Planning and packing: your first trip to Burning Man

Year by year, Burning Man has been gaining more mainstream media attention, as well as more mainstream attendees. Lots of newcomers every year means lots of energy and enthusiasm during the event, but energy and enthusiasm, while great and generally appreciated by everyone around you, will not get you through a week or more in the desert. What will? Forethought and resourcefulness.

Some newcomers believe that because Burning Man is “all about community,” they can just show up and want for nothing because all of their brethren will take care of them. A couple hours spent on the Burning Man website reading the First Timer’s Guide and the Preparation section – required reading for all newbies – will set them straight on that score.
Hint: showing up at Burning Man thinking that “the playa will provide” will leave you sunburned, dehydrated, and sad within 24 hours. Don’t try it unless you are pretty much the hottest, nakedest woman alive.

Now, I pride myself on being a fairly resourceful and organized gal. Before I went for my first year in 2008 I read every single word on the Burning Man website. Twice. The preparation section was my bible. I took all my excess packaging off, made my costumes, figured out what to do about my contacts, was ready to hydrate, got my bins and plastic bags all in order….and yet, when I got there, I still felt unprepared. No amount of reading could adequately prepare me for the hot, dusty, confusing, glowing, moving world that was Black Rock City.

That year, I started a list: what to bring next year that I hadn’t, and what not to bring because I never needed or used it. Every year since I’ve done the same, and what you see below is the result of those notes. If you’re new this year, do the required reading I mentioned above, and then feel free to peruse the post below. Just like anything in life, take what you want and leave the rest. Hopefully something I’ve learned will prove useful to you, and help your experience at Burning Man to be a little more fun/comfortable/hygienic/manageable.

Sleeping

I’ve had a different setup every time I’ve gone. I’ll list the setups by year, and you can choose whichever works best for your situation. Or something else altogether. The world is your oyster.

2008
Two (2) tents, 1 for sleeping and 1 for storage. Or I imagine you could utilize one bigger tent for both.  The storage one is of course optional, but just consider that you are going to have clothes and towels and blinky things and all sorts of personal items, and that extra space will allow you to access your stuff without making a complete wreck of your entire tent each time.  Try to get tents with as little mesh as possible, to reduce the amount of dust that gets into your tent. If you can’t find or afford one, you can always cover the mesh areas from the inside by sewing a non-meshy fabric over the mesh bits. Try to avoid using hot glue or duct tape, as these have a tendency to melt in the midday heat of the playa.
Also, get a reflective tarp to put over your tent, because it gets damn hot out there and that tarp will give you at least one hour of extra sleep time. This works best when you moor it securely to a structure that is slightly higher than your tent, creating a little airflow in between the two. (Good lord, please always secure the hell out of everything! With rebar dammit, not those stupid bitty tent stakes. And cap your rebar while you’re at it, you scurvy dog!)

2009
Sleep in the back of your rental truck. This is pretty cool because you can actually stand up in it (so nice for changing!) and use the walls of the truck to hang things. A tapestry or something is nice for privacy, but not essential. This is a great option for when you are ridiculously exhausted from 6 months of theme camp prep/a trek to the playa from Portland and one of your campmates has to go to the emergency room during the trek because it turns out they have a horrific staph infection/being emotionally drained from accidentally killing so many jackrabbits on that last stretch of road/a huge build out in the desert. We really did mean to put up our tent that year, but it just kept not happening….

2011
Get a 10′x20′ carport from Costco, a tarp that is larger than 10′x20′, and a big tapestry. Put up the carport, put down the tarp as your floor and moor it securely, and hang the tapestry for privacy. Actually what we did was use the back half as our living area and the front half as our kitchen area, placed the tapestry halfway back, and draped camo netting at the entrance (this stuff is great to create privacy while allowing some air flow). You could even pitch your tent inside the carport for added protection against the elements, but honestly who cares? Just get started becoming one with the dust right away. You can’t fight it. Resistance is futile.

You will also need:

  • Sleeping mat. Make sure if you are using an inflatable mattress that you put an insulating layer between the mattress and your sleeping bag, as you will stay much warmer that way. Also, be sure to bring your pump, because your mattress will lose air every day and you’ll want to be able to pump it up at night.
  • Sleeping bag with an extra blanket in case it gets colder
  • An extra flat sheet in case it gets warmer and you just want a light layer.  You can also use this layer to cover your sleeping stuff during the day, to lessen the dust effect.
  • Pillow with extra pillow cases for when the first one (and the second, and maybe the third) become so befouled by playa dust and sweat that you can’t stand it.

