Scribe’s Guide to Playa Prep

Pub date August 2, 2011

PLAYA PREP This is a crazy time of year for burners, when they begin to realize just how overly ambitious their art projects actually are, when the August calendar seems to shrink as to-do lists grow, and when procrastination morphs into panic — all of it laced with a giddy, distracting excitement about the dusty adventures to come.

Don’t worry, fellow burners, Scribe is here to help. I’m way too busy right now to actually come help weld your art car or hot glue your costume (unless you’ve got stuff or skills that I may need, in which case we can maybe work something out) but after years of deep immersion in this culture, I do have a few tips and resources for you.



The most important thing to bring to the playa with you is the right attitude. It’s right up there with your ticket at the very top of the list. As I worked on this guide, I posed the question “What’s the most important thing you bring to the playa?” to online burner hives, and most of the answers I got back had something to do with attitude.

Whether you’re a nervous newbie or salty veteran, it’s important to leave your expectations at home and just be open to whatever experiences await you. Intention is everything out there, and if you try to always maintain an open mind, a loving heart, and a sense of humor, everything you need will just flow your way.

It isn’t always easy. When your project breaks, or the dust won’t stop blowing, or your lover squashes your heart, or some yahoo behaves in a way that strikes you as somehow un-Burning Man, it’s natural to let your anxieties creep up. But you’ve got to let it go, because it’s all going to be OK, it really is. When all else fails, just breathe.

It is the breaking through those difficult moments and coming out the other side — enduring through things that feel like they may break you — that makes Burning Man feel so transformative. It is a cauldron, and you may not come out in the same form you went it, but that’s part of why you go.



You’ll need a motorized vehicle to get to Burning Man — and art cars can be a fun way to get around when you’re there, a sort of surreal public transit system — but if you don’t have a good bicycle then you’re at a decided disadvantage in fully experiencing Black Rock City, the most bike-friendly city on the planet while it exists. And that’s never been more true than this year, when early reports indicate that the wet winter has left the playa packed solid and perfect for pedaling.

Form and function are equally important when it comes to your bike. It needs to be in good mechanical condition (and with enough tools and patch kits to keep it that way) and correctly sized to your body, ideally with a comfortable, upright position and basket for your stuff. And you also need to decorate it and make it unique, both because making art is the essence of Burning Man and so you can easily find it amid a sea of bikes. Form and function, they’re like two wheels rolling together.

Although the Borg, a.k.a. Black Rock City LLC, recommends that you bring a bike lock, I’ve personally never used one and never had a problem. Sure, bike thefts happen, but I believe they’re almost always crimes of opportunity or drunken mistakes involving nondescript bikes, not unique rides like mine that I could spot 100 yards away.

I’m convinced that half the people who think their bikes got stolen actually just lost them. The playa can be a very disorienting place, with art cars and other visible markers moving around — and even one’s own brain conspiring against locating one’s bike. So illuminate your bike well, ideally with something that sticks up high the air, and leave your lights on as you explore on foot.

Speaking of which: wear good, comfy shoes. Most costumes should stop at the ankle at Burning Man, particularly if you’re prowling the playa



In honor of the mad scramble for tickets after Burning Man sold out more than a month before the event for the first time in its 25-year history, I’m offering some thoughts on sneaking into the event. Given how many people could find themselves stuck with counterfeit tickets or otherwise unable to get in this year, it seems like something that any thorough guide should cover.

Now, before everyone jumps all over me, telling me that I’m endangering lives and undermining the spirit and the stability of the event, let me make clear the spirit in which I’m offering this advice. Just think of it like a hacker publicizing the security vulnerabilities of a beloved institution — hopefully the Borg will read this too and do what it can to either plug the holes or somehow take pity on the desperate souls stuck outside the city’s gates.

First of all, you gotta know what you’re getting yourself into. Gate crew takes this shit very seriously, thoroughly searching every car and trailer, and looking into hiding spots that you probably haven’t even thought of. Many of them take real pride in this, some thoroughly stomping on rolls of carpet that might contain a stowaway, potentially adding injury to your insult.

Here’s the worst part: It is official Burning Man policy that when stowaways are found, everyone in that vehicle gets his or her tickets torn up. And burner brass says it will beef up security this year, including more people at the gate and more people scanning the open playa with night-vision goggles and fast interceptor cars.

Every year, they catch about 30 people trying to sneak it. “We’re very confident that we catch all the stowaways,” Borg member Marian Goodell tells us. But we all know that can’t possibly be true, right? There are playa legends of a contortionist who puts herself in a packing bin and gets in every year, and I’ve met people who claim to have snuck in both at the gate and over the open playa.

