How To Prepare for Burning Man In Twenty-Four Hours
“Oh my god, I just got a ticket to the Burn! This is finally my year!”
Her voice dripped with enthusiasm. For months, the only thing my friend could talk about was how badly she wanted to go to Burning Man. She raved about the art she was excited to see, people to meet, and music to dance by. She was at a point in her life where she felt ready to find a new perspective and ponder some upcoming moves in her career. As our conversation went on, reality started to set in: she was going to need to figure out how to survive a full week in a harsh desert. And time wasn’t on her side—we were having this conversation just one day before she would have to leave.
My friend needed a fool-proof plan to become radically self-reliant in just twenty-four hours. As a veteran burner myself, I was just the man to dispense advice and opinions in short order. For some background on me, I’ll be heading to my ninth burn this year. It’ll be my twentieth trip to the playa as I perennially attend the anti-event known as Fourth of Juplaya. I helped start the collective known as Airpusher, served as the mechanic for the art car for two years and a captain of the large theme camp one year. While I have been fortunate to have seen many sides of Burning Man, I am nowhere even close to having seen it all. I’ve barely even scratched the surface and that’s what keeps me coming back!
Burning Man isn’t like other places. In fact, I cringe a little when people compare it to festivals like Coachella or EDC. Those events provide a complete experience with your ticket, including access to creature comforts like running water, food vendors who accept payment in cash and reliable set times for when your favorite artists will be performing. Burning Man doesn’t give you any of these things. The only thing your ticket purchase guarantees is access to port-a-potties. The rest, including both your enjoyment and your survival, is up to you.
To me Burning Man isn’t a festival at all, but rather an ephemeral city that lives in the desert for just a week every year. It has many of the features of a city: street addresses, restaurants, art galleries, clubs, and homes. It even lives like a city. Wander the streets day or night and you’ll come across unexpected delights and the ability to find any experience you seek. If yoga, workshops, or even running a full marathon is your thing, those opportunities abound. If drugs, dancing, and sex is on your mind, the Playa can provide. When presented with so many options in a place so free of responsibility and expectation, the process of figuring out where your journey will take you can be not only fun but also a one-of-a-kind lesson on yourself!
I actually believe 24 hours is an ideal amount of time to prepare for Burning Man, provided you take care to prepare the essentials:
As a first time burner your enthusiasm and excitement is the greatest gift you can bring to the playa. Don’t worry about bringing gifts for other people — with such little time to prepare, you need to make sure you’ve got all your survival basics prepared so you can stay safe out there. Also, keep in mind that the greatest gift anyone can give is a big smile, a warm hug, words of affirmation and enthusiasm for other’s projects. A common misconception is that the Burn has a barter culture where if I give you something, you have to give me something in return. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gifting culture is to give without any expectation to receive and this culture will form the foundation for many of the most positive interactions you’ll have out on the playa. I recommend checking out this video by Halcyon on gifting at Burning Man to get in the spirit.
At least two gallons per person per day. Not to be too dramatic but without water, you literally die. That’s going to make everyone’s burn not fun real quick. So remember the basics and make sure you are bringing enough water out that you are bringing some extra back home. Under no circumstances should you be leaving Burning Man without some water. It is common to get delayed on the journey home and you’ll need water in your vehicle to stay hydrated. Or maybe you’ll be having such a fun time that you want to stay an extra day or two. Maybe you’ll want to shower or rinse out your water bottle. Maybe you’ll get into a squirt gun fight with a rhinoceros. Who knows, this is Burning Man! Be prepared.
