Burning Man is a commitment, of time (a week-plus), of planning (camping gear, costumes, food, etc.), of cash (tickets start at $575 each, not including taxes and fees) and of your very body (to the elements: wind, dust, heat and cold of the barren, remote, northern Nevada desert affectionately dubbed 'the playa').
But Burners (as they call themselves) will tell you that the commitment is returned manyfold once you arrive at Black Rock City, Nevada the temporary metropolis that houses 70,000 souls each year around Labor Day. Because, as they say, the playa provides.
The storied festival returns this year after two long years dark due to the pandemic. This year's theme is Waking Dreams. Read on to find out exactly what you’ll find on the playa.
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What does Burning Man's playa provide?
A culture of gifting
There are two refrains heard over and over at Burning Man, even if they’re sort of paradoxical: 'radical self-reliance' and 'the playa provides'. Radical self-reliance is an essential principle of the festival: bring everything you need and leave nothing behind. The concept of the playa providing is a key part of the culture. No money changes hands at Burning Man (with two exceptions: you can buy ice and coffee). So, pretty much anything you need or want might suddenly, randomly, magically appear, just when you think of it. Whether that need is physical, spiritual or psychological; the playa has your back. Non-Burners often refer to this as a barter system, but that’s not right. Rather, the culture is one of gifting.
Pro-tip: Think of something you’ll want to gift and bring a lot of it. Hand-sanitizer? Pop-tarts? The choices are endless and you’ll want to participate in the culture of gifting too.
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Whether it's right up close or from a megablaster a mile away, the techno-thump of 'boom, ba-la-la-la-la-la, boom, ba-la-la-la-la-la' is so omnipresent that silence, when it happens, can feel odd. Whether your style is intimate parties or giant makeshift clubs for thousands, Burning Man has you covered.
With all that music, dancing is also a huge thing. Some Burners spend day, night and the hours in between grooving to bands like Daft Punk and world-famous DJs from Diplo to London's Carl Cox spinning at makeshift, indoor-outdoor dance clubs (these artists all appeared at Burning Man 2018).
Or you might prefer your music played by lesser-known DJs on roaming ‘art cars’ styled after anything from a pirate ship to a giant sheep, cruising the playa floor like ocean liners of the desert, giving rhythm for free.
Pro-Tip: Bring earplugs if you want to attempt to sleep soundly.
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With some 410 art official art installations and many more unofficial ones, there’s something to see around virtually any corner of the festival. Makers are eclectic, spanning world-leading artists and architects to first-timers, and tend to follow a theme of the week. The Burning Man 2022 art theme will be Walking Dreams.
The festival's most iconic art piece is the namesake man. At the geographic center of Black Rock City, it’s a multistory wooden effigy atop a base decorated differently for each year’s festival theme. Toward the end of the festival, the man and base are set afire in a giant, convulsive blaze, encircled by fire dancers, art cars and virtually the entire population of Black Rock City.
Pro-Tip: Bring a bike to see all the art and enjoy all the music – the playa is vast.
So, it was about 6:30 in the morning, and I was as far as I could be from my camp, on the vast open stretch Burners call Deep Playa. As I cruised along, a woman in a B-52s-style mini-dress sidled over and asked 'Hey, ya want an omelet?'
I did not know I wanted an omelet at that moment, but as Mick Jagger sang, sometimes you get what you need.
This kind of thing happens all the time here. The spirit of gifting might appear in crêpes or ramen or pickles (for that all-important salt ration in the desert heat).
Pro-Tip: When rationing your own non-perishable food for the week, be sure to remove excess packaging and prepare what you can ahead of time so you can just re-heat. You want as little trash as possible in the desert because what you bring in you must take out.
For booze, the playa's got you covered. Many camps open bars as their gift to the community. Some are every bit as hoity-toity as bars back home, where bartenders blow-torch bacon for Bloody Marys. I came across one camp dispensing fresh-squeezed lemonade served both boozy and booze-free, while another had both wine tastings and a Moroccan mint tea ceremony.
At most others there ain’t much choice, so what the playa provides, you take, be it warm champagne, vodka with Gatorade or a shot of Kentucky bourbon with a pickleback (side of pickle juice).
Pro-tip: If you want to receive, bring your own cup (in keeping with Burning Man’s 'leave no trace' ethic) and proof of age. Savvy burners tape copies of their IDs directly on their cups.
And one more about water: There is no running water in the desert. You must bring your own water – lots of it. You will need a minimum of 1 gallon per person/per day just for drinking and you will also want to wash the desert grime from your body occasionally too.
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Clothing and personal care
Even if you have brought all the clothing you think you’ll need, there’s always room for more: more color, more sparkle, more sass. Some camps set up clothing exchanges as their gift, where people take what they want, leave what they no longer need, or both.
Want a shower? There’s a camp for that, assuming you don’t mind being naked in front of hundreds of other people (who are also naked, it should be noted). Or you might just find a neighbor dispensing cider vinegar, a really effective antidote to the desert dust that permeates everything, and I do mean everything (see shower, above).
Pro-tip: Bring a bandana or a dust mask and goggles of some kind. The dusty sand gets everywhere and we mean everywhere. And don't forget sunscreen.
Companionship, spirituality and freedom
If you gain nothing else from Burning Man, these tips are the most important. The very ethos of Burning Man is wrapped up in shared experiences, radical acceptance and radical self-reliance.
- Be kind. You never know who you might find yourself grooving with on the dance floor, or crying with over the beauty of a sunrise. Chances are the encounters will stick with you forever.
- Be ready to let go and respect others doing the same. Besides the Man itself, the festival’s other annual grand fixture is the Temple – a magnificent structure where Burners leave what’s been on their minds. Inside, it’s not uncommon to have the air pierced by the cathartic howl of grief being let go. The Temple Burn, on the festival’s last night, is hushed and solemn as people’s troubles go up in flames.
- Put down your phone. This is possibly the festival's biggest gift: the freedom to detach – even if just for a week – and reinvent yourself in a place that’s utterly free of judgment.
Pro-tip: Embrace the freedom, and you’ll get the point of Burning Man.