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A Brief Guide for First Timers

The Burning Man takes place on the playa at Black Rock. The playa is a dried out lake that floods in places every spring from the melting snow running off the surrounding mountains. The surface of the playa is baked hard and cracked. It is covered with a fine powder of dust which will permeate everything you bring to the desert with you. The smell of that dust will remain in your car, your clothes, and your equipment for days or weeks, depending on how long it takes you to clean up; it will remain with you spiritually for all your life.

You may have heard Burning Man called an event, or a be in, or a festival. It does not matter what Burning Man is called. What Burning Man is depends on you and what you bring to the Burning Man. From our perspective, Burning Man is art. As does all art, Burning Man teaches us things, and Burning Man's greatest lesson is how to be free.

This is a brief guide for first time participants at Burning Man. It is incomplete in that we cannot include everything you need to know. It is based on our experiences since our first burn in 1996. Since this is an incomplete guide, it does not contain everything you need to know. Your experience will vary from ours. What you need will be different from what we need.

  1. Liquids
  2. Shade
  3. Temperatures
  4. Ice
  5. Personal Effects
  6. Safety
  7. Gifts


You will need to bring all the liquids you will consume during your entire stay. We bring one 2.5 gallon jug of water for the two of us for each day we stay, plus soft drinks, juices, and other sweet, noncaffeinated beverages, and six two- liter bottles of frozen tap water as our ice. If you find that your saliva is becoming thick, like glue or paste, you have begun the downward slide to dehydration. Dehydration is a concern in the desert because your sweat evaporates before you even feel it. When your spit begins to congeal, you have to realize that you have not been drinking enough liquids.

If that happens, start drinking your juices or soft drinks which do not contain caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic, and you do not need to be urinating your fluid intake into a portapotty. Drink beverages with sugar and vitamins. We bring orange juice, V-8, pear juice, and other juices to get the electrolytes back that we have been sweating out. We also drink such soft drinks as ginger ale and other noncaffeinated sodas. When you have the feeling of paste in your mouth, water is not enough.

Be aware that alcohol drives water out of your cells. The consumption of alcohol will cause dehydration even at night when you are not sweating. Make a conscientious effort to drink water, juice, and soft drinks along with your alcohol, coffee, and tea. Between sweat, alcohol, and caffeine, you will lose a tremendous amount of your precious bodily fluids.

NEVER LEAVE YOUR CAMP WITHOUT BRINGING WATER WITH YOU. Burning Man is endlessly fascinating. You will leave camp for a short stroll and find that you have been gone for an hour. Or more. Bring water with you whenever you leave your camp.

We suggest carrying at least two liters of water per person when you leave camp so that you do not find yourself without water.

One other issue: hyponatremia. This condition is the opposite of dehydration; it results from drinking too much water without any electrolytes. You end up with so little sodium in your blood plasma that you lose brain, heart, and muscle function. Loading up on water as you drive to the playa may make you bonk out when you open your car door and step out onto the desert.

Bananas are an excellent source of electrolytes, but they do not last on the playa. So-called sports drinks contain a lot of sugar, but they will provide you with sodium, potassium, and citrates. Extra salt on your food will help, too, as do beverages similar to V-8 -- read the nutrition labels. Caffeine (in colas and other sodas as well as tea and coffee) and alcohol are diuretics and do not contain electrolytes. For a list of foods recommended for triathlon racers, see "Salt and the ultraendurance athlete." (Be sure to read the contrasts between sodium content in Gatorade and regular food -- food is good.) So while we emphasize drinking plenty of water, get those electrolytes, too.


You will need a tent for sleeping. Because the playa is baked hard and cracked at the surface, you will need better tent stakes than usual. The wind will be quite ferocious at times, and dust devils will whirl through camp, with winds of up to 50 miles per hour. We saw one of those tents that advertises itself as not needing stakes rolling across the Blue Light District like a tumbling tumbleweed last year. Please stake your tent. Do not leave it out for others to have to cart back to the dump and dispose of properly for you.

