I distinctly remember the sense of amazement that washed over me when I first learned about the Burning Man festival. It was late 2008, a time when YouTube was merely three years old, Instagram hadn't even come into existence, and Facebook was still trying to catch up to Myspace. The concept of travel blogging was not yet a widespread practice, and the only place to discover travel narratives was on custom blogging platforms such like LiveJournal.
It was on one of my random LiveJournal browsing sessions that I stumbled upon a blog post that would forever change my perspective. The post was about an event held in the middle of the desolate American desert, where thousands of people gathered, some half-naked, others adorned in extravagant costumes, all dancing around colossal art installations.
Now, let's delve into the details. What exactly is Burning Man? How can you attend? Is it worth it? How expensive is it? Must you be an unconventional hippie to be part of such an event? In simpler terms, how do you become a "burner"?
What is Burning Man?
First and foremost, Burning Man is not your typical music or art festival. It shares no similarities with the likes of Tomorrowland, Coachella, Ultra, or any other mainstream festivals you may have heard of. According to its organizers, Burning Man is an "annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance."
The principal distinction between Burning Man and conventional festivals is that, at Burning Man, you're not just a passive observer; you're an active participant. You are encouraged to engage with the event in as many ways as you desire. This means you can converse with anyone, partake in various activities, sing, dance, perform, educate, and transform while being an integral part of the community.
So, how can you secure tickets to this unique event?
Once you've registered, there are several options available:
- Apply for a low-income ticket, which is specifically reserved for participants with limited income who cannot afford the regular-priced tickets. These tickets are non-transferrable and are available through application only, priced at $190, excluding tax. Please note that you may have to wait for approximately two months for a response after submitting your application.
- Purchase a regular ticket at a fixed date. These tickets cost $425, excluding tax, but they tend to sell out within the first few hours of availability. There are subsequent smaller sales, so you'll need to keep an eye on the schedule to know when they become available.
- Opt for a limited $1,200 ticket, excluding tax, which becomes available approximately two months before the event. These tickets are more accessible to purchase, but they come at a higher cost.
Now, the big question: How do you get to Burning Man?
One option is the Burner Express Bus, departing from Reno and San Francisco. However, please note that this bus has strict luggage limitations. If you intend to bring a substantial amount of gear, it can be somewhat challenging and costly. Most attendees, in fact, opt to drive themselves.
People from nearby towns often rent cars, SUVs, and RVs. Some make the journey from Los Angeles, while others come from San Francisco. In our case, we rented an SUV in San Francisco. From there, it's about a four-hour drive to Reno, the nearest city to the Black Rock Desert, where the festival is held. Reno serves as the last stop for essential purchases, fueling up your vehicle, enjoying a final meal at a restaurant, and commencing your onward journey. The drive from Reno to the festival site is another three hours, with very few towns and limited stores along the way.
Now, what do you need to bring to Burning Man?
While I won't enumerate every possible item you could take, I will highlight some key essentials:
- Water – Bring a substantial amount of water (in addition to any alcoholic beverages), as you're heading into the desert.
- Non-perishable food – Stock up on food that doesn't require refrigeration or cooking since open fires are prohibited. This, of course, doesn't apply if you're renting an RV equipped with a fridge and stove. In our case, without an RV, we needed to plan accordingly.
- Various costumes, dust masks, sunglasses, napkins, warm clothing, and anything else that can protect you from the dust, the frigid nights, and the searing sun.
- Bicycle – Once you're at the festival, this will be your primary mode of transportation.
- A positive attitude – If you're not in the right mindset, you might as well turn around and leave. Burning Man is about shedding your worries.
What will you be doing for the entire week at Burning Man?
Burning Man's grounds consist of two main areas: the camp, where numerous activities take place during the day, and the playa, a desert section adorned with a multitude of art installations.
