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What I Did During My Summer Vacation: Burning Man Edition 228

Bennett Haselton writes: "While nothing can really 'prepare' you for your first time at Burning Man, there are a few simple steps that can eliminate a lot of the stress. Unfortunately it can be hard to get information out of the 10-year veterans about how to do things the easy way (some of them probably view the 'easy way' as 'ruining the whole point'). So here's some advice instead from someone who just got back from their first time, and who likes to take the path of least resistance." Keep reading for the rest of Bennett's Burning Man advice.

If you get nothing else out of this article:

  • You can fly to Reno Airport and take the Burner Express shuttle to Burning Man, instead of driving.

  • You can rent a bike from one of the other camps at Burning Man rather than bringing one yourself. (Bringing one might be the easier option if you're driving there, but not if you're flying.)

  • You can pay dues to a camp that will provide food, water, camping space, a place to store your trash (if you didn't know, there are no communal trash dumpsters at Burning Man), sometimes electricity, and sometimes access to a shower, rather than trying to arrange for all of those things yourself.

  • If you just need space for one person to sleep, you can buy and bring a single-occupancy tent. You don't need to build a home-made shade structure out of PVC and tarp.

  • If you have lower-than-average heat tolerance, buy ice from the ice vendors to make your own ice water, and carry a water spray bottle.

These points should be taken in conjunction with a more comprehensive guide to preparing and packing; I'm not writing a full guide to getting ready for Burning Man. These just happen to be the points where I wasted the most time going down the wrong path during preparation, taking advice too literally from the BurningMan.com website and/or grizzled veterans who thought that you honor the event's heritage by doing things the hard way, before realizing there was a much easier option. (I would have liked it, for example, if the Burning Man website had told me you can just rent a bike once you get there, instead of pointing me to a long list of other options that are much more hassle.)

Generally speaking, for more details on how to prepare, you should talk to someone who has been before -- but it's has to be someone who doesn't take themselves too seriously and will give genuinely usable advice. We all know people who give you the kind of advice that you can actually use because it closely corresponds with what people actually do; and we also all know people who give you the kind of advice designed to "make a man out of you" (regardless of gender) by steering you through an ordeal that will make you appreciate how hard they had to work, but which may not actually be useful. Burning Man attracts a disproportionate number of people from the second category, but you need to find and talk to someone from the first group.

In particular, one lesson learned the hard way: Do not ask a male Burning Man veteran how to do something, in front of a girl that they might be trying to have sex with later. Because you'll get an answer designed to impress her, not to help you -- something along the lines of hunting your own deer with a crossbow and then using the bones to construct a tent frame across which you stretch the fresh deer skin for shelter.

All right, I'm exaggerating, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that the first three people I asked about what kind of tent and shade structure I needed to bring, all of them suggested following directions from the Internet about how to build your own from PVC pipe and tarp from Home Depot, or how to build something called a Hexayurt. (Seriously, the Hexayurt sounds like an honest-to-God brilliant idea, but is kind of overkill, and realistically eliminated as an option if you're flying to Burning Man.) Really, you can get buy with a storebought tent.

A few other meta-points about how I got this information:

  • I'm sure some people think that making it "easy" for people to survive at Burning Man will ruin it for the veterans, but I think that the less time you have to worry about practical details (such as your week's food supply running low or your home-made tent blowing over in the wind), the more time you can spend actually participating. I'm writing this because I had a good time, and I'd like to make it easier for other people to go, and once they get there, to have more time to contribute using whatever special skill they happened to bring with them.

  • I'm erring on the side of paying a little bit more money for a little bit less hassle.

  • Notwithstanding the foregoing, I consider these fallback options which cost a little more money but are guaranteed to work -- for example, pre-paying to rent a bicycle at the event. If you know someone who can bring a bicycle for you in their truck, great; but you have to find someone who is driving there, who has room in their truck, who is willing to do you a favor or let you reimburse them, who is not going to flake out and sell their ticket at the last minute, etc. I've always found that when you are looking for cheaper alternatives, it's a lot less stressful if you have a more expensive option you can fall back on, that you know will definitely work if the cheaper options fall through.

