It’s one of the most unusual and extreme festivals in the world, attracting more than 70,000 revellers a year – the likes of Cara Delevingne and Elon Musk among them.
Held deep in the Nevada desert at the end of the summer, Burning Man consists of a vast, purpose-built, ‘city’ which is reconstructed from scratch again every year, and hosts a mind-bending array of art, music and performances.
I attended last year, despite absolutely detesting festivals, and loved it beyond compare. The only way to get a sense of it, obviously, is to go. But here, I answer just about every question people have asked me about that week-long departure I took from the real world, and what you can expect if you ever go yourself…
Held deep in the Nevada desert at the end of the summer, Burning Man (pictured) consists of a vast, purpose-built, ‘city’ which is reconstructed from scratch again every year
It draws a host of celebrities who appreciate the relative pricacy they enjoy here. Pictured (left) Paris Hilton with sisters Poppy and Cara Delevingne, and (right) Cara and Paris
How is it different from other festivals?
As I said, I don’t like festivals. They epitomise everything that irks me. Crowds. Yelling. People bashing into me. Litter. Yesterday’s food trampled into the grass. Wasps. Beetles. Sweat. Portaloos. Mud. Music I don’t like playing really loudly.
Burning Man has nothing in common with any of the above, except for portaloos. It stays pristine all week and it’s so huge, you’re never faced with crowds.
Why is it called Burning Man?
On account of the massive wooden ‘man’ which soars high above every other structure there. It is burnt on the last night, in a jaw-dropping, ember-hissing, cyclone-creating spectacle of pyromania.
Each year, a massive wooden ‘man’ is installed (pictured) which soars high above every other structure there and is burnt down on the last night
Shannina Shaik, pictured with a friend and Katy Perry (right) showcasing the sort of costumes only really found here at Burning Man
Burning Man has nothing in common with a normal festive. It stays pristine all week and it’s so huge, you’re never faced with crowds
What’s the weather like?
Very hot during the day, but with a near constant breeze. I was expecting it to be sweltering and sweaty. It wasn’t, it was sublimely sunny and dry, but the air was always moving.
At night time, it gets freezing. Cold enough to need an enormous fluffy coat. I actually found these mad extremes of climate to be very refreshing.
What is the set-up like?
From above, it looks like something out of a Star Wars movie – a horse shoe-shaped arrangement of camps and mobile homes around a vast centre – known as the ‘playa’. Around it, nothing but miles and miles and miles of totally flat desert.
What is it like at night time?
Neither words nor photos can do this justice – much like outer space, as any astronaut will tell you. At night, the site transforms into a multi-coloured, futuristic, light-spinning laser show. Visually, imagine Disney’s Fantasia and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and stir that into a cauldron of the strangest and most vivid dreams you’ve ever had… and that’s the best I can do.
At night, the site transforms into a multi-coloured, futuristic, light-spinning laser show, where revellers illuminate themselves and navigate using torches
Vehicles, too, are lit up like Christmas trees as they parade around the vast central ‘playa’, where the party never stops
At night time, it gets freezing. Cold enough to need an enormous fluffy coat, which Annabel found to be rather refreshing
During the day, the weather was sublimely sunny and dry, but there was a near-constant breeze so the air was always moving
How do you camp?
You can do it in one of two ways. Either you can camp in a tent, or you can pay a small fortune and stay in a cushy mobile home for the whole week.
I was lucky enough to fall into the second category, and thus enjoy the comforts of air conditioning, a proper bed, a fully stocked fridge, clean towels, a bathroom, shower, and even a gas oven. Possibly best of all, blinds. Which means you’ve always got a cool, dark den in which to nap.
Normal time parameters become a thing of the past at Burning Man, and amazing attractions run both at night and during the day, so you find yourself snoozing in five-hour slots.
Many people join a specific ‘camp’ at Burning Man, which is an amalgamation of tents and mobile homes under some sort of name or theme. You have to apply and be accepted prior to turning up.
They’re somewhat like Harry Potter houses. If you’re a Gryffindor sort of a chap, the sorting hat is unlikely to put you in Slytherin. And while there are plenty of advantages to being in a camp with like-minded people, you don’t have to be in one at all if you don’t want to. We were just parked like muggles.
Either you can camp in a tent, or you can pay a small fortune and stay in a cushy mobile home for the whole week. Annabel was lucky enough to fall into the second category (pictured)
Her mobile home (pictured) had air conditioning, a proper bed, a fully stocked fridge, clean towels, a bathroom, shower, a gas oven – and possibly best of all, blinds, which means you’ve always got a cool, dark den in which to nap
Annabel (far left) spent a week in the mobile home with three other friends (pictured) and managed to go the whole stretch with only one minor disagreement
Is it dangerous?
