Learning how to survive Burning Man as a first-time participant can be a daunting task, but with a few helpful hints even the most hopeless "virgin" can come out of the desert with a smile on his face and unbelievable stories in his pockets.
- Come over-prepared. Nobody can tell you exactly what to expect at Burning Man because every year is different. A good strategy your first time is to over-prepare. Bring extra food, water, clothes, party-favors, and whatever else you think you might need at the world's strangest celebration. It's easy to trim-down for next year once you know what you want, and you can score major points with the gift-driven community by handing out things you don't need.
- Gifting, not buying. The only things you can buy are coffee, tea, ice, and electrolytes. There are no ATMs or vendors of any kind, and you cannot depend on being able to purchase survival necessities after arrival. Some camps will offer free food, alcohol, or entertainment, but the expectation is that people will reciprocate by providing their own gifts or helping out. There are no accommodations either, so prepare to sleep in your car if you don't bring a tent or some other form of shelter with you.
- Remember the environment. Beyond staying hydrated, there are a number of things to keep in mind for surviving a week-long party in the Black Rock Desert. Temperatures shift dramatically from day to night, with average disparities of 30 degrees or more. Dust storms are common, and sometimes reach such magnitudes they're known as "white-outs", where you can't even see your hand in front of your face. Bring proper apparel & gear, including items such as hats, goggles, tents, blankets, etc.
- Leave your preconceptions at home. Surviving Burning Man is not only a physical trial, but a social one as well. The festival attracts people from all walks of life, and strongly encourages radical forms of self-expression. Outlandish costumes and bizarre examples of artistic creativity are common, and as a "clothing-optional" event many participants spend most of their time in the nude. It's important to treat these people as you would anyone else. Gawking, leering, insulting, or generally responding negatively to people's appearances are community taboos, and will only serve to alienate you from other participants.
- Learn the lingo. Like any cult social phenomenon Burning Man has its own vocabulary that participants use to communicate. Any first-timer is known as a "virgin", the event space is called Black Rock City, the desert is referred to as "the playa", and one of the worst breaches of etiquette you could commit is to confuse a PG&E member (Perimeter, Gate, & Exodus-a Burning Man staff group) with a Greeter. Upon arrival take the time to learn the acronyms and slang from the people around you, feel free to ask questions, and don't be afraid to tell others it's your first time-they'll often jump at the chance to help you out.
- The law still applies. While Black Rock City may feel like you're on a different planet, the actuality is you're still on Federal property and are consequently subject to Federal law. A variety of federal law enforcement agencies make an appearance every year, and they're not always easy to spot. The Burning Man staff goes to great lengths to communicate with law enforcement officials in order to ensure a positive relationship with the community, and it's important not to spoil things for everyone else by acting recklessly and bringing unwanted attention to the event.
- Have fun. Burning Man is like no other place on earth, and if you remember these tips and bring a positive attitude then you're sure to have an amazing experience. Being prepared is important, but the bottom line is people are there to have fun. Survival entails not only living through the event, but enjoying it as well. Remember that the community is there to help you, and vice versa. Pack up your car, make sure you didn't forget your head lamp, and get ready for a party you'll never forget.