How smooth is my playa?

Playa conditions are expected to have improved over last year

For some people, conditions on the playa can make or break a Burning Man experience. Whatever way you look at it, dust storms are not fun. Riding your bike in the silt is not fun. Riding on a flat surface in the dark that suddenly turns into loose silt and tumbling headfirst over the handlebars is not fun. Having to walk everywhere because the playa is unbikeable and then suffering blisters and a nasty case of playa foot is just not fun.

Dusty and loose are two words that best describe conditions on the playa last year at Burning Man. This year, word is the playa surface will be in markedly better shape for the festival, though it will still be somewhat loose.

“It’s better than last year, but it used to be that billiard-table flat thing, and it’s not,” says Matthew “Metric” Ebert, director of Friends of Black Rock/High Rock, from Gerlach. “So it’s between ideal and full-on messed up. It’s more conducive to bicyling. That’s not to say there won’t be white outs. There probably will be.”

Typically, the deciding factors involved in a playa that is flat and solid rather than loose and silty are yearly rainfall and wind to dry it out.

“Moisture is the main thing that makes it that land-speed record playa surface,” says Metric. “So less moisture overall means the playa tends to be looser—not necessarily like full-on soft, but not that clay-like flat. … I’ve lived here for nine years, and it used to get wet from end to end. It hasn’t done that for the past seven years.”

When winter precipitation allows water to stand on the playa, it tends to compact it and smooth it out.

“The main thing is the timing and amount of precipitation,” says Dave Hays, field manager of the Black Rock Field Office with the Bureau of Land Management. “The late season precipitation we got improved conditions quite a bit.”

He’s talking about the abnormal amount of rain Northern Nevada got this past June, which was the second wettest the area’s had on record. There were times the Black Rock Desert was impassable.

“But I was out there last week, and it’s perfectly dry as far as where the event is and where people will be recreating,” said Hays in early August.