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7 Days In The Desert: A Burning Man Survival Guide

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For years you’ve heard tales of a wild utopian wonderland in the Nevada desert. For one week, the blank canvas of that barren wasteland turns into something magical.

You’ve envisioned a world of hot hippie women searching for their spirit animals, of chemically-enhanced sex fests, of all-night raves and socially-acceptable nudity. You’re ready to take that dusty plunge and rage until you can’t even remember what planet you’re on.

Slow down, tiger. I’m not saying Burning Man isn’t those things, but I am saying it isn’t only those things. I’m also saying that the back of every Burning Man ticket warns that you might die at the event, so maybe you want to show up with your shit together. One of the Burner mottos is “Keep Burning Man potentially fatal” for a reason.

So how do you drop into one of the least hospitiable places on Earth and have the most wild, weird and wonderful week of your life? Allow me to be your tour guide.

Getting To Burning Man

If you’re one of the lucky lotto winners who scored a ticket, the next step is to sort out your travel. The closest airport is in Reno, Nevada, but San Francisco is also a popular destination. Either way, you’ll need a ride from the city to the site of the event in the Black Rock Desert, so rent a car or plan to carpool.

Burning Man also has its very own airport if you’re looking to splurge. Use it to fly your private plane directly into the desert alongside fellow ballers like Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

The Burning Man Living Quarters

Expecting cabins? Prepare to be deeply disappointed (and relentlessly mocked). This is roughing it in the most Bear Grylls sense. You have three best bets: a tent, an RV or a yurt. The tent is classic, but make sure it’s tough enough to withstand a windstorm and know it will be hotter than the inside of a mouth by 9am. Sleeping in is not an option.

An RV is cushy but expensive, and by the end of the week your formerly-luxe living quarters will be dustier than the inside of a vacuum cleaner. A yurt requires the cash and energy investment of building it, but it’s reusable and you’ll look like a seasoned Burner.

The Naked Truth

When it comes to Burning Man style, pretty much anything goes. The more outrageous the better, but skip feathers, sequins and anything else that’s likely to detach and cause litter in the desert. Those things are strictly forbidden.

Have a tutu on hand for Tutu Tuesday – the playa collectively celebrates (yes, even the men) and it’ll let you skip the line for free pancakes at the Pancake Playhouse camp. On the practical side, goggles and face protection (think masks and bandanas) are a must for dust-storms, have warm things on hand for the cool evenings, and don’t forget your sunglasses.

Make sure footwear is comfortable. The event spans many miles and you’ll do a lot of walking. Plenty of Burners ditch the shoes entirely, but take care of your toes because the alkali dust can cause playa foot. And yes, if you’re feeling extra free-spirited, you can leave the clothes in your camp and go totally nude.

Burners are some of the nicest, nakedest people you’ll ever meet, unless you’re shirt cocking – wearing nothing but a shirt with your pants canon out. In that case, we will silently (or loudly) judge you.

Life Without Technology

What kind of gadgets will you need for your trip to the desert? Trick question. None. You’re in a damn desert having one of the coolest experiences of your life. Leave your laptop, smartphone and snazzy new Apple Watch at home (time is meaningless out there anyway).

What you might want is a sound system to play music in your camp, or a camera to capture some of the memories. Just make sure whatever you bring is protected from the playa’s pervasive dust, and if you choose to carry a camera, don’t spend the week living through the lens.

What you definitely, 100%, no-way-around it need is lights. Lots of them. If you’re not lit up at night, you will get run over by a bike or an art car or someone tripping balls. It’s a matter of safety, but get creative and it’s also a matter of style.

The Dirty Hippie’s Grooming Guide

When I say that grooming on the playa is “kind of a wash,” I mean there won’t be a lot of washing. Sorry, clean freaks, it’s just a reality of life in the desert. If you have an RV you may have access to a shower, or you can set up a camping shower, but remember that Burning Man is a strict leave-no-trace event – any grey water you create has to be packed back out.

It’s kind of a hassle, and when everyone around you is a magical dust-covered desert fairy, you might as well be a magical dust-covered desert fairy too. It doesn’t smell as bad as you think it will. And it means your first shower after returning to the “default world” feels that much better. Until then, baby wipes are your best friends.

Getting Around At Burning Man

Fancy a ride on a pirate ship? Or a mechanical snail? Or a magic carpet? You can do it at Burning Man, no drugs required. They’re called art cars, and they’re pretty much the only vehicles allowed on the playa. You can drive your civilian car in, but once you’ve arrived, it has to be parked until the end of the event.

Art cars, on the other hand, receive special permission from the DMV (that’s the Department of Mutant Vehicles) to drive during the event. They’re some of the most fantastical creations you’ll see at Burning Man (seriously, Google them). Often times they play music, serve drinks, or host dance parties. Hop on and hop off at will and prepare to be bored by taxis for the rest of your life.

The Desert Diet

In between admiring the art, checking out the BDSM workshops, seeking spiritual enlightenment in the Temple and partying until sunrise, you will occasionally need to eat. By which I mean you absolutely need to eat or you will die. Remember what your ticket said?

It’s easy to get swept up in the constantly-beating pulse of the event and forget about meals, but remember that you’re living in an incredibly harsh environment and probably taking below-average care of yourself. Your body needs nourishment if it’s going to keep up with everything your brain wants to do.

Don’t forget about the water. Drink lots of it. Drink all of it. Dehydration is a serious risk (did I mention you’re in the middle of a desert?). It’s best to carry water on you at all times. A CamelBak is the easiest way, plus it leaves room for other essentials like sunscreen, lip balm and a snack.

Hello, Hedonism

It’s time to talk about the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all out there for you to enjoy (not as much the rock ‘n’ roll – Burners tend to prefer electronic music), but it has to be done responsibly.

Dying to dance? There’s a party to be found 24/7. Dying for a drink? You’re constantly surrounded by bars serving free booze. Dying to get down with the cutie you just met? There are camps designed solely to facilitate such salacious shenanigans.

Dying for something more dubiously legal? It’s out there too, but remember that, as much as it seems like an autonomous entity, Burning Man is still governed by state and federal laws. Undercover cops are out there and they’re ready to seriously eff-up your day.

What it all comes down to is this: have fun, challenge your boundaries, but don’t be a dick about it. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything, and you don’t want your poor decisions to land you in the hospital or a Nevada jail cell.

Final Words…

Making the most of your time on the playa requires more than physical preparedness. Mental preparedness is a must, for virgin Burners and veterans alike. It can be the best of times, it can be the worst of times. It’s magical and manic and emotional and uninhibited and the way to survive is to embrace it all.

If I had to give only one piece of advice to a new Burner, it would be this: say yes. There’s a reason people who go to Burning Man are called “participants” rather than “attendees.” It’s a place to explore everything, test your limits, do things you never thought you could, and revel in both the good and the bad.

If you want to sit on the sidelines and spectate, go to Coachella. If you’re ready to get involved and really suck out all the marrow of life, then Burning Man is ready for you.

All Burning Man Images By Scott London Photography

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