How to do Burning Man on a Shoestring Budget

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One of the biggest misconceptions I often hear about Burning Man is that it costs thousands of dollars to attend. While it is totally possible to spend thousands of dollars on Burning Man, it is definitely not necessary. The first time I attended Burning Man I had recently started a new business (i.e. I was broke), and I had to keep costs as low as possible. Here I’ll share with you how to do Burning Man on a shoestring budget.

What are the essentials you need for Burning Man?

While there are plenty of items that make Burning Man more comfortable, there are a few things that are essential to your survival on the playa (if you aren’t sure if Burning Man is for you read “Should I go to Burning Man?”). These things are:

  • Water (at least 1.5 gallons per person per day)
  • Food (enough to feed yourself for a week in the desert)
  • Shelter
  • A Ticket

These are the items you absolutely must have in order to visit Black Rock City, Nevada (not sure what Black Rock City is? Read more about Burning Man here).

WATER

This is the most essential item you will need for Burning Man.

Burning Man takes place on a dry lakebed in the Black Rock Desert, which is one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. The humidity is so low at Burning Man that water evaporates instantly, and you won’t even feel yourself sweat. In a day at Burning Man you will need to consume at least double the amount of water you would consume in a normal day at home.

My first burn I bought eight 2.5 gallon jugs of water from Walmart on my way to the playa, and I had plenty of water to last me the entire week.

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FOOD

Food is also an essential item for Burning Man because you can’t buy or sell anything on the playa (besides ice for your cooler). There are no vendors where you can purchase food, so you need to show up with enough food to last you the entire week.

Since Black Rock City is HOT, keeping perishable food fresh is tricky, and I didn’t even attempt it my first year. Instead I brought enough shelf stable (canned/dehydrated) food to last me the week. I did bring a cooler, but only used it to keep beverages cold. This saved me money because I didn’t need to buy much ice, and canned food for one person is cheap.

(PRO Tip: Plan out each of your meals in a spreadsheet before you go grocery shopping, this will help ensure that you don’t buy more food than you need!)

SHELTER

You are going to need somewhere to sleep at Burning Man. A simple tent works just fine on the playa, but be sure to stake it down with 1 foot rebar or very heavy duty tent stakes (the stakes that come with a tent will not cut it). LOTS of people tent camp at Burning Man (probably the majority, though I don’t know the statistics on that), so don’t let the Youtube videos convince you that you need an RV in order to enjoy Black Rock City!

In fact, RV’s can be a HUGE hassle on the playa as it’s difficult (often impossible) to get them serviced, and by the end of the week they get STINKY from sitting in the sun with full holding tanks. In my non-Burning Man time I travel full time in an RV, and I would never take it to Black Rock City.

My first burn I bought a cheap used tent off Craigslist for $15, and it worked perfectly for me. I filled it with a $5 sleeping pad and a $10 sleeping bag I bought at a garage sale. You won’t be spending much time in your tent so don’t worry about getting something large or fancy if you’re trying to keep costs low.

TICKET

Finally, and most importantly, you need to already have a ticket before you show up at Burning Man. This may seem obvious, but every year people show up at the gate without a ticket hoping to somehow get in. This will not work. Plus it’s a strain on the event volunteers who have to explain why you cannot sit by the gate asking random people for tickets all day. Don’t be that guy.

A regular priced Burning Man ticket costs $425 plus taxes and delivery fees. The final price tag is actually about $470. However, if this price is outside your financial means (it certainly was outside of mine!) there is a low income ticket program which gives out several thousand tickets for $190. The low income ticket program requires that you fill out an application and provide proof of finances, you can read more about the process here.

What are the non-essentials that you should bring?

  • Monkey Hut (or some sort of shade structure)
  • Camp Chair
  • Cooler with ice
  • Plastic bin with lid
  • Camelbak
  • Some desert-friendly clothes (including goggles, dust mask, comfortable shoes)

PVC Quonset Hut (cheap shade structure)

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While personal shade is not an essential for Burning Man, it really will make you much more comfortable. The sun is so direct and hot in Black Rock City that it begins to heat an unshaded tent around 7am. If you construct a cheap shade structure and put your tent underneath it you will be able to sleep an extra 2-3 hours in the morning. You’ll also have a shaded space to hang out when you want a break from the excitement of Black Rock City (and you probably will want a break- remember you will have an entire week at Burning Man to explore).

My first burn (and every burn after) I constructed a PVC quonset hut shade structure to go over my tent. I chose this design because it was cheap, easy to transport, and known to stand up well to the high winds that often pick up on the playa. Also, one person can construct this shade without assistance, and I went to Burning Man alone!

The quonset hut that I brought to my first burn returned with me to the playa 5 times! I definitely got my money’s worth out of it.

CAMP CHAIR

It is really nice to have a chair to sit in under your shade structure. While it’s not an essential, it will definitely add to your comfort. I bought a simple camping chair for $5 at a garage sale.

