This spring, I attended my first burn at Playa Del Fuego. I wrote about my initial experience and impressions here, and I loved it so much that I went back for the fall event. After two experiences, I feel I can write about the community with more knowledge and I want to share that information with you. Although burns aren’t for everyone, I think it’s something you should give a try if it appeals to you even in the slightest. I really had no idea what to expect beforehand, and it’s pretty difficult to explain until you’re there yourself, but I want to give detailed information about what to expect at your first burn. Keep in mind I’ve only attended PDF, but I believe most of this information can be applied to any burn.
In 1986, a group of people got together on a beach in San Francisco to burn a wooden structure of a man a symbolic ritual/gesture. They decided that was something they wanted to keep going every year, and congregated annually for that purpose. In 1990, they moved over to Black Rock Desert in Nevada which is where the event is still held today known as Burning Man. The event has grown from a small group to 65,000 participants.
With so many participants, Black Rock Desert turns into a small city for a few days every summer now. Camps, art, installations, rituals and more pop up to create a temporary living space for these thousands of participants. Over the years, several other regional burns have sprouted up all over the world to recreate the ritual that was started on that beach in the 80’s, and one of them is Playa Del Fuego. You can read more about Burning Man’s timeline here.
Each of these burns operate under the same ten principles. These principles are:
- Radical Inclusion – This just means everyone is welcome to the event and to participate in the provided activities.
- Gifting – The community operates under a gifting economy. Giving a gift does not entitle you to anything, and you should give it without expecting something in return.
- Decommodification – Along with the spirit of gifting, this means that no money is exchanged at the events. There aren’t any sponsors or things for sale. You bring what you need and share what you have.
- Radical Self Reliance – This is the idea that even though you can always ask for help, you should be able to depend on yourself and hopefully these events can help you figure out how to rely on your intrinsic resources.
- Radical Self Expression – This is a celebration of the individual. These events and communities honor the unique individuality of all their participants and want them to be completely comfortable and unapologetically themselves, whatever that means.
- Communal Effort – Simply that if you have the ability to help someone else, you should. Collaborate, cooperate, and communicate with your fellow burners.
- Civic Responsibility – Even though these events are “off the grid”, the organization and community doesn’t really condone breaking laws that you would have to abide by in regular society. That also means that you have to assume responsibility for your actions.
- Leaving No Trace – These pop up cities are amazing because a day after they’re over you have absolutely no idea anyone was ever there. Keeping with the motto of “leave things better than you found them”.
- Participation – None of these events would happen without people volunteering to do various jobs. Everyone is invited to volunteer, work, and play at these events.
- Immediacy – This is the most abstract principle on the list. It’s about breaking down the barrier that exist between you and your inner self and connecting/participating with the community.
You can read more about the ten principles of Burning Man here.
The first thing you need to know is these events are essentially giant camping trips. You’re creating a camp and temporary living space for yourself (and friends) outdoors. So if you’re unfamiliar with camping, you’ll need to go over the basics of that before you do anything else.
Because you’re outside, you need to consider not only your sleeping arrangements but shade structures and lounging areas. You also need to create your own fire. You can ask for help choosing firewood that will surely help you keep warm. Sometimes they will provide firewood for you, but you need to bring a pit, matches, dura-flames, etc. You should also be prepared for making enough food for yourself for the entire stay. Bring coolers, ice, and cooking supplies (including mobile stoves, propane, pans, etc.). (At PDF you can get ice on the grounds, and that’s actually the only thing you need to pay money to obtain because the burn is held on the ground of a Veterans Motorcycle Club and they offer that service).
There are themed camps that have specific spaces marked off for them. They’re usually pretty elaborate and host events, cook food for anyone who wants it, and decorate to the nines. There are also open camping areas where anyone can set up. Keep in mind that open camping areas are first come first serve, so if you have a lot of people in your camp you need to get there early and save room for them.
