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Surviving at Burning Man: The Good, The Bad and the Fugly

Updated on August 8, 2014

Checklist For Burning Man 2014

Burning man the week long annual event held in the Nevada dessert at Black Rock is not a music festival or a craft fair, despite what you may have heard. Burning man can best be described as a gathering of individuals sharing self-expression and radical self-reliance.

Attracting crowds from all over the world of up to 60, 00 thousand people. The little city of Black Rock Nevada, jumps in population from a neighborly 3,900 to well over 55,000 residents for one week on the last Monday in August every year since 1986.

In its first years, the Burning Man community or “Burners” as they are known, grew by word of mouth alone, all were considered participants by virtue of surviving in the desolate surreal trackless plain of the Black Rock desert. There were no paid or scheduled performers or artists, no separation between art-space and living-space, no rules other than "Don't interfere with anyone else's immediate experience" and "no guns in central camp."

While there is no money exchanged for goods and services, you can expect to pay upwards of

$400 for a single ticket to Burning Man.

The terms of the Burning Man ticket require that participants wishing to use video-recording equipment (including, in practice, most digital cameras) sign over copyright in their images to Black Rock City, and forbid them from using their images for anything other than personal and private use.

But hey, maybe you can just “gift” your videos to the Burning Man corporations in the spirit or self-reliance and the need to let go of your copyrights.

A quick check of Craig’s List showed a growing pool of tickets sellers and Burners pleading for tickets, averaging $750 per ticket.

Not a fan, of cardboard habitats, yurts or tents? You can bring your RV but, not without out an RV pass that can cost $1200, up 1500% of the $40 pass sold online for the week long event.

So much for radical reliance and, free self-expression. I suspect that during the rest of the year, you will need to express yourself with a job, just to be able to attend Burning Man. Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional.

Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value. Instead of cash, participants at the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert are encouraged to rely on a gift economy, a sort of potluck.

In the earliest days of the event, an underground barter economy also existed, in which burners exchanged "favors" with each other. While this was originally supported by the Burning Man organization, this is now largely discouraged. Instead, burners are encouraged to give gifts to one another unconditionally.

Oddly enough, this gifting doesn’t apply to the cost of tickets but we digress. We wondered how the average Burner adapts to a “free-love-no-cash-gifting-only” week long community.

We’ve expanded on a “Personal Survival Checklist” for Burning Man for the week-long event.

Burners are advised that they must bring:

  • • A ticket or your photo ID and confirmation number for Will Call
  • • 1.5 gallons of water per person per day
  • • A reusable water bottle
  • • Food & beverages
  • • An extensive first-aid kit
  • • Sunscreen/sunblock & sunglasses
  • • Warm clothing
  • • Particle/dust mask
  • • Goggles to protect eyes during dust storms
  • • Rope or tie-down straps
  • • Garbage and recycling bags, and tools to clean up your camp
  • • Duct tape—you’ll find a need for it, guaranteed.
  • • Flashlights and spare batteries (headlamps are useful)
  • • Lights for your bike and your person for safe nighttime travel
  • • A good camp tent or other shelter and warm sleeping bags and bedding.
  • • Portable ashtrays if you smoke (e.g. mint tin that closes securely) • Prescriptions, contact lens supplies (disposables work great), and anything else you need to maintain your health in a remote area with no services.
  • • Fire extinguishers to protect your camp and property, and if you plan to burn your art
  • • Common sense, an open mind, a sense of humor and a positive attitude
  • Furthermore the team at Burning Man strongly suggested that Burners bring:
  • • Shade structures, umbrellas, parasols, sheets; something to break the midday sun – Many Burners choose to build their structures. Some of which are holistically eclectic and quite functional. If you are less include to build a “Survivor” like structure to shelter you from sweltering dessert temperatures and cool nights, that maybe a canvas tent should be on your “must buy” list.
  • • A wide brim hat (a chinstrap is useful in the wind) – We agree. Despite the dust and the dessert floor, Black Rock City can become very dusty. A hat of any kind is highly recommended, unless you have no issues with washing your hair 8 days later.
  • • A cooking stove if you expect to heat food or liquid – Wait what? This is starting to add up. You’ll need to cook and supply your own food. There are no “pop-up” food tents and even if there were, the food would be given or traded away. So, while it is unlikely anyone you or I know would give away anything to 60,000 people, let alone food, what are you prepared to barter? Hadn’t thought about it? Well think about this: You will need to store a weeks’ worth of food, somehow save the stove.
    Got Granola? No Problem. Happy existence in your journey to realization. MREs a better option for you? Better yet, this may be the perfect week to become a vegetarian. Barter Idea: Liquid Soap. We’re not kidding here. There is no running water at Burning Man, so washing clothes and or utensils, will be a community event. Remember the stories your parents told you about sharing the same bathwater with 6 siblings... need we say more. Most people will not waste water on something as dumb as cleaning forks and spoons!
  • A bicycle (mountain bike or cruisers with balloon tires are best) – Sure you could just walk… the first day or two. Please let us know how that works out.
  • A bike lock (tag your bike with name, playa address, email and phone info) – Refer to the previous tip. Question: What are you locking you bike up to? The cardboard structure you built? Please, please we want pictures if you choose this option.
  • Bicycle tire repair kit, pump, spare parts and extra tubes – Is this actually turning into work? Locking, storing, repairing… Next there’ll be urban planning!
  • Portable shower with a drain system to collect & manage grey water – We love this suggestion. We really do. If you are lucky enough to have an RV for your week at Burning Man, this will be a non-issue unless you decide to barter some shower time. However, if you don’t have an RV, we’ve been told that most people simply go without showers. After all, how do you create a drainage system to collect grey water in the dessert? One alternative is Handy Bath Wipes. Handy Bath is pre-moisten large adult washcloths, which can be purchased scented and unscented. No need to drag water bottles or use the precious water you’ll more than likely want to drink after your second night at Burning Man. Handy Bath 64ct $6.99
  • Lotion, lip balm and earplugs (Not everyone will want to sleep when you do!)
  • Watertight protective bags (e.g. heavy zip-type) for cameras or electronic gear
  • Costumes, musical instruments, props, decorations, and anything that might make the experience more fun for you and your Playa neighbors. Barter Ideas: If your neighbors are jubilant and have instruments, barter ear plugs, for the less jubilant around you. Amazon Bulk Earplugs under $20.
  • A battery powered AM/ FM radio so you can listen to BMIR radio and stay informed
  • Camp marker (flag, banner, distinctive marking) – We like the idea of a colorful flag with a nifty expression like “I was kidnapped and need a ride home”.
  • 12” tent stakes (rebar is cheap and effective in high wind) – KaChing… I love the smell of fresh expression mixed with capitalism in the morning. If you are keeping track at this point, we are in over $750 at this point to be a part of a cashless society for one week. But that would imply that we are missing the point of Burning Man entirely. We suppose that we could express ourselves without spending a dime. Burning Man does offer low income tickets for the one week event. 4,000 tickets at $190 each were available through the Burning Man 2014 Low Income Ticket Program. These tickets are reserved for participants on a limited income who cannot otherwise afford our regular priced ticket. Burners must submit an application to be considered for a low income ticket.
  • Plastic bottles or tennis balls to top and protect dangerous rebar stakes
  • Extra set of car keys (keys are easily lost and there is no locksmith in BRC!) – Why not keep your keys where you lock up your bike. Seriously, if your bike is not stolen or broken, this may actually be a viable option. On the other hand, we’d love to get this call at the AAA office!

Burning Man has become a “Survivor-meets-Lord of-the-Flies” experience. The event started in the late 80s with just 20 members in the community and has mushroomed to more than 60,000 attendees.

Clearly this is an experience that will surely make it to the bucket list of thousands of people. That being said, it is an experience of unique proportions. One that should be lived on the terms that make each individual dig deep into their (wallet) and inner self to determine, where life has taken them and where they expect to go.

If dust, grime and absolute self-reliance with a modicum of gifting and bartering tossed in are par for your course, then we just may see you at Burning Man this year.

Bonus Tips:


The average high in Black Rock Nevada in August is 80 Degrees with lows of 55 degrees at night. Despite the dust, sunscreen is a must. We recommend LaFresh Sunscreen Wipes. The wipes are individually packed and one square will cover the average adult and do we need to say it, you can gift or barter sunscreen wipes which come in 48pk boxes, $29.99

Grime Busters:

Facial Cleaning Wipes – Travel Lite unscented face wipes can be stashed in a pant pocket and will stay moist in its pouch container and keep out the dessert floor dust as it blows around you.


Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. Not showering for a week is one thing but to have the accompanying BO is another thing entirely. It’s not unusual for people to skip a day of showering if they don’t actually smell but, building your own habitat community, make lead to one of two pungent smells. 48ct Antiperspirant wipes for men or women, $19.99

Burning Man Festival

Burners Get Into the Spirit

"In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience." No cash transactions are permitted between attendees of the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert. Cash can be used for a select few charity, fuel, and sanitation vendors as follows:

  • Café beverages such as coffee, chai, lemonade, etc., which are sold at Center Camp Café, operated by the organizers of the event.
  • Ice sales benefit the local Gerlach-Empire school system.
  • Tickets for the shuttle bus to the nearest Nevada communities of Gerlach and Empire which is operated by a contractor not participating in the event: Green Tortoise.
  • A re-entry wristband, which allows a person to leave and re-enter the event and may be purchased at the gate upon exit.
  • An airport use fee, payable at the airport upon first entry.
  • Diesel and biodiesel sold by third-party contractors.
  • RV dump service and camp grey water disposal service.
  • Private portable toilets and servicing, which can be arranged with the official contractor.

