Principles of Burning Man

27 August - 6 September 2011. Filed under category Travel.

Part 1 of my Burning Man guide left out one crucial element: the community. Burning Man is nothing without its people. There are ten principles that guide the behaviour of the Black Rock citizens, and those principles are the topic of this post.

Note that each principle begins with the official Burning Man definition.

Radical Inclusion

Playa Sweet Playa

Playa Sweet Playa

Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

This principle goes beyond having no restriction on ticket sales; it creates an atmosphere where you are welcome everywhere, regardless of your age, sex, race, outfit etc.

I always feel like I am ‘coming home’ when I arrive at Burning Man. This I attribute to the community’s unconditional acceptance and respect for people. It feels like family.

I can be rather shy in ‘the default world’, but in Black Rock City, the barriers between people are torn down and I am not just free but actively encouraged to talk with everyone and anyone. It is liberating. It is radical inclusion.

Radical Self-expression

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

I, Expressing.

I, Expressing.

None of the principles are embraced so enthusiastically as this one. Burners are like snowflakes: each one unique in design and mesmerizingly dazzling. At Burning Man, you are not just allowed to wear anything you want; you are encouraged to do so! The more outrageous and intricate you make your costume, the more supportive the community becomes.

Burning Man is the perfect place for self-exploration as well as self-expression. Let your curiosity off the leash and try to push some boundaries. No one will judge you.

If you want to stretch your mind, there are talks, workshops and discussion groups on nearly any topic under the sun. If you have something to say or perform then Center Camp offers a free stage.

Finally, the amazing art and art cars of Burning Man (discussed in part 1) all stem from the principle of radical self-expression.

Radical Self-reliance

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

A dust storm sweeping over the playa.

A dust storm sweeping over the playa.

The Black Rock community is generous and welcoming; the Black Rock desert is not. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a more inhospitable landscape. It is a high-altitude desert with scorching heat during the day and biting cold at night. The dry air continuously wicks the moisture from your skin and dehydration is a constant danger. The deceptive weather can change from suffocatingly still to a blinding whiteout (dust storm) in minutes, leaving you disoriented and choking on the alkaline dust.

Since you cannot buy anything at Burning Man, you must bring everything you need yourself. That includes shelter, food, water, goggles, masks, repair kit etc.

Attending Burning Man is not like climbing Mount Everest. Nevertheless, there is something oddly satisfying in erecting your little tent, roughing it out in the dust and relying on your own strength and preparations for a week.


A gifted gold cube (minecraft).

A gifted gold cube (minecraft).

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

In the default world, gift giving has been replaced by commerce except on a few well-scripted events such as birthdays and Christmas. However, since gifts are expected on those occasions, the fun for the giver is dulled and for many it becomes a chore.

In contrast, burners habitually give for the joy of giving and without presumptions of reciprocity. We give not only to friends but to strangers too.

The gifts range from the small (a Burning Man symbol made out of last year’s burn nails) to the large (a sleeping bag to help the guy who brought too thin of a blanket.) They can be transient (a frozen Margarita to take the edge of the heat) or a service (a massage to unknot that corporate back.) The gifts are as inventive as the Black Rock citizens are, and that says a lot.

My finest gift was a beautiful leather kilt, hand-made on the spot by a Cirque du Soleil costume designer!


Burning Man Monopoly.

Burning Man Monopoly.

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Money makes the world go round, and with so much of it around, no wonder our heads spin. I personally believe capitalism has done a lot of good, but I still breathe a sigh of release when I return to Black Rock City, a rare haven in our globalized world of commerce.

The rule is simple. You are not allowed to buy or sell anything at Burning Man, nor are you allowed to promote any commercial enterprise while at the event. (Bartering is not officially banned, but strongly discouraged.)

There are three exceptions to this principle. You can buy ice since it is impossible to bring and store yourself. For less obvious reasons, Center Camp sells coffee, tea and other drinks. Finally, as an extension of the porta-potties, you can buy RV sanitary servicing.

Communal Effort

Volunteering Lamplighters.

Volunteering Lamplighters.

Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Volunteering is a virtue at Burning Man. Nearly everything that gets done (ticket checking at the gate, the lighting of street lamps, peace keeping, information kiosks and anything happening in the theme camps) gets done because people freely give their time to make it happen.

