Advice for First-Time Burners

The original draft of this piece was written in the summer of 2009 to help out some friends who were attending Burning Man for the first time that year. I've shared it with a couple of people since then, and they found it helpful, so I'm publishing it here as a resource for first-time Burners.

I should mention that my last Burn was 2015, so some things may have changed since my last visit, so it's possible there are some inaccuracies in this document. If that's the case, please write a comment and let me know.

Quick caveat: I've been to Burning Man five times now, which is enough times to have earned some opinions about how to approach the festival. What follows are my opinions and mine alone. Other experienced Burners may disagree with what I have to say, and that's totally cool. I'm certainly not claiming my way is the only way.

My basic assumption: My basic assumption is that you want to have fun. If you aren't interested in having fun, there are a lot of easier ways to do it than to go out to the middle of nowhere to sweat and eat dust under the blazing hot sun while boisterous yahoos run around tripping balls. There are easier ways to have fun, too, but I don't know of any other place that provides the type of fun that Burning Man does. This guide was written to help you have fun.

First of all: Read the Survival Guide. Cover to cover. I mean it. (Some sections won't apply to you, but at least read enough to know that a section doesn't apply.) Much of what I say below is annotative of the Survival Guide.

The single most important piece of advice I can give you:


Many a person out there has found him/herself hating the fucking place. It's full of idiots, and the dust is ever-present and soul-crushing, and it's loud, and it's hot, and so on. And then they go back to camp and drink some water, maybe get a little vitamin C and some electrolytes (Emergen-C is extremely popular out there, for good reason), and fifteen minutes later they're like, This place is the greatest thing ever.

Dehydration causes crankiness, and crankiness is not fun. Do yourself a favor and get a hydration pack (I recommend the Camelbak MULE, which has a 100 oz. water bladder and reasonable carrying capacity) so you can be sipping water all the time. A hydration pack carries more water than a bottle and leaves your hands free. These are both good things.

However, I also recommend bringing a bottle and some electrolyte-replacement drink mix. (I've tried many and I recommend Vitalyte as not too expensive and not too sweet. You can get it at REI.) For me, there comes a time every day when I just can't drink any more lukewarm water. It starts to feel like a chore. But the sweetness of a drink mix will prime me to drink when I otherwise wouldn't want to. Far, far better to ingest a little unnecessary sugar than to get dehydrated.

The second most important piece of advice I can give you:

They clean and restock the porta-potties first thing every morning.

I have seen things in the porta-potties in the middle of the night that make war crimes look like childrens' birthday parties. Unmentionable things. You're going to be out there several days; at some point you're going to have to poop. Try getting yourself onto a regular schedule where you're the first one in the porta-pottie after Johnny-on-the-Spot cleans it and restocks it with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. You will be glad you did.

And while we're on the subject of hand sanitizer, the dispensers at the porta-potties run out by the afternoon, every day. Do yourself a favor and get a little travel-size bottle of the stuff and carry it around with you in your hydration pack.

And it's probably worth keeping a roll of toilet paper (1-ply only) available for when the rolls in the porta-potties run out, which happens.

In general, the porta-potties tend to stay pretty clean during daylight hours, so if you find yourself on an afternoon schedule, you'll probably be all right. (Toilet paper can run out, though.)

But at nighttime: beware.


Bring less than you think you need. I've spoken to a lot of people about this, and there's pretty much a consensus: for whatever reason, you won't have much of an appetite out there. I find two smallish meals a day and maybe a snack here and there keeps me doing fine.

The general rules are: make sure you're getting some protein, and make sure you're taking in some salt for electrolyte balance. Do those things two or three times a day and you'll likely be comfortably unhungry for the whole week.

Food is an area where my approach and that of many other Burners differs significantly: I treat Burning Man as though I'm camping, but many others want no deprivation at all. They bring coolers full of perishables and replenish the coolers with ice every day, just so they don't have to go without for even a minutes. My take: Burning Man is only a fucking week long. You can have your sushi when you leave the playa. Do yourself a favor and bring more or less non-perishable food out there. It's lighter, cheaper, less hassle, and when you stop in Reno and take the Post-Burn Buffet Challenge (how much can you eat?), you'll feel like a fucking king (or queen). Keep your food cool and you'll be fine--in a cooler in the shade, even without ice, a lot of even semi-perishable stuff will last a week

Some suggestions: tortillas pack a lot of energy into a small space. Add peanut butter and honey for more calories, some protein and fat, all without significant perishability.

Go to Trader Joe's and buy some of their prepackaged Indian foods. There are like eight different varieties (all vegetarian), pre-cooked and packaged in air-tight envelopes which need no refrigeration. Easiest dinner in the world, and actually tasty.

