Ultimate Guide to Burning Man

This post comes from Todd Shimkus, Computer Ninja Master and occasional blogger at TMS. When Todd’s not working on a complex programming project, you’ll find him climbing the Sierra’s infinite granite or floating through powdery clouds of cold smoke.

Getting to the Black Rock Desert – How far is Burning Man from Reno and Lake Tahoe?

Many people fly into Reno then rent a car or RV to go to Burning Man.  If you have time plan an extra day or two to come to Lake Tahoe! It’s less than 45 minutes from Reno and a great place to relax before or after the festival.  The Black Rock Desert is about 225 miles from Lake Tahoe and takes approximately 5 hours, not counting the time you’ll wait in line to get in or get out.  Stop by Tahoe Mountain Sports in Truckee, California (we’re in the same shopping center as Safeway grocery store) and we can help you have a great trip and stock up on everything you need to have a great burn!

Keeping Hydrated at Burning Man: Tips and Tricks

Burning Man is held in a dry lake bed in Nevada’s high desert. Daytime temperatures can soar over 100° F and the relative humidity is almost non-existent. Alkali dust covers everything that enters the Black Rock Desert and it sucks the moisture out of you in a process similar to mummification. Burning Man’s Emergency Services Department reports hundreds of cases of dehydration each year.

The desert is trying to kill you.

Steve Jurvetson - httpwww.flickr.comphotosjurvetson293864829

Wild horses enter a desert battle scene from stage left.

Fortunately, dehydration is an easily preventable malady. Dehydration can be prevented, and even reversed, through…are you ready for this?…HYDRATION. Liquid water, when taken orally, is absorbed in the stomach and small intestine, and directly into the bloodstream. The water is then transported to the sweat glands where it is excreted onto the skin as a cooling mechanism, and finally evaporated by the hot sun – thus completing the vicious cycle of hydration.

How much water?

How much water do I need? The official Burning Man survival guide requires 1.5 gallons per person, per day. Granted, this equation factors in a little extra water for things like cooking and washing, but you should probably drink at least a gallon of water each day. “Piss clear” is a popular mantra in Black Rock City, and even the name of a long-running newspaper on the playa. It is sound advice, as the color of your urine is a good indication of your hydration level. The darker the color, the more dehydrated you may be.

Hydration should be a constant activity. This is especially true if you are consuming diuretics like caffeine, alcohol, or any chemical stimulants. These substances are known to increase dehydration so you will need to compensate for the extra water loss. I recommend double-fisting. If you are enjoying an ice cold beer in one hand you should intermittently drink water with the other. It’s almost [but not entirely] impossible to drink too much water.

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Electrolytes

H2O is not the only part of the hydration equation (yes, the term is slightly misleading). Electrolytes are also critical to staying hydrated. Electrolytes are water-soluble ions in the form of salts, acids and bases, and are necessary for basic cellular function. The human body requires several electrolytes to function normally, including sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), chloride (Cl), calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), bicarbonate (HCO3), phosphate (PO42-) and sulfate (SO42-).

How do we get these electrolytes? Well, lots of ways:

  • Salty snacks – Munching on some salty snacks throughout the day will replenish the salts lost by sweating throughout the day. Roasted and salted nuts and seeds, pretzels, crackers, chips, cheese, and a whole host of other tasty treats. Bacon, which is often the foundation of the burner food pyramid, has plenty of sodium and potassium.
  • Coconut water – High in potassium, young coconut water is renowned for its ability to re-hydrate. Whole young coconuts pack the most electrolyte content but are perishable and may not survive long in the desert heat. Cans or cartons of coconut water, on the other hand, do not require refrigeration and their containers will pack out easily.
  • Electrolyte mix and tablets – I love Nuun electrolyte tabs. One tablet turns a bottle of water into a fizzy and tasty concoction of electrolytes and fruit flavors. I typically keep a tube on me for my playa travels to add a little extra electrolyte goodness to my water bottle.
  • Electrolyte add-ins – Electrolyte add-ins are virtually flavorless electrolyte concentrates that can be added to water or other drinks to impart those magical ionizing salts that make us tick. Elete electrolyte mix is all-natural and made with four essential electrolytes: sodium, magnesium, potassium and chloride. Since it has very little flavor I like to use it as an additive for cocktails. Adding some flavorless electrolytes to a batch of sangria reduces it’s dehydrating effect.
  • Powdered sport drink mixes – You can find powdered Gatorade, Powerade or some other variety of flavored sports-ade at any grocery store. This is more economical than buying a case of bottled sport drinks and you end up with less waste to schlep at the end of the week. These drinks typically contain a lot of refined sugar and artificial colors, so keep an eye out for a low-sugar or “natural” version – unless you like the idea of drinking lots of salty Kool-Aid.
  • Homemade rehydration solution – A quick online search for “electrolyte drink recipe” will yield hundreds of thousands of simple re-hydrating drink recipes. Most contain a little table salt, some form of sugar, a little baking soda, and some citrus (for flavor and vitamin C). Take a look around and find one that works for you.

Choosing the right vessel

What is the best way to carry your water or electrolyte-rich hydration solution around fabulous Black Rock City?

burning-man-black-rock-desert

Todd awaiting a RARE desert downpour.

That comes down to personal preference, but I would strongly discourage bottled water and soft drinks. Not just because it is wasteful, but they are also inconvenient. There are no trash or recycling containers at Burning Man. If you head out for a long adventure on the playa with a few containers of bottled water you will find yourself carrying around the empties all day.

Refillable water containers are definitely the way to go. But what kind?

  • Hydration packs – Colloquially known as “Camelbacks” or “camel packs”, these hydration reservoir equipped backpacks are a really convenient way to travel with plenty of water and other playa essentials. Contrary to popular belief, there are many brands besides Camelbak that manufacture high-quality hydration backpacks. Some people don’t like wearing hydration packs on the playa since they can appear too utilitarian and unfashionable to go with their steampunk / gypsy / hot dog / bedouin / robot / geisha / chicken / Santa / martian ensemble. Many crafty burners decorate their hydration packs to better coordinate with their style.
  • Water bottles – Fill a reusable water bottle from the big jug at camp and you’ll be adequately prepared for a long expedition to the deep playa. Make sure it is at least a liter. Any less and you’ll be selling yourself short. My go-to has always been my 40 oz stainless steel water bottle with a carabiner that I can attach to a shoulder bag or sling. If you want to keep your drink cold consider a double-walled bottle and a handful of ice from the cooler
  • Soft bottles – These hybrid water vessels get their own category because they are both and neither hydration reservoirs or water bottles. Soft water bottles are great because the bottle gets smaller as your drink gets smaller, and when it’s gone you are left with a flat plastic sheet that you can roll up and tuck away. This is a great alternative to hydration systems if you aren’t too fond of sucking water through a hose.

You can never bring too much water to Burning Man but you can definitely bring too little. Err on the side of caution. Worst case scenario, if you over-pack that liquid goodness you get to wash up at the end of the week or gift it to your neighbors.

Eight Things You Forgot to Bring to Burning Man

This is for the virgin burners. There are plenty of all-inclusive packing lists for surviving a week in the Black Rock Desert, but this is not one of them. This focuses on a few key things that are often overlooked when packing for Burning Man.