Not that I saw, and not by reputation. I arrived on the shuttle bus alone, bewildered, hot, lost and nervous, dragging an enormous suitcase.
The very first group of revellers I bumped into offered to help me with my luggage. In all my solo travels, no instance in which strangers off the street have rushed up to ‘help me with my luggage’ has ended well.
As it transpired, these strangers were just a handful of the many Burning Man veterans looking for timid and confused people to aid. They weren’t employees. They weren’t volunteers. They were just nice, and you’ll find this everywhere.
One was a doctor, another a mysterious silicon valley boss, another an artist, another an electrician. They plied me with water, drew me maps, and didn’t leave me until I was safely reunited with the friends I was staying with.
Upon leaving, especially as a English person, I just wanted to give them something. Anything. £20. Some flowers. My soul? But that’s not really how it works here.
Burning Man tends to foster a friendly environment in a way that is rarely seen on such a large scale at any other festival
In the midst of a dust storm, a winged stilts-performer marches his way across the huge expanse of desert all alone
Is it true that you can’t buy anything at Burning Man?
Yes. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not a bartering system either (you give me a sandwich and I’ll give you some tequila). It’s a ‘gifting’ arrangement.
Which is just as hippy as it sounds, and basically encourages people to bring more than they need and give things to strangers when they might happen to need it. Only if you want. Only if you can.
It sounds like a pipe-dream, but it works.
How do you get around?
You absolutely need a bike to get around. It probably takes 15 minutes without stopping to peddle from one end of the central playa to the other. Significantly longer to peddle the entire diameter of the site.
This was one of the best aspects for me. Because it’s so expansive, there are no crowds. No being shoved around. No queues.
Initially the prospect of going anywhere alone was out of the question, for someone as directionally challenged as me. No matter how many times someone explained it to me (‘It’s just a grid. And a clock. A grid and a clock.’) I was no closer to understanding.
The trick is, you just have to get lost on purpose. Flee the herd, like a deviant antelope, and figure out how to get home. Some of my best moments were spent gleefully adrift, cycling around alone, stopping at various mind-boggling sculptures and talking to strangers.
It probably takes 15 minutes without stopping to peddle from one end of the central playa to the other – significantly longer to peddle the entire diameter of the site
For this reason, almost everyone gets around by bike. Other vehicles here are tightly restricted, and the few that are permitted are only allowed to move very slowly and in certain areas
Many attendees spend the first day customizing their bikes so that they’re less easy to lose among the sea of others
Some of Annabel’s best moments were spent gleefully lost, cycling around alone, stopping at various mind-boggling sculptures and talking to strangers
What are ‘art cars’?
Art cars are strewn everywhere on the playa, many of them offering lifts. Essentially, they are vehicles of all shapes and sizes which artists spend months turning into astonishing, moving, works of art.
Does it get filthy?
No. I still can’t get my head around this but no one drops litter. Not even cigarette butts. In a pretty much lawless environment, it’s a rule so deeply ingrained, you wouldn’t even dream of breaking it.
There are little makeshift bars everywhere manned by people who just give drinks away, but you have to bring your own cup. There are a few charitable operations distributing food but not many. People mostly just eat their own food at their own camp.
So there isn’t really much to litter with, even if you happen to be the littering type. No paper plates, disposable forks, half-eaten burgers, crushed cans, or plastic bags. Nothing.
No one drops litter here, not even cigarette butts. In a pretty much lawless environment, it’s a rule so deeply ingrained, you wouldn’t even dream of breaking it
There isn’t really much to litter with, even if you happen to be the littering type. No paper plates, disposable forks, half-eaten burgers, crushed cans, or plastic bags
There are little makeshift bars like this one (left) everywhere, as well as an endless number of events and gatherings (right) manned by people who just give drinks away, but you have to bring your own cup
It’s the desert. Isn’t there sand everywhere?
No. The ground can best be described as hard, flat, cracked clay. Very favourable conditions for cycling (no inclines = no stitches). In the absence of sand, there is dust.
Very fine white alkaline dust which coats every part of you the moment you step outside – your clothes, your hair, your eyelashes, everything. Everyone is white, all the time.
What is a typical day like at Burning Man?
There are so many ways to pass the time. I can only speak for myself here, and it looked something like this: Wake up. Take off last night’s glittery face paint using baby wipes. Brush teeth. Drink water. Have some coffee. Debrief previous slot of activities. Put on new glittery face paint. Don a ridiculous outfit. Head out together on bikes. Explore. Come back to the mobile home. Have a nap. Wake up again. It’s dark now. Don another ridiculous outfit. Repeat first few steps. Light yourself (and your bike) up like a Christmas tree so as to avoid being run over by other bikes in the pitch dark. Peddle off as a team. Explore. Get lost. Find home, eat noodles. Repeat entire process.
