So, You Want to Visit the Playa This Summer… Part 3: Responsible Recreation, LNT, and Your Safety

A series about visiting the Black Rock Desert in the summer of 2021, with updates from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), insights into desert life, responsible recreation on public lands, Leaving No Trace, staying safe, visiting Gerlach and the surrounding communities, emergency services, and much more. Please use this series as a guide to help you be prepared and stay informed as you travel to the Black Rock Desert. Read all the posts here.

This summer, some Burners may decide to venture out to the playa during this second year in a row without Black Rock City. Ideas are flowing and plans are being made—for 4th of July, Labor Day, and all the weeks in between. To help your plans unfold as smoothly as possible while protecting our desert home, and so that our community’s good standing with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and neighboring communities is maintained, please use this post as a guide. It will help you be prepared and informed as you travel through Northern Nevada to the Black Rock Desert, and spend time on playa.

The National Conservation Area

The temporary closure area for Black Rock City is about 14,000 acres of the extraordinary 800,000-acre Black Rock Desert — High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA). These are public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The NCA has boundless landscapes, steep canyons, rough terrain, sensitive species, and of course the expansive playa. If you plan to explore the farther reaches of the NCA, the most important advice we can give is: KNOW BEFORE YOU GO.

Crossing the playa is dangerous when the surface or subsurface is wet, and different sections of the playa have deep sand and protected plants. Roads in the canyons can be impassable or closed and aren’t suited to 2WD or low-clearance vehicles. Water crossings are sporadic. That being said, if you are prepared, it’s awesome. An abundance of information is available on the Friends of Black Rock High Rock website and at their Visitor Center in Gerlach, where you can also stock up on necessary supplies.

High Rock Canyon (Photo by Marnee Benson)

Desert Life

If you’re heading out to the playa this year, you won’t be alone. Lots of other user groups will be recreating and traveling alongside you. Local ranchers use and traverse these lands. Off-highway vehicles camp in the NCA and drive around. Several rocketeer groups, including AeroPAC, BALLS, Utah Rocket Club, and the Tripoli Rocketry Association, launch rockets in the Black Rock Desert during the summer. That’s right: ROCKETS! And plenty of locals and first-time visitors alike will be exploring the playa and surrounding environs. Take the opportunity this year to learn about other users and uses of the public lands.

Leaving No Trace

Trash has become a flash point for locals and visitors. Local communities in Northern Nevada tell us every year: Don’t leave your trash. Show respect for local residents and business owners—don’t make your trash someone else’s problem by leaving it in an unauthorized place or letting it fall off your vehicle.

“Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.”

We are excited to see the Leaving No Trace principle in action as people go to the desert this summer. This shared value means a lot to everyone who has been to BRC. The Burning Man community has passed the BLM site inspection every year we’ve been in the Black Rock Desert; let’s keep that same commitment to our shared Home throughout this year. This is a show-the-world moment. Go forth and LEAVE NO TRACE!

Leaving No Trace on the playa (Photo by Steve Tietze)

For additional information on Leaving No Trace, please see the first installment post in this series, the Leave No Trace page of our website and the Leave No Trace section of our most recent Survival Guide, and check out Playa Restoration’s MOOP Map blog series. If you would like information, training, or certification from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, learn more and contact them here.

Leave Nevada Beautiful

Each year we update our Leave Nevada Beautiful guide and give everyone entering BRC a hang tag for their vehicle to remind them where to go for the proper disposal of trash, recycling, and wastewater. In this way, our organization supports you, as well as local businesses and agencies. We’ve recently learned that due to the impacts of the pandemic, almost all of our usual participating trash vendors WILL NOT BE COLLECTING TRASH OR RECYCLING THIS YEAR. You’ll need to plan even more carefully than usual for your journey to and from the playa. Research ahead of time to find facilities on your route, and call ahead for hours of operation and to make arrangements for your trash, recycling, and RV pumping. If you can’t find a facility to take your trash, you will need to take it home with you. A dumpster in a parking lot behind a business or at a gas station or rest stop is not a solution (no, not even in an emergency). Plan ahead!