Getting Around

  • Cheap-ass mountain bike.  You’ll also want a headlight and taillight for your bike at minimum, but honestly the brighter the better, so I recommend personalizing your bike with El-Wire.  The more you light and personalize your bike the less likely you are to get smacked by a mutant vehicle, run into by a pedestrian or another biker, or lose your bike.
  • A comfy seat.  That first year by the end of the week my girly bits were so bruised I could hardly ride anymore
  • A bike lock. Yeah, it’s Burning Man, but then again, it’s Burning Man, so just imagine all the ways that someone may get confused and accidentally take your bike. Also, just because it’s Burning Man does not mean there are not assholes there who will take your bike on purpose. In some respects it’s a city like any other.

Food

Cooler.  The Mr and I have one of those Coleman Xtreme coolers that’s supposed to keep your food cold for 5 days, and it works brilliantly.  Inside, line it with those frozen reusable ice block thingers. These will last for at least 3 days without you needing to run and buy ice. (Oh yeah, bring money for ice. I’ll remind you again later) A little hint is to also have a plastic tub or something that you can perch up at the top of the cooler to put stuff in that you don’t want to get wet.

A personal mess kit including cup, plate, sharp knife, knife, fork, spoon, and bowl.  NOTE: the cup is super important, because all camps encourage you to bring your own, so they can lovingly pour booze into it.  Get one with a handle and secure it to your belt. DO NOT drink a bloody mary out of it in the morning, forget to wipe it out, and try to drink coffee or lemonade out of it later. This is not good.

Enough food to get 2 meals a day into your belly.  Make sure to remove excess packaging at home, and I cannot stress this enough.  Every bit of garbage you bring must also be carted back with us, so do your campmates a favor and help reduce the load.

Food hints:

  • We brought a bunch of those India Tasty Bites with us the first year, and so did some other campmates.   None of us truly enjoyed eating those things, and I don’t ever want to eat another one again.
  • Bring easy stuff that you can stick in the microwave or just eat cold
  • Don’t bring loads of produce because it will go bad
  • Bread dries out in 10 minutes if it’s exposed to the elements, so be careful
  • Pre-cook large amounts of something you really love, put it in tupperware for storage, and just nuke it or eat it cold

Yummy stuff that requires minimal effort from cooler to belly:

  • PB & J
  • Taco salad (pre-made meat/non-meat taco crumbles)
  • Pickles
  • Hummus and something to dip in it
  • Bagels and cream cheese
  • Tofurkey dogs. Tofurkey is good because you don’t have to cook it and you can eat it right away. We like the Italian Sausage ones.
  • Sammiches with cream cheese, meat/non-meat slices, lettuce, tomato, and mustard (obviously the lettuce and tomato will need to be used up within the first couple of days or else they will spoil)
  • Beef or Tofurkey jerkey
  • Chips (salt and vinegar ones are especially good out there. I find anything with vinegar is tasty out there)
  • Hot cocoa for nighttime
  • Holiday cereal snack
  • Cookies
  • Single serving yogurt or pudding

Hydration

  • Camelbak.  YOU MUST CARRY WATER WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES.  I am not kidding.  The playa is no joke, and the crazy thing is you won’t even realize you’re sweating and becoming dehydrated until it’s too late.  If you are thirsty you’re already dehydrated, so drink deeply and often and thank me later for these words of wisdom
  • A bottle to fill with water and bring into your tent at night
  • Gatorade/Vitamin Water is incredibly delicious.  Bring twice as much as you think you need
  • Many of my campmates swear by coconut water, so if you like that, bring it

Toiletries and toilet

  • For the ladies: P-Mates and a largish wide mouthed container.  P-Mates have changed my life!  No more perching over nasty nasty toilet seats, no more crouching behind bushes! P-Mates allow you to stand up and pee.  It’s the most empowering, awesome feeling, and I highly recommend it.  Go here to purchase. The wide  mouth container is for at night in your tent when you don’t want to climb out and stagger your way to a port-o-potty.  Just make sure to empty it regularly, or else it gets GROSS.
  • For the gents: largish wide mouthed container, see above.
  • TP, because the port-o-potties often run out
  • Sunscreen.  Lots and lots of sun out there, friends
  • Lip balm.  Like, 10, because you’ll lose a bunch and give away some others
  • If you wear contacts, bring extra contacts and extra solution
  • If you have medication, bring it and extra
  • Vitamins and Emergen-C. must.keep.up.strength….
  • Personal wipes, for those in between showering times
  • Soap and a towel if you plan on showering. I don’t, but don’t let that stop you.
  • A really good lotion for dry skin
  • Condoms. Even if you are not going out there with someone. Radical Self Reliance! Get some!
  • Lube.  Because the playa dries EVERYTHING out.

