Another Burning Man has come and gone. This year’s 70,000 attendees that showed up to spend nine days living in the desert proves just how much the event has grown since its founding in 1986. Burning Man is an annual, nine-day expression of art, celebration, and bonfires in the Nevada desert. Artists and partygoers from all over the world hop into their campers and trek to Black Rock City to let out their creativity and celebrate freedom from their everyday responsibilities.
The Burning Man Festival has become one of the most popular festivals in the world, each year attracting people of all ages, ethnicities, interests, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Are you fascinated by Burning Man but never thought to make the trip? Spend a week in the desert with us, and we’ll show you what really goes on.
How It All Started
It all started in 1986 in San Francisco as a small function arranged by Larry Harvey, Jerry James and a group of their friends. Harvey, an artist, made a 9-foot tall wooden sculpture of a man and decided to burn it a nearby beach as a bonfire for the Summer Solstice.
From 1986-1989 Burning Man was held in Baker Beach in San Francisco. In 1990, a separate event was planned by Kevin Evans and John Law in a large remote, dried-up lake, called a playa. This area is known as the Black Rock Desert and is located about 110 miles north of Reno, Nevada.
Although the event’s origins are as old as the 1980s, Burning Man did not operate under a legal event permit until 1991. The gathering opened to the public in 1996, by this year the festival had grown to 8,000 attendees.
The original Burning Man had a total of 20 attendees in 1986. By 2014, this number was an astounding 65,922 people. Today the gathering has grown drastically over the years with more than 70,000 people attending Burning Man in 2018.
For most of its history, Burning Man was a for-profit event. However, in 2014, ownership was transferred to a non-profit organization called “The Burning Man Project.” Harvey decided the corporate ideal was against Burning Man values. The only things you can purchase with money are ice and coffee at center camp.
Co-founder Larry Harvey said, “Burning Man is like a big family picnic. Would you sell things to one another at a family picnic? No, you’d share things.” All items are exchanged based on “gifting” – yes, even things from vendors. The community supplies food, drinks, and trinkets, in exchange for things you’re willing to share!
If it’s your first time at the festival, be prepared to get dirty immediately. When you enter the gate to Black Rock City, you’ll be asked to raise your hand if you’re new to Burning Man, or if you are a “Burning Man virgin.”
And then those first-timers are expected to drop their bags and dive onto the ground, roll around in the dust and yell, “I’m a virgin no more!” Yes, this is really a tradition!
Dust gets absolutely everywhere. Everyone will inevitably be covered from head to toe in the fine soot that rises from the dry playa. But it’s so much a part of the experience, and most attendees quickly get accustomed to this situation.
Except its not really dust or sand – it’s the alkaline remains of a dried-up lake. The particles are much lighter than regular dust or sand, and it’s almost white, it’s also very fine, so it gets everywhere. You’ll find this white stuff in all the nooks and crannies of your car, tent, clothes, pillow, even your eyelashes.
The alkaline residue is lighter than regular sand—is almost white—and so fine that it gets everywhere! You know you will be filthy while staying on the playa, but what are your options for bathing? Good news, there is a bathing station. However, you will be joined by other bath buddies. First, you have to share lather and wash others; in the end, you get washed by others.
You’ll go through an organized rotation of being first a rinser, scrubber, and soaper until you finally get to be scrubbed by fellow burners. You should have no problem making friends here! And when you get home; be prepared to spend a week washing yourself and everything you brought with you!
The event comes to play in the summer solstice, in late August, and everyone knows it gets hot in the middle of the desert. The weather is super-harsh; the temperatures during the day can reach over 100 degrees. But besides the fact that deserts get cold at night, Burning Man is held on an elevated plateau.
The area is 4,000 feet above sea level, so nighttime temperatures can drop as low as the 30s. The land is flat, so blinding windstorms are common. The whole Burning Man zone is known as the “playa,” and it’s incredibly dusty.
Don’t be boring! Express yourself! Wearing a unique costume is an absolute must, whether it’s some form of make-up, a crazy hat, or even just a mask—to stand out is a must for any burner! The wilder the costume, the better!
Burning Man is the place to be artistic and express ss yourself to the limit. You will be shocked to see what some in the community will wear. Some burners spend months or even plan for their costumes a year in advance.
