What IS a Burner, anyway?

Here’s a word that’s been on our minds a lot lately – “Burner.”

No, that’s not sarcasm…lately, we wonder a lot about this nomenclature and how it’s applied all throughout the Burning Man community in different ways. In fact, there was a tiny flap a few weeks ago when the JRS referred to folks attending regional burns as “Burners (and wanna-be Burners)…” We meant to refer to people who hadn’t yet had the opportunity to attend a burn (either BRC, or a Regional event), but alas – it ruffled the feathers of a small group of our “I’m-happy-at-my-regional-and-I-ain’t-ever-goin’-to-Nevada” friends who took it to mean, “People who hadn’t been to Burning Man, but want to, and won’t be ‘Burners’ until they have. ” And in retrospect we could see why they’d read it that way, really. It just wasn’t what we meant.

But it got us to thinkin’…who “really” is a Burner?

I think if you asked a dozen people who care, you’d get a dozen different answers. Is it someone who has been to Black Rock City, or is it anyone who’s been to an official Regional, or even an unofficial-but-not-dissimilar burn/campout event? What about all those folks out there who haven’t and may never make it to either, but are bringin’ it in their own way in their everyday lives, so much so that if you ran into them at the grocery store you’d swear they’d smell like playa dust if you leaned in close?

We’re not sure either. Personally, I tend to have a pretty broad definition, but it’s so hard to tease apart my own sense of the word that I’ve generally just avoided using the term (unless addressing a group of people who are definitely, absolutely, beyond a doubt known to identify themselves thusly, and even then, approach with caution). The discussion out there on Ye Olde Interwebz would certainly seem to point to a broader definition for most of us, but there are definitely die-hard literalists who seem to think you can’t truly be a Burner until you burn in BRC.

Still, the majority consensus appears to be something more broadly defined; it seems like maybe being a Burner is not about where you’ve been, or what you’ve attended, but what you do, and how you live.

So, readers, you tell us: What, precisely, is a Burner? How do you become one? Do you think of yourself as one?

(Worth noting, while we have you: there’s an event coming up that might convert a few “would-be Burners” [sorry] into Burners, whether they take the title on, or not…the “Bring It!” event is an invitation to anyone, anywhere, to get together on June 21 wherever you are and do…something. Anything. As long as it brings that feeling of contribution and gifting…and Burner (gasp!)-style élan, it’s going to be the right thing. We want you to BRING IT!. Sound interesting? Check it out and get involved…and call yourself whatever you want while you do it.)

About the author: Andie Grace

Andie Grace

Andie Grace returned to the staff of Burning Man in 2019 as a producer of strategic storytelling content. During her original tenure at BMHQ from 2000-2013, she was a member of the Executive Committee, managed the Communications Department, and helped oversee the early development of the Regional Network. During her seven-year hiatus, she co-founded an indie film distribution label, an indie video game label, and a creative coworking hub in Silicon Valley, but ultimately her passion for Burning Man and its cultural future pulled her back to the staff of the Project. She lives with her family in Berkeley, California.

42 Comments on “What IS a Burner, anyway?

  • Fireshadow says:

    A burner is someone who has embraced the social experiment of “Giving as a Way of Life.” In gifting, sharing, offering heartfelt concern or apathy or whatever open expression the group chooses to offer. It’s beginning to understand what living in a “Gifting Economy” and a “Do-ocracy” where we all offer what we each have to offer and expect the same for others.
    Isn’t that the same as “Do unto others as you ….”
    just saying….

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  • Soaked In Sin says:

    Thank you for posting this. I truly struggled with defining myself as “a burner” and wrote about it last year and its nice to know I’m not alone!


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  • ronjon says:

    A burner is what Larry says it is.

    “Larry said it. I believe it. And that settles it.”

    So…as Scott Beale noted, when do we get Larry on Twitter?


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  • Fire says:

    A “burner” to me is someone who has been to burningman & somehow feels a sense of kinship with the other people that go there. Someone who in addition to dreaming of being back in Black Rock City, internalizes any combination of the following traits:
    – free-range creativity
    – having fun with your life
    – discontent with “default culture”
    – loud, attention-grabbing personality
    – A fascinating real-world job
    – Mental capacity to actually “do” cool shit.