Oranges and apples are pretty hardy. So are hard cheeses and crackers.

If you want breakfast cereal in the morning, buy those cardboard packages of milk/soy milk/almond milk that need no refrigeration until they're opened. You know the ones I mean. You'll need to drink the stuff pretty fast, but I have faith in your abilities.

Alternate way of dealing with food: Fill gallon milk containers with water and freeze them, or else put loose ice into like a Rubbermaid juice pitcher. Now you have cold packs, and the ice becomes drinking water as it melts. Bring perishables for the first part of the week only, before your cold packs melt. Then you only have a few days of deprivation, and it's far less hassle on-playa.)

Now if you're inclined to ignore all of my above advice, here's what you need to know (current as of my last visit): Ice is sold at Center Camp and at the 3 and 9 o'clock plazas every morning. I can't tell you the exact hours but it's not hard to find out. So it's not hard to keep your perishables unperished. In my opinion, it's not worth the hassle, but you're welcome to disagree.

Lastly, as the Survival Guide recommends, remove the cardboard boxes the food comes in and just take the inside bags (I'm talking for crackers, stuff like that). No sense bringing extra trash that you'll just have to carry back out.

Food scraps: (Of a reasonable size, like apple cores and orange peels.) Get a mesh bag like onions come in. Hang it up somewhere where it won't blow away. Put your food scraps in. They'll desiccate down to nearly weightless by the time you leave. Hauling trash out sucks; this method makes it suck much less.

Dishwashing: Don't bother. Take a tortilla or some bread and wipe up as much food from your plate/bowl as possible. Then pour a little clean water in the plate/bowl. Use your fork or fingers to swirl the water around and pick up the remaining crumbs. Now drink the water. (If this strikes you as gross--"drinking dishwashing water, eww!"--remember that a minute ago those were just crumbs on a plate.) Repeat if necessary. Put your plate/fork/whatever somewhere where they'll dry. It's like 1% humidity out there--if you get your dining items more-or-less free of food, no bacteria are going to find a place to get a toehold.

By the way: bring a plastic plate/bowl, your own fork/spoon/spork, and a mug. A mug attached to a carabiner attached to your hydration pack is a must if you plan on going to the bars. A lot of places serve alcohol, but most demand you bring your own cup.

Clothing: I remember reading the Survival Guide my first year and getting to the recommendation that you bring costumes. I had visions of people running around in like gorilla costumes and such. Turns out it wasn't like that.

It's hard for me to imagine that anyone goes to the playa now without a pretty firm idea of what kind of things people wear, but I'll share a few thoughts:

If you've ever said to yourself, "You know, I always wanted to wear _______ in public," well shit, now's your chance. Fill that blank with anything your heart desires.

Some caveats, though: It gets hot out there. Consider bringing something like a lightweight long-sleeved white shirt to keep the sun off when you're out in deep playa. A wide-brimmed hat is a good idea, too. "But it screws up my costume," perhaps you're saying. Fine. I understand. But at least consider this as a possibility: comfortable during the day, costumey at night.

Also, it gets cold out there. When there's a windstorm during the day (not infrequent), it brings down air from way up in the atmosphere, which means that nighttime temps in the 40s are not unheard of. This may not sound too cold if you live in a place that sees snow, but trust me: when there's a 60-degree shift from high-to-low, it feels really fucking cold. So bring warm clothing, preferably something you can layer--you might want to consider microweight long underwear for under nighttime costumey things.

Do not under any circumstances bring jeans to wear out there (arrival and departure day is fine.) People will judge you. Yes, that's a little stupid, but there's no sense in inviting it on yourself.

Your clothes for the trip home: should be sealed away in a plastic bag. Playa dust gets everywhere. The benefit to your psyche of being able to put on something that's dust-free is impossible to overstate.

One last thing: you will have more fun if you dress up sometimes. People respond favorably to visible evidence that you're engaging with the culture. You don't have to be a fucking closet full of stuff, but a few costumey items will serve you well.

Flashlights and headlamps: Ditch the former, bring the latter. Get one of those lightweight LED ones. They're plenty bright. You'll use it every night, so spare batteries aren't a bad idea.

Sunscreen: A must, unless you cover yourself head-to-toe or stay in shade all day.

Chapstick: Don't use it when you're out and about. I made this mistake my first year. If you use chapstick while you're out in the city, what'll happen is playa dust will adhere to it. Playa dust is alkaline, and will (trust me) chap the fuck out of your lips. And then you'll feel your lips getting chapped, which will encourage you to put on more chapstick, which will lead to more playa dust sticking to your lips, which . . . you get the idea. Instead, if you're gonna use chapstick, put it on before you go to sleep. Then it'll absorb while you're sleeping and voila, no problem.

