Down on the Playa: Doctor's Burning Man Survival Tips

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Burning Man

Derek Beenfeldt, MD, shares some playa safety tips, his favorite Burning Man tales from the past few years and what the event has come to mean to him. 

Dust and extreme heat, tens of thousands of people, art, costumes and revelry — and the occasional intense thunderstorm, flooding and mass swarms of bugs — are all well-known aspects of Burning Man, an annual weeklong counterculture event. 

So what is it about this artistic and experimental event that inspires thousands to flock to the remote and harsh Black Rock Desert landscape?Burning Man

“I think there are many misconceptions about Burning Man,” says Derek Beenfeldt, MD, a family practice doctor with Renown Medical Group. “There is no doubt that you will see things there you won’t see on the city streets. However, the vast majority of things to see and do there outweigh the more peculiar aspects. The artwork, the people, the theme camps and the community itself is something to behold.”

Dr. Beenfeldt has attended Burning Man three times. While he was no stranger to being invited to the event, his Labor Day plans would often interfere — until a friend extended an invitation he couldn’t refuse.

“One of my friends wanted to celebrate his 40th birthday at Burning Man, and with plenty of notice, we committed to going,” Dr. Beenfeldt says. “It was simply amazing. I hadn’t seen too many photos, nor watched any videos. The first time I saw the playa at night was still one of the most memorable things I have experienced.” 

Burning Man
Dr. Beenfeldt and his wife, Cheryl, stand in front of a church art installation at Burning Man in 2013.

Return to the Desert: Burning Man No. 2 

He says his first Burning Man experience left a lasting impression on him and his wife — so much so that he arranged for a vow renewal on the playa during their second burn.

“My wife and I had just celebrated our 10th anniversary. Burning Man has been so influential that I arranged for us to renew our vows there,” Dr. Beenfeldt says. “There was this beautiful tilted church set up in the middle of the playa and my friend officiated the renewal of vows. We had close friends there with us. It was the highlight of my visits to Burning Man.” 

In addition to being a member of a mobile Karaoke theme camp and renewing his vows, Dr. Beenfeldt has also worked in the medical tent at the event. 

He says injuries are common and can happen at any time, and offers his tips for staying safe at Burning Man:

  • Pay attention and set up during the daylight hours to lessen the chance of injury. “There were some traumatic injuries incurred while people were setting up their camps,” Dr. Beenfeldt says.
  • Dehydration is a real risk. Burners should have water with them at all times while on the playa and be drinking it liberally. 
  • Shoes are recommended, as the alkaline in the playa dust can cause burns to the feet (also known as Playa Foot). 
  • There will be a dust storm, or many. “Eye protection is essential.” Dr. Beenfeldt says. “And since the dust storms are unpredictable, carry eye protection at all times.” 
  • Sensory overload does happen. “I find that I need a few days to relax before returning to work. My suggestion: Take a day or two off after Burning Man,” Dr. Beenfeldt says.

MORE:  Renown Doctor Prepares for Ultra-Marathon

“You will often have people say, ‘You can’t explain Burning Man, you have to experience it.’ The artwork is breathtaking at times. The magnitude of creativity and innovation that goes into the art and theme camps is amazing,” Dr. Beenfeldt says. “I encourage everyone to give Burning Man a try, if only once. I had a degree of trepidation the first time I attended, but I have found it to be a great experience and one I will continue to pursue.”

8 COMMENTS

  1. Sun-burnt tongue the first year…mouth hangin’ open in awe. In those days, you just went to the ticket booth and bought in…lol The middle years were relaxed. Now I’m building an exhibit. The Burn is a life changing event. Dust, Strobes, pounding music. It’s as if you can control your dream…Reality is as you want it. Ready?

  2. Ten times I’ve been. The first year, my tongue was sun-burnt because my mouth was hanging open in awe and amazement. Subsequent years, I learned to relax and enjoy. Now I’m ready to build an exhibit. Started welding last week. Darn if it isn’t a life-changing event, nothing is.

  3. I have never had the interest to go out in the desert to camp in dust and dirt. But I have enjoyed the Burning Man exhibit that comes to Reno during art town month. There I get a taste of some beautiful art work,meet some interesting people, stay clean and all for FREE.

  4. I have lived in Sparks, NV for 16 years.. This town is not far from the Black Rock Desert. I am not a young , healthy person , so visiting the BM celebration for its duration isn’t possible . However age has no influence on my admiration for the creativity exhibited there each year. Has anyone considered selling one day passes for those who are unable to experience the entire week? I realize hat it would require some additional planning and perhaps sales limitations.
    Dr., You are right on in your advice to your readers, especially in drinking plenty of water. Many people don’t realize how damaging dehydration can be. If they really wish to gain full enjoyment of their stay on the playa, they will heed your advice.

  5. I have never experienced this great event. I have however experienced the aftermath in our communities and on our hiways following the event. Please remind people that all the earth is sacred. Close their garbage bags so they are not leaving a path for others to clean up for hundreds of miles. I hear there is leave no Trace on the Playa.. Please leave no Trace everywhere, everyday. I would be sad to see more regulations imposed on everyone due to a few who choose to leave the values of the event at the gate when exiting. This year I was witness to a great number of these people on hiway 95 as I was coming back from Las Vegas while many were traveling South leaving bags of garbage where they landed along their way. I was saddened to see this. One week a year is not enough to care, we all need to be mindful everyday, with each step we take. Create a Great Day

  6. As far as I a concerned, Burning Man is absolutely the best place for me to go to and to really enjoy the creativity, friendship, good will and amazing, amazing art. Been going for 6 years and will continue to go until my body cannot carry me there. Best tip for me was take vinegar to soak your feet in and sour pickle juice to clean your internal pipes! The stuff works!

  7. I found this out the first time at Burning man, since then I always wear boots and socks. I tell folks to keep their feet covered, they seen to learn after they get sore and blistered. Yes I make my camp eat and drink water even when they don’t want to. this just make me say “I told you so Dork!!!

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