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  • This being my first year at burning man, I’m excited to become a burner. And all the traits that Fire mentions I have (besides loud, attention grabbing personality). Shh.

    Can’t wait, I need some inspiration.

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  • Trip711 says:

    I think it is this simple, a “burner” is one who has embraced the burning man principles and who has attended.Those that embrace that the principles and have not yet attended, I affectionatly refer to as “Proto Burners”. This term, for me, is not a negetive. I have had many friends that have not been able to attend for one reason or another, and in many cases they finially get to come to the Playa, then they are Burners. Hell lets not try and reinvent the wheel here, we/I am overthinking it. We know who we are and who our family is, btw, I hear there is a Family reunion Aug 25-Sept 1! See ya there!!! )'(

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  • Doug says:

    Those that entertain me the most are those that feel entitled to tell someone that they are NOT a burner. If you are self professed burners–in my opinion, the only real type of burner–then you are really shooting yourself in the foot when you step forward to tell someone that they are not.

    I have been to the burn and I saw no evidence of what is the make up of a burner; there are more like guidelines or suggestions. Everyone interprets and defines the burning identity differently for themselves–that is the whole point, right?

    And you know once there is a standard set, some clever asshole artist is going to come along and challenge it–as it should be.

    The important question, do you feel you are a burner?

    Yes? Boo ya! I’ll give you a high five in a couple of months.

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  • Beef_Pies says:

    No one ever said to me, “You’re not a Burner until you’ve been to Black Rock City.” That being said, my personal feeling was that I wouldn’t be a Burner until I’d attended. This year I’m finally fulfilling my dream and attending my Virgin Burn. I think we could all agree that someone who has been to Burning Man ought to, by definition, be a Burner, but there might even be exceptions to that. For instance, I would hardly call the wankers who prematurely set fire to The Man last year “Burners” even though they’ve (obviously) been to BRC.

    But for me, I won’t consider myself a Burner until I arrive in Black Rock City. How others consider themselves isn’t my concern.

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  • Cat says:

    What IS A bURNER….? A burner I believe is someone who has totally opened there mind and heart(soul)to humanity and the earth. Gift giving is love at it’s most obvious. To feel loved by people you just met is a life changing experience to most who have never experienced it. I think a burner lives this love 365- where ever, who ever. And I can’t wait to live this love for the first time with like minded individuals.
    Hug Nation!!!!! I’m gonna find you!!!

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  • A1phaGeek says:

    A burner is simply someone who enjoys the opportunity to live by their own rules.

    We live in a society of way too many rules. Burners get the opportunity to convene, with friends and family, some where that believes in “Safety Third”. It lets each and every one of us to choose what comes first or second for ourselves. All sorts of things can be placed as your personal firsts. Having fun, being sexier than your allow yourself in the RW, dancing, singing, or riding your bike blindfolded, what ever you need or want out of the moment. Burningman’s permissive culture of self expression, allows us to be a more true to ourselves.

    In the RW you often get introduced to new people, and along with the introduction is added “She is a Burner also”. In my mind when I hear that, I think, they are someone who like to live life more expressively, and that they would be offended if I did the same. What is not to like about that?

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  • Adam says:

    Thought I would share this little story… Last fall, a theme camp called “Burning Bear” came to Playa del Fuego for the first time. It was a small group of people, no bigger than an extended family. They’d never been to Burning Man, or even been to PDF before, but they told us about how they’ve been holding their own family-style burn for years.

    They’d get a huge log of wood and one of them would ‘sculpt’ it into a bear (with a chainsaw, I think). Then, they’d get together in one of their backyards (it was in a very rural area) and they’d have their own little burn over Labor Day weekend to coincide with Burning Man. From the many photos that they brought and hung up around their camp, they go all out, with gifts and costumes, the ten principls, the whole 9-yards; the whole weekend long. And, of course, it culminated with the burning of their beautiful bear sculpture.

    Talking to these wonderful people, I was struck by how deeply burner culture has permeated down into all sorts of places that are totally off the map and that you almost never hear about. As far as I’m concerned, these guys were not wannabes, but real burners who just happened not to have got to BRC or PDF yet. Listening to their stories, and seeing how much their experience meant to them, there’s no way I could ever question that. It was inspiring!

