Preparing For My First Burning Man

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My fascination with festivals has seen me travel to some amazing places around the world. Last year I was fortunate enough to tick off one of the largest food fights in the world – La Tomatina in Buñol, Spain. While this took some preparation it pales in comparison to what is required for our upcoming adventure in just over a week.

A week-long festival in the middle of the desert you say – sounds interesting enough to grab your attention doesn’t it? Well, let me tell you this is no ordinary festival… this is Burning Man.

Since moving to San Francisco a little under two years ago, Lisette and I have wanted to make the trip to Black Rock City to see what all the fuss is about with this thing called Burning Man (BM). When we first arrived here in 2011, we met up with some people who had just come back from their first burn while out for a drink one night. You could literally feel their excitement of what they had just experienced from the moment they started talking to us. They went on to describe this “life-changing” event and how we MUST go.

Well, here we are, one week away from what can only be described as the most intense seven days of our lives, dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance.

Before I start I want to be very clear about one thing – I AM NO EXPERT! That’s right, this is in fact our virgin burn so please take this post (and any that follow) as my opinions and experiences only. My reasons for writing this are purely to outline what one might expect and to pass on the resources that I used. Believe me when I say there are a million articles out there so do your own research in addition to what I provide. 

Ok so with that out of the way let’s get started. The idea below was to divide the preparation into stages to make it easier to follow. It worked for me so let's hope it works for you too.

Buying Tickets

Pretty simple philosophy here – if you don’t have a ticket well then you ain’t going are you?

How many of you have waited in line for hours/days to secure a ticket to see your favorite band’s concert? Nowadays the line has been replaced with sitting in front of your computer, vigorously pressing the refresh button while praying to the interweb gods that the server doesn’t crash. This mad ‘bum rush’ for tickets often occurs at the most inconvenient of times too.

Well, I’m sorry to tell you but this is the dance we do for BM also…… here is the link to purchase tickets.

As you probably already know, tickets sell out so I wanted to make sure I registered nice and early (back in December 2012). The initial release of tickets was priced at a whopping $650 each. These were marketed as fully transferrable, first-come, first-served tickets…… I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the airline industry.

This initial Holiday Sale ran from the 20th of December 2012, almost two months prior to the Individual Sale release. My guess is that this was probably targeted toward people who were unable to secure a ticket last year.

We decided to wait for the main release of tickets which went live at 12pm (PST) on the 13th of February. These tickets were priced considerably lower at $380 each. After coordinating with friends, who were also going, we jumped online and played the screen refresh game for over two hours before a friend managed to secure them on our behalf. Excited much!

Burning Man Tickets
Burning Man Tickets

This was the schedule for the different ticket types for this year’s festival:

Holiday Sale

Registration: 14th December 2012 – 19th December 2012
Sale: 20th December – …

– 3,000 tickets available at $650 each, plus applicable fees.
– Tickets limited to four (4) per person

Directed Group Sale

Registration: Based upon past history, Burning Man targeted specific groups within the community for participation in the Directed Group Sale.
Sale: 30th January 2013

– 10,000 tickets available at $380 each, plus applicable fees.
– Tickets limited to two (2) per person.

Low-Income Ticket Program

Registration: 4th January 2013
Sale: 10th January 2013 until sold out

– 4,000 tickets available at $190 each. These tickets are reserved for participants on a limited income who cannot otherwise afford a regular-priced ticket.
– Tickets are limited to one (1) per person.

Individual Sale

Registration: 6th February 2013 – 10th February 2013
Sale: 13th February 2013 until sold out

– 40,000 tickets available at $380 each, plus applicable fees.
– Limited to two (2) per person

OMG Sale

Registration: 2nd August 2013 – 5th August 2013
Sale: 7th August 2013 until sold out

– 4000 tickets available at $380 each, plus applicable fees.
– Limited to two (2) per person

Secure Ticket Exchange Program (STEP)

The Secure Ticket Exchange Program (STEP) is an online system that facilitates the safe resale of tickets that have been purchased directly from Burning Man. It’s designed to provide a hassle-free, secure way of buying and selling tickets while avoiding scammers, counterfeits and scalpers.

This program was introduced in conjunction with limiting the number of tickets each individual could purchase to try and stop people from buying up big and selling on eBay or other platforms.

The 10 Burner Principles

Ask anyone who has already been to BM and they will all tell you that the 10 Burner Principles is the one thing that you MUST reference before you even consider attending.

With that knowledge, I guess it is my social responsibility to make sure I include them in this post – so here they are:

1. Radical Inclusion:

Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Janky Barge crew
Janky Barge crew

2. Gifting:

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift-giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

Do you need any help
Do you need any help?

3. Decommodification:

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Buy More Stuff
Buy More Stuff

4. Radical Self-reliance:

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Sandstorm at Burning Man
Sandstorm at Burning Man

5. Radical Self-expression:

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Self expression
Self expression

6. Communal Effort:

Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Burned out at Burning Man
Burned out at Burning Man

7. Civic Responsibility:

We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Miss Dusty Brown
Miss Dusty Brown

8. Leaving No Trace:

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Leave no trace
Leave no trace

9. Participation:

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Hands in the air
Hands in the air

10. Immediacy:

Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

Everything is under control
Everything is under control

Tent or RV?

If you read some of the forums you will see that there is an ongoing debate from the old school burners about people arriving in RVs. I won’t go as far to say that they are hated but let's just say they are not so welcome. Apparently, they create a walled community that is both uninviting and ugly….or something like that.

