Everything you've heard about Burning Man is wrong

Myths about the annual festival are far from reality

By Brad Cohen,

An aerial shot of Black Rock City — Photo courtesy of Kyle Harmon

My first time going to Burning Man was in 2012 and I remember trying to explain it to my parents. By that point, they were already pretty used to me shocking them with my life choices: traveling around Asia while sleeping on strangers' couches, hitchhiking my way across foreign lands, breaking into one of Pablo Escobar's former mansions. Those kinds of things. 

But trying to explain to them that, yes, I was going to Burning Man, but no, I was not going to that drug-fueled orgy where everyone walks around naked and then comes back and quits their jobs was another matter entirely. Yes, all of those things do exist at Burning Man, but no, that's not what Burning Man is.

About 70,000 people from all over the world come to the Black Rock Desert every year and build a city that exists for only one week. And like any city made up of global citizens, there is a huge amount of diversity. Trying to encapsulate any city – let alone one so alien to most people – in a talk or an article or even a film is difficult. That's probably why so many people just take the parts that are most taboo and use them to define the place. 

I'm not going to try to explain what Burning Man is, because that's impossible. Instead, I'll just explain what it isn't. 

It’s not a big rave in the desert

Black Rock City is not a rave, it's a city – one that happens to host a lot of big raves. It might have more clubs/raves per capita than anywhere outside of Ibiza, but it also has a lot more playgrounds, bars, art, workshops of all sorts, and indescribable activities alien to most of the planet. 

Basically, Burning Man is whatever you want it to be. If you want to vibrate your way across the dance floor to soul-thumping beats 24 hours a day for an entire week, you can totally do that. But you can also get your zen on, run a 50-mile race, or just go look at art all day.

Burning Man is not over

Art installation at Burning Man — Photo courtesy of Brad Cohen

In case you haven’t heard, Burning Man was better last year. In fact, there’s no real point to heading out to Black Rock City anymore, as that festival in the desert is over. When did it officially end? Well, that depends whom you ask.

Maybe it was when everyone from P. Diddy to conservative politician Grover Norquist arrived. Maybe it was when a certain sound camp started blasting monotonous “playa tech” at unfathomable decibels across the desert at sunrise. Or if you ask an old-enough burner, maybe it was when they stopped allowing guns. 

Yet, more people come now than ever. Burning Man has certainly changed since it first began more than 30 years ago in California. Burning Man has evolved, just as anything that lives for long enough. There are bigger, more expensive sound systems and art projects, celebrity sightings, cell phone service, Wi-Fi and exclusive camps for the entrepreneurial elite.

Critics complain that the influx of money has brought increased commercialization and less inclusion, but that money has also funded exciting art and resulted in burner culture spreading into everyday life, not to mention the creation of Burning Man satellite festivals all over the world. 

You don't trade for everything

This is a particular favorite misconception. The way that non-Burners seem to think of it, Black Rock City is more or less a modern-day Silk Road. I can't tell you how many times people have asked me what I'm bringing to trade. In reality, the city runs on an economy of gifting. 

People bring just about everything you can imagine out to the desert: homemade ice cream, pig roasts, bars, stuffed-animal pits, saunas. And there’s plenty you can’t imagine: flamethrowers, fire-based arcade games, fire-breathing dragons on wheels with world-class sound systems, IVs loaded with vitamins. And they give it all away with no expectations.

Enough people doing this means that Black Rock City has most things any other city has and plenty that most cities don't. It's just a matter of finding it.  

It’s not a vacation

A dust storm at Black Rock City — Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jesse Wagstaff

This is one of the most common and dangerous misconceptions. Burning Man may be a trip, a journey, a transformational experience. But unless you’re the kind of person paying $10,000+ to stay in a camp with your own personal masseuses, chefs and models (seriously, that’s a thing), Burning Man is far from a vacation.

Because nothing is for sale, that means you need to bring everything necessary to take care of yourself: a week’s worth of water, clothes for the crippling desert sun and the near-freezing desert nights, eyewear and masks for the inevitable dust storms and a bicycle (or some other mode of transportation).

Just getting out there is a logistical marathon. Once there, it’s a constant battle against the elements, against trying to sleep with bass vibrating the ground beneath you, against flat tires and leaky tents, and all the other little unknowns that are sure to pop up. But it’s because of these difficulties that the magic often happens.

Not everyone is naked

Sure, some people choose to wear nothing more than a layer of dust, but most people are fully clothed (or at least wearing underwear). Anything goes in terms of dress. The only thing that’s even generally frowned upon are people who wear a shirt with no pants or underwear (there’s even a name for these people), but you’ll see plenty of this, too.

While you will definitely be in the huge majority if you’re dressed, if you’re uncomfortable seeing naked people walking or biking around, Burning Man probably isn’t for you, because you'll find plenty of less innocuous things to offend your delicate sensibilities.

Not everyone is on drugs

Yep, there are a lot of people doing just about every drug you've ever heard of and plenty of drugs you've never heard of. But that doesn’t mean you have to partake. By no means is everyone you talk to in an altered mental state, and there are even quite a few sober camps that don’t allow any alcohol or controlled substances.

You probably won't find yourself

Every year people come out to the desert to find...something. Themselves. The meaning to life. Their inner child. Love. And some of them do find it, at least for a few weeks, at which point they usually come down to find they've sold everything they own and are living in a commune in Nicaragua. 

Yes, you’ll probably learn something about yourself. Yes, you might fall in love. You might discover your inner child or the fact that you’ve been in the wrong career for the last decade. But you might not. And that’s okay. Be happy with whatever your takeaway is because there will be one.

And whatever you do, don’t be the girl who comes home and quits her job the day she gets back or the guy who moves across the country for a lover he just met. Like going through any powerful transformational experience, wait at least a few weeks before making major life decisions.

You don't have to keep it a secret

There used to be a time when telling your family or your boss or your friends from back home that you went to Burning Man meant you were revealing that you were some sort of freak. But one of the undisputed benefits of Burning Man ‘going mainstream’ is that it, at least for most people, no longer needs to be a fact that you hide from half the people in your life. Now, instead of thinking you’re a naked druggie, maybe they think you’re just going to the Burn to do a business deal, to make political connections or to do yoga. 

It’s environmentally friendly

One of many burns — Photo courtesy of Brad Cohen

Burners love their mottos, and one of the more common ones is “Leave no trace." And while attendees go to great lengths to make sure there are no visible, um, traces (a welcome change of pace from major music festivals that wind up trashed after the event), Burning Man is still horrible for the environment.

Consider the amount of fuel for 70,000 people to get there, the amount of gas necessary to pump all those RVs and generators and trucks pumping port-a-potties, not to mention the food waste, the plastic used to transport more than a million gallons of water, the propane released by all those mutant vehicles shooting flames into the sky and to burn all those Instagram-worthy art structures.

Just some food for thought.  

Burning Man is not a cult

Dancing before The Man — Photo courtesy of Brad Cohen

I mean, it's not like a bunch of half-naked people go out into the desert to live under 10 guiding principles for a week before dancing around a towering sculpture of 'The Man' before ceremonially burning it to the ground. Jeez, guys.