Burning Man from a First-Timer's Perspective

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WE ARE BACK…. back to the “default world” as most Burners would put it. That’s right, we managed to conquer our first Burning Man and boy did it exceed all expectations.

In this post I hope to outline some of my experiences, along with some commentary and advice to follow up from my earlier assumptions (which you can read here – Preparing For My First Burning Man).

Just in case you don’t know my style of writing – I’m a big fan of breaking things up into sections. I find it easier to write and hopefully easier for you to skim and find that important piece of information you might be looking for.

I have to say that this was the most researched week-long trip that I have ever been on and my expectations were extremely high based on what I had seen and read. Normally this would be a very dangerous situation, surely setting myself up for disappointment but this is Burning Man and even still my mind was TOTALLY BLOWN!!!

So without further adieu here we go.

Picking Up the RV

Not having a car in San Francisco is nothing out of the ordinary. Just take a ride on the No. 38 MUNI and you will see what I mean…. people crammed into every nook and cranny, fighting for breath below a stinky armpit. That being said, I very rarely travel across to the East Bay so my knowledge is pretty limited on how to get around there.

It just so happens that the RV we rented was located in Dublin which is a good hour BART ride into unknown territory.

A short walk from the station to the car yard then a loooong wait to get our vehicle. Be prepared to wait for up to three or four hours while they prepare your paperwork and make sure the RV is ready to hit the road. Thankfully the staff are quite well prepared for the Burning Man influx and, although the wait was long, we had a comfortable waiting area with free coffee and plenty of fellow burners to chat with.

Once the RV was ready to go we had a quick briefing from one of the staff. They outlined everything we needed to know like how to use the generator, storage options, refueling, toilet and shower.

TIP: We had a friend from Australia traveling with us and got him to book the RV using the international site. We ended up saving close to 50% because they charge a higher rental fee to the local market.

I might even consider outlining a breakdown of our costs in another post if that is something of interest to people. Just let me know in the comments.

Ready for B-Man
Ready for B-Man
The living area
The living area
Me and the beast
Me and the beast
Inside our camper
Inside our camper
Toilet and shower
Toilet and shower
RV’s on the lot ready to go
RV’s on the lot ready to go

Food & Drinks

In my previous post, I briefly touched on what to pack for the BURN outlining a fully comprehensive packing list that has been put together by other veteran burners. I would like to add my thoughts on what to take for food. Please bear in mind this is based on the fact that we had an RV with a complete kitchen including a fridge/ freezer, stovetop, and microwave oven.

Considering that there is so much to see and do on the playa I figured that it would be a good idea to prepare a selection of meals before leaving. We decided on three different meals:

1. Pumpkin & Chicken Curry with Rice
2. Spaghetti Bolognese
3. Vegetable Stir Fry

Ryan and I spent one afternoon cooking up a storm as you can see below. We purchased some plastic tupperware and individually packed all of our main meals for the week, then froze them. This simple prep turned out to be one of the best moves ever…..  if you have ever tried to cook while hungover then you will appreciate what I mean. The microwave was our best friend in the RV.

Preparing individual meals before we leave
Preparing individual meals before we leave

It is a good idea to pack some healthy options. For breakfast, we went for muesli and fruit with milk – simple to make, simple to pack.

Another suggestion is to take plenty of snacks. Snacks are great to share among your neighbors and other burners you invite into your camp. We decided on a selection of junk and healthy:

1. Celery & Dip
2. Corn Chips & Salsa
3. Chocolates (Mini Milky Way)
4. Trail Mix
5. Macaroons

In the Burning Man Survival Guide, they say that you should take at least 1.5 gallons (5-6L) of water per person a day. This may sound like a lot of water but let me assure you water is the most important item you will pack. The combination of hot dry air, dust, and exercise will dehydrate you like nothing else so make sure you always have liquids with you on the playa.

I am not a huge water drinker so decided to spice things up a bit by taking a selection of Powerades…… waaaay too many it turned out. So much so that I don’t think I could even look at another Powerade for months.

As a side note – A camelbak is a great way to keep a decent amount of water with you at all times while acting as storage also.

Getting There

The drive from San Francisco is reasonably straightforward, or so I thought. We made the push to Reno on the first day deciding to have a rest there and make a final push for Black Rock City in the morning.

The famous Reno sign
The famous Reno sign

Reno is the perfect stopover if you are traveling from most places in California. It leaves a drive of approximately four hours to the turn-off and has enough Vegas-like cheese to put a smile on your dial.

After finding a dodgy parking spot on the side of the road we ventured into the Circus Circus Casino for a few mojitos.

