Burning Man on a budget. Without diluting the experience

Apart from booking time off work and other obligations (a week for the event, plus a few extra days for decompression) and perhaps finding someone to go with, the biggest, the main (and often the only) reason preventing someone from going is – surprise, surprise – money.

It is widely perceived as an activity that just isn’t affordable. This is only partially true, as it largely depends on where you’re coming from. The Californians and those from the nearby areas (just about 50%, according to its official 2014 Census) are quite lucky to not have to deal with the additional expense of crossing an ocean and a continent like us Londoners. But that’s not unusual for any festival: the largest percentage of attendees are always the locals.

The last time I went I was also on a tight budget, so I know for a fact that you can have the time of your life without having to spend a fortune.

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I think the experience is complete if one participates fully. What I mean by this is that no one should go to just be a tourist there, or go hoping to be entertained by others, to take great photos and say that they’ve attended. Instead, everyone should, ideally, engage in it and contribute to it in their own way.

Having said that, I would also love to contribute more by way of art or mutant vehicles, but I have no way of creating it and transporting it from London in time and on budget. Sorry I can’t help you with advice on how to do large art installations for the Burn on budget, except to direct you to some )'( groups (see the concluding section of this post, below). I am thinking of a small project that would make an impact and be easy to pack and I have two good ideas so far, so I’m working on that.

Here I should add that, even though the art and the mutant vehicles are one of the main reasons to go and see how creative, expressive and experimental the festival is, and on what scale, I think the person-to-person experiences and the communal vibe there are unsurpassed, and something I’m looking forward to the most. And for that, you just need to be there, and be completely open to it!

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Even if you haven’t been closely following, I am quite certain that you have probably seen/heard/read about the luxury packaged deals that take care of all the preparatory and logistical ‘nightmares’ for you, for a price. These are packages that include everything that you need to get and spend a week there, such as lodging (usually an RV, but there are full camp setups offered as well), bikes, costumes, drinking and eating, hygiene and grooming setups (there is no water/ sanitation infrastructure there), and the waste disposal at the end (all burners are personally responsible for disposing of their rubbish). It seems that everyone would grab this opportunity if they were able to afford it. However, I think that this takes away from the experience.. What do you think? Chime in the comments below if you’ve had the experience or have considered it. 

So far, I have the event ticket and a flight from London to Toronto. From this point onward, I still need:

  • A return flight from Toronto to SFO/Reno (attending TIFF right after) — They’re about $375 right now.
  • ride from the airport to Black Rock City and back — The last time I rented a car from Vegas. I could have done without, but I was dealing with a last-minute change of plans, and didn’t have enough time to find a suitable ride-share.
    This year, I plan to, hopefully, pool/ ride-share with some other burners. This entails splitting some expenses such as gas and a cleaning fee in the end (I’m thinking $100?). There’s a Burner Express, and as great as the idea is, and finally available after all these years, the prices are not at all affordable: $250 return from San Francisco! (with a bike and a shopping stop)
  • Possibly a buffer day/ overnight before the gates open or before the flight back — in San Francisco this is about $25 at a hostel, in Reno, I would imagine a bit more: about $50. Or I may pay a fleeting visit to some friends in California or Nevada..
  • Shelter on the grounds (a tent..), although I don’t need or want a single tent. The last time I was lucky to have the guy I sold my spare ticket to bring a large tent with three compartments (‘rooms’) where I had my own space. I will try to find someone on Burning Man forums to share with.
  • A used bike —  The last time I was also lucky to find a free communal bike on my very first morning out in the Playa. The seat was uncomfortable, so I wrapped and cello-taped a towel to it. I didn’t have a lock and, even so, I didn’t want to lock it because it wasn’t, technically, mine, and I believed that anyone was entitled to borrow it as well, just as I have. But due to this ‘personalised’ seat detail, I suppose everyone assumed it was owned by someone, so no one ever touched it, although it was out on the Playa a lot while I was at events or partying. How amazing is that?
    I can, in theory, borrow a bike from a friend in Nevada, but that’s not quite fair as that bike would be subjected to Playa sand and dust for a week.
    So, as an alternative, I may either rely on my luck again to find a free communal bike, or buy a used bike on the way there and then donate it or re-sell after. I am assuming a used bike in Gerlach can be bought for about $50, with a promise to donate it back, which, technically, means renting.
    Having a bike is absolutely crucial: 1) it maximises your time as there’s so much to see and do, it’s also immensely more enjoyable than hoofing it, and 2) it was, in fact, the bicycle at my 2011 Burn which got me cycling full-time!
  • Water (for drinking and showering) and food (see below).

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THE GEAR

This post will also serve as a packing list.

