Back in ’07, my amazing roommate, Charlie, shared her bucket list with me, the first item being Burning Man. I had never heard of anything like it before. While it suited her, I started my own bucket list of things that I would never do. The Burn was the only item on the list.
To me, it sounded like awful: I imagined naked, drugged, hippies in an orgy set to techno music in the desert. Am I alone in this assumption? Where did it come from?
Years later, my impression of Burning Man was challenged by trending images on social media. It looked like a trendy backdrop Instagram models and the selfie-obsessed (worse).
To my surprise, when my guy Tyler was offered a last-minute ticket to Burning Man in 2016, he went and returned an enthusiastic “Burner”. It should have been annoying that he could not stop raving about his experience, but instead, I became intrigued — his experience sounded nothing like the impression I’d had. By contrast, it sounded like an adventure, filled with incredible art, food, entertainment and friendly people from all over the world.
Ty’s interests overlap with mine, so I wondered if I would like it too. He wasn’t sure since I can be an ornery old person at times (I need my quiet time). I decided that, if by a miracle we were able to acquire tickets (it’s really hard), I’d take it as a sign that I should at least give it a try. And we did!
Here are my initial opinions of the BM experience as an outsider contrasted by my actual experience —the good and the bad.
1. One big techno rave
The good (if you’re like me): There are camps dedicated to all genres of music (such as folk, bluegrass, rock, etc) which you can find if you look for them (there’s an app for that).
The Bad (if you’re like me): ‘Sound Camps’, (camps dedicated to electronic music) and art cars (mutant vehicles roaming, usually with sound) require no app to be seen or heard at BM. By the final weekend, each camp/car competes to be heard, creating a cacophony of noise that grated on me. Ironically though, I did grow to appreciate this music and even work to it now. Who knew?
2. Orgy central
I didn’t see any! But I’m sure they’re out there.
If you think of Black Rock City (BRC) like any other city (which it’s not, but helpful for this point), then know that whatever you’re into, you can find a community celebrating it at BRC. If you’re into Settlers of Catan/accounting/keto/pottery/Radiohead/ sustainability/building robots, etc (no exaggeration, anything), you will be able to find it in the BM itinerary. Including orgies, if that’s your thing.
The iburn app is designed to help navigate the extensive BM schedule, full of attendee-organized events, activities, art installations, and more. You’ll notice that many activity descriptions include overt sexual references (it’s too much IMO), but most options are normal things we would pay to do at home (go to the spa, watch live comedy, eat good food/coffee/cocktails, make things, etc). Everything is free.
You can plan your time around the event schedule, forget the schedule altogether, or do a hybrid of the two. Biking around until you find something interesting is easy — the entire place is a treasure trove of unique activities. Planning to attend certain events ahead of time can help add structure if you like that (I recommend the unforgettable Falzone Circus. Packed out every night; the highlight of my Burn).
In summary, there’s no shortage of kinky stuff in BRC and you’ll absolutely find it if you’re both looking for it and consent to participate in it (consent is big there). If that’s not what you’re into, go find the things that do interest you. For me, I love the adventure of exploring a new (and zany) city; the massive art installations, live entertainment, food/drinks, spas, interesting lectures, and all the friendly people I meet along the way make the whole thing pretty damn great.
3. Full of wannabe insta models/selfie-obsessed
Forget what you’ve seen on your Google Image search — most Burning Man attendees look like regular people. All shapes, sizes, ages, etc. I, for example, look like a potato riding a bike.
One of the ten principles of Burning Man is personal expression, so take it as a chance to dress however you like (within a few ground rules) You’ll notice people dressed in tutus, steampunk, birthday suits, outdoorsy clothing, etc — you do whatever is comfortable for you.
Since I’m limited in space, my burner style is boring. I bring compact and comfortable summer dresses, leggings, these badass hologram boots, knee-high socks, warm compact layers for the evening, and an animal onesie for cold nights. REAL HOT, I KNOW. If I feel like dressing up, I’ll go to a costume shop like Kostume Kult (free, obvs) and pick out a quirky outfit. It’s fun.
4. Chaos (Lord of the Flies style)
Despite the chaos of the ticket sale, the BM festival is extremely organized. Nevada police and BRC-trained ‘Rangers’ are everywhere patrolling the vast premises, making clear that order and safety are a priority. Roads and camp spaces are clearly delineated. Street lights, street signs, and huge visual markers make the city easy to navigate.
Burning Man’s code of conduct is embraced by the majority of attendees, making it a safe and respectful environment. The fact that a city of 80,000 can be built, dismantled and packed away in such a short amount of time is impressive. Even during the temple ‘burn’, thousands of people sit and watch quietly and sombrely. For an event with such a carefree reputation, it is inspiring to see how structured (in a good way) everything is.
5. Only for partiers
If you haven’t already noticed, I’m…kind of boring I guess? I enjoy low key events more than crowded, energetic parties. So, to my friends who NEED their downtime like air (I do), know that Burning Man is filled with chill things to do. Some that come to mind are the bedouin tea house, a lavender spa, snow cone shops, hammock camps, aromatherapy stations, library, restaurants, lecture halls, clothing ‘stores’, museums, etc, etc…and (broken record here) everything is free.