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  • Jay says:

    I’ve never been, but have wanted to go since 2001. I have a ticket for this year’s event, yet have started to feel reluctant. To me, being a burner is practical. Can you really do all that radical self-reliance requires? Take care of all your own needs, give to others that need help, and be open to all that life throws at you in the harshness of the desert. That’s the main question I am asking myself. In essence, I am asking myself if I can be a burner.

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  • I tried defining the adjective form before (as in “Burner Party”) on tribe ( http://tribes.tribe.net/bb_of_bm_club/thread/c55fbfec-b3c8-4fce-aa75-83255f66fdb3 ) but it didn’t really go anywhere.

    I’m pretty sure a “Burner” is “one that burns,” as one might find on a stove.

    Fuck you, I love you,
    —Jason Olshefsky

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  • EmCeeSquared says:

    Do you “feel” the Burn??? Probably in your heart, maybe your head, perhaps in your solar plexus.
    If you feel it, then you are it….IMHO. Live long and prosper, Burners of the World! :)

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  • landry says:

    the answer is yes.
    everyone has the ability. its a matter of *doing*.
    i mean…
    as long as you dont mind dust.
    see you there.

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  • Fire Mac says:

    There are many different levels of being a Burner. From the person who makes the trek to the Black Rock for the weekend, to those of us who try to live the principles on a daily basis.

    For some of us, Burning Man isn’t just a week long event. It is fund raising events for our art projects, it is working weekends to get that project off the ground, it is entertaining the public with a gift of fire. It is supporting the arts in our community and supporting other Burner groups. It is living with playa dust (or it’s equivalent) in your veins.

    It means getting INVOLVED and it is being part of a really big family.

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  • jrod says:

    There is no such thing as a burner. Move along now, ya hear?

    Seriously, “burner” is a label that people who must label everything in order for it to make sense put on people that go to the desert for a week to let their hair down in a variety of ways. The “burner ethos”; sharing, caring, picking up your own trash, being nice etc; is hardly unique to the BM community. I’d call it a common sense approach to getting along in life. Unfortunately for it to resonate for some, they must put those values through the prism that BRC provides for a week.

    Now that I’ve stated there’s no such thing as a “burner” I’ll tell ya who’s not a burner: anybody who takes themselves (and the event) so seriously that they forget to have fun, and “harsh other’s mellow” so to speak. BM is dynamic. It’s never the same dance twice. Accept that, and don’t label it. And please, resist the urge to politicize it. That’s an unfortunate side-effect of people who take themselves too seriously.

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  • Dazzle! says:

    “Burner” is a state of mind (heart and soul included). I’ve got friends who’ve been to burning man several times that aren’t really burners. They go for their own reasons, nothing wrong with that but in their soul, it just aint there. They are really only Burning Man Attendees. I also know some folks who may have never been out to BRC but “burn” in every other way. Whats really cool is to introduce them to other burners who have been and have them talk and a minute later they say, hey, this guy is a total burner (even if he hasn’t been). A burner can recognize another burner like that. And can spot a fake a mile away…..

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  • Pieter van der Vlugt says:

    I was lucky enough to be at the (BURN) in 2001,, & it,s taken this long to make it again this year,,, If being a “Burner” means anything it means to be Free to join together with people from all over the world & not only be knocked out by the most amazing creations & displays but in response be able to entertain, even amaze & most importantly be part of the worlds largest open air ART happening
    Look forward to seeing ya’ll

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  • dancing child says:

    I love how the blog post says “ask twelve people, get a dozen different answers” –so true!

    I don’t think a burner has to attend burning man..but I definitly think many people wouldn’t be burners unless they had had the opportunity to be exposed to the life of Burning Man in BRC. Last year was my virgin year, and I was terrified of all kinds of things–would I fit in? Would I be good enough? –kind enough? –wise enough to survive?

    The desert experience was more of a gift in itself than something to survive. Everywhere, people would do their best to have a good time–while making sure that I was enjoying myself as well. It’s an amazing thing when 50 000 people get together with the intention of creating, being, and growing. It was only after I felt the magnitude of this uncontrollable social experiment (if you will) that I realised it wasn’t a social experiement, but a society where people work to live an ideal life of giving and sharing everything from water to a much-needed ride to a moment of love.

    It is this realization combined with working to live like this that makes someone a “burner.”

