Founded in 1986, Burning Man is an annual, week-long cornucopia of art, celebration, and bonfires in the deserts of Nevada. Artists and partygoers from all over the world hop into their campers and convene at the temporary “Black Rock City” to let their freak flag fly. Get weird with these 51 hot facts about Burning Man.
The story of Burning Man’s ownership is a tangle of private ownership and non-profit organizations. It began in 1986 as a small function by Lee Harvey and a group of friends. For most of its history, the event was the property of a for-profit, limited liability corporation called Black Rock City LLC. However, in 2014, bitter infighting between original board members resulted in ownership being transferred to a non-profit organization called “The Burning Man Project.” Harvey derided the corporate reappraisal as “absorbent” and against Burning Man values.
If you want to experience Burning Man more than once a year, or without traveling to Nevada, many groups around the world hold events in the same spirit: Firefly in New England, Kiwiburn in New Zealand, Burning Seed in Australia, and even Dragon Burn in China! Some, but not all of these events are officially affiliated with the Burning Man organization through something called the Burning Man Regional Network.
Although the event’s origins are as old as the 1980s, Burning Man did not operate under a legal event permit until 1991.
Burning Man 2007 drew criticism for the wasteful and dangerous artwork called “Crude Awakening.” The 99-foot oil derrick consumed 900 gallons of jet fuel and 2,000 gallons of liquid propane to blast a mushroom cloud of 300 feet into the sky. Ironically, that year’s theme was “Green Man.”
In 2004, Burning Man founder Lee Harvey set down ten principles for the event: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. Remember those, they're going to show up on the test later!
The dusty land that Burning Man takes on is called the “playa.”
Burning Man looks as if it takes place on dusty sand plains, but that’s not really sand. The land—sorry, the playa—is really all that's left of an ancient lakebed. The stuff on the ground is an alkaline residue that's actually even lighter than regular sand—almost white—and it's so fine that it gets everywhere! Get ready to spend a week washing yourself and everything you brought with you when you get back!
Keep that wallet in your pocket—the only things you can buy with money at Burning Man are ice and coffee at the center camp. For everything else, you can work by “gifting.” If they're so inclined, people and camps can supply food, drinks, and trinkets, sometimes in exchange for things you’re willing to share!
Bundle up! With the event at 4,000 feet above sea level, nighttime temperatures can drop as low as the 30s. More like Brrrrrning Man, amirite? Sorry...
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Before they burn the main temple down, write a message to a passed on loved one and toss it in the timber. Burning Man encourages you to honor the dead.
Don't worry (or do?), the “Camp Hook Up Service” is not what it sounds like. It refers to the 2,000 volunteers who facilitate the festival every year. Each volunteer is equipped with brief cases of chap stick, bike repair kits, glow toys, band aids, condoms, aloe vera gel, Gatorade, and aspirin! Whether you’re lost or low on supplies, your “Hook Up” is here to help! I need a glow toy, STAT!
The “glamor” of Burning Man has earned the festival a fond place in popular culture. Malcolm in the Middle, for example, had an episode which took place almost entirely at Burning Man. Likewise, The Simpsons sent their characters to a “Blazing Guy” event, with one character referencing the “Burning Man” before correcting herself and saying “Blazing Guy.”
The original Burning Man had a grand total of 20 attendees. By 2014, this number was an astounding 65,922 people.
Burning Man publishes an annual expense report that show exactly where that $390 (or more) per ticket is going.
If it’s your first time at the festival, be prepared to get down and dirty! At the gate, Burning Man “virgins” will be asked to raise their hand. Those first-timers will then be asked to lie down on the ground, roll around in the dirt, and yell “I’m a virgin no more!”
Meet Lord Snort—a 20-foot tall and 37-foot long interactive boar made entirely of rusted metal. Lord Snout was a favorite attraction at Burning Man 2016.