So, back to my list:

You can fly to Reno Airport and take the Burner Express shuttle to Burning Man, instead of driving.

Now I did say that most of my "simplifying strategies" were hard to find through the official channels, but this is an exception to that general rule, in that this option actually is promoted prominently on the BurningMan.com website, not least because the Burner Express shuttle service is operated by the corporation that runs Burning Man. The Burner Express shuttle costs $60 each way and runs from the Reno Airport to Burning Man, allowing you to get from the airport to the event without having to rent a car or coordinate a ride. That might sound expensive if you were planning to rideshare from the airport for free, but you also get to bypass a five-hour line of cars waiting to get in to Burning Man through the entrance gate, and bypass another five-hour line again on the way out. That works out to paying about $12 an hour to avoid sitting in a line full of hot cars, which sounds worth it to me. (There is also a Burner Express shuttle that runs from San Francisco to Burning Man.)

The major constraint that this creates is that you have to fit everything you're bringing into two suitcases per person, which is the maximum allowed by Burner Express, unless you pay extra to bring a third suitcase. (That's still plenty of space, but it does rule out things like the hexayurt.) You can use the extra-large luggage allowance to pay to bring a bicycle on the Burner Express bus, but that means you have to somehow get your hands on a bicycle at the beginning of the bus ride. That's not easy, since you would either have to leave Reno Airport, rent a bike somewhere in the city, and bring it back to the airport before the bus leaves -- or else fly with your own bike on the plane to Reno Airport, which is expensive. Which leads to the next simplifying strategy:

You can rent a bike from one of the other camps at Burning Man rather than bringing one yourself.

I rented mine from Playa Bike Repair camp for $200. If I'd reserved it earlier it would have been $150. (I don't know how many camps there are that rent bicycles to burners, but Hammer and Cyclery is at least one other one.)

This was the one point on which I wished the BurningMan.com website had pointed me in the right direction and saved me a lot of aggravating time chasing dead ends, since their website has three separate pages about bikes at Burning Man -- what kind to bring, where to get them, how to transport them, how to return them -- without mentioning the option of renting them from other camps. (This seems like such a big omission, that it made me wonder if part of BurningMan.com shouldn't be organized as a wiki, so that users can submit edits if the organization doesn't have time to maintain it. A link to the bike rental camps, is exactly the kind of thing that probably would have been added to a page about "bicycles at Burning Man", if it had been wikified.)

The Burning Man website does link to places you can rent a bike in Reno -- some of which are much cheaper than the $200 to rent from Playa Bike Repair -- but they were all booked out by the time I started looking a few weeks before the event. Also, if you're flying in to Reno and renting a bike from a shop there, you'd have to figure out how, after you arrive at the airport, you're going to go and pick up the bike to bring it back to the airport before the Burner Express bus leaves. All more reasons why I figured a bike rental camp was much simpler.

You do have to pre-arrange and pre-pay for a rental from a bike rental camp. Playa Bike Repair had no walk-up rentals available at the event, and I doubt the other bike rental camps would either, since they have to know in advance how many bikes to bring with them, based on reservations.

And speaking of Playa Bike Repair camp --

You can pay dues to a camp that will provide food, water, camping space, a place to store your trash (if you didn't know, there are no communal trash dumpsters at Burning Man), and sometimes access to a shower, rather than trying to arrange for all of those things yourself.

"Camps" at Burning Man are groups of campers who often pool their resources so that, for example, one person can drive in with a truck carrying a week's worth of food for everyone, instead of everyone bringing in their own food. Some camps have consisted of the same group of friends for many years and have completely closed their membership, so that even close friends of the existing members can't join. Others outright sell camp memberships to the general public. (My camp was in the middle of the open-ness spectrum; it wasn't open to the public, but two of the campers were guys that I had met a few times, so I got in by paying $200 and doing a share of the camp chores.)

One Burning Man participant, who had done more research than I did on the types of camp memberships that were open to the public, said that they varied widely in the value they offered for the dollar -- some charged up to $300 for almost nothing, while others charged under $100 for everything including food, water, and showers. He said that in order to find a suitable camp, he wrote up a "Burner Resume" describing his skills, and contacted various camps while putting out a request on the Burning Man forums. You might find some sweet deals that way, expanding your options beyond those camps which straightforwardly sell memberships to the public through a shopping cart interface right on their website.

