“What the heck possessed you to go THERE?”
This was a common question I heard from fellow midwesterners as I expressed interest in attending Burning Man, an annual gathering in the desolate Black Rock Desert of Nevada featuring art, community and creativity in a temporary community. Over the years I had heard of the event from coworkers and acquaintances, but dismissed it in my head with other strange and foreign words coming from the west like “Coachella” and “SXSW.”
It’s only been in the last couple of years that I started to take interest in Burning Man as I’ve gotten increasingly adventurous, especially with my photography. A unique experience filled with equally unique people, art and situations presented no shortage of challenging opportunities in that kind of environment, and as I’ve said before, I do like a challenge.
Tickets went on sale on March 23rd promptly at 2PM and I was ecstatic to score a golden ticket, but that joy would be extremely short lived as not one hour later there was a unexpected threat to my personal and professional situation. Without going into detail, that move put me in a complicated situation that was an incredible setback for my career…and Burning Man was already in jeopardy no sooner than the order had a chance to be processed.
I had no concerns about getting my money back due to the demand for tickets, but I had waited too long for this. Against far less than ideal circumstances, I ultimately did what I needed to do to keep the trip feasible and at long last, the time came to start packing for the journey to Black Rock City. It was meant to be.
While Burning Man is a large event and the photos makes it look like all fun and games, survival in Black Rock City is a serious affair. While not as dangerous as scaling and trekking various remote regions of the world, the Black Rock Desert is a harsh environment all the same and not like casually prepping for a weekend camping trip.
Though possible to leave and return to Black Rock City (by shuttle or a gate re-entry cost), this is impractical as the event is located off-road in the playa about fifteen miles from the nearest town which is very limited on amenities. Realistically, you’re looking at an additional 95 miles to return to the meager offerings around the interstate, and even then you might have to drive on to Reno to hit up the big stores.
Instead, participants are expected to bring EVERYTHING with them to survive the week, and that includes food and water. As very little is actually sold at Burning Man and the community services are finite, solving problems demands ingenuity and inventive thinking of participants. One of the key principles of Burning Man is “radical self-reliance” and the success or failure of your experience there lies solely on YOU.
After everything I had been through that year, radical self-reliance was EXACTLY how I preferred to do things for once.
There are many ways that Burners live in the desert: the lucky ones have RVs, some build structures like hexiyurts and others may even simply sleep right out on the playa. More well-connected burners may belong to a theme camp with shared commodities. Generally the classic camping tent is the most common shelter: I have a spacious 10×10′ tent that I’m fond of but modifications would be necessary in order to make it suitable for the desert.
Winds on the playa can reach up to 70mph and beyond and will toss a tent around the desert like paper in a tornado unless it’s secured down. Typical aluminum tent stakes are no good – rebar is the most ideal replacement (and bring a sledgehammer). To prevent tripping or impalement, people will use anything from tennis balls to stuffed animals to cover the exposed ends of the rebar. Use rope or ratchet straps in place of the stock guy lines on the tent. If your tent meshes don’t completely zip up (a rain cover alone won’t do), you can stop the inside from getting dusted (more than necessary) by sealing off the meshes with water-resistant fabric or plastic and hot-glue or gorilla tape.
The playa heats up quickly in the morning and a shade structure over your tent is recommended to comfortably sleep in or enter the tent during the day. Monkey huts built from PVC and tarp are a popular choice at Burning Man; others opt to go with foldable car ports from Costco.
Water is absolutely a REQUIREMENT in the desert and it’s necessary for everything from hydrating to cleaning up. One-and-a-half gallons per day is a fair recommendation, and it’s better to have too much than too little. Carry a canteen or travel mug while out and about as well as a drinking cup: you’ll come across many opportunities to receive drinks or other treats.
You won’t need as much food as you think, but don’t skimp. I had enough left over by the end, but I was out of the bigger stuff and was bored with Clif Bars by the final day. I chose not to deal with perishables and replenishing ice in a cooler, so I brought freeze-dried foods and Hormel meals. In the absence of a stove, you can get inventive and use your vehicle’s dashboard and the desert heat to cook meals.
Otherwise, use common sense on what to bring. Sunblock and moisturizing lotion is an absolute must, and lip balm was like gold to me out there. Bungie cords, gorilla and gaffer tape were incredibly versatile and useful for patching and repairs. In the absence of a shower, baby wipes are handy for keeping yourself fresh (though aside from the dust I never felt particularly grimy due to the dry environment). A sleeping mask and a good pair of earplugs is helpful for sleeping at night as you’ll never know when neighbors will make noise or a very loud art car will suddenly drive by.
When departing Black Rock City, you are expected to bring EVERYTHING back with you…right down to the last wrapper and breadcrumb. There are NO public trash cans or dumpsters around Black Rock City; your garbage comes back with you, too. This includes your gray water from cleaning, showering or cooking – you can’t simply pour it out on the playa as it’s damaging to the environment (and may even get a citation if caught). Responsible ways of removing gray water is simply dumping it in empty water containers, or you can pour it in a plastic concrete mixing tray and leave it out in the sun during the day to evaporate. If you want to get really fancy, some people build an evapotron.
Costumes either get incredibly elaborate or down to the bare necessities as some choose not to wear anything at all. I opted for comfort more than aesthetics so I wore a modified combination of foreign clothing with a breathable material that covered my arms from sunburn and kept me cool. I had intended to bring bandannas to protect my head from the sun, but I forgot to pack them and ended us repurposing left-over costume material as head wraps. Otherwise I simply wore typical t-shirts and shorts that made me look more like the standout amongst a wildly dressed bunch. (Fortunately, no one judges you at Burning Man.)
