Tips for Riding a Reliable Playa Bike All Week Long

A mountain biking friend and I started our no-nonsense playa bike repair in 2009. We figured we’d help Burners out by repairing a few flat tires. Little did we know that it would be so popular! After five or so years of camping solo, we formed Camp Brewhaha. We’re a no bullshit, fiercely independent cast of characters who have somehow managed to coexist for the past seven or eight years. We always end up in the 6 o’clock sector. For 2023 look for our unique flags at 6:15 & G.

After more than 10 years of doing bike repair at Burning Man, I have decided that perhaps it’s time to try a little preventative maintenance. And so, I’m giving you all a little pre-BRC bike advice in an effort to make you more self-sufficient and reduce our workload.

Camp Brewhaha (Photo courtesy of John Briant)

Playa Bike Tips for Anyone Headed to BRC

Peeps — trust me, your bike will save your Burn! Yes you need water, food and shelter. But without a bike, your Burn is going to be a lot less enjoyable!

Playa Bike Dos and Don’ts

  • Do find a second hand bike at your thrift store, online or in your local paper. Chances are they will cost the same, be a better bike, and you will be recycling something and not contributing to the landfill.
  • Do take your bike to your local bike shop for a service before bringing it to the Burn.
  • Do ask your local bike shop for some spare tubes (the correct size and valve for your bike) and a pump.
  • PLEASE don’t buy a $100 Walmart special (especially a Huffy). 
  • Don’t rely on the Black Rock City bike camps. We will happily try to repair your bike; we are not there to get your bike running. 
  • Resist the urge to put fur on your bike. It will get into moving parts and cause issues.

Finally, do ride your bike as much as possible before the burn. This will get your ass accustomed to being in the saddle and give you a feel for how comfortable the bike is, so you can make any adjustments before the Burn and not have to do it while you’re there.

Post Burn, always wash your bike down a couple of times with vinegar followed by hot soapy water. Then oil your bike with a good bicycle lube.

(Photo by Adilson Emboava)

Checklist for an Ideal Playa Bike

I am a firm believer in the KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid) principle for anything I do in Black Rock City. So for me, the ideal bike is as simple as possible:

  • I prefer a bike with no gears at all. A simple, single-speed bike will work perfectly and significantly reduce the number of moving parts that could fail on the playa.
  • Pick a bike that has a sealed bearing for the bottom bracket. Take a look at the bottom bracket bearings. If you can see the ball bearings, then the playa dust will get in there.
  • Similarly, a back pedal brake system reduces the number of external moving parts.
  • A step through frame design (no crossbar) is also very nice to have, so you don’t have to lift your leg over the crossbar every time.
  • A good kickstand is a must. There is nothing worse than having to lay your bike on the ground every time you get off it.
  • A basket and cup holder on your bike are always nice to have. It’s helpful to have a bell or horn.
  • Most importantly, make sure your bike fits YOU: not too small, not too big. You need to be comfortable.
(Photo by Susan C. Becker)

Checklist for Bike Supplies to Bring to BRC

  • Two spare tubes (the correct size and valve type for your bike) 
  • Don’t rely on patch kits to repair your flats; we have found that they do not work very well on the playa
  • Bike pump 
  • Tire levers 
  • Wrench or bicycle wrench and allen keys that are the correct size for your bike
  • Spray bottle with Magic Juice (see below)
  • Bring a tarp to lay down under your bike when you are working on it so nothing goes on the playa
  • A good bike lock (I prefer a combination lock with the biggest numbers I can find)

Note: Before attempting any bike repairs or Magic Juicing on the playa, please ensure you put down a tarp or something to protect the playa and collect any MOOP that may fall off your bike.

(Photo by Bill Klemens)

My Recipe for Magic Juice Playa Bike Lube

If you choose to ignore all of this sage advice, at the very least make yourself a spray bottle of Magic Juice and bring it along. After 10 years of trying every kind of bike lube imaginable with limited success combating the devastating impact of playa dust on a bike, the only thing that truly works is our tried and true Magic Juice. It is simple but very effective at removing playa dust and applying a very thin lubricant that will not attract playa dust.

Magic Juice Recipe: Mix ¼ cup of baby oil or mineral oil with 4 cups of white vinegar in a spray bottle. Spray all the moving parts of your bike with this daily and watch the magic happen.

Note: Magic juice is only meant to be used on the playa to get you through the Burn. Don’t use it on your bike when you get back home!