Acting out Burning Man’s first principle of “radical inclusion,” Facebook’s Dustin Moskovitz let bygones be bygones at the festival where he embraced and settled the dust with the Winklevoss twins (whom the hit 2010 The Social Network taught you were Facebook’s enemies).
In 2013, Dadara Amsterdam erected “Like 4 Real”—a golden Facebook “Like” thumb symbol which sat atop a black altar-like structure. The piece was a center of worship for the “Like Tribe” and, perhaps, a snide thumbs-down at the festival’s popularity on social media and with social media corporate moguls themselves.
Photographers are required to sign a lengthy legal document, wherein they consent to potential censorship of their work, should they decide to publish snapshots of illegal or incriminating activity from their week at Black Rock City. .
In 2008 and 2015, Burning Man was home to gigantic fire breathing dragon installations. One of these fiery lads was Akle, who stood at 50-feet tall.
Ditch the handshake, at Burning Man, the custom is to greet people with a hug.
Imagine tying the knot at Burning Man—the event features an official temple, where couples can “I do” before a chosen religious official or justice of the peace. Legally! Before heading to the plains, simply stop by the nearby Pershing County Clerk’s office to get a marriage license.
Burning Man isn’t all easy and breezy; every car is searched by a Burning Man organizer before you enter. These measures are to ensure that campers aren’t sneaking non-ticketholders into the area. I can only assume they leave any and all drugs that they find, though.
Biking is the ideal method to get around Burning Man. Attendees often dress their bikes in elaborate ways (furs, feathers, and paint, for example), so they don’t take someone else’s bike by accident.
Attendees commonly hitchhike to get to the festival, advertising their value as a travel companion on message boards. Carpools can get competitive—you must groom yourself to look like excellent conversationalist for the long road ahead.
Although Burning Man has its origins as a low-key, grassroots bonfire, in recent years it has become a hot vacation spot for Silicon Valley moguls like Google’s Eric Schmidt and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Entertainers, such as P. Diddy and Major Lazer, have also been spotted (or have even performed) on the playa. However, the cool thing to do is to play it chill and act like you don’t care.
Why not re-invent yourself at Burning Man? Attendees often go by a “playa name” (Burner nickname) for the event, but these names must be given to you by another person.
It’s a festival legend that judges will grant a smooch (or a joint) to the creators of the best exhibits. Gotta say, for all that work, neither of those prizes sound that worth it...
Every year, on the penultimate night of the festival, the “Man” is burned in effigy. What, did you think there was no burning man at Burning Man?
Don’t be yourself! Wearing a clever costume—whether it’s some form of make-up, hat, or even just a mask—to stand out is par for the course at Burning Man.
Before the festival took to the temporary town of Black Rock Desert in Nevada, it began in the Bay Area. The founder, Lee Harvey, started Burning Man on the clothing-optional Baker Beach, hosting it there until 1990, when the National Park police shut it down and they shifted to the desert, where attendees could strut around in the nude in peace.
Unsurprisingly, random hook-ups are a popular pastime at Burning Man. These steamy rolls in the sandpits are variously known as “Tent Trysts,” “Playa Sex,” “Dust Love,” or “Burner Affairs.”
In 2017, the central “Man” was propped up entirely by human hands for the first time in 17 years. Before, the effigy had been erected by “barn-raising” style, using ropes.
Contrary to popular belief, Burning Man has (on paper) a no-drugs policy that even forbids drugs that are legal in Nevada but illegal by federal law (the event takes place on federal land). There are often federal officers at the festival.
Stay cool while you’re in town! Throughout the month of August, the local ice creamery, Icecycle Creamery, in Reno serves up Burning Man-inspired frozen dairy flavors. These treats include Burning Breakfast (bourbon and bacon), Center Camp Coffee, Black Rock Rum Raisin and Strawberry Margarita sorbet.