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  1. A Bike – This one is listed as a suggested item in the Survival Guide (required reading), but I’m upgrading it to required. Black Rock City is massive. The inner playa is nearly a mile in diameter and the city grid extends another half mile outward. A bike will make it much easier to explore the deep playa and more of the city than you could possibly see on foot. Make sure your bike has lights for nighttime adventures, and don’t forget to bring some spare inner tubes or a patch kit. Oh, and don’t bring your shiny new $3,000 custom bike out there. The alkali dust is corrosive and will wreak havoc on the metal components on your bike.
  2. Plenty of shade – Within a couple hours of daybreak your tent will become an oven. Even canvas tents and double walled tents fall prey to the greenhouse effect out in the hot desert. Shade-on-shade is key. Cover your tent with a shade structure, portable carport or a heavy tarp suspended a couple feet above your shelter. I have even seen people put their tent inside another larger tent. The outer shade will take the brunt of the sun’s abuse, keeping it cooler inside your tent.
  3. Clean socks for each day – No matter what kind of shoes you wear, playa dust will find its way inside. The alkali dust mixed with a little sweat becomes a nasty, clay-like muck inside your shoes. The next day – crust. A clean pair of socks for each day will alleviate this malady and your feet will thank you.
  4. Vinegar – OK, so this one may sound weird to the uninitiated, but any BM veteran will tell you that vinegar diluted in water is the best cure for playa foot and any other dry, cracking skin caused by caustic alkali dust. This is simple elementary school chemistry: the weak acid neutralizes the base. Don’t worry though, it won’t make your skin fizz like a science fair volcano.
  5. A cup – This is something you should never leave camp without. There are thousands of bars out there offering free libations of all varieties. The only condition is that you bring your own cup. Don’t drink? Carry a cup anyway. There are lots of cafes, tea houses, lemonade stands and other beverage purveyors in BRC. I carry a GSI Outdoors Collapsible Fairshare Mug on a carabiner attached to my water bottle.
  6. A shower – This isn’t necessarily required, but nobody would be sorry that they packed one. If you do bring a portable shower, be sure to factor that into your water supply. Also make sure to catch your grey water on a tarp or evap pond to keep it off the playa. This is a Leave No Trace event and shampoo and soap may leave a stain or residue permanently.
  7. Personal lighting – A headlamp is a good start, but it’s not just about seeing at night – it’s about being seen. Mutant vehicles, bicycles, and other participants gallivanting around in the night can collide with you unexpectedly if you don’t make your presence known in the darkness. Adorn your evening wear with Electro Luminescent EL wire, blinky LEDs, battery powered strobes, or anything bright. Single use chemical glow sticks and necklaces are discouraged since they aren’t very bright for long and they tend to fall off the wearer, becoming litter that somebody else has to pick up.
  8. Gifts – Burning Man’s Gift Economy is one of the things that make the culture so unique. Gifting is about giving without expectation of receiving something in return. Some of the best gifts are very ordinary things that make somebody’s day – like a piece of watermelon on a hot afternoon, or an ice cold beer, or a handmade trinket, or even something intangible like a foot massage. One of the best gifts I ever received was a much-needed stick of lip balm. A gift can be anything really, just make sure you bring something to share with the community.

Last Minute Burning Man Supplies

We want to make it easy for burners to get last minute supplies before venturing off to the Black Rock Desert. NOTE that this list is not all-inclusive and will not contain everything you need out on the playa, just a few things we carry at the store that will make your stay in Black Rock City more comfortable.

Hydration

Burning Man is a lot of things to a lot of people, but first and foremost it is desert survival as mentioned above.  Water is the single most important thing you can bring out on the playa so we’ll mention it again. The rule of thumb is 1.5 gallons per person per day. Bring more if you are using a solar shower, mist sprayers or anything else that uses additional water. For in-camp water storage, check out 5 Gallon Foldable Water Carriers, 10 Liter MSR Dromedary Bag or the 6 Liter Platypus Water Tank. All of these water carriers can be folded up to save space on the way back. For hydration out on the playa, we carry a variety of hydration backpacks, hydration reservoirs and water bottles. Last year I took the 40 oz. Klean Kanteen stainless steel water bottle with a sling through the top, and it was plenty of water for long escapades. We also have Hydroflask bottles with handles that are insulated and keep your water cold.  For electrolyte-enhanced water add Elete, Cytomax Recovery or Nuun drink mixes.