The one skill you can learn, pre-playa, to make sure your bike doesn’t break:

Optimal lighting for a playa bike:

There are so many light systems out there, but the most important thing in my mind is that you are visible from all four sides. So for example, lights on your wheels alone are only visible from the side, not from the front and back. Likewise, a light that’s only on the front of your bike is only visible from the front.

There you go folks! You can find us at Camp Brewhaha bike repair (6.15 & G) open from 2 pm to 4 pm most days. We leave tools out for DIY bike repair 24 hours a day. If you are nice, there is generally someone there who will help you repair your bike. Come say hi! We are a jolly bunch who don’t take bike repair too seriously.

Cover image of repairing a bicycle on playa (Photo by Mark Nixon)

About the author: John Briant

John Briant

John Briant is a default world ship captain, sailor, mountain biker, spearfisherman, tiny house builder and van-lifer. At-home no bullshit bike repair hack.

28 Comments on “Tips for Riding a Reliable Playa Bike All Week Long

  • Humpty says:

    Good stuff. I’m going to try the magic juice. we are standardazing our camp bikes so that parts are interchangeable. that should simplify things a little. I had 4 tires blow out last year. that was sub optimal.

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    • tony says:

      FYI … Main causes for tire blow outs – over inflation – the extra air does not do any good . Tires and tubes are manufactured for a set amount of air – regardless of what it feels or looks like, just simply put the right amount of air in it ONLY … Also, when you go to add air to your tube – first LLOOK at the position of the valvestem – if it looks crooked or is not fully sticking out of the rim – let some air of of it first before you start yanking on it … Or, it will simply cut the stem and they usutcannoy be fixed. I have only known I guy on the playa who has the skills to fix that right . Otherwise, you are going to need a new tube. So, tired usually do not just pop,blow out on the playa, they are the results of improper inflation and handling. If you bring a couple of new tubes with you great,but unfortunately – most do not and want new tubes from bike camps ??? Really, who brings that many free tubes? As for lubricants – KISS – the basics are all you need .

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    • Jessi Keenan says:

      Regular bikes don’t work on the Playa anymore so I can’t go :( ebikes made it too tough to ride. I was miserable last year. Sorry can’t go back till I can enjoy my time or afford to bring an ebike :( . BM was good while it lasted for me.

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  • Anvil says:

    Very helpful — thanks

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  • Jose says:

    Playa repair camp people have a hole in the middle!!!!….. because they are Life Savers!

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  • Auntie V says:

    Lots of good stuff, thanks. I also like the tennis ball on the kick stand so it’s easier to keep the bike standing in soft spots. XO

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    • Driver says:

      A tennis ball to go over the kickstand foot is great, especially when parking on heavy playa dust. Highly recommend this!! I’ve also had friends put tennis balls on their stiletto heeled shoes. Keeps you upright while walking and very stylish!

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  • Maryalice says:

    You are awesome for spreading this information.

    I have never attended Burning Man, perhaps in the future.
    Your article is a reminder of if you give a woman a fish, she’ll eat for a day. Teach her to fish and she will eat for a lifetime.

    Thank you.

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    • tony says:

      Well, I think the story goes – give a begger a fish, they eat for a day, teach them how to fish – they can eat for a life time – (that’s if they want too just saying ) That’s today’s view

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  • Anna Smith Clark says:

    Thanks so much for all the tips!! And especially for the Magic Juice recipe!!
    Hoping the repairs are few!!

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  • Glenn Mantel says:

    Another great way to Playa-proof (and weather-proof) your bike’s drivetrain is to convert from a chain drive, to belt drive.

    The belt drive is quiet, requires no lube whatsoever, and can withstand the most adverse conditions (Your car uses them. Why not your bike?)

    You can build your own, or purchase conversion kits from:
    Expensive: Veer, Gates | Affordable: AliExpress, Amazon, eBay

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  • Dr. Really? says:

    These are excellent tips and advice! Following them will make the bicycling effort and experience far better than not.

    Of note though is the comment to not buy a Walmart Huffy, pictured above in the photo by Bill Klemens. I did and still use the Huffy after eight years. Previous to the Huffy, I used funky, beat up bicycles for a dozen years requiring much attention to get working that ended up being not much fun and an effort to ride on the Playa. The Huffy has wider, fatter tires that cruise the softer playa dust piles with greater ease, especially at my age. The Huffy has a nice wide saddIe with handle bars that allow me to sit upright and look around while cruising. It has a front built in basket and a built in rack on the back to attach a Safeway basket.

