Give Me The Dirt- What’s It Like Camping at Burning Man (the RV story, part 1)

This post is for a friend who wants to know what the reality is of camping in such a harsh environment. So this isn’t about the spiritual part, the transformations people go through, nor about the sex, drugs and EDM (though I did hear a decent amount of Rock n Roll).

The Burning Man Survival Guide is sent out with your ticket, showcasing the 10 Principals along with info on attending the event.

Before I go too far, the Burning Man website has tons of useful info.  Like the survival guide of what to bring and not bring.  A page on RV.  Listings galore of theme camps. Burning Man preparation;  Burning Man Theme Camps ) The goal of all this advance prep is to cut back on the number of “sparkle ponies” (Urban Dictionary: Sparkle Pony)


ADVICE: if you want to have an RV, rent it early in the year.  And anyplace renting within 700ish plus miles will know you are going to Burning Man and will charge a premium.

We received that gem of advice in the November prior from a seasoned burner.  Phil has been many times and was fluent in the nuances.  He eventually let me know that he and his wife rent one every year because they like to shower every day and be able to change outfits in a non-dusty environment.  

We checked out prices at several RV places.  Reno is the most expensive, being the closest to Black Rock City (3 hours away, approximately).  San Francisco had more choices, but that’s a huge area for lots and lots of long time burners (also where it all started 29 years ago).  Salt Lake City even hits you up.  And driving from there looks like a lot of boring desert scenery to get through first.  We chose Portland, OR as I have family out there.  My brother-outlaw, Jim, owns an old RV (fridge and AC on the blitz, so not one we wanted to borrow) and he helped us tremendously with extras (blankets, dishes etc) that the RV place would charge more to rent (they seem to charge for everything!).  We made the reservation in January, with the rental place confirming we could cancel without any fees up to 45 days before our start date.  That made us comfortable knowing we could change our mind for whatever reason.

One thing you don’t find on Burning Man related web sites is what renting an RV will cost in total.  To be upfront, I insisted on having one instead of being in a tent for personal health reasons.  I like camping, and used to go often years ago.  Things change.  So, for me, this was a necessary expense.  I’ve never rented one before, so all the fees were new to me. 

Renting an RV out of Reno starts at $5,500+.  For the places that actually listed rates online or answered the phones.  I think San Francisco and other similarly distanced places started at $4,000. In January,  for the standard size RV in Portland, OR, the rate was $2,890.  Plus 1000 miles @ $340.  Plus 17% state tax ($549.10 which changed every time we added options).  There was a $500 “Burning Man” security fee and a $300 reservation deposit. By June we realized we would need an extra night.  So the rate went up, they added another 100 miles, and all of a sudden there was a $500 “Burning Man” cleaning fee that wasn’t there before! According to Linda at CruiseAmerica, their system wasn’t able to add this back in January. If we returned the RV in the same condition we got it, we would get that “Burning Man” fee plus the other “security” fee back.  Basically $1000 bucks extra just because we were heading to the festival.  Linda did tell me how hard it is to clean that dust, and that it gets into every nook and cranny.  We had heard that in various forms before, but not associated with such a steep fee!  

Two extra fees added for Burning Man- housekeeping and an extra security deposit
Two extra fees added for Burning Man- housekeeping and an extra security deposit

The RV technically sleeps 5.  Looking at it now, 5 adults in the RV for the week would have been really pushing it, space and sanity-wise.  Once we got inside the RV our thought was it was more meant for 2 adults and their kids (privacy was minimal…which is “normal” for parents.) We briefly considered sharing with two men we met through our camp group.  In hindsight, it was probably a good thing they couldn’t afford a share in the costs.  John, who has gone to several burns, said one year he went in an RV with five people and didn’t find it comfortable. The pull-out beds stayed pulled out so there was no living space.  They couldn’t use the toilet and shower much as it would have overwhelmed the system.

picking up the RV at the rental place in Portland, OR
picking up the RV at the rental place in Portland, OR


We drove about 500 miles from OR, and came to the Entry line, cutting into Route 34. From there it only took us an hour to get to the ticket gates (and an hour after that to get to our camp. Better than the “typical” 5-8 others from the south)

To offset some costs, we decided to offer rides to burners in the Portland area. On the Burning Man website there is a section devoted to ride shares (offering and those in need). An experienced burner camp-mate warned against this saying “anyone can buy a ticket.” We took the risk and screened three candidates. All we asked was to help share the gas costs. Out of the total of $400 we spent on gas, they helped with $250. Money aside, this was a great opportunity to connect with people, who we now call friends, in a way that would not have happened otherwise. Sure, other burners took the Burner Express from different cities and met people that way. And others arranged rides with pre-existing friends. For us, offering up our RV was a worthwhile experience.