Ahem. If you get all oogy when reading about ladybits, skip this next part:

Ladies, having your period on the playa SUCKS. For one, having to pay attention to how many hours it has been since you last put something in is such a hassle when you’re being constantly distracted by so much cool stuff, and also the whole not-a lot-of-convenient-toilets thing. Tampons are a hassle because they have to be changed fairly frequently if your flow is heavy, but on the other hand you can get the ones with the applicators so you at least don’t have to touch your ladybits with your playafied hands. BUT then what do you do with the used stuff, because you can’t throw it in the porta potty! You have to put it in a bag and carry it with you til you find a trash! Alternately, you can use Softcups (formerly known as Insteads). These are cool because you don’t have to change them as frequently, and also you can have sex with them in. But then there’s the whole playafied hands, messiness, and what to do with the used one factor.

Personally, I use tampons some days out there, and Softcups on other days. It depends on the flow. The key is to always have extra baggies with you, and also to carry latex gloves so you don’t have to worry about getting playa in places you don’t want it, or blood in other undesirable and highly visible places.

Ok you squeamish people, you can look again.

Gear for your body

  • Shoes and socks. Going without can put you out of commission for the rest of your burn if you get playa foot, and nobody wants that. Playa foot occurs because the alkaline dust  leaches all the moisture from your feet, causing them to crack and bleed. The alkalinity is such that your feet will be unable to heal, and you will have these horrible bloody meatstubs no good for walking, bike riding, or dancing until the wee hours. Long and the short of it, always wear shoes and socks, make sure to clean your feet with Dr. Bronner’s or vinegar daily, and put loads of lotion on before putting socks back on and jumping into your sleeping bag.
  • Latex gloves. I wore these at night because my hands get ridiculously dry.  I would put lotion on my hands and then put on the gloves and go to sleep.  Yeah, it sounds weird, but my hands were deliciously soft and healthy the entire time, so as far as I’m concerned it was worth it.
  • Goggles. Without, you will hate life. Dust storms can blow up at night as well, so make sure you get clear lenses for night and tinted for day.
  • Dust mask.  I use this.  Just make sure and doubly sure you are ordering the color/pattern you want.  I did, and they still sent two that were black and one that was red checkered.
  • Warm clothing for evenings – the desert can get cold at night
  • Utility belt with lots of pockets and the option for hanging things off of it.  This rules for hands-free playa enjoyment.

Other little notes about clothes: white gets dirty and stained really quickly.  Make sure you bring pajamas or something comfy for staggering to the port-a-potties in the morning.  Bring work clothes for set up and tear down.  Fresh socks and underwear for every day. Keep one entire outfit in a Ziploc bag and have it accessible for once you’re off the playa. Get yourself as clean as possible in a rest area, and then put on that fresh outfit. You will feel AMAZING!

Misc

  • Camera bag, camera skin, and anything else you can think of to protect your camera
  • Extra/rechargeable batteries and charger
  • Big Tupperware for clothes storage
  • Ziploc bags of all sizes for little storage.  These area great.  Buy bunches, all sizes.  I keep everything in ziplocs, and my stuff is minimally playafied when we get back
  • Towel for bathing, washcloth for same. Keep it in a big Ziploc when not in use, so you don’t wind up wiping more dust on yourself inadvertently.
  • Flashlights/headlamps and spare batteries to be sure you can see and be seen at night.
  • $20 for ice throughout the week.  This is not a cash economy, and the only things you can buy in Black Rock City are ice and coffee.
  • Lots of Sharpies for writing on the Temple, people, yourself, whatever.

Stuff we’ve brought but didn’t really use

  • Eye mask (had no trouble sleeping)
  • Ear plugs (turns out dubstep is like a sleepy-time lullaby to me)
  • Parasols (too windy to use, annoying to cart around)
  • Hand fans (just not necessary)

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