Doing It Right: Theme Camp Management Insights from Camp Soft Landing

If the purpose of art is to wash the dust of daily life off our souls, the mission of a Burning Man Theme Camp is to create a home that settles into the dust and adapts. People come to the Black Rock Desert to test themselves. It’s been our academy for learning how to plan, transport, build and manage a community in a frequently inhospitable environment. The lessons we’ve learned on the playa give us the grit to take on logistical challenges in the default world that would not have seemed possible before we learned how to weather whiteouts, 50-mph wind gusts, and unnavigable mud.

Our research outpost on the playa is a Theme Camp called Soft Landing that was created in 2011 and has attempted since then to live up to the promise of its name. Last year we welcomed 150 campers into our 200′ by 150′ allotment. Thousands of guests visit our two primary art projects, the Full Circle Tea House and the Palenque Norte speaker series. First located at 9:15 and B, we have been steadily relocated further back towards F by the sometimes unknowable hand of Placement, but visitors find us year after year. We arrive on playa to serve tea to builders a week before Burning Man begins, run the Tea House 24/7 after the gate opens, and stay for an average of fifteen days.

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Chris Pezza and I have served as camp managers for Soft Landing since its inception — together with our cheerful friend Tryp who acts as camp mayor and internal placement director. When you need to ask a group of tired people to please move their tents seven feet to the right in the middle of the night, you need a person like Tryp to make that task seem joyful. This year, Chris and I are retiring as camp managers and launching a long-planned exit strategy to hand the camp off to Tryp and Starfox, our respected and resourceful truck driver, who will hopefully guide Soft Landing forward for years to come. I’m also marking my 20th consecutive year on the playa in 2016. If playa years are like dog years, I’m a 140-year old Burner. Permit me the prerogative of age to make a few unvarnished observations about Theme Camp management that we are passing along to our successors.

The most concise descriptors of our camp management strategy are these: Organized yet decentralized, technologically innovative, aspirationally self-sufficient and focused on the well being of others. All Theme Camps are different, but these guiding principles work for us. Soft Landing has always had a group of committed managers willing to take on the laborious tasks of storing camp gear, submitting a camp application, allotting preferred ticketing, vetting prospective campers, collecting dues, managing a camp bank account, renting trucks, organizing load and build crews, arranging fuel and water deliveries, and managing disputes to ensure that we remain friends throughout it all. The managers wrangle logistics, but the camp is organized into neighborhoods, each headed by a designated leader who collaborates with managers on behalf of their tribe. These leaders tell us who they expect in that year’s tribal cluster, how large a footprint their group needs, and what kind of structures they plan to erect. Managers and leaders create a camp layout based on this information which Tryp uses to greet and guide campers to their neighborhoods when they arrive at Soft Landing.

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Soft Landing does not have a central meal plan, but we do set up a collective kitchen. Many of our neighborhood groups also run their own kitchens, a decentralized approach that eliminates long lines of people eating on someone else’s schedule. We ask each neighborhood to bring their own power source, food and water and haul out their own gray water and trash. Setting these expectations leads to a culture of self-sufficiency that attracts low maintenance, hard working camp members who are often over-prepared and willing to help one another. We do hire a chef to feed our build crew and make our own sauerkraut to be hospitable to our microbiomes. Since 1999, members of Soft Landing have also  subsidized the internet access used by all Theme Camps on the playa, and we run an open access point for our campers, neighbors, and Tea House guests. Our Palenque Norte speaker series promotes access to information by offering presentations from notable thinkers and artists. People of all generations camp with us which we take as a sign of a healthy, thoughtful community. When a member of our camp dies during the preceding year, we walk together to the Temple and hold a ritual for them.

In addition to our social systems, Soft Landing creates technologies that are appropriate to the needs of our campers and art projects. For instance, we long ago rejected gray water evaporation ponds as environmentally unsustainable and developed instead what we call our Evapotrons — columns of burlap-covered wire fencing standing in kiddie pools that are strapped to the top of our box truck. Gray water from the Tea House is carried by hand up a ladder to the pools where it is circulated with a pump to the top of each column and evaporated by the wind. The ladder system exposes the Evapotrons to the wind and sun and discourages campers from dumping their own gray water into them, as happened frequently when they were on the ground. Developed by our clever friend Wylbur, the Evapotrons evaporate hundreds of gallons of gray water. Visitors from the Bureau of Land Management are pleased with this approach.