Love is in the Air
This event is all about love. Firstly, ditch the handshake at Burning Man, the custom is to greet people with a hug. There’s even a camp that trades hugs called “Hug Deli,” which trades varieties of hugs. And don’t forget the kissing booth, get ready to pucker up with strangers!
There is also a legend that judges will grant a kiss to the creators of the best art exhibits. To top it off, there are even swinger-themed camps and nude camps for those who are curious…
Every wedding should be a memorable one. For many couples who attend Burning Man together, Black Rock City is a popular choice when they choose to tie the knot. The Burning Man community has a specialized team for that. The idea is that the wedding is a spiritual one, where the vows matter more than a license.
Burning Man features an official pyramid style temple, where couples can say “I do” before a chosen religious official or justice of the peace. Legally! There are no legal requirements concerning what you must do or say at your wedding, and the couple can create any sort of ritual, game, or party they wish. But before heading to the playa, simply stop by the Pershing County Clerk’s office first to get a marriage license, so that the wedding will be legit!
Silicon Valley and Hollywood Hang Out
Although Burning Man started as a low-key, grassroots bonfire, in the last decade it has become a hot spot for Silicon Valley moguls. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Drew Houston of Dropbox and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have all played in the desert.
Celebs such as Heidi Klum, Paris Hilton, P. Diddy, Alexander Polinsky, Susan Sarandon, Katy Perry, and supermodel Alessandra Ambrosio have also attended the festival. Everyone is welcome to the playa regardless of their status, but they need to leave their ego behind.
Fitness enthusiasts will not be left out at Burning Man! The festival hosts roller skating, pole-dancing sessions, meditation classes, dance parties and there is even a marathon. A great opportunity to party and stay in shape.
Get ready to stretch in the desert! Yoga is a common practice on the playa. Feel free to join in on a class or start a class of your own. Spontaneous events pop up throughout the desert to be ready to have some fun!
Out of This World
The sky in the desert has minimal light pollution and is extremely dark at night which makes it perfect for stargazing. Views from the middle of the Black Rock Desert are spectacular.
In 2014 a group of desert burners built an observatory, this Black Rock Observatory allows fellow burners to see the rings of Saturn and six moons of Jupiter. You can see billions of miles into the outer solar system with a parabolic mirror.
Everyone is Welcome
As Burning Man is becoming more popular, families are a big part of the community. Everyone is welcome; young and old. It’s quite common for burner parents to bring their young children. Anyone under 18 must be accompanied by a guardian, and children under 12 are admitted for free.
Young burners even bring their older parents to experience something they have never seen in their lifetimes. It gives them a chance to bond as a family and it may help some reminisce back to their hippy days.
It’s a Community
The Burning Man official website stresses that Burning Man is actually not a festival. It is a community; a cultural society that connects each individual to their creativity. Black Rock City is a temporary city made for the purpose of the event. It is Nevada’s third-largest city for one week.
Burning Man does not arrange any entertainment for the event, but instead encourages fellow burners to perform for the community. Art is expressed in all ways. Be prepared to see some strange and amazing things. This city is all about expression and creativity.
Art is Everywhere
The entire city comes together from the collective efforts of all the burners. Thousands unite to build a city and create unforgettable scenery. People from all walks of life collaborate their creativity and artwork. The desert sky sets the perfect scene for some of the most unique creations.
Those who want to take part in the Burning Man festival can choose to participate in many different ways. Many create art installations, mutant vehicles, host theme camps or create performance art.
Best Way to Get Around
Biking is the ideal method to get around Burning Man. Attendees often dress their bikes in elaborate ways, decorating with furs, feathers, and paint so they don’t take someone else’s bike by accident.
Sure you can travel by foot but having a bicycle makes commuting around the barren desert much easier. Many people transform their bikes into amazing works of art.
There are plenty of workshops to join while on the playa; including holotropic Breathing, DIY energy machine, gong meditation, laughter yoga, radical improv, introduction to open relationships and polyamory.
There are various workshops throughout the day. A great way to stay entertained and avoid the desert heat midday. Partner yoga is also extremely popular, there is no shortage of partner options! This is a great ice breaker when meeting new people.
