How to survive, and celebrate, at Burning Man

Attendees share thoughts on the nature of Burning Man

Sacramento Bee reporter Ed Fletcher, who attended the 2015 Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nev., talks to other attendees who answer his question: "What is Burning Man?"
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Sacramento Bee reporter Ed Fletcher, who attended the 2015 Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nev., talks to other attendees who answer his question: "What is Burning Man?"

My crew and I were exhausted one late afternoon in the middle of Burning Man when I saw a guy in a red velvet outfit with a ukulele slung over his shoulder walk down the playa in the direction of my camp. He looked like a character from a Dr. Seuss book or some sort of surreal mariachi singer.

“Do you play or is that decoration?” I boomed, my already loud voice amplified by my megaphone.

After filling his glass, our new friend, framed by the sun setting over his shoulder, proceeded to serenade our camp with covers and traditional ukulele numbers like a Renaissance bard.

The outpouring of music sent our camp mates and guests scrambling to find their instruments. A once-listless afternoon had gained direction and energy. A jam session materialized.

As we say at this weeklong gathering, the playa provides.

Burning Man is unlike any ticketed event in the world. This guide aims to provide an overview as well as practical information for those who have never attended the annual counter-cultural celebration. I’ll tell you what to bring, how to get a ticket and what to do when you get there. And maybe, like me, you’ll never want to miss another Burning Man.

I’ll get to the nuts and bolts, but first the big picture …

What is Burning Man? It’s an annual weeklong arts and cultural experiment (this year Aug. 28-Sept. 5) in which 70,000 ticket-buying “burners” construct a generator-powered, art-dotted, cash-free temporary city in the barren northern Nevada desert. The free bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, lecture halls, skate parks and all manner of activity is referred to as Black Rock City and is constructed by volunteers who come from around the world.

What Burning Man is not: It’s not a music festival. Bonnaroo, Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival are three very big music festivals. Burning Man is not like that. Music artists with record deals generally don’t play at Burning Man. Big name DJs do, but generally speaking, nobody publishes performance times.

History in a nutshell: In 1986, two hippies burned a human effigy on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. By 1990, the crowd had grown too large for what had become an annual ritual, and the happening was moved to Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It’s grown steadily since. About 70,000 people are expected to attend this year.

Is Burning Man really for you? Everything bad you’ve heard about Burning Man is true. It’s hot during the day (temps can reach 100 degrees). It’s cold at night (30 degrees is not unusual). The wind and fine-particle desert dust are nightmares. The line to get in takes forever and the line to get out is worse. Plus, unless you’re bringing your own loo, you’ll have to get comfortable with portable toilets.

Why is it such a hot ticket? Black Rock City is a spectacular parallel universe where new human connections are common, tutus are wardrobe and art overflows. Many attendees strive to return “home” annually. The fact that Burning Man has become “bucket list” chic and draws celebrities and tech moguls ensures the portion of the 70,000 tickets open to the public will sell out in minutes.

How do I get a ticket? Nothing about Burning Man is easy, including getting a ticket. It helps to sign up for “The Jack Rabbit Speaks” newsletter and read it religiously. You’ll be alerted to the various ticket sales there. The odds are you will not get a ticket via the general sale so that leaves you: Option 1: Pay the pre-sale price ($900). Option 2: Volunteer to help build or work for a large-scale art project or large-theme camp. They often have tickets to sell to grunts.

Sacramento Bee reporter Ed Fletcher, a veteran of several Burning Man gatherings in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, accepts help from other "burners" to explain the essence of the annual art and counterculture event that pulls tens of thousands of dev

Life at Black Rock City

Where do I live when I get there? Do I just bring a tent? Most people tend to camp in clusters of varying sizes and levels of organization. Camps organized around an activity (music, art, bike repair) are assigned priority locations within the city. Larger camps bring large shade structures and provide showers, a kitchen and other shared resources. Smaller, less formal groups set up in open camping areas and find themselves quickly making friends with neighbors. About a quarter of those attending sleep in a trailer or recreational vehicle, but real burners sleep in tents.

How much extra money will I need? Participants are expected to practice “radical self-reliance” and bring all the food, water and supplies they’ll need for the week. There are no vendors and there’s nothing to buy. Bringing $100 for fresh ice (one of the few things sold on site) should be enough. Coffee is for sale at Center Camp, a humongous tent that also hosts live performances. But it’s easy to find hot beverages gifted elsewhere.