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Soft Landing’s Evapotron

In regards to infrastructure, Soft Landing has always attempted to move beyond radical self-sufficiency towards actual self-sufficiency. I’ve been observing the evolution of the Burning Man organization since I arrived on the playa as a member of the press in 1996, and I regard it in the same way that I do the federal government. It serves some essential functions and it’s best to rely on it as little as possible. Soft Landing has never taken any funding or free tickets from Burning Man. We finance our camp and our art projects with a modest camp fee of $200. Our annual pilgrimage to the independent 4th of Juplaya celebration has assisted our evolution towards self-sufficiency. We learned there how to haul all our own fuel and water and develop simple bucket toilets with kitty litter and privacy tents. If fuel, water, and porta-potty infrastructure failed at Burning Man, our camp could adapt while respecting the land.

The real secret sauce to our camp’s collective survival has been our focus on the well being of everyone who steps inside Soft Landing. While the ancestral progenitor who occupied our location before us, Camp Above the Limit, ran a lively bar, we made a decision not to serve alcohol in our camp. I enjoy an occasional cocktail, but I believe that the conflating of the gift economy with free alcohol has compromised the public health and social cohesion of Black Rock City. We do not prohibit alcohol at Soft Landing, but we do not permit bars inside our camp. Instead, we run a tea bar at our Tea House for those seeking a place to rest, hydrate and receive compassionate care. We also give away hundreds of gallons of water to Tea House visitors. We don’t want to undermine their self-sufficiency, but we can proactively reduce the number of guests who become ill from dehydration. We keep our Tea House open until Monday after the Burn to help weary people stay alert on the perilous drive back home. Our Burn is not over until every member of Soft Landing makes it back safely, and so far we have. That perhaps is our greatest collective work of art.

Kumaré speaks at the Palenque Norte speaker series
Kumaré speaks at the Palenque Norte speaker series

Soft Landing still has lots of room for improvement. We want to move away from our dependence on gasoline-powered generators for our Tea House water boilers and shift to a propane system. We’re always looking for new ways to reduce MOOP and recruit strike crews. Starfox has ideas for improving the management of our collective kitchen, and we need a better system to clean and store our camp equipment. Most importantly, we have to successfully carry out our succession plan and not let our egos get in the way. Chris Pezza and I now run an event production company together with a third partner, and we bring everything we’ve learned from Theme Camp management to that project. There will doubtless be more lessons to come. In the meantime, we welcome you to stop by Soft Landing for a hot cup of tea.

About the author: Annie Oak

Annie Oak

Annie Oak is a San Francisco-based journalist, project manager and event organizer.

40 Comments on “Doing It Right: Theme Camp Management Insights from Camp Soft Landing

  • David Brown says:

    Too bad the BLM doesn’t use SLs innovations such as the Evapotron as guidelines at all RV parks and camp grounds. The nations water supply would benefit in time.

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  • roissy says:

    I am kinda surprised your camp is using electricity to heat your water. Propane is the way to go, but shield the process from the wind…

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    • Annie Oak says:

      We’re surprised that we use electricity to heat water too. It’s clearly not efficient, but it requires less energy and attention than monitoring an open flame in a crowed camp. Affordable, large-volume propane water boilers are not easy to acquire, but we are closing in on one that we can afford. Thanks for the advice to shield the process from the wind. You bet we will.

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  • Motz says:

    Great article! This will give new camp leads a great introduction to many of the things they need to think about to guide their camp well.

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    • Annie Oak says:

      Thank you! We’re hoping that some of things we’ve discovered out on the playa are useful to others. We’re always happy to correspond directly with other theme camp leaders. We’ve received helpful tips from other camps.

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  • Rebar says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I am an 8 year burner and amazingly enough, I had not heard of the Soft Landing Camp. I for SURE plan to stop by this year.
    See you on the Playa!
    Rebar

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  • ShaggyDog says:

    Annie, thank you and everyone at Soft Landing for the amazing work you’ve done every year. Last year your space was such a haven – I passed a several hours in the Full Circle Tea house and it is an incredible environment.

    The Palenque Norte speaker series has also always been amazing, it is a privelege to be able see John Gilmore speak each year.

    Keep up the great work, and with luck I’ll come and help in 2017.

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    • Annie Oak says:

      Thanks ShaggyDog. I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed the Tea House and the Palenque Norte speaker series. Please come back and hang out again. And thanks for your offer to help out in 2017. We appreciate it!

