How to Be a Nose Fish

Tom Davis
Last updated: April 9, 2019

Introduction

This document is written for folks who are planning to camp with Nose Fish at Burning Man, both complete Burning Man newbies or for previous burners who just want to know what makes Nose Fish different from at other Burning Man camps.

Links and Literature

If this will be your first time at Burning Man be sure to read fairly carefully the “Burning Man Survival Guide” which is mailed with each ticket.

Although it’s not the best-organized site in the world, the official burningman.org page has links to other useful information aimed at everyone.

There’s also a “Jackrabbit Speaks” mailing list that you can subscribe to that covers news about the current incarnation of Burning Man. You can subscribe here.

Here is the official Nose Fish website that documents some of the previous history of our camp.

This is from a couple of years ago, but we made a Google spreadsheet of all the stuff that was for the general camp, together with who was responsible for bringing it:
Google Spreadsheet.

Burningman Services

Almost nothing is for sale at Burning Man. You can purchase is ice and various coffee and coffee-like drinks. The ice is available at Camp Arctica at 3 locations and we are usually camped near one of them. The coffee drinks are sold at Center Camp and we’ve been near that for the last few years, but there’s no guarantee where the camp will be in the future. If there is anything other than ice and coffee you need, you’ve got to bring it yourself or know that someone else is bringing it. In the next section is a list of the things that Nose Fish will bring for you.

Burning Man also provides no garbage collection: if you bring it, you take it home. In addition to the coffee and ice sales, Burning Man provides lots of support, including porta-potties (cleaned two or three times a day; if you stumble into a newly-cleaned one, you’ve hit the jack-potty), roads that are sprinkled with water every day, emergency medical service, and lots of volunteer rangers to help with emergencies, conflicts, et cetera.

Although you can’t purchase anything, the odds are overwhelmingly likely that if you forget something somebody else in Nose Fish or a nearby camp will have it and will be happy to lend/give it to you. As they say, “The playa provides.” There’s no bartering; Burning Man has a “gift economy” where if you give or get something, there’s no expectation of something in exchange. Since Nose Fish is generally known as “Camp Competent” we tend to give a lot more than we receive. (Partly that’s true because the average age of Nose Fishers is probably 15 years higher than the Burning Man average.)

Avoiding the Dust

Basically, you can’t.

Almost everything you bring will soon be filthy with playa dust. It is very fine, highly alkaline, and gets into everything. There is often wind and consequently dust storms. Your best bet may be to simply roll around on the ground in your clothes when you arrive and throw a bucket of dust into your tent rather than hopelessly trying to stave off the inevitable. Don’t bring anything that will leave you heartbroken if it becomes totally covered with dust or ruined because of the dust. I’ve been using a $40 Target Bicycle for 10 years whose derailleurs are rusted shut, for example. You can protect small things like cell phones by keeping them sealed in a zip-lock bag and only taking them out when the wind is not blowing.

Speaking of cell phones, don’t count on any internet or phone connection. Sometimes you’re lucky, but as the week goes on competition for bandwidth is so high that nothing works. It is great to have a phone (or other camera) because of the huge amount of eye candy. Nose Fish sometimes gets an internet connection working, but don’t count on that, either.

Nose Fish History

The Nose Fish camp has been at Burning Man since at least 2001 and probably for years before that. (My first year was 2002, and I have missed only two Burning Mans since then.) The overlap between the 2001 camp members and current members is zero so I (and my wife) are the final authority on all Nose Fish history. Every year we recruit a few new people and a few people decide not to come. We’ve always had around 20 camp members which is a nice number so that pretty much everybody gets to know everybody else.

The name “Nose Fish” comes from two art projects the camp provided in the dim past.
The first was the “Desert Nose,” a giant geodesic structure in the shape of Buckminster Fuller’s nose, where you walked in through the nostrils and were misted with water inside to cool off. There was also a “Fishmobile” art car that was covered with fish illustrations. We preserve the name “Nose Fish” because the camp has a very good reputation for always providing the art/experiences we promised and because we always leave the campsite completely clear of MOOP.