In 2004 co-founder Larry Harvey created 10 strict principles as part of the Burning Man framework. These rules must be followed while in the city 1) Radical Inclusion: This states that anyone can be a part of Burning Man. All strangers are respected and welcomed. 2) Gifting: The event is devoted to giving; something in exchange is not expected.
3) Demodification: Creating a social environment by resisting exploitation through sponsorship or advertising. 4) Radical Self-reliance: A gifter should respect the rights of the recipient. 5) Radical Self-expression: Only an individual offering a unique gift can determine its content.
The rules continue, 6) Communal Effort: Promoting and producing cooperation and collaboration. 7) Civic Responsibility: Responsibility for public welfare. 8) Leaving No Trace: Respecting the environment, cleaning up and leaving no physical trace of any activities in nature.
9) Participation: Everyone is invited to work and play. 10) Immediacy: Creating an immediate experience; one that overcomes barriers of our inner selves, the reality around us and participation in society.
Sights You Will Never Forget
Every year will see different, outrageous art pieces you will never forget and will blow your mind. But don’t worry after the event they continue to live on. At the end of the festival, many of the pieces of artwork get a second life.
The only objects that are burned are the Man and the main temple. The other artworks are sent to various locations to be put on display at various exhibitions and museums. Some of these works of art are also rented out to other festivals, private parties, and cultural events.
The Most Incredible Sunsets
You will see some of the most beautiful sunsets and surprises ever. Surrounded by a sky as if it were painted by watercolors with a pirate ship sailing by… this the fantasy you will get while staying in the playa.
Beauty and art are all around you. The possibilities are endless. Artists are encouraged to build and bring works that pay homage to themes This ship is actually a means of transportation called a mutant vehicle or “art car.” This is a motorized creation that shows little or no resemblance to its original form.
As per tradition, on the last night of the event, a sculpture of a man is burned. Although the original man was approximately eight feet tall, by the second year he had grown to 15 and doubled to 30 feet by the third year and 40 feet by the fourth year.
In 2014 the Burningman rose to 105 feet, the largest in its history. The only objects that are burned at the event are The Man and The Temple. Before the temple burns, Burners write a message to loved ones that have passed on and toss it into the flames.
Birds Eye View
This aerial view of the Black Rock Desert is astounding evidence proving how much Burning Man has grown. What was once a few tents and flags in the desert is now the size of a city in the US.
This year the nine-day gathering in the desert now draws close to 80,000 people and includes memorizing costumes, unforgettable art installations, spontaneous musical performances, and lots of partying. It is crucial one follows the 10 principles in order to fit into this community because according to burners, it’s how you live life.
Coming Full Circle
One of the intriguing art installations present at this year’s Burning Man festival was “Stone 27,” an interactive collection of 27 stones, suspended in mid-air. Created by Benjamin Langholz, it invited attendees to ascend the stair before reaching the top and descending back down again.
Formed around a central suspension pillar, these elevated rocks acted as a climbing frame of sorts, encouraging people to do more than stare at it! The art piece was positioned in the playa and was one of the smaller, more minimal works of art present this year.
Appealing to All Walks of Life
Burning Man isn’t just fun for the young and carefree, despite the provocative antics that take place it also caters to families and children. As seen here, many parents aren’t afraid to bring their little ones along with them on the journey. It’s an excuse to dress up after all!
The festival even encourages the whole family to join, as children up to 12 years old given entrance free of charge. While the festival organizers admit its not necessarily the easiest task, they compare the experience to camping with children. They even have a “Black Rock Explorers” program for kids that acts as an on-site day-care/summer camp.
A Giant Talking and Walking Puppet
Something you’re unlikely to have ever seen before unless you were one of the lucky few who were in attendance is a giant talking and walking puppet. “Stepping Forward,” a moving art piece suspended mid-air with the help of a construction vehicle, is a 20+ feet tall marionette puppet, created by Carros de Foc and Miguel Angel Martin Bordera.
She is an interactive piece as well, requiring the help of fellow attendees to pull on her strings to move her arms and legs. She was paraded across the playa during the day, before retiring to a bed on the playa at night. They also changed her outfit every day, making her the living doll of the festival.
