Burning Man babies

How to take your children to Burning Man

Burning Man still offers all of the adult forms of self expression for which it’s well-known, but there’s also a family-friendly side to the festival, most obviously seen here, at Kidsville.

Burning Man still offers all of the adult forms of self expression for which it’s well-known, but there’s also a family-friendly side to the festival, most obviously seen here, at Kidsville.

Photo By Kris Vagner

Outside our tent, the sonic blur of a couple dozen massive sound systems throbbed all night. Inside, my 3-year-old cuddled his stuffed kangaroo and nodded off to sleep.

We were at Burning Man. And I’ll tell you straight: The reason I brought my preschooler is because I wanted to go, and no one volunteered for a week-long babysitting gig.

I’d been before, sans child, so I knew all the sex-drugs-and-techno rumors were true. But I also knew there was some family-friendly fun to be had, the artist-driven, un-commercial, community-minded sort we just weren’t ever going to see at Disneyland. Or anywhere else.

In past years, I’d ridden a lavish, wooden pirate ship and played on see-saws and swing sets that rivaled the government-issue stuff. I’d seen thousands of people who believe so strongly in their creative efforts that they’re willing to haul a week’s worth of food, water, shelter and silly clothing to a barren lake bed in Northern Nevada to share good times with more than 40,000 strangers.

But there were real-world concerns to be addressed if we were going to be able to witness all this magnificence.

I wasn’t too worried about the climate. We were Nevadans. We were used to the heat. And my son had already been camping in the Black Rock Desert a few times. We both knew the drill: Bring toys that make it fun to hang out in the shade all day, and insist on a constant supply of water and Gatorade.

As for the sex and drugs? Just as you’ll keep your own kids sheltered from all the drunken indiscretions that will probably occur in your own city this weekend, it was every parent’s job to do the same thing at Burning Man. That turned out to be pretty easy. If the vibe in a particular place was too lascivious or too drunken for kids, we simply moved on to the nearest tree house or lemonade stand. We stuck close to home a lot of the time, home being Kidsville, where a few dozen families set up camp for the week. The kids were psyched to be shooting off cannons of glow sticks instead of being in school, so they weren’t exactly running off to look for the pole-dancing or whiskey-slamming camps.

As for the techno? I was gritting my teeth to a fine powder worrying about what would happen if we didn’t get enough sleep. That Burning Man techno is loud, and the slightest deprivation sends my normally sunshiny demeanor straight to hell. I tried hard to sleep eight hours a night. Earplugs—and perpetual exhaustion—did the trick. Our official count of stupid arguments caused by grouchy Mama in need of a nap was three. Same as a normal week.

I’ll be honest: I was a little jealous of all the grown-ups who trounced around without curfews, marveling at the lunar eclipse, watching the unofficial, premature torching of the man, dancing till two suns rose. But if you’ve been a parent for any length of time, you’re used to the bacchanalia raging on without you.

I downshifted to kid gear, and I was impressed by how much fun it was looking at things from a preschooler’s-eye-view. The highlight of my week was the night I packed a couple kids and a pile of pillows into a big wagon and pulled them around to all the fire-spewing sculptures and fire-spinning dancers we could find. They giggled and squealed for a couple solid hours. I felt privileged to be showing them that there were adults out there who could make dinosaurs breathe fire, adults whose powers of imagination could compete with even that of a 3-year-old.


Still weighing your Labor Day vacation options? Take this handy quiz to assess whether bringing the kids to Burning Man is your cup of tea:

This is what I think of camping:

a) I prefer the privacy and comfort of a hotel room.

b) Camping is OK, as long as I can stay clean, and the weather is nice.

A few dozen families set up camp a Kidsville during Burning Man.

Photo By Kris Vagner

c) I’d rather wake up in a tent than a house, even if billowing dust, relentless sun and a relentless techno beat are competing to see which can wake me first. I’ve been training my child since birth to love the outdoors as much as I do.

Here’s how I’d describe my cleanliness standards:

a) I strive to maintain a clean and sanitary environment for my child.

b) I’m OK with the five-second rule.

c) I’m OK with the five-day rule, and I could, in a pinch, reclassify a hot dust-and-jelly sandwich as edible, and if I really had to, I could live with the idea of kneeling on the floor of a 135-degree porta-potty so my half-toilet-trained 3-year-old can stand on my thigh to use the urinal.

Bringing a child to the Nevada desert in August is:

a) Totally irresponsible. The risk of dehydration is a serious matter, and I don’t want to put my child in a risky situation.

b) Something I’m wary of. I’d like to be confident that I have enough water, sunscreen and shade and that my kid won’t freak out.

c) Totally acceptable. There were children in the Nevada desert for thousands of years before there were air-conditioned houses. Besides, the risk of dehydration is a serious matter, and I don’t want to send my child out in the world without knowing how to prevent it. If he wants to have excellent adventures in beautiful deserts, he’ll know how to do it safely. Besides, that’s why God made Otter Pops. And RVs with little freezers to keep them in. And people with the good sense to keep their kids fed, hydrated and rested even in situations where it takes some extra effort.

My idea of good entertainment on a family vacation is:

a) A portable DVD player and some Disney movies. I like activities that keep them occupied.

b) Books and games. I like activities that are engaging.

c) A few props and our own wits. I don’t let any Barbie-waisted princess tell my kid what to sing. When there’s an occasion (like, say, the obnoxious dust storm that gave way to a full double rainbow spanning the entire sky) we just climb on top of the nearest Winnebago, make up a few verses, and belt them out. I like activities that are earth-shatteringly awesome.

• If you answered mostly A’s, you prefer a saner vacation. Burning Man will be more trouble than it’s worth.

• If you answered mostly B’s, you’re curiosity is piqued, and you see the point of all this sublime silliness. Read the discussion boards. Read the survival guide. Read it again. Find out what “exodus,” and “the Burn” and “white-outs” are, and have plans for dealing with them.

• If you answered mostly C’s, pack up the station wagon and meet me in Kidsville.