Playa Bike Repair is in fact one camp that sells public memberships and gives you a discount on your loaner bike if you camp with them. (But read the fine print; they also ask you to work four 4-hour shifts (16 hours total) for the camp during the week.)

I can't vouch for any specific camp that has open membership; I'm just saying that as a general strategy, it's probably easier to pay money into a camp that will take care of these details for you, rather than worrying about everything yourself.

If you just need space for one person to sleep, all you need is a single-occupancy tent.

Originally, after reading the Burning Man Survival Guide for 2013, I was under the impression that you needed to bring a shade structure to the desert in addition to your tent. Basically, they recommend a tent to protect you from the elements, and then a separate layer on top of that to cast a shadow over the tent, to prevent overheating. (Obviously, the opaque fabric of the tent already creates "shade" inside, but if the tent is directly in the sun, the air trapped inside the tent will heat up like an oven. So you need a second layer above the tent, to create shade while still allowing the air to circulate between the roof of the tent chamber, and whatever is above it casting the shadow.) And this is where I got a lot of Bear Grylls types telling me how to build my own shade structure out of PVC pipe and tarp.

It's probably simpler than that. Basically:

  • If you're sleeping in a single-occupancy tent and you won't be sleeping in it during the day, a regular camping tent is fine.

  • On the other hand, if you might be sleeping or resting in your tent during the day, you'll likely want a tent that has a built-in shade canopy, or a separate shade structure.

  • In either case, you should anchor it to the ground using rebar, rather than the stakes that come with the tent or the shade structure.

  • But, in neither case do you need to build anything yourself out of PVC and tarp, unless you really want to save money. You can get tents and shade structures at REI or Sports Authority, and I think it's worth it to have one more thing that is built by professionals and that much less likely to have something go wrong with it.

Now here's where I may have gotten away with an easy approach because of my particular circumstances. Originally I brought a 12-foot-square shade structure that I had planned to set up over my tent. But I either caught a cold on the plane to Reno, or was hit with dust allergies as soon as I got to Burning Man (I still don't know which), so I was taking heavy doses of Benadryl every evening. And that meant I was usually out cold by midnight, and that meant I was usually up by 8 am the next morning and well out of my tent before the sun started heating up the trapped air inside. So I didn't even need my shade structure and never set it up.

On the other hand, if you plan on sleeping or resting in your tent during in the day, then you probably need shade. You can buy tents which have an extra layer of fabric separate from the roof of the tent, to let the air circulate while still providing shade, or you can get a separate shade structure. Most experienced burners say that an EZ-UP shade structure is not suitable because it can be too flimsy and likely to blow away in high winds; a burner in your city can help you find a sturdier shade structure that you can buy.

Remember, a flimsy tent or shade structure might merely be crumpled by high winds, so it's up to you if you want to take that chance. A tent or shade structure that is improperly secured, however, creates a hazard to other people, so it's your obligation to other burners to make sure your tent or shade structure stays attached to the ground, whether it crumples or not. That's why you should use rebar instead of the standard stakes which come with the tent (which are too short to anchor securely in the desert sand), and then cover the cops of the rebar with bottlecaps or tennis balls so that people won't impale themselves if they trip and fall onto one of the stakes.

One final note on that: I didn't set up my shade structure, but I did bring an electric fan that I turned on full blast to circulate the air in and out of my tent the one morning that I did sleep in for a bit. If your camp provides electricity to plug in a fan, that may work just a well for you, and be a lot simpler than a separate shade structure.

If you have lower-than-average heat tolerance, buy ice from the ice vendors to make your own ice water, and carry a water spray bottle.

Bags of ice are one of the few things that are sold at Burning Man, by the event organizers. Most days I would go to the ice vendors and buy my own 10-lb bag of crushed ice, bike back to the camp with it in my backpack, and empty it into my plastic water jugs. This got me only about two hours' worth of ice-cold water, before the ice was all melted -- but during the two hottest hours in the middle of the day, I considered it to be well worth it. On my definite packing list for next year: a cooler (small enough to fit in a suitcase) which I can use to store my own private ice supply and make it last all day, and a thermos to carry around ice water and keep it cold for as long as possible. (Almost everyone I saw was drinking lukewarm water from a camelbak or simple water bottle instead of a thermos; I'd gladly spend the extra 10 seconds screwing and unscrewing the thermos, to get ice-cold water instead of room-temperature. Besides, for hydration purposes, cold water is better for you.)

