- I have been attending Burning Man for five years and this year will be my sixth time at the event.
- Although it often gets labeled as a festival for young influencers, Burning Man is better described as an event or a temporary city for people of all ages.
- Thousands of people attend Nevada-based event every year and it’s filled with amazing interactive art pieces, music, and friendly people.
- Sometimes Burning Man can be a lonely experience and it can be expensive and stressful to prepare for, but the people there are some of the best ones I’ve ever met.
- Every time I leave, I look forward to coming back.
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The first time I decided to go to Burning Man, the annual gathering on a dried lake bed outside of Reno, Nevada, I didn’t put much thought into it at all. From what I had heard, it was basically camping and partying in the desert.
Now as someone who is attending her sixth Burn, I know it’s so much more than just a party. What I thought was going to be a one-time thing has turned into a yearly pilgrimage back to a place that changed my life.
For me, Burning Man isn’t just something I do for a week – it’s part of who I am. Here’s what Burning Man is really like, according to someone who goes every year.
First thing’s first, Burning Man isn’t a festival.
Coachella is a festival. Ultra is a festival. Tomorrowland is a festival. Burning Man is a full-on event.
More specifically, it’s a “temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance,” according to the Burning Man organization’s website – which is a little long-winded, so you can see why some people resort to simply saying “festival.”
But the term “festival” implies this is a show put on by one group to be enjoyed by another, and this is not the case.
At the Burn (as it’s oftentimes called), everyone is expected to participate. Participation is one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man, a set of guidelines created by co-founder Larry Harvey that reflect the heart of the event.
Whether it’s by volunteering at a theme camp, making some kind of art, or sharing a gift (tangible or not), Burning Man suggests many ways people can take part.
It’s not just young people who Burn — people of all ages go to Burning Man.
When I started bringing my mother to Burning Man, one of her biggest concerns was that she’d be the oldest person there. She’d likely seen too many photos of 20-something influencers and young tech bros posing in the desert.
But the reality is that people of all ages go to Burning Man, whether it’s someone who is in their 80s or toddlers who are just learning how to walk – that’s part of radical inclusion, another Principle of the Burn.
It’s easy to think only Instagram models and celebrities go to Black Rock City, but this place doesn’t exist because of them. It’s built by hard-working people, quite a number of whom have been attending well before social media existed.
People of all ages make valuable contributions to the city (I contributed and helped build during my first year when I was 25), so here, age really is just a number.
There’s no currency at the Burn (unless you purchase ice or coffee for a small fee). Everything happens on a gifting system.
It’s a myth that you barter at Burning Man and must always have something to trade in order to receive something. As an attendee, you are given the responsibility of bringing a gift to share with people.
This gift can be a performance you put on, an art structure you help build, a snack or meal, or a takeaway item like a bandana or chapstick holder. It can be big or small, and no one is going to ask you for it – it’s a gift, so it’s yours to give.
The entirety of Burning Man operates because everyone comes together with their gifts, be it food, entertainment, art or something else. That’s what makes it work.
Black Rock City — the temporary metropolis where the event takes place — has the types of things you’d find in any other city. Sometimes, they’re just a little … weirder.
Like many places, Black Rock City has a post office, champagne bar, the DMV, smoothie bars, and diners. They just do things a bit differently.
The city’s DMV is actually a Department of Mutant Vehicles where colossal, light-up art cars register to drive through the desert. And you’ll likely lounge on dusty bean-bag chairs instead of chrome seats while sipping on your smoothie – but that’s part of the city’s charm.
Even if you explore for days, you still couldn’t see everything that Black Rock City has to offer.
When you arrive at Burning Man, the Greeters at the gate hand you a book of the week’s activities and a map of camps throughout the city.
But not all of the things to do and camps to visit make it into the book – oftentimes you can just wander around desert areas and city streets to find new experiences.
Black Rock City has sections called the Playa and Deep Playa, which are the open areas of desert where a lot of the art rests and people can wander around freely.
In these places, however, there is no camping. Camps and individuals set up their tents, RVs and other shelters in the city itself which consists of actual streets laid out by the Department of Public Works (DPW) well before anyone arrives for the event.
As much as I feel the pull to go out and wander in the vast open desert to see what I might find, I often prefer wandering the city streets to stumble upon, well, just about anything.
I’ve had tea in a Moroccan-style tent, used a laser gun to shoot a bunch of rubber duckies, swung on a skateboard hanging from a forklift, and played pinball in the back of a bar. One year, I even came across a pink school bus that was converted to a ball pit.
It’s so enjoyable to see what you might find when you’re not looking for anything in particular.
The art you see at Burning Man will also forever remain in your memories.
Personally, the art is why I keep going back – and life-changing barely begins to describe it.