No one will force you to work at Burning Man. My first instinct was that I had come too far to work, and I just wanted to have fun. I later realized how counterproductive that attitude was. Creating great experiences for others was more fun than being the receiver. It connected me to the community in a way that wouldn’t have happened if I had remained a spectator.

There was a difference between enjoying the street lamps of Burning Man and volunteering with the Lamplighter’s Guild to lift them to their hooks using my own two arms and a long pole.


There is always room for one more.

There is always room for one more.

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Volunteering is one way to participate at Burning Man, but there are other ways to get involved. Most of the activities and art installations at Burning Man draw you in and make you a living part of it. You are invited to play the instruments, climb the sculptures, activate the contraptions, fire the flamethrowers, hold the kites and ride the art cars. Burning Man is a shared event, and you are encouraged to participate in it.

Civic Responsibility

Burners Without Borders

Burners Without Borders

We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

If Burning Man sounds like unchecked madness to you, then this principle should put your worried heart to rest. People look out for one another at Burning Man, but there is a different feel to public health and safety there than in the default world. Instead of safety for the sake of avoiding lawsuits, there is safety because we care about the people in the community.

Leaving No Trace



Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Fifty thousand people descending on a fragile landscape for one week should lead to the quick defilement of the desert, but it does not, thanks to this important principle.

Firstly, you cannot leave stuff behind. If you brought it and it hasn’t gone through your intestines by the time you leave Burning Man, you must bring it back.

Secondly, you cannot mess with the environment, like digging a hole in the sand. The many public burns at Burning Man are carefully prepared so that they don’t leave any burn scars.

Special honours go to the clean-up crew who volunteer weeks of labour to restore the desert to a pristine condition each year.


The Burning of the Temple.

The Burning of the Temple.

Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

Burning Man somehow feels more ‘real’ than other places. Your normal life, worries and reservations, everything that prevents you from being present in the here and now, fall away like dead useless skin. What lies beneath is tender, but it allows you to feel in new ways.

Your senses are sharper, your mind works more clearly and your emotions are given free reigns. It induces a ceaseless state of mindfulness. Your body, mind and soul are wide-open and embracing life. It is a giddying high that I rarely experience in the default world.

I have never taken anything stronger than alcohol, so this is not the effect of some drug.

This principle is the hardest to understand before you’ve been to Burning Man, but the easiest to recognize once you are there.

Should I go?

I get this question a lot, and the answer is not an obvious yes. Burning Man is not for everybody. I have met people who have hated it. Mostly they fall into two categories: those who can’t stand being constantly hot/cold/dusty/dirty/uncomfortable and those who don’t get involved.

To enjoy Burning Man, you should become an active part of the community, live by the principles and let yourself go. Don’t just watch the show but roll up your sleeves and make it happen. The more effort you put in, the more rewarding Burning Man will be.

More information

If you have not read part 1 of my Burning Man guide, then do so. Still want more? Great. The official Burning Man website has everything you need to know, including accurate information where I just made up some stuff. (just kidding)


How could you incorporate these principles your ‘normal’ life?

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  1. Andy DelliColli says:

    Awe! That’s a good question! I received a great card from DiscoLove and his wife, Purple Dragon Princess that put it very tightly into a single phrase, “Burning Man, it’s more than a festival, it’s a way of life!” I have for many years harkened back to the principles in times of despair, and they rarely, if ever, let me down.

  2. Craig Brown says:

    I have been reluctant to check out Burning Man in the past because I had the idea that costuming and a highly original type of contribution were expected, and I’m not into dress up much and I could never think of an original way to contribute. I thought you had to follow the theme (i.e. Rites of Passage). But your blog has made it seem different to me: I’d love to play on those amazing contraptions and I could certainly contribute in any plebian type way: clean up, lamp lighting, etc. The whole experience looks like a radical way to shake up preconceptions and meet awesome people who think outside the box. I may have to show up.
    So the principle I think of incorporating more into my life has more to do with the next blog: sometimes it’s good to just fall backwards off your heals into the unknown…you might just fly! Kind of.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      ‘Plebian’ contributions are the most appreciated! We all know that the wheels of Burning Man continue to turn only because people volunteer to do not just the fun jobs but the less glamorous ones too, like cleaning up.