Clean, Organized Camping
Most of the festival-goers arrange for planned camping in registered camps. Even if you prefer to do your own thing and not enlist anywhere, you’d still struggle to find a space available to set up a tent! Space gets filled up by the first day with thousands of revelers.
Despite the influx of people into the Black Rock Desert, they have a strict MOOP policy. MOOP, which stands for “Matter Out Of Place,” dictates that the playa should be in the same condition as it was before – so no littering of any sort. This desire to return the desert to its original state makes Burning Man one of the most ecologically-aware festivals in the world.
A Head That’s Sure to Mess With You
Another trippy art installation that featured this year is this giant smiling head, a 40-feet tall “meditating mind” that reveals crystalline stained glass at the side of its skull. Created by the Pier Group, people would cue up for a chance to go inside, which revealed it’s well-kept secret – its a 3 story maze!
This bizarre building was a hidden labyrinth featuring a variety of hidden doors and unexpected rooms. The Pier Group stated that the piece is their attempt to, “help everyone who struggles with their mind know that they are not alone, that we struggle too, and it’s ok to feel a little mad in this society.”
Supply and Demand: Yoga Acrobatics
With an existing reputation for appealing to alternative communities, acro yoga is also now catered for at the festival. Having previously only offered yoga, demand has lead to the introduction of this vigorous activity. It requires two people to pull it off, with one acting as a “base” for the person on top.
There are acro yoga camps at Burning Man, offering classes from beginner to advanced as well as just shared space to practice in. There was even a Camp Space Jam that held classes in space-inspired outfits: While dress-up probably wasn’t mandatory, it’s unlikely you’d want to be the odd one out at that class!
Their Own Brand of Monster Trucks
In an art installation that gives us Mad Max flashbacks, this mutant vehicle was a traveling show as it revved passed the festival-goers along the playa. As described by the official Burning Man site, mutant vehicles are, “unique, motorized creations that either show little or no resemblance to their original form, or to any standard street vehicle.” Well, that clears it up then!
They are encouraged to be built and brought to the festival, described as being integral to the Burning Man community. “They contribute to the surreal, visual quality that binds Black Rock City together,” they assert. They certainly are unique, and we can see how they’d add to the offbeat experience.
The Craziest Costumes Left, Right, and Center
People go all out for their Burning Man experience. Costs are expected to reach $1500 or even more per person, festival-goers naturally want to dress to impress, sparing no cost or effort for the sake of their outfits. Bright colors, revealing clothing and expressive makeup are all a part of the Black Rock experience.
Pictured is a man in a tribal native-American headdress and chest piece, with elaborate jewelry in tow. His female companion opted for a more EDM vibe, sporting neon colors, two contrasting wigs, and a fur scarf to really stand-out from the crowd. In a place like Burning Man, everything goes!
An Electrifying Display
In something that looks straight out of a sci-fi movie, an organization called “Sextant” built two huge Tesla coils that produced high powered, quality sound. The 32-feet tall coils produced electric sparks that acted as a navigational tool for lost festival-goers.
As well as having a practical purpose at Black Rock, they also acted as an interactive sculpture. People could interact with the giant coils by controlling the spark discharge rate to vary the audible frequencies. Through a keyboard, you could warp the sounds across the audio spectrum!
The Connection to Mad Max
Over the years, many people have pointed out that Burning Man shares lots of aesthetic similarities with Mad Max, the dystopian post-apocalyptic thriller that originally came out in 1979 starring Mel Gibson. It’s not hard to see the connection. Extravagant vehicle decorations, outlandish clothing, dust and desert, and not least, creepy goggles.
The aesthetic and creative similarities between the film and the festival have led people to ask: Did Mad Max inspire Burning Man? As it turns out, there is no direct and identifiable thread of influence, they are two separate entities. But they are both born from an otherworldly creative taste. There is, however, a festival called Wasteland, which usually sees a few thousand attendees. It’s 100% devoted to post-apocalyptic vibes.
Power of Transformation
At Burning Man, transformation and freedom are everything. Everyone is watching but no one is judging. No costume, no form of expression is too over-the-top. It’s all about being free to express yourself however you want. And according to people who have attended, the experience is incredibly liberating.