As for activities, you name it. There are yoga sessions, poetry workshops, art classes, plays and every sort of party you can imagine, all operating simultaneously in every corner.
The ground can best be described as hard, flat, cracked clay, which provides very favourable conditions for cycling. In the absence of sand, there is dust – fine white alkaline particles which coat everything
In terms of activities, there are yoga sessions, poetry workshops, art classes, plays and every sort of party you can imagine, all operating simultaneously in every nook and cranny
What is the famed ‘temple’?
It’s a huge, elaborate wooden structure in which people write poignant things and put up dedications – in the form of posters, placards, photos and poems – to people who have died.
I, not a fan of ceremony or religion in general, paid a visit regardless.
People there trundled around in a ghostly manner, many of them hunched and clutching a tissue in their fist, raised to their mouth, the way humans do when they’re trying to stop too much emotion leaking out.
There was no wailing or hugging or consoling. Each and every person was there alone, cloaked in a membrane of their own quiet grief.
Including me, as it transpired. It was impossible not to be moved.
So I picked up a Sharpie and wrote the names of the two individuals whose deaths have most made me suffer, and then I left to find the others with hot globules of tears falling off the cliffs of my cheeks.
The temple (pictured) is a huge, elaborate wooden structure in which people write poignant things and put up dedications – in the form of posters, placards, photos and poems – to people who have died
You’ll find props like this one strewn around at random. Annabel clambered into it one afternoon for a rest and to admire the view
Why do so many people wake themselves up for sunrises?
Sunrises here are a time of day not to be missed.
I avoided most of them because every time it looked like the sun was stirring, if I still happened to be out and about, a magnetic force dragged me to my mobile home and to my vampire box. Mornings are my nemesis.
But here, as I learned when I forced myself to attend one, they are magical and beautiful.
You aren’t in a cityscape! It’s not ugly! It’s not grey! The birds aren’t mocking you! You don’t have to go to work tomorrow! It doesn’t matter if you look a state! Everyone else does too!
Is there lots of dancing?
Yes. But I danced only a little here and there.
Every time I do it – and it’s not a pretty sight – I just feel painfully, lucidly aware that I’m a human with thoughts, bobbing around on the spot, trying to fend off all the thoughts, in a sea of other humans with thoughts.
So if, like me, dancing isn’t your cup of tea, you won’t have any lesser of a good time.
Sunrises here are a time of day not to be missed, not least because of the warm apricot light that floods the surroundings
For someone who is deeply suspicious of mornings back home, Annabel (far right) was certainly enjoying this dawn moment
If you’re the dancing sort, there’s plenty of that to be found. Annabel is not, so she just watched from afar
What do you eat?
Personally, spicy instant noodles, Nutri-Grain bars and the odd apple here and there. Anything you bring really, since there are no food trucks.
Why does everyone dress like a hedonistic Disney character?
For the same reason many people dress up on Halloween and at hen parties – because it’s fun to step out of your uniform once in awhile. It is true that outfits at Burning Man tend to be more ‘costume’ than ‘clothing’. Plenty of attendees spend months creating them in the lead-up, myself included.
Why do people wear goggles and masks?
Not to be outrageously trendy, but on account of the dust storms.
You’ll be riding along on your bike one minute, and then the next, the wind will pluck a tornado of dust out of nowhere and hurl it in your face.
You can see it coming. And then you can’t see anything. Art cars have to stop. Everyone gets off their bikes. If you don’t have googles and a mask, your eyes and mouth risk get finely coated with fast-moving dust.
Goggles and face masks are a must here, not to be outrageously trendy, but on account of the frequent dust storms
You’ll be riding along on your bike one minute, and then the next, the wind will pluck a tornado of dust out of nowhere and hurl it in your face. If you don’t have googles and a mask, your eyes and mouth risk get finely coated with fast-moving dust
This photo (left) was taken during a normal-ish day. The one on the right was taken just 12 minutes later after a sudden dust storm hit
What is it like leaving?
The most surprising bit about leaving for me, was a) how undestroyed I felt on a mental and physical level, and b) how fearful I was to turn my phone back on.
I had long landed back into cell service before I could bring myself to do it.
It was at a bar at the Nevada airport, and I was covered in white dust, flittering glitter every time I shifted in my seat. Turning my phone back on made me have feelings of the uncomfortable variety.
Had there been a natural disaster? A terrorist attack? A death in the family? A massive work-related catastrophe? A lot can happen in a week.
There was none of that. Just 678 emails, and the distinct feeling that this would be far from the last time I would wash up here at this very airport, a world-wary glitter monster.
On the last night, every wooden structure is burnt in a jaw-dropping, ember-hissing, cyclone-creating spectacle of pyromania. You can gain some sense of scale by looking at the size of the people in the bottom left-hand corner
Leaving this place after seven days was no easy task, and returning to the real world was a deeply strange sensation
WHAT TO PACK?
