What is Burning Man?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Burning Man is a weeklong festival that takes place the week prior to Labor Day, in Black Rock City, Nevada. It’s a curious mixture of people learning survival skills and the creation of art and music. It is capped by the annual tradition of burning the wooden sculpture of a man, created each year for the event. Thousands of people travel to Burning Man each year, paying about $200-300 US Dollars (USD) a piece for the privilege of experiencing this festival. Many make this an annual pilgrimage event, and contend there’s nothing quite like the festival anyplace else on earth.

The Burning Man website provides practical advice about how to survive in small and crowded campsites.
The Burning Man website provides practical advice about how to survive in small and crowded campsites.

Burning Man is the brainchild of friends Larry Harvey and Jerry James. In 1986, Larry desperately wanted to burn a sculpture of a man, and did so on a beach in San Francisco. The first “man” was an 8-foot (2.44m) wooden man, and was meant to represent a gift. As the Burning Man ignited, people crowded around to see it ignite, to sing, or to help with the burning, and it occurred to Harvey and James that there was something special, spiritual, and unique about this process.

Art and music are created during a weeklong festival known as Burning Man.
Art and music are created during a weeklong festival known as Burning Man.

The decision to repeat Burning Man on a yearly basis was likely inspired by the reaction of the first witnesses. Unfortunately, in 1989, the mood toward this effigy changed, and people attending the 1989 “burning” were not reacting in a spiritual way. Instead obscenities were chanted, deeply disturbing Harvey and James. They sought an alternative to San Francisco, and decided to expand Burning Man, but also limit it, by placing it in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, which is a fairly forbidding place, and especially hot during the summer months. By relocating it, James and Harvey freed it from people who attended just for the sake of seeing something burn.

Today the festival is very much about people living together in community. Food and gifts are shared, and there is little to no commercial presence at the event. Instead, a barter and trade economy is common practice. Many artists travel to the event each year to create massive art installations. Unlike other events that have been considered anti-social, Burning Man works hard with local authorities to safely burn the now 4-stories high man, and to make sure that people don’t damage the environment. Recycling and cleanup are stressed to all who participate.

The Burning Man website sells tickets to the event, and gives lots of practical advice about how to survive in small and crowded campsites. Much of their philosophy, and their ideas of community are stressed. The website additionally sells tickets to the event, and these can quickly sell out. The event provides a unique experience, and due to its stress on moral and civic behavior, tends to be a safe one. The festival does not condone the use of illegal drugs and their good relationship with the local authorities has led to very few problems at events in past years.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I have friends who go to Burning Man just about every year, but I've never been there. They tell me that some years are better than others as far as the overall vibe is concerned. A few of them say the festival is actually getting a little more corporate, even though the organizers try very hard to keep commercial interests away from the event.

I also thought the festival organizers were more ambivalent towards the use of recreational, albeit illegal, drugs. The way it was described to me, there are different sections of the festival grounds where different things are tolerated. Some areas condone nudity, while others allow responsible drug usage or consensual sexual activity. There's an internal "police" force, as such, but they aren't required to report misdemeanor crimes, like drug possession.


My in-laws live in Nevada and we visit them twice a year. Our last visit happened to be around the time of the Burning Man festival. We decided that we would participate in the festivities.

To explain exactly what Burning Man is can be very difficult. To us, it was more of an experience. It was absolutely fascinating. Everyone seems to have some kind of common ground. People show up on motorcycles, in RV’s and any other way that they can get there. Everyone is so carefree during the festival. There is plenty of food available. There are also local restaurants such as Bianca’s Smut Shack.

We participated in the burning of the man on Saturday night. It was awesome! We left feeling as though we had played a part in history. It was like a huge community of people and acquaintances.

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