A Traveller’s Guide To Surviving Your First Burning Man Festival

A Traveller’s Guide To Surviving Your First Burning Man Festival

It’s been almost a year since my first trip to Nevada’s Black Rock desert for the annual burning man festival. I’m finally pretty sure that I’m no longer carrying any playa dust on my body. As Burning Man time approaches again, I’ve been seeing first hand and virtually all the chatter and preparation my fellow Burners are going through for their trip “home”.

I’m jealous. I can’t make it this year and I’m jealous. For me to try and use one or even a handful of words to describe the experience of my first burn would only be an attempt that falls short of everything that it was and is. That said, there were times when I struggled. But that was OK. It was all a part of it and I had the help of veteran Burners to get me through it. So in the spirit of giving back, here are a few things I’ve learned during my week out on the playa and since that may be useful as a guide if this is your first time heading to Burning Man. From one virgin burner to a bunch of new ones.

Don’t Be A Sparkle Pony

Come prepared. You don’t necessarily have to get it all right, but make the effort. Radical Self-Reliance is one of the core principles of Burning Man. That means you come with everything you need. Whatever else comes your way to make your experience more special is gravy. A “Sparkle Pony” is someone who comes to Burning Man unprepared and ends up relying on the generosity of others, purposefully or otherwise, for basic things like food and water and sometimes even more. I took that from Urban Dictionary in case you’re wondering. It’s great to be free-spirited and just letting the universe sort things out for you, but that might mean that the universe will send you to a camp that gives out free shots of whiskey and bacon when all you want is some water. Logistics and planning may not always be fun, but it will allow you to enjoy your time out there with one (or more) less thing to worry about. At the very least, read Burning Man’s Survival Guide and do a basic google search for “how to prepare for Burning Man”. The only thing you can actually buy at Burning Man is ice and coffee. Everything else, you must bring in. Burning Man at its core is about self-reliance and community.


Take part. Burning Man is a week long buffet of experiences. Some are measurably within your comfort zones, while others may challenge you to the core. If there’s ever a place to take part in a class on Japanese suspension bondage without judgment or to open up to a complete stranger sitting on top of a giant metal coyote at 3 am, this is it. Embrace the culture, whether that is self-expression or gifting. Do it as little or as much as you’d like, but do it. Participate instead of just spectating. This is a cornerstone of what makes Burning Man so special. Leave your inhibitions at home or at least slip it a rufie. I don’t mean a literal one. Metaphor people. If you see a cool art, chase it down, ask to get on and then enjoy the ride. Just remember where you left your bike.

Put The Camera Down

This is quite a statement coming from a photographer and maybe a bit hypocritical considering that I put together the video above to capture a small part of the experience that is Burning Man. I’ll try to justify myself at the end of this paragraph. Nowadays, many of us are used to documenting every aspect of our lives because technology makes it so easy. You’ll look so cool in your outfit, you’ll shine, you’ll glitter. Is that a giant octopus shooting fire out of its tentacles? Look at the giant art Rubber Duck art car. Oh and that soft hazy lighting at sunset will make just about anything and everyone look magical. It’s hard to not want to capture that, but I advise you to resist. Enjoy it for what it is. Sear it into memory. The Temple, the Man and Black Rock City as it exists each year is ephemeral. It is there for a week and then it is gone. It’s that way for a reason. Take pleasure in this. Personally, I deliberated long and hard before the week started and felt like I had to do some kind of project because that’s just what I do. As a compromise, I set aside 30 minutes or so twice a day when I would take out my camera and shoot what I saw. The rest of the time, I would keep it nice and protected away from the playa dust and just enjoy the experience. It worked for me and for every cool thing or moment that I did capture, there were countless more that I didn’t. Thinking about those “lost” moments make me smile even more than seeing it in stills or on film because even if I grabbed the sight and the sound, I would still be missing the smell, the touch or the taste part of it. I’d miss everything happen just off frame. I’d missing the reaction of the people behind or to the side of me. I’m not telling you to not to take any pictures, but try to take less than you normally would. And if you do take pictures of other people, ask first if possible. And definitely if they are nude.

Ignore The FOMO

Here is a fact. There is just so much happening at almost every hour of the day that it is impossible to experience it all. Fear of missing out? Yes, it will happen. Even when you are experience something incredible, you are probably missing out on five other things that could have been equally mind-blowing. Remember how I said Burning Man is a buffet of experiences. Employ the same strategy you would at a real buffet. Eat all your want, but take only what you can eat. In other words, don’t be greedy and overdo it. There’s an booklet with all the planned activities by camps. There’s even an app for it. You can circle and plan to head from the Slut Olympics to the Slave Auction and and leave early to get to the free Ramen before it runs out, but you’ll probably end up missing it all anyway if you find yourself enjoying that nice quiet ride out in the deep playa or want to take a “quick” nap after staying awake for 39 hours. It’s OK. Those camps will forgive your absence. Burning Man will forgive you. I forgive you. Instead of fearing that you are missing out, instead consider focusing on what’s in front of you. Or maybe it’s something you happened to discover while trying to get somewhere else. Stop. See where it takes you. I can’t remember all the things I missed out on, but I can remember the things I did do. And they were awesome. True story.

Get Some Sleep

This ties in nicely with the last advice about missing out. It’s tempting to partake in all the daytime activities and then dance the night away to Robot Heart and then grab a coffee at Center Camp and start over again. Give it a go. Then get some sleep. I managed between 4-6 hours of sleep a day broken up into different sessions. Little as that is for me, paired with the energy of being out on the playa, I felt awake and refreshed most of the time. Figure out what it is that you really want to do and find some time in between to sleep. For me, that was roughly from 3-6 am, 8 — 11 am and sometimes from 3-5 pm. I couldn’t shake my habitual afternoon siestas. Or you can just crash whenever like my friend below.

Wet Wipes Are Your Friend

Maybe your RV has a shower. I’m happy for you. Maybe you found one of the camps that offers free showers. Where the hell was that? Maybe you just love how you smell after not showering for 7 days and you think the dust gives your feet character. For everyone else, wet wipes are a godsend. Your hands and feet will thank you and your campmates will thank you. Playa dust is not friendly. On that note, wear closed toe shoes. That alkaline dust wants to make your feet look like the playa. Don’t let it. It may sound cool, but you don’t want playa feet.

Don’t Miss The Sunrise and Sunset

There is just something enchanting about that first light and last light of day. Physically, the smoke and haze from the fires and the dust storms create a unique atmosphere, but there is something more. You will want to experience it. Just try to be awake for it or wake up for it. And dress accordingly. The daytime can get quite hot, and while the evening is pretty moderate, the temperature can drop considerably in the early hours of the morning.

Light Up

Drugs are illegal on the playa, but I’m not even referring to that. Despite all the fire and bright lights coming from the art cars and sound stages, Black Rock City is still a desert and it’s BYO lights. El-wire is the the light of choice. Blue, red, green, slow blink, or seizure-inducing blink, there’s plenty of options. Just make sure you light yourself and your bike up at night. There’s nothing worse than riding towards a bright art installation with the wind in your hair and getting T-boned by another bike because you weren’t visible in the dark. The same applies when you are off the bike and walking. Light yourself up and avoid unnecessary collisions.

Express Yourself

There’s no right or wrong way. I think. Wear whatever you want or nothing at all. There are those with extremely elaborate costumes. You don’t have to meet and exceed. Unless that’s what you want to do. Have you always wanted to wear a pair of lederhosen to tan that upper part of your thigh? Have you? Don’t lie. Do you want to show people what Brucee Lee would have looked liked if he wore his Game of Death yellow jumpsuit while on 12 foot stilts? Maybe you’ve always wanted to wear cool aviator goggles despite your fear of flying? You’re welcome. This applies to you bike as well. It’s an extension of you. When everyone has abandoned you out in the deep playa, your bike will still be with you. Hopefully. Otherwise, it will be a long walk back. Your bike will be with you everywhere and there are a lot of bikes out on the playa that will look the same. Make it easier for your inebriated self so you can recognise it day and night. Paint it. Dress it up. Add a basket. Add a watergun. I added a seat with a space for my balls.

Give And Receive

Aside from money for ice and coffee, the only other currency for tender at Burning Man is generosity. I wasn’t exactly quite sure what to gift, but I have a much better idea now. Every camp “gifts” something to the community, be it booze, massages, a party, or all the above. Burners gift things they make. Sometimes they gift things they never intended to give away just because someone needed it. But beyond all the material things, a gift can be in the form of a hug, a compliment or a helping hand. The best thing I received was a genuine smile and the willingness to literally smile for me when I asked to do a moving portrait for my video. Don’t stress about this as a first time burner. You’ll get it just like how I got it and then you can come back and do your part in contributing and helping to pass on the values to new burners during subsequent burns.

Get Your Affairs In Order (Or Not)

You will be unplugged for a week. I loved it for the first 3 days. On the 4th day, I was a little drained emotionally and it would have been nice to see a text from the real world. Then I got some sleep and I was good to go again. After the exodus, I got connection again and saw the hundreds of emails in the my inbox. I left it for a few more hours before looking at it. It was a nice feeling. Luckily, there were no immediate emergencies, but the part that might surprise a lot of people is that the world didn’t grind to a halt because I couldn’t receive and respond to an email. I apologized in a couple of emails for my slow response — that I was temporarily out of reach. Sort out what you need to. Turn on the auto-reply. Or do nothing at all. You don’t get the chance to disconnect so easily nowadays. Pretend you’re in a post-apocalyptic world without internet. Accept and embrace it. Then get into the Thunderdome. Two man enter. One man leaves.

Leave No Trace

After the week has transpired and the Man has burned and every last car leaves Black Rock City, all that remains will be a wonderful set of memories. And MOOP. That’s matters out of place. In other words, trash. Not just your empty ZICO coconut water containers or cans of baked beans. Not just your used wet wipes. But anything that’s left behind. A loose feather, a piece of your bike that fell off, and even the ash from your cigarette. Nothing that wasn’t there before should be there after you leave. That is how you ensure that the playa is there next year. Respect the land. Think about what you bring in and make sure you carry everything out. And the port-a-potties are not trash cans.

Come Prepared

I end with the first bit of advice again. More than just getting your packing list (by Stitch of Renegade Couture) in order, surviving and enjoying Burning Man is as much about coming in with an open heart and no expectations. I had the help of veteran burners to sort out the logistics and all the physical things we needed. For my part, I tried not to read too much about other people’s experiences or ask about what I had to do or see while I was out there. I was wanted to be surprised, for better or for worse. I didn’t want to have any expectations. Read this Emotional Survival Guide To Burning Man. I think it’s a great piece on managing expectations. And course, bring plenty of water and your open self. I can’t wait to go “home” next year.

This post is by Kien Lam and first appeared on his blog whereandwander.com. Kien Lam is an international photographer and filmmaker based in San Francisco. He runs whereandwander.com and believes in living for those moments that make the best stories, told or untold. He is working through his bucket list and wants to help others do the same.