The First Timer's Guide to the Burning Man Festival

The First Timer’s Guide to the Burning Man Festival

Image credit: Bob Wick

Giant art installations, all-night parties, and about a week of camping in the desert, this is what I envision Burning Man is like. Truth be told, I know nothing about Burning Man except what other travelers have told me and what I’ve read online. So in this article, I’m going to share the typical expenses first time and aspiring burners like me should prepare for, so you can budget and prepare for the event ahead of time.

A Non-Commercial Culture, But You’ll Spend a LOT Just to Prepare for Event

Burning Man is famous for its gifting economy, where burners give food, drinks, and experiences such as free massages and hugs. Everything is given away or shared, no money will change hands.

But there are still costs involved. How can you share stuff if you didn’t buy them in the first place, right? Relying on the free food and drinks other burners have brought with them isn’t realistic and goes totally against the event’s manifesto of “radical self-reliance.”

So let’s talk costs. This list is made of two main categories: essentials and variable costs. Essentials include items you must pay for, whether you’re going with a group or on a tight budget, while variable costs include items that you can choose not to bring or spend on.

Keep in mind that you can spend or save as much as you want. This budget is merely a guide so feel free to adapt it for your desired burning man experience.

Essential Costs

These are essential items every Burner must bring if they are to survive a week on the playa.

1. Tickets

Tickets easily sell out, so sign-up on the official website and complete your Burner profile well before the announced selling dates.

Low-income tickets costs $180 plus tax, and are available for artists and creatives that meet the requirements set forth by event’s organizers. Regular tickets cost $425 to $1200 plus Nevada tax, which is about $72.

2. Water

Burning Man takes place in the Black Rock Desert, which gets extremely hot you won’t even feel yourself sweating sometimes. The weather is so humid there that you’ll have to drink twice your regular water consumption.

Organizers recommend you bring at least 1.5 gallons of water per day, per person. If you’re staying for the whole event, that’s 1.5 gallons per day for nine days or 13.5 gallons of water. It’s better if you bring more so you have water for bathing and washing. All in all, expect to spend about $30 for water.

3. Food

Coffee and ice are the only items you can purchase on the event, so you need to bring enough food to last you the whole week.

Meat, fish and other perishable items won’t last in the desert’s arid environment. If you plan on bringing fresh food, bring a big cooler and extra cash to buy lots of ice to keep them cool. Otherwise, stick to canned goods, snacks, bread, and some fruits.

Going with friends can help you save money on food. You can create a meal plan for your whole group and use it for your grocery list so you don’t end up buying unnecessary stuff. You can also join one of the many organized camps in Burning Man, so you can just pay a certain amount and they’ll include you in their meals, as long as you help out with the cooking and some chores. 

You can find a list of camps to join here.

Here’s a list of food and drinks along with the estimated costs:

  • Fresh groceries: $150 for a couple of days’ worth of fresh food
  • Big bag of trail mix: $10
  • Beef jerky: $15
  • Power bars: $20
  • Canned meat: $15
  • Canned beans: $15
  • Gatorade 18-pack: $10
  • Beer 12-pack: $15 to $20
  • Ice – $32 or $4 per bag

4. Shelter

You can camp in a tent, yurt, or bring an RV.

If you’re camping, buy heavy duty tent stakes or a 1-foot rebar to secure your tent. It can get windy on the playa, so your belongings could get blown away if it’s not secured properly.

While RVs can make your stay in Black Rock City (BRC) more comfortable, the maintenance and costs might not be worth it unless you’re with a group. People looking to rent an RV and have it delivered on the playa should confirm that their chosen provider is on Burning Man’s approved list of service providers.

burning man festival

Camping in Burning Man | Image credit: Duncan Rawlinson

Since there’s absolutely no housing amenities or infrastructure on BRC, your shelter expenses won’t be limited to sleeping gear. You have to consider where and how you’re going to cook and bathe, too. You’ll have to buy these for yourself, or split costs if you’re going with friends.