You have only twenty-four hours to prepare so this is a tricky one and almost as important as water. The good news is that, unlike water, there are many people gifting food (sometimes really good food!) on the playa. However, practically speaking, there are not enough people gifting food that you can show up without your own food. But how to do a not-horrible job at packing food when you have only 24hrs to prepare? First off, the basics: bring enough food, make sure it is palatable, easy to prepare, and non-perishable. Easy to prepare and non-perishable are important for any Burner but even more so for the person packing at the last minute. Ice does not last long in a cooler at Burning Man and you don’t want to lose half your food supply just because you went out for a couple days and forgot to make an ice run. Easy to prepare will be essential because, as a last minute packer, you probably won’t have much of a kitchen to work with. And finally, do not underestimate the importance of eating palatable food. I’ve seen newbies come to the Burn thinking it’s all about “roughing it” and bring only MREs, power bars, and soylent. Without going into too much detail, these sparkle ponies were spending a LOT more time in the port-a-potties than they expected they would. If your body doesn’t like that food in the default world, it definitely won’t like it on the playa.
You’re going to want to strike a balance between all these considerations: palatable, non-perishable, easy to prepare. Here’s my recommendation: Go to REI. Buy a Jetboil so you can boil water. Also, buy a couple Backpacker’s Pantry meals per day. These are dehydrated meals that require only boiling water to prepare, so they’re super easy and are reasonably palatable in my experience. Ramen is also a great choice that can be easily livened up by adding smoked salmon and dried seaweed. Canned soups, fruit cups, and a rational quantity of protein bars are great for quick snacks in between adventures. Buy some tortillas. You can put just about anything into a tortilla and now you have a burrito. Someone gifts you eggs? Turn it into a breakfast burrito. Also, stock up on fresh fruits so you can eat them over the first few days. Apples are really easy, don’t go bad too quickly, and are full of natural sugars that help you feel great. Once you have all the essential nutrition covered, buy some snacks, anything that you love to snack on in the default world, bring it with you. Again, the food theme is simple–treat your body well so that it returns the favor.
With only twenty-four hours, you need something fast, easy, reliable, and compact. You need a tent. During your REI trip, buy a tent. I’ve done three burns sleeping in a cheap Coleman tent I bought on Amazon and they were some of my favorite burns. You really don’t need a yurt, RV, or all those creature comforts people rave about. See item 1, your positive attitude is the key to having a great time. Time permitting, I recommend buying some aluminet or an EZ-up to put over your tent. Putting shade over your tent will greatly increase your comfort and give you a few more hours to sleep each morning. Also, pick up a sleeping bag and sleeping pad. A 30-deg rated sleeping bag will be fine, and I recommend buying a cheap one because it will get dusty. For sleeping pad, you can buy one of those backpacker-style ones but I personally prefer a regular air mattress. Sleep and rest is important at Burning Man. Can you imagine going a week in the default world without sleep? It would be pretty uncomfortable. The same is true at Burning Man. That said, don’t stress too much about this one because there are a lot of communal shelters at Burning Man. If you’re too hot in your tent during the day, go to Center Camp and take a nap on one of the pillow piles they have. Or make friends with someone who brought an RV and enjoy it. Just bring your smile, be considerate, and everyone will have a good time.
There are a few basics with clothing at Burning Man that are important for comfort and a lot of frivolous stuff that helps with the fun. The basics are simple: bring 1 skimpy outfit to wear during the hot day. Bring one warmer outfit to wear at night. Bring one heavy coat to wear when it gets cold later at night. You might be surprised, but it can get really cold at night. Also don’t forget your rain jacket, because from time to time it does actually rain out there. But if that’s all you brought, you’ll survive. Your clothes will get a little smelly but after a couple days in the dust no one will notice, least of all you. Also, there’s some magic quality of playa dust that keeps odors down. Or so it seems to me at least 😉 After that, I strongly recommend bringing some frivolous costumes. All I can say here is to dig deep, find your inner child who couldn’t wait for Halloween and challenge yourself. Bring clothes you would never wear in the default world. There’s a chance someone may gift you costume bits but don’t be a mooch and plan on it. Bringing costumes does wonders for getting you into the spirit and having an experience you couldn’t have at Coachella. That’s why you’re coming to Burning Man in the first place, right?