We bring about a dozen two- foot lengths of steel rebar with us for stakes. Because the playa is baked hard for a considerable depth, driving in regular plastic or metal stakes is a little like driving the stakes into gravel -- there is no real holding power in the dried dirt. It takes a couple of feet before you hit something that the stake can hold onto. We do not use the rebar on every loop on our tent, but we make sure the rebar is on every side. We also use it on our shade structure. We check our stakes at least once a day, and we always find a couple of plastic or metal stakes that are working their way out of the ground, but the rebar stays where it was driven. (Be sure you have a real hammer to drive the rebar -- plastic mallets do not work on two- foot lengths of steel.)

We also have a separate shade for ourselves. The enclosed tent will turn into an oven in the sun. It does not matter how many windows, nor how big they are. You need a separate shade. Our Table of Contents gives links to several pages with instructions on how to build elaborate shade structures with parachutes and PVC; give those some thought, but bring a back up in case your first time effort fails. Be sure to rehearse putting up your shade before you leave for Burning Man. On the playa at anytime between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm is not the time to learn how to get your shade up.

Our first year, we brought a long bolt of fabric, slammed the car doors shut on one end, and staked the other end out into the playa with our rebar. It worked, [see a photo here] but it was too low to stand, and the fabric was very hot during the hours of heat. Last year we brought fabric with grommets and eight- foot poles to hang the fabric from. It stretched and sank in the middle, but it was much better having the heated fabric up off the carpet we spread out under it.

We brought the roof and two side panels to keep the sun out during the heat of the day (which begins about 10:00 am). As the sun crossed the sky, we moved the panels from one end of the roof to the other. We had a carpet remnant which we put under the shade roof. There are a couple of photographs of this set up here.

When you are ready to leave, the rebar may not pull out of the ground easily. Do not strain yourself; just pour some water onto the rebar to soak the ground around it. In just a few seconds, you will be able to pull the rebar out effortlessly. Vicegrips help, too -- clamp them on and rotate the rebar a few times.


It is hot during the day. The temperature during our first day at our first event hit 107 degrees Fahrenheit. We were not prepared for this, and we got way too thirsty before we realized the need for drink. We had brought the right clothing, however. Our equipment included white long sleeved t-shirts, long lightweight pants, shoes and socks. In the mornings while it was still cooler and the sun was not yet at full power, we wandered around in shorts and short sleeved shirts, but we always used sun block.

One thing to keep in mind is that Burning Man is endlessly fascinating. Do not wander off from your camp expecting to be back in a few minutes. If you leave camp, be prepared for the heat, even if you leave in the morning while it is cool. You will find that you do not return for hours. Bring water.

Always wear a hat. Bring at least one broadbrimmed hat with a cord to keep it from blowing off your head. Bring a few caps. Bring neckerchiefs to pin to the back of the caps to keep the sun off your neck (think French Foreign Legion).

The heat is a major cause of aggravation and frustration. Things like opening a bottle become a cause for divorce or mayhem in 100 degree heat. Finding something in your tent becomes dangerous in the heat, and that heat will confound your brain and your will, sapping all but your impulse to murder.

It is cool during the evening and night. Some find it cold. Bring along some warm clothing for the nights. A sweater, a windbreaker, or a heavy flannel shirt should be sufficient, but you know how cold natured you are. The temperature may dip down to the forties, in Fahrenheit degrees. If you are leaving in the cool of the evening, be aware that Burning Man is endlessly fascinating, that you may find yourself gone into the dark of the night and that you are too cold. Bring a wrap, and bring water when you leave camp in the evening.


Generally, ice is sold at Burning Man during the event. The times of day when ice is available vary widely from event to event and within the event. Things break down and schedules are not met. Do not bet your life on being able to buy ice at the next scheduled time.

You will, of course, bring ice, but it will, of course, melt. The urban legends of how to maintain ice at Burning Man are legion.

The legends of keeping ice include

As far as we can tell, nothing works. We freeze a half dozen two-liter bottles of water before we go. Bigger ice lasts longer than smaller ice, so bags of ice cubes will be gone in a day or two; blocks of ice have been rumored to last the entire event. We also freeze meat and other food, letting that help cool the food that needs refrigeration. We eat the meat the first couple of days. The ice in the two liter bottles melts, giving us refreshing ice water to drink, while keeping the interior of the cooler free from the melt water which turns everything into a sodden mess. Our first trip, we bought ice our next to last day from a twice- daily delivery truck. Our second trip, one of our fellow campers had brought back dry ice from a trip to Reno, so we bought a block of that and refroze all our melting water bottles. That was great -- thanks, Hernan!