Camping Gear

  • Tent: $15+ for second hand tents or $50 to $100 for a new one
  • Heavy duty stakes or rebar: $10 to $20
  • Sleeping bag: $10 for second hand or $30+ for a new one
  • Portable shower: $10
  • Emergency toilet: $15-$20 (There are porta potties in designated areas but the lines can get long!)
  • Cooking stove: $80
  • Cooler: $30+

Budget conscious Burners can buy these stuff second hand via Craigslist, eBay, or on Facebook Groups.

5. Transportation

Expect flights and car rentals to be more expensive, as Burning Man coincides with Labor Day.

Burners who rent a car should prepare $100 or more on cleaning fees, or risk paying $500 extra on top of the lease fee for car damage. It also helps if you get rental insurance for the leased vehicle to cover damages a thorough car wash can’t repair. Remember, you’re driving in and out of a dusty dessert and staying there for one week with lots of camping gear in tow. Burners have reported before that it’s common for the air filter to get clogged, not to mention one week’s worth of hard to wash/vacuum dust will accumulate if you open the car in the dessert multiple times.

RV pumping or servicing is available on BRC for $50 to $60, depending on your trailer’s length, while extra tanks cost $30. Unless you own the RV, renting one for a week can cost upwards of $4000 plus cleaning, gas, and servicing fees. A veteran Burner suggests contacting people who’re selling their RVs on Craigslist, then offering to lease it for $1200 since it’s not sold yet.

Whatever vehicle you choose to bring, you’ll need to pay $80 for a vehicle pass.

Non-US Citizens who plan to rent a car or drive should get an International Driving Permit, well before they arrive in the United States. Otherwise, you won’t be able to lease a car.

Going with friends can be easier because you’ll split lots of expenses. Don’t expect this to be cheap, because the final cost will still depend on the kind of vehicle you’ll bring and how long you’ll drive. 

6. Survival Kit

Your total expenses may vary, especially if you already have some of these items.

  • Re-usable bottle and mug: $30 (Bring two bottles: one for water, one for gifted beverages you’ll receive when you visit one of the many bars on the playa)
  • Goggles to protect your eyes during wind storms: $10
  • Ear plugs: $3-$5
  • Hand sanitizer or wet wipes: $5-10
  • Garbage bags remember, the BRC has a strict Leave No Trace (LNT) rule: $12
  • Sunblock: $10
  • Extra gas for your car and stove: $30-$50
  • Power bank: $30-$50 (get one with solar panels)
  • Duct tape: $10
  • Electrolyte tablets so you don’t get dehydrated:
  • Head lamp so you can see in the dark: $10
  • Fire extinguisher (handy if you’re burning the art you made): $10
  • First aid kit: $20-$30
  • Dust mask: $16-$20
  • Bike: $50-$75 (buy second hand or cheap bikes)

Most of the prices here are based on Target’s online store, so don’t expect it to be 100% accurate when you go shopping. Bring extra headlamps, dusk masks, goggles, and sanitizers so you have extra stash in case you can’t find them.  

Variable Costs

These include things you may not have to buy because you already own them, or stuff you don’t feel necessary to bring or purchase.

1. Costumes

Cut costs by getting creative with the clothes and accessories you already have. If you have funds to spare, buy Halloween costumes on Target or have custom-made costumes done via Etsy or from online shops on niche or custom clothing.

burning man festival

What People Wear on Burning Man Image credit: Pak Shilla

Costume Cost Ideas:

  • Butterfly wings: $42
  • Jewelry and Accessories: $30 to $75
  • Unicorn leggings: $96
  • Mermaid Skirt: $40
  • Goth corsets: $25 to $150

2. Toys and Camp Décor

These include stuff for your theme camp or tent that you can bring from your home, buy second hand, or get from a thrift store.

  • Glow sticks:$10
  • Solar lights: $10-$20
  • Shade for your tent: $30

Radical Inclusion: As Expensive or as Frugal as You Want to Be

Radical inclusion is one of Burning Man’s main principles. The community will accept whoever you are and however you present yourself, which means you don’t have to worry about spending a ton of money to enjoy the event. You’ll be fine as long as you have your survival necessities.    

Are you planning to attend Burning Man next year? I’d love to trade notes on packing and stuff to expect. See you on the playa.

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