Burning Man Tips for the First Timers

There is no substitute to reading official Survival Guide but it does leaves out many things. So instead of writing my detailed trip report I thought about all the mistakes I’d made and converting them to tips. Here it goes…

  1. Sun shelter (things that look like REI Alcove) is absolutely essential if you just have a camping tent. I would however not recommend REI Alcove itself because it broke after withstanding 3 days of sandstorms. Obviously you also need nice camping chair to go with it.
  2. Regular tent stacks are not very useful to secure tents on playa. I didn’t believed that and my tent almost came out in sandstorms. The correct way to secure tent in playa is using something called “rebars”. You need 4 rebars for a regular camping tent, each 3” long and 1/2” wide. You need another 4 or 6 for sun shelter. Stores like Home Depot would cut the metal rod for you in these sizes. Of course, you will need big hammer as well to stack them (they don’t have pointy end). Finally, it’s a hazard to leave other end of these rusty metal rods open so you must stick a tennis ball or empty bottles on end of the rod that is sticking out.
  3. Sandstorms! In 2009 there were 3 full days of sandstorms. If you never seen one then here’s how it works: About 20-60 foot tall wall of sand that comes at you at anywhere between 10 miles to 40 miles an hour. The visibility typically drops to 5ft to 50ft and you see brownish sand everywhere around you. This can last for up to 8 hours straight. It actually looks cool and as a matter of fact I intentionally spent lots of time inside sandstorm taking photos (note: Many SLRs are not dust proof). Even on severe storm days almost everyone continued their activities as if it was normal weather. But they were prepared. Here’s what you need to be prepared:

    • You have to have sun glasses with minimum open space around lenses. I had Tifosi Ventoux and they worked kind of OK. A retainer is also essential not to loose them (remember there are no shops to buy extra pair).
    • Mask for the nose and mouth. I used Buff bandana so I can pull it up all the way to sunglasses. Next time I would also be using this, this or this mask so I can be absolutely worry free about staying longer out in dust storms.
    • Hat with cord and visor. This will allow you to walk heads down while visor protects your face. I used this hat and it’s absolutely the best hat I’ve ever owned. Added advantage of this hat is that it’s veil can be put in the direction of wind.
  4. As a first timer I found that 4 nights provides a very good breadth and depth for the experience. The reason it’s perfect is because you have to carry less food and water, not worry too much about getting shower and you still get to see nearly everything that’s out there. I would strongly recommend against staying less than 3 nights.
  5. Make a stop at Reno at least for a night before heading towards Black Rock City. Besides mini-Las Vegas style environment, you can also visit REI, Walmart and Walgreens to get the gear, water, grocery and so on. Pepermill Resort is where I stayed overnight because it’s cheapest awesome hotel in Reno.
  6. A compass is very useful to have to get on the right street when coming back in the night far away from playa.
  7. If you have 3-season camping tent you are probably in trouble. These tents usually have mesh in the walls for ventilation and they have rain fly to protect against rain. This arrangement however is pretty useless to protect against sandstorms. On a typical stormy day I would get about half inch layer of sand inside my 3 season tent and I had to spend an hour every night cleaning things up. Make sure you have duct tapes and things to cover up. Everything outside tent should be tied to rebars so it doesn’t fly away with storms.
  8. Weather at burning man is 110F+. It’s normally not possible to sleep inside the tent after 10 AM. It’s not unusual to stay up until 3 AM. Nights are cold and you will need a fleece jacket. I’d 30 degree rated bag which was bit warmer but worked fine. BTW, try to bring sleeping bag liner to avoid it getting sweaty.
  9. As a first timer it might be hard to understand culture of gifts. For example, someone I don’t know at all would give me something and I would be confused if I should really take it. This can spoil the experience for the giver and the taker. Here’s how it works: If someone gives you a gift, take it with a smile without hesitation and give them a gift in return. It’s that simple. The only thing to remember is to bring bunch of gifts that you can easily carry around. Here are some of the examples of gifts: Custom stickers with your favorite quotes, necklaces, bead jewelry, things that glows, Trillion Dollars Notes, candies, custom printed postcards and so on. A single major mistake first timers make is not to bring gifts to give away.
  10. Bicycles would be your savior. If you can’t bring from home then rent or steal from Reno. BRC is really huge and you would be lucky if you could walk just one street a day. Most events that I was interested usually were many miles apart and it’s impossible to make it on time without bicycle. Besides you really don’t want to get tired after walking 10 miles just to attend couple of events.
  11. As soon as you enter gate you will be handed a map and booklet of events. The map is easy to understand because of it’s semi-circle streets. Any location is specified by using hand of clock and name of the street. The 6 o’clock is the center while 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock are two ends of semi-circle. The street names are different every year depending on the theme.
  12. There is NO assigned camping sites at Burning Man (except for theme camps). Normally all except outer two streets are occupied within first couple of days. When I arrived on Wednesday evening I decided to keep as much distance from outer road as possible because that’s where all the cars keep passing by. But I did not wanted to be too inside because the view of vast playa on the outer street is awesome. I also wanted to stay in middle so distance to get on any side is minimized. Always consider if your neighbors have enough space around their tent to put picnic table or chairs or grills or another car. The best space I found on Wednesday night was at 7:15 and Kinship.
  13. If someone asks you “which camp are you in?” then that usually means “what is the name of your camp?”. You can consult with your neighbor to decide on some name for group camp and put on the sign. You can also tell the location such as 7:15 & Kinship like other first timers do.
  14. The iPhone & AT&T did worked with full 4 bars at Black Rock City in 2009. It’s really really a good choice to turn it off and resist temptation to tweet/facebook for your entire stay.
  15. Here’s one of the most disgusting part of my Burning Man experience: The place I choose to camp was up-winds in the path of potty patties. That means every time wind blew even a little it would smell really really bad. It was horrible. Fortunately I came to my tent only to sleep when smell was gone. It’s really worth to make sure you avoid such smelly spaces.
  16. Don’t wear jeans at Burning Man! Many places that do not allow jeans believe that they are too “casual” for them but at Burning Man you don’t want to wear jeans because they would be too “formal”! I wore my normal jeans on first night and felt so out of place and formal that it was embarrassing. If you must wear jeans then take your old jeans, paint them or tear them or whatever. Shorts are semi-casual options at Burning Man.
  17. The list of events at Burning Man is overwhelming. You do not have to go crazy to attend as many events as possible and it’s best to chose no more than 3 events per day to attend. It’s good idea to reserve one day just sit back at your tent and look at vast playa in mild warm wind :).
  18. Cooking at Burning Man can get tricky because of sandstorms. I’d bought my camping stove which didn’t work out in storms. Fortunately more prepared folks did cooking in their camps and gave away lots of free food. I’d also bought some non-perishable stuff like bananas, milk powder, Sahale snacks, bars, chips and so on. One last option for food is to go back to town via bus or car but that might ruin your experience. Fortunately I did not had that option because I didn’t had car and I never found the bus. One good outcome was that I lost few pounds! Next time I might just buy or rent a grill because it work better in dust storms.
  19. I estimated 1.5 gallon of water per day per person and it worked out well for me.
  20. You can meet and greet your neighbors without feeling awkward. When you cook meal, offer some to them. Always have at least two gifts to give away to your two neighbors while departing. Example of gifts are some sketch you made while at Burning Man or other art work or a poem or your favorite book or some photo you took.
  21. Yes, you do need kitchen sink! You will need it to brush teeth, wash hands etc. It’s not OK to spill water with soap on playa floor but if your sink is small and soap biodegradable then you would be ok to collect water in it and then go to outer street to flung it away
  22. Most people do not shower at Burning Man (or so I think). There are few elaborate large camps that set up showers and some even offer them to others as well. But in general, don’t expect showers. Alternative is wet towel to wipe off of your body.
  23. Many camps on inner circle serves free drinks to anyone who wants but you need to bring your own cup. It helps a lot if you have a cup with lid.
  24. There is a place everybody refers to as “The Temple”. It’s located beyond The Man and many first timers would even miss it because they usually don’t go beyond The Man (it’s a LONG walk too). The Temple is truly sacred in many aspects without being connected to even the concept of religion. It’s humbling and even moving to spend a day at the temple. The Temple burns on next day after The Man burns and more spectacularly.
  25. Burning Man usually has 35,000+ people which causes 2 to 4 hours of traffic jams while leaving. While it’s fun to see the parade of every RV ever made, the time with least traffic to leave Burning Man is on Saturday night after The Man burns. But the flip side is that you will miss even more spectacular burn of The Temple which is on Sunday night. Another flip side of leaving on Saturday night is that you run huge risk of falling sleep while driving. When I left on Saturday night I saw at least 3 accidents on the way and so I decided to just pull over and sleep anyway. For my next time, I would be leaving on Monday late afternoon.

Finally here are pictures from my trip which hopefully would give some idea about what to expect.