So, if you gotta do it, my best advice is to find a confederate on the inside, such as someone on Gate crew who owes you or will take pity on you or a bribe from you. That’s how many coyotes do it at the US-Mexico border, and it could work here too. There aren’t any wristbands at Burning Man, so once you can weasel your way in amid the confusion at the gate, you’re in.

Skydivers also have a pretty good shot at getting in, even though they’re likely to be greeted on the ground by someone asking for their tickets. But, it’s a big city, and if you’ve got some skydiving expertise and you’re able to rapidly change directions during the final phase of your descent, you might just make it.

There are also ways to take advantage of human oversights, particularly during the early arrival period before the event begins. There are often openings in the gate briefly left unguarded in the early days, as we discovered last year after a trip to the reservoir. Or sometimes, after thoroughly searching the car, the person at the gate will forget to tear your ticket. And believe it or not, sometimes people on the inside end up with spare tickets for friends who couldn’t make it. Any untorn tickets can be spirited out by people making runs into nearby Gerlach for supplies.

But in closing, let me just reiterate that buying a ticket is part of the “radical self-reliance” principle that is central to the burner ethos, so do yourself and your community a favor and find a ticket, or accept that you may just have to sit this year out. Don’t worry, we’ll make more.



In preparing for Burning Man, it’s always helpful to remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which instructs us that we need to see to our basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid before we can even think about approaching the enlightenment at its pinnacle. And that begins with food and shelter.

Contrary to common misconceptions, you don’t need an RV or trailer on the playa — and it’s too late to get one at this point anyway. Frankly, you’ll be fine in a cheap pup tent as long as you place it under a sturdy shade structure, such as the 10-by-20-foot steel carports that are ubiquitous on the playa, or a cheaper shade structure with poles reinforced by PVC or something to help it from being flattened.

You may need to make adjustments during the course of the week, but jerry-rigging your shit is just part of the fun. Or if that’s not your cup of tea, more and more burners in recent years have been building their own yurts or turning to custom-made designs like the Playa Dome Shelters from Shelter Systems (

For food, just try to keep it simple, nutritious, and free of unnecessary waste. That means lots of simple snacks and easy meals, such as those you make ahead of time and reheat. There are also some good entrepreneurs out there that have perfected this approach, such as Gastronaut SF (, which makes meals that you boil in the bag, which even allows you to reuse that water.

And don’t forget to take your vitamins because playa life can really take it out of you. Dr. Cory’s Playa Packs ( are one of many good companies that understand what nutrients you’ll need and try to provide them.



Let’s face it, for all the talk about decommodification and intentional communities and all that hippie crap, you’re going to need stuff at Burning Man. Lots and lots of stuff. Luckily, San Francisco is a great place to get it, and here are some of my personal favorite spots to shop for my playa gear.

Mendels This art supply store has everything you need for your costumes and other Burning Man projects, and many things you didn’t know you needed. For example, when I was looking for a cool covering for my bike years ago, I found tubes of thick acrylic paint that dries hard (now known as 3-D Paint), which has lasted for years and drawn compliments the whole time.

1556 Haight, SF. (415) 621-1287,

Fabric Outlet Fake fun fur has become a staple item for Burning Man costumes and art projects, particularly as the styles and varieties of it have gotten better. And this place has the coolest fake furs in town, as well as a huge selection of other fabrics, patterns, and sewing kits.

2109 Mission, SF. (415) 552-4525,

Multikulti This is the best place in town to find a great selection of groovy sunglasses for just $6 each — and you’ll want a good selection of shades out there to go with your costumes — as well as a variety of other accessories and costumey geegaws to accent your Burning Man ensemble.

539 Valencia, SF. (415) 437-1718

Five and Diamond If there is a store that grew directly out of the feather-and-leather fashion aesthetic that has come to take center stage on the playa, this is it. From groovy utility belts (important when your costumes lack pockets) to elaborate leather outer wear to some of the coolest custom goggles that I’ve found (mine has a built-in light and both clear and shaded lenses), this place has great — if slightly pricey — stuff.

510 Valencia, SF. (415) 255-9747,

Held Over My favorite second-hand clothing store creates special racks of Burning Man clothes this time of year, but I always prefer to assemble my own outfits from their great selection of unique vintage and specialty clothes, including an entire room of tuxedos and other retro formal wear.

1543 Haight, SF. (415) 864-0818

Distractions The oldest walk-up Burning Man ticket outlet, Distractions knows just what burners need, offering a wide variety of playa-oriented clothing and accessories that you’ll need, from goggles to EL wire strips to pipes and other smoking paraphernalia.

