How Burning Man Works

By: Julia Layton  | 
Burning man
At the end of the week, the Man (seen here) goes up in flames, but for many Burners, the social experiment continues year-round. Wikimedia Commons/(CC BY-ND 2.0)

Each summer, in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, a city is born. And each year, about a week later, it disappears. And after a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that city, better known as Burning Man, is back. And Burners, as attendees are called, couldn't be more excited.

Black Rock City first appeared in 1991. Now, thousands are dedicated followers to the social movement Burning Man has come to signify. Others are curious first-timers, testing their limits. Most, though, are just "regular" folks with "regular" jobs and "regular" lives who, for a week out of the year, escape all that and plunge into an entirely different world, where money is nothing, art is everywhere and absolutely everyone is welcome.

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It's one of Burning Man's 10 principles: radical inclusion. Founded mainly by Larry Harvey and Jerry James in 1986, the first iteration of Burning Man included less than 20 friends who built an 8-foot-tall (2.4-meter) man out of scrap wood and then lit it on fire on San Francisco's Baker Beach. Others were drawn to the flames. The rest, as they say, is history.

To call Burning Man a party would be misleading. Yes, the party runs 24/7 for a week. But for the movement's followers, those who get involved in running the community, what it is, and has been from the start, Burning Man is a social experiment.

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The Evolution of Burning Man

Burning Man
The Monumental Mammoth recycled metal sculpture was installed on the Playa at Burning Man 2019. Burning Man

What began in 1986 as artful effigy among friends is now an annual escape from daily life for tens of thousands of people. Black Rock City, Nevada, where Burning Man is held, has a population of, well, zero, throughout the year. But it swells in late August when Burners flock there to build the "temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance," according to the Burning Man website.

For that first fire held on Baker Beach in 1986, Burning Man was small, just about 35 people attended and the Man was only about 8 feet (2.4 meters) tall. But fast forward to 1990 and San Francisco officials were concerned about the size of effigy (he was about 40 feet [12 meters] tall) and the Golden Gate Park Police (GGNRA) forbade the fire ceremony. So the decision was made to move the burning of the Man about 350 miles (560 kilometers) northeast, to Black Rock Desert, which became the location for Burning Man in 1991. It's remained there ever since.

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And every year attendance has grown. In 1991, about 250 Burners descended on Black Rock Desert to live; by 2001 that number had soared to more than 25,000. And the number of Burners wasn't the only thing growing. The size of the Man also got bigger. A lot bigger. By 2001 he was a massive 70 feet (21.3 meters) tall.

Now more than 20 years later, around 80,000 Burners are expected to attend Burning Man 2022: Waking Dreams. That's the theme of the weeklong community (Burning Man frowns on being called a festival) in a place that looks and feels very little like any other 21st-century city. Burners will explore the "transformative power of dreams, both literal and figurative, and celebrate the dreamers."

The week always ends with the burning of the Man, who as we've mentioned, has grown larger over the years. And while that symbolic culmination is definitely the main event, a kind of spiritual catharsis for many Burners, the gathering is intended to be more than an effigy.

It is, for many who attend and certainly for founder Larry Harvey, a lifestyle choice. Ideally that lifestyle at the very least trickles, but preferably thunders, into the other 51 weeks of the year, transforming "regular" life into something considered more meaningful than consumerism and ladder-climbing. Ideally, what happens in Black Rock City doesn't stay in Black Rock City at all.

And the city itself is something to behold — proof, to many that the Burning Man lifestyle can work in a very real way.

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Black Rock City

Black Rock City
Black Rock City has a population of zero, until Burning Man, when it swells to more than 80,000. Burning Man

Black Rock City springs up and then disappears like a mirage — at least for those who only stay the week. For the volunteers who build, run and finally remove any trace of it, Black Rock is a study in city planning for the common good.

Black Rock City isn't a camp site. It's a massive designed town with tens of thousands of inhabitants, all of whom arrive to find planned neighborhoods where they build their temporary homes. Burners have access to an ice store, a recycling center, medical and emergency services, sanitation station and even a fuel supply, all arranged around the Man.

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The city has laws, if only a few. Cars cannot drive on the inhabited grounds of the Playa, a desert basin, unless authorized by the city, because Burning Man is a crowded event; and there can be no fires directly on the ground, which would leave burn scars and defy one of the Burning Man's core principles: Leave no trace.

There are 10 such principles, made official by Larry Harvey in 2004. They set the stage for the experimental society that is Burning Man, a community that can feel something like a very long, unrehearsed piece of performance art.

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The Art and Self Expression of Burning Man

Burning Man
Art installations on the Playa are massive and awe-inspiring. Burning Man

On the Playa, almost anything goes. Self-expression, in any form that doesn't go against Burning Man's 10 principles (see sidebar), is a good unto itself and may include creation or destruction, drugs, sex or nudity, improvised or lovingly planned performance, or large-scale sculpture hauled hundreds or thousands of miles on a truck bed. People build such things for the occasion alone.