    John Briant’s advice is highly advisable about preventative and ongoing maintenance, Huffy or not.

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  • Jim Foster says:

    You guys were a great help last year when I had a flat but forgot my Tire levers! Duh!

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  • Homer says:

    “PLEASE don’t buy a $100 Walmart special (especially a Huffy). ”

    Let’s say hypothetically one had already bought a Walmart Special Huffy–Cranbrook cruiser because they kept striking out at the thrift stores and had some Walmart gift cards. Any suggestions on how to help it survive on Playa?
    (Asking for a friend…)

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    • David says:

      Take it to a local bike shop and ask them to give it a once over (usually free). Many times department store bikes are not assembled correctly which can lead to a failure. A good bike mechanic will be able to spot these flaws.

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    • The Reverend says:

      A good option for older bikes or bikes with unsealed bearings is a kit like this:
      I would highly recommend something like this to keep a cheaper bike rolling for many burns.
      Bottom bracket disease is the number one thing I’d treat at the bike repair camps and we’d run out of replacement bearings by Tuesday.

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    • roger l jacobson says:

      Pack the bottom bracket bearings in heavy grease.

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    • Homer says:

      Thank you all for the suggestions! I will start out by double-checking the assembly and packing those bottom bearings…

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    • tony says:

      Frankly,bikes are bikes and the brand,cost and make does not really matter after being on the playa – it’s how you treat and take care of them – before, during and after the playa. I have been riding bikes and taking them completely a part and I do mean completely a part since I was 5 years old – I grew up with 9 brothers and 2 sisters on a ranch. You learn to do things yourself and being 85 Mile’s from the closet store . I had bikes built from just about every brand – and most were pieced together from multiple bikes -. If you use too much heavy grease – it will actually melt in the heat and drip on the playa especially when the bike bounces . If you have areas that are not properly sealed – use vinyl hose tape $2.00 or even duct tape and a couple of heavy paper towels to help enclose it. It’s all about KISS – no need to over think – it

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  • Stanky says:

    Your magic juice sounds pretty decent but WD-40 has always been the fluid that keeps my playa bikes working smoothly, 12 burns and counting. Lubing your chain with leftover bacon grease will keep it rust free until the next burn. Coconut oil also comes in clutch

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  • CincyKid says:

    Didn’t see the comment so will suggest adding a tennis ball to your kick stand which will help prevent it from just sinking into the sand and your bike falling over. Punch a hole into the tennis ball first in order to get it to fit onto the kick stand. Keep it tight so you don’t leave tennis balls on the playa.

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  • Charles H Jones says:

    Bring a stiff whisk brush, or medium size, stiff paint brush to brush sand out of your chain and gears.

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  • roger l jacobson says:

    Our Sparks Kiwanis Club has prepared thousands of bikes for the playa and have never found a coaster brake (pedal backwards) bike to have sealed bottom bracket bearings. 90+ % of the bikes with coaster brakes have a one- piece crank with visible bearings. Unless you want to do a total bottom bracket and crank arm replacement, you need to open up the bottom bracket and pack the bearings in heavy grease. I am sure there are many u-tube videos on this. It helps to also cover the outside of the bearings with a protective layer of grease. The new bikes Huffys and others only have the bearings coated with oil. We have noticed that these new bikes normally have bottom bracket issues after one Burn. Sealed bottom brackets, which I recommend generally come on higher end mtn bikes but can easily be added to any 3 – piece crank bike.

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  • Andrea Sister Mister says:

    Thank you SO much for these tips, John! It’s time to get out on the Playa!

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  • Miss Kitty says:

    Thanks for the advice, very helpful!

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  • Burningman Sucks says:

    Here’s a better idea: don’t go to a lame, corporate sponsored event that destroys bikes. You’re being non-conformist by doing exactly what everyone else in the Bay Area autistic tech world is doing. It hasn’t been cool since 2004, and it definitely isn’t cool now.

    If I have to see another totalled bike covered in nasty white sand and christmas lights and fur, i might lose it. Save the second hand bikes for people who aren’t going to turn them into scrap metal.

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    • Back in the day burner says:

      That’s about right but the last year it was any good was 1996 !
      5,000 people attended and it was a blast ! From arriving to the Playa and having some Playa dust covered dudes saying to set the odometer to zero and then drive straight out into the desert for 12 miles, then turn right and go 2 more miles and you should start to see things. We knew from that point on that this was gonna be fun ! It was never the same after that. I stopped going before the year 2000.

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