Gifting Yourself to Burning Man

One reason Burning Man is what I call “the world turned on its head for seven days” is because of its gifting economy.  But the concept is a little hard to get for some people.  I frequently have to correct people who believe “gifting” means “bartering.”  But give doesn’t mean trade, and gifting means giving away whatever you have to offer.  Some people gift their skills to the community:  massage therapists, bicycle repairers, bartenders, for example.  Everyone gives their presence to Black Rock City as we all become members of the community.  And many of us give through volunteer work.

Judie and I take great delight in the opportunities that BRC provides for us to give back.  Within our camp, we volunteer to help in the kitchen and tend bar.  We also volunteer to be Greeters one night each year.  More about that in a minute.

We also volunteer as Temple Guardians one night each Burn, and we’ll publish more about Temple Guardians soon.  Our Lamplighters camp depends heavily on volunteers to put out the lamps every night.  In fact, it’s one of the Rites of Passage for Burners to take a turn as a Lamplighter at least once during each Burning Man.

Where’d that come from?  Art on the Playa

We take a turn as Greeters along with a group of our Lamplighter campmates, and what a great night that has turned out to be.  Greeters are the people who welcome you into Burning Man, provide some crucial information about life on the playa, and hand out the program booklet that tells pretty much everything going on during the week.  Greeters are not the ticket takers or the people who have to check your vehicle for contraband, we’re just the happy group that says “Welcome Home” when you arrive at the gate and – if you’re new to the Burn – get you to ring the virgin bell.

We always get festooned up in our best Burning Man costumes for our Greeters shift so that all arriving Burners get into the spirit as quickly as possible.  As Greeters, we meet people from all over the country and around the world.  We know we’re the “voice” of Burning Man when we do our Greeters shift so we try our best to reflect the fun and craziness that makes Burning Man what it is.  I can’t recommend highly enough taking a Greeters shift at least once.  It’s an exhausting, exhilarating fun ride.  If you’re interested, contact for more information.

Giving back is a concept that most people in our age group understand very well.  We’ve lived long enough to have seen both the importance of volunteering for our communities, and felt the personal value that accrues to us as volunteers.

Burning Man makes it easy to find and sign-up for volunteer opportunities.  At the Burn itself, the Playa Info tent is the place to go.  But there are plenty of opportunities listed on the Burning Man website ( or via eplaya, the electronic bulletin board of the Burning Man community.

For in-depth answers to your questions about volunteering at Burning Man, go to the Volunteer FAQ at

We welcome your ideas and anecdotes about volunteering at Burning Man.  In the near future we’ll be publishing pieces on some of the many possibilities for you to participate as volunteers at Burning Man.  Stay tuned.


Why did we choose Lamplighters?

When I first planned my trip to Burning Man with my son Eric, he looked into where we should stay and selected Lamplighters.  His decision was based on a careful evaluation of our situation:  we were going on our own; we had no existing knowledge or experience nor any existing relationships; we were completely responsible for ourselves.

Lamplighters (or any theme camp) offered us a ready-made community, which seemed like a smart way to start our Burning Man experience.  Also, Lamplighters was one of the few theme camps with its own kitchen to provide an evening meal.  Also, because Lamplighters was a well-established part of the Burning Man tradition, we felt very comfortable joining this group.  It also turned out that Eric and I had a great time learning the Lamplighters routine and participating in the nightly ritual of “lighting the city.”

In my second year at Burning Man, when Judie decided she would join us, it simply made sense to go back to the theme camp that had been such a good choice in year one.  Judie and I found a niche for ourselves in the morning pickup crew, while Eric continued his role helping to light the city every night.  By our third year, Judie and I had become well integrated into the Lamplighter environment, but Eric decided it was time to move on, joining a camp with his brother Jacob who was attending his first Burning Man.