  • Costumes – I have enough cosplay wigs and party clothes, some I’ll bring from London, some waiting for me in Toronto, to not have to budget for that as well.
    Reuse, repurpose and borrow to the max. In fact, a whole new wardrobe 1) might look a bit silly there as it is a very much DIY-oriented community and 2) the effect of the Playa dust is immediate, after which everything looks washed out.
  • Sunglasses and goggles – essentially for dust storms, oh, and to look like you fit the part. Check. There area a lot of ‘specialty’ steampunk goggles on sale, but regular ski goggles will do.
  • Bike lights and lock – I’m bringing the ones I already have, which simultaneously sorts out the issue of being illuminated at night. If you need to purchase some, you can get away with the very basics at $15-20 for both the lights and the lock — no need to look like a xmas tree, and no need for a heavy, expensive u-lock, just something that says ‘this bike is in use’.
  • Headlight/ flashlight – for roaming around and for bathroom trips as well;
  • Sleeping bag – the desert gets numbingly cold at night, I am not exaggerating! Speaking of which, I will also need to pack some warmer gear. The last time, I thought I was well prepared for nighttime temperatures, however I was still very cold and tended to linger around bonfires. This is my major inconvenience (having to pack winter gear in August and being subjected to such temperature extremes..)
  • Hammock – for daytime chilling, although not a necessity as there was a camp I really liked, which consisted entirely of hung hammocks, and if you got there early or waited a bit, you could always plop into one.
  • Hydration pack – It’s a desert, and I remember being very thirsty all throughout that week even though I drank no alcohol or coffee at all.
  • Other essentials: Sleeping mask, earplugs, baby wipes/ wet towels (many!), gloves (this year I’ll take some because my hands got too cracked), bathroom tissue (don’t forget) and big rubbish bags.

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WATER AND FOOD

As you may already know, nothing but ice and coffee can be bought or sold at Black Rock City. That means that all who come have to bring their own food and drinks, or (risky, a bit greedy but an apt social experiment) rely on other people’s generosity.

The last time, I took exactly the following:

  • About 18 gallons of water (some of it for drinking, some for showering; 2 per day plus a bit ‘just in case’)
  • a big box of apples (a couple of kilos, I don’t remember)
  • a big box of bananas (a couple of kilos)
  • 7 2L fruit juices (one a day)

This shopping ‘spree’ took place at one of the supermarkets in northern Nevada, and it cost me about $75.

I did just fine, don’t worry, better than fine. I drank most of the liquids I’d brought, the rest I used for showering, and still had 2 gallons to spare in the end. Due to the heat, I didn’t have much appetite, and I remember having leftover apples. I did meet a guy who I shared some delicious dehydrated mangoes and pineapples with, so that’d be a good snack idea for this year. When I was in the Amazon a few summers ago, I relied a lot on dehydrated bananas because they’re natural, nourishing, cheap, and they pack really light (8 whole, dehydrated bananas are the size of a deck of cards!) They were easy to find in any shop in Brazil, but I remember Whole Foods in the US selling them, so I may look them up.

I understand that this is not ideal: unless you’re a fruitarian and a raw vegan, you will probably find it very very odd for someone to choose to subsist on bananas and apples for a week. To me, that’s not a usual week, but it also isn’t that much of an odd week. I did, however, crave greens and one of the first things I did when I got out of BRC was stop at a market and buy heaps of kale, romaine, cucumber and tomatoes.

So, this time around, I could factor in a small cooler for stocking veggies, but I probably won’t bother with it because I can easily go a week without and then compensate when I get back to civilisation. This isn’t only about budgeting, it’s about simplifying. Although there are some burners who prepare and cook elaborate meals, most go the simple route: trail mixes, sandwiches, snacks and the like.

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COMING FULLY PREPARED VS. SHARING

This is by far one of my favourite arguments/ topics of discussion regarding prep for this event. In short, I believe that being fully prepared is not the way to go.

Although being (fully) prepared is important, it makes you comfortable. Have the basics (such as water and a warm jacket), but apart from that, you’d want to come just barely organised and, most importantly, ready for the full immersion. No one there has the responsibility to sort you out. But they’ll want to. I have seldom encountered such selfless, open-handed gifting elsewhere.

When you’re fully prepared, you’re independent. You’re an island, you don’t need anything or anyone. In that case, you may choose to offer something to someone in an exchange. This exchange is what the Burn community strives on. It’s not to be expected, but it’s there, and it’s good to see it exercised. This is also one of the biggest issues I have with their ‘radical self-reliance‘ principle. Instead, radically fully participate in the community and connections you build around you.

Also, the last time I was stunned to see how over-prepared and overstocked everyone was. Now that I think of it, it’s not unusual for americans to be so excessive, but people were either slightly freaking out to be in the middle of nowhere, so they stockpiled just in case, or, more likely, they forgot to factor in that they’ll be too busy running around, not spending time in their camp, instead enjoying the generous hospitality and sharing with others! I know now to factor that in when planning.

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GOING WITH FRIENDS VS. ALONE

An off-shoot topic is whether one should go alone to these things. Even though I love travelling with other people, I don’t do it as often, or as readily. There’s a number of reasons for this which I won’t get into here. Why I like travelling solo is because I am more free and open to accepting company. Sharing the experience with friends or someone close is unsurpassed. In some cases, however, friends are a buffer: you have each other and that’s enough; you don’t get out of your way to meet other people.

Then again, going with friends means you can share some expenses and prep.

But if you have the ticket, the will and the time, but no one to go with, try to get in touch with other individuals through regional )'( groups, ePlaya, Couchsurfers, MeetUp, and other related communities.

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Virgin? Read my Burning Man 101 post.

Environmentalist? See if I think it’s as sustainable as they say.

Still think it’s unaffordable? Is it worth it? I’ve addressed that point as well.

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