COOLER WITH ICE

Skipping perishable food is a great idea if you’re trying to do Burning Man on a shoestring budget, but I still recommend bringing a medium sized cooler for cold beverages. It’s hard to describe how good an ice cold Powerade tastes after hours of bicycling around Black Rock City.

I bought a medium sized cooler (42 quart size) off of Craigslist for $10 my first year. I filled it with ice blocks I made in my freezer at home (use tupperware to make these!), pre-chilled drinks, and then stuffed it with as much cubed ice as I could fit. I didn’t open the cooler again until I got to Black Rock City. This method worked well, and I didn’t have to buy more ice until the middle of the week.

(PRO tip: Put a small jar of pickles in your cooler! Cold pickles are heavenly in the heat of the playa)

PLASTIC BIN WITH LID

This is an excellent way to dust proof your belongings for the week. The dry lakebed that Black Rock City sits on is covered in a layer of playa dust. This dust is similar in consistency to baby powder, and gets EVERYWHERE. You could bring a regular suitcase to Burning Man but dust would easily get inside of it so a plastic bin with a snapping lid is a much better choice to pack your belongings in.

Luckily, these bins are cheap (around $10) at your local big box store.

CAMELBAK

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A backpack with a hydration bladder inside of it is almost a Burning Man essential. You will want to carry a lot of water with you anytime you leave your camp, and hydration bladders are the easiest way to do that. Plus, you can use the backpack section to hold your goggles, dust mask, snacks, etc.

If you get a name brand Camelbak it's going to cost a little more. I fot mine at the REI garage sale for $30 which was a really good deal. There are knockoff brands that cost about that much new so it's still possible to get this item at a reasonable price.

SOME DESERT-FRIENDLY CLOTHES

Costumes are very popular at Burning Man, but they can get very expensive very quickly. Hit your local thrift store to find fun/interesting clothing pieces for cheap. Just remember that you will be in the desert so it’s VERY hot during the day, and then it gets chilly at night. Thrift stores are an excellent place to find a warm coat for nighttime, goggles to protect your eyes from a dust storm, and light colored loose clothing (which feels really good in the daytime heat).

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What about gifts?

Great question! As I mentioned above you cannot buy or sell anything at Burning Man, instead the entire city runs on a gift economy. This is not to be confused with a barter economy! A gift economy means that everyone gives something to the community, without expecting an immediate gift in return.

For gifts I brought my tarot cards with me so I could gift readings. I also brought extra beer to share with neighbors, and I helped people set up their camps. Your gift does not have to be a material thing, it could be a service like massage, a class you teach, or something wacky like a bad advice booth.

Do I need a bike at Burning Man?

This question gets asked a LOT, and the answer is- no, you don’t need a bike in Black Rock City. However, a bike certainly makes the week easier as Black Rock City is several miles wide so exploring on foot can be slow going.

(PRO tip: Even if you have a bike at Burning Man spend at least one night exploring on foot, it’s amazing what you will discover walking around Black Rock City)

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There is a community bike share program at Burning Man. The community bikes are called “green bikes”, and are very obviously bright green in color. If you see a green bike sitting anywhere that means that it is available for use, and you can ride it wherever you’d like. However, as soon as you get off of the green bike it is available to the community again, so while these can be a great option for occasional transportation, relying completely on green bikes is not the best plan. (Also, don’t even think about putting a lock on a green bike to try to hang onto it for yourself. Org volunteers travel the playa with bolt cutters cutting any lock that they see on a green bike.)

I already had a cheap beach cruiser bicycle when I went to Burning Man for the first time, so I just decorated that and brought it. If you already own an inexpensive bike then go ahead and bring it. Yes, it will get VERY dusty, but bike’s are easily cleaned when you get back from the playa.

I would not recommend bringing a very expensive bicycle to the playa, simply because it could get damaged by the dust. If you don’t have a bike at all, a cheap used bike off of craigslist will work just fine for Burning Man.

If you do bring a bicycle to Burning Man be sure to decorate it before you head to the playa!

Getting to the playa

Don’t forget to factor in transportation when you’re making your Burning Man budget. The cheapest way to get to the playa is a ride share, which is how I got the playa my first year. Since I was sharing the gas it only cost me $60 to get from Los Angeles to the playa. Ride shares to Burning Man are available all over the country- you can use the Burning Man official ride share board to find someone to travel with! 

Here’s a chart that shows all of my expenses when I did Burning Man on a shoestring budget:

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For less than $600 I enjoyed an eight day trip to Black Rock City, Nevada and had one of the most incredible experiences of my life! Also, keep in mind that I didn’t own any camping gear before I went to Burning Man, so you may be able to reduce your costs even further if you already own some of the items on this list!

Starting to plan your own Burning Man adventure? Check out our guide to Burning Man preparation!