At the edge of the city we see where United keeps their sewage and water trucks.

When we had officially decided to camp with Kostume Kult (their theme is gifting costumes to help people transform), we learned about not only camp fees (for all they offer, including meals, water and more) but another $720 for the RV.  Turns out this was not an unreasonable rate as it covered multiple waste (grey and black water) removal and filling of water plus electricity. If we did it independently, the cost would have been equal, yet no VIP treatment (meaning guaranteed service when expected, and not having to chase down the trucks in hopes of getting them to stop and service your vehicle.  For cash. And probably even extra cash just because they can)  Being with our camp gave us the benefit of being with people who have attended many burns in RVs.  They knew to negotiate ahead of time with the company, as well as negotiating with the driver…dividing the incentive cash for before and after.

To show we paid for VIP RV services, we hung this sign on our RV at Burning Man


Jungle (his playa name) gave me some really handy advice on taking care of the RV in the desert:

– when you get the RV, go and make extra sets of the key.  Give the spare to a campmate so you don’t ever get locked out.

-keeping it clean is key.  Use plastic on the dashboard. Blue painters tape on the outside vents. Cover your seats with fabric or towels.  Put carpets down on the floor.  Institute a No Shoes in the RV rule.  In fact, a spray bottle with water and vinegar is helpful to get the dust off (and avoid “playa foot”).  

-don’t use the car AC it will bring dust in. Turn on the generator and run the internal AC, especially during the times you’re waiting in line (entry or exodus).  Put windshield reflectors up on the front, and keep the blinds closed to keep it cooler inside.

Example of covering the inside to protect the RV from dust. Jungle creates “Jungland”
Rugs on the floor, faux fur on the seats makes for a protected, and fun, place to stay during Burning Man

Here are some tips Linda at The RV rental place gave me.  For each of the 3 times we had black water removed, put in a blue waste treatment thing down the toilet right after.  They give one (along with a roll of single ply t.p.) as part of the welcome packet. She said to buy other single tabs from them at $1 each…which saves you from having to buy too many at camp stores (Wal-Mart sells 10 pak for $14). Side note- RVs have there own special kind of t.p.- 2ply.  Burners all recommend bringing that anyway to keep the portopotties happy… A pack of 4 rolls costs around $5.  

With two people and all the stuff needed to be “radically self reliant”

Putting plastic everywhere helps keep the dust from getting on everything, which is a pain to remove as it’s not “normal” dust.  Linda recommends the kind carpet installers or movers use that clings.  (A roll of Movers Stretch Plastic, 20″x50′, at Home Depot costs about $20.)  Use the “seven day” painter’s tape.  (All these years I never knew that blue tape came in time levels…and neither did the guy working at Home Depot’s paint department.  It costs about $8).  You don’t want tape that will fall down too soon (for us, the really bad dust storms started on Friday, when the week was almost over.

The Man of Burning Man as seen during a white out dust storm.

And don’t use duct tape as that can peel the veneer off the wood and the walls.  Use a welcome mat (side note- not astro turf as that creates MOOP, aka your garbage, and is very difficult to clean off the desert floor when you want to leave…and “leave no trace” is a key point in the burner world).  We left our welcome mat inside the RV as the first rainy morning would have rendered it useless.


The weather conditions are a huge consideration when attending Burning Man.  Despite it being a city of 70,000 people, you are still located in an ancient lake bed desert.  There are no native plants or animals there.

One camp’s gift was hammocks in the shade for people to rest or sleep

It can get hot…some years have recorded temps up to 120 degrees.  At night it gets cold.  Reports of snow in the past has been mentioned.  Packing for all the different weather possibilities, plus creatively inspired outfits, meant shipping out plastic boxes filled with necessities ahead of time as it all wouldn’t fit in the suitcase allotment given by the airlines.  People with tents either shipped them out, bought them out there, or possibly had them storage already out there.   Friends in tents said it would get too hot by 10am to stay in their tents. Afternoons were hotter, and they usually would go find alternate places to hang out and rest

Boots sinking into the clay of wet desert sand the first Monday morning of Burning Man
Monday’s rain was unusual, closing Burning Man for a day.
Wet dust clumps and sticks to the bottom of boots…and ruined someone’s flip flops (found at Penguin camp)

During our trip it did rain, and I felt some hail.  Because the desert sand is a fine silica, it doesn’t absorb water well, becoming more like clumpy clay.  It definitely slowed the start of Burning Man since they closed the gates for 20 hours (Monday-Tuesday).  Although it affected hundreds (or thousands?) of people, it’s understandable.  Vehicles would get easily mired with no way for them to be pulled out.  The heavy trucks would make deep ruts that would have probably been near impossible to fix (and therefore, leaving “a trace” that humans had been there).  We even heard stories of people being hit by lightning. Well, the ground nearby being hit and they felt the shocks.  We didn’t hear of any deaths by lightning.  That first Monday walking around in the rain has become part of our unique first year story.

