What is Burning Man?
Reflections of a Burner

“Burning Man will change your life. . . You just do not know how yet”


It’s that time of year, time for The Burn.  For me, Labor Day means Burning Man.  Whether I was lucky enough to get a ticket or am stuck at home catching glimpses from my social media, once you know Burning Man exists you’ll forever long to be apart of it.  But what is Burning Man? If you follow my adventures through Of Whiskey and Words or Instagram you know that I’ve been to Burning Man a few times.  Each time I go I’m reminded how truly special a place it is and how few people actually really know anything about it.

I’m on a mission to help people understand the true essence of Burning Man and to help them determine if it’s something they should do at least once in their lives.

Related: 10 Principles of Burning Man

I’ve never taken the time to explain Burning Man.  Looking back, that is quite the oversight. But I want to be clear, explaining what Burning Man is, is about as easy as explaining the Woodstock or the Internet to people who’ve never experienced them. As much as Burning Man is a place and a celebration, it’s also a feeling and a community that goes much deeper than a yearly event.


When I first decided to go to Burning Man in 2016 I found myself doing 1 of 2 things:

1. Explaining what it was to people who’d never heard of it

Maybe it’s because I live in Kansas City, but there were a good amount of people who when I told them I was going to Burning Man, looked at me with a blank face and asked me what it was.  I did my best to explain, but as I’d never been before I explained what I thought Burning Man was. In hindsight, I didn’t come close to doing it justice.

2. Defending why I was going to the people who had heard of it

A common issue these days is that people can have an opinion with no knowledge. The people who’d heard of Burning Man before believed they knew what it was all about- and it wasn’t for them or anyone they thought to be respectable.  They’d seen photos, watched videos, and heard stories which apparently gave them enough information to know that anyone that goes to Burning Man only cares about drugs and sex. Which speaking from first-hand experience, I can tell you isn’t true, but more on that later.

Related: My thoughts before I went for the first time

After spending a couple of weeks of my life at the Burn I feel much more equipped to answer the question ‘What is Burning Man?”.  But before I talk about what it is, it’s equally important to talk about what it’s not.

Burning Man Is not:

Burning Man is not a music festival

Don’t get me wrong, there is music, but that’s not why you should go. In an attempt to keep the culture, Burning Man doesn’t let the public know who will be performing until the week of the Burn (long after tickets have been sold out).  They don’t want people buying tickets just to see artists- it isn’t Coachella. The music aspect of The Burn enhances the experience more than is the experience itself.

Burning Man is not hippies hanging out in the desert

As much as people want to compare Burning Man to Woodstock it’s just not.  The average income of a burner is $67,000 and 33% of Burners have completed a graduate degree.  While Burning Man is full of peace and love vibes, Burners tend to be driven, focused and organized people.  All three of which are needed to survive in the desert for a week.

Burning Man is not about getting fucked up and doing drugs

Yes, parties at Burning Man are on a completely different level.  And yes, some people spend the entire week drinking and/or doing drugs, but that’s not the majority of Burners.  Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who bring their kids to the burn and the community takes setting a positive example seriously.   If you take the time to explore Burning Man you’ll find things you never could have imagined- like a ball pit in an old school bus…

Burning Man is not a no-prep casual experience

It’s not something you can just ‘show up’ to.  Burning Man requires a lot of planning and preparation done months in advance.  You can’t buy anything at Burning Man so you have to bring everything (food, water, toilet paper, your bike, supplies, etc) with you when you arrive.  There’s a reason one of the 10 principles is ‘radical self-reliance.’

Burning Man is not what you see on Instagram

It’s dusty.  It’s hot AF during the day and cold AF when the sun goes down.  Not everyone is attractive. Not everyone is naked. Not everyone is wearing ridiculous costumes.  As amazing as Burning Man is, it’s still life which means it’s not as perfect or picturesque as social media would have you believe.