A water spray bottle, besides being a good way to deal with the heat, can also function as an icebreaker -- I didn't bring my own spray bottle, but many times I walked past strangers who said Hi and gave me a nice misting with water, sometimes scented with a flavor like lavender. Surprisingly, given how refreshing the spray bottles are, most people seemed not to have one, so everyone was always happy to see the person who had the spray bottle. Everyone at Burning Man is expected to contribute one way or another, and if you don't know how to juggle flaming chainsaws and you don't have boobs that you can walk around exposing everywhere, carrying around a bottle to mist people with is quite sufficient.

Of course spray bottles are not the only resource you can share for the benefit of the community. Next to every row of porta-potties distributed throughout the city at Burning Man, there was a wooden stake in the ground with two with two hand sanitizer dispensers attached to it, but the dispensers were almost always empty when I tried to use them, so I started carrying around my own hand sanitizer bottle. On my last morning there, since my personal hand sanitizer bottle was still 80% full, and since I had just spent a week snarfing up every piece of free food that was offered to me, I figured the least I could do was to stand by the hand sanitizer post for a few minutes and offer free hand sanitizer to anyone who wanted it, after they discovered that the official dispensers were empty. Nice way to give back to the community and say Hi to a few people, although not a great way to pick up the ladies since you're meeting them in the context of helping them wipe off bacteria from their own shit. Have fun!

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What I Did During My Summer Vacation: Burning Man Edition

Comments Filter:
  • by mcoletti ( 367 ) <mcoletti@@@gmail...com> on Monday September 23, 2013 @01:08PM (#44925499) Homepage
    I've only been to a regional burn, Playa del Fuego, but I realize that's but a shadow of the real thing. (I think of it it as a training camp.) Given the expense and distance of Burning Man, one might look to going to a local regional burn first to get a flavor of the real deal. As a plus, you might befriend folks that are going to Burning Man and be able to camp with them.

    Fortunately I'm already going to heed part of your advice when I do go. I've got a slot available to me with the Irish pub, The Dusty Swan. Seems they're a little short on bagpipers, and I'm all too happy to fulfill that role. And I met the proprietor of The Dusty Swan at Playa del Fuego, so there ya go.
  • Re:Normally... (Score:4, Informative)

    by mcoletti ( 367 ) <mcoletti@@@gmail...com> on Monday September 23, 2013 @01:13PM (#44925543) Homepage
    I proffer the following syllogism:

    I am a nerd
    I go to burner events
    I have not been to Burning Man
    I want to go to Burning Man
    I found some of the advice useful
    Therefore this was useful news that matters to me, a nerd
  • by xevioso ( 598654 ) on Monday September 23, 2013 @01:13PM (#44925549)

    And they wish you'd stay away, square.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 23, 2013 @01:19PM (#44925623)

    I went to burning man many times before I had kids. My buddies and I like to build things so for us it was fun to build a geodesic dome and try our hand at a fancy evap pond for our camps grey water. If you are going alone then I recommend joining a camp and its ok to pay camp dues as it costs money to bring all of that shit out there but pick your camp for its theme and because you like the idea for the camp and/or the people and not just on the services they provide to you. The whole point is to try to be a part of the camp and not to just be a customer of the camp. So if you like to play bocci find a Bocci camp. You think that the barbie death camp is hilarious try to see if you can camp with them. Or better yet find a artist that needs some help before or during the event (having worked on several large installations myself over the years that I attended I highly recommend it) and volunteer some time (they always need the help). Maximize your chances for making friends as burning man is way more fun with friends.

    Grizzly 11 year veteran out

  • Re:Normally... (Score:5, Informative)

    by ForCripeSake ( 932432 ) on Monday September 23, 2013 @01:42PM (#44925899)

    Good question!.