Night of the Burn -- Year OneNight of the Burn — An Amazing Experience

One of the major reasons we feel so comfortable as Lamplighters (where we continue to participate) is that there are both younger and older people in the camp; although, Judie and I are probably the two oldest people there.  But because of Lamplighter’s long history as an important part of the Burning Man tradition, there are Burners who have been around for many years and are a little closer to our age.  We also love to be around the many young Lamplighters who inspire us and help keep us feeling youthful.  I don’t think we’d enjoy a camp of just older people.  After all, one of the real advantages of attending Burning Man at our age is that it makes us feel so much younger.

As the years have gone by, we’ve participated in more volunteer activities with our camp.  We love to spend at least one night as part of the kitchen crew, to take a shift or two behind the bar, and to take a Greeters shift with our fellow Lamplighters.  And because we have been part of Lamplighters for a number of years, we always get advance notice of the volunteer opportunities.

Eric made a great choice when he picked out Lamplighters, and we continue to enjoy staying in this theme camp.  But it’s important to realize that the choice we made was based on researching the available camps and sizing up the benefits for our particular situation.  There are many ways to find a place to stay, including hooking up with local Burners and finding out about camps that are based locally or are known and recommended by others.

Remember, you’ll be spending a week (or the better part of a week) in the camp you select, so put some energy into making the right choice.

Where Should I Camp at Burning Man?

So many choices…there are 50,000 or more people at Burning Man each year.  Some stay in tents, some in RV’s and some in innovative, self-made housing that defies description.  Despite the seemingly endless array of choices about where to camp, there are really only two types of camping to consider:  camping on your own or camping with a theme camp.

Advantages and Disadvantages

There are good and logical reasons to choose either individual camping or participating in a theme camp, so it seems best to begin by review the pluses and minuses of the two choices.

Camping on your own.  You can have the luxury of peace and quiet by choosing a site far from Center Camp.  Individual campsites are all located further away from the action than are theme camps.  But remember that you’re completely on your own without a ready-made community.  If you’re camping alone, make doubly sure that you have all the supplies you need so that you won’t need to rely on others.  It’s not that people are unfriendly and won’t help you if you have a problem, but camping on your own implies that you want a high degree of independence and you’re willing to prepare yourselves for all contingencies.

Many people like being away from the action near center camp because it’s much easier to get a good night’s sleep.  Nearer to the action and inside large theme camps, there are activities day and night, and disco-blasting art cars tend to roam nearby.  Farther out on the individual camping areas, the mood is tranquil and sleep tends to come easier.

My first year — tent camping with the Lamplighters

Theme camping.  When you become part of a theme camp you are joining a (usually) collegial group of Burners who share some common interests.  Theme camps often provide for meals (each person contributes a share of the food and takes a shift or two in the kitchen), and also provide a focus for your activities.  The “theme” is often a gift to the Burner community that you must participate in.  Sometimes its entertainment, sometimes therapeutics such as massage, sometimes some whimsical idea such as giving compliments to people walking near the camp.  Whatever the theme, you’ll be expected to “work” a certain number of hours supporting it during your stay at Burning Man.

If you’re going to join a theme camp, check out what is required of you first.  You’ll surely be asked to contribute supplies such as food, liquor and even furniture.  You might even be asked to pay a fee to join certain theme camps.  It’s up to you to decide if you want to join a theme camp with a fee or find one that just requires normal contributions of supplies.

As an example of theme camps, I stay with Lamplighters.  Lamplighters’ prime directive is to “Light the City Nightly” with a world-class collection of approximately 1,000 kerosene lanterns that are hung from stanchions placed strategically along major thoroughfares including the Esplanade, the main “keyholes” at 3 and 9 o’clock, Center Camp, the Man and the Temple and routes to those landmarks.

