Attending the Burning Man festival has been the single most intense and transformative experience of my adult life. Sounds dramatic, right? Well, if you’ve been, you know. And if you haven’t, I encourage you to go as soon as possible. It will change your approach to life.
It is a concentrated bubble of the very best and most beautiful parts of the human spirit. Every single one of your guards will drop and you will be sincerely cheered for who you are beneath life’s pressures and constraints. Compliments and genuine praise flow freely, small talk doesn’t exist and you will experience a primal human connection that you didn’t even know you were desperately missing. It is a fervently respectful adult playground, the likes of which I’d challenge anyone to find the world over. You cannot and will not fail here, you will only grow in so many more ways than you ever thought you could.
I’ve pieced together this guide to answer all the questions I’ve been asked most since arriving home.
What is Burning Man?
Burning Man is an Arts and Music Festival that takes place over ten days every September in Black Rock City, Northwest Nevada. For 50 weeks a year this piece of land is nothing more than arid desert until upwards of 70,000 likeminded people arrive to create a temporary community built on these shared principles.
How do I get Burning Man tickets?
Purchasing tickets for Burning Man is quite complicated so bear with me.
You need to set up your Burner Profile. Then keep an eagle eye on the Burning Man Ticket Information page found on the official Burning Man site. Here is where you’ll find the opening date and time for the registration window to access sales, if you do not register to buy via your Burner Profile within this allocated window you can’t purchase a ticket. When registration opens a shiny new button will appear beneath ‘sparkly things’ on your Burner Profile! Registration generally opens in February with sales then starting in March.
NB: You also need to set up a Ticketfly account and the email on this account needs to match the email used on your Burner Profile. SO many people get caught out when trying to buy tickets by missing this step.
- You can register for Pre-Sale where approx. 5,000 tickets are available for $990 (€880) & approx. 500 tickets are also available for $1,200 (€1,067), one person can buy no more than 4 of each type and 4 vehicle passes for $80 (€71) each.
The people who buy Pre-Sale tickets do so for a higher chance of securing a ticket to that years burn and also to offset the cost for Main Sale burners.
- You can register for Directed Group Sales where approx. 25,000 tickets are available for $390 (€347), one person can buy no more than 2 tickets and 1 vehicle pass for $80 (€71).
This sale targets specific collaborative groups who create crucial Black Rock City infrastructure like themed camps, art installations and art cars.
- You can register for the Main Sale (which is the one we went for) where approx. 30,000 tickets are available for $390 (€347), one person can buy no more than 2 tickets and 1 vehicle pass for $80 (€71).
You are not eligible for this sale if you have purchased via the Directed Group Sale.
- You can also register for a Low Income Sale, which does what it says on the tin, and the OMG Sale which is a last minute release of 1,000 tickets and 1,500 vehicle passes for those people who are like “OMG I liiiiiterally HAVE to go, have I missed the sale?!”
If you are unsuccessful with your attempt to purchase tickets (which most people are, the demand is FAR higher than what’s available) Craigslist is a good option but beware of fraudulent sales. Burner’s who are selling for genuine reasons will provide proof of purchase and will always sell at cost price. I would also suggest regularly checking the Burning Man Ticket Information page where last minute batches of tickets are sometimes released for registered buyers.
What’s the best way of getting there?
You can rent an RV, an SUV or take the Burner Express Bus. It is recommended that you arrive between 12am and 6am on Saturday night/Sunday morning (most people arrive throughout the day on Sunday and Monday and can be held in traffic for up to 8 hours).
The Burner Express Bus tickets are sold via your Burner Profile, you can purchase one ticket per person and unlike the event tickets you do not have to register to buy these. The bus runs from San Francisco and Reno to BRC (Black Rock City) and back again once the festival is over. I still don’t understand how this is a viable option for anyone as you have to bring SO MUCH STUFF with you! The only conclusion I could come to is it works if you are meeting friends there who are taking all your stuff for you. Nonetheless, I said I’d give it a mention.
An RV is great if you are going with a big group to offset the cost or you are a wealthy person (congrats). Book yours as early as possible as they are very hard to come by around Burning Man time and rental prices increase significantly for the ones left available. This should be obvious but just incase, there are no power outlets in the desert to plug your RV in to so renting a generator (and not letting it drain all your juice) is necessary if you want to use the refrigerator, the shower and any other hard to come by luxuries onboard.
