I remember first hearing about Burning Man back in 2007 from a former roommate (who is awesome); while it suited her, I added ‘The Burn’ to a bucket list of things that I would NEVER do. It was the only item on the list.
To me, it sounded awful: a group of dusty, drugged hippies having an orgy to techno music in a remote desert. Am I alone in this assumption?
Years later, my facade of Burning Man was reshaped by trending images on social media. It looked like a haven for 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 tend to overlap with mine, so I couldn’t help but wonder if I would like it too. He wasn’t sure, since I can be an ornery old person at times. I decided if by 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. By Jove, it happened.
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 (for me): there are camps dedicated to folk music, bluegrass, rock & roll, etc — so if you want to find other music, it is out there.
The Bad (for people like me): although I can appreciate electronic music in small doses, it’s nearly everywhere at BM, so a small dose is next to impossible. For some people, that is huge bonus, but it started to grate on my by day five.
The electronic music camps have aggressive sound systems that only seem to grow louder as the week goes on. During the last weekend there is one big cacophony of sound throughout the desert. The sound became increasingly chaotic up until the final weekend. BUT I actually grew to appreciate and even love some of the electronic music (ie some of the sets from Mayan Warrior were incredible).
2. Orgy central
I haven’t personally encountered an orgy at anytime in my life, but I haven’t sought one either. If you think of Black Rock City (BRC) like any other city (which it’s not, but helpful for the sake of this point), then know that whatever you’re into, you can find a community celebrating it through some kind of activity at BRC. If you’re into Settlers/accounting/keto/pottery/bluegrass/ sustainability/random artists/philosophy lectures, etc (no exaggeration, anything), you will be able to find it in the BM itinerary. Including orgies, if that’s your thing.
There are apps designed to help navigate the extensive BM schedule, full of events organized by attendees. You’ll notice cheeky sexual references for activities that have nothing to do with sex (IMO it’s too much), but for the most part events/activities are normal things that we would pay to do back at home (go to the spa, watch live comedy, eat good food/coffee/cocktails, make things, etc). Everything is free.
So 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 because the entire place is a treasure trove of unique activities. Knowing some key events that you don’t want to miss also can help add structure if you like that (for me it was the unforgettable Falzone Circus. Packed out every night; the highlight of my Burn).
So in summary, yeah, there’s all sorts of kinky stuff out there, and you’ll definitely find it if you’re looking for it and consent to participating in it. If not, go find the things that do interest you! For me, it’s tea and spa tents, theatre, live music, art, hammocks, etc. Pretty damn divine.
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 major values of Burning Man is personal expression, so take it as a chance to dress however you like. You’ll notice tutus, steampunk, birthday suits, outdoorsy clothing, etc — you do whatever is comfortable for you. Being limited in space, I bring regular summer clothes, hiking boots and knee-high socks. 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 hella organized. Nevada police and BRC-trained “Rangers” are everywhere patrolling the vast premises, making clear that order and safety is a priority. Roads and camp spaces are clearly delineated. Street lights, street signs and other huge visual markers make the city easy to navigate. Burning Man’s code of conduct is strictly enforced by the majority of attendees, making it a respectful environment. The infrastructure is so immense, it’s hard to believe that such an incredible city of 80,000 can be built and dismantled in such a short amount of time. 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 lame I guess? I live for chilling in small groups and fade when it comes energetic parties. To my introverted and/or mellow friends out there, know that Burning Man can be an amazing experience for people like us too! There are fun low-key things to discover such as a bedouin tea house, a lavender spa, snow cone shops, hammock camps, aromatherapy misting stations, clothing stores, a library, museum, etc, etc…and like I’ve said before, 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. I wasn’t looking for drugs, and didn’t find any. Burning Man is truly beyond imagination and 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 tend to avoid booze because having a hangover in the desert sucks, but if you lurrrv the alcohols, this is your week-long open bar opportunity.
The burning of the art was something I felt strongly against before I’d been to Burning Man, and even more so afterward. Thankfully, only a handful of pieces are destroyed, but the wastefulness bothers me. Other Burners feel that the art-bonfires are important as they represents rebirth, renewal, etc —and I’m glad some derive value from it. For me, it’s just sad. These are some of the most incredible structures I’ve seen in my life, and I’d like to see them preserved to be enjoyed elsewhere or at the very least, the materials reused. Yep, that is how much of a killjoy I am. By the time these pieces burn I’m also over the techno music, feeling dirty, and the crowds. So it could be just me 😉
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 folks at Burning Man is what makes it great —in no way did a ‘normie’ like me feel out of place. It’s a very inclusive environment; anyone with an open mind can feel comfortable here. The people represented in online photos of BM will be in the 20-35 range (the selfie crowd), but 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
I definitely 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 on the last weekend, but truthfully I don’t know who is responsible for it. I saw no one litter in 10 days, but at the end, a mess was left behind. I wish there were consequences for the jerks responsible.
That said, Burning Man is radically tidy compared to any largely-attended gathering I’ve been to. In fact, even if I host a party in my own home, I’ll see debris, garbage and food on the ground, during and after, and my friends aren’t messy people!
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. One one hand, it surprises me because I see people literally combing through playa dust to make sure not even a piece of fluff is left when they pack up their camps (we do this as well). But I’ve also encountered well-meaning (?) Burners who left their camp looking less than great. Whether they didn’t notice or didn’t care is beyond me.
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 SO irritated as anything left behind is not only selfish, but reflects poorly on anyone camped around you (all debris left behind is recorded on the “MOOP map“, a grid indicating where garbage was discovered 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 were taking with us in our car. Unfortunately we had no space to transport the greywater bin, otherwise we would have. We were pissed.
There are also d-bags who wait to toss their garbage in the first public garbage facility they can find, and leave a mess of it. These people anger me to no end. I have had ideas around how this can be mitigated and would honestly like to see strict punishments for people who don’t abide by the rules — ‘leave no trace’ isn’t limited to the playa. I saw garbage bags littered along the road leaving the playa, and overflowing bins at each rest stop. That behavior impacts the reputation of the event in a negative way, leaving not just a physical trace but a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
I do feel though, that in comparison with any other event of that size/length, there would be no comparison to the garbage left behind. If there is a piece of debris that drops, unknowingly out of someones backpack, another person is there right away to scoop it up (here’s looking at you, Frankie). For the most part, people are so respectful of the environment there. Unfortunately, it’s the rotten apples who ruin the rep for everyone else.
10. Horrifyingly shower-free
Okay, so maybe I wasn’t wrong about this one — but it’s not so bad. The thing with alkaline dust, is that it acts like a talcum powder and so sweat/greasy hair aren’t an issue. That’s not to say that I didn’t fantasize about having a shower; that first shower post-Burn is PURE FREAKIN’ BLISS — but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I gave myself a wet-wipe shower every night before bed, and moisturized my skin so that I’d feel somewhat clean (and that worked). I also went to a hair-wash camp where I had an amazing 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 a bunch of strangers, something I’m not comfortable with in a co-ed setting. Maybe in the future I won’t care. Another option would be to bring a camp shower, but since all greywater must be taken out, it means you’d be stuck with more stuff to pack out (sure you can evaporate some of it, but it leaves a messy sludge behind that would also have to be taken out). We drive down from Canada and have to pack lean, so showering isn’t an option for us yet.
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 🙂