Burning Man is not cheap 

The two years I’ve gone I’ve spent $1,500-$2,000 (each trip).  That includes my ticket for a week ($495), the RV ($500), plane ticket to wherever the RV is departing from, and my supplies.  I would say the experience for the price isn’t even close. Burning Man may not be something most people can afford at the drop of a hat, but it’s doable if you budget and save.

Burning Man is not expensive

You don’t need an RV.  You don’t need fancy or crazy clothes.  You don’t need to ‘glamp’. You do need a tent, food, and water.  If you don’t mind sleeping on the ground, eating PB and Js, and dealing with some dust inside your sleeping bag you can attend the Burn for less than $1,000.

Burning Man is not just for 20 somethings

The ‘festival culture’ has been well documented amongst millennials.  We love festivals because they are perfect for our lack of attention span and desire to see everything mindset.   But Burning Man started in 1985- before all current 20 somethings were even born. I was amazed the first time I went (at the age of 26) at the different age groups I saw across the playa I saw parents with their kids, 30 somethings, and a lot of baby boomers.  Fun fact, the average age of Burners is 35. It’s great to know that you can never be too old (or young) for Burning Man.

Burning Man is not a bartering economy 

The only things you can buy at Burning Man are ice and coffee.  Everything else is brought by Burners. One of the most misunderstood Burning Man concepts is that of ‘gifting’.  Gifting is a really common practice at Burning Man. Most Burners bring a gift to share with the community. This can be anything- art work, alcohol, advice, hugs, food, water, a joke, etc.  The two times I’ve gone I’ve brought a polaroid camera and given out the photos (always a crowd-pleaser).

When someone gives you a gift at Buring Man, they are doing so because they want to share what they brought with you (without expecting anything in return).  When you receive a gift from another Burner there is absolutely zero expectation that you have to give them something back.  A lot of people do, because they also want to share their gifts, but it’s out of love and excitement, not obligation.

Burning Man isn’t for everyone

If you can’t stand being dirty, the heat, not being able to take long showers in a nice bathroom, using port-o-potties, surviving on snacks and simple foods rather, getting lost (frequently), not having a planned play-by-play of your entire day (i.e. when you head to a festival like Tomorrowland and plan out exactly which sets you are going to see and where), and aren’t open-minded …Then you are probably going to hate it.

Burning Man is…

Burning Man is the most eclectic collection of people you’ll find 

What kind of people go to Burning Man?  What kind of people are in the world? Every type of person you could imagine.  Men, women, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, successful, free-spirited, employed, ‘finding themselves’, virgin burners, 25-year veterans, Americans, South Africans, English, Egyptian, Brazilian, and the list goes on.  I’ve been to a lot of places and to quite a few events and I truly believe there isn’t a wider collection of people who should have nothing in common but come together to create something truly magical while celebrating each other.

Burning Man is Massive

Burning Man’s perimeter is 7 miles x 7 miles.  “Black Rock City” is made up of about 75,000 people.  There’s a reason you need a bike and it still takes 20 to 30 mins to get where you want to go.  You could never see everything if you tried and honestly, you can’t fathom the site until you see it for yourself.

Burning Man is dirty

The dust blows the entire week and it gets everywhere.  In your RV, your bag, your shoes, and your underwear. You’ll come back and find playa dust in places you didn’t even think possible.  You’re outside sweating for a week with little to no access to a shower. Baby wipes, hats, and body spray will be your saving grace, but they don’t make you clean.

Daytime at Burning Man is Mad Max meets an Open Bar

Post Apocalyptic setting.  Crazy costumes. People driving around in art cars.  Add to that everywhere you go people are pouring complimentary adult beverages in your cup.  Yeah, Burning Man during the day is something else.

At Night Burning Man is Apocalyptic Neon Party on the Moon

The sun goes down and the craziness level goes up.  Between the lights, music, art cars blasting music, and bikes going every direction, Burning Man is almost too much for the senses.   Everywhere you look is neon, lights, and fire. I’ve never been anywhere else where everything looks the same and different at the same time.  They really should give out a metal if you can navigate Burning Man at night.