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  • Nai'a Newlight says:

    This six-year playan has greatly enjoyed C.S.L. over the years; mahalo! This will be my fourth year speaking @ BRC, and l’d love to be a part of Palenque Norte.
    –playa.naia@gmail.com

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  • Wonderful to hear about your thoughts and processes. Thank you!

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  • Ranger Twilight says:

    Soft Landing has done an excellent job carrying on the mission started in 2011 at Camp Above The Limit. It seems like only yesterday when Annie and DarkStar were camp co-coordinators and the Tea House and Palenque Norte made their debut on the playa.

    Many of us in camp at the time served as Green Dot Rangers, and those duties inspired and informed the development of the Tea House. It provided an independent care space that served almost 1,000 gallons of tea and water accompanied by compassionate support for participants in need of respite. It was a very successful prototype for the community-based efforts currently supported by Soft Landing and the MAPS Zendo Project.

    Credit where credit is due: the photograph with the large fluorescent crystals and the parachute dome was taken at Camp Above The Limit’s 2012 Crystal Cavern venue, which was used for the outstanding Palenque Norte speaker series that year. Camp Soft Landing filed with Placement as a separate camp for the first time in 2013.

    Thanks to Annie and everyone at Soft Landing for providing a welcoming oasis for so many, and to Chris and all his speakers for providing such educational and entertaining presentations!

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    • Annie Oak says:

      Hi Twilight,

      Thank you for adding the historical background on Camp Above the Limit and the Tea House. And for all your kind support for the Tea House project. It’s true, I co-ran the camp with Darkstar in 2011 and many of us in camp did serve as Green Dot Rangers. The Tea House was a source of inspiration for the MAPS Zendo project and some people who work with that project still camp with us at CSL.

      The photograph with the crystals that Chris Pezza gave us to illustrate the Palenque Norte speaker series shows the Crystal Cavern which hosted the series that year. Alas, the Crystal Cavern is no more. But we are delighted that Camp Above the Limit lives on and I still visit its lively bar on occasion. Thank you for creating the can-do spirit that helped launch CSL – and for showing us how to file a theme camp application. Do you have a succession plan? :)

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  • The Moon says:

    We have had a camp on the Esplanade for ~10 years. Before that we had to work our way up by being next to porta potties, Deathcamp, PETA torture videos etc. It was a long haul. A lot of funny stories.

    I love infrastructure problems. They can be solved. The trick is to provide interesting content. A lot of it. All the time.

    There are so many creative people out there. Give them some space and engineering advice and the show will go on.

    Peace

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    • Annie Oak says:

      Any group that has run a camp on the Esplanade for 10 years should get some sort of award for endurance and adaptable infrastructure. Thank you for the advice. I salute you all.

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  • I am glad to hear you offer a space the week before burning man for builders to seek solace. I didn’t know anything like this existed and I already am planting seeds for a Theme Camp Organizers Haven on playa this year. Sounds like you might have some ideas about what to offer at it! Here’s where we’re discussing what to create https://www.facebook.com/groups/tco.haven/

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  • Bernard Mongomery Sundae "Breeze" says:

    The “Full Circle tea house” is the watering hole for the soul on Playa. I have had the privilege of camping with these amazing Creators since 2012; and have worked build crew these last three years. The caliber of connections made have been invaluable to my growth. In my 10 years on Playa, I am happy to call, “Soft Landing” my home. What this camp provides is invaluable to our community; and the depths of connections made are as numerous as the never ending cups of teas. Thank you Ms. Oak, for your mind boggling amount of contributions to the shaping of hearts and minds of the future.

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    • Annie Oak says:

      Hey Rev. Breeze,
      It’s been our privilege to camp with you all these years. Your super powers have made our build crew tip top and none of it would have been nearly as much fun without you. Thank you for keeping us on our toes and for serving all that tea when we need to sit back and admire the view. Build crew leaves for home in 167 days.

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  • Janet Sprout says:

    “conflating of the gift economy with free alcohol has compromised the public health and social cohesion of Black Rock City”
    Well put, thank you. It takes so much more creativity to create an alcohol-free theme camp experience, and I appreciate it so much. I enjoy an occasional cocktail too, but more alcohol at BRC? Boooooring.

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    • Annie Oak says:

      Hey Janet,
      Thanks for your support for our opting out of the default alcohol experience. I think it’s boring too. My playa platform is “one tea house for every bar!” Please come by for a fine cup of pu-erh.

