Burning Man Travel Notes for NewbiesTravel Notes for Burning Man Newbies

I’ve been to BM four times now, and thus figure myself as much an authority on getting to BM from Canada as anyone. Foolish hubris, but there we go. I wrote a fairly long writeup in personal email to someone on the local Burning Man Vancouver list, and thought maybe other BM virgins might find it useful. So here it is. A few notes on going to Burning Man, with emphasis on travelling from Vancouver, BC. Focussing primarily on pragmatic stuff. This page is part of the BurningCam Web site.

Table of contents.

Part I. Preparing to leave.

What to bring.
Travel insurance.

Car rental.

Cell phone.


Rebar tent stakes.

Shade shelter.

Bring your tickets!

Part II. Getting there.

Route from Vancouver, BC.
The border.

California agriculture checkpoints.

Don’t speed in Nevada.

The law.


The last night before the playa.

Part III. On the Playa.

Clothes and Weather.
Lip balm.


Driving on the playa.

Bugs and wildlife.

Bring a bike.

Sleep during the day.



Part IV. Coming Home

Consider your departure time.
Off the playa.
Cleaning the playa off your stuff.

Dealing with life.

Part I: Preparing to leave.

What to bring:

ARF (the Artists’ Republic of Fremont in Seattle) have a good list: http://www.arfarfarf.com/burningman/items.html

The official BM site has a pretty good first-timers guide: http://www.burningman.com/first_timers/

Fellow Vancouver burners Chris ’n’ Rick have a lengthy list of useful and fun stuff: http://burningcam.com/travel-notes/chris-rick.html

I should add that Chris and Rick do recommend quite a pile of gear and if you’re a BM virgin you might find it a bit overwhelming. Never fear - you obviously don’t have to bring so much stuff! Everyone has their own way of doing things beyond the simple survival basics. But if you want to go to Burning Man in style then Chris ’n’ Rick are your guys!

Travel insurance:

Remember that your Canadian health coverage does not even come close to covering the insanely high cost of being hospitalized in an American medical facility. If you don’t have some form of travel insurance I’d strongly recommend you pick some up for your trip. It’s dirt cheap at a few dollars a day, and totally worth it.

Remember that you are travelling to a pretty wacky event where all kinds of strange things can happen and go wrong. People have died at the event, and car accidents in transit to/from the event happen yearly. American conspiracy theorist (black helicopters and cow mutilations, primarily) Jim Keith died in a Reno hospital - under very mysterious circumstances, we’re told - after breaking his leg at Burning Man.

Would you rather pay a few dollars a day in health insurance or several thousand dollars (US) a day for a hospital bed? Not to mention the cost of getting airlifted out of Gerlach to Reno, in a regular helicopter or a black one. Think about it. Most travel agents and places like BCAA sell travel insurance that covers the US. (okay, admittedly getting third-party health insurance probably won’t help you if you’re being assassinated by men in black for knowing too much, but hopefully you won’t be in that category)

Car rental:

A popular way to get to Black Rock is to rent a car. Even if you own one it’s worth considering, as it’ll mean less wear and tear on your own vehicle. It’s not a cheap way to go, but it’s convenient, and can be okay if split amongst two or more people. Here are some points to keep in mind.

Cell phone:

Bring a cell phone. You won’t want it on the playa, of course. Partly because it’s bad karma and partly because it won’t work anyway. But cell phones are useful in case of breakdowns along the way. Much of the trip will be out of cell range if you come from the north, but it’s better to have one than not.

And if the possibility of being contacted on your trip bothers you - just turn the damn thing off and only use it for outgoing calls in emergencies. Problem solved! Incidentally, this tip is relevant to you even if you have an old phone which isn’t activated. By law, cell phone companies must accept all calls to 911 emergency services from any cellular phone - even if it’s not on any service plan. So that useless heavy 10 year-old brick of a cell phone sitting in your closet is useful after all!