Not wanting to put excess strain on my shoulder with a camera strap, I chose to invest in the Spider Camera Holster. It turned out to be an incredibly wise investment: with the weight shifted to my hips, carrying my camera around along with other attached gear was a breeze and even remained secure while riding a bicycle.
Dust storms are always popping up randomly in the desert and eye and breathing protection of some manner is strongly recommended. I tried a pair of welding googles at first, but found them uncomfortable to wear and I ended up switching to an old pair of daytime ski goggles. Your nose and mouth can be covered with anything from a cloth to a dust mask or respirator.
Power is a huge luxury out at Burning Man, but I didn’t require it for very much. My primary need was keeping my DSLR batteries charged throughout the week.
Some camps kindly offer charging stations for electronics, but it is a waste of time babysitting batteries in public while they charge and I needed a go-to solution that would allow me to charge in my tent overnight. Generators and solar power was too large of an investment for something I would have little use for once my trip was over. I ended up going with a simpler solution: a RavPower battery pack combined with a USB camera battery charger.
This was the ideal solution: the RavPower got me through the entire week with a little bit of power left to spare. Aside from that, alkaline batteries are good to have to keep anything from your radio, flashlight and LED lights powered.
With the exception of art cars, Burning Man is a pedestrian community and a bicycle is going to be your very best friend out there. Playa dust is not at all kind on bicycles and it’s highly discouraged to bring your cherished “whip” out there. The best option is to find an old, cheap bike from Goodwill or CraigsList that you are free to modify, decorate and ruin to your heart’s content.
Another option is renting a bicycle through a third-party rental service (likely the best option for those flying or busing in), but these often have to be reserved in advance and will cost you far more than bringing a junker. There is also the yellow bike community program, but these bikes are finite and it’s honestly easier to have your own to depend on.
Bring a small set of tools (hand pump, torx keys, patch, etc) for on-the-spot repairs as well as a bike lock…you never know what impaired individual might unwittingly ride off with your transportation. Decorating your bike (and yourself) in lights and LEDs is not just for fashion but for safety: the desert is incredibly dark at night and it’s easy to run into someone who is darked out (known as “darkwads”). At the bare minimum, wrap the bike in El wire or install headlights, and I would also suggest a small LED headlamp for walking around. Don’t bother with glowsticks and necklaces, they aren’t sufficient.
Lastly, spare no expense and swap the bicycle seat with something cushy and wide: you’ll be spending a LOT of time sitting on that bike and your rear end will greatly thank you later.
Now came the trickiest part…protecting the camera. Sandy environment like the beach are no joke, but playa dust takes things to a new extreme as alkaline dust is incredibly corrosive to electronics unless measures are taken. (Forget weather sealing: not even professional camera equipment is completely safe from Burning Man.)
Some photographers grin and bear it and simply send in their gear for professional cleaning after the trip, while others just seal their camera inside a large Ziplock bag. I experimented with the Ziplock bag and modified rain covers but I found those option a pain to use: I knew I wouldn’t be using my camera nearly as much if that was an issue.
I ended up sealing the entire camera with two separate layers of gaffers tape and gorilla tape (for redundancy), covering the memory and battery doors in a way that would allow removal and reapplication at night in my tent to swap batteries and cards out. Tape covered all the buttons, but fortunately I know my camera like the back of my hand and they were easy enough to push through the tape. Dials presented a bigger problem as simply covering them would impede their function, so I got around this by puffing out remains of the nylon fabric I used to seal my tent that allowed enough give to turn the dials.
I took only one lens: there would absolutely be NO lens changes on this trip in order to protect the sensor from dust. I almost brought the 24-70mm f/2.8, but I changed to the 24-105mm f/4 at the last minute as the extra length would be useful and was the lens I was most willing to sacrifice. A UV filter protected the glass, and the zoom lens was wrapped with nylon fabric like a sock with all exposed ends sealed off. The zoom ring would need to be left unexposed to allow operation, but I used two thick rubber bands on the gaps to prevent as much dust getting into the cracks as possible while retaining the ability to turn the ring.
This was very much a curious looking solution but surprisingly effective: following the trip I barely found any dust on the inside (aside from anything purposely exposed) and looked just as pristine as it did when I sealed it up. A light cleaning with a dust collector and vinegar wiping solution had the camera looking just as good as ever.
I explored flying into Reno and taking the Burner Express bus, but gear is limited on both and are more realistic for those who already belong to theme camps or can get someone to haul their things. In the end, I chose to make the grueling 27-hour drive from St. Louis to Black Rock City alone.
I went with a rental vehicle as my own car is up there in miles, and I wisely decided to spend extra on the insurance as the playa (or careless denizens) tend not to be kind on vehicles. West coast rental companies aren’t dummies and are ready to sock renters with hefty cleaning fees if they suspect where you’re headed (or check the vehicle’s GPS). While their midwestern counterparts are far more oblivious, I still took extra care to look after the car and return it in pristine condition to not raise suspicions.
The entire interior was covered with drop cloth prior to arrival, which saved me considerable vacuuming time later on. Arrival and departure only happened during calm conditions and I never entered the vehicle more than necessary. Playa dust is more adhesive than you think: on my way back the vehicle had to be hit with several car washes and a hand scrubbing with vinegar / orange cleaner in order to remove the residue. Check around every crack like car doors and trunks, and don’t forget to look under the hood.
The journey begins
With all the logistics worked out, I worked on preparations like a madman up to the very day of departure (and even during the trip there). At last, the day finally came to depart St. Louis and I had a loooong journey ahead of me.