From One First-Time Burner to Another: What You Really Need to Know
BLACK ROCK CITY, NEVADA—Burning Man can be an overwhelming experience, especially for Virgins, as first-timers are known. It’s widely thought to be a music festival, and while there is music playing twenty-four hours a day, it is far, far more than a weekend at Coachella. You’re camping in the middle of the desert with no amenities—the elements are harsh, and you must provide for yourself. Burning Man’s reputation as a crazy, drug-addled rave filters out many of the people who might not be inclined to spend a week’s vacation covered in dusty, alkaline filth…but for those to whom such a reputation is hardly a disqualifier, here are a few tips.
1) When people ask me whether they should go to Burning Man, the one thing I’ve stressed is to go with someone who has already been. Sure, you can camp all on your own with a bunch of Virgins; there’s more than enough literature on radical self-reliance that you'll be fine…but you’ll have a much better time if you go with someone that's already sorted out the kinks. Those who have been to Burning Man know how to handle the little, unexpected details, and their experience will go a long way towards making yours more comfortable. However, if you choose to go at it alone...keep reading.
2) Be mentally prepared for a long line at the check-in gate, and if possible, drive with or next to someone else. I drove through the night to Burning Man, and arrived in Gerlach fourteen hours later, exhausted and antsy to get my Burn on. The last thing in the entire world I wanted was to inch along a hot, sweaty, dusty line of cars, worrying about how much fuel I was wasting by constantly turning my engine on and off. I would have been much better off meeting friends in Gerlach and driving in together—giving someone else a turn at the wheel and giving me the chance to stretch my legs, chat with the neighbors, and use the restroom.
3) Bring a bicycle. And don’t bring a crappy, old, dusty, broken bicycle that you don’t like riding…Black Rock City is a mile-and-a-half wide, and everyone uses a bike to get around. You're unlikely to find yourself in a rush, but biking is the quickest way to get from A to B, and having a bike means you won’t be stranded on the far side of the playa without water, forcing you to walk an hour back to camp just to resupply. You’ll spend a good portion of your week cruising around, observing humanity at its weirdest, and you want to be comfortable, and well-lit as you do it. So do yourself a favor and bring a bicycle—one that you're comfortable riding.
4) Take a half hour, and sort your toiletries as you pack. Bring more wet wipes than you think you need—you’ll use them to clean yourself, as well as everything that you’ve brought. It will all be covered in dust. Hand sanitizer also comes in handy…make sure you have a large bottle for camp, and a smaller bottle to keep on your person as you troll the playa (you’ll want it after using the porta-potties). Lotion helps considerably…your skin is as dry as it's ever been, your hands covered in playa dust, your feet are cracking at the seams, and it feels damn good to moisturize at night. Also bring a roll of Tums...most of the food you'll be eating is canned, camping food, and the heartburn is real. Throw a roll in your day pack.
5) That cup that everyone keeps talking about…go out and buy one. Spend $10, and buy yourself a 20oz. tumbler, exclusively for Burning Man. It’s hard to wrap your mind around this concept until you’ve been to Burning Man, but as you bike the playa, you’ll end up at various camps, partying and dancing. From champagne to Bloody Marys to snow cones, many provide libations—but you need to have your own cup. Get one with a lid that’s large enough for a home pour…this way you can still bike around with your drink and not have to worry about spillage. I used this mug, and it worked perfectly for me—get it, or something like it.
6) Speaking of drinks in tumblers, Burning Man is not a complete, raging, free-for-all. Anyone gifting alcohol is going to ask to see some ID. You can carry your license with you, but that’s a poor idea...make a few photocopies, and tape one to your mug. It seems silly, but everyone understands and accepts it, and you won’t have to worry about losing your ID—drinks and proof of age are now inextricably tied together for the rest of the week.
7) Bring a good, sturdy, reliable day pack, and fill it with essentials. Make it a backpack you’ve used before, and are comfortable wearing. You’ll be out most of the day, most days, and there are a few items that you want to have with you at all times. Pack them now, and keep them in your day pack. Here are just a few of the things I had in my bag at all times:
Tumbler/mug for libations (see #5)
Clif Bars/snack items
Layered clothes, in case of precipitation or temperature change
2 Liters of water—buy a bladder for your day pack
Toilet paper/tissues/hand sanitizer
8) Pack the weirdest, most outlandish costumes you can get your hands on…and prepare to be blown away, in magnificent fashion, by how more outlandish everyone is dressed than you. Everyone prances about like a weirdo at Burning Man, and you'll want to fit in. But keep in mind that you’ll be out in the searing heat all day long and costumes that protect you from the sun are key—slathering your dusty ass in sunscreen every day is going to get old, quickly, so take care to bring some costumes that’ll already protect you from the sun.
9) Bring extra gas with you, and try to go into Black Rock City with as full of a tank as possible. Idling your engine kills gas, and the long line to get in won’t drain your tank, but it will make you conscious of running your car for AC to get some respite for the heat. Next year I’ll bring enough gas to afford myself that minor luxury, but having gas is most important when leaving Burning Man: the line to get out is a few hours long, and the last thing you want is to have to stop at the closest gas station and wait another hour for your turn to fuel up. Having extra gas means that you can bypass the heinous lines and hightail it along I-80 to a gas station far, far away from Black Rock City—with no line, and a few hundred miles between you and the Great Dustbowl.
10) It's your first year at Burning Man, and it’s OK to not worry about the whole gifting thing. Accepting generosity is OK, and there’s no possible way to wrap your mind around what you can reasonably bring to gift to others unless you’ve been to Burning Man…so don’t worry about it. Bring enough supplies for you and yours, and enjoy the ride. The playa will provide. Just be thankful, kind, and giving…you’ll get the hang of it sooner or later. Bring something to gift next year, should you choose to go.
11) Don’t come with preconceived notions as to what Burning Man is, or what you need to get out of your experience. Your week at Burning Man is choose-your-own-adventure, and you can make it whatever you want to make it…but relax a bit, and don’t zealously seek peace, salvation, or fulfillment as your sole mission. More than anything else, you should bring an open mind to the experience (except water; bring more than enough water).
12) Spend the few days before you go to Burning Man not only preparing, but decompressing. Burning Man is an overwhelming, five-sensory experience, and you'll want to be fully rested before you arrive. You won't sleep much, you won't get that much alone time, or really even time to sit and rest. So try to give yourself a few days of vegging out, sleeping well, and getting excited for the week to come, because once you arrive it'll be gone in a flash.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything that you should bring to Burning Man—in fact it’s far from everything you’ll need—but it will get you in the right mindset to prepare for your first Burn!