At PDF you are allowed on the grounds at 5 pm on Thursday. If the weather is fine and the grounds aren’t muddy, a finite amount of cars are allowed to drive on at a time with a parking pass so you don’t have to carry all your gear on your back. That means there’s a line of people waiting for cars to get back with their parking pass so it’s their turn to drive on. If someone gets in there before you and takes the spot you want, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Because you’re outside, you’re going to be using the bathroom in porta potties. There are usually some sort of showering facilities, but it’s not really elaborate. Do as much as you can to prep for not showering, like baby wipes, deodorant, body spray, etc. It’s also a good idea to bring your own toilet paper because by the end of the day lots of the porta potties are out!
Take a look at the weather before you go and prepare for the worst. You want to have gear for both hot and freezing temperatures, rain, and protection from the sun and a crap ton of insects.
Before you get there, you’re going to need a ticket. A few years back, Burning Man started the controversial process of creating a lottery for their tickets and many regional burns (including PDF) have followed suit. This means on a few scheduled days, the burn’s website will assign people who are logged in a number. If you have a lower number, you’ll have the opportunity to buy your tickets first (think like a take a number at a deli, except it’s not sequential and you have no idea what number you’re going to get). When it’s your turn, you can buy as many tickets as you like, which is why bigger groups of people have a better bet of getting all the tickets they need because they can front the money for a bunch of tickets and get paid back at a later time. There are only a finite amount of tickets, though, and once they’re gone they’re gone.
Tickets range in price depending on the burn. Burning Man costs $390 and PDF costs $50. You’ll need to print your ticket out and have it with you, as well as your ID. When you arrive at PDF, there is a separate location where you go to have your ticket scanned, sign a waiver, and get a wristband. Then you drive over to get a parking pass and take your stuff on the grounds.
You can find out more about Burning Man tickets here.
Per the first of the ten principles, everyone is welcome at burns. That means you get all types of people! You might assume it’s just a bunch of hippies, but it’s not. There are people from all walks of life and all ages. I’ve seen babies, small kids, teenagers, twenty-somethings, middle aged adults, and senior citizens. Pets are not allowed, though.
People are encouraged to be themselves, and that means you’re probably going to see some nudity. It’s accepted and people are all very respectful. There are also plenty of adult/sex/fetish themed events and costumes, so be aware of these things if you’re offended easily or you’re bringing children. Don’t worry, though, it’s not just a giant field full of naked sex fiends or something. There are plenty of family-friendly activities and costumes for anyone to participate in.
In addition to being respectful, you’re allowed to take photos of the art and people with their permission. As someone who always has their camera out, it was kind of awkward for me to adjust to having to be wary of what I’m snapping pictures of, but it’s for everyone’s safety and overall benefit.
Consent is a huge thing at burns, and it doesn’t just go for taking photos. There are tons of flyers in the porta potties reminding participants that silence and slurred speech do not equal consent, and this goes for offering alcohol, substances, and sex.
You’re going to encounter all kinds of folks, and they’re also going to try to talk to you! Pretty much everyone is super friendly at these things, so don’t be put off if strangers say good morning, wander onto your camp to start a conversation, or ask to hug you (remember you can always say no!).
There’s also a ton of performers! You’re going to see people on stilts, spitting/twirling fire, and lots of sideshow stuff! People share their talents with one another, and it’s pretty great.
In keeping with the original tradition, burns are called burns because of the effigy burning that occurs on at least one of the nights of the event. At PDF they burn the effigy on Saturday and then do an Art Burn on Sunday (burning large, gorgeous wood structures participants signed up to make). The main effigy at Burning Man is a man, the main one at PDF is a pony.
Firefighters are standing by in gear with extinguishers and hoses in case something goes wrong, but everyone is pretty experienced. They start the lighting of the piece(s) and everyone stands around to watch as these structures go up in flames. These pieces have usually been out somewhere on the playa and are sometimes interactive. For example, you might be prompted to write something on the piece or you can hang out inside it.