The camp is where you'll find a wide array of daytime activities. Some camps offer yoga sessions, while others host volleyball games, dance classes, meditation, geology lectures, shooting practice, bowling, reading sessions, bouldering, and even space exploration discussions. The list is nearly endless. You'll also discover an assortment of food, drinks, and alcoholic beverages within the camps.
The entire week revolves around exploring the city, discovering new attractions and challenges, or simply finding places to relax. By the end of the week, we had our favorite spots for a morning coffee and fresh bread, and then we'd dive into the day's activities. Each day's schedule would typically conclude with an afternoon nap before the night's festivities began.
Pros and Cons
While we had numerous fantastic experiences, there were also some downsides to consider. The desert climate can be extreme, with scorching daytime temperatures and frigid nights. Dust storms are a common occurrence, so it's crucial to be prepared with masks, protective eyewear, and other gear to shield yourself. Additionally, exercise caution with the gadgets you bring; the desert dust can be detrimental to delicate equipment. Moreover, Burning Man enforces a strict no-drone policy to prevent illegal drone flights.
While it may seem like you can be anyone and do anything at Burning Man, there are essential rules and principles to uphold:
- No money is exchanged within the festival grounds – leave your wallet behind. Everything is offered freely, and there's no expectation of reciprocation.
- "Leave no trace" – Clean up after yourself and strive to leave the space even better than you found it.
- Drugs are officially forbidden, though there might be individuals who still engage in such activities. Be aware that rangers (of which there are many) can take legal action if they discover illicit substances.
- Pets are not permitted.
- You're free to leave whenever you wish, but consider carefully if you're truly prepared for the experience before arriving.
- Have fun and foster a peaceful atmosphere. Burning Man is a place to leave your troubles behind.
- Don't count on cellular data or internet access – it's virtually non-existent. A few camps might have private Wi-Fi networks, but the overall atmosphere encourages disconnection from the outside world.
Who Attends Burning Man?
Burning Man welcomes participants of all ages and backgrounds. I've witnessed parents with babies under the age of one attending alongside 96-year-olds. It's not about age or gender; it's about your mindset. If you seek an escape from the modern world, a place to express yourself, a haven for creativity, or an opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals, then this is the perfect place for you. You don't need to be a stereotypical hippie to fit in – though, if you are one or aspire to be, you'll find your tribe here.
Notably, Burning Man has a reputation for being a haven for "hippies," but it has also attracted influential figures from Silicon Valley. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has attended multiple times. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has also been reported to have participated in the event.
The Grand Finale
The festival unfolds over an entire week, with the main event occurring on the second-to-last day when the iconic "Man" effigy is set ablaze. This is the most eagerly anticipated celebration, featuring a massive fire spectacle and fireworks. Art cars and attendees gather around to witness the Man's conflagration, and the revelry continues until sunrise. The final day sees the burning of the temple, a space for reflection, meditation, and letting go of the past. In the end, everything is consumed by the flames, serving as a poignant reminder that all things must eventually come to an end. It's a bittersweet day when you see everyone preparing to depart, dismantling their art and getting ready to return to the "default world."
How Much Does It Cost?
In 2016, CNBC estimated that the overall cost of attending Burning Man could range from $1,300 to $20,000, covering expenses such as transportation, food, camp fees, costumes, and gifts. Indeed, Burning Man is a relatively expensive event, with costs amounting to approximately $2,500 or more as of 2019, depending on your point of departure. If you're traveling from outside the United States, flying in will escalate your expenses.
Burning Man is a one-of-a-kind event that unites people from diverse backgrounds and interests, fostering a sense of community where interactions, connections, and support are paramount. What we began as a duo, we ended as part of an extended global family. We encountered numerous fascinating individuals from around the world, listened to countless captivating stories, and forged lasting friendships that endure to this day. Ultimately, Burning Man isn't about music, art, or free food – it's about the people you meet, who eventually become your closest friends. Never have I encountered such a diverse and incredible community in a single place. It's the community that transforms Burning Man into the most exceptional festival on Earth.