We rented an SUV which we collected from LAX. Auto Europe is a great site for sifting through all the rental companies and getting the best deal. An SUV is essential to accommodate everything you need to bring, anything smaller won’t work. Here’s some lessons we learnt: It’s best not to inform your rental company that you’ll be attaching a bike mount to the back and then do so with a lot of care. You’ll also need to book your rental in for a full valet (or at the very least give it a clean and hoover) to avoid a cleaning charge of approximately $100 on it’s return. That playa* dust gets EVERYWHERE! Plus remember to refill the tank. Rental companies close to BRC are reluctant to rent SUV’s to people going to Burning Man, so bear in mind it’s best to book well in advance and from locations far from BRC, like LAX, which is a 12 hour drive South.
*playa: Black Rock Desert is also known as the ‘playa’, it basically means a flat area of dried-up land.
To bring your RV or SUV onto the playa you need to purchase a vehicle pass when buying your ticket(s).
Bikes are absolutely necessary to get around the playa (it’s huge). We bought ours at Walmart for $80, but you can also pick up used cruisers for approximately $60 on the road to BRC. Don’t be lazy, decorate your bike! Michael’s Craft Store has everything you could ever need to help you bring the bike of your dreams to life (plus don’t forget lots of colourful lights for after sunset, the desert is a very dark place at night!). I’d also recommend covering the seat of your bike with something soft and mentally preparing for the inevitable chafing! – coconut oil helps. After the festival we donated our bikes to charity or you can also drop that $60 cruiser back to the place you picked it up on your way in!
Is food & drink sold there?
No. Burning Man encourages radical self-reliance which means bringing ALL your own food, water, drinks, fuel and everything in between. If you decide to stay with a themed camp (more on this below) they might supply cooking facilities like a stove, pots, pans, coolers, can openers, cutlery etc. but I would still mostly advise bringing your own. You should aim to arrive to the desert armed with everything you need for your entire stay, right down to your own cup. If you’re camping, a good tip is to pick up a small 2 man kids tent to use as a separate sort of make shift pantry, no one needs to be sleeping beside their food for 10 nights!
It is mandatory to arrive with a minimum of 1.5 gallons (just under 6 litres) of water per person per day. This accounts for your daily drinking, washing and cleaning water and you will be turned away from the playa without this minimum requirement. Top up your fuel tank as often as possible on the road to BRC and try to arrive with your tank as full as possible bearing in mind that you may be in hours of traffic both arriving to and leaving the playa. You don’t want to be that person who runs out of fuel and holds everything up even more!
What should I pack for Burning Man?
We’ve got you sorted. From your personal checklist to equipment, food, medical, costumes and everything in between. But the list is so extensive it needed its own post! Check out our detailed ‘What To Pack For Burning Man’ inventory HERE.
What are the accommodation options?
If you don’t have an RV your only other option is to camp. You and your mates can simply arrive, set up your tent(s) on your own spot on the playa and live your little Burning Man lives! However, I cannot recommend enough applying to stay with a themed camp because these legends made my first Burning Man experience inexplicably more memorable…
There are HUNDREDS of themed camps built with love on the playa every year and they are like your ready-made Burner family. You can apply to become a member via the groups Facebook page and if you are accepted to the camp you pay a fee of approximately $200 to cover the cost of any amenities they supply – this can range from kitchen facilities to showers and some even provide meals everyday – but limit your expectations, you’re still in the middle of a desert and any conveniences offered are very basic!
You will also be asked to give your time as a volunteer in the camp, this sounds like a pain in the arse on paper but it’s amazing craic. There’s no requirements and no one is watching over your shoulder or making you clock in, but your moral compass kicks in and you want to see your camp prosper as much as it can. We did two shifts in ten days – one on the bar and one roaring at people cycling past the bar with speakerphones – and adored every minute of them both.
Our camp was called…
But I’d also recommend checking out District, Miso Horny, Soul Palace or Celtic Chaos if you want an Irish one! You can have a look at the full list of 2016 themed camps HERE. There’s contact details supplied to check their availability for the next burn.
Seriously though, our camp was MAJOR #squadgoals. See below if you need more convincing!
What is gifting?