Burning Man is Freedom

It’s an adult playground.  Whatever you want to find at Burning Man you can.  If you want to do yoga at midnight, you can. If you want to be serenaded by someone playing the saxophone at sunset, you can.  If you want to visit an orgy tent, it’s there (with rules of course). If you want to stay out all night drinking and doing drugs with strangers, that’s an option. I believe that Burning Man isn’t the place of sin most people believe, but a place of freedom, and oftentimes freedom is where people find sin.

Burning Man is creation through art

While the music and partying get most of the headlines, the art at Burning Man is what makes it unlike any other event in the world.  The different things people dream up (from a simple signpost to others a creation the size of a house), create with their own hands, find a way to bring with them, and then set up in the middle of the desert for other people to enjoy is simply dumbfounding.  No one asked them to do it, but they create for the community to enjoy. It really is a tribute to the human soul and all it’s capable of.


Burning Man is the best place on earth to watch a sunrise or sunset

There’s just something about the sun’s movement in the desert.  I’ve seen (and appreciated) my fair share or sunrises and sunsets, but I honestly believe none of them compare to what I’ve witnessed each time I went to Burning Man.

Burning Man is Spiritual

In a world of chaos, the temple at Burning Man is one of the most serene places to ever exist.  It’s a place of meditation, tears, and reflection. It’s a place where people mourn the loss of loved ones and put past mistakes behind them.  It’s a place whereupon leaving you feel lighter and free. I’m not a religious person, but I do believe in the healing experience at the temple and was amazed at the somber atmosphere the first time I visited it.

Burning Man is Community

I’m a firm believer that who you’re with is almost always more important than where you are.  The people at Burning Man are just different from people you meet every day. They’re friendly, engaging, and genuinely want to know your entire life story (like Midwesterners with liberal beliefs on steroids).  You talk to someone for 10 minutes and feel like you’ve known them for 10 years because they care to really connect. One of the biggest challenges for most Burners is to apply the same level of engagement and community they feel at Burning Man to the people in their everyday lives.

Burning Man is a lesson in letting go 

Both your appearance and your plans will go to shit at Burning Man.  You won’t shower for 7 days. You’ll be riding your bike somewhere and get sidetracked.  You will get lost and end up somewhere you didn’t expect or even know existed (which is what it’s all about).  If you see something that interests you, stop and check it out. I made the mistake of saying ‘oh that’s cool, I’ll come back to it” too many times.

Burning Man is big and chaotic which means you rarely ever find the same thing twice. Which means, you better live in the moment and not cling to the belief it will be there later.  It won’t. The best thing you can do at Burning Man is ride the wave, not try to steer it.

Burning Man is a personal and intimate experience

As much as Burning Man is a social event it’s equally if not more intimate and personal.  For every minute you may spend meeting people, partying, or dancing you’ll find even more opportunities for reflection, meditation, and introspection.  There are countless events that focus on helping you check in with yourself and learn what really motivates you. Each time I’ve come back from Burning Man I’ve come back with a new understanding about myself.

Burning Man is a lesson that everything is temporary

This may seem obvious, as Burning Man is centered around setting a wooden man on fire, but it’s more than that.  The first realization that everything you see will be set on fire and destroyed by the end of the week took me a while to get used to.  Why would people put this much time and effort into something just to destroy it? Finally, I understood that something not being eternal didn’t make it any less special.  Sometimes endings free us.

By knowing that everything is temporary (the art, the people you meet, the conversations you have, and the things you try) it gives you the freedom to appreciate each moment and treasure it as it is happening.  Something doesn’t have to live forever to be special. There is beauty in a lack of permanency and Burning Man helped me realize it.

Burning Man is going to break you

It’s a full week and a true lesson in not only pacing yourself but learning to listen to your body and mind.  Unlike other events or festivals, there isn’t a last set or even an end. Burning Man goes 24/7 for over eight days.  It’s a big adjustment the first time you go. You think you can power through. You think if you barely sleep you can see it all.  If you keep drinking Red Bull you’ll be fine. Spoiler alert: you can’t see it all and you won’t be fine. The “3 day bender” approach will leave you miserable and exhausted by Wednesday.