Mountain Weather in Washington

Usual weather websites do not give you the forecast at a point but rather around some town/city which renders them pretty useless for mountains. Here are the collected links for mountain weather forecasts for Washington:

  1. Mount Rainier at Paradise Visitor Center
  2. Mount Rainier at Camp Muir
  3. North Cascades NP – Sahale Arm
  4. North Cascades NP – Sahale Arm TH
  5. north Cascades NP – Windy Pass
  6. North Cascades NP – Mount Pilchuck TH
  7. Mount St Helens – Windy Ridge
  8. Mount St Helens – Windy Ridge TH
  9. Mount Baker – Artist Point
  10. Mount Baker – Skyline Divide
  11. Mount Baker – Ptarmigan Ridge TH
  12. Enchantments
  13. Olympics – Hurricane Ridge
  14. Olympics – Hole in the Wall
  15. Olympics – Mamot Pass TH
  16. Oregon Coast – Nehalem Bay State Park
  17. Mount Hood – Timberline Lodge
  18. Mount Hood – Vista Ridge
  19. Snoqualmie Pass Corridor – Mount Si
  20. Snoqualmie Pass Corridor – Granite Mountain
  21. Snoqualmie Pass Corridor – Chair Peak/Snow Lake
  22. Salmon La Sac – Iron Peak TH
  23. Esmeralda Basin TH

Snoqualmie Falls Hike Analysis

Today was perhaps my 32nd hike at Snoqualmie Falls. I've adopted this trail as my daily hike routine. Today I brought my new Garmin Oregon 400t GPS with me and recorded the track. Fortunately there is a website (although not that good) called MotionBased which can slice and dice and analyze this track data and tell you lot of cool things.

Here's the MotionBased's analysis of Snoqualmie Falls hike.

Few interesting things:

  • This is a 1.4 miles hike with 475 ft elevation gain.
  • The hike takes about 35 minutes.
  • Ascent and descent speeds as well as times are roughly same (note that I do not made any stops except at ends of the trail).
  • My speed while ascending is 2.4 mph and vertical speed is 14 ft/min or 840 ft/hr. Not too bad.
  • This hike has average grade of 16%. This is just 1% more than max allowed by typical gym treadmills. At steepest point the trail is 30% grade while about the "safe" max limit on typical maintained trails.

Using my watch which can measure elevation I thought that was 300ft elevation hike. Obviously my watch can easily be 100ft off. Here's the elevation profile of this hike:

SnoqualmieHikeProfile

What is the best time to hike Zion Narrows?

I LOVE slot canyons and Zion Narrows hike is something on my To-do for very long time since I saw it in a documentary and IMAX. So when I saw this deal from Southwest about 50% off on all travels my first thought was to book tickets to Las Vegas (nearest to Zion) or SLC. Due to restriction on this deal the travel needs to be completed by May 31st.

So the question: Is last week of May the best time to do Zion Narrows? I've fanatically looked for answer all over and here's the summary. Disclaimer: that I haven't been there so all these research comes from web, not my experience.

My criteria for "best time" is fairly simple:

  • Avoid wearing dry/wet suit to do this hike
  • Avoid wading in 1ft of water for miles
  • Pleasant 70s temperature that allows good other hikes like Angel's Landing

Several websites have various opinions on "best time". A top Google hit puts up a table indicating May, June and Septembers are the best. This is way too fuzzy answer because early May is actually as worse as April and it doesn't tell you different late May really is compared to late June. Yes, there is a big difference!

Next, other websites gets more specific and tells you late June and late September is the best time. We are getting closer to a specific answer but still no data points.

After lot of searching I finally hit the pot of gold:USGA Water Data! This website has exact numbers for CFS (cubic foot per second) and gage height data for each day all the way back to 1988. The rules are quite simple: anything below 50 CFS is easy and 250 FS is too much. The USGA has done fantastic job in presenting this data on website. For example, here you can see CFS levels for 2008:

NorthForkVirginRiverDischarge

Now you can see late May is not all that good but it is rapidly getting better over entire June although it takes all of the June before we get 40 CFS. This means late June is pretty good time to go but difference between early June and late June is almost two fold! Then notice all those spikes in early July. My guess is those are flash floods or thunderstorms. On other hand look how stable mid-end September is! We get 30 CFS almost all month.

NorthForkVirginRiverGageHeight

So we are looking at about foot of water at May end and about quarter of that in mid-end September.

Likewise you can go through charts for may years back. It obviously varies from year to year. For example, year 2007 had very low stable CFS at end of May unlike rapidly decreasing high levels of 2008.

For the past few years worth of charts that I checked one theme emerges: mid to end September has most stable and low CFS!