      1. Moaglie says:

        Hey hey! moaglie here…….hope ur travels are well! email me sometime eh rawr!

    2. Andy DelliColli says:

      Or foot fluffing! As far as costuming goes, I find it doesn’t necessarily have to be a costume per se, rather it is frowned upon to dress in a manner that would be considered “normal” in the default world. At night it is very frowned upon, and indeed extremely dangerous to not wear something that lights up (glowsticks are ok, but they tend to be moopy and aren’t reuasable). People who commit this crime are generally referred to by the name “Darkwad” or the more offensive “Darktard”. Another option for during the day for those who hate dressing up, is, of course, dressing down…. way down. My definite must have piece of costuming is a pair of sports compression shorts, they help prevent chaffing. Over that I’ll usually throw on a sarong and a bright t shirt, and that covers day apparel to a tee. Its really easy. If you find you still have trouble “fitting in” (by which I mean “sticking out”) in Black Rock City, you can also visit one of our many many many free boutiques loaded with people willing to slip you into something more questionable. Free of charge, naturally.

      1. Craig Brown says:

        LOL, thanks for the very humorous answer Andy! I own a massage table and I’m good at it, so…maybe foot fluffing (I’m not sure what that is) is something I’d be good at. And dressing down sounds more appealing! I look better the more articles of clothing I remove. But boutiques to help costume challenged people sound very helpful. “Darktard”s? Ha, that doesn’t sound too politicaly correct! I presume darktards are radically included, even those who have been mowed down (and honorable carried off to the Temple before cremation).

    3. Tobias says:

      It’s certainly not required to dress in any particular way at Burning Man but I think it makes the event more fun to go to some effort and do something unusual – whether that is an unusual dress, or some unusual gift that you’re offering to others, or something else. I sometimes like to compare Burning Man to a theme party: Some people go to a lot of effort to dress up, and they do so not for any material gain but because they want to entertain and be admired by their friends. This same social connection is what drives people to dress crazy and experiment with the way they appear at Burning Man, and what drives people to build theme camps and offer some awesome, fun, free services to other people. And as Gustav mentions, it is as deeply or even more deeply satisfying to give such a gift as/than to receive it.

  3. Andy DelliColli says:

    “Foot Fluffing” is one of my many gifts to the Playa, it is where I wash the dust off the feet, then a nice oil massage. Those that needed extra care (like my own) received blister treatments and whatnot. My other gift was erradicating Darktards systematically by giving them light up necklaces, rings, and hairpieces (whichI bought wholesale dirt cheap)! A quick lecture followed by the gifting of lights. There were still many accidents on the playa this year involving darkwads and collisions with bikes. Radical self reliance is a great thing to have there, but it is also good to know that the other 49,999 of your soulmates are willing to help when things go awry.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      I can personally vouch for Andy’s skills in foot fluffing. Not only will he rejuvenate your poor feet, but he’ll tell you the most amazing stories whilst doing so.

      1. Andy DelliColli says:

        By next year I intend to be living in Reno! It seems to me, darling, that by then you will more than likely have a bunch of stories to tell! Will you be at burning man next year to relay some of them in person?

        1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

          Free to go where I like, I would be surprised if I didn’t choose to go to Burning Man!

          1. Andy DelliColli says:

            Yeah, I haven’t had the luxury just yet, but I have been to three continents and I can safely say, it’s the most magical place I’ve been to so far. Well, your crew is always welcome to use my place in Reno as a jumping point if you need to rest on the way. My campmates and I are planning on having a barbeque there before we leave, you’re more than welcome to join it!

  4. Brother Henrik says:

    Hejsan broder nästa år vill jag oxså åka till Burning Man.
    Ska se vad chefen på jobbet tycker och känna efter om jag kan vara utan Denise så länge.
    Hur köper man billjeten dit?
    Jag antar att vi skulle kunna åka dit och bo tillsamans 🙂

  5. crys says:

    I’m a 65 year old woman, still a Burning Man virgen, but my son was there three years in a row. He died in Oct. 2009. Burning Man was one of the last things he did. He lived for it. It was HOME. I WILL come HOME one day to see,hear, feel,and live some sort of experience of my own. I am joyful he made it there three times in his 25 years. His spirit lives on, and he and I are one.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Thank you so much for sharing that emotional story. It sounds like he loved Burning Man as much as I do, and that is a very powerful thing to have had in your life.