You must bring water. Tons and tons of it. None is provided on-site. I always load up the back of my car with those big 4-litre (1 gallon) white opaque plastic water jugs. They’re one of the few things I buy in the US, though, as I don’t want to attract undue attention when crossing the border. (didn’t want to hear “whatch’y’all doin’ with that thar water?” from the border guards)

Bring at least 2-3 of those huge jugs per day. Remember it’s needed for drinking, washing yourself, cooking, etc. And remember that it’s better to have too much water and give it away to the cleanup crew at the end than to find yourself collapsing from dehydration or pissing off your friends and neighbours by begging for some water.

Always drink fluids on the playa. This is repeatedly stressed in all the BM literature, and they’ve really got a point. “Piss clear,” meaning, when your urine starts turning concentrated you’re heading towards a dangerous dehydration situation. So carry a bottle of water at all times. Especially if you’re indulging in alcohol, caffeine or other drugs, which accelerate dehydration.

Now, thing is, when I’m thirsty I get really tired of drinking water. It leaves a taste in my mouth that won’t wash out. So what I do is to freeze a bunch of juice tetrapaks before leaving. Then I pack the frozen blocks into a cooler. This way they gradually melt over a period of days, and are still actually pretty cool some days later. And juice is better than water much of the time, as you get electrolytes and sugars and whatnot. At the very least I’d bring drink crystals to add to your water.

If you have a tent store your water jugs in there. (assuming they’re properly sealed and all bottles are standing upright) The weight of the water will help weigh down the tent when you aren’t in it.

Rebar tent stakes:

These are kind of important if you have a large tent or shade structure. The desert floor isn’t a Lawrence of Arabia sand dune, but is made of sunbaked clay. And regular 6 inch long smooth aluminium or plastic tent pegs can pull right out of the ground, especially when one of the inevitable windstorms crashes in. Your tent will go flying across the desert and you’ll never see it again. Rebar (reinforced steel bar - the heavy steel rods used to reinforce poured concrete structures) is a pain, as it’s heavy and stuff, but it works. In fact, it’s a drag to pull out of the ground, since the rough texture of the metal sticks to the clay very well.

BUT you also have to be aware of the risk of injury. You’ve probably heard about this - one of the major sources of nasty injuries to feet and limbs at Burning Man is people tripping over sharp rebar pegs in the dark. Imagine having your bare feet slashed open by a rusty chunk of rebar. Owwwww. The solution is to bring a bunch of empty 1 litre pop bottles and stick ’em over the exposed ends, or else candy-cane the rebar ends before you go. The latter requires access to a special bending tool unless you regularly wear spandex tights and a cape, but if you have short rebar rods you probably won’t want to do this anyway since you’ll then end up with a very short stake.

If you want to spend money you can also pick up fluorescent orange plastic mushroom-shaped rebar caps at a lot of hardware stores. They serve the same purpose as pop bottles but cost a lot more. Another great idea is to use the black foam insulation meant for water pipes. This year we wrapped brightly-coloured fleece fabric around each rebar end with nylon zip ties - that worked fine and looked funky, like rainbow lingams!

You can get very long lengths of rebar quite expensively from big hardware warehouses. I went to a rebar distributor that sells 50-kilometre lengths of rebar to construction firms and asked for a dozen 2-foot long chunks. They kindly gave it to me for free. Not worth writin’ up the invoice! said the guy at the office. I promised to buy my rebar from them next time I built a skyscraper or office block. I should really mention the name of the company here, but I’ve totally forgotten what it is. They’re on Mitchell Island at any rate.

Pulling 2 or 3 foot long lengths of rebar out of the playa is a drag, though. Banging the rebar on the side with a hammer and wiggling it back and forth (wear gloves!) usually works. Another approach is to pour water around the thing, wiggle it, then pour more water in. When the clay is wet it’s easier to pull the stake out. And, I know you weren’t even thinking of doing this, but pounding the stakes into the ground and then leaving is a Bad Idea, because the stakes work themselves out of the ground over the years. And one day, someone will be driving along through the desert, minding their own business, hit one of your protruding stakes and kill themselves, and you’ll lose a few billion karma points and be reincarnated as a paramecium.

