I’m not sure what sparked the fascination for Burning Man. I think it might have been Trey Ratcliff’s pictures from 2015’s Burning Man. There is something about his pictures that was quite compelling and captivating. The idea of a festival dedicated to arts in the middle of the desert thousand of miles from home felt oddly intriguing. But then in reality things turned out slightly more complicated. Black Rock City, a temporary city and community where Burning Man takes place, is located in the Nevada desert, many hundred miles away from cities or airport.
Going to Burning Man is not your average holiday. It took us almost half a year of planning and prepping. There are many things to consider and to be aware of. I’m not going to lie, the prepping process was exhausting at times but in the end, the reward is just an unbelievable experience that might or might not change you forever.
Chapter 1 - Getting to Black Rock City
We started the journey to Black Rock City from Los Angeles. After a night at a hotel near the airport we picked up our RV early in the morning hours and headed north along the Route 1. We intentionally chose the more scenic route along the coast, going past the Big Sur towards Sacramento, Reno, Gerlach and finally Black Rock City, all in all about 650 miles. Took us about 4 days, including a lot of breaks here and there.
Once you leave California the landscape will change noticeably, nature is getting drier and temperatures start to rise. Reno is pretty much the last bigger city before leaving out into the deserts of Nevada, so stocking up in supplies is absolutely essential. We got food for a couple of days, a lot of water, filled up the freshwater tank and refilled gas and propane (for cooking and fridge). Burning Man is very much self supply, you can’t buy anything at the festival, so having enough supplies is very important.
There are some great WholeFoods stores all across the US including Reno, they have a big loose section so you can fill up your own bags and boxes. Cause remember, one of Burning Man’s most important principal is Leaving No Trace, so buying loose significantly helps to reduce the amount of waste generated in Black Rock City!
Also make sure you know the way. Once we left Reno we rarely saw any signs. The last 200 miles is pretty much just nothingness, no houses, cars or people. When you arrive at Gerlach, things get more interesting. It looks like a place straight from an old Western movie, gravel roads and wooden huts and buildings. Many Burners stop here to dust proof their vehicles. We brought masking tape and plastic bags to seal vents and windows of our RV. Just in time cause right when we left Gerlach we drove right into a big sandstorm.
There’s a good reasons why sandstorms are also called Whiteouts. Sight can drop to less that a few meters and everything gets covered in an incredibly fine layer of white dust. Whiteouts aren’t particularly stormy, they are in fact quite gentle. Sand googles and breathing masks are essential in order to protect you eyes and lungs.
Chapter 2 - The first night on the Playa
Depending on what time and day you arrive you will most likely spend quite a few hours in the queue. We arrived around 3pm and we spend a good 5 hours in line waiting to enter Black Rock City. If you bought a ticket for Will Call (which is the only option if you’re coming from abroad) you will have the time to pick it up. Also every vehicle will be searched by security.
By the time we made it to the gate it was dark already. And yes we both were pretty nervous now. Driving from the gate into Black Rock City feels like you’re entering a different world. It is an absolute sensory overload. Everything feels completely overwhelming. The way the city is organised is quite confusing in the beginning but it will start to make sense eventually. Circular streets are named from A-Z, straight roads are names according to their position on a clock, e.g. 2 o’clock or 5:30 o’clock.
We quickly set up camp and left to explore the nightlife of Burning Man. Nights are significantly colder than the days and even though you’re desert temperatures drop usually under 10 degree Celsius.
While wandering around the city at night it quickly becomes apparent that weird is the new normal here. It feels a little intimidating at first, but you will soon realise that people are incredibly open and friendly at Burning Man. Everyone is always there to help and chat, give advise and tips from previous Burns. Also everything start to feel quite liberating, there’s nothing for sale, you can just show up, participate, many times people will give away snacks or drinks. There are shows, theatres, stages, bars, all sorts of adult entertainment, all free and open and waiting for you.
Chapter 3 - Here comes the sun
Mornings at Burning Man were probably my favourite thing. It’s super calm and peaceful, a lot of people gather and welcome the first warm rays of the sun peeking over the mountains at the horizon. On the Playa it’s also the least busy period of the day. Great opportunity to explore and discover all the art installations and sculptures that are scattered all over the desert.
Chapter 4 - A day in the life of a Black Rock Citizen
After breakfast in the RV the first action of the day was getting the bikes. We had pre-booked bikes for pickup on the Playa. Bikes or any other form of transportation are very convenient and will make your life a lot easier. The city including the Playa extends for at least 5 miles in diameter, so bikes are great way to get around without getting tired
There are lots of things going on the Black Rock City during the day. Best way to find out is by heading to Center Camp right in the middle of the city. There will be maps and timetables, there are talks and shows, music gigs and performance arts. Pack plenty of water and some snacks for the day, as temperatures will rise quite significantly during the day.
Chapter 5 - Playing on the Playa
A common question you hear people asking is “What do you do the whole day?“ The playa, which is a dried out seabed of a former salt lake, extends many miles in all directions. You literally can see the Playa extend all the way past the horizon. And it is filled with all sorts of art sculptures, buildings, statues and constructions. Most of them are interactive in some sort, you can go inside them, climb them or move parts around. You’ll always meet new people hanging out in and around the art installations, sometimes it’s even the artists himself.
Then there are the art cars. Art cars are the public transport of Black Rock City. They can only operate at a maximum of 5 miles per hour but they are usually turned into a big moving piece of art. If there’s space on the vehicle most drivers will happily give you a ride. A lot of them also come with massive sounds systems, so many times there will be a spontaneous gathering of people dancing away.