Visiting Gerlach

Gerlach is open, and they want your business. The Gerlach Outreach Facebook page is a good resource for understanding what’s available in town, including lodging, gas, food, and bars. You may see Black Rock Rangers in Gerlach this summer, assisting as they do each year with questions and directions, communications, and community support. The Burning Man Project Office will be open too—feel free to stop by if we can assist you with information, maps, directions, local info.

Welcome to Gerlach sign (Photo by Gary Geer)

Supporting Surrounding Communities

The pandemic has hit everyone hard, and many communities are still reeling. Nevada is opening up now, and this summer will be an opportunity to visit and support towns on the way to the playa. Reno and Fernley are great places to buy the supplies you need, treat yourself, and get a sound night’s sleep.

There are gas stations and convenience stores on tribal lands in Wadsworth and Nixon. Food vendors and car washes may be operating along Highway 447. You can learn more about the culture and history of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe at the Museum and Visitors Center. If you want to visit beautiful Pyramid Lake, you must get a permit ahead of time.

Pyramid Lake Museum & Visitors Center (Photo courtesy of Visit Nevada on flickr)

The Empire Store & Gas Station is open, and the new owner has made some wonderful improvements. Give the store a call ahead of time if you want to know what they carry and when they’re open.

Traffic Safety

The #1 thing you can do to help local communities is travel safely and respectfully through them. Police, fire, and emergency response resources on tribal lands and in Gerlach are limited. Each time a car accident occurs, or someone is hurt, it’s not only stressful for those involved, but for first responders and residents as well.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe urges you to:

  1. Be mindful of yellow lines, passing, speeding, and yielding to emergency vehicles.
  2. Pay attention to your surroundings. Sometimes you might think you’re out in the middle of nowhere, but you’re actually in someone’s yard or on their property.
  3. Notice and abide by the changing speed limits going through towns.
  4. JUST DON’T PASS! The desert will be there when you get there. No wreck or injury—to you or others—is worth saving five minutes on your journey.

Hot Springs

Nevada is a geothermal hotbed, but there are not enough hot springs for crowds of visitors to use safely and without considerable environmental impact. Springs are located in delicate riparian areas, and many have become contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Some are on private property, and unauthorized visitors are subject to being cited by the sheriff. Others are dangerously hot, with unpredictable temperature fluctuations. Do not enter any springs with warning signs. If you visit local hot springs, tread lightly, be aware of the conditions, and respect others. State law does not permit camping within 300 feet of a water source. Keep these areas clean, safe, and protected.

Hot Springs (Photo by Marnee Benson)

Emergency Services

Black Rock City has a team of 800 licensed professionals, a fully staffed field hospital, ambulance service, a fixed-wing medical aircraft and dedicated runway, six first-aid stations, a fire department, hazmat response, and crisis intervention team. Even though Radical Self-reliance is one of our shared Principles, we have come to count on these resources during the event. Without BRC, none of these services will be available this summer. Heading out to the desert this year means more preparation is warranted to provide for your own safety and not tax the nearby communities of Gerlach and Nixon.

If you have an emergency and need to call 911, and are able to reach them, your call will go to a distant dispatcher who will try to get you help. BLM will be on site, and Washoe and Pershing County Sheriff’s deputies will be on call, but their response times will be longer than in BRC (which is generally under five minutes). See the note above about GPS and location-finding in case of emergency. It’s worth considering getting a membership from AirMedCare Network or other provider in case an emergency medevac off the playa is needed.

Other emergency services, such as towing, will also be more challenging without a city map or Black Rock City Rangers with radios. Again: get a GPS app and know where you are!

On-playa Communications

Cell service on the playa is patchy and unreliable. Consider bringing radios to be able to communicate with your group. Make sure your radios have a long enough range and that you’re on a shared frequency. Check the battery life, and practice using them in camp.

Navigation & GPS

Getting around BRC is second nature to many of us, but think back to your first year—finding your way around (and back to camp) was pretty challenging. Now imagine the open playa with no trash fence, no city map, no Man to orient by, and camps that are dispersed for miles. You can get turned around easily and find yourself unprepared for a day (often with unexpectedly hot temperatures) or a night (often with unexpectedly low temperatures) in the middle of nowhere.

If you’re camped on the playa and strike out on your own, communicate with friends ahead of time, be clear about your plans and location, and load a GPS navigation app (in advance!) on your phone or purchase a handheld GPS device. Phone apps and GPS devices can track you when there’s no cell service and help you find your way back to camp. GPS coordinates can also help you describe your location to emergency responders. Bring a solar charger for your phone and other necessary devices.