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  • tonopaw says:

    A burner is someone that smiles and gets a far away look in their eyes when you mention Burning Man…

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  • Jomosexual says:

    damn hippies!

    how about a burner is anyone who attends and participates in (not just spectates at) the annual event known as “Burning Man”. if you help make Burning Man… you’re a Burner.

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  • Minxy says:

    Burners are love. The end. :)

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  • Dribbles says:

    This year will be my 10th consecutive Burningman!! After all of these years, I’ve realized that Burners are created the moment they venture off to our event. It takes a lot of courage and creativity to enter our Playa world…but once you are there – and you experience the Burningman grandure…you’re HOME!!

    Each year, Buringman increases in size. Some ‘old time Burners’ claim that the event is ruined by all the people. As one of the old timers, I whole heartedly disagree. The more burners I see the better I feel – knowing that our week in the desert allows everyone to grow and love in our shared experience. It warms my heart to watch the stream line of cars coming to our world. Come, participate, love, scream, jump, cry, dance, find quiet on the deep playa – and please come back next year….You’re a BURNER!!

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  • Paperboy says:

    So funny, but like porn, you know it when you see it. I’ve met fellow burners all over the world, and what always struck me as amazing/natural is how we figured out we were fellow burners. It’s not like i wear a sign, and it’s not like others do either, but it’s sort of a quiet acknowledgment of something a bit further.

    aoxomoxoa awaits us!

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  • Rebecca from Alchemy says:

    Hi Andie Grace :)

    A burner, in my opinion, is someone who tries to live by the 10 Principles. But, I’m not sure that covers it. I have definitely had experiences where I’ve been places and have seen a person and said, “Now she’s definitely a burner.” I’m not sure what I mean by that, exactly. Maybe I mean two different things, and use the same word to describe them.

    I will say that I find that I’m a little bit protective of the word. I’m not entirely sure why. I also think that it is important for the person to self-identify as a burner.

    Hope you’re doing well! Let’s get our kidlets together at BM!

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  • Malicious says:

    Godzilla is NOT a Burner!

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  • Barry says:

    Playa dust is required, sorry

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  • Boxes with Bears says:

    I would consider myself a burner. I feel that a burner is a participatant that dose what they can to not be a spectator. It does not matter what type of event they go to but I have heard it only is bestowed upon once the second event is under the belt. Or if they are really cool.

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  • Boxes with Bears says:

    Oh ya, John McCain is definatly burner

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  • Hotfoot says:

    It’s funny you say McCain is a burner. I could have sworn I saw him at a regional once!

    You gotta want to go, Definately participate! Try to not be a tourist, and uphold the principles always.

    Playa dust not required, but it does make for a nifty patina on all your gear! :)

    See ya all there!

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  • suzanne says:

    Years ago, I posted on a dating website as ‘a burner’. I got replies from pot heads. I think getting all esoteric on the name is kind’a strange. A burner is someone who goes to the burn. Even the yahoos who show up every year and leave beer bottles in the toilets are burners … maybe not GOOD burners, but burners none the less.

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  • Playapuss says:

    Jay, you must go and try it! I went kicking and screaming internally. The moment I arrived, at dusk, in a white-out, something in me just melted and I thought to myself, “I’m Home! I was very surprised at my reaction and so grateful. Burning Man doesn’t mean being practical. That concept doesn’t really mean much once you have experienced the Magic of the event. I was 53 years old and have gone back every year since. Just the thought of it tickles me and makes me giggle inside. I’d say a real Burner is someone who loves Burning Man and all it encompasses. I think one has to go to really get the magic of it all. J

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  • supanukldraga says:

    radical free expression and exceptance. Preparing for the next burn the day after the last. those that don’t go, don’t know. Participators not spectators. What’s a burner? I’m a burner. I was born a burner, live as a burner and will die a burner. I just never had such a cool name for it. thank you all. stop by the camp with the ten foot tall Tent/trampoline. We call it a tentoline!

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  • Cheeto says:

    I am a Burner. I dream about Burning Man on average of twice a month, all year. I think about it all of the time. I am sad for weeks when I leave it, I miss the people I meet. I love the smell of the playa dust. The heartbeat of the city puts me to sleep at night. I went the first time and it keeps calling me back,
    the playa gets in you, it’s magic.