1552 Haight, SF. (415) 252-8751

Cool Neon This Oakland-based company specializes in electro luminescent wire, the staple item for illumination on the playa (and whether you’re walking or on a bike, you will need to be lit-up out there). Cool Neon makes the rounds at many of the fairs and trunk shows, but you can also place orders for shipment or arrange pickups at its office at 1433 Mandela Parkway in Oakland.

Discount Builders Supply Rather than spending your hard-earned money at Home Depot or some other chain store in the burbs, this locally owned business has everything you need to construct and decorate your project, or see to your sundry personal needs. They’re also used to burners with strange requests, so they give good advice.

1695 Mission, SF. (415) 621-8511,



The project. It is the essence of Burning Man, whether it’s the fun fur and EL wire you’re putting on your bike, the bar or showers your camp is building, or some ridiculously ambitious artwork that you’re creating with a crew of hundreds. Black Rock City is a series of thousands of these individual projects, all of which are coming together right now. And if you’re looking for some help finishing (or starting) yours, here are some resources you can tap.

The Crucible The Crucible is a venerable nonprofit institution that offers a wide variety of arts and crafts classes and resources in a state-of-the-art facility in West Oakland, with many burners among its staff and clients. As the longtime host of the Fire Arts Festival, this place knows its stuff.

1270 17th St., Oakl.

CELLspace The Flaming Lotus Girls and many other key burner art collectives were born here, and his facility continues to provide the expertise and tools to bring Burning Man to life, year after year.

2050 Bryant, SF.

Techshop The new kid on the block, but one of the most technologically advanced, Techshop is a DIY workshop with amazing tools and experts on staff. Join its Aug. 15 EL wire workshop or other upcoming classes catering to burners.

926 Howard, SF.

American Steel Also known as Big Art Studios, this massive warehouse houses many of these biggest projects now bound for Burning Man. It may not have the structural support of places like the Crucible, but if you’re looking for knowledgeable burners to work through some problem, American Steel is brimming over with them.

1960 Mandela Parkway, Oakl.

Burning Man costume creations If it’s sewing or other costuming help that you need, there are lots of local designers who might lend a hand (see “What not to M.O.O.P.” in this guide). Or you can stop by these Aug. 11 or Aug. 25 sewing circle meetups listed at



Here are a few of the major installation artworks with Bay Area connections that I’m excited to see on the playa this year:

Charon by Peter Hudson Peter Hudson and his large volunteer crews have created some of the most dynamic art pieces in Burning Man history, zoetropes that use motion and strobe lights to animate the characters they create: the swimmers of Sisyphish, the divers of Deeper, the snake and monkeys of Homouroboros, and the man reaching for the golden apple of Tantalus. This year, Charon the boatman crosses the river Styx into Hades and, well, you just really gotta see what could be his best piece yet. As the artist says, “Charon asks them to reflect on their own mortality and ponder how to give and get the most from their brief time here on earth.”

Tympani Lambada by the Flaming Lotus Girls Combining fire, steel, light, and sound on the massive scale that we’ve come to expect from the Flaming Lotus Girls, Tympani Lambada simulates the structure of our inner ears, which control not just hearing but balance and perception. As always with this crew, this project promises to be space as occupy and interact with (usually with an unbelievable sense of awe) rather just a structure to see. And as they’ve been doing for many years (see “Angels of the Apocalypse,” 8/20/05), the dynamic crew built this creation right out at the Box Shop on Hunters Point (with an assist for American Steel, where some of its longest sections are being built).

Truth and Beauty by Marco Cochrane Following up last year’s amazing Blissdance, which is now on display on Treasure Island, this crew hoped to make an even larger female nude sculpture of the same model (55 feet this time), but their fundraising fell a little short so they couldn’t complete it. But even in the abbreviated form they’re bringing to the playa this year — just the torso from knee to shoulder, but well-anchored that it’s climbable — it should still be something to see.

Temple of Transition, by International Art Megacrew The Temple is always a special place at Burning Man (see “Burners in flux,” 8/31/10), and this year promises to be as spectacular as it is spiritual. The project is headed by a pair of builders known by their nationalities, Kiwi and Irish, and built mostly in Reno by a crew of committed volunteers from more than 20 countries. It’s centerpiece tower, Gratitude, is a towering 120-feet tall, surrounded by and connected to five smaller towers: Birth, Growth, Union, Death, and Decay.

Otic Oasis Lightning (Burning Man’s attorney) and friends (including named artists Gregg Fleishman and Melissa Barron) wanted the quietest spot on the playa for this 35-foot wooden pyramid of comfy lounging compartments, a remote spot where even the music from art cars couldn’t reach. Their answer: at the very back of the walk-in camping area, a spot only reachable on foot by people intending to go there. Finally, a quiet spot to chill out.