The 10 principles impose few limits. They're a lot about removing limits, in fact — removing limits and encouraging responsibility — for one's world, one's neighbors and oneself.

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In this limitless community, there is no such thing as going too far. Walking around the Playa, a Burner might see anything — like a massive mammoth made of recycled metals, or a fire-breathing dragon vehicle named Heavy Meta, both 2019 features. Theme camps, art, gifts and activities might spring from the year's theme, like 2019's "Metamorphoses." Burners themselves provide concerts, theater, bars, art exhibitions and group meals. There are guided spiritual journeys, drum circles, weddings, funerals and sex clubs on the playa, too.

In the spirit of radical self-expression, some of Burning Man is R- or X-rated. Most of it, however, is not, and many families do attend. Theme camps, for their part, will often post signs if they are not child-appropriate. Ultimately, though, Burning Man may not be the place for those easily offended or shocked. Burners who bring their kids should be OK with their children possibly seeing some adult (or just very, very odd) sights.

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Want to Go to Burning Man?

Burning Man
Heavy Meta is a 30-foot long metallic dragon vehicle with interactive fire, sound, kinetic and light components that was on display at 2019 Burning Man. Burning Man

Everyone is welcome at Black Rock City, but "radical inclusion" isn't free. The not-for-profit Burning Man does charge for its experience and in 2011, it sold out for the first time.

Tickets are available only via a required Burner Profile registration. Tickets for Burning Man 2022 went on sale Feb. 2, 2022, in blocks of 4,000 at price increments of: 1,000 at $2,500 each and 3,000 at $1,500 plus applicable fees and taxes. Main ticket registration began March 23, 2022 and ticket sales began March 30, 2022 in blocks of 10,000 at $575 each; 5,000 vehicle passes were available at $140 each, plus applicable fees and taxes. Tickets sold out for 2022 within an hour of them going on sale.

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Here are a few things to know if you're actually going.

  • Black Rock City is in the desert. Burning Man's setting is hot, dry and at a high elevation and dehydration is always a risk. Burning Man does not provide water. Burners should bring, at minimum, 1 gallon (4 liters) of drinking water per person per day, and another half-gallon (2 liters) per day for bathing and washing dishes and clothes. The city features portable toilets. Some sort of shade structure for homes is a good idea, too, along with a whole lot of sunscreen.
  • The desert gets cold at night. While days are hot, temperatures can drop significantly when the sun goes down, so warmer clothing (and sleep setups) will be needed at night.
  • The Playa is dark. Aside from Burning Man's ritual lanterns and light provided by art installations or stuff burning, lighting the dark to avoid injury and collision (art installations can be small and hard to see at night) is up to the Burners. Headlamps for venturing out and LED string lights for living structures are encouraged.

Finally and perhaps most important (except for the water), is the Burning Man commandment: Know thy ability to adapt. First-timers should put some thought into which Burning Man experience is right for them. And be realistic.

Burning Man is not for the meek, and one week may be a bit much for an introduction. Some discomfort is normal and to be expected and it may even be good. But starting small (staying just a few days is fine) can help make the experience a positive one for those who aren't entirely sure they're the Burner type. Whatever that is.

Radical self-expression can take some practice. The city will spring up again next summer.

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Originally Published: Jan 18, 2013

Lots More Information

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  • Burning Man. "First-Timer's Guide." (Jan. 8, 2013) http://www.burningman.com/first_timers/
  • Burning Man. "Survival Guide." (Jan. 9, 2013) http://survival.burningman.com/
  • Burning Man. "What is Burning Man?" (Jan. 8, 2013) http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/
  • Epstein, Emily Anne and Beth Stebner. "Burning Man lives up to its name! Revelers at week-long festival ignite 50-foot statue in spectacular pyrotechnic display." The Daily Mail. Sept. 2, 2012. (Jan. 12, 2013) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2197054/Burning-Man-lives-Revellers-week-long-festival-ignite-50-foot-statue-spectacular-pyrotechnic-display.html
  • Jones, Steven T. "Burning Man tickets sell out for the first time." SFGate/The San Francisco Chronicle. July 25, 2011. http://www.sfbg.com/politics/2011/07/25/burning-man-tickets-sell-out-first-time
  • Moze. "Spirituality and Community: The Process and Intention of bringing a Temple to Black Rock City." Burning Blog. Jan. 3, 2013. (Jan. 8, 2013) http://blog.burningman.com/2013/01/building-brc/spirituality-and-community-the-process-and-intention-of-bringing-a-temple-to-black-rock-city/
  • Pisillo, Jenny. "The homes at Burning Man." SFGate. Sept. 2, 2011. (Jan. 8, 2013) http://blog.sfgate.com/ontheblock/2011/09/02/the-homes-at-burning-man/
  • SFGate/The San Francisco Chronicle. "Burning Man." (Jan. 8, 2012) http://www.sfgate.com/burningman/
  • Taylor, Alan. "In Focus: Burning Man 2012." The Atlantic. Sept. 2012. (Jan. 12, 2013) http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/09/burning-man-2012/100363/
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