Unforeseen Rainstorm Tests Survival Skills at Nevada’s Burning Man Festival


Masha Maltsava remembers well the first time she attended Burning Man, the annual transformative festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that draws thousands of individuals seeking liberation and self-expression. Masha felt she over-prepared, dedicating three months to closely study extensive packing lists, Reddit threads, and WhatsApp chats, all suggesting how she should prepare for her time in the arid expanse of the desert.

However, her second year brought unexpected trials. Heavy rain transfigured the remote desert landscape into an intractable quagmire, compelling attendees to huddle in their shelters and ration their precious resources. Unprepared for such a weather event, Masha was left marooned like countless others — about 70,000 to be precise. The desert experienced an unthinkable deluge; over two months’ worth of rain fell within a 24-hour period, rendering the desert terrain, now a slippery clay surface, impassable.

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Despite the hardship rendered by this unforeseen weather, Masha confessed she was inadequately prepared this year, recognizing that over-preparation was, in hindsight, a more sensible approach.

Photos of Burning Man showcasing lavish art installations and patrons donned in elaborate costumes paint a picture of a free-spirited utopia. Yet, the weekend’s harsh weather highlighted the brutal reality of surviving in such harsh conditions. The seven-day festival is centered around a principle of self-reliance. Survival in the desert demands each attendee’s responsibility for their health and safety.

Burning Man is nestled in the vast expanse of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, a desolate terrain known for its whimsical weather. The nearest sign of civilization, Gerlach, is little more than 100 dwellers strong, with Reno around 93 miles away.

The official Burning Man website offers a blunt description of their venue, labeling it as a “huge, flat, prehistoric lakebed, composed of a hardpan alkali, ringed by majestic mountains,” and boasting ruthless daytime temperatures exceeding 100°F. They don’t shy away from stressing the location’s lethal nature, describing it as “one of the most strikingly beautiful and utterly ethereal locations in the world that will ever try to kill you.”

The limited amenities offered by the festival are accentuated by the stark environment. The event provides some essentials like portable toilets, ice, and emergency medical responders, but most comforts are scarce. Attendees typically depend on the provisions they brought, with washing and hygiene facilities managed by individual camps.

Guidance for attendees is freely available on the Burning Man website, urging each to come prepared with a comprehensive list of gear including an “extensive” first aid kit, warm clothing, and fire extinguishers. Emphasizing the unpredictable nature of the environment, they also advise packing waterproof bags for electronics, portable showers, and a bucket for waste – labelled jokingly as a “poop bucket” – especially if the rain renders porta potties inoperable.

Despite rigorous preparations, the recurring sentiment among veterans of the event is the same: no one truly anticipated the intensity of this year’s rain. Nicole Gallub, an attendee of four Burning Man events, admits to her lack of preparedness for the continuous downpour despite her previous experiences.

However, even in such disarray, attendees witnessed an atmosphere of tranquil cooperation. Omar Sedky, who was able to support less prepared cohorts due to his group’s over-preparedness, comments on the deep sense of community that emerged from the tempest.

While the daunting photos of muddy campsites and flooded makeshift streets may seem off-putting, attendees regard the joint effort to survive in a hostile environment as a fundamental part of the Burning Man experience.

Lubna Sharief, a six-time attendee, lays emphasis on the crucial role of community at the festival. Despite the hardships, the shared existence in the desert resonates as a common bond among attendees – a sense of togetherness that beautifully counterbalances the festival’s focus on individual self-reliance. The essence of the Burning Man experience seems to lie not just in surviving, but in thriving together in a difficult environment.