Since we're talking playa dust, now is a good time to talk about playa foot. This happens when you walk around barefoot or in sandals all day every day and don't wash your feet. The alkalinity sucks the moisture out of your feet, causing them to crack, which from what I hear hurts like hell.

You'll hear advice about washing your feet with vinegar. Ignore it. It works, but then you have to deal with disposing of the dusty vinegar, presumably by carrying it back off the playa with you. Instead, do this: every night, when you are switching from sandals to shoes-and-socks, clean your feet with baby wipes. Clean them good. Then, before you put socks on, put some lotion on your feet. They'll feel a little slimy at first when you don your socks, but it'll keep your feet playa-foot free. (Used baby wipes can be burned or placed in your mesh bag, where they'll dry to weightless.)

Since we're on the subject of hygiene, let's talk about showers. This is another place where I differ from many burners. I think camp showers in a place where you're supposed to carry out the grey water is a ridiculous hassle. Again: it's only a fucking week. Do this instead: whenever you want to freshen up, use baby-wipes to clean yer junk and yer pits. Then, every evening (or every other day, or whatever) as you're changing out of your daytime clothes, heat up (or don't) a little water (it doesn't take much), put some liquid castile soap in it and give yourself a sponge-bath with a washcloth or camp towel. Put the remaining water in your grey water container, which I'll describe in a moment.

If your hair is longer than really short, it'll get pretty matted by the end of the week. In this case, you might want to ignore my above advice. I had longish hair my first year and it took a couple of washings after I got home to stop being disgusting--there's a reason (besides fashion) that so many women get their hair braided before they go. There also used to be hairwashing camps. Perhaps there still are. It might be worth finding out.

Grey water container: Don't pour grey water on the playa. It makes for some pretty disgusting mud puddles. Instead, bring an empty gallon-size milk jug (or a full one which you immediately pour into your hydration bladder), one with a screw-on cap (important). Pour your grey water into it. Spit your toothpaste into it. As long as you are careful not to use too much water, you'll no more than half fill it over the course of the week. Yes, this jug ends up being extremely disgusting. But it's easy, and easy to dispose of. Evaporation ponds seem like a good idea but just end up creating extremely vile mud puddles from all the dust that flies into them. This method works much better.

Bikes: Bring one. Black Rock City is big. I didn't have a bike my first year, and it was a drag. Nothing that ruined my trip or anything, but you'll have a lot more fun with a bike.

Make sure your bike is well-lit. It gets really dark at night. At then minimum, have blinky LED commuter lights front and rear. If you're feeling peppy, decorate the hell out of that thing with EL-wire or battery-powered Christmas lights.

Bring a lock. There used to be two main scenarios for bike theft on the playa. 1) Some dude is too wasted to find his own bike, so he grabs the first one he finds unlocked. 2) Someone far less wasted finds her bike stolen by the wasted guy, so she steals someone else's to replace it. And I have heard that in the past few years, a third bike-theft scenario has arisen: Guy comes to the playa without a bike, figuring it'll be easy to score one once he gets there. All you need to do to keep all of these scenarios from happening is a lock that'll keep the bike from being rideable. The most feeble cable lock should do the trick. Most people recommend a combo lock rather than a key lock, because who wants to dig through your hydration pack for the key when you're wasted? And then you'll put the key in your pocket and go back to camp and pass out and then discover that your pants didn't actually have pockets and now what are you going to do?

This should go without saying, but for some reason some people don't do it: make sure your bike is in rideable condition before you get out there.

A little chain lube every second or third day will do wonders to keep your bike riding well all week long. I recommend teflon-based dry condition lube for playa conditions.

Earplugs: You won't sleep without them.

Rebar for tent stakes: Needed. The winds are fierce. Like the Survival Guide recommends, cover them with old tennis balls or something similar to make the rebar more visible and less dangerous.

Dust mask: Necessary.

Goggles: Ditto. Some years you can get away without them. But if this isn't one of those years...

Guys with mullets wearing cut-off jean shorts and nothing else: are best avoided.

Law enforcement: In my experience, law enforcement isn't actually much of an issue around the City. They're present, that's for sure, but if you aren't foolish, you shouldn't have anything to worry about. "Being foolish" would entail things like taking drugs in public (as opposed to being on drugs in public, which is fine). If they see you smoke a bowl, or whatever, you've just given them probable cause to search you. So don't do that.