    As a nerd I am extremely interested in Burning Man because it is one of the largest non commercial technical and logistical collaborations on the planet. If slashdot's collective boner Re: Makerdom, hacking, 3d-printing is an genuine, then there is no fucking way you shouldn't care about Burning Man unless you are coming from a standpoint of ignorance.

    Mechanical, civil, software, and probably a dozen other fields of engineering are exercised though the creation of art installations, mutant vehicles, A/V LED displays, pyrotechnics, welding/sclupting etc. Things get made PURLEY FOR THE SAKE OF MAKING SOMETHING THAT SOMEONE MIGHT LIKE TO LOOK AT instead of the tedious bullshit someone pays you to make at the 9 to 5. Makers are out in force at Burning Man and related events, and if you think that this is just some hippy bullshit you are parroting the collective "wisdom" of a handful of internet know it alls, or (and I'm sorry if this is the case) you seriously ran with the wrong crowd. I've gained more meaningful and applied technical experience preparing for events like these than many of my formal technical classes have ever offered. Hell, I got to play with Arduinos, Kinects, and picked up some basic EE for free thanks to art grants.

    Yes, there are hippie types. Yes, there are douchebags. Maybe that is true of all events with a population of >40k participants? I am really disappointed at Slashdot's attitude towards events like these because we are using our supposedly vast technical intellect to be dismissive and small towards something that is right up our goddamned alley. We are giving bad advice, plain and simple.

  • by mcoletti ( 367 ) <mcoletti@@@gmail...com> on Monday September 23, 2013 @03:12PM (#44926913) Homepage
    If you find Burning Man too expensive or inconvenient, but you're still interested in checking it out, then you might want to consider a local burn, instead. They're generally much, much smaller and more intimate.

    Here's a list to get you started:

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 23, 2013 @06:13PM (#44928825)

    Here is my experience

    I went to burningman a few years ago. I drove solo from NC to NV. I took a bike and bike rack, a tent and some tarps, and a bunch of water.

    I bought some rebar in St Louis home depot and bent it inside the store to make super tent stakes the way I read on the burningman website.

    I threw a bunch of tarps and a wool blanket over my tent once I camped. You say wtf would you cover your tent with 6 inches of material? Wouldn't it make it hot? Nope in converse it slowed down the heat getting into my tent. It was hot, but it took a while.

    My tent never blew away. I did get some dust inside it, but I had duct taped all my seams and it was mostly dust from my body and not blowing in.

    Since I was alone, I did a bunch of volunteering. I've found that by working you can make easy conversation and meet friendly people.

    I worked for the lamplighters, the bicycle repair people and the computer information people.

    I did all the burner events I could. I looked at the art. I did the naked greeting thing. I did the thunderdome fighting thing.

    I got a random kiss from a nice looking chick. I got a few hugs from chicks. I did not get laid. I about got into two different fights. I met three notable douchebags other than the potential fights.

    I'll be honest I met about an equal amount of douchebags to cool people and by the end, I was like I am ready to get the fuck out of here. I don't do drugs and I drink in moderation. I guess if you liked getting fucked up its everything they say it is. To me it was not that big of deal.

    In closing I will say this. I worked multiple days for the lamplighters. I made some friends there and was given a free food token for my work. One night I was in there camp and I sat on a couch out of the way of others so I could use a cell phone. I was talking to my cousin whom I checked in with once a day. I felt some rain and I was like wtf. Then I heard some shouting and I looked around some kids were throwing ice at me yelling. They told me no phones in camp. Pretty much ran me off. I didn't want a fight and did not want to cause a scene so I left. But I had been helping these guys for hours and no one ever told me about phones and no one came to my aid. The next day when I would usually work, I talked to one of the older guys about what happened. He said he had been out at burningman since the beginning and he contested this rule about no cellphones. He said he was happy that I told him what happened because he knew me from my work with him. He also said he was sorry it happened yadaa yadda yadda.

    I was like fuck it. Its just a bunch of circle jerks who talk a big harmonious talk but in reality they are just a bunch of wankers.

    Fuck that place. If I wanted to hang out with drunks, I can do that locally and I don't.

As of next Tuesday, C will be flushed in favor of COBOL. Please update your programs.