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources." Because of the event's harsh environment and remote location, participants are expected to be responsible for their own subsistence. Since the LLC forbids most commerce, participants must be prepared and bring all their own supplies with the exception of the items stated in Decommodification.

Bathrooms at Burning Man

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Welcome to the Potty

One thing that you have to love is how the Burners at the Burning Man Festival become one with not only the community but the Earth too.

Letting your inhibitions and your bodily functions go with the ease of a toddler in a diaper factory. In 2013 one member of the community started a campaign to "Name Your Poo" as you left your deposit in the communal porta-potty.

Perhaps there is something to be learned about the spirit that can be connected to a new community in such an uninhibited way.

Burning Man Community Awarness


The No Shower, Shower

Water, water never there. Besides camping, Indy festivals are rife with aromas of the self-ware and self-actualized.

With water conservation becoming an issue in 13 of the 50 states, looking for alternatives for day-to-day functions that we take for granted are making their way up the proverbial “to-do” list.

Earlier in West Virginia, contaminated water made its way into the regular water supply. Residents were advised not to shower with or drink water coming from their taps at home. Suffice it to say, showering with bottled water can quickly become expensive for a family of nearly any size over an extended period of time.

In the spirit of Burning Man, we took a look at a few alternatives to conventional showers;

  • 1. Solar Showers -Seattle Sports Solar Camp Shower 5 Gallon Capacity $14.95 Made of PVC with a 5 Gallon water capacity, this is an easy solution for a short 5 minute shower using solar heated water. We asked people what they thought of this solar shower and they told us:

“Less than $20 is nothing to pay, when you really need a shower. I used this shower as disposable. I have been using is in the very most harsh and demanding environments. No leaks or complaints from me.”

“Got it because my boat doesn't have hot water for showers etc. Works like a charm. Heats water to warm enough in a couple of hours”

“The water never got really warm and I think because we didn't get full direct sunlight at our particular campsite. I did however love using it to wash dishes. The seam near the hose connector gave out after 4 days. I would have returned it if it cost more than $10. Good product. Wish it had held up better.”

  • 2. Handy Bath Adult Bath Wipes – Large pre-moistened adult washcloths available in scented and unscented formulas. Alcohol free and contains Aloe and Chamomile in the scented variety. Comes in both flushable and toss away tubs. 64ct $9.99.
  • “My wife has been bedridden since coming back from the hospital and bathing was very difficult until I discovered these wipes. Until she's able bathe on her own, these wipes allow me to bathe her without have to move her. They smell nice, work well and can be flushed when finished. I've stocked up for the next few months.”
  • 3. ReadyBath LUXE Formula - Scented, 8 Count (Pack of 24) We liked these wipes for cleansing between showers. They wipes are pre-moistened with soap that you don’t need to wash off. Just cleanse and dry. One benefit is that the cloths can be reused with soap after being thoroughly washed out, if you want to reuse the heavy thick cloths.

“I used these body cleansing cloths about five years ago. The packaging and the name of the product has changed but I am pleased to say the quality is still there. These cloths are so thick they feel almost like an actual washcloth. They clean well and have an antibacterial ingredient. One thing that has changed is that even though these claim to be “scented”, there is no scent to them at all.

Either way wouldn’t matter to me, but in case you’re worried the scent may be too overpowering, there is no need for concern. Each eight-count package is supposed to be enough for one cleaning of the whole body. They even put a diagram on the back of the package to show you which areas to clean with each cloth.

Of course there is no real substitute for a soap-and-water shower, but with these cloths at least you know you are as clean and as antibacterial as you can be. These are so good and I am somewhat impressed they have not cheapened them over the last five years, which makes me not even want to go trying another brand. Please remember this is just one person’s opinion and your mileage may vary.”

  • 4. Eccotemp L5 Portable Tankless Water Heater and Outdoor Shower This is the granddaddy of portable showers. Complete with a water heater, it makes Burning Man more plausible, especially if you camp or will have optimal reasons to use it again, we feels it’s a great investment at $120.

At 13 pounds, the Eccotemp heater travels easily to cabins, barns, and almost any off-the-grid location. Use it to take a hot shower at a campsite, rinse off after a day at the beach, or to wash your pet. Its compact size keeps it out of the way, allowing for a convenient set-up outside your temporary shelter.

Depending on your shower needs and the needs of the people with you at your next off the grid event, there are plenty of choices in the showerless world, even at Burning Man, Coachella and a number of other events.

From wipes to completely wet and with every budget in mind. The question becomes, how important is the feel of hot water on your skin after a day in the elements?

The Playa at Burning Man


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