Shade shelter:

You need something to keep the roasting sun off during the day. The first year I went I made a highly elaborate shade shelter out of ex-military snow camouflage net and miles of metal tubing (electrical conduit), as documented in my Web pages. I went alone, and it took an entire bloody day to put the thing up by myself. It worked, and provided a modicum of shade, and didn’t blow over in any windstorms. But it was a total pain in the ass to put up and take down.

In 99 I didn’t bother. I brought the white camouflage material but left it in the car. Just slept in an open tent. It’s nice to have an elaborate parachute-tent shade shelter, but the amount of work involved is pretty huge unless you’re working with a team of cooperative friends.

A lot of people have a van or something and drape fabric to the ground, pinned to the vehicle by the closed doors. I’d think of ground covering too, though. The playa clay ground isn’t very comfy to sit on - it isn’t nice grass or anything. Especially if it rains and it turns to thick gluey mud.

Bring your tickets!

Really. It would completely and utterly suck to arrive at the gate only to realize that your precious tickets are sitting in the dresser drawer at home. And the gate people have heard all the convincing sob stories from ripoff artists before and will charge you full price to get in.

Put them somewhere safe that you know you can get to easily. Wallet? Taped to the interior of the glove compartment? Wherever, as long as you know how to get to it quickly. It’s embarrassing and annoying to others to hold up the line at the gate while you fumble around for your tickets.

Part II: Getting there.

Route from Vancouver, BC:

I recommend taking the route on the ARF site, which offers driving directions from Seattle. Obviously just take the 99 and then the I-5 to get to Seattle from Vancouver.


It’s about the quickest way and reasonably scenic once you get off the fast but massively dull I-5. The road east through Oregon is pretty mountainous, so keep that in mind for your driving plans - it takes longer to do that stretch than to zip along the I-5. There also aren’t any gas stations anywhere along that stretch, so fill up first. (though you have a full jerrycan of gas with you, right? So that won’t be a problem.)

It has the added bonus that you come into Gerlach from the north, which is a less busy and less patrolled road. Most people going to BM come from the south (from the Bay Area), so the friendly cops concentrate on that route. You don’t gain anything by staying on the I-5 until Shasta and turning off eastward, though you do get to see Mt Shasta from a distance, which might be interesting if you’ve never seen it before.

The drawback of this route is that you have to do a lot of driving on lonely empty roads and some of the roads aren’t as easy to drive on as a huge wide Interstate highway. The former may be an issue if your vehicle is unreliable and the latter may be an issue if you have a trailer or a big RV. In these cases you might want to stick to the southern route, which lets you stay on wide highways most of the way.

The border:

This can be a real pain. Wacky costumes and so on alert the guards’ attention, as they’re usually highly conservative people and not goofy fun-loving folks. They’re basically on the lookout for anything that says “trying to sneak into the country to work” or “smuggling goods”, and anything remotely unusual will attract their attention. Here are some notes and ideas:

California agriculture checkpoints:

The other border you will cross is that between Oregon or Nevada and California. California is highly protective of its agricultural industry and also likes to reinforce its feeling of independence, and so has agricultural inspection stations at every entry point. If you have fresh fruit when you cross into California they may confiscate it. There are potentially big fines if they catch you fibbing about the bag of fruit in your cooler.

This is a real pain in the ass for burners coming from the north, because it means in theory you might have to surrender the fruit you bought in Washington or Oregon just because you’re passing through the corner of northeastern California in order to get to Nevada. However, when I’ve gone in the past they haven’t seemed too concerned about plums and apples and oranges, but had a keen and unnatural interest as to whether I had any mangoes about my person.

Sometimes they’ll let you off the hook without fruit confiscation if you explain that you’re heading briefly through a small corner of California, will not be stopping at any farms, and are going straight to Nevada. But this is at the discretion of the guard. Note that there’s a check stop near Alturas on the way from Cedarville when you come into northeastern California from Nevada.