Lighting

At night, be sure both you and your camp are well lit. You want to be easily seen by others—drivers especially. Vehicles may be moving faster than the 5 mph allowed in BRC, and there will likely be no established streets. Consider placing your tent near your car for added safety. Don’t leave camp without a headlamp or flashlight!

Food Safety

The Nevada Division of Public & Behavioral Health has information on food and water safety that may be helpful as you plan for the playa.

Hazardous Road Debris & Securing Your Load

Road debris is a serious concern any time of the year and in the U.S. annually causes 51,000 accidents, injuring nearly 10,000 people, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Don’t add to this statistic. Secure your load safely like someone you love is driving behind you, because they are. Follow these tips and leave the highways clean, beautiful, and safe.

  • “Tie It Strong!” Firmly secure your load with straps, rope, bungee cords or netting. The wind exerts hundreds of pounds of pressure per square foot at 60 mph, pushing unsecured items right off your vehicle.
  • “Cover It Up!” Loose items should be firmly covered with a tarp or netting.
  • “Lighter On Bottom!” Put lighter items below heavier items and evenly distribute the load.
  • “Do Not Overload!” Keep items level with the truck bed or trailer unless firmly tied down.
  • “Double Check!” Ask yourself, “Is this roadworthy?”

Planning Is Everything

If you venture out to the playa this summer, carefully planning your visit in advance will be of far greater consequence than ever before. Without the infrastructure of Black Rock City, Radical Self-reliance and Civic Responsibility are of the utmost importance for your safety, the safety of others, and the well-being of our beloved desert home and our neighbors. Keep the seven Ps of Planning in mind as you prepare: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance! Know that your decision-making and your preparation (or lack of it) may have impacts far beyond yourself. Thank you for upholding the longstanding positive reputation for stewardship of the land that the Burning Man community is known for.


Cover image: Road to Gerlach, 2016 (Photo by Ales aka Dust To Ashes)

About the author: Marnee Benson

Marnee is Burning Man Project’s Associate Director of Government Affairs. Her work focuses on permitting and relationships with the Nevada Legislature, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Pershing County, and multiple other Nevada agencies. She helps Burning Man navigate Nevada politics and federal issues affecting the Burning Man event. Marnee’s first trip to Black Rock City was 2001, and in 2007 she worked with the Department of Public Works and the Communications team, writing and photographing content for the Burning Blog “Building Black Rock City”. From 2009 to 2013, she served as the Deputy Director at Black Rock Solar. She loves the way Burning Man expands her world and flips ideas upside down.

6 Comments on “So, You Want to Visit the Playa This Summer… Part 3: Responsible Recreation, LNT, and Your Safety

  • Burning Man Project Communications says:

    Reminder: Burning Man Project has a responsibility to maintain this space for the benefit of all participants, to ensure that comments serve to enhance the experience of our visitors, rather than cause harm. While spirited conversation is welcome, unruly and rude behavior is not. Posts that are harmful to others or run counter to the spirit of civil discourse may be removed.

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  • Mary says:

    Sounds pretty dangerous. Those clouds don’t look good either. Probably best to stay home and experience the MAGIC of Burning Man virtually and safely. There’s also a serious drought happening right now and there is a shortage of water and fuel. Be responsible and don’t go outside unless it is absolutely necessary. We are all in this together. Stay tuned to news reports for the latest warnings. Your family is depending on you to do the right thing.

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    • Tony says:

      I’m going out on a limb here, There are people going this year who have no interest in what Borg has to suggest. Some may even feel taken advantage of by Borg ….Subtleties first missed when viewing Marion Goodel’s cancellation announcement seems glaringly obvious with a rewatch… some may conclude there was never an intention to hold the Burn (filter away Mr. administrator)

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    • Jrod says:

      +100! Definitely stay home. Super dangerous out there.

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  • No trash fence and no Daft Punk

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  • ben k says:

    After many burns but never an offseason visit i am excited to go explore the black rock/high rock area this year on my motorcycle. hot springs, historical emigrant trails, and friendly burners sounds fun. See you’all out there!

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