“MOOP” is a common Burning Man word, standing for “Material Out Of Place.” Perhaps the most important Burning Man goal is to leave no trace so anything that wasn’t on the playa lakebed when you arrive should not be left there when you leave. Any trash on the ground is called MOOP.

What Nose Fish Provides

  1. A huge part of what Nose Fish provides is a good reputation. There is high-quality real estate on the playa and the best areas are controlled by BMORG (the Burning Man Organization). To camp in that real estate you need to be placed, and to be placed you need to submit a fairly detailed application showing them why your camp deserves to be there: what services, art, et cetera will you provide? If your camp has been at Burning Man for a while, BMORG takes into account your camp’s history and Nose Fish has a great one, providing exactly what we said we would and leaving no trace at the end. Tiny sections of the playa are actually on the electrical grid and we’ve almost always been assigned space on the grid (but we never count on it). Newbies benefit from this great reputation.
  2. We have a storage locker in Reno where much of the (filthy) camp structure lives. Every year we rent a truck (usually a 15-foot box truck) in Reno, empty the storage locker into it, and drive the truck to the playa. At the end of Burning Man we reverse the process. We try to take inventory of the locker contents at the end, or at least take photos of everything, but after a week or more on the playa, most (ok, all) of us suffer from some level of playa-brain, so the inventory is never 100% accurate. This obviates carrying tons of stuff to the playa and back from the bay area every year.
  3. Before the truck leaves Reno, other items can be purchased there to replace broken stuff and to get a load of water. Since Nose Fish usually provides free coffee as one of our art projects, a fair percentage of the water purchased (in cardboard boxes that contain two 2.5 gallon plastic “suitcases”) is for the coffee service, but each camp member can also request personal water suitcases to be purchased. In my experience, everyone overestimates the amount of water they’ll need, sometimes by as much as 10 suitcases and this is a pain since it has to be hauled back from the playa. The camp has a 5-gallon water cooler that’s always filled with ice water and I, at least, obtain a lot of my water from that cooler. (We don’t put much water in it: usually just ice that melts quickly so it doesn’t come from the purchased suitcases. Often what happens is that a Nose Fisher will purchase ice for their cooler and any that’s left over just goes into the water cooler.) There is always a lot of free liquid available (some even without alcohol) at other camps as well.
  4. A few Nose Fish volunteers go to Burning Man early to set up the main camp structures. To get in early you need a special pass, and our camp can obtain some of them, but not enough for everybody, and those who go early will do a LOT of hard physical work.
  5. The camp “buildings” include three covered carports. Two of them are generally set up to make a large open area for Nose Fishers (I’ll call that the “private area”) and the third is used for interacting with the public, when we serve coffee, for example, or when we do bicycle/electronics repair. The private area is covered with solid material that keeps out a lot of wind and dust (and water if, God forbid, it rains). The service area is covered with aluminet shade cloth that keeps the area shaded, but is transparent to wind and dust (and rain). All carports are securely nailed to the playa since a big wind storm could otherwise create exciting flying buildings.
  6. We also have a bunch of tables (3 feet x 8 feet) that are set up in the carports. People often leave their coolers of food along the outer edges of the private area. The camp also owns a bunch of folding chairs, but it wouldn’t hurt to bring one of your own, since chairs break, and our inventory may be off.
  7. We have everything we need to make huge amounts of black coffee: urns, filter holders, stove, serving carafes, hot pads, et cetera.
  8. We have a two-burner propane stove for the private area and a 5-gallon water jug (usually filled with ice water for campmates to drink).
  9. There’s a camp shower that’s covered but to use it you need to bring (or borrow) one of those solar-heated shower bags that you can heat in the sun during the day, mount in the top of the shower and wash your body. The gray water comes out a hose in the bottom that will empty into one of your empty water suitcases to take home.
  10. There are lots of tarps that cover the floors of the carports and are used for all manner of other things.
  11. We have some “fabulousity” in the form of tie-dyed giant sheets of material to decorate inside the private area. We also have very artistic signage to advertise the camp’s name.
  12. We have rope lights (to mark the camp boundary) and lighting for the inside of the carports. If we are on the electrical grid, the lighting will be bright; otherwise, not so much.
  13. Since the camp does bicycle repair, there is really no need to bring bike repair stuff of your own: all the tools, air pumps, tire patches, et cetera, will be available.
  14. We have a sort of cart for hauling ice back from one of the Camp Arctica locations (where the ice is sold).
  15. We have 3 big garbage cans: one holds aluminum cans (which we can recycle on-playa), one holds recyclable other stuff, and one for waste. Camp members with extra capacity carry the garbage/recycling home, but the less we put into them, the better.