The best Mojitos in town at Circus Circus
The best Mojitos in town at Circus Circus

Let’s just say that the drinks were strong….very strong. Lisette, being the lightweight that she is, was entertaining after her first. Not a bad night when the drinks are only $3.75.

That night we slept in the RV on the side of the road – bad idea. The road was cambered which meant that Lisette and I ended up in a pile on the curb side of the bed in the morning. Nothing a strong coffee couldn’t fix though.

We arrived at the turn-off around lunchtime and to our amazement, the line was almost non-existent. They have set up a lane system to ease the processing of more than 50,000 people to the city and we had our choice of any lane.

Pick a lane any lane
Pick a lane any lane

Once on the dirt, we switched to 95.1 on the radio to get all the important information regarding processing into the city. If you chose to pick up your tickets at Will Call then you have a slight detour before arriving at the first checkpoint. This is where the volunteers jump onboard and loosely check your vehicle for contraband and more importantly stowaways (don’t let this stress you as they are not law enforcement and also turned out to be some of the most friendly people).

A short drive later and you arrive at the entrance to the city where you will be met by the ‘Greeters’. These friendly (mostly naked) folk are there to greet new arrivals and can be heard shouting “Welcome Home”. They handed us a thick book that seemed to cover every event for the week.

If you are a first-timer (virgin burner) like we were you get to hit the gong.

Lisette with one of the Greeters
Lisette with one of the Greeters
Hitting the Virgin Burner gong
Hitting the Virgin Burner gong

Setting Up Camp

Once you are in the city and have found a spot you need to set up your camp. Since we had an RV we were pretty sorted but I’m sure you can imagine that for some people with tents etc. the fun is just beginning.

There are a few considerations that you need to think about when setting up your camp.

Make sure you have secure anchor points to tie anything down

This is very very important for two reasons.

1. The ground is very brittle with a thin crusty layer so make sure you use rebar or at least multiple anchor points.

2. The wind can gust up to 70 mph (112 kph)

Build a shade area

During the day the temperature can get close to 100° F (37° C) so you will want to have some shelter from the sun’s rays. Preferably a well-ventilated area.

Respect your neighbors

It is a good idea to meet and greet the people adjacent to your campsite before setting up camp. This will set things off on the right foot establishing good communication and respect from the start…. not to mention you get to make some new friends.

Our little campsite in the day time
Our little campsite in the daytime

Have adequate lighting

This one is not only to make your camp look pretty but also as a safety precaution. Remember that at night it is very easy for someone to wander into your camp and trip over a guide line or metal peg in the ground if it is too dark.

Be careful not to litter

With a ‘leave no trace’ philosophy you want to ensure that you set up a garbage policy in your camp. Everyone should know where to discard their rubbish and this needs to be enforced.

Our own little disco party
Our own little disco party

Finding Your Friends & Communication

Black Rock City is not your typical city, you can’t just text your friends to arrange a meeting place if you get split up. While there have been huge advances in the infrastructure over the last few years it is still a place you can easily get lost.

There is no cell phone signal but unbelievably there were a few places in the city where you could connect to wifi. Apparently, some camps had set up a hot spot. Needless to say, the coverage was very patchy and you needed to be within a couple of blocks to connect.

If you don’t make very clear instructions with your friends on where and when to meet you will likely miss each other. The best thing to do when you arrive is to register your camp and self at the Playa Information. There are a number of computer terminals set up at Center Camp and you can leave a message for your friends or check messages others may have left for you.

While this works well in theory, in practice it is a different story as I found out. I left a number of messages for a couple of friends because I didn’t know where they were camped but unfortunately, they never checked them.

Playa Info
Playa Info

We thought that we came prepared to communicate by purchasing three Motorola Walkie-Talkies……we were wrong. First issue was quality or lack thereof. While in the deep playa the winds can get pretty fierce making it very difficult to hear the person at the other end. Second issue was competition – with only 22 channels to choose from we were constantly competing with other people for air time.

So my suggestions would be these:

– Make sure your friends know how you will communicate with them, whether this be at the information or on a sign.
– Organize a group meeting point to be used if anyone goes missing.

Ok I think it is probably best to finish Part 1 of this series here. I will be writing Part 2 (and possibly Part 3) over the next few days and will place a link below when they are up.

UPDATE: Here is the link to Part 2: Burning Man – Art, Theme Camps and More

All questions and comments are welcome.

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Michael Glass

Michael is the founder of Backpacker Travel. He also runs walking tours in San Francisco and is a freelance travel writer. Michael is extremely passionate about travel and loves to explore festivals around the world.

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