Don’t speed in Nevada:

Don’t speed once you get onto the small Nevada highways (ie: off the interstate), particularly near towns. Three reasons - first, there are cows roaming on the unfenced roads, and you don’t want to come up over the crest of a hill and slam into a cow. Bad for the cow; bad for your car. Second, the local authorities know there are lots of Burning Man freaks coming and eagerly set up speed traps in every town, ready to nab everyone doing 1 mph over the limit. Big source of income. Plus if they don’t like the look of you they can turn your car upside-down looking for drugs. Third, people actually live in those little villages and hamlets, and get irritated at stupid smelly hippies and freaks in their cars and RVs and VW buses speeding through their towns, endangering their children and dogs.

The law:

When you are in the US you are subject to US law. You don’t have any immunities or special privileges as a Canadian visiting the US. In theory if you are arrested in the US then you should inform the authorities that you are a Canadian citizen and they are required to notify the nearest Canadian embassy, but that’s about it.

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) have some useful material online about your rights if you are stopped or arrested that makes for good reading.



I don’t recommend you buy your supplies in the US (except for my water suggestion) unless you intend to allocate a lot of time for the project. If you don’t know a particular town really well it’ll take a surprisingly long time to leave the highway, go into town, find the store you want, find the stuff in the store, buy it, etc etc. Especially Klamath Falls, Oregon, which is a creepy redneck haven in addition to being very confusingly laid-out. Much quicker to buy things in Vancouver, unless you’re planning on bringing strange stuff that might freak out a border guard.

Stuff also tends to cost a lot more in the US than in Canada these days, owing to the exchange rate. One notable exception, however, is alcohol which is usually much cheaper in the US.

The last night before the playa:

Stay in a motel if you can. This means you’ll be able to shower and arrive fresh and clean on the playa. It’ll be the last real shower you’ll have until you leave. Don’t underestimate the value of this. Also, try to arrive on the playa in the early morning or late evening if you can do it. Arriving at night is a drag, because finding your way around in the dark is difficult if you’ve never been there before. Arriving at the hottest time of the day is also a drag for obvious reasons. The only accommodation in Alturas to have a night desk open all night long is the Super 8 motel. They also have baths, not just showers.

Part III: On the Playa.

Clothes and Weather:

During the day, yes, it’s usually very hot. No surprises there. You’re in a desert. Take light loose clothes, unless you plan on walking around naked. If you take the naked approach remember that you dehydrate way more rapidly when you’re unclad, and you’re going to have to keep covering yourself with a lot of sunscreen. Pale people especially burn really quickly. Parasols really work, and don’t overexert yourself by walking around a lot between around 11 am and 3 pm.

Upon arrival on the playa give yourself a day or two to acclimate. This is sort of common-sense. It’s really easy to get into stupid fights with friends and partners over the most inconsequential things when you’re hot, dehydrated and grumpy, so keep a close eye on your mood.

What’s a bit more surprising if you’ve never been to a desert area is how cold it can get at night, especially when it’s a clear sky. The temperature drops quite rapidly - you can feel it cooling down the moment the sun vanishes behind the mountains. In 1999 in particular it got fucking FREEZING (well... not quite freezing, but remarkably close) at night - much colder than the year before. I was wearing two pairs of trousers, two shirts, a fleece and an MEC gore-tex and I still got nastily cold. No way of knowing yet if this year will be as cold, but don’t take any chances. It’s no fun shivering in the cold and the dark. It can also rain, so it makes sense to be prepared for that possibility. Remember that rain = thick gluey mud. Instant heavy platform shoes.

Lip balm:

Don’t do what I did in 1999 - I lost mine. Or, to be more accurate, it fell behind the seat of my car, and I didn’t find it again until after the event. Chapped lips are not nice. Bumming lip balm off your friends is a good way to annoy them after a few days.

And for people who’ve seen the clip of me in the 120seconds.com video, I am not obsessed with lip balm. Really.


I hate cooking when it’s hot. I just don’t have the energy and it seems crazy to be heating stuff up when it’s really really baking outside already. I just bring some canned soup or prepackaged Indian curry, leave it on the dashboard of my car to heat up and then just loll around in the heat, spooning myself hot soup from a can. Yes, this is utterly pathetic. But when you get to BM you’ll understand what I mean. Unless you have some sort of communal cooking arrangements it can be kind of a drag feeding yourself.