So half of what you’ve heard about this is right. Yes, there is absolutely no money used on the playa (with the exception of coffee sold at centre camp and ice sold at Arctica camps dotted around the playa) and no, you do not need to barter or trade. That would mean that for every gift you gave or received you would be expected to then receive or give something of equal value. Burning Man does not work like that, everything is based on a GIFTING economy. When you gather over 70,000 people with this mentality, beautiful things happen! It is often said in irony but genuinely, whatever you need, the playa will provide.
I could spend ages trying to explain the concept of gifting here but the most effective way to understand it is to experience it! Don’t get bogged down with what exactly you can gift, it probably doesn’t make sense at the moment but you will find yourself naturally gifting all the time once you’re there. You will eagerly share your food and prepare meals for your campmates or take the coat off your back to gift it to someone who compliments it. It becomes gorgeously second nature.
To prepare before we left I made shot tubes of Irish whiskey decorated with shamrocks and green ribbon and held a special Irish ‘happy hour’ when we manned the bar. My friend whose a makeup artist and body painter found those skills came in very handy for gifting in Burning Man’s creative bubble. I know another girl who made a small stand called ‘PositiviTEA’ where she had a lovely selection of herbal teas to brighten peoples mornings. I was gifted artisan food, hugs, handmade jewellery, palo santo incense, crystals, playa dust in a miniature jar, a transcendental meditation mantra, homemade nipple balm (yes, really) and SO much more…
It’s a nice way to self asses, what can you offer? What are your passions, skills or hobbies? What would you like to be gifted in a desert by a stranger?
I know this will no doubt sound extremely cheesy but honestly the greatest gift I received at Burning Man was everyone’s endless love and kindness. Their unquestioning acceptance of everything I am and the stark reintroduction to real human connection – wild and wonderful conversations, eye contact and genuine smiles with strangers and absolutely nothing filtered through phones or screens – it’s truly mind blowing how good this is for your soul. Learning how much emptiness resides in our everyday interactions and how I could change that is the most valuable gift I brought home.
What happen’s at Burning Man?
There are literally hundreds of workshops, art installations and themed camps hosting quirky events, and that’s before you get to the world-class DJ’s who drop by to play sets every day and night. Actually on that note, that’s one of the most common misunderstandings I’ve encountered about Burning Man. “Are there bands at it?”, well no is the straight answer but you’ll never be short on places to hear music! It is a music festival, just not like any you’ve ever been to before. Again, this is another Burning Man conundrum that’s easier to understand once you’ve experienced it.
On arrival you receive a ‘What. Where. When’ guide which breaks down lots of the workshops and events happening around the playa over the course of the festival. And there really is A LOT! So it’s good to bring a pen, find a quite spot and give it a read, marking off whatever catches your eye. Trust me, there is a series of workshops or events for EVERYONE! Otherwise you can just go with the flow, hop on your bike and cycle around the playa stopping off at any camps or art pieces you fancy and I guarantee you’ll still have the most incredible unplanned day. If the chaffing from your bike gets too much (and trust me it will), leave it at your camp and spend a day art car hopping. Hundred’s of insane art cars roam the playa day and night, you can jump on and off all of them as you please. We found one that was a moving canvass and spent hours painting to classical music as the sun set.
Themed camps can be dedicated to anything you can imagine – circus acrobatics, spiritual healing or massage, chandeliers, moroccan tea and biscuits – it really is that broad. One camp we found was built around a giant slide that led into a room filled with hundreds of teddy bears! Things change every year so you just have to explore and see what you find. However, a constant at the festival is the temple. Away from the booming music and lunacy, it feels like the heart of the festival, still amplified and reflective of the mad masquerade happening around it but with another dimension of sacredness, solemnity, a sense of remembrance, grief and renewal. It’s worth setting aside a few hours to read just a fraction of the thousands of messages covering every inch of the temple’s wooden structure. It’s a window to some of the realest, rawest human emotion and the best reality check. You’ll leave with lots of perspective and gratitude.
