The 5 pieces of tech I wish I had at Burning Man

Swamp monster Claire Reilly battles through the mud to deliver her survival story from this year’s headline-grabbing Burning Man

It’s me: the obnoxious friend who went to their first Burning Man and now wants to tell you all about it! I have been indoctrinated into the principles of decommodification, radical self-expression and crystal deodorant! Please watch my 23-part TikTok series on why Burning Man is actually a deep state plot to get us all to start wearing steampunk goggles! 

Chances are, you’ve read those hot takes already. But if you’re like me, a tech addict who thinks they couldn’t survive in the desert without the internet, what do you pack? Learn from one who did it for the first time and now has a list of tech items I wish I’d had at Burning Man Burning Mud 2023. 

Burning Man tech - shoes in mud
A farewell to shoes. Image © Claire Reilly

1. A DSLR camera

One of the Ten Principles of Burning Man – the core values that guide Burners on how to get the most out of the event – is “Immediacy”. Whether you take that as motivation to live in the moment, give gifts to strangers or accept an invitation from a guy called Mud Goblin to “check out the Fight Pit”, that’s entirely up to you. I took it as a reminder not to whip out my phone at every possible opportunity.

That said, I would have killed for a good camera to capture the art I saw on the playa (the dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert where Burning Man takes place), especially at night. After the sun sets over the mountains, the desert turns into a beautiful abyssal zone – a world of bioluminescent monsters lighting up the inky blackness.

That includes stationary sculptures appearing out of the playa but also the famous “art cars” – mutant vehicles adapted from flatbed trucks and buses that lumber across the desert like hulking monsters, delighting art fans and making acid trippers question their dreams for years. 

burning man tech - glowing fish
How much better would this photo have been with a DSLR? Image © Claire Reilly

I saw art cars shaped like sharks, pirate ships, and the Golden Gate Bridge and even the famous flame-throwing steampunk octopus known as El Pulpo Mecanico. Each one was spectacular. But every single photo I took was, without a doubt, the most potato-quality, early 2000s GeoCities 40KB picture you’ve ever seen. 

I dreamed of having a DSLR to take photos in low light. Instead, I’ll have to let these moments live on as “memories”, like someone whose brain hasn’t been cooked by their phone.

2. A kick-ass light-up coat

Being surrounded by so many illuminated art pieces makes you want to accessorise yourself: when it comes to nighttime style, Burning Man is like the Fashion Week of the LED apocalypse. I was far from being a “dark wad” – I’d come prepared with a head torch, bike lights and enough wearable LED lights that I wasn’t a safety risk. But my lighting kit was the equivalent of wearing cargo shorts and a Nickelback t-shirt to the Met Gala. 

Lights become part of your identity at Burning Man and I started recognising my campmates by how they glowed at night, giving them secret nicknames like I was in Game of Thrones. Lianna of the Green Bike. Chris of the Rainbow Mono-Wheel. Brenna Blinky Coat, Slayer of Dust Storms.

They lit up a trail through the night and let me blink along behind them, feeling like the mouth-breathing kid sister of the cool teenagers who’d somehow scored an invite to the party.

3. A swamp cooler

Okay, I know, I know. You’re in the desert, you’re meant to experience the elements, this isn’t the Hilton, “Fuck Your Burn” etc. But I will say I regret not building myself a swamp cooler for my tent – not just to survive the hot temperatures during the day, but also so I could have had a fun DIY day, jury-rigging an air conditioner out of buckets, pipes and CPU fans.

The sun wasn’t bad, but after staying up ’til the wee hours drinking hard seltzers and dancing to Trap music (I think? I am very old), the sun still rose at the same time every morning. That left me in my tent quietly cursing wishing for a blast of cool air.

But, as I was soon to find out, I wouldn’t need AC after all! 

After a catastrophically hot burn in 2022, this year’s Burn started with surprisingly mild weather. The whole week was surely going to be this good, right? 

(Narrator’s voice: It wasn’t.) 

On Friday afternoon, two days before most people were scheduled to leave in the famous Exodus (a process that always takes a long time, mud or not), the rains came. By now, you’ve seen the photos and you’ve heard the horror stories. The rain transformed the playa dust into thick mud (what one Redditor horrifyingly dubbed “playarrhea“) and within hours we could barely walk a few steps without squelching into deep, wet clay and fusing with the mud.

President Biden was briefed. A state of emergency was declared. There was an Ebola outbreak and 70,000 people went into full Hunger Games mode, trading squares of toilet paper-like currency. Right?

Well, no. But it did suddenly put a lot of pressure on the limited resources we had. I went from barely looking at my phone to realising how much of a lifeline it was in an emergency. During the first break in the rain, I hiked through the mud (picture Atreyu in the Swamp of Sadness) to a ranger station, hoping to find out whether my bus home was cancelled and to get Wi-Fi. 

Within moments of getting a signal the messages rolled in: Are you alive? Do you have ebola?! Have you been to Mud Goblin’s Fight Pit yet???

As more people started taxing the Wi-Fi, word spread in hushed whispers of camps that had Starlink internet connections. I never managed to find one, and ultimately I think I’m glad. Going to the ranger station felt like a truly communal moment – commiserating with strangers, offering resources to neighbours and laughing about our wild mudproof footwear hacks.  

So you know what? Strike that. I’m glad I didn’t have Starlink. Having a blazing-fast internet connection all week probably would have meant I sat on Instagram instead of exploring the desert. Also, you just know all those insufferable TikToks you saw early in the week were from rich influencers using MuskNet, not the rest of us grotty little dirt ghouls who were running around having actual fun. 

I prefer getting my internet the old-fashioned way: by answering a 20-page research survey about my attitudes towards nudity at Burning Man in exchange for a Wi-Fi password (true story). 

burning man tech - boots in mud
Trade you a pair of high-fashion boots for a hoverboard? Image © Claire Reilly

5. A hoverboard

Sure, the mud is fun in hindsight after a good shower, but there was a moment on Saturday, the day before my scheduled bus departure when things looked grim. Rumours were swirling that we wouldn’t get out until Wednesday, that the Portaloos were no longer being serviced and we were going to have to conserve toilets for, ahem, bowel movements only (you can’t spell Burning Man without BM after all).

For a brief moment, I dreamed of a hoverboard. Not a cheap Amazon gadget with an exploding Lithium-ion battery – I mean a deadset, Marty McFly floating skateboard that would help me get out of this place and leave the Biff Tannen Burner Bros in my wake.

But it hit me. None of us was in an actual warzone; we were all privileged people who’d chosen to come here and face the elements. And as I stood on the top of our beautiful little art car watching a double rainbow emerge from the clouds, I looked around at the group of wonderful friends who’d been strangers a week ago. We could do a week without high-tech gadgets. We would all survive. And we’d probably come back next year. 

Time to tape some ziplock bags to my feet and get back into the mud. 

This article has been tagged as a “Great Read“, a tag we reserve for articles we think are truly outstanding.

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Claire Reilly Writer
Claire Reilly

Claire Reilly is an award-winning technology commentator and video host based in San Francisco. She worked for almost a decade at CNET where she hosted the Webby Award-winning series "Hacking the Apocalypse" and "Making Space: The Female Frontier."