I am a big fan of camping and happy to pitch a tent pretty much anywhere but we decided to go the easy route for our first time and hire an RV. The fact that we don’t own a car (or a tent for that matter) made the decision a little easier but really it came down to a combination of comfort and convenience.

Being able to pack everything up in the van and just rock up to a campsite was very appealing. As we have three in our group, it was nice to have something a little larger too – something with a shower was the ultimate winner.

As a couple of budding DJs, we also have a sound system that we will be taking with us. The RV has a generator so power is much more accessible and we are hoping that it will also provide an important windbreak during dust storms…… fingers crossed.

Clearly, there is a price to be paid when going with this option. It works out that we will be spending about $2000 USD just to have the comforts of home. If you are more budget-conscious then I would recommend going with the tent option.

Below is a picture of the RV that we will be taking.


Join a Theme Camp or Go Solo?

Another big decision, especially for your first burn, is whether to join a theme camp or go it solo. Before choosing a side it is always best to weigh up the options to find the choice that suits you.

Joining a theme camp has the benefit of strength in numbers. Whether you are in a camp with friends or you are joining an existing camp you need to know what you are in for. Ask yourself this question?

Could you see yourself living in a close, confined space with these people?

Time will tell as to whether we made the right decision – if there is such a thing. I feel that we are going to have an incredibly collaborative experience regardless of the fact that we have chosen not to join a theme camp. I guess that all comes down to how open and welcoming we make the area around our camp.

What to Pack?

Surely this is the most stressful part of any first-timers experience, I know it has been for me.

This packing list compiled by Stitch is possibly the most comprehensive that I managed to find. To quote “…it is compiled from multiple Burner’s lists accumulated over the past 17 years. What one person needs another does not, so all of this is included so you can make your own decision about what to bring & cross out what you don’t. The food and clothing section is fairly minimal because everyone has different tastes”.

Here is another one by Ben Guild which outlines what he took on his first burn. You can clearly see the differences.

Rather than posting my own list here in this post, I have decided to do a follow-up article after I get back. In this article, I will go into more detail about what I specifically packed, what I really used, what I wish I had taken, what I could have left off, and what got wrecked.

Burning Man Packing List

Something essential that you must not forget is a bike. I picked this funky little sucker up at Walmart for under $100.

My cruiser
My cruiser

Emotional Preparation

An aspect that is rarely considered is the emotional impact that BM will have on you, not only as a newbie but even a seasoned veteran.

Not too long ago I reached out to Chip Conley, the founder and former CEO of Joie de Vivre hotels and festival fanatic. As a matter of fact, Chip is on the board of the Burning Man Project and recently launched his latest project, with the aim of creating a community of festival lovers.

As a seasoned burner, with seven burns under his belt, Chip realized that there wasn’t really a guide on how to prepare emotionally….so he wrote one and I strongly suggest that you read it – Emotional Survival Guide to Burning Man.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the article:

“Islands are more intense……”

“Island fever’, the feeling of being stuck somewhere without an ability to escape, is something you’ve probably experienced if you’ve spent any time on an island. Whether Balinese or Hawaiian, islands can bring forth magnified emotions and increased volatility alongside (sometimes) unpredictable volcanoes. Burning Man is a desert island.”

“Emotions are contagious, especially in the Petri dish of Burning Man. Psychological studies show that our reference group has a big impact on our perception of our wants and our needs. This is one of the values in hanging out with people different than you. They help to modify the narrative in our heads. In the context of Black Rock City, your camping mates will have a significant influence on your experience…or even your perceived experience of your experience. So, choose your neighbors wisely.”

Cruising around solo is a good thing. It allows you to meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Planning What to See

I want to clarify that BM is more than just a festival, it is a way of life. There are many reasons why people keep coming back year after year and it would be impossible to list every reason in this post. For me personally, it will be a combination of personal exploration,


For the majority of people, their initial impression of BM is through a photo they have seen from one of the incredible art installations on the playa. No matter who you are, everyone can appreciate the work and creativity that has gone into making these grandiose structures.

Personally, I cannot wait to be pedaling my bike from piece to piece, carefree to explore the imagination of the artists.

The BM site releases an honorarium guide to the art each year, along with a comprehensive audio tour. Here are the links for each below:

Honorarium Guide

Download the .zip file for the Audio Tour

The Man at Sunset
The Man at Sunset
Art installation
Art installation


Let me start by saying that Burning Man is NOT A MUSIC FESTIVAL like Coachella etc. No bands are booked to play there. There is no line-up. There is music, but the performers pay their own way. Most of the music is electronic and there are usually many famous DJs.

If you are lucky enough to know when are where they are playing you may get to see them spin ….for free. The key is knowing who and where.

One of the best resources available to answer this question is the Rock Star Librarian. They have posted what can only be described as the most comprehensive guide to music on the playa. You can check out this year’s guide here – 2013 RSL Music Guide.

I am a huge Deep House music lover so this year I am looking forward to seeing: Waifs and StraysFunkagendaMichael WoodsThugfucker and Philipp from M.A.N.D.Y. to name just a handful.

Well, there you have it… that’s all I have for this post – I guess I can’t really tell you too much more until I have had a chance to experience it for myself. It is now less than one week until we get the flock out of here, bound for our first burn. Yippppeeeeeee!

Once I get back (after sufficient recovery time), I will start working on a follow-up post that will describe my entire experience including the following topics and many more that I haven’t even thought of yet:

  • Getting There
  • Arriving and Setting Up
  • Drugs
  • Finding Your Friends
  • The Weather and How to Deal With It
  • Leaving the Playa
  • Back to Reality – Now What
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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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