The event is designed to give people the choice (and the anonymity) to fulfill themselves artistically, and in some cases, spiritually. You can literally transform yourself into anything or anyone you want. Become your favorite character. Try new foods, meet new people, try on different personas – the desert is your oyster.
Good But Not Perfect
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, with so many people living and consuming in the middle of the desert and so much material used for art installations, Burning Man sounds like it could be a big mess. But remarkably, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Policies and attendees strive to make the festival one of the most sustainable. For example, one policy emphasizes the critical importance of leaving the desert as it was.
Burning Man has come a long way. But it isn’t perfect. “…while the Burning Man community, at large, takes it very seriously, when you get 80,000 people, there’s bound to be some stray things falling off here and there,” said a Nevada local. Environmentalists have also mentioned that the festival is responsible for a lot of carbon emissions. Still, the strive for a green festival goes on and organizers hope it will be carbon-negative by 2030.
Arriving by Plane
People sometimes say “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” But according to Burning Man’s official guide, it’s “a little bit of both.” Most people arrive at the playa via car or bus. But the traffic can be appalling. So for those that want to get there quick, flying in is also an option.
One of the fully functional but impermanent institutions that pop out of the desert floor at Burning Man is an airstrip. It’s makeshift, but it’s legit. It even has an official name: Black Rock City Municipal Airport, calling code FAA 88NV. Festival organizers warn first time-time burners to not expect any bells, whistles, or the usual comforts associated with air travel, as per the “decommodification” principle.
Photos have always been a little bit of a sensitive issue with Burning Man. For one, there is tension between the festival’s “anything goes” philosophy and the drive to keep the experience family-friendly. For instance, there was some debate as to whether a certain photo should be allowed for publication.
The frame showed a woman dressed as a nun, with her lower half partly obscured, but still very revealing. In the end, it was censored. There is also the issue of digital property rights. Through some legalistic acrobatics, Burning Man organizers have retained the right to remove or censor all pictures taken by anyone at the Black Rock City. It’s a draconian policy, but it’s now being reconsidered.
How Much Does It All Cost?
Most tickets to Burning Man cost $425, according to the official website. But prices fluctuate radically depending on when and what exactly you purchase. Prime spots and last minute sales are more expensive, for instance. It’s hard to say exactly how much money it costs to attend. CNBC estimated that the cost of attending ranges from $1,300 to $20,000.
Gifting policy notwithstanding, how much money actually changes hands with regard to attendance cost? Let’s do a little bit of rough math. With CNBC’s figure, the average attendance cost might be around $8,000, including food, transportation, costumes, tickets, and more. There are about 70,000 attendees. So 70,000 times $8,000 is equal to about $560 million! We’re talking over half a billion dollars here.
Safety, Security, and Regulations
Of course, and thankfully, Burning Man’s “anything goes” philosophy does not include criminal activity. Black Rock City is diligently patrolled by Nevada state law enforcement agencies. There’s also a special team of volunteers that mediate disputes between festival attendees. And the other essential emergency services keep a watchful eye and are ready to respond.
In a report, the FBI determined that the only real issues were illicit drug consumption and crowd control. They found no issues arising from terrorism or intelligence collection. Art installations and any pyrotechnics are overseen by public safety liaisons. There is even a special fire response team called FAST: Fire Art Safety Team
A Closer Look at Sustainable Aspirations
When it comes to being green, Burning Man is good but not perfect. As the organizers admit, there’s always room for improvement. What are the main initiatives the festival takes to try to be as eco-friendly as possible? Well, for starters they have their “leaving no trace” principle. They also have a major emphasis on recycling and other means of ecological waste disposal.
The festival aims to be regenerative and carbon negative. This means that that within a decade, it could be better for the environment to have Burning Man than not to have it. New green technology is always being tested there. The goal is to measure, analyse, and eventually reduce emissions and carbon footprints. In sum, is Burning Man bad for the environment? Yes, but within a decade that might no longer be the case.
A Hub of Progress and Social Awareness
It probably goes without saying that Burning Man is a progressive place. It’s guaranteed by a few of the festival’s foundational principles, such as “radical inclusion,” “radical self expression,” “communal effort,” “civic responsibility,” and “participation.” There’s no room for racism, bigotry, and or prejudice of any kind.