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  • Dr Deb says:

    Burning man participation and playa dust required…although, not everyone who attends is a burner and many who are burners in their hearts are not burners until they have been through it.Buy a ticket and make it happen…that is, if you want to be a “burner”.

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  • Nadia says:

    I hope this doesn’t offend anyone…

    I’ve been wanting to attend Burning Man for quite some time; however, I would not be labeled as a typical “burner” when I go. This is unfair terminology.

    I’m working toward a degree in Architecture and love green designing and building. My initial reason for wanting to attend was because it’s a huge festival/community that promotes creativity, the arts, in everyone, gifting and then of course, burning it all, leaving no trace behind – it’s a beautiful philosophy, really, but how many people actually carry it on outside of the festival?

    If not, should they then, be termed as a “burner”, even if they’ve attended a burn or two, but don’t live up to the belief? Then, we also start to think, well, the people who attend burning man don’t live by rules, at least that’s what they claim, so then with this, who the fuck cares if someone doesn’t fit the burner philosophy? and then we start thinking, well these are just peaceful people, hippies, gypsies, people who are expressing themselves in many different ways – funny thing is, if everyone is at peace and everyone is all doing the same thing in the artistic sense, that in itself is conforming to a stereotype, and everyone is the same, and no one is different from eachother, and that is boring – and then, what’s the point?

    I know, I’ve never been, but I have my own reasons. I am constantly told that I should just go with absolutely nothing the first time, and just enjoy what’s around me. I have been wanting to go with the intention of building something FANTASTIC!!!! FUN AND WITTY AND FUNCTIONAL AND GREEN and oh so aesthetically magnificent! I haven’t gone yet because I’m saving up money for building materials and transportation!

    Lastly, I started spinning fire a year ago and tribal fusion belly dancing. It’s my stress reliever from school and it’s mindboggling now to think how the hell did i not put two and two together – it’s because i hadn’t gone yet and designing and building something fabulous was the reason for why i wanted to go in the first place. I mean, burning man worked with architecture for humanity in volunteer relief efforts after hurricane katrina – it’s almost like a dream for me. So here it is, I had NEVER heard the term “burner” until i started hanging out with other fire dancers (who live 8 hours away). Because of this, i thought burner applied to just fire dancers. i got pretty confused. Burner could also apply to ANYONE WHO BURNS THINGS.

    Here it is my friends, the point…to be spontaneous – it is to express who you are and what you believe in, not necessarily by Burning Man’s philosophy of gifting because even then, you are encouraged to gift, and in the same, you are encouraged to be you and if you don’t want to give up that pair of hand warmers you knitted yourself, well by golly fucking keep them – gift yourself! All I’m saying is, there is NO ONE DEFINITION of a burner, because if there was, wouldn’t that be contradictory to the philosophy? Be creative, believe in what you believe, and express yourself. It is whatever you want it to be.

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  • Billennium says:

    Like the phenix who rises from the ashes of his old self to place upon himself a new mantle. Whatever you take from your experience at BM is your own. My only question is how do you hang on until the next BM?

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  • Warwick says:

    Defining ‘Burner’ builds a border ;-)

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  • C.L says:

    I was a burner before i knew what a burner was, I was a burner before I went, and a happier burner after my first black rock city adventure.

    A burners condition and mind lives a step to the side of everyday society, a mix of imagination, experimentation, passion and love.

    A burner is the expression of that condition without care for judgement.

    Josh Harris (we live in public) is an extreme burner that never went to black rock city. http://www.weliveinpublicthemovie.com/

    The “real world” is a shit storm that few can navigate and live and create in without care of judgement – those that can – succeed in every way.

    Those that use whatever they create, to give in our other lives at burning man and in every day life – are burners to the core.

    being a burner is a condition. recognising gifting as enjoyment not waste. sharing because its just as fun watching it being consumed, used, abused and admired as it was creating it.

    (everyone can get there, they just need to hop of the merry go round)

    so hop off. Quick, like a bunny.

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  • bash says:

    Burners burn things, technically. so by default:
    If you participate in the collective act of burning something… whether you light the match, or make sure the matchlighter had breakfast that morning, you are by association a burner. Playa dust NOT required. akin: Simply being in Hollywood doesn’t make you a star.

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