Campmate Responsibilities

  1. Take care of yourself!  One of the big Burning Man tenets is “Radical Self-Reliance.” It can be a brutal place with heat, windstorms, dust, exhaustion, et cetera. Always have water available and drink enough of it so that you “piss clear.” It can be really easy to get behind on water and you don’t want to waste your time in the medical tent with an IV in to rehydrate you. Take care of others, too. Many people don’t want to ask for help when they should, so if you know, for example, that somebody should be in the medical tent, make sure they get there.
  2. A major goal at Burning Man is to “Leave No Trace” (LNT). Our camp application must include our plan to minimize our impact on the playa. We take this very seriously, since camps that don’t do so don’t get invited back the next year.
  3. Control the MOOP. Even if it’s not yours and it’s small, pick it up, even outside of the Nose Fish camp. Try to keep the private area clear of junk. Don’t just leave food out “for campmates” since it almost always winds up covered with dust and inedible. We have no way to deal with a lot of organic waste. So a corollary is that you should try to bring food in containers that hold enough that can be consumed in one meal: leave that 5-gallon Costo container of mayonnaise at home.
  4. If you take a shower, you’ve got to take home the gray water that you generate. The camp’s shower has a mechanism to return the gray water to the suitcases. If you don’t want to carry home a lot of gray water, take fewer and shorter showers. You can also use stuff like baby-wipes to clean up. It is hot and dry, and sweat evaporates almost instantly, so body odor is hardly ever a problem.
  5. The camp has been “placed” in the past and hopefully this year too, because we provide something to Burning Man, like the coffee service, the bike repair, perhaps the MEZ screen, et cetera. You’re expected to help with some of the projects at least some of the days. In other words, be a Burning Man participant, not a tourist. There are lots of other volunteer projects outside of Nose Fish, and a lot of them are really fun to do.
  6. When it’s time to break down the camp, we’ll need everybody’s help. The camp is usually broken down on Saturday (the event itself ends on Monday), and if you want to stay after the breakdown, remember that you will then have to be completely self-sufficient.
  7. Bring your own food. There is no “meal service” at the camp but what tends to happen is that a bunch of people have meals together and share what they’ve brought. Oh wait! I forgot that the camp DOES have a meal service: Nose Fish provides salt and pepper. And also propane for the stove in the private area.
  8. Before you bring your bike to the playa, ride it around the block to make sure the tires hold air, the brakes work (at least a little), et cetera. It’s bad form for someone in the bike repair camp to show up with a bike that’s completely broken. Have a working headlight and blinky tail light.
  9. Don’t bring any food/drink in glass containers. If it gets broken in the recycling bin, somebody always gets cut.
  10. In fact, “skin” any food as much as possible to generate less waste: don’t bring the cereal in a box with a bag inside: just bring the bag. In general, try to pack food to make minimal waste. Don’t bring food that makes a lot of waste, like watermelon, since there’s no way to handle the rinds generated. I even take the grapes off the stems before I come and put them in zip-lock bags for zero waste.
  11. You’ll be responsible for one n-th of the camp costs for truck rental, coffee supplies, new infrastructure equipment, et cetera. It’s typically between $100 and $200 per person. If you purchase anything that’s for the entire camp’s use, keep track of expenses and you’ll be reimbursed after the event. It’s an honor system in the sense that we don’t need receipts or anything.

Food

The topic of food was touched on in the previous section, and what follows is mostly just advice which you may or may not follow. If you’re willing to put in the effort you can have better meals, but packing, preparation, and cleanup usually become more complicated.

Few people consider Burning Man to be a gastronomical delight: food is more for fuel. Also, most people bring way too much food.