Inside the Black Rock Observatory. The one kick starter campaign I contributed to because a friend volunteers with them.

The rain dampened the desert dust enough to make Tuesday through Thursday bright and clear.  Tuesday night we went to the Black Rock Observatory where there was a huge telescope. The skies were clear enough that we were able to see Andromeda Galaxy (aka M31) That was one of the most memorable events for me, almost as if the image of a universe far, far away is now ingrained in my brain.  A Kostume Kult friend, who volunteers for the BRO, said the observatory had to close on Friday and Saturday due to the dust storms.  Plus, the lasers from the sound camps created light pollution and it was harder to see the skies as planned.

We noticed as the week wore on that the patches of dry, hard to navigate, sand were getting more frequent, making bike riding around the playa more and more challenging.  By Friday the desert was back to dry and the winds kicked up.  Friday we had a 10 hour white out.  

The Temple of Grace on aa clear day. The wood comes from leftover wood puzzle pieces
The Temple Grace during a white out dust storm. Traveling to and from that day was a surreal

This makes getting around a real challenge as there are times you can’t see five feet in front of you…which means neither can other people walking, on bikes or art cars. The rule is you’re supposed to stop and let it pass, but in a city full of individuals, that doesn’t always happen.  For these storms, dust masks and goggles are key.  Masks varied from scarves to paper painter masks, to allergen-approved neoprene to hard-core dirt-biker fashion masks.  And even the occasional gas mask.  Eye wear was part utilitarian and mostly fashion statement.  Decorated sun-glasses, steam punk goggles, military and ski masks were the most popular.  Even so, dust gets everywhere.  I was helping put away costumes for the night when a huge wind gusted in a blast of dust into the costume tent.  It swirled around angrily until it seemed to find the other door and blow out.  A thick layer left in its wake on every seam and stitch of clothing.  The dusty nights we found that the baby wipes were indispensable for clean skin in all sorts of nooks and crannies.  Somehow a fine layer also settled inside the RV, not just tracked in on the floor, but clinging to the cabinets and dashboard. A common refrain heard after returning home was how much of the fine playa sand was collected in tents and plastic bins, to be spilled onto the floor or living room carpet. 


Jim and Don put the Walmart bikes together for us at his home in Oregon

Everyone rides bikes at Burning Man.  Once you arrive, unless you have a registered mutant vehicle, your car/truck/RV/converted bus has to stay put.  We bought bikes through and had them shipped to Jim’s house.  With the extra burners on board, we decided it would be best to add a bike rack.  The RV place added another $65! It held four bikes. On the way down it worked out great as the doctor from Denver had her bike brought down from Denver with their camp stuff.  On the way back, the young man from Eugene was gifted an extra bike. So we ended up putting it on the mattress.   One thing to be aware of is making sure the license plate can be seen even with the bikes attached.  Cops in the area (from Black Rock City to many of the surrounding counties…and sometimes even California) apparently like ticketing for this excuse.

Exploring the delights of Black Rock City
Bikes get you where you want to go, such as Bass and Bubbles where they gifted champaign.


Earplugs anyone?  Early on in the week a lovely young girl gifted us earplugs.  A very practical gift, as music is an important part of the Burning Man experience.  An often expressed concern is who your neighboring camp will be, as you hope it’s not a sound camp that plays music all night and all day long.  Most of the major sound camps are located at the end rows of the city just for this reason.  Our camp was located across the street from a sound camp that played techno.  It actually became a sort of lullaby background noise, hearing the steady “thump, thump, thump” all night.  

Tektronic – the sound camp next to our camp on the Esplanade & 3:30 (the streets)
The back of our RV faced the street -where we could hear art cars with music go by all hours

One of the first nights (early, early mornings) an art car drove past our RV blaring music. I woke up with a start thinking it was my cell phone with one of my funny ringtones going off.  After the initial panic wore off, it wasn’t hard to go back to sleep with the steady thump, thump, thump. 

Although we brought a box of earplugs and even earmuffs (my idea for me, I was afraid the earplugs would fall out when I slept) and my partner brought sound-canceling headset, we never actually used them.  A camp mate, Eddy, mentioned recently about an art car that played tribal beats.  He wished they stayed by the tents longer as the vibrations were felt all the way through his tent to his air mattress and was more comforting than the background thump, thump, thump. John said the year he was in an RV they were next to a hookah dome and the heavy base beats made a wicked buzz and everything rattled.  For me, sound wasn’t as much of an issue as I had expected it was going to have been.


