is gigantic, and there is so much to see and explore, riding around in the neighbourhoods as well as out into the desert known as ‘Deep Playa’. A great option is to prearrange renting a bike from Playa Bike Repair. You’re guaranteed a good quality bike that won’t end up in landfill after the Burn, and if it breaks down, there’s a camp full of legends who can help you fix it or just replace it. And don’t forget to bring extra lights (and batteries) for your bike, ideally something that will make it stand out. When you lock up your bike outside a popular bar or music stage, it can be very hard to find it later if you haven’t made it uniquely noticeable.
Spending over a week at the most fun party in the world can get a little overstimulating for some. The temptation to go too hard too early can be strong. You need to sleep, eat food with decent nutritional value and stay hydrated. Partying hard can drain your body of serotonin, and being on the Playa is challenging enough without throwing in an emotional meltdown as well. It’s always better to party smarter, not harder.
There is a common stereotype that Burning Man is a wild, drug-fuelled orgy; and for some people it is. But it really is whatever you want it to be. There are plenty of people who abstain from drugs and alcohol and have a great time. And while it is a far cry from a ‘Nanny State’, there are still police, both uniformed and undercover at Burning Man, and the state laws of Nevada apply.
Burning Man defies explanation. The best advice is to be open to new experiences and jump in head first to participate in the culture and community. Once you’ve seen the man burn once, I guarantee you’ll be back again. There’s a reason they call it ‘going home’.
Want to keep the fun going? Here are 10 Off-The-Grid Places To Visit In America.
Image credit: Bry Ulrick, Sam Mathews and Andrew Wyatt