But how about temperatures? Here's where Weather Underground's seasonal average feature helps! Here is the seasonal averages weather graph for Zion National Park:

NorthForkVirginRiverWeather

As you can see, the temperature in mid-September is pleasant 70s just like in June.

So there you have it! Mid September to September end (2nd and 3rd weeks of September) is the best time to go to Zion National Park and Narrows. That's when you are most likely to get stable low water levels.

Mount Si - Take #2

Today I tried Mount Si hike again and returned back before I saw "Snag Flats", second time. Snag Flats are supposed to somewhere between 1300' to 1500'. It's relatively small hike that you can do in 2-3 hours (full hike to summit of Mount Si is a long 8 hour 3200' climb). Today because of heavily packed wet snow it was extremely slippery. Many people even had crampons on. People who did not had any traction devices (like me) had very hard time to go up on slippery trail and even harder time to come down.

I would not do this trail without wearing Kahtoola Microspikes.

Last time I'd to turn back at1250' because I'd started too late and it was getting dark. Today I got up to 1440' but still saw no sign of so called snag flats or a view point where Mailbox peak and Mt Rainier can be seen. But then I suddenly realized that I'd forgotten my camera on the trail during last water break! So I went down to look for it but didn't found it. I finally got down in parking lot and walked there for quite sometime looking for any lost & found places (Mount Si trailhead has HUGE parking lot and somehow there are always dozen cars there). Several people were coming down or going up but no one had seen it.

Then an amazing thing happened. Just when I was driving out the parking lot and I was almost out, I decided to stop for a minute and put up a sticky note. And I suddenly saw 3 guys coming down and they had my camera! It was just a matter of few seconds and I would have left. Thank you strangers!

PS: Those 3 guys mentioned that they were going to return it to ranger station. So next time if you loose something always check with ranger station or forest service.

Updates - Spring 2005

I would be writing all New York City related stuff at Metblogs rather then my own blog. This makes sense because lot of people who aren't in this region doesn't need to get those NYC stories. On the other hand, my NYC related writing will now reach to much larger audience. Check out some of my entries there about cool New York events, restaurants and such stuff.

On the other site news, you might have noticed new skin and more FireFox friendly design. I also decided to give away the engine that my website runs on (C# code I wrote almost 4 years ago) along with entire source code for this website (thats in VB.Net just for fun). Nothing special but main highlights of the engine is that it accepts raw HTML file as the base template and embeds your dynamic ASP.Net WebForm content inside that HTML. It also provides navigation control which runs off of XHTML templates and XML.

If you like my free utilities, don't forget to check out the massive updates in my Software section. It has now many more of my programs and utilities that I kept it to myself. Specifically, the one called Browser History Analyzer analyses your IE history (support for FireFox coming soon), builds MS Access database and gives you tons of amusing info about your browsing habits such has the queries you fired on search engine, how do you refine your keywords progressively, how much time you usually spend on a page, how much time you spend on browsing and so on. Whilte still in development, it also features extensible architecture to let you make your own plugins. I've also put the link for article I wrote for CodeProject about how to show Explorer's progress dialog in your apps.

Finally some Alaska trip photos also have been added. Yenjoy :).

Our Alaska Trip Photos (March 2004)

Here are our March 2004 Alaska trip photos.

I guess early March is among the best time to visit Alaska (thanks to my wife for figuring out fantastic itinerary) because you are still just in time to catch views of Aurora Boriales and there is so much festivities going on. We had our Yup'ik wedding ceremony at the Ice Hotel at Chena Hotsprings which is a hotel made of only ice with colorful lights shining through. Taking a dip in natural hot sulfur rich springs in below freezing temperatures with Aurora Borealis passing over head could certainly bring you one of the most memorable times even if its not your wedding ceremony night ;). We also attended the start of the world famous Iditarod Sleddog Race in  Anchorage, went to the Fur Rendezvous (a big festival in Anchorage were furs and various Alaskan crafts are bought, sold, and traded),  saw the World Ice Carving Championship in Fairbanks - a definite must see to believe these finely detailed sculpteurs carved out of ice, attended Chatanika Days (a festival in Chatanika where a outhouse, snowmobile, and other races are held), and visited Whittier, the strangest town in Alaska.  We also paid a visit to capitol "city" Juneau which is incredibly beautiful from "Lower 48" standards but not as desirable places to live from Alaskan standards :).  We also camped in 4 feet of snow overnight near Denali National Park, home of Denali/Mt. McKinley Mountain, the tallest mountain in North America. All that besides having lots of fun :).