You can honestly spend hours cycling across the Playa and you’ll always discover new things. One day we saw a bouncy castle in the far distance but didn’t have time to check it out. Came back later but never saw it again.
Chapter 6 - The Temple
The temple was another favourite place of ours. It’s been a very touching and moving experience. A lot of Burners that come to the temple bring photos, letters or personal items of friends or family they’ve lost. On the last day when the temple and all that’s inside gets burned, it’s the Burning Man way of saying farewell.
Lot’s of the letters and stories that decorate the walls of the temple are quite heart-warming. The first time we came to the temple a guy was playing cello. Many people are lost in thoughts or meditation, some are crying and some are just thinking. Being there was definitely a very emotional experience.
Chapter 7 - From dusk till dawn
When the sun sets over Black Rock City, the grey and dusty desert turns into an ocean of neon lights and colours. Camps, vehicles, bikes and people will put lights wherever they can and it’s a good advice to join them to avoid bumping into someone.
As previously mentioned nights are also a lot cooler than the days, so long cloth and jackets are an absolute must-have. There are plenty of places that offer free drinks so always bring you own refillable cup.
Same as during the day there are many shows and events, all for free so just stop wherever you like. One important thing to mention, not just for nighttime, is consent. No matter what you’re doing, when or with whom, always make sure it’s consensual. This starts with simply taking a picture and ends wherever you want it to end. It’s one of Burning Man’s most important rules: Consent. With that in mind, my advice would be: Be as open minded as possible, let go of any preconceptions or opinions. If you don’t like what you’re seeing, just keep riding through the night. Whatever can happen at Burning Man, will eventually happen. You just need to find it.
Chapter 8 - The man burns (finally)
Saturday is the big day. The reason behind all the effort. It’s the day the man finally burns to the ground. It’s a beautiful reminder that all material things in life are temporary. For the ceremony all the art cars gather in a circle around the wooden man statue in the centre of the Playa. Everyone sits together in a large circle and watches the man go up in flames and finally fall into pieces, followed by a huge fireworks.
Chapter 9 - Decompression
We left very early the next day. The Exodus, as experience Burners call it, can turn into a massive traffic jam in which people have been stuck for hours. So at 4:30am in the morning we decided to leave Black Rock City behind and start the 600 miles journey back to San Francisco.
It’s been a few weeks now and I’m writing this post. Decompression is what’s referred to as the time after Burning Man and returning back to reality and the real world. It’s hard to put into word what the experience was like. It’s raw, crazy, beautiful, relentless, caring, wild, hot, touching, loving, cold and heart warming at the same time. There’s a saying that a part of you will never leave the Playa, that Burning Man will change you. Of course that’s very much exaggerated. However looking back at it now, there’s definitely something special and unique about it. What stuck with me the most is the fact the everything felt very honest and genuine. There was hardly any moment that felt artificial, contrived or forced. Qualities I now realise are very rarer in the real world.
So the big question remains, should you go to Burning Man? Will we go back some day? Depends what you’re looking for. Just remember, you won’t get the Burning Man you want. You will get the Burning Man you need.
Appendix - The Burning Man FAQ
How much does it cost to go to Burning Man?
Tickets are around 400$ per person, vehicles 80$. There are no day passes, it’s one ticket for the whole week. Obviously you don’t have to stay the whole week. The closest city is Reno, about 250 miles, San Francisco is about 500 miles and Los Angeles about 600 miles. There is no public transport so if you’re driving you’ll need gas. While you’re at the festival you can either stay in a tent or you rent an RV. Renting a motorhome including all fees probably costs around 200$ per day (excluding gas).
How to get tickets?
The tickets are sold on a first come first serve basis early March. You need to set up a Burner Profile on the Burning Man website. Tickets go super fast, it sells out in literally minutes after they’re released. When buying from abroad make sure you’re ready at the right time, all the times on the website are in Pacific Standard Time.
How do you get there?
There are many ways to get to Black Rock City. We flew from London to Los Angeles, picked up the RV and drove to the festival. But that’s just one option out of many.
What do you need to bring with you?
Water. First and most importantly, bring enough water. Warm cloths for the night, lights cloths for the day that protect from the sun. In terms of supplies, remember that after you left Reno you can’t buy anything anymore. So make sure you have enough food for the time of your stay. Sand goggles and breathing mask are also quite essential, you don’t want all of that dust in you eyes and lung.
In terms of the dust, remember that it’s alkaline dust. I can be pretty harsh on skin and any sort of electronics you’re bringing to the festival. Pro-trick to protect you’re skin is white vinegar. Mix that with water to get rid of the dust on your body.
Getting rid of the dust in your cloths and in the RV was actually a lot easier than we expected. If you’re a little mindful when entering the car and brush you cloths every now and then we managed to keep everything quite clean. After we left the festival we put all our dirty and dust cloths into a sealed back and brought it to the first Dry Cleaner in Reno. All completely clean in less that 1 hour.
Protecting gear is more tricky, we brought some waterproof bags and rucksacks that worked quite well.
Can you take pictures?
Always ask. Nudity is quite an integral part of the Burning Man culture. If you ask and if it’s consensual, just shoot away.
How to protect you camera gear?
I used the Outex Underwater Pro Kit. Worked like a charm, not a single grain of dust came through. Would highly recommend, well made and super useful addition to my equipment.