All you need to know about Burning Man

Published June 8th, 2015

A city in the desert. A culture of possibility. A network of dreamers and doers. The infamous Burning Man arts, culture and music festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert is an underground event turned cult phenom. Student Flights Swanston Street Manager Jen Wilson was a first-time 'Birgin' (Burning Man virgin) last year and has the inside guide on this epic event.

Jen (right) with friend at Burning Man 2014.


  At Burning Man 2014, I was a Birgin, but it was probably the most amazing cherry-popping experience one could ever wish for. I still have the playa dust to prove it.   Before I left, I asked experienced Burners what to expect, and they always said they couldn’t really describe it. Which annoyed me. And now, to try and avoid me being a dirty, stinking hypocrite (rather than just a dirty, stinky Burning Man hippie), I will attempt to describe Burning Man to you.   Firstly, forget your mates. Forget what you came there to do. Forget what you thought you would think. Just remember your water. With this helpful little bag of liquid survival, I said goodbye to my travelling companions and went to explore the incredible Black Rock City (BRC) solo.  

  The whole experience technically goes for eight days, however Burners often stay many days before and/or after to soak in as much atmosphere as they can before reentering the 'default world'. This re-entry is no mean feat either; after being exposed to a whole new side of humanity that you never knew existed, your perceptions of the world do kinda get turned upside down.     From an aerial view, Burning Man appears like a giant rainbow, with row after row of pseudo-city life representing the different strands of colour and the looming main stage effigy the pot of gold at the very middle. At ground level, the campsites are a neverending source of entertainment and wonderment. Just doors away from me, one camp had set up their own foam party and on my other side,  DJ Carl Cox’s camp had their own stage (featuring Major Lazer, among others) and a double-decker bus turned jumping castle art car.     At Burning Man, you either find a themed camp or create your own. Of course, this isn’t compulsory but it’s much more fun and fits right in with the 10 Principles of Burning Man. The bigger the camp, the higher the participation fee.   Beyond a simple theme, camps can also build their own mutant vehicle or art car, the latter often doubling as a moving stage. As Black Rock City is actually its own city, these cars require registration just like the real world. Camps can set up their own stages as well, and most will have a bar serving free alcohol for anyone with a cup.     Which brings me to my next point: there is no money at Burning Man. With the exception of ice and coffee, there is literally no money exchanging hands anywhere at the event. Everyone contributes in their own way ('Gifting': Principle #2) and it is the ultimate demonstration of 'Communal Effort' (Principle #6). By the end of the event, I was weighed down by countless trinkets and presents, many of which were self-branded BM merch (as the event supplies nothing, not even a wristband).     Each day I floated between campsite and stage, travelling by foot, art car and bicycle (when someone would lend me one – it’s hard to cram such a thing into a hire car!), and by night, I marvelled at the kaleidoscope of colours illuminating the Nevada desert (powered completely by the community). A good tip: bring LEDs to light yourself in the darkness (and look awesome) so you don’t get mowed over by an art car or distracted bike rider.     As the days burn on, what little inhibition is left in the 80,000-strong attendees usually dissolves and you start to question why you wear clothes at all. Everyone accepts you for who you want to be and it is with wonder and respect – not confusion and negativity – that 'different' is received.     Burning Man is not for everyone. Even within my own circle of friends there were so many different views and experiences, which were at times overwhelming. Personally, I like to think it gives an important and incredibly engaging perspective to my world and makes me delve deeper into who I am and why I do what I do. If you are ready to take this leap of self-discovery and empowerment, then maybe your heart is burning for Black Rock City.  


Jennifer Wilson

Travel made me who I am today. After living in London and St Maarten in the Caribbean, and backpacking through the Americas, Europe and Asia, I have experienced amazing new cultures and met such interesting people. But there is still so much more out there to see!