How to Join a Burning Man Theme Camp
Want to join a great camp? Here’s what to do, what not to do, and how to participate in a way that leads to an invitation.
Rule 1: DO NOT post that you are looking for a camp.
Effective camps don’t chase after those who lazily broadcast they are looking for a camp, so don’t go to places where theme camps are introducing themselves and post you are looking for a camp! Instead, engage camps that are seeking members through their recruitment process. There are approximately 700 theme camps in a society of 80,0000 attendees. Coordinating a theme camp is time consuming, expensive and stressful. Organizers prioritize those who add significant value, understand needs, and have earned trust.
Rule 2: Connect Early
The vast majority of people seeking to join camps wait until spring or summer, this is far too late. The best time to cold start is Fall and early winter when camps are doing their planning and deciding how to scale camp according to the resources at hand. Camp members are the most crucial resource, so the earlier you connect with a camp, the more rewarding your participation.
Rule 3: Research Camps
There’s no shortcut: Burning Man posts a list of camps after they are approved in July, but by then most camps have confirmed their membership.
If you don’t find a camp for your first Burn, camp in open space like everyone else and use that first year to research camps. Get to know the membership and what the camp offer; this is the best way to gain acceptance. When you find a camp you like, volunteer to help them break down and pack at the end of the event. If you haul away garbage, they’ll really love you, which is even more important in camps that only accept new member applications through invites from existing camp members.
Rule 4: Be Aware, Present and Useful
Understand the difference between a tourist and a Burner. Tourists visit places for fun and relaxation, consuming resources and contributing little or nothing in return. Burners realize that everything they enjoy at the event emerges from effort and sacrifice by attendees. People hear rumors that Burning Man is a place to go for a transformative experience. The best renditions of transformation involve solidarity emerging from hard labor in a harsh environment. Also important is gifting and interactivity, which are the primary functions of a theme camp. Burning Man understands that comforts offered within camps are necessary to mobilize offerings, so they tolerate these functions, but with a higher level of scrutiny. These responsibilities are adopted by camp members.
Camps play a crucial role in Burning Man’s cultural objectives: not just understanding, but living the Ten Principles through implementation. This requires shedding habits and assumptions programmed by the default world. The most difficult habit to break is the notion that ANYTHING is being handled for you. There’s no infrastructure here except what people bring and manage themselves. There’s no garbage service; nobody picking up after you and failure to demonstrate this is an insult to everyone who makes the event happen.
Hard, tedious labor is expected from every camp member. There are duty rosters. Everyone works to operate a kitchen, participate in meals and keep camp clean and orderly, including setting it up and tearing it down. There is an event calendar that members must participate in delivering. Expressing your understanding of the camp’s obligations and your commitment to work is essential to landing an invitation.
Camps that host performance venues sometimes move talented performers to the top of the invite list. Fire dancers, singers, and instrumentalists are sought after. DJ’s…not so much because there are so many, unless they bring and set up all the camp’s audio.
Rule 5: Check your Footprint
Real estate is a valuable commodity at Burning Man and every camp is constrained on the space they occupy. Theme camps provide interactivity through an interesting public street frontage. Camper density is a key evaluation tool during the application process.
If you think you’re going to waltz in with a big RV for one or two people, think again. A typical RV consumes the space of three tents, each of which usually host two people. If you aren’t cramming six or more people into that RV, you are wasting space. For this reason, for your first year with a theme camp you should propose to tent camp and use as little space as possible. Consider taking the Burner Express bus so your vehicle isn’t taking space. Use that first year to prove your value, then, when they appreciate what you bring to camp, you can ask if you can bring an RV next time. Even then, you need to consider density and what you are doing to offset the extra space you occupy.
One more thing about bringing an RV: if you aren’t arriving the day the event opens, don’t join a theme camp. As the event fills up, it’s extremely difficult to hold open space. As bike and pedestrian traffic increases, safely maneuvering an RV into a tight space is nearly impossible. Peak absurdity is felt when someone requests to join a camp with a huge RV and showing up halfway through the event, so if you still plan to bring an RV, be sure you arrive the first day.