OK, I know that many of these events are music-related, and there are an untold number of quirky, weird things to do on the playa besides just rocking out to a DJ. But exploring what the hundreds of theme camps offer each year is part of the fun, and it’s too Herculean a task to sort through the voluminous information and offer you sound predictions.

But every year the music lovers among us compile their recommendations of the stops to hit that will be going off and filled with dancing fools, so I know those lists are valuable. And mine does include some other stuff as well, so just deal with it.

The future of Burning Man The 17 board members of The Burning Man Project, the new nonprofit entity being created to take over operations of Burning Man in coming years (see “State of the burn” in this guide), will be available to discuss the future of this culture. This is your chance to weigh in on what’s important to you and how the event should be governed into the future.

Everyday, 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m. at Everywhere Lane (near Center Camp)

Lee Coombs This British-born DJ has long been a great supporter of Burning Man art projects — and he always plays fun sets — so come check him as the playa’s best daytime dance party camp starts to work it out.

Tuesday, 5 p.m.-6 p.m., Distrikt (9&F)

Unicorn Stampede

The perverts from Kinky Salon love getting horny on the playa, and this time they’re getting literal as they dress as unicorns and stampede across the playa, spreading their joy and juices onto unsuspecting burners and ending up at the Walkout Woods art piece. What does all that mean? Bring a horn, leave your inhibitions, and come find out.

Wednesday, 7-9:30 p.m., gather at The Man

Shpongle OT’s regular Wednesday night White Party — which has included many epic performances over the years, and this year include big draws EOTO, Infected Mushroom (both doing live sets on two stages OT is setting up for live music this year) and Christopher Lawrence, at midnight, 1:30 am and 3 am respectively — welcomes the dawn with pysbient music innovators Shpongle, which is already generating lots of excitement.

Thursday, 5:45 am (sunrise set), Opulent Temple (10&B)

Deep End reunion It’s like family day at Distrikt as the core San Francisco-based DJs that helped launch the original Deep End day parties play successive one-hour sets, with Syd Gris followed by Tamo, Kramer, and then Clarkie. Buckle up, everyone, because this could get ugly.

Thursday, 2-6 p.m., Distrikt (9&F)

Cuddle Ocean Upping the ante on the stereotype of ravers heaped into cuddle puddles at Burning Man, some instigators from last year’s Temple of Flux crew are seeking to create a Cuddle Ocean of thousands of burners heaped all over each other in the deep playa. Come feel the love.

Thursday, 6-8 p.m., between the Man and the Temple

Bootie BRC Adrian, Mysterious D, and the rest of the popular Bootie SF music mashup crew will be throwing a dance party specially mixed for your on-playa pleasure — with actual words!

Thusday, 8 pm-???, Fandango (Esplanade&4)

Circle of Regional Effigies burn Regional events have become an important part of the Burning Man culture, and this year 23 of them will build wooden effigies in circle around The Man. And then, as tends to happen to our effigies, they will all burn — simultaneously!

Thursday, 9 p.m., around The Man

Critical Tits This women-only topless bike ride has been a playa tradition for many years, so cruise by to cheer them on and offer your encouragement for what is a very freeing experience for many of the participants. Besides, who doesn’t like tits?

Friday, 4-5 p.m., The Man

Space Cowboys Hoedown Legendary SF-based sound collective the Space Cowboys has a tradition of driving its mobile music vehicle the Unimog out to the “biggest, baddest art piece” on the playa for a big dance party every year, which art cars with speakers and radio receivers can also relay, create a fun circle of sound. And this year, the winner is…The Flaming Lotus Girls’ Tympani Lambada.

Friday night at Tympani Lambada

Distrikt Come ride the daytime dance party train to the end of the line with DJ Kramer spinning until someone drags him off the stage to get ready for the burn.

Saturday, 4-??? at Distrikt Camp (9&F)

Scumfrog Dutch-born DJ Scumfrog has been rocking the playa every year since he first camped with us at Opulent Temple in 2004, and as readers of my book know, he’s a Burning Man true believer who just loves this culture, so he always brings his A-game. This is the place to be as the sun rises on final full day of Black Rock City.

Sunday, 4 am-sunrise, Disorient (2&Esplanade)

Tribes of Burning Man signing Yours truly, Scribe, will be on stage leading a discussion of issues raised in my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. Study up by ordering a signed copy now from and join in the debate, or just come heckle me for this shameless plug.

Sunday 4 p.m., Center Camp Stage

Steven T. Jones, a.k.a. Scribe, is the Guardian’s city editor and the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, which grew out of a series of stories in the Guardian that ran from 2004 through 2010.