  1. If you want to eat it or drink it, bring it yourself. There is a lot of free food on the playa but it’s hard to predict what it will be each year. Probably the only exception is that various forms of alcohol will be freely available from many places.
  2. Bring a drinking cup with you at all times. Many of us keep one attached to a belt or backpack with a carabiner. If you intend to have this cup filled with alcohol note that since it is illegal to give alcohol to minors, a lot of the camps with bars will refuse to serve you without ID, even if you’re obviously 70 years old. I make a photocopy of my driver’s license and tape it to my cup so I always have it.
  3. It is very difficult to wash dishes since all the gray water produced must be taken home. It can be avoided entirely by doing things like eating directly out of the package, or eating out of your cup which you can wipe clean (or lick clean) at the end of the meal. Some people eat “Tasty Bites” which come in an aluminized package that you can heat by putting them on the hood of a car in the blazing sun and then eating out of that package, for example.
  4. Another way to avoid cleanup is to pre-package food in single-meal containers like zip-lock bags.
  5. Bring a personal cooler and it’s easiest to leave it in the private area where we have the tables most people use to eat. You can purchase ice (either crushed or blocks) every day starting on Saturday before the event officially opens. If the stuff inside is in cans or completely sealed containers the melt water can be used for shower water or I suppose you could even drink it.
  6. Some nosefishers have experimented with dry ice which can be purchased in Reno with variable results. Ice cream works great, but hard-boiled eggs, not so much.
  7. Avoid bringing glass containers. We do not recycle glass so you’ll have to take it home yourself. You may draw the line at drinking wine that comes out of a box, or liquor that comes in plastic bottles but most of us don’t.
  8. If you don’t finish in a meal what you bring to the table, don’t leave it “as a gift to my campmates.” It quickly gets covered with dust and becomes completely inedible as well as a problem to clean up.
  9. Just for fun, here are a couple of nightmare food stories that have occurred in the past in Nose Fish:
    1. A campmate, against advice, announced that he was going to make dinner for the camp. He made a giant pot of oyster stew which most didn’t eat so there was more than a gallon left over and the camp had no way to dispose of a gallon of stew that no doubt became toxic after a while in the sun. He would not clean it up, since he said, “I cooked it; somebody else has to clean up.”
    2. A campmate brought watermelon which left pounds of rind, again impossible to dispose of. (Watermelon would be great if it is “skinned” and chunks placed in individual portions in plastic bags before bringing it to the playa.)
    3. The same campmate brought a hibachi to grill meat. Of course there’s no way to dispose of the ashes, but the disaster occurred because the hibachi was lit standing on top of a styrofoam cooler full of food and ice. The hibachi, of course, melted the cooler and plunged into it. So we had melted styrofoam, contaminated food, and just a god-awful mess.

General Comments

  1. Many of the previous Nose Fishers have pretty complete packing lists and would be happy to share them. And we’re also happy to offer advice (the quality of which, including this document, is not guaranteed).
  2. Bring (or cause to be brought) a beater bike. The playa is almost dead flat, so a one-speed is fine. Bring lights for the bike (to be seen, not really necessary strong enough to see where you’re going). You can also decorate the bike with blinky lights, again, just to be seen.
  3. BRING A BIKE LOCK!!! I recommend a cable with a combination so you can’t lose the key. You can probably set the combination to be 0000 and be safe enough, but without one, your bike may disappear and with the huge size of the playa, you will be f**ked if you have to walk everywhere. I ALWAYS lock mine when I’m not on it, even for just a minute in the porta-potties.
  4. Bring a headlamp for hiking/biking around at night. It also doesn’t hurt to have lights attached to your clothes so you don’t get run down by a bicycle or art car at night. (People walking or on bikes without lights at night are called “darkwads.”)
  5. Bring a bunch of small bills (1’s and 5’s) to purchase ice or Center Camp coffee. Usually once or twice a day somebody will announce they’re going on an ice run and the’ll ask who needs what. If you order something, it’s nice to give the ice runner cash for your purchase.
  6. Don’t expect things to run on time or for advertised events by other camps to occur at all. Lots of things run on “playa time” which has only a loose association with clock time.
  7. Don’t come with too many fixed expectations for how things will be. Whatever your ideas are, you’ll be wrong some of the time. But there will be wonderful stuff that you never could have imagined!