Do I need something to barter then? No. Burning Man employs a “gift economy,” not a barter system. The assumption is that everyone brings enough food, water and adult beverages for themselves and a little extra for others.

Where do we eat? Some camps cook group meals while others are left to fend for themselves. Whatever you do, don’t show up without a plan – remember there are no food vendors.

What do we do when we get there? Is there a schedule? Once your camp-building and other duties are complete, the week is yours to adventure and explore. The guidebook handed out to attendees lists hundreds of activities, but don’t bind yourself to a printed schedule. Hundreds more activities are not in the book. There is no better way to spend the day than to grab some friends, hop on your bikes and see where the wind takes you. From mini-golf to roller skating to fashion shows, Burning Man by day is an adult playground.

What about entertainment at night? The city is awash with pulsing lights at night. Sound camps spend thousands of dollars to amass the speakers and lights to create outdoor concert environments. All of the shows are free, but which big-name DJ is playing where is very hush-hush. There are also movie houses, live shows and a bevy of quieter activities.

Is everyone on drugs? Contrary to popular belief, Burning Man is patrolled by the local sheriff and the Bureau of Land Management. So yeah, there are drugs there, but within limits.

What essentials do you need to bring?

A cup – Free drinks are easy to find. Cups are not. Burners are serious about “leaving no trace” (one of the event’s 10 principles). That’s a whole lot easier when there aren’t 500,000 plastic cups to throw away.

Goggles – It’s best to assume the next sandstorm is right around the corner. Buy some comfortable goggles – ski goggles will work – and have them with you at all times.

Water – Duh, it’s the desert, right? Bring a gallon and half for every day you’ll be there. Better to have too much than too little.

Dust mask – A scarf or cheap surgical mask will do the trick. Some people opt for more expensive masks. Like your goggles, never leave your tent or camper without them.

Boots – Flip flops are great for the beach but not the playa. The highly alkali soil in this dry lake bed won’t agree with your feet.

Glow – Glowing hats, rings, gloves, coats and accessories aren’t just a fashion statement. They’re functional. Black Rock City gets mighty dark at night. Being a “darkwad” is a good way to get run over by an art car or a cyclist.

Bike – Riding a bike is the preferred way to get around Black Rock City. After parking your car at your campsite, you won’t be allowed to move it. Walking is another option, but having a functioning bike will allow you to see more of the 6.8 square miles littered with art and activities.

Heavy coat – Don’t let the daytime semi-nudity fool you. At 3,900 ft above sea level, the Nevada high desert gets chilly at night. Bring a heavy coat, gloves and warm hats.

What not to miss

8. Watch a sunrise from deep playa. Black Rock City is a sight to be seen in all its man-made grandeur, but watching the sun rise over the mountains in the distance is incredibly grounding.

7. Soak in the art. Get your fill fun at theme camps, but plan several long excursions to visit the hundreds of day and night art installations spread across the open playa.

6. Work the Hug Deli. Step into the wood-frame Hug Deli and serve up hugs ordered from the menu. Customers pay in compliments.

5. Watch a match at Thunderdome. Inspired by the classic post-apocalyptic film “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” each year, volunteers build a real domed battle arena. Competitors use soft weapons, rather than axes, saws and maces.

4. Ride a mutant vehicle. Large art cars are obligated to pick up extra passengers, if they have the room. Catch a ride on a dragon, yacht, rhino or similarly altered vehicle and see where it goes. You just might find what you didn’t know you were looking for.

3. Make a dust angel. Burning Man is a dusty place. Much like playing football in the mud, once you stop trying to stay clean, getting dirty gets fun. Upon arrival, greeters will invite “virgins” to lie down and wave their arms and legs, like they play in the snow. Do it.

2. See “The Man” burn. Be sure to see the towering sculpture intact earlier in the week, but don’t miss its destruction. A fire art performance and massive fireworks show precede the inferno. The event is like New Year’s Eve but better.

1. Say yes. Burning Man is not the place to play it safe. Unless doing so obviously leads to harm or violates your core beliefs, “yes” is generally the right answer.

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch