Living It Up At Burning Man

On the road. (Those black smudges are bugs.)

About six years ago, I heard about this crazy festival in the Nevada desert called Burning Man. It sounded like a warped, psychedelic camping trip & the idea really appealed to me. I saw lots of pictures & read lots of stories about what happened there, & thus started my obsession with the topic. Living in New Zealand, I thought I would probably never get to go — I knew it required a lot of equipment & preparation, not to mention the expense. I wasn’t interested in going by myself (I am not the camping type) & my boyfriend didn’t want to go, so I pretty much ruled it out… but secretly I would look at the website every now & then & think about going.

Skip forward a few years, I had a new boyfriend who had already been to Burning Man, & we decided we would go together. Well. What an experience. Nothing that anybody tells you can ever prepare you sufficiently for that environment. You can look at pictures & watch videos & read packing lists & practice putting your tent up all you like, but getting out there the first time is always a shock, it is always weirder & bigger than you imagined, & it is always utterly mind-blowing &, cheesy though it may sound, life-changing.

I have read a few articles on Burning Man recently in traditional media & they seem to think it is just a ‘festival’, it is listed along with the Glastonbury festival & Coachella. Burning Man is, um, not a music festival. It is a week in the desert — yes, the actual desert — where the only things you can purchase are ice & coffee. You need to have EVERYTHING else with you, including about 15 gallons of water for drinking alone. If you’re not prepared or think someone else is going to look after you, you are in for a rude awakening. You can die out there. The back of the ticket says you are responsible for your own life! Also, please know how to pitch your tent before you get there, because odds are that there will be incredibly strong winds when you arrive & those are your tent-pitching conditions.

Anyway, there are so many essential packing lists & pages of information on how to do Burning Man properly, & attempting to re-create or better those would be an exercise in futility. I can, however, tell you about my experiences & give you some suggestions.

We took some things with us on the plane (like tents & thermal clothing & shoes), & then bought a whole lot when we arrived in the States. Luggage allowances are a bummer. Another good thing to do is purchase things off Ebay & have them sent to a friend’s place in the U.S.A. — then you can pick them up when you arrive. I did this for my dust mask, bikini, legwarmers & other non-essential items.

Most people take sleeping bags with them, but if you’ve got the packing space & feel like a bit of opulence, why not take along a proper bedspread? Take something winter-weight, it gets COLD at night. The thing I found with my sleeping bag is that you end up crawling into the bottom of it at night, because of the temperature, but when the sun comes up in the morning, it is suddenly super-hot & your sleeping bag is like a little chasm of hell. If you have a duvet, you can just flick it off, without having to try to disentangle yourself from your sticky sack o’ misery. Definitely take an inflatable mattress with you, the ground is pretty hard!

I think if you can have a decadent time at Burning Man, you should. Obviously this will depend on your budget, transport & general lifestyle, but I think a fantastic picnic on a blanket with real china & teapots etc. would go down a treat. There is no reason why you should “slum it” at Burning Man — if you don’t have to eat off plastic & live on beef jerky, why would you?! Take cupcakes (they may need to be eaten on the first day, but who cares), boil up some tea, have a whipped cream fight & then go roller-skating at the Black Rock Roller Disco. See if you can bribe someone to wave a big fan at your picnic group, they might need to be paid in kisses or something, but I’m sure you can strike a good deal.

I also strongly recommend taking two tents with you instead of one. I know this probably sounds excessive, but it will make your life much more pleasant, especially if you are sharing your sleeping space with somebody else. Last year I had one tent for sleeping (containing an inflatable mattress, sleeping bags & some essential stuff, like a torch, eyedrops & baby wipes) & another for food, clothing & water. Our tents were set up in such a way that you could unzip the front of the sleeping tent, crawl halfway out, then open the other one & grab whatever you needed. It was pretty good really.

Take your vitamins! Even if you don’t normally take vitamins on a daily basis, Burning Man is a harsh environment & I am not foolin’ you when I say that your body needs all the help it can get. I recommend a good multivitamin, Omega 3 pills & a good stash of 5-HTP if you can get your hands on it. (5-HTP is a serotonin-replacer, & is really good for giving you a little burst of happy. Also if you intend on indulging in substances on the playa, 5-HTP will make the next day a lot more pleasant.)

Something to keep the dust out of your mouth & eyes is very important. If you inhale too much dust you will get what is called “playa lung” when you get back to civilisation, which is basically where you cough up mud. Not very civilised at all, & best avoided. The conditions at Burning Man change drastically from year to year — for example, last year I had my dust mask (above) on me at all times, but rarely needed it. It did match my hair though, so that made me feel better about it. A lot of people just wore scarves or bandanas around their necks & pulled them up over their mouths, like bandits, whenever they saw a dust storm approaching. You’ll also need some goggles or other kind of eye protection — again, last year conditions were great & I didn’t need anything more than my sunglasses, but take goggles (a pair without ventilation holes in the sides!). Dust in the eye-socket is pretty unpleasant.

This is about as dusty as it got.

I was really worried about changing my daily contact lenses at Burning Man, since it’s so dusty & really there’s no good place to do it. I went to my optometrist a month before we left to see if I could have month-long lenses. This gave me enough time to make sure I could wear them without any trouble, & they were fantastic on the playa. Just remember to take your eye-drops!

Fashionable playa wear is really up to the individual. The things people wear range from complete nudity to a shirt with no pants (these people are called “shirtcockers” & generally mocked), to faux Miss Universe to stilts or tracksuit pants & a cape (NSFW), Japanese warriors in Transmuters, plain white or a really, really scary Miss Chiquita Banana. (As you can see, some people go there basically to dress up for a week.)

If you don’t want to do a full-on costume, try wearing a prom dress; cute underwear (a child’s patterned singlet with matching underpants would be adorable); cowboy boots; nothing with bright red finger- & toenails; a t-shirt & heels; striped pyjamas; a flower in your buttonhole; a big, back-combed wig; Chinese slippers; a vintage tennis outfit; a big jade kimono; a turban to protect your hair; bells tied around your ankles; a pashmina in a bright colour for warmth at night; Egyptian eye makeup, aka an exaggerated cat’s eye; a fur coat; ballet flats; huge cubic zirconia earrings; vintage camisoles or slips. Search for weird things on Ebay under the keywords cyber, cosplay, fetish, circlet… Ebay’s also a great place to pick up fishnet stockings in every colour under the sun, wigs, bizarre Masonic jewellery, animal masks & old map bags carried in the war. In terms of getting dressed out there, in the middle of nowhere, really you can do as you please — & most do. Of course, you can just wear shorts & a t-shirt, but that’s a bit boring. Participation is important!

You can also do things like glue rhinestones or small toys to your goggles, glue things onto your hat (you need one — I wore a cowboy hat last year which was excellent), customise your bike (yes, you need one of those too) or decorate your backpack (it’ll be on your back all day, every day, so it might as well look good!). One thing to keep in mind is that everything attached to these items needs to be SECURE — otherwise you’ll leave a trail of glitter all across the playa, which is an environmental concern & impossible to clean up. Feather boas are out of the question for this very reason!

Personally, during the day I tended to swan around in dresses — they’re so easy to wear & very little fuss — with cowboy boots & a scarf on my head to protect my hair from the dust. (Towards the end of the week it can start to look a bit manky, & showers are a fairly rare event out there!) If I wasn’t wearing a dress, I’d be wearing a bikini: I bought a great one on Ebay which was white with black polka dots, lined in turquoise. It was part of a stripper outfit I think, & it also came with a (really) short skirt in the same fabric. I always had sunglasses &, of course, sunscreen! At night-time, more coordination is required, since the temperature drops dramatically once the sun disappears.

An example of nightwear. My first evening at BM.

In the photo above, I am wearing:
White dress
Blue striped thermal top
Star fingerless gloves
Woolen stockings
Platform New Rock boots
Hello Kitty bag slung around my waist
Furry leg-warmers
Glowsticks (I am not a raver, I promise!)
Pink headscarf (it’s really dusty out there, so I was trying to keep my hair as clean as possible)
Dust mask with pink filters (colour coordination is important)
Camelbak (a backpack with a water pouch inside it) — & my fur coat was in there too.

I wore this dress a lot during the day.

At night, you need some kind of illumination. It is pitch dark across most of the playa, & if people can’t see you, they will run into you on their bicycle or with their art car! I understand that getting squished on the playa is not the best activity, so bring stuff to keep you lit up! You can buy big packets of glowsticks which are bendable & come with little plastic attachments to make them into bracelets, necklaces etc. Other people just use little blinking shapes (like stars) which they clip onto their clothes. Our friend Joe used some bright blue EL wire to create a sign on his chest which blinked “JOE”.

Of course, people travelling internationally to go to Burning Man will find themselves more limited than those who only have to drive from San Francisco (which a lot of people do). If you’re a native of Shanghai, you will probably have less exciting attire than Tiffany Brouhaha from California who spent all year welding her costume together. Don’t feel bad or discouraged by this! There are people for whom Burning Man is their entire life, & really, that is hard to compete with. Just jump in with both feet & do whatever you can to distinguish yourself or make an exceptional impact. Really, anything goes. You might be the most popular person in your camp just because you’ve got more food than you know what to do with, or you read people’s palms. Burning Man is an exceptionally inviting environment, so don’t feel like you are less important just because your hat doesn’t shoot flames & you keep your bra on.

Having said that, I found myself feeling really lonely at Burning Man some of the time. It was confusing, because I’d been looking forward to it for such a long time, but sometimes I felt really socially anxious & weird. I understand that it’s quite natural for people to have a hard time emotionally while they’re out there, but I didn’t know that at the time. I felt like I was the only party pooper in a desert of 40,000 people. If you go along & feel unhappy, I recommend coming out of your shell asap & spending time around people, talking or just listening to their conversations. Most people at Burning Man — like about 95% — are really awesome & pleasant & want you to have a good time, so don’t feel alone & don’t be afraid!

Dress up like Marie Antoinette, doze on couches in the shade, squirt people with water guns, have someone feed you a cake, practice your pole-dancing (there’s a lot of opportunity for that on the playa), organise a dusty dinner party & do lots of cartwheels.

Extra For Experts:
An article on Burning Man by my friend Mary Bee — hosted here because it’s worth it.
Black Rock Burner Hostel — I stayed here last year & it was fantastic, they really have their shit together.
Ggreg’s Burning Man gallery — drag queens ahoy! I love the commentary under the pictures: “Burning Man is where those dorks from shop class rule the playground.”
Drag Queen makeup at Burning Man — from the same guy as above.
The Official First Timer’s Guide — essential reading.
Wikipedia’s entry on Burning Man.
A Google Map of Burning Man — you can see the layout of the city, a semi-circle around a centre point.