Autumn Fall Foliage 2004

If you are reading this and haven't been out there, well, you already missed the biggest blast of colors in Adirondacks (NY). On US east coast, Maine and an odd little dot in the heart of Adirondacks are two places where the amazing fall colors appears first. Last year, just by pure fortune, I was in Adirondacks and in one of the first mornings I saw a sudden blast of color everywhere in the region. So we took the flight over 46 tall mountains (and the countless small ones) that makes up this amazingly beautiful area. The aerial views we saw from the small plane flying low were definitely the best fall foliage view I’ve ever seen (and for the record, I’d been out quite a lot).

Anyway, last weekend was the day when colors had peaked again at Adirondacks and after a week of blazing show that nature had put there, the area is now past peak (along with Vermont and much of the New Hampshire – which is often compared with China for the best in fall foliage in entire world because of the diversity of trees). But if you plan well, you can still chase the fall foliage on the East coast for this entire month and enjoy the blazing colors in truly awesome settings! After some researching in to my collection of links and reviewing fall foliage reports from various states, I've prepared this Excel sheet for the approximate times for fall foliage peak colors. So go out and have fun!

Autumn Fall Foliage Long Drives 2003

It's cool to be in mountains when fall is just still arriving and you are among the first to feel it. This year my First Of Autumn hikes happened in Adirondacks. This area in upper state New York is probably among the most scenic part on East Coast. You got choice of 46 high peaks to climb (a High Peak is a mountain taller then 4000 ft) apart from countless small mountains and hills, several small and huge lakes to canoe and kayak or just relax on cruise, quite a few waterfalls and quint towns. The best part is you can even take small plane like Cessna 152 and fly over those mountains covered with fresh yellow, red, violet colors. It's probably some of the most scenic experience you can ever have in this part of the country. But behold! Fall is just beginning. The next best thing to do is probably long drives on colorful lonely snaky roads passing through mountains, valleys and lakes. But.. where would you go? Here's some of the best picks for autumn fall foliage road trips!

Some Awesome Destinations

I recently went to Sierra Club's meeting/presentation on California's Route 1. This road trip certainly seems to be the queen of all. The presenter been touring this route every couple of years since last 3 decades and had some really awesome photographs - some taken in different seasons and time of the days and some even different decades! Here are some tips from the guru himself: The road trip to CA1 can be done any month, never let weather stop you. Still if you are too picky, in summer (through September) it's kind of hot. From December to March is good time except that El-Nino may strike the Pacific coast and parts of CA1 suddenly merges in to ocean, yet Feb-March is the best time. This is also the time when you can see lots of white whales in the ocean floating around while watching sunset in Pacific Ocean. The good place to stay overnight on this route is Ragged Point Inn. You might want to frequently take exists in between, specifically for San Simeon Castle. It's good idea to stay around this gorgeous huge architecture (they have even special tour for just bathrooms among others!). To stay around this building is San Simeon Pines is a good resort. The route is 90 miles long and totally worth an entire day trip. While in presentation, I also stumbled upon list of really gorgeous places to visit in United States. They are special because they have specific times when you should be there. Also they are very diverse (from flower covered moutains to canyons in Utah!). If you get a chance, don't even think about missing out on them. I certainly won't :). Here's my filtered list:

  • Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah Canyon valleys partially gets covered in snow. Not for faint hearted.Best Time: Jan/Feb
  • Cottonwood Lake, Alaska Clear waters and ice formations in lake like a huge starfish from end to endBest Time: Feb
  • Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona Best Time: Feb
  • Tehachapi Mountains, California Absolute gorgeous mountains completely covered with flowers. Yes, just like you had dreamed once :). Best Time: April
  • Isla Espirita Santo, Sea of Cortes, Maxico urrr... this one is non-US.Best Time: May
  • Painted Hills, Oregon yes, hills that actually looks like someone painted them outBest Time: May
  • Elives Chasm, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona Best Time: June
  • Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta Best Time: Aug
  • Cohutta Wilderness Area, Georgia Best Time: Sep
  • Kennebec River, Main Best Time: Oct
  • Snake River, Wyoming Best Time: Nov
  • Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California Best Time: Nov
  • Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska A special place where you can see Aurora Borealis! Best Time: Nov
  • West Indian Manatees, Florida Best Time: Dec
  • Owens Valley near Laws, California Best Time: Dec/Jan
  • Weddell Sea, Antarctica urrrr... this is non-US, again
  • Cannon Beach, Ecola State Park, Oregon Best Time: Dec/Jan