      I hope you can visit Burning Man next year and see the place that your son loved so much. I am sure that many burners will be happy to help you make that happen. Look at the list of regional Burning Man groups and see if there is one close to where you live.

      When you do go, and if it feels right, bring something of your son’s and offer it up at the Temple, and stay for the Temple burn. I wish you all the best.

    2. Andy DelliColli says:

      Oh yes, Crys, come home. :’-) you can see what heaven for him is truly like. Love everywhere.

    3. Rose says:

      @ Crys … Do not hesitate – Life is too short not to experience the deep and exquisite joy that Burning Man supports. Consider joining Lamplighters: a wonderful camp which swoops up virgins, and provides an engaging supportive Home within Home.
      Wait no more …

    4. charlie says:

      My dear Crys, I am a 64 year old woman whose son has been to Burning Man 5 years in a row and for whom the experience was the most significant of his life (and he has a pretty fantastic life!). He begged me each year to go and I hesitated for fear of not having access to my “comforts”. Well, this year I went with my son, Jason, and sharing this with him has jettisoned me into a galaxy of love – for him – for myself – and for life – beyond what I ever could have imagined. You must go. You must allow your heart to embrace and revel in what gave your dear Josh access to such joy. You will recognize the power of your loving nurture that impelled him to keep returning to Burning Man. You will find kindred spirits, freedom and strength, you must go. I will continue to make the trip every year I have left on this earth, I must.

  6. Rat Lady says:

    I was a virgin this year, after 14 years of dreams and regrets. I thought because of my wheelchair, I could never navigate the Playa. WRONG!!! There is actually a handicapped friendly camp, the Black Rock City Department of Mobility. They have a handicapped accessable camp, Power to recharge your mobility equipment and gift rides to many many others! I am already planning for next year and hope anyone who wants to find us will e-mail at It was an Amazing experience!

    1. Calico says:

      Congratulations for making it out to the Playa!
      My Lady, Lady Laughter, has been to the Playa nine times. She is also wheelchair bound & on thursday of her first year, a guy rolled up in an art car to ask how she was doing & getting about(it was one of the WORST dust years!! Inches deep dust everywhere). He then offered her the use of his art car, which he designed & built for the disabled to drive! She was of course overwhelmed & used the car both that night & burn night. While we we out in the deep Playa, we were talking to a Black Rock Ranger and she told him how awesome it was for this guy to bring out three hand controlled art cars for the disabled to use, but he was camped in the back corner of the city and had to hunt for places to recharge the cars.

      We did not know this ranger we VERY high up in their command structure and he went back & told the guy in charge of Handicapped services about this. He went found the art car builder & after 90 mins of enjoying the cars they had each built, he told the guy, “by the way, you have space in Center Camp for your camp for next year”. And thus Hot WheelZ was born. In 2009 Dale stepped down from running Hot WheelZ and the Dept of Mobility camp was created to take the place of Hot WheelZ! But remember this, Lady laughter did her first year without the advantages of a mobility camp… so ANYONE in a chair can do it too! (see my post under favorite memories for what she said/did that first year!!!)

  7. nik says:

    The thing about explaining burning man to people who’ve never been is – it’s a bit like explaining sex to virgins. You can only get so far – and actually not very far at all – without experiencing it yourself.

    All that is said above is true. But to really “get it” – you have to go there.

  8. crys says:

    thank you to everyone who has so lovingly responded to my post. I will keep all your comments in my Burning Man info which is growing by leaps and bounds as I try to assimilate into my overwhelmed brain all that has happened in the last two years. I have such memories of getting Josh ready to head out to Black Rock City, and all the residue of talc like flotsom and jetsom he brought back in his clothes etc. He could never explain what Burning Man was in words, although words were definitely his skill. It was more of a sense of something wonderful and infinitely powerful. I have seen the glorious pictures online, read so many essays in which people ” try ” to explain it. I understand the mechanics of it, the moop, the giving freely of whatever you have, the freedom. I see the beauty of the city, the power of the art, the crazy gorgeous people. Yes, I have sent something to the temple. A wonderful stranger made an offer to take something for anyone who could not be there. So in 2010 Josh was represented in the temple and blazed up to the sky when it burned. His name was also there for burners lost. I felt he had made one last trip to Burning Man but now I know he will be there every year because of all of you. If only the rest of the world could get it. Someday I will be there. I won’t know any of you, I will know all of you.