The lanterns are set out in a nightly ceremony that’s a true celebration of the spirit of Burning Man and requires volunteers from among the Black Rock citizenry.  To help recruit volunteers, the 200 or so full-time Lamplighters hold two of BRC’s largest party’s of the Festival – the Sangria Soiree on Monday and the Bloody Mary Brunch on Wednesday.  Open to all, these parties are marked by free-flowing libations served by Lamplighters who remind all attendees to come out at least once during Burning Man to volunteer as a “carrier”, “lifter” or “support” during the lighting ceremony at 4 p.m. each evening.  Many regular burners wouldn’t miss the opportunity of playing a role in “lighting the city” and following the cry of the Luminaries (leaders) “Make Way for the Lamplighters,” and the return call from BRC citizens “Thank you, Lamplighters.”

(An expanded description of Lamplighters as well as many other aspects of Burning Man can be found at Kit O’Connell’s A Burner’s Lexicon (, an excellent reference site for all things Burning Man.)

I’d love to hear from others about their experiences at camping on your own, picking a theme camp, and dealing with the pluses and minuses of both ways of experiencing Burning Man.


How Can I Talk My Friends into Joining Me at Burning Man?

The short answer is that you probably can’t.  At the very least, it won’t be easy.  Then again, Burning Man isn’t for everybody.  We’ve been proselytizing the Burning Man experience for seven years with only marginal success, but that hasn’t dampened our evangelical zeal.  Eventually, someone shows up, and even though there’s a better than even chance that they’ll hate it, some few will love it and come back again.

We accept the reality that Burning Man is especially intimidating for our age group.  It intimidated me when I first attended at age 60, and I never would have gone if not for the wishes of my 20-year-old son.  So we try to target our messages in specific ways for specific individuals.  More importantly, we always include frank discussions about the downsides of Burning Man – you know, the dust, the heat, the porta-potties – and how we’ve learned to cope with them.

So what compels an individual or couple to join you at Burning Man?  Five things come to mind:

Judie powers the famous Monkey art installation from 2006

Judie powers the famous Monkey-go-round from the 2006 Burn

  1. The art.  Older people tend to be more interested in art than the younger crowd.  For many of us, Burning Man is all about art that is created on one of the world’s most unusual canvases – the Black Rock Desert.  If you’ve been to the Burn, you already have the material you need to close the deal:  your photos of the amazing artwork.  Even if you don’t have photos of your own, there are literally thousands of examples available for free on websites about Burning Man.  Check out these example from the Huffington Post for a starter, and share them with your friends.  These images will stir the imagination of art lovers and make their mouths water for a week on the Playa.
  2. The change.  There’s no better way to experience a “change of pace” than going to Burning Man.  I’ve often described the festival as the world turned on its head for seven days.  If there’s anything of the humdrum to your friends’ lives, you can entice them with a week they will never forget.  From the moment they’re greeted with the traditional “Welcome Home,” your friends will know they’re “not in Kansas anymore” when they’re experiencing Burning Man.
  3. The laughs.  There’s so much whimsy at Burning Man that you find yourself smiling day and night.  And we all know that laughter is the best medicine.  So tell your friends that they’ll be happier and healthier after a week in the desert.  Here’s a site to share with your friends that features some of the awesome and hilarious art cars on the Playa.
  4. New friends.  Our trips to Burning Man have introduced us to a group of friends we never would have met otherwise.  There’s no comparing our Burner friends with our neighbors and work associates from other parts of our lives (what Burners call the Default World).  Our Facebook pages are brimming with thoughts, ideas and experiences from Burners that enhance our lives and make us feel younger every day.
  5. Boobs.  I have very few male friends who don’t ask to see my pictures from Burning Man every year hoping to see images of the naked females that abound on the Playa.  If you attend the Critical Tits bike ride, you’ll see more boobs than you’ve ever dreamed of.  And that’s a good thing, from my perspective.  So if your friends can’t be convinced by high-minded reasons to attend the Burn, just tell ‘em about the boobs.

Hold a slide show or just share a picture album, but bring the Playa to life if you want to entice your friends to join you next year at Burning Man.  Good luck.