Every year an ad hoc city rises from the desert plains near Reno, Nevada. The Black Rock City is the temporary confluence of ideas, creativity, social engineering and good times known as Burning Man. It only takes one visit to get hooked on the 10-day built Utopia, and many return year after year. Celebrated every summer since 1986, Burning Man is an anarchic camp-out gathering like no other and veterans will tell you that a bit of preparation in several key areas will help participants navigate the madness.
Burning Man typically sells out soon after tickets go on sale in January/February of each year. Be prepared to purchase them online at that time; re-selling is frowned upon by the burner community so it may be your only chance. That said, tickets will pass hands within the community itself via online forums and chat groups.
Reno has the nearest airport for travel to Black Rock City; if you fly private, there is a small on-site landing strip. You can also take a shuttle from both Reno and San Francisco. If you are part of or join a camp online before going, you'll likely find carpool buddies or RV travel companions to make the journey easier and more enjoyable.
The main drags of Black Rock City or the Playa, as it's known, are huge. But cars are not permitted, except to arrive at camp and leave. That makes a bicycle invaluable for getting between the various camps, art installations and community areas. Bring your own and personalize it as many do to wild effect. "Art" cars are art projects on wheels and a tradition at the festival. They may only be driven on the Playa if licensed in advance by the Department of Mutant Vehicles.
Veteran Burners know that the Playa is full of chalky alkaline dust that sticks to everything and can irritate the eyes and respiratory systems. Add a good-fitting pair of goggles, a pack of wet wipes, and a few disposable dust masks or scarves on your packing list for protection when the wind whips up dirt devils. Likewise, take care of any electronics or camera gear you're taking with you by packing it is a properly sealed casing.
Black Rock City is blazing hot during the day and quite cold after dark; long underwear, a down vest, and knit cap will be useful when the temperature plummets and protective sun gear items are a must during daylight hours. You may want to bring costume items as well—dressing up in one of the joys of Burning Man and a brilliant conversation-starter.
The community ethos of Burning Man requires people to look out for each other. Stuff always happens, so carrying a good first aid kit can be a boon for everyone. Make sure yours has naloxone for overdoses, an antihistamine for allergic reactions, sunburn treatments, analgesics, an antibiotic ointment, and a range of different sized bandages. Check your own prescription drugs before leaving to make sure you have enough for the full 10 days or so.
Not only is light a constant source of inspiration at Burning Man—the event culminates in a massive bonfire after all—but it's essential for keeping everyone safe in the infra-structure-free zone that is Black Rock City. Bring charged-up camp lanterns, solar fairy lights for the tent, sturdier construction lights, and a generator if you're planning an event or night time workshop. You might also want to consider smaller items that illuminate, such as camping headlamps, glow sticks, glow in the dark clothing and accessories. You'll find it all helps avoid collisions, trips and falls.
Burning Man is basically a camping experience so pack accordingly. If you're going as part of an existing camp, someone will likely organize lists of food supplies and gear for you to bring to support a communal kitchen. If not, there are a number of online resources that list necessities. Some Burners love to cook so it shouldn't be hard to scrounge a great meal on the Playa. Just plan on returning the favor. Brings lots of bottled water, electrolyte drinks such as Gatorade or Pedialyte, and healthy snack-ables such as granola bars or dried fruit.
An important tenet of the Burning Man ethos is to leave the site as it was before the hordes of Burners arrived in the desert. Although there will be designated dumpsites, plan to take most of your trash with you on departure if possible. At the very least join one of the ad hoc cleanup teams before leaving and spend an hour or two pickings up garbage and packing up gear. Once home, be sure to wash the pervasive white alkaline dust off the Playa clothes, boots and gear, as it'll get harder the longer you wait.
There are no day passes for Burning Man. While voyeurism is not necessarily frowned upon, there is an expectation that visitors will participate in making each Utopian festival memorable. That means getting out of your camp and chatting with people, harnessing creativity for expression and sharing what you've got, both materially and personally. Remember, Burning Man is about building community. Stay in touch with new friends once it's over, especially if you're planning to return.