Words about SETUP
There are many misconceptions about setup, so read carefully before bothering a camp about this. Burning Man culminates in burning things. First go the small art effigies, then the Man, and finally Temple. These burns occur over three nights, but most people just want to see the Man burn on Saturday. If that was the sum of the event, it wouldn’t be a week long. What’s going on the rest of the time? Projects: theme camp events, art installations and mutant vehicles. All these need to be in place and fully operational when the event opens. For theme camps this is imperative.
The Burning Man organization is engaged in laying out the event over a month in advance. After they’ve completed most of their work, they grant volunteer projects an interval known as “Setup Week.” This runs from the Monday before the event to event opening on Sunday morning (6 days). Only a select few members of the most difficult and largest projects are allowed in for the full duration of setup week. The vast majority of setup workers are granted Work Access Passes (WAPs) that begin Thursday or Friday.
WAPs are among the most tightly regulated permissions, requiring huge commitments through tedious application processes. No project organizer ever receives as many WAPs as they would like, so they are under tremendous pressure to select only the camp members who leverage the greatest benefit.
How do you get invited to a setup crew?
Don’t request being on setup. Do make it known you have special skills, infrastructure, or hauling capacity that you would be willing to donate. Serving a crucial need is how you get invited. The camp organizers will either circulate an opening among approved members or invite you directly.
Hard labor is assumed from every camp member, so offering to work is nothing special. Here are some examples of sought after member skills: construction, electrician, culinary, fabrication, accounting, legal, graphic design, 3D printing/engineering, mechanical fabrication, Arduino or Raspberry Pi coding, LED lighting effects, and medical. Your research should enable you to identify a gap they are facing and pair that with a skill offering to improve your chances of being selected.
All camps and projects need help moving gear to and from the playa and hauling capacity is often a fast track to setup. Examples include: a 3/4 ton truck that can tow, offering to tow a trailer to the event, offering to rent a cargo van to shuttle gear, extra space in a toy hauler trailer, extra space in an RV.
Words about Teardown and Demobilization
If you join a camp, its in bad taste to beat traffic by leaving in the middle of the night after the Man burns (futile because if everyone does this, Exodus isn’t any faster). Leave early and many camps won’t invite you back, so you should stay at least through Sunday morning to help dismantle camp (teardown). When this is done, there’s the same pile of stuff that the setup crew brought in, requiring just as much capacity to haul out, clean up and put away (demobilization).
Most people that request vacation time from their jobs can only be gone for two weeks, so if they somehow survive setup and Burn week, they can’t participate in demobilization. Camps receive far more requests to join Setup than they receive passes for, but almost nobody expresses interest in Demobilization. This is strange, because no special passes are required and the experience feels the same as setup where you enjoy bonding with camp members a little longer, extending the Burn experience.
This is the only time that RVs are advantageous enough to override space considerations. With infrastructure such as the kitchen dismantled, support for tent camping ends. The ideal RV setup is a ¾ ton or greater truck with a trailer. More specifically, a toy hauler type trailer with a ramp that allows it to be used for hauling is the best scenario. Motorhomes are less useful because they aren’t the best choice for towing trailers back and forth and are notoriously difficult to load and unload.
Camps demobilize in one of three ways:
Shipping container: leased from Burning Man or an outside service provider. Camp infrastructure is dusted off and crammed in for long-term storage, then locked. The provider hauls it away to storage and the camp doesn’t see the contents again until the next Burn when the provider delivers it to the next site. This outsourced option is the least burdensome for hauling, but the most expensive. Deep pockets or heavy fundraising are required to cover the annual expenses for this and camp dues play a large role in such overhead.
Mini Storage in Black Rock vicinity. Most often, this method involves shuttling trailers and gear to storage in Empire or a remote site near the desert. Some sorting and cleaning can then take place off playa.
Hauling everything out of the area to storage in Reno, Sparks or beyond. If you seek inclusion on setup or demobilization, it helps to understand which of these methods your camp relies upon the most and find ways to reduce their burdens with your involvement. The more involved camp members are with hauling infrastructure themselves, the distance of the haul, and where it must be taken impacts whether or not your capacities are useful in this regard. That said, the common denominator for both setup and demobilization involves tedious cleaning, strong material organization, and lifting.