We have a large enough cooler to hold our food and four two- liter bottles of frozen tap water; this is our working cooler. We borrow another large cooler from friends, put another couple of frozen water bottles and a block of ice from our local ice company in that second cooler, along with a small block of dry ice. That is our reserve cooler which we open only when we have depleted the frozen water bottles in our working cooler. We have run out of ice on all our trips to Burning Man, so we are careful to pack enough nonperishable canned goods to have meals even if all our refrigerated food goes bad.

Keep your coolers in the shade. Keep them out of your car and tent during the day -- it is an oven in there. Since we have a van, it has the clearance to allow the coolers to fit underneath, an area which stays relatively cool and is out of sight. Please be careful about spoilage. The playa is not the place to get food poisoning.

Personal Effects

Whatever you need, you must bring with you. If you want to wash your face every morning and brush your teeth, you must bring the equipment for that. Bring your own basin, bring your own wash water, bring your own washcloth and towel. Whatever you need, bring with you. There may be a bus to take you into Empire, but that is not guaranteed, and traffic in the event is very strongly discouraged. Besides, the store in Empire is not geared for the needs of Burning Man attendees -- you may well not find what you need there. See Bus Service for information regarding fees to leave and return and to take the bus, if available.

We suggest earplugs if you have any desire to sleep at night. We strongly urge sunblock and broad brimmed hats if you have any desire to wander around during the day. We recommend washing every day, and we recommend soaking your feet daily if you wear sandals. The playa is alkaline and dry. If your feet get dry and cracked, you will get the alkali into the cracks, and it will burn. We also bring saline nasal spray, as the dust causes discomfort when breathed. We recommend that you bring a plant mister; stay in your shade during the heat of the day and mist yourself occasionally.


We cannot recommend safety highly enough. You will be a two hour drive from the nearest hospital. A cut that requires a few stitches is an aggravation at home, but it is a major inconvenience at Burning Man. Be careful when hammering your stakes in. Be careful using knives. Remember that Burning Man is a source of endless fascination -- do not leave your camp without water and appropriate clothing for the coming hours.

Another safety issue is your food. Please be careful to clean up and to cook your food thoroughly. Burning Man is not a good place to get food poisoning, especially if it involves vomiting and diarrhea.

We also ask that you bring enough empty plastic bottles to cover your rebar stakes entirely. Rebar will cause nasty cuts, split toes, broken bones if stepped on, kicked, or fallen on. Remember most people at Burning Man will be wearing sandals or be barefoot -- including you. You do not want to cut your stay short with a trip to the hospital with a split or broken toe. Use an empty plastic bottle that is small enough not to be a nuisance, but large enough to cover the rebar stake completely from the ground up. Split the bottle along the side to allow your tent or shade guy ropes to pass through, but please be sure the rebar is completely covered by the plastic.
Not any more. See the new recommendations.

Be sure to read our Table of Contents. We have links to a virtual ton of information. Read first person experiences with the heat, the shade, shopping and cooking, playing, and much more. See the page for Things You Did Not Know You Would Need. Read the guides to Reno, the related articles and links, and much more. If this is your first time, no matter how prepared you are, you will find Burning Man much more than you expected.

For a completely different and very helpful take on Burning Man from a first timer, see Brian Foote's guide. For people coming alone, we suggest grouping with fellow solo campers; see the Solo Collective for an active list of people going alone together. (The collective is officially inactive, but the list has a life of its own, so join up and get together.)


You will offered a wonderful assortment of goodies at Burning Man -- matchbooks, buttons, pins, pens, hand- crafted art. You may, of course, decline to accept any gifts, as others may decline to accept yours. If you wish to decline, we recommend a simple "no, thanks" without any excuse or reason. Kindly be polite about it; there is no excuse for being surly, even if the proffered gift is just junk. You may, if you wish, bring something relevant to Burning Man to give to others. For hints on things to bring, see our Guide for Second Timers. Frankly, though, we do not recommend that first timers bring gifts -- figure out what the event is about for you, then figure out what you can bring to share with others. If you are offered a gift and have nothing in exchange, simply say "thank you." That is all that is necessary. No excuses for having nothing to offer in exchange are necessary. It is a gift. Thank the person and move on.

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