After sunset the playa comes alive! Art cars become fire cars, the infamous Burning Man night life kicks off and everything lights up. You could head to Camp Question Mark to see Skrillex play a set, dance at Kalliope or my favourite, explore the deep playa! Out there drowned in darkness you chase a flicker of light across the desert plain anticipating what you’ll happen upon. It could turn out to be a movie theatre showing old black and white westerns or a soup kitchen serving chicken noodle soup to the person with the best story yelled over EDM. Once we found a row of sinks with brand new toothbrushes and toothpaste! As the night ends you can chase the Robot Heart for Burning Man’s best sunrise party and finish off the morning with a trip to Bubbles and Bass for some prosecco and deep house.
Should I be scared?
Are you someone who likes to judge others or harbours prejudice and hate? Then, yes you should be scared because you’ll probably end up in a corner rocking back and forth after a brief exposure to the Burning Man culture. But seriously, the festival is not for you if you don’t arrive with an open mind and heart. With that box ticked here’s some other useful tips for surviving…
Respect the environment! Burners are committed to leaving absolutely no trace of their gathering whatsoever. MOOP (matter out of place) is everyone’s problem. Don’t create it and if you see some, pick it up. Every single thing you bring onto the playa with you must also leave with you, and that includes your dirty water! Water used for washing food or cooking equipment, water used for showering and melted water from your cooler is called Grey Water. This cannot be thrown on the playa basin. People have many different ways of navigating this, some bring barrels or buckets to collect their grey water. We simply brought a funnel and collected all our grey water into our empty gallon bottles as we went. We even used our melted cooler water as shower water which is another handy tip.
Light yourself up! The desert is pitch black at night and there’s lots of human and bike traffic to navigate before we even talk about what could happen if you’re incognito to an art car. Get creative with your outfits and make sure you can be seen. A head torch is also essential for attempting to get ready in your tent and trips to the Portaloos after the sun goes down.
The desert is HARSH! It will shrivel you up from the inside out. The playa dust is relentless and microscopic, it gets absolutely everywhere. To be at your best everyday you need:
- Coconut oil everywhere, including every inch of your hair, multiple times a day!
- Lip balm (the real pharmaceutical type, not a glossy beauty brand), nasal spray and eye drops. Bring these everywhere with you, they are sacred.
- Honey and lemon in hot water every morning will help shift the congestion in your lungs, also known as playa lung. If you don’t take care of it daily you may have to tackle a horrible cough for months.
- Sachets of Vitamin C and the USA’s answer to dioralyte called pedialyte – always have one of these with you in a bottle of water. Staying hydrated at all times is key to having the best time at Burning Man.
- An eye mask and ear plugs. Camping anywhere for 10 nights is not easy, much less on the playa so prepare accordingly.
- Vinegar! Try to avoid walking bare foot on the playa, the surface is extremely alkaline which can cause the sensitive skin on the soles of your feet to crack. It’s called playa foot and it’s very painful by all accounts. To prevent this, wash your feet with vinegar and water every night.
Also, cover your electronics! The dust will erode your camera and your phone so I’d recommend finding a creative way to cover every millimetre leaving only the bare lens exposed before introducing these expensive gadgets to the playa.
Don’t be freaked out if you feel out of sorts for the first 24 to 48 hours after you arrive. Burning Man is an assault on every sense and it also happens to take place at an elevation of just under 4,000ft. meaning you’re probably not imaging those feelings of dizziness and lightheadedness. If it all gets too overwhelming there’s ‘Zendo’ tents dotted all around the playa where you can go to catch your breath and recoup.
Oh, also on a smaller side note, don’t gift/burn all your food on the final morning on the false promise of shovelling In-And-Out burger into your face in the immediate future. We were sitting in traffic leaving the festival for just under TEN HOURS! Prepare with plenty of food and water, unlike us.
How much does it cost?
To give you a ballpark figure, attending Burning Man cost me somewhere in the region of €4000, all in. This price is only relative to my experience and approach. Other’s (mainly people who live locally) may have done it for under €1000, while others again may have a bill of well over €10,000.
My main costs were flights, car rental and (no joke) costumes! Followed by passes, camping equipment, food and then other incidentals. It’s actually difficult to remember the true costs we encountered on the many steps of preparation now because the experience (alongside the fact that you don’t spend one cent for 10 days) really outweighs any strain on your wallet.
The life lessons, the new friends, the self-reflection, the belly laughs, the sunrises, the intense sense of freedom, the endless dancing, the utterly brilliant and necessary escapism is beyond anything I could equate to a monetary value.
And in the end…