Also remember that the heat makes perishables perish. Very very fast. And if you keep them in a bag, they stink. So. Don’t bring many perishables (particularly animal-derived stuff like milk, cheese, meat and eggs) and if you do find stuff going off, let it dry in the sun and then throw it in your garbage bag. Otherwise it’ll fester in a moist hot environment, and well... You get the picture.

One fabulous thing we did last year was to take some margarita mix and a blender. On the last day, when everyone was burned out and exhausted, we bought some ice and mixed up some delicious frozen slushy drinks. Mmmm.

Driving on the playa:

You probably know by now that you can’t. You’re supposed to find your camp and park there. This eminently sensible rule, ruthlessly enforced by the volunteer rangers (they deflate the tires of offenders) is there for an extremely good reason. Before the rule was instituted, people just drove around the town, kicking up dust and not meeting other people. The site became suburbia in the desert.

One thing to keep in mind is don’t drive your vehicle if it rains. The clay turns to soft sticky mud, as noted above, and your car will get stuck. Even four-wheel drive vehicles have difficulty when the ground is really wet. If there’s a downpour on the day everyone leaves (everyone’s worst nightmare) I suspect you’d be best off waiting for the ground to dry off before trying to drive anywhere.

In 98 some areas were marked as no-drive zones. This was for a good reason, as some people learnt to their frustration when they drove on the soft areas and got firmly stuck in the ground and had to be towed out.

Bugs and wildlife:

There aren’t any. Well, a few flies and dragonflies and whatnot make it onto the playa, but that’s about it. The only animals stupid enough to spend any length of time out there are humans.

But on the way down you will probably encounter lots of mosquitoes, particularly in the area near Crater Lake. Bring bugspray if you use it.

Bring a bike:

Black Rock City is huge. You need a bicycle. And a flat tire repair kit - I think I’ve had punctured tires twice on the playa. You should also bring a lock. There aren’t that many thieves around, but there are sleepy, stoned and drunk people who might grab your bike by mistake and wobble off into the night. Blinky lights are also valuable for avoiding nighttime collisions.

Sleep during the day:

Plan on being up much of the night. Some of the coolest shit happens at night.


Bring lots of Canadian cigarettes unless you’re ethically opposed to the idea. If you smoke, you’ll be desperately trying to feed your addiction and all the Americans around you will only have those damned American brands. If you don’t smoke, lots of other Canadians will be desperately trying to feed their addiction, and you can probably cunningly use this to your advantage and trade smokes for backrubs, food, personal favours, etc. Though obviously I’m not suggesting you bring in a dozen cartons - it’ll get you in trouble at the border if nothing else.


The playa is very very dusty. Dry alkaline dust. It gets over everything. Bring ziploc bags to store anything important, like cameras and CD players, and keep such gear inside a car rather than a tent. Bring a roll of gaffer tape and tape up cameras and other gear that’s exposed to the elements. (do not use duct tape or black electrical insulating tape because they leave a sticky disgusting glue-like residue that’s hard and time-consuming to remove. Professional gaffer tape is expensive but leaves considerably less residue.)

Dust storms are not uncommon - you might look up and see a giant wall of white rushing towards you. If you’re outside in the middle of nowhere, sit down and cover your face with a cloth and stuff. If you’re in camp, you’ll probably want to hop in a car or make sure your tent doesn’t blow away. Dust storms can be pretty intense and pretty random, so it’s a good idea not to leave all your crap lying around your camp, where it’ll be blown away.

In 2000 the dust storms were not only intense but lasted for around 3 days. Yargh. In 2001 the weather was great but the playa was horrendously dusty because of drier than usual surface conditions. So if nothing else, bring good goggles and a couple dust masks. Many people recommend the proper respirator-style masks over the thin paper disposable kind. Unfortunately respirators are heavy, uncomfortable and expensive, and cheap paper masks don’t work all that well. Tradeoffs. Still, bringing a couple boxes of disposable paper masks is a great way to make friends in the middle of a storm.

