Camp Organizer’s Notes

I’ve operated the Nose Fish theme camp at Burning Man for ten years.  I wrote down some of what I do to operate the camp.

My goal as camp operator is to execute the camp’s plans and leave no trace. Through the former I hope to help everyone in my camp fulfill our collective dream of providing a service and some art to our community.  We love what we do together.  It is still up to each camp member to plan and execute their own Burning Man experience.  Their first duty to the camp is to be able to take good care of themselves so they can give from whatever excess time and energy they have.

In fact, I neither plan nor organize the camp myself.  My wife contributes directly and indirectly and I would not be able to operate the camp without her.  In fact, she has been with me every single year I accepted any responsibility for a theme camp.  Our contribution is considered together — together we operate the camp.

Our camp has natural groups of 1, 2, 3 or more members.  We recently started calling them “pods”.  Pods share responsibility and facilitate communication. They have a better chance of knowing the whereabouts and interests of other members of their pod.  And, they are free to divide the tasks of their own Burning Man experience any way they wish, without informing anyone else of how they achieve the pods’ goals.  Together they do and that is sufficient.

My camp uses a yahoo groups mailing list to reach each other.  I use primarily email to reach the camp, but I often try to speak with new camp members over the phone.

I plan for 40% failure.  If I ask for help from five people, two won’t show up, or won’t be of much use.  If bring the capacity to do or affect something, such as heaters, cookers, coolers, sprayers, etc., I overestimate our need by 40%, or underestimate the effectiveness.

I plan transparently using Google Spreadsheets. Using different sheets in a workbook I list all of the things we will need in order to execute our shared infrastructure as well as my own Burning Man experience.  I count things like sticks of rebar, tarps, and T-Stakes that will be needed.  I create a drawing of the camp as a Google Drawing and add lines where power cables will need to be dug.

In fact, things are usually different once we arrive on the playa.  The camp may be a different shape, or we may be adjacent to a road and such.  For roads aside from our frontage we put up a trash fence with T-Stakes.  We also try to light this so people can see it at night.  We don’t usually need a fence on other borders, but if neighbors stumble through our camp day and night we might.  The one year we felt we needed a fence we also went out of our way to make a passage between our camp and the next so the camp behind us would have easy access.  It wasn’t hard — we just chopped 10 feet of the side of our camp before we set it up and made sure our neighbors on the side didn’t use that space.  We lit the path too.

We like having our shade structure and kitchen really close to our frontage so people feel welcome to come into our camp.  We like to have extra chairs ready for friends who drop by.  In years when we put our shade further inside our camp people had to intrude or risk being thought of as intruders in order to even find someone in our camp.

We place “Private Area” signs on all of our tents, cars and private structures on the camp. This makes it clear to anyone who cares which areas are private and which are not.  We do not expect privacy in our open shade structure right next to the road.

We use a Nose Fish Shower to capture our gray water.  We treat most of it with a combination of filtration and bleach.  Then we sprinkle it in camp.  I ask people to process and sprinkle at least as much gray water as they produce. If this is a problem for someone, they can trade that job with someone else if the wish.  Some people also just take their gray water home with them and dump it in a sewer: if you had room to bring the water, you should also be able to bring it home.

We have a role in our camp called “LNT Guru”.  The person in that role makes sure our recycling is separated based on how we are able to process it, and that garbage is separate from burnables, etc.  That person’s goal is to help the camp live up to our LNT commitment by enabling and encouraging it.

We use modified 1v domes as camp structures because they are easy to set up.  The floor and horizontal ceiling struts are full sticks of 3/4″ EMT – 10 feet long (they just don’t get cut).  The 10 angled wall struts are cut to 8 and 1/2 feet and the five roof struts are cut to 9 feet.  This makes big triangular doors you can walk through without bending over.  Covering the sides is easy:  a series of rectangles for the walls works fine.  The roof is harder.  You can use two or three large 12×16 tarps to cover most of it.  Some people use tyvek or roadside advertisement sign vinyl where available.  We used the latter and while it works well, it is very heavy and exhausting to work with.  I like using the heavy-duty 12×16 tarps that can be purchased at CostCo in pairs for about $21 per pair.

We nail tarps into the playa under every dome and our kitchen structure.  We use Glavanized 60d nails that are at least 8 inches long, together with a 3/8″ fender washer (cheaper when purchased in boxes!).  We hammer these in through the grommet holes to keep the floor tarps down all week.  To remove them twist them a few times with a vice grips and either pull them out or use a claw hammer if needed to level them up. Floor tarps get folded up carefully and held closed with bungie cords so they don’t spill their contents.  We clean them at home.

I always bring a collection of tools and materials, fasteners, rope and spare parts and supplies for mission-critical components.  I bring extra fuses and the replacement ends to repair extension cords, and on and on.  I bring WD-40 and glues and tape.  I bring a hobby knife and spare blades, assorted wrenches and hand tools. I think about how things fail and what kinds of things I’m willing to try to repair on the playa.  I bring a modest collection of tools — what will fit in one toolbox, together with my electronics tools in another toolbox that I use for my camp’s main service. I keep these tools in what we call our “garage dome” which is a 1v dome at the back of our camp.  A table there contains all the tools and materials and everyone in camp is welcome to use them.  I label all the expensive or important ones with our camp name and location.  They come back that way.

Before we leave I make sure I know approximately when people will arrive and I plan what work we might attempt each day.  Some work can’t be done until someone arrives with their components, so I try to ensure they bring things we don’t need until later.

Once we’re on playa I try not to ask people to work in the middle of the day.  If the day is cool enough we might do some work, especially if it isn’t strenuous.  Many people are uncomfortable or lack energy on the second and third day they are on the playa.  I try to encourage people to drink and rest and not to push themselves. My wife reminds me of the same things because I tend to want to work if I still have some energy.  But the first few days can be hard and exhausting just to get the initial camp infrastructure deployed.

We break our camp down on Saturday, the day the Man burns.  By the time the Man burns all of the camp’s infrastructure has been broken down and loaded into two cargo vans.  Camp members are welcome to stay longer, but the camp closes Burn Night and there is no more fence, shower, kitchen, shade, garage dome or anything aside from people’s personal tents, bikes and cars.  My wife and I leave the playa around 2am — a few hours after the Man Burns.  By then we’ve been on-playa for eleven days and we’re ready to go home.

We have a camp Decompression event every year to talk about what worked and what didn’t.   Sometimes they are not well attended because everyone is so busy when they return from the Playa, but we try to capture ideas while they are fresh in people’s minds.

I try to remember when I ask people to do things for the camp that everyone is a volunteer. I’m not actually entitled to anyone’s time or assistance for any particular thing.  They do have a general obligation to the camp to “help” but that doesn’t mean they have to do what I say when I say it.  So, at most I try to make requests: never demands.

I also try to say Yes whenever I can when people volunteer to do things.  Unless I really need their help some other way, and unless it will create an LNT problem, and unless it is a violation of our social contract with Burning Man or is dangerously illegal, then my answer is probably going to be Yes.

Based on recent experiences, I think I will add to my list of things to do to monitor the progress of art projects run by camp members to provide feedback on when to scale back or even cease work and go off and enjoy Burning Man. People, especially on their first big art project, will take on ambitious goals and struggle in the desert to meet them.  I will often remind myself and others that nobody knows what it is supposed to look like. So, a project can be considered done at points other than just the form imagined by the artist. People can drive themselves to a point where they don’t enjoy Burning Man at all, because of an obsession with a project.  I’ve tried the hands-off approach.  It sucked for everyone involved.  I think I will try something else next time.