You’ll find structures that are larger-than-life (and climbable at your own risk, of course) or pieces that require you to come together and work with other people to make it operate.
Every year, I am amazed not only at what people can create in such a short amount of time, but also what they can imagine.
I’ve seen all sorts of impressive pieces of art, like an adorable giant robot holding a flower, a rainbow you can actually walk on, and even giant glowing mushrooms that pulse when you get near them.
And yes, the parties at Burning Man are really epic, but it’s hardly the only thing you’ll find there.
Sure, there are “Weekend Warriors” who just go to the Burn to party for 72 hours before heading home. But for people like myself who stay for the whole week – or even arrive early and stay late – the Burn is a marathon, not a sprint.
And there’s so much more to do than just dance – if you just wander around the festival you’ll find art workshops, fire performances, spoken word, community discussions, freshly made food, and live music.
In fact, one of my fondest memories of Burning Man ever was rather tame and has nothing to do with partying. It was watching the Black Rock Philharmonic play “Por Una Cabeza” at sunset. I still remember the tears welling in my eyes as I listened to the live music and watched the stunning Nevada sunset – it was some of the most beautiful few minutes of my life.
That said, there is rarely a quiet moment at the Burn, although you might find some peace just after sunrise.
Although it’s not strictly about partying all the time, you’ll likely always hear some kind of music playing in the distance.
Electronic music is big at the Burn, but if you hunt you can find some other great stuff as well – I personally love listening to live country music from the Front-Porch art car, which is a replica of a porch you might see on a Southern home in the US.
But there are some peaceful moments at the Burn and they usually happen after sunrise. Around this time, people who have chosen to stay out all night start to wander around looking for camps serving food or head back to their own camp to sleep. For others, it’s about the time when they start their day.
Aside from that, the only other time Burning Man gets quiet is when the Temple burns.
Many people know about the Man – the effigy after which the whole event is named -burn on Saturday, but fewer people realize the yin to this yang is the Temple burn.
The Temple is a structure where Burners head to let go of things, whether it’s pain from a lost friend or family member, a breakup with a partner, or the death of a pet.
Although the architecture of the Temple occasionally reflects structures of various religions, it is not associated with any specific system of beliefs.
That said, going to the Temple is a spiritual experience for many, giving them the chance to release pain in their lives. People typically leave mementos behind so they can burn, too.
Last year, for example, I brought a check I received from my grandfather’s estate after his death, and leaving it there helped me heal from the pain of not playing a bigger role in his life.
Even though it’s filled with people, the experience can feel quite isolating.
The city is a 7-square-mile patch filled with around 70,000 people – but it can still feel incredibly lonely.
Truth be told, I’ve had great Burns and not-so-great ones. Usually, the thing that makes a Burn less-than-stellar is when I feel a sense of loneliness. I know it seems odd that in a city of tens of thousands of people you might feel lonely, but it happens.
Quite honestly, I think a big part of the problem is the wide-spread idea that Burning Man is a non-stop party. When you’re not having “the best time ever” then suddenly you feel like you’re Burning wrong and you’re the only one who’s not enjoying themselves.
I always have to remind myself that there will be ups and downs throughout the week and that’s OK. It is pretty much guaranteed I will cry at least once during every Burn, whether it’s due to sadness, hunger, or a sense of helplessness, and it’s easy to feel like I’m alone in it all.
When I start to feel a sense of loneliness, I go out and just try to have a conversation with anyone, because the people at Burning Man are truly some of the best you’ll ever encounter.
Most people at Burning Man are eager to connect with others. They want to know who you are, what makes you happy, and what passions you have. And when you share a little bit of who you are with someone, they won’t hesitate to express how grateful they feel.
In general, I think people are looking out for each other at Burning Man and I have had many experiences that have helped me connect with total strangers.
One year on the night the Man burned, I wandered around alone for a bit, feeling pretty despondent about leaving the next day. Then, a stranger asked me how I was doing and we ended up sitting down and talking about all of our experiences from the past seven days.
Honestly, that genuine interaction with a stranger turned a Burn that wasn’t particularly great into a really wonderful one that ended on a high note. A Burner friend once told me that going to the Burn restores his faith in humanity, and I have to agree.
Burning Man is heaps of fun — that’s why I’m going back for year six. That said, it’s also very challenging to prepare for.
From the cost (tickets alone can cost over $1,000) to preparing for desert weather, the Burn causes me almost as much stress as it does joy.
But I must admit, the hard work that goes into planning the trip to the Burn makes it all the more rewarding and worth every bit of frustration.
I’ve gone into it multiple years thinking, “This will be the last one for a while,” but when I leave all I can think about is when I’ll get to go back.