Part IV: Coming Home

Consider your departure time:

The Exodus system has made a tremendous difference to the wait times at the departure gate. Congrats to all the BM staff who set it up. But nonetheless all traffic leaving the site has to do so via a narrow road with one lane going each way. Last year a nasty traffic accident held things up for hours.

The best time to leave is early in the morning. By early afternoon the lines are backing up with traffic, so it makes to sense to pack up the day before you want to leave. This is particularly important if you intend to travel north from Gerlach and not south, since there’s nothing between Gerlach and Cedarville in terms of accommodation. And Cedarville has just one motel that’ll probably be full, so you’ll have to press on to Alturas.

If you plan on staying at a motel be sure to leave the playa before the early afternoon. If you don’t you’ll be driving at night along slow winding unfenced roads. Factor in the 2-3 hours it may take for you to leave the playa if you leave in the afternoon, also.

It’s also crucial to remember that you may be pretty exhausted after a hot and busy week on the playa. Don’t underestimate this. You don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel. Even if you’re just tired and not sleepy your reaction time is going to get worse, which could mean that critical split second between crashing into an animal on the road and not.

Having said all this, consider hanging out for a day or two after the night of the burn before leaving. Things can get a bit strange in the emptying city - a witchy vibe - but it can also be quite fun. And you also don’t have the rushed pressure of getting ready to leave immediately.

Off the playa:

Never forget that once you’re off the friendly, accepting, playa you’re back into reality. In particular, this means small towns and villages full of right-wing conservative Americans who tend to be violently hostile to weird-ass freaks who wear funny clothes or paint their faces. I’d strongly suggest cleaning up a bit, putting on reasonably conservative clothes etc. In fact I’d say it’s a really good idea to have one clean change of plain clothes tucked away into a plastic bag for the duration of the event. This ensures you’ll have clean clothes to wear when you get off the playa. Bring a baseball cap to cover your playa-matted or wackily-coloured hair and to help you blend in with the natives more.

This isn’t just me showing anti-American biases or something. This is real. In 1999 I was in Truckee, California, with some friends the day after the burn. And we were threatened by a very hefty and belligerent gentleman who disapproved of the sarong that my friend Mike was wearing. Luckily he didn’t assault us, but he came awfully close to punching me - he was literally red with fury. He also branded Mike a “sissy” in a fit of self-righteous homophobic rage.

This is a somewhat extreme reaction, and hopefully one nobody else will ever encounter. A more likely scenario was the elderly man in a 1965 Chrysler at the burger stop in Cedarville in 1998. He was staring at a blue body-painted woman as if she had tentacles coming out her ass or something. I was actually a bit concerned for the poor fellow’s health. It looked like his ancient ticker was about to give out any moment from the shock.

Cleaning the playa off your stuff.

Playa dust is really tenacious. The key is that it’s alkaline dust, and so you need to use mild acid to neutralize it. Add a bit of ordinary white vinegar to cleaning solutions when washing cars and stuff. A really great way to wash your clothes is to dump a cup of vinegar into the washing machine. Some people report using lemon juice to similar, albeit nicer-smelling, results.

Another useful trick we discovered this year is to get a spray bottle for a garden hose. You can buy bottles that screw onto hoses (Windex make one for their Windex Outdoor window-cleaning product) that you can fill with vinegar. Then, instead of spraying water on your car or your bike, you’ll be spraying a diluted vinegar mixture. Works really well.

Dealing with life.

Coming home is always a shock. The real world just doesn’t seem a happy place compared to Black Rock for many of us. Post-playa depression is a common reaction.

Giving yourself a couple days before heading back to work is probably a good thing. Hanging out with friends, sharing photos and memories, is good too. See if anyone is organizing decompression parties in your region - or organize one if nobody else is!

- Copyright © 1999-2002 NK Guy (tela @ tela.bc.ca)

All information is here for fun only. You assume responsibility for anything you do and don’t blame me if something turns out to be wrong. I assume no liability for your actions.

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