Some “Burner” art pieces are bound for the Smithsonian. In 2016, the Nevada Museum of Art hosted a “City of Dust” exhibition, which chronicled pictures and pieces from the history of the event. You can see these installations today at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Has gentrification ruined Burning Man? In addition to the festival’s popularity with Silicon Valley bigwigs (Elon Musk once declared that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley”), the increasing cost of attending the event has raised concerns that the “Man” has fallen pretty to The Man. An individual ticket can cost more than $400 (and that’s not including transportation, food, camp fees, costumes, and gifts), the average total cost of attending Burning Man in 2017 was estimated to be $2,348 USD.
Burning Man has a diversity problem. According to a survey of attendees in 2014, 87% of them identified themselves as white, 6% as Hispanic/Latino, 6% as Asian, and only 1% as Black. The event’s founder, Lee Harvey, brushed off these figures and said, “I don't think black folks like to camp as much as white folks ... We're not going to set racial quotas ... This has never been, imagined by us, as a utopian society."
The party’s taste for pyrotechnics has resulted in semi-permanent “burn scars” (fried pinkish clay-like marks) left on the playa surface.
The Sierra Club, an environmental organization, has criticized Burning Man for the “hundreds of thousands” of plastic water bottles which end up in landfills directly because of the event. Despite attempts to abide by the festival’s “leave no trace policy” (wherein attendees are encouraged to not contaminate the area), the amount of residual trash on the site has steadily increased over the years.
Fitness junkies will not be left out at Burning Man! The festival is a frequent host of roller skating, pole-dancing sessions, meditation classes, and dancing parties. Set yourself apart from the party and net those gains! There's even a marathon.
The Burning Man theme of 2016 was “Leonardo da Vinci’s Workshop.” Artists were encouraged to build and bring works that paid homage to the iconic renaissance artist, matching his feats of creativity, ingenuity, or just plain crazy skill.
In 2016, one of the Burning Man exhibits was the “Mechan 9,” a fallen, half-buried robot whose backstory lay in the strange text written around his body. Participants became treasure hunters, encouraged to decode this puzzle with a special decoder sticker hidden in a secret hatch in his head. Clues were hidden all over the desert, taking the exhibit beyond the traditional boundaries of camp art. OK, this one sounds kinda cool. And the ultimate answer? All along, you were reading Leonardo Davinci's journal entries.
“Love” was a 2015 installation by Alexander Milov which featured the transparent, cage-like figures of a fighting man and woman, with their inner children trying to meet inside of them. As the sun set, the children began to glow, representing hope in times of darkness.
If you were lucky enough to attend Burning Man in 2012, you might have seen “Balloon Chain.” This exhibit was simply a line of helium balloons that wandered through the sky, day and night.
In 2016, David Best built an entire Asian-inspired temple by hand at the festival. The decadent installation featured a large interior altar and even had a chandelier.
For the 2011 Burning Man, a crew of over 150 people from all over the world convened to erect “The Temple of Transition.” At the time, this temporary installation was the fifth tallest wood construction in the world: a 126-foot tall tiered, hexagonal central tower, surrounded by five 58-foot tall, tiered hexagonal towers.
Sex is a structured affair at Burning Man. The festival often hosts swinger-themed camps and nude camps, as well as the speed... ahem... let's just say "arousal" challenge, where the goal is for a man to produce an erection as fast as he can (without hands) as everyone watches. It's called "sport," look it up.
To make full use of the bathing station, first you have to share the lather and wash a dozen other people! First, you’re a rinser, then a scrubber, a soaper, and then (FINALLY) you’ll be the one getting soaped, scrubbed, and rinsed by your new bath buddies.
MOOP stands for “Matter Out of Place.” In the months preceding the event, hundreds of volunteers comb the area of MOOP and create a blank slate for the festival. After that, you must drive out your own trash. To litter on the playa is basically sacrilege.
Public pooping is a no-no at Burning Man! It can cost you $125 or more in tickets if caught, so save it for the portable toilets. But, like, it's natural man!
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