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  • dean says:

    Glad to hear of a camp that cares about keeping people hydrated and healthy. Had unfortunate experience my first year, forgetting my water on an afternoon adventure and getting seriously dehydrated. Multjple camps told me they could only give me alcohol. That seemed so wrong–where was Compassion and Common Sense in the Principles?

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    • Annie Oak says:

      Good question Dean. Maybe those people you asked were too dehydrated to think on their feet. You’re always welcome to come fill your water bottle at CSL. We’ll keep raising money to buy all that water somehow.

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  • Positron says:

    Thank You ! So well written, So well responded to our comments!
    I must come to camp soft landing this year. CAmpSoFtlaNding. Great name promise – mmmmmm. I once went to a beautiful tea house mid playa and another year once more again! Was that you ?
    See you soon with great joy!

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    • Annie Oak says:

      You’re welcome Positron! Thank you for the kind feedback. Please come visit us this year. We might have been the tea house that you visited. Was it a 40′ car barn structure with a 350-gallon cube of water outside the door? Looking forward to your joyful return.

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  • rosemary w says:

    How can I volunteer with you? I have never experienced Burning Man, but family and friends have. It feels like it is my time. I am small but willing.

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  • Thank you for sharing – this is my first year managing our camp and by your outline… it seems like I am on the right track. We lost a huge part of our leadership from last year (I was transportation and communication) so it has been a real struggle trying to get everyone as engaged – our leadership was incredible last year! I think I will need to find my version of Tryp – I need someone to deliver hard news softly haha. Thank you for sharing – I have shared this with our new folk as a way to show how much work/time/effort is put into each camp and what it takes to be a burner :) Thank you!

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    • Annie Oak says:

      Best of luck managing your camp! Replacing good leaders is a big challenge. I agree that every camp needs a version of Tryp to do what must be done and keep people smiling. I hope the information is helpful to your new campers – and anyone else who might not fully appreciate how much work it takes to put a camp together.

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  • Mark Musicant says:

    Love the description of the “Evapatron”, and will try to bring that to whatever camp I land in this year. I did not find your camp in by wanderings last year, but I so appreciate finding a place for hydration and tea. I look forward to wandering into Soft Landing this year.

    Doc on the Playa

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  • Chill says:

    Great article! I’ve been part of the infrastructure team for The Lost Penguin camp for several years now and we are always looking for ways to improve or lessen our impact on the environment. Managing our gray water and generating our power are always topics of discussion. I am personally in charge of power, lighting, etc. I will send the folks at Honda to see if we can convert our industrial gennie over to propane. We use an insane amount of gasoline and we would like a cleaner burning option. Solar is a bit too cost prohibitive. Additionally, the R.O.I. is so far out there that technology would likely change before it was paid off and we’d have to start all over again. Lastly, how would I go about obtaining the evapatron technical info? The design is brilliant and simple! Thank you. I don’t know about you, but I can taste the playa dust already!

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  • Mambutu says:

    Great Article! Especially for a relatively young theme camp such as ourselves! Question regarding your evapotron. We experimented with a very similar system in 2015 and had TONS of issues with the circulation pumps getting clogged with playa dust! What pumps did you use or how did you filter/protect the gray water from being saturated with dust? Any tips would be immensely appreciated!!!

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    • Annie Oak says:

      Hey Mambutu,

      I am very happy to hear that the info is useful for your theme camp. Interesting to hear that you are running a similar system for evaporation and that your pumps keep getting clogged with playa dust. This has not been a serious problem for us as far as I know. I will ask one of our senior Evapotron Operators if they will reply with suggestions for optimal pump designs and cleaning strategies.

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  • Ipo Painter says:

    Thank you for all of your dedication to keeping burning man what it should always be. I strive to keep my tribe on track and growing to reach these goals. Any advice on staying a tribe or moving to registering them camp?

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    • Annie Oak says:

      Hey Ipo,

      Each tribe has a different culture, of course. But we have found that certain people emerge as tribal leaders because they are respected by others in their community. Often it is easier for these people to lead small pods of people as opposed to large groups. This is why we embrace a decentralized model and subdivide our camp into neighborhoods – each of which has their own leader.

      My advice is to ask a few people respected as leaders in your tribe to represent a pod of no more than 20 people who are interested in joining a theme camp. Each leader helps settle disputes or misunderstandings that might impact people in their group. The leaders confer and determine a resilient management structure for the entire camp. Two or three leaders can be nominated to draft the theme camp application. This has worked for us. I hope this approach is helpful to you.

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