There are 75,000 Burners which means there are 75,000 different burns going on. Understand that you (and everyone else there) will have incredibly high moments along with super low ones. Each person I know that has gone to Burning Man has had a breakdown at some point. There will be a time when you think ‘what the hell have I gotten myself into’ – and that’s okay.  When you feel yourself about to break the community will pick you up and that’s when the true magic begins.

Burning Man is a kindness personified

Everyone at Burning Man is just kind.  Each person you talk to radiates happiness both to be there and to be talking to you.  They all try to give more than they take. Each Burner I’ve encountered seemed to have a genuine interest in me and my life.  There isn’t an easier place to start talking to a stranger and it gives each Burner a glimpse of what the world could be like if we were all a little kinder and more open.

Burning Man is for everyone

If you’re alive, you’re a fit at Burning Man.  If you’re open-minded, like meeting new people, being pushed out of your comfort zone (both mentally and physically), and are curious about the world around you then you’re already a Burner at heart.  And even if you’re more introverted and it takes a lot of energy to get out of your comfort zone, there will be people, memories, and destinations for you at Burning Man. There’s a reason that once you enter the gates the first thing they say to you is “Welcome Home”

From Burners…

I decided to ask a few people I know that have been to Burning Man a few questions about the Burn eg what is Burning Man? How would you describe Burning Man? What does Burning Man mean to you? Each of them brought a unique point of view that I thought would only help to explain Burning Man better than I ever could.

Related: Reflections after my first Burn .

How would you describe it to someone who’s never been?  

“indescribable. Just go”

“it’s a pop up community of 70K friendly strangers that’s like a giant space rave refugee camp.”
Jessie Hopeless

“Burning man is a community of people looking to escape from the real world and enjoy the simple things with complete freedom. Freedom to dress (or not dress) how they want, spend their time how they want, be who they want without any societal pressures.”

“It can’t be described, you just have to witness and experience it. And I mean that in the least cliche way possible. There really aren’t words for it and everyone that goes will see it unfold for them differently.”
Just a Kid from Chicago

“Rollercoaster of emotion without adequate water supply”

“It’s an experiment in community, without money or status with a collective goal to help, celebrate, and grow. It’s an experiment in how people should treat each other.”

“Burning Man is a week-long experience where you disconnect from mainstream society and become part of a global city focused on art, music, free expression, and community free of judgments, rules (to a certain extent), or social hierarchies.”

What do you remember most about the burn?

“The light up lotus flower. I wasn’t high. I wasn’t drunk. Legit was just laying under that thing for hours watching the lights match the classical tunes. The one piece of art I’ll remember forever.”

“I was astonished that whatever I was/did/identified with in the default world was totally irrelevant at burning man. The second I got there someone asked me if it was my first time, and when I said yes they said, “Welcome home!” And they meant it. Feeling universally welcome is the strangest feeling. Also, I didn’t understand gifting. I assumed there was some sort of bartering… The fact that many of the people you meet are just waiting to give you something they hope will delight you is… Magical.”
Jessie Hopeless

“The openness, being able to explore and be welcome everywhere you went and with everyone you meet.”

“I remember finding the rainbow light tunnel on accident and riding through it which made me feel like I was playing Mario Kart rainbow road in real life with all of the stars above us. And then we got to the end and there was just amazing music and people having fun. After a couple of hours of that, I took a break to stretch and noticed in the corner of my eye lasers that seemed to cross the entire sky. Riding to whatever was happening there allowed my friends and I to stumble to the first ever Mayan Warrior and Robot Heart art car tie up it was nothing short of epic. That made me feel like I was at the Zion party in the Matrix movies.

Finally, after a couple more hours of that, I noticed the Dusty Rhino art car in my periphery making its way to the very edge of the Playa where one of my favorite artists, Tycho, would be playing for the sunrise. We biked there and just listened to great, chill, fun, upbeat, and surreal music as the sun rose over the mountains. That made me feel like I was at peace with everything and everyone.”
Just a Kid from Chicago

“Sunrises, sunsets, the moon, the dust, the terrain.”