  9. joheed says:

    I was a birgin this year. I was only there for the long weekend, but it was so worth doing. I wasn’t quite sure what to think at the time I left, but as the days passed, I realized how much I would like to return and experience it more fully than the first time. If that happens, there are 3 things I will definitely do differently:

    1) Solve the sleep problem. Lack-of-sleep has always sucked for me.
    2) Participate in more things, maybe even volunteer
    3) Prepare better for the long exodus

    The words, photos, and videos are amazing, but I can echo the many comments that the don’t even come close to capturing what it is like.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      A great tip for enjoying Burning Man is to explore it on your own for a day. No friends from the default world allowed; just new Burning Man experiences and people.

      And I agree, no photos or videos can capture the real thing.

  10. […] basics without having to wade through a mass of opinion-laden material.  The Burning Man Guide and Principles of Burning Man each do a credible job of presenting in simple terms a concept that provides a far-ranging variety […]

  11. I’ve been a bit slow in reading these last few posts, but that’s given me the advantage of all these extra comments – thanks, all of you! There’s such a buzz from you guys who’ve already been, and I’m very disappointed to have missed out this year on what would have been my first time. Next year, for sure!
    What struck me as a Christian reading these last two posts is that none of the principles should be alien to us in our daily lives, although I realise this isn’t always at all obvious and many of us are very poor at living them out! I guess the exception would be radical self-reliance. True we shouldn’t be totally dependent, but neither should we be totally independent either. I think both distort the value of self. Reading between the lines, isn’t interdependence the ideal – we all need each other?
    For those of you who have been, has the experience challenged you to live by these same principles once you go home? For Christians, we’re supposed to be “in the world”, not “of the world”, but the world can be a very appealing place, encouraging self-focus and pleasure. It can be difficult living those principles we know to be so worthy with so many distractions about us. You hit the nail on the head, Gustav, when you said that you had more fun in giving than receiving – something we should all try to learn and remember, regardless of differing beliefs.
    I just know that when I get to Burning Man, it will stretch my (narrow) boundaries and that I will love every minute of it. I too will be a willing plebian! Not looking forward to the lack of sleep though.

    1. crys says:

      Just watched ” Playa Time- Dust to Dust”. Stunningly beautiful. The mountains and desert alone are incredible, adding in the birth of Black Rock City and then erasing it back to pristine beauty is magical. Thank you, Anon

      1. Craig Brown says:

        I am a friend of Gustav who has been a caretaker for my mentally ill Mother for the past nine years. I would love to communicate with you directly, but only if that is comfortable for you. My email is (obviously I’m not paranoid about this). You have an exuberantly loving spirit. Craig

    2. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Wow, what an amazing video. Thank you for sharing that.

      Seeing the city dissappear at the end made me tear up. It was as if the city was swept away by the dust storm. So much joy and love, and it leaves no trace except for that in our memories and hearts. Amazing.

      I will always love burning man.

  12. Steve says:

    Gustav you are so right about the getting involved. As you know I handle the ice for our Camp Celestial Bodies Backstreet Burning Man Bar. The people I meet along the way to get ice and in the ice line are amazing. The stories I have heard and the moments that I have shared… all because I took on a task others did not want to do…

  13. […] like this. No logos in sight, and it doesn’t really seem like this is violating Burning Man principles. They left a clean-up crew of 5 people for a week. It sounds to me like the creators found a great […]

  14. I think it is so true that burns are not for everyone, but they are so great for so many people and I think a huge part of that is the ten principles which you have posted about! Living by only these principles (even if it is only for a few short days) really seems to have a deep impact on people and how they perceive reality and the world around them.

    I just wrote a bit about what if society was run on the ten burn principles instead of how it is currently maintained, and would love for you to check it out if you are interested!

  15. […] It was easier to approach burners because I knew they would be likely to practice the principle of radical inclusion. I met some beautiful people in any […]

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