Gear and Lights
For gear, bring a good pair of dark sunglasses and a hat to keep the sun off your head. Pack ski goggles, a handkerchief, and a sealed dust mask (such as a KN95) for the inevitable dust storms we will experience. Bring extra sunscreen, others will definitely want you to gift them some! While you’re at REI, buy a small camping cup you can bring with you everywhere. People gift alcohol to those of legal age but there are no disposable cups. Also, bring a camelback or water bottle to bring water with you everywhere you go. It’s essential to your survival and enjoyment. A really critical and often overlooked safety aspect of Burning Man is wearing light at night! Everywhere you go at night, make sure you are lit up. A headlamp dangling around your neck will suffice in a pinch, but getting some EL-wire, LED strips, or other fun blinky stuff will be much better for exploring the playa at night.
And finally, the question that’s on many people’s minds, do I need a bike at Burning Man? The answer: up to you! Legendary burns have been had both by the bike-haves and bike-have-nots. For perspective, the city is two miles end to end. Those with bikes might make their way across it multiple times in a day or night. Those without might be a bit more intentional, or intentionally unintentional, about the direction their feet take. Having a bike empowers you to go further, faster and seek out specific experiences on the playa. Not having a bike puts you in a situation where you need to take it slow, go with the flow, and interact with whomever’s around you at the time. Both are great ways to burn and both can lead to amazing experiences. My bottom line is this: If you literally have just 24hrs to prepare, don’t let worries about a bike hold you back. Just get your dusty feet out there and have some fun. But if you’re able to bring a bike without too much cost or inconvenience, it’s probably best to do so. Before we close this section, a quick public service announcement: if you do bring a bike, take it home with you and don’t lose it on the playa!
Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs
If you like to drink, smoke, or do any other substances for fun, make sure you are bringing enough of your own supply to have the experience you are looking to have. Do not rely on the supply of others for this. There is heavy police presence at Burning Man and they are specifically looking for people who possess illegal drugs or are sharing those drugs. If anyone you don’t know approaches you asking about illegal drugs, you should assume they are police and act accordingly. Likewise, if you approach anyone else asking about drugs, that person will assume you too are with the police. Some say it never hurts to ask but asking strangers about drugs at Burning Man is one of those things that does hurt to ask about. Don’t do that. Also finally, if you are taking medications for medical reasons, make sure you pack everything you need and then some extra. It’s recommended to keep legally prescribed controlled substances in their original bottles and bring a copy of your prescription so that you can present them just in case law enforcement takes interest. There are no pharmacies at Burning Man and you won’t be able to refill your prescription, so be prepared.
Lastly, don’t leave home with a full bag. This is one of my personal rules of travel and I think it applies even more so to Burning Man. Don’t leave home with a full bag, both literally and figuratively. Literally, leave a little extra space in your bag when you leave home. Then you can pick up a few items on your way and you’ll have space to bring some gifts home with you. But also figuratively, don’t leave home with a full bag. This means not leaving home with a full heart, a full mind, a full spirit. Leave some space inside for others to fill when you get to the playa. Leave room in your heart for new friends, new experiences, new joys that you couldn’t anticipate. Read blogs and watch YouTubes for info on how to not die in the desert and how to maybe be a little comfortable from time to time, but don’t watch them as a guide on how to burn. Leave room to define Burning Man for yourself. And most importantly, leave room in your emotional baggage to bring some happiness home with you.
Relax. I know this can be a lot to take in but take a few deep breaths, relax, and imagine yourself out there on that beautiful playa surrounded by art, music, and the most loving, fascinating city of adventurers that you’ll ever meet in your life. Burning Man is the perfect introduction to a whole new world and you are about to take the first step! You’ve gotten your golden ticket, now scurry out, rustle up the essentials, and get your butt over to the playa to have a great time! See you in the dust!