DIY Your Burn: Shelter, Shade & Cool Cool Comfort

I recently met a Reno local who is preparing for her first burn. “Do I really need to get an RV?” she asked me. “My friend told me you can’t do Burning Man without an RV. I just want to bring a tent.”

This hurts me on the inside. I haven’t been around that long — my first burn was 2003 — but I’ve spent many burns in a tent, and a couple of two-month work seasons besides. One of the things I hate to see is the rapidly increasing number of rental RVs on playa. They have their place, sure. If you’ve got small kids or a physical need for top-notch shelter, you might want to spend thousands renting an RV, plus hundreds in gas to drive it to Black Rock City and keep the A/C running. But that is a LOT of money (and a fair amount of pollution), and it’s not necessary to spend that much. You can be smarter about it, and I’m about to tell you how.

It is completely possible, and pretty easy, to build your own shelter and cooling system. You can have an airtight, windproof, shaded and cool place to sleep away the day, and you can build it yourself for a fraction of the cost of an RV rental.

THE INCREDIBLE HEXAYURT – $300

Holy wow! In 2007, Treehugger and Current TV hosted a contest for the best “eco-ideas” for Burning Man. The winner was a DIY shelter that costs under $300 to build, packs up flat into your truck, and can be reused year after year. Vinay Gupta’s Hexayurt is now being tested as disaster relief and refugee shelter. Why? Because it WORKS. This is far and away the best shelter idea I’ve heard of.

Learn to build a hexayurt at Appropedia, and check out the new designs if you want a challenge.

FIGJAM’S COOL SWAMP COOLER – $6

FIGJAM stopped by my last post to tell me about his homemade swamp cooler. It costs $6, runs off a battery and will cool your shelter for hours. If you have access to a generator, you can use a bigger fan. For most people’s tents and yurts, though, this basic setup will take care of your hot hot blood. Genius!

A few years ago, I visited a friend who’d built a hexayurt-like structure and set up a swamp cooler inside. It was dark in there, so cool you practically needed a sweater, and I just wanted to go to sleep for ever.

SHADE THYSELF – $20-100

Crash spaces are all well and good, but any good camp needs a communal area for the kitchen, the dance floor, the “we just got home and it’s 8am” bacon-and-bloody-mary fest…

For that, you need to make yourself a shade structure.

now you see it...
...now you don't!

Rule Nº 1: No pop-up shade tents from the store! These things break. The fabric, the poles, the teeny weeny stakes, the guy lines… they’re not made for the epic windstorms of Black Rock City. I can’t tell you how many of these I’ve taken down (or chased across the playa) in a storm. Do. Not. Bring.

No, what you want is some shade cloth (tarps are okay, but they tend to tear), sturdy poles, rebar stakes and strong rope. I like Jon Starbuck’s shade design: four 4×4 posts, a center pole and rachet straps for guylines. You can tarp off the sides to make it bigger, and it’s reusable. Bonus if you have a big vehicle in camp: park it with its side to the dominant wind direction (Southwest, amen hallelujah) and it’ll make a handy windbreak that you can connect a tarp to.

If you’re super crafty, go track down the Department of Public Works Shade Crew and tell them how amazing they are in as many ways as you can think of. They may or may not let you in on the amazing shade structure design that protects Black Rock City’s staff and volunteers during those 115-degree August afternoons.

More Ideas

The ideas above are my favorites, but we are a creative people and we have been doing this a while, no?

Mylar

Mylar is thin but powerful silver material that blocks heat transfer. Duct-tape it over your car windows (and roof), your tent, your water jugs, everything you can think of. Thanks Luvbugg for the suggestion!

PRO TIP: Bring a Mylar survival blanket when you go out at night. They’re great for keeping warm at sunrise when your bunny ears and fishnet tights just aren’t cutting it any more.

Clif Cox’s Desert Quonnie

These tube-shaped PVC structures work well and you can use ‘em to cover cars, tents, etc. Make sure you set them up so the wind passes through them, instead of coming from the side. If they get bashed by a big wind, they will implode and you’ll have PVC and rebar flying around all over the place.

Geodesic Dome

These are the ultimate in lasting shelter. If you make yours from metal, you can use it every year with little to no additional cost. Domes can shelter huge numbers of people, and they withstand the wind. They’re costly up-front, labor-intensive and potentially heavy to transport, but if you’ve got a big camp you probably already know that this is the way to go.

Check out MAKE’s guide to building a bamboo dome. If you’ve got a better resource for building metal domes, leave a comment and I’ll post it here.

Commercial Playa Domes

Do a search for “Burning Man shelter” and you’ll come up with sites selling massive white geodesic domes. I’ve used one of these before and do not recommend it. It’s incredibly difficult to set up and take down, requiring lots of strength and sledgehammers and cursing. The long exposed poles are PVC and the cloth is plastic, and it’s all under a lot of tension. This means it’ll break after only a couple of years. Once it breaks, you’re in the unfortunate position of having to dismantle a very unsafe structure in the middle of a huge storm. For example. Not worth the hefty price tag.

Cargo trailer extraordinaire

I did this in 2008 and it was awesome. Pack all your stuff in a 5×8′ cargo trailer. When you get to Burning Dude, unpack everything and throw a futon inside the trailer. Hang a carpet over the door. Voila! Windproof shelter. It gets hot in the daytime, but it’s perfect for a good night’s sleep.

A gosh-darn tent

Really, tents are not so bad. In fact, tents work just great and you probably already have one. So use it! Put a tarp over it for shade, make sure you have somewhere else to crash out during the daytime, and you will be FINE. Trust me.

What works for you?