“What i remember the most about the burn is exploring the playa with close friends strengthening old relationships, and making new ones as well. Also being detached from the outside world, you can achieve a lot of things and find a lot of peace when you aren’t worrying about emails, texts, and deadlines.”

“I wasn’t set to a schedule and stumbling upon different camps, art cars, and making friends with random people was exhilarating. It was also overwhelming at first because there is so much to do and see and you want to experience it all, but I finally accepted that it’s not physically possible to do everything so just go with the flow.”

What piece of advice would you give to someone who’s never been before?

“Make your bike look as noticeable as possible. You WILL lose your friends”

“Bring lots of bright, shiny led things. They’ll make you safe on your bike at night, cute when you dance, and you can’t overdo it.”

“Don’t waste your money on fancy, uncomfortable outfits. You are in a desert. You can look great while being comfortable because a lot of stuff gets ruined.”

“First, don’t plan on your daily events too much, but definitely plan a little. Find that balance between a rigid schedule and a completely free-spirited and stumble-upon like attitude. Second, if you go all out decorating or preparing anything, make sure it’s your bike. Deck it out with insane colors and add ons for the day and make sure it’s completely encompassed with lights for nighttime. Not only so you can find your bike, but so others can find you and so you can stay safe when it’s pitch black and tens of thousands of people are riding in every direction. Finally, and most importantly, be yourself and nothing but yourself. Your uniqueness brings this world value and we all want to experience it.”
Just a Kid from Chicago

“Prepare a checklist of items with the group for shared and individual supplies Rent the RV at least 6 months before for better rates. Learn how to brake bike locks (this 1 is specifically for me) Do not depend on Seif area’s advice- based on the lack of information.”

“Go with an open mind, and prepare to go out of your comfort zone, socially, physically, and mentally.”

“Be present in the moment, accept the dust and be prepared for all extremes of weather.”

What’s an untrue belief you think the rest of the world has about Burning Man?

“it’s not all about drugs and sex”

“It’s nothing like the photos! The art and experiences are larger than life, but the pretty people splashed all over the media not only aren’t the norm, the rest of the community thinks they’re ridiculous. They’re called sparkle ponies! It’s a derogatory (albeit good-natured) term!”
Jessie Hopeless

“That it’s just a big drug orgy party.  While you can find or chose to explore those things while you’re there, a good amount of the time was spent sober riding bikes through the sunset or sunrise and chilling at camp with friends.”

“That it’s not for them, when really it is.”
Just a Kid from Chicago

“Many that haven’t experienced BM believe it is a cult movement and way of life which I don’t agree with.”

“The untrue notion is that it’s just a bunch of people in the dessert doing drugs. Sure, there is some of that, but the strength of Burning Man is the people and the brief close relationships you end up making with total strangers.”

“A bunch of naked, hedonistic hippies partying in the desert doing drugs and giving hugs (which isn’t too far from the truth.”

So what is Burning Man?

It’s one of a kind, life-changing event, everyone should experience at least once.  It’s an excuse to let loose. It’s an opportunity to explore who you would be if you could be anything you wanted.  It’s an adult playground. It’s a place filled with strangers who will become your family. It’s one of the most challenging weeks of your life, but one you couldn’t imagine life without.  It’s a last chance to disconnect from technology and reconnect with each other. It’s a place where the temporary is beautiful. It’s a place to experience art, freedom, and community.

It’s a place where the playa always provides and in dust we trust.

Related: My favorite book, Oh the Places You’ll Go, being read at Burning Man

It’s just Burning Man.

Stay Gold.

About Todd Smidt

Todd is a man of simple tastes: traveling, words, whiskey, & dad jokes. He enjoys first-rate banter, long walks along the coast, High West, and Vonnegut. He spends his free time traveling the world, drinking whiskey, and writing about it.

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