About showering.  It all depends on what you want.  To not overload our RV system we took only 2-3 showers each that week.  The desert is so dry, and the temps weren’t overly hot, that sweating and being smelly wasn’t an issue.  Dust was removed nightly with baby wipes (by us, and our friends in tents).  Our camp group had built two shower stalls with hooks for the “sun shower” ( a plastic bag system where you fill a big bag with water, let the sun warm it up, then hang it and the water comes out in shower like form).  A young, handsome man, Oleg, said he showered every day.  A purple-haired beauty, Jessica, only felt the need to shower twice with the baby wipes filling the in-between times.  I heard about a camp where they offered group showers.  One dreadlocked burner said he was heading there after a son cone, as he didn’t bring anything to shower with.  I overheard Another burner say this shower was more like a car wash for people in bathing suits (or not) and you may not always get scrubbed by the hottie you hope would be next to you.

Don’t run behind the water trucks to shower! Hard to believe this advice had to even be given

Shit happens.  Did you know that “roughly 600,000 gallons of human waste…gets hauled off the Playa every year” and recycled into fertilizer for Nevada farmlands? (According to The Daily Playa article “Where Does The Shit Go?” Burning Man 2014, Tuesday Edition).  How to cope with answering when Nature calls is a big deal when you’re out in the middle of Federally protected desert.  In the RV we had our own toilet and shower (and I’ve discussed the issues around taking care of the waste.  But it was definitely a benefit we appreciated more as we talked with other burners.).

Typical row of Porto Potties at Burning Man. The nearest one to our camp was 3 blocks away

Burning Man supplies rows and rows of port o potties.  Our camp was, unfortunately, three blocks from the closest row.  Or a five minute bike ride out to one on the Playa.  Most of the johns were typical of high use portable toilets.  Smelly and often not a pretty site.  It’s on the survival list to bring your own one-ply t.p.  And also not to throw anything else in (no baby wipes, tampons, left over foods, bottle caps…whatever that might possibly clog up the tubes that remove the waste later). Ick. We saw some that had music (motion activated music boxes, with signs letting you know they weren’t cameras!). We heard some portopotties were “adopted” and decorated with wall paper, candles and all sorts of nice decor.

Some Porto Potties had musical accompaniments

The rows out on the Playa offered beacons, so you could find them at night.  Of course, this is an art project too (like the bowling alley and the beacon that looked like a Fuller brush).  Since it’s Federal land, peeing on the desert is actually against the law.  Stories floated around about people being ticketed for “sexual lewdness” when caught peeing out in deep Playa.  (Ironic how one can walk around nude, or in all sorts of kinky gear…and peeing gets you ticketed).   They even warn you about agents having night vision goggles.   During our bike rides during the daytime, we could see the remains of people obviously not having used a bathroom.  Pee doesn’t dry up quickly, it remains a wet mound of clumpy clay for quite some time.

The  solution most people used is called a pee bottle.  Some people bought wide mouth reusable water bottles and marked them ahead of time.  Some people used the big Gatorade bottles (after consuming the original contents.).  A fellow camper said he and his tent mate had wrapped their large water jugs in pink duct tape so there was no mistaking the jug as potable water.  The duct tape was handy too for the late nights when they were bombed and it was dark…the texture helped them ID the right container to use.   Another camper said having her pee jug was great for first thing in the morning, so she didn’t have to run the three blocks upon first waking up.

The downside for campers depending on portopotties was if they had stomach issues.  Not eating right happens frequently. Having to leave your tent when you’re not feeling well only added to the misery, according to several friends who faced this.  I am very grateful for the times I did use he port o potties that they weren’t horrifyingly dirty, and that my minor tummy issues were pampered by being in the RV.

Speaking of tummy issues, food is also a key consideration when preparing to go and while camping at Burning Man.  Read my “Give Me The Dirt- Eating at Burning Man.  Part 2” for more on this…

A Toilet Bowl Brush as a Beacon for Port o Potties out in the playa
Toilet Bowl art installation by Porto Potties out in the playa

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  1. Harlow Pinson

    Nice writing. I enjoyed it. My wife did 4 summers of research in the Oregon / Nevada playas. Dust was a huge problem and by the end of the summer most of her gear would be trashed. The difference, of course, was her work had very small camps of people, and they did not camp in the playas themselves. The scale of Burning Man is so much larger. It sounds like you had a great time!

  2. campervan

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  4. Toni

    Thanks so much for the great tips! I will be attending for the first time with another newbie, both of us women in our 50s. Thankfully she has an RV so we will be taking that. We are doing as much research as possible and appreciate all of your insights.

    • Stacey Newman Weldon

      Glad to help! Feel free to email me with any questions. This summer will be my 7th time going!!


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