Sun Protection

The sun’s rays are very powerful in the high desert, and the reflection off the light-colored alkali ground amplifies the sun’s effects. Protect your skin with Sol Sunguard Altitude SPF 40 or Alpine SPF 25 sunscreen for non-greasy, sweatproof sun protection. Lip Balm is also one of the best things to have with you after a couple days in the desert. Sunglasses are a good idea as well, but will not protect your eyes against dust storms. Snow goggles, work well for keeping dust out of your eyes. A big hat like the Kavu Chillba Fisherman’s Hat is another great way to keep the sun off your face.

Camp

Your camping list will vary quite a bit depending on whether you are camping in an RV or in a tent. I will just point out a few things that will be useful in any camp in Black Rock City. Visit our camping page for tents and other camping gear. For starters, no camp should be without a first aid kit. A fairly basic one should suffice, since there are emergency medical services available. Nite Ize Knotbone Adjustable Bungee is tremendously useful for tying things around camp down or to secure a shade structure. If you have cameras or other small electronics that might need to be re-charged throughout the week, check out Solio Universal Solar Charger and grab a Seal Line dry bag to protect them from dust.

Personal Playa Gear

There are a few things one should never leave camp without. Water for one. Another thing to bring along is a cup to use at any of the hundreds of free bars in Black Rock City (come find me serving up cocktails at the Barfly Bar around 3:30 and Florence). I recommend one with a handle that can be attached either by a lanyard or a carabiner. If you smoke, a windproof lighter is essential, as is a container for ashes and butts. I also highly recommend carrying around a headlamp, even in the middle of the day just in case you don’t make it back to camp before dark. Bring along a compass as well, since BRC is very difficult to navigate after Saturday night when the man has burned and all the street signs have been taken down.

Preparing for Burning Man: Comfortable Desert Living

In less than two weeks 60,000 people will gather in the high desert of northern Nevada and form an improvised city in the dry lakebed of ancient Lake Lahontan. Our fair city will be the tenth largest in the state of Nevada, and will have a higher density of creative ingenuity per capita than anywhere in the world.

My big project for this year’s burn is to build a large hammock stand and shade structure for our camp. I’m borrowing Bucky Fuller’s tensegrity design to build the portable and collapsible structure. Buckminster Fuller is probably known best for inventing the geodesic dome, but there are already lots of those out on the playa. His tensegrity design, on the other hand, is just as genius, quicker to setup, and less material intensive. Tensegrity, a contraction of “tensional integrity,” uses tensioned cables or cord to create a rigid floating compression structure. I would translate that to layman’s terms if I could, but here’s a picture instead:

Tensegrity Prism

Rendering of Tensegrity Prism by Bob Burkhardt


My structure will consist of three tiers of interlocked tensegrity prisms (like the one shown above) that will suspend a 35′ nylon parachute over the center of our camp. The bottom tier will double as a hammock stand for three hammocks.

Here’s a quick breakdown of my materials:

  • 1 x 35′ military surplus parachute
  • 1 x 300′ spool of 4mm accessory cord (3000 lb working load)
  • 3 x lightweight hammocks
  • 6 x carabiners for the hammocks
  • 3 x ratcheting tie-down towing straps (2000 lb working load)
  • 9 x Snow Peak forged steel stakes
  • 3 x 14′ (4″ diameter) pine logs
  • 6 x 8′ (3″ diameter) pine logs
  • 24 x bolted eye hooks with washers and nuts
  • 18 x quick links
  • 1 x rappel ring

Tensegrity shade structure materials

Tensegrity shade structure materials

…and now for a photo montage of the structure as it gets built:
Building tensegrity shade structure
I’m not finished building it at the time of this post, but here’s a picture of the structure as it is now:
tensegrity shade structure
I just need to do a little fine tuning on the cord lengths and add another tier and it will be ready to pack up and bring out to the Black Rock Desert. I’ll post some more pictures here when it’s done.
Here is the finished product (minus the parachute):
Completed shade structure

Stop by Tahoe Mountain Sports in Truckee for all of your Burning Man Festival supplies or click the links above in the text to buy online from one of our affiliate partners. Have a great burn!

 




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