There are so many great activities for introverts and extroverts alike. If you are a partier, you can find a TON of parties to attend, 24/7. The playa features world-renown DJ’s, the most unique dance clubs you’ve seen in your life, and bars on nearly every block. Something for everyone.
As I said earlier, anything found in a regular city, you can expect to find here. If you are looking for drugs, I’m sure you will find them (know the risks you are taking though, as the police are enforcing federal—not state—law, meaning stricter drug laws, and huge problems for you and the rest of your camp if you are found in possession of illegal drugs (a medical card for marijuana will not be accepted by them). In my case, everything at BRC is so surreal, I wouldn’t want anything to cause me to question if it’s real. It’s hard enough to comprehend it while sober!
If you enjoy cocktails, you’re in luck — cute little bars are everywhere. I get the yawns from alcohol, so I tend to abstain while at BRC, but for the rest of you, there’s a week-long open bar ahead.
The burning of the art was something I felt strongly against before I’d been to Burning Man, and even more so after my first year. Thankfully, only a handful of pieces are destroyed, but the wastefulness bothered me. For some of the most incredible structures I’d ever seen to go up in flames made me sad; I wanted to see them preserved to be enjoyed elsewhere, or, at the very least, the materials reused.
Three years later, and I feel differently. My friend Tanya shared that the art bonfires represent to her the impermanence of life, and a reminder to enjoy things in life while we have them. I like that.
8. Too edgy/too young (for square/almost 40’s people like me)
I’m glad to report that this isn’t true. The wide variety of people at Burning Man is what makes it great —in no way did a ‘normie’ like me feel out of place in this inclusive environment. Although the people represented in online photos of BM are in the 20-35 range (the selfie crowd), demographically it’s much broader. There is a dedicated family/children’s camp, and plenty of middle-aged (my group) and seniors, which I love.
9. Full of littering douchebags
SOAPBOX PLZ. I assumed this to be the way before coming, and still do get fired up when I hear about the mess left behind post-event. I chalk that up to newbies who showed up to party the last weekend, but truthfully I don’t know who is responsible for it. I literally saw no litter in 10 days (miracle), but at the end, a mess was left behind. I wish there were consequences for those responsible.
Burning Man is radically tidy compared to any largely-attended gathering I’ve been to. Think of your last time at a movie theatre, or a park. If you look, you’ll see traces of garbage. During Burning Man, garbage amazingly does not appear ANYWHERE, despite there being no garbage receptacles. The vast majority of attendees are religious about not leaving any trace behind.
Frustratingly, as seen in the news, things, unfortunately, ARE left behind, and it’s upsetting. On one hand, it surprises me because the ‘Burners’ I know are meticulous with camp clean up. A combing of the playa dust happens to make sure that not even a piece of fluff is left behind. Unfortunately though, I’ve also encountered well-meaning (?) Burners who left their camp looking less than great. Whether they didn’t notice, didn’t realize the importance, or didn’t care is beyond me. But in a regular campground, I see this kind of behavior often.
My first year, some very friendly, party-oriented Germans were camped in an RV and converted van beside us. They made an effort to get to know us, and were pleasant, albeit a bit loud. When they left, they left behind a large Rubbermaid bin full of greywater. We were frustrated as anything left behind is reflected in the “MOOP map“, a grid indicating where garbage/debris was found post-event).
We raked through the playa dust where they had been camped, picking up several small debris to add to our own garbage which we took with us in our car. Unfortunately we had no space to transport the greywater bin, otherwise, we would have.
There are also those who play by the rules at Burning Man, but then let it all go immediately after. Post-event, I’ve seen garbage bags littered along the exit road to Gerlach (the nearby town), and overflowing waste bins at each rest stop. Leaving no trace shouldn’t be restricted to the playa limits, and tarnishes BM’s reputation in the media.
In comparison with any other event even a fraction of its size/length, the mess is minimal in comparison. But BM attendees can do better. Honestly, my frustration with this problem is why I took a year off. I’m ready (and excited!) to go back now though.
10. Horrifyingly shower-free
Okay, so maybe I wasn’t wrong about this one — but it’s not so bad. The Nevada desert is filled with alkaline dust that acts like talcum powder on the body. Sweat and grease are quickly absorbed and body odors disappear (imagine!). I would have preferred to shower obviously, but it wasn’t as hard as I’d expected (though the first shower post-Burn is life-altering). Each night before bed, I cleaned myself with wet wipes, moisturized (the dust is very drying), and I felt okay. I also went to a hair-wash camp where I had a cooling peppermint hair wash, head massage and deep conditioning treatment (amaze, yo).
If you truly can’t live without a shower, there are shower camps, but they require you to get nekked with strangers (to save water of course!), something I’m not ready for in a co-ed setting. Maybe in the future, I won’t care. Another option would be to bring a camp shower and extra water, but we don’t have room to pack more greywater in our car (sure, you can evaporate some of it, but it leaves a messy sludge that apparently is more complicated to deal with). But we’re ok!
If you’ve read this far, hurrah, you’ve made it through my TEN ornery-old-lady objections! Despite my grievances, I LOVE Burning Man and am so incredibly grateful for the experience. I remember during my first Burn, constantly exclaiming, “this is the best thing I’ve ever done“, and my hope is that you can experience the same. Burning Man is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and for the lucky ones, perhaps even more.
Don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, I will give you the straight goods 🙂