About Open Camping

It’s amazing how much Burning Man has changed. Virgins or those who have skipped a number of years can’t imagine how difficult it can be to find a suitable site if they don’t affiliate themselves with a theme camp, art installation or mutant vehicle. Here’s a story from last year to illustrate:

The gates opened at midnight Saturday night instead of Sunday morning at 11am as they had years before. Like a game of musical chairs–but without the music–legions poured in. Those associated with a “placed” camp had a specific address to head for. The remainder consisted of either first-time visitors (virgins) or those who attended the event before (veterans).

When the gates open, hoards embark on a land rush, eager to stake a claim on a camping spot.

Veterans, familiar with the layout, tend to target a preferred area based on what they became familiar with in previous years. Nobody gets to see a map until the event begins, which the virgins are handed upon entry. Slowly they creep forward as they through the confusion confronting them, not entirely sure where they should go. They take off in a random direction seeking open camping (the areas not reserved for placed camps, the bulk of which are further out). The natural tendency is to go where you see activity, which creates a strong current toward the center.  It seems like there are open spaces, but when you stop to unload, people yell at you for trespassing. You’ve stumbled into an area where all land has been claimed. There’s no room for you…you just don’t realize it yet.

Deciphering the borders between open camping and off-limits zones is difficult for even seasoned veterans during the day, nearly impossible at night. Many give up after an hour and settle on what they think is an open site, only to discover they are trespassing. This is exactly what happened to a small group on our theme camp site.

A group of six with a moving van and four vehicles had taken over 1/6th of our camp’s real estate during the night after our exhausted setup crew had gone to sleep. We had spent eight months working out how to utilize every square foot of land and had none to spare. It would be hugely unfair to our members who joined and paid dues to risk any space they were counting on. We asked the trespassers to leave nicely, explaining our situation, but they argued and refused to leave. The debate went on Sunday morning from from 8 am to 10am and by that time it was even more difficult to find a site to relocate to. The situation escalated. The authorities (Placement and Rangers) said we were correct and they would enforce eviction, but wanted us to keep trying to work it out ourselves. Our camp ended up offering to help them find a place to move to and we used our trucks and people to help them move their gear. We had were eight of our members running around for two hours, scouring a large radius. We finally talked someone in a back alley into giving up some space they didn’t need for these people, quite far from where they started.

This exercise showed how extremely difficult it is to just “show up” at Burning Man. Even those who enter as soon as the gates open have difficulty finding a place to camp in their preferred location. By the time they realize they have to look in places they wouldn’t normally want to camp, their second and third choices are gone. Some people say there is ample camping space, and they are correct. There is…way, way, way out on the furthest street from center, but everyone fights that option: it just feels so very, very far away from the interesting attractions. But the situation is still confusing, disorienting and the fact of geometry is that the closer you are to the center of a circle, the closer you are to everything. This makes a big difference when you’re tired while walking or biking back to your camp.

Sharing in the cost and effort to establish a theme camp may seem like a large commitment, but it means a lot to have a home; an assigned location you can be certain will alleviate the stress that many visitors experience during the land grab they would otherwise confront upon entry.