2015 Addendum: The most common way people get busted is getting caught with marijuana. The smell of marijuana smoke wafting from your tent will give an officer probably cause. Furthermore, law enforcement knows that pot is legal in Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Think cops on patrol are going to pay attention to which camps have cars with Colorado, Oregon and Washington plates? Damn right they are. My advice: 1) leave pot at home or 2) bring edibles.

Related: Under no circumstances should you smoke pot while driving to/from Burning Man. Cops in Utah and Nevada know when Burning Man is. Burner cars are obvious because of all the extra stuff they're carrying. If you get pulled over and the cop smells pot smoke, he has probable cause to search the vehicle. I've had friends get in trouble this way. It's stupid. Don't do it.

Regarding searches: If law enforcement personnel ask to search you (without probable cause), say NO. I've never seen it happen, but I've heard stories, and apparently most people don't know that you don't have to consent to a search. You don't. In order to search you and your belongings, law enforcement personnel need either probable cause (ie they saw you do something illegal), your consent, or else they need a search warrant signed by a judge. And trust me, unless they suspect you're running a drug-dealing ring, they won't be bothering with the last of those options.

I have, however, personally witnessed the following: a pair of playa barbies came up to my camp saying, "Hey, this guy John said that your camp is the place to get drugs." I didn't tell them to fuck themselves, and regret it to this day. Moral of the story: There are narcs out there.

In my experience, most of what law enforcement does is wander around looking uncomfortable. They don't tend to respond in an especially friendly manner when you try to be friendly with them, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Hey, maybe it'll make their day.

The Center Camp Cafe: I fucking hate the Center Camp Cafe. With the exception of ice-vending, which is tolerable because it's so ingrained in the culture (how else do you make your cocktails cold?) there is one place on the playa where you can buy things, and it's the Center Camp Cafe. I'm not the only one who hates this. Back in 2006, there was an essay by Larry Harvey defending the Cafe in some newsletter BMorg sent out. His reasoning was something like, having a cafe in Center Camp serves the purpose of making Center Camp more of a hub/destination, and that's a good thing.

Bullshit. The Center Camp Cafe is a fucking disaster, and here's why.

Though it's eroded somewhat in the past few years, the ethos against commercial interactions while at Burning Man still exists pretty strongly in the community. I think the whole "gift economy" thing is overblown--I'm not sure we're legitimately talking about an economy--but it is the case that people make things/services/whatever available to the community for free. This can range from yoga classes and massage to food and beverage. And there used to be quite a few on-playa camps who ran morning coffeehouses.

When you went to a place like that, it kind of forced you to interact in a way that took into account the essential humanity of the people providing your beverage. Of all the things they could be doing at Burning Man, why are they doing this for you? They aren't getting paid, so then what? Well, it turns out that being of service to others without expectation of an obvious reward (money) turns out to be a powerful thing, and being on the receiving end of it is powerful as well. Who is this person? Why is she doing this? What does it mean in her life? An interaction with this flavor is so unusual in your life that it changes your approach. You wake up a little, you interact more, you become more conscious.

At the Center Camp Cafe, all of these benefits are undermined. They replaced a new, different interaction with one that many of us do every day--you walk up to the barista and buy a beverage. In normal life, you don't have to worry about Is the barista having a good day? Is she happy to be here? because it's her job. Part of what you pay for when you buy a coffee at Starbucks is the anonymity of the transaction. It's not your job to care about the barista, nor hers to care about you. Your job is to pay them money, theirs is to take it and give them you a coffee in return. Easy.

And that's the real problem with the Center Camp Cafe: it's easy. It means it's now possible to get a cup of coffee without any deeper interaction with an actual human being. And people line up to do it, because frankly approaching a transaction in this manner is far more comfortable than having to wonder why these people at this camp are giving their time and resources and energy to offer to you their various delicious beverages.

But Burning Man shouldn't be about being comfortable. Remember: It's only a week long. At its best, it serves as a space to experiment with new or different ways of doing things. Burning Man is transformative substantially because it's not easy. With the right approach, every interaction has the potential for deeper significance. And then you might find, as I did, that when you carry that off the playa, the anonymity of the normal world will strike you as strange. What a strange way to organize a society, you'll find yourself thinking. No one talks to anyone. It's like we're afraid of everything.

Predictably, the existence of the Center Camp Cafe has undermined the free coffeehouses you used to see out in the City. I'm sure there are still some, but you don't see them like you used to. The easy interaction of just buying your coffee has more takers than the complex one where you actually interact with a human being.

It's just a week. I keep saying that, but it's important. You don't get another chance until next year, so take advantage of things right now. Accept the complicated interaction, the one that makes you question default life. See what you might learn. It's exciting when you realize that all the ways our normal lives are structured are fairly arbitrary, and malleable.

So please, avoid the Center Camp Cafe.

One last thing:


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