There are a million more great ideas out there, so please share your experience in the comments.

Also, I’m planning to tackle the following topics in upcoming posts: transportation, hygiene & safety, costumery and PARTICIPATION! If you’ve got suggestions, leave me a comment. I can’t wait to hear your ideas.

About the author: The Hun

The Hun, also known as J.H. Fearless, has been blogging for Burning Man (and many other outlets) since 2005, which is also the year she joined the BRC DPW on a whim that turned out to be a lifetime commitment. Since then she's won some awards for blogging, built her own creative business, and produced some of the Burning Blog's most popular stories and series. She co-created a grant-funded art piece, "Refoliation," in 2007, and stood next to it watching as the Man burned on Monday. She considers that, in many ways, to have been the symbolic end of Burning Man that was. The Hun lives in Reno with DPW Shade King, Quiet Earp. You may address her as "The Hun" or "Hun". If you call her "Honey" she reserves the right to cut you.

94 thoughts on “DIY Your Burn: Shelter, Shade & Cool Cool Comfort

  • Coming from East Coast – so usual limitations apply.
    Past 3 burns show that sleeping in a regular tent is possible, provided you pitch it in a shade of your vehicle (or, even better, your neighbors RV). However you will be awake by 8:30 – 9 no matter what time you went to sleep. Consuming certain substances night before helps to extend that by couple of hours, but that is kinda OT.
    Shade structures (Coleman and such) bought in big box stores hold up pretty well if you put ‘em up right (can be done by 1 person easily), use rebars instead of included pins. 14’x14′ cost is $120-$150 or so, which fits grand picture more or less.
    Mylar blankets taped to the rope around shade side nets help a lot, but make noise in the wind and don’t last too long, but, again, cost is minimal.
    Another idea is to put all your stuff in the tent and sleep in your minivan with windows taped with mylar – works well for cold nights.

    All in all, using common sense will get you through, so do not concentrate too much on this survivalist crap – think about costumes, arts and other ways to contribute to the main cause – making the burn memorable and beautiful event.
    See ya in the dust

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  • My wife and I have been using an 18′ shelter systems dome for the last 3 years. As stated above, it’s rock solid and welcome relief from the wind. Stays cool with the shade cloth. (we got a great deal on a used one from craigslist) The 2 of us can set it up in about 30 minutes, more if we’re dehydrated and grumpy.
    We also take a 10×10 popup shade. we use 2 come-alongs at each corner attached to rebar stakes. We’ve had one 10×10 for the last 3 burns and no issues with it getting knocked around. The key on the 10×10? buy one that has cross bracing and that sucker won’t twist in the wind.

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  • Tent in a tent. I’ve been doing for several years now. I don’t have the greatest set up but it’s been working for me nonetheless. I put this configuration together from separate pieces I already had in the garage. I didn’t buy anything special.
    I have a standard 3man coleman tent. I glued the rainfly to the top of the tent to permanently seal the mesh ceiling. It stays nearly completely dust free. I place the tent inside a 10×10 EZ-UP canopy with zippered side panels. I use standard blue plastic tarps to cover the floor. Easy to sweep out. Inside the EZup I’m able to set up a 4′ table for gear and store a half dozen large storage bins with supplies, clothes, etc. Tons of room. Key to the structure of course, is making sure it’s staked and tied down securely, but then we all know that by now, right? Whenever possible, I also like to secure the EZup to other structures for added strength.

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  • To Alejandro:

    Regarding the noise-proofness of hexayurts, location might be a factor. The Black Rock Boutique is located on the Center Camp ring, so it gets a lot constant noise but not much of it is the boomy-thumpy kind. Maybe hexayurts don’t work so well near 2:00 and 10:00? Also, my campmates were careful to bevel the edges of their hexayurt panels and maybe that made theirs more rigid, I don’t know.

    Regarding attaching shade cloth to Costco carports, we just didn’t have enough carports to put every tent inside them. You can fit maybe 2 tents in 1 carport. We had to accommodate about 12 tents using 3 carports so stretching shade cloth between carports was an adequate solution, though not the ideal one. Those carports are 10’x20′, and we set three of them up in a row with 12′ gaps to give us a 54’x20′ shaded area for tents. (Gaps larger than 12′ cause problems in the wind.)

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  • People coming from afar – tents work. I slept in one for my first ten years on the playa. Bring extra stakes and rope to really tie that thing down. Also great is if you: pitch it in the shade/wind protection of one vehicle; pitch it between two vehicles; stretch a tarp over the tent between two vehicles; pitch next to an RV and drape a tarp from the top of the RV over the tent (lean-to style). By “tarp” I mean preferably canvas – try the painting drop cloths from Home Depot, I sewed a few together. About the dust – i suggest closing off any open mesh windows with canvas/gorilla tape (super duct tape that doesn’t melt in the heat). Bring an extra large sheet and cover your bed during the day, ensuring a dust-free zone to lay your head. Shake the sheet out in the morning, cover and repeat. I started with a real hiking tent and ended a decade later with one of those huge multiroom deals. With proper staking, it was always fine. I liked the extra room for clothing, costume changes and food storage – less stuff blows away under cover. Now I sleep in a cargo vancovered in mylar, on an air mattress. But I love comfort :-).

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  • Having the coolest possible tent can only be achieved by the sum of a few methods.Start by using a cotton tent, they dont heat-up as easily as some modern day tents. Cover the top with an emergency blanket and the use your DIY swamp cooler.Might not be as cold as ice but you will be able to sleep comfortably in it.For some more ides here is a link worth some worthwhile methods:
    http://thetentairconditioner.com

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