While you can’t buy anything at Burning Man, you sure need to acquire a lot of gear before you get there.
And not just outlandish costumes, which are optional of course, but things you’d never think to bring unless you’d been already – a portable cup, for example, and lights for your bike.
For outfits, it’s worth raiding fancy dress stores; Etsy is your one-stop shop for unusual accessories; eBay is great for trinkets and cheap items which you’ll ruin in the desert – sunglasses, army boots and the like.
I even taught myself how to use a sewing machine by watching a series of YouTube tutorials, and crafted most of my own more elaborate get-ups.
As for toiletries, you’ll need more baby wipes than you thought was possible, plenty of sunscreen and some lip balm. The desert has a way of drying you out.
Scroll down for a series of awkwardly posed photos of Annabel showcasing her wares.
Pictured (left to right) custom-made bejeweled bra and hotpants from Electric Laundry – I adored this and wore it nearly every day. You just send them your measurements and a mood board to demonstrate the sort of thing you’re after and they send you back a glittering masterpiece – worn with light-up tutu from Neon Nancy; gold mirrored mermaid top from WEKOKO; customized NASA top from H&M, unicorn leggings from eBay
Pictured (left to right) wolf hood from Electric Styles which I wore every single night. It’s soft, it’s warm, it changes colours and it has a really handy little zip compartment for squirrelling things; custom onesie from The-All-In-One-Company, which I can’t praise enough. You design every aspect of it yourself on their really easy and addictive website – I went for fleece leopard print with my name embossed, a union jack flag, hood and tail, and wore it every night; faux fur coat from Shuba Designs on Etsy – magnificent. Toasty warm, enormous, snuggly, with a kaleidoscopic printed lining
We were all very into Flash Tattoos, which are shiny, metallic, come in all sorts of sizes and patterns, and can survive anything. Seriously, they do not budge. It takes a good few days and a lot of scrubbing to get them off
This bra (left) from Neon Nancy is comfortable during the day and eye-catching at night when it lights up and flashes (centre). Or, go a step further and get some EL Wire from EL Wirecraft (right) – light-up cable you can use to attach to costumes and bikes
I made these outfits using the most fantastic fabrics from Abakhan – faux fur, faux leather faux suede – all really un-tacky and soft, with equipment from Hobbycraft, and EL wire
The makeshift Burning Man factory in my living room, with sewing machine from Hobbycraft, EL wire from EL Wirecraft, feathers from LucentFeathers, and sailor’s hat from eBay, which I covered in gems using a glue gun
Fabrics, ribbon, trimmings and iron-on motifs from Abakhan; sequins, studs, tools and gluey stuff from Hobbycraft – both very reasonably-priced and highly recommended companies
I got a plastic crown from Party Delights and turned it into a spectacle worthy of an ice queen using papier mache to create the spikes, then silver paint, glued-on gems and glitter (left). I then got a faux suede backpack from eBay (right) and plastered it with mini iron-on flags from every country I’ve been to on my travels. The only company that sells such a massive range of these teeny little beauties is smALL FLAGS, and they ship ludicrously fast
This headdress from LucentFeathers, a designer who gathers feathers which birds have shed naturally rather than plucked feathers from farms, comes in two parts which clip on to either side of your head. I altered them by adding striped faux fur panels
Foam angel wings from FishPishStudios on Etsy, which I sprayed silver, added gems to and flung a load of glitter over. The beauty of these is that they are almost as light as air, and therefore easy to transport
Goggles, which are absolutely essential for coping with dust storms, these frankly mind-blowing chaps are from Moxie & Mojo, and were custom made and supremely comfortable
These shoes from Electric Styles are great for trudging around in during the day, and light up at night (right) at the press of a botton in a wide range of colours and formations
Pictured (left) a Tatiana Karelina human hair clip-in which you can wind into your own hair and (right) a jumper from Bow & Drape, a brand which lets you customize their designs with whatever slogans and motifs you want
I am terrible at remembering to drink water at the best of times so this Jack Wolfskin pack (left) probably saved me from a certain dehydration disaster. And this collapsible silicone cup (right) from Not Just A Gadget stretches into a decent-sized vessel and has a clip with which to attach it to your bag – it was one of my most-used items all week
Finally, a bike. Most people buy cheap ones from Walmart which they drag in from the outside world. I rented a really good bike from the inside, at a place called Playa Bike Repair (pictured). You order it before you get there and collect it when you arrive. When you’re done at the end of the week, you just bring it back and leave. This place also rents bike locks, which are essential – your trusty steed will last all of about ten minutes without one, before some confused passer-by wanders past and ‘borrows’ it. And they hire out monkey lights, and fix other people’s bikes