Moreover, Burning Man is a place of pure acceptance. No form of expression or one’s background will ever get anyone ostracized in Black Rock City. The event is not intended to be political, but just social causes do not fall on deaf ears on the playa. Liberal values bloom in this stretch of the Nevada desert.
Feeding the Masses
The main setup behind feeding all 70,000 attendees boils down to the cozy “communal kitchen” concept. You won’t find any McDonald’s or Burger King restaurants there, in accordance with the “decommodification” principle. Each group of attendees will get their grub from a volunteer-based kitchen that prepares and serves food to festival-goers.
The logistical tasks involved in feeding everyone is formidable, no doubt, but it works. Of course, there are a few changes. People tend to eat less and drink more water, for example. In terms of food items, organizers have a recommended list. Some of the items there include dried black beans, dried lentils, soy milk, granola, pasta sauce, fruit, and rice.
Between the Sands of Love
Not shockingly, in the midst of the “everything goes” free-spirited desert festival, casual hookups are common at Burning Man. Expressing one’s love – no matter how casually – certainly falls under the umbrella of the “radical free expression” principle. And who could deny it? The desert is a very romantic place.
In the Burning Man romance department, you can find anything from a relaxed kiss between strangers to a wedding, all happening on the sands and in the tents of Black Rock City. Some of the less PG-13 expressions of love have even earned themselves colorful nicknames, such as “Burner Affairs,” “Dust Love,” and “Tent Trysts.”
A Different Theme Each Year
True, among all the crazy art, happy faces, alkaline dust, colors, and vast array of intricate costumes, it can be hard to identify patterns. But in fact, since the festival’s inception in 1996, every year there’s a different theme. The yearly theme inspires the art, the costumes, the events, and the general vibe.
The themes and their names are just as vivid as the festival and its contents. For example, in 1997, the theme was “Mysteria,” drawing inspiration from “The primal and surreal thrive in this [festival] environment,” explained Larry Harvey. In 2016, the theme was “Da Vinci’s Workshop.” This year, although the festival won’t be held in the desert due to COVID-19, the theme was going to be “The Multiverse.”
Everything You Need
As the organizers of Burning Man have stressed time and time again, it’s not a festival – it’s a community. In terms of services and communal building blocks, they are absolutely right. The list of communal services is too extensive to list here, but in Black Rock City, you’ll find everything you need (minus your usual consumerist commodities).
Beyond the basics (like food and emergency services), Burners will find an airport, a post office, a conglomerate of ice trucks, a box office, an information center, a radio station (94.5 FM), an art services department, a research bureau, a department of public works, a motor vehicle department, and much, much more.
Burning Man isn’t the first neo-hippy desert festival (though it’s probably the most famous), and it’s certainly not the last. In the late 1980s, when Burning Man was born, the idea was still pretty revolutionary. Get a remote desert location, get a bunch of people together, get some crazy art and costumes, and party hard for a few days.
Now, 34 years after Burning Man came into being, there are tons of other festivals that have similar trippy desert feels. Israel has its own, called Midburn, which looks awesome. In Tunisia, (in usual years) one can hit up Les Dunes Electroniques. South Africa hosts AfrikaBurn. These are just a few of the festivals worldwide that are directly inspired by Burning Man.
Burning Man 2020
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burning Man will not be held this year. But like so many other huge social events that were canceled, Burning Man will still be held in some capacity, online. True, it’s not ideal, but it’s something. According to a report by The Washington Post, event organizers have chosen August 30 to September 7 as the dates.
Instead of actually being in the desert, the art installations and events will take place at a safe distance and be broadcast online. The goal is to get as close to the real experience as possible. We really can’t wait for this awful pandemic to be over so we can hug each other and dance in the desert once again.
A Literal Hot-Pot
The dust and humidity of Black Rock Desert definitely came as a shock to the system for most attendees. Last year especially saw sky-high temperatures pushing 100 degrees, which would have been difficult to bear for the festival builders let alone the festival guests!
As one of the flattest surfaces in the world, the Black Rock desert does benefit from strong winds to cool off the brave attendees, however, the dust in the air makes eyewear at Burning Man must-have. More often than not, you’ll see people wearing sunglasses or goggles to protect their eyes from the sand.