The burns are the high point of the events, and they can be very cathartic and emotional. After the last piece has finished burning and it’s safe, the firefighter will let you know and everyone will run and dance around the ashes. Later, you can scoop up the ashes to take home as a keepsake if you like (like collecting sand on a beach you visit).
Things To Do
There are lots of events and activities going on, and you should be able to find a schedule of them either online or in a pamphlet once you get there. (See an example of the pamphlet from Fall 2015 PDF here). Participating in these things is really going to heighten your experience. They range from watching movies on projector screens to happy hours to slip and slides. You might be able to get a Tarot card reading, have your face painted, or make some art yourself.
Different camps will offer various foods and drinks at different points of the event. You’re going to have your own plate, cup, and utensils for regular eating, but you’re going to want to bring those things with you to eat your free food off of.
There are also things going on throughout the entire event like being able to climb up high scaffolding to get a bird’s eye view of the playa or heading to a free library or costume “store” to get some good reads or fancy clothing and accessories.
In addition to the wooden art for the burns, there’s plenty of other art and interactive installations for you to appreciate and participate in. Walk around as much as you can and enjoy it! Maybe you can even bring some to share yourself.
There are a lot of words that are specific to the burner culture, and it’s good to familiarize yourself with them before you head out. For example, MOOP is an acronym for “matter out of place”. This refers mostly to trash, but also to things like glitter (sad face). Remember you’re supposed to leave no trace, so it’s your responsibility to not litter and take care of your garbage at the end of the event. You might have access to a dumpster on the grounds, but if you want to recycle you might have to take those items with you when you leave.
Burner is the term used for people who attends these events regularly and lives their life according to the ten principles. Playa is a Spanish word for beach, which is what you use to refer to the large open areas of the burn event (like the desert or field it’s held on). A Sparklepony, despite it’s fun name, isn’t a good thing. It refers to a person who doesn’t know how to rely on themselves and mooches off everyone else there. The name derives from the concept that they look fancy since they only packed a costume. A Ranger is a volunteer who helps keep things in check in the community and ensures public safety. They do things like mediate, check on camps, and enforce noise rules.
Learn more about burner vocabulary here.
You’re allowed to leave the grounds if you want. You don’t have to stay the entire time, and can always go out for more supplies if you need it (just be sure to never take off your wristband!). There’s also first aid available on the grounds, but you could always leave to get medical attention.
Even though there’s always stuff going on, people to meet, and things to do, you’re probably going to want to bring something with you. You never know what can transpire, like a giant rainstorm, so I bring things like knitting so I can stay occupied as well as participate in conversations.
If you’re going to Burning Man, it’s likely you’re not within driving distance of the desert. You’ll need to look into renting some sort of U-Haul to get the majority of your camping equipment there and you can always fly the rest of it out with you when you leave.
Due to the logistics of the environment, I recommend preparing as much as you can in advance in terms of hygiene. Shower the day you leave so you can stay fresh as long as possible, and if you shave any parts of your body I’d do that at the same time so you don’t have to worry about that while you’re there.
It’s completely possible you won’t have any cell phone service at your burn. Prepare for that! And if you want to use your phone, you should bring a battery charger for your phone since you might not have access to an electrical outlet.
If you’re looking for a regional burn, check out this list to find one near you. They should each have their own site where you can find out additional information specific to that event. Some of them are even themed, like Frostburn is in the super cold! Sounds kind of crazy to me, but sing your heartsong, darling!
Burns are an incredible, eye opening experience that you won’t understand till you get there. You’ll get to watch a city pop up and tear down in a matter of days where people embrace who you are without judgment. There’s the opportunity for magical metamorphosis of the human spirit, and hopefully you can take a bit of the magic home with you to implement in daily life.
So that’s it! What do you think? Are you sold yet?
Also! I made you a free download of a packing list printable. Use it to prepare for going to your first burn!
Questions for the comments: Have you ever been to a burn? Would you ever go to one? What burn is closest to you?