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How to enjoy Burning Man without burning your cash

The Man dominates the playa during the Burning Man 2015 "Carnival of Mirrors" arts and music festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, August 31, 2015.
Jim Urquhart | Reuters
The Man dominates the playa during the Burning Man 2015 "Carnival of Mirrors" arts and music festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, August 31, 2015.

You can't buy anything at Burning Man except coffee and ice, but that doesn't mean a trip to Nevada's Black Rock Desert for the wild arts festival, which begins August 28, is cheap.

Burning Man devoted to gift giving, decommodification, inclusion, self-reliance and self-expression attracts its fair share of billionaires.

Elon Musk said that Burning Man is Silicon Valley. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin took Eric Schmidt to the gathering in 2001 to recruit him to be the growing company's CEO. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg went by helicopter to the desert to hand out grilled cheese sandwiches to Burners in 2012.

Budgeting for Burning Man

You don't have to be a Silicon Valley mogul to have a good time at Burning Man. Costs ultimately depend on your budget and tastes. You can camp in a tent on the playa, what Burners call the desert basin that is home to Black Rock City, for less than $1,300 for the week. Or you can glamp it up in a fully stocked, 37-foot RV for $20,000. (Recreational drugs not included.)

"It's hard to find price information because it varies so much," said Alexandra Baackes, 26, a writer and travel blogger for Alex in Wanderland, who has been to Burning Man twice.

Each time she went to the weeklong festival, in 2013 and 2015, she documented her costs after paying the ticket price.

Tickets

This year, Burning Man tickets cost $390 and $80 for a vehicle pass. Tickets are sold out, but you can still buy one at ticket resale websites, such as StubHub, for more than double face value.

On the road from Reno to Black Rock City, you'll see people with "I Need a Miracle" signs asking if event goers have extra tickets.

The festival offers 4,000 tickets to people with low incomes. Those ticket holders must verify their income with a pay stub, a W2 or a current student loan.

Travel

Traveling to and from the festival was Baackes' biggest expense her first time at Burning Man. In 2013, she spent $410 on her flight from New York City to Reno.

Last year, she cut those costs by using credit card reward points and frequent flyer miles to book flights, hotels and rental cars. Doing so freed up "more funds for fun things like costumes," Baackes said.

Getting to Reno or San Francisco, the two main departure hubs for Burning Man, is only half the journey. You still have to travel to the Black Rock Desert, which is about a seven-hour drive from San Francisco or a four-hour one from Reno.

Baackes spent $81 for her share of a truck rental in 2013 to transport her camp supplies. Last year, she took the Burner Express bus, which runs from San Francisco and Reno to Burning Man's Black Rock City. Reno tickets cost $75 to $80 plus a $20 fee for large luggage. San Francisco tickets cost $107 plus $50 if you want to bring a bike.

Many Burners rent an RV for the festival. "It's our busiest time of the year," said Kelly McConnell, who handles motor-home rentals for El Monte RV Rentals in San Francisco.

She said El Monte has sold out of its VIP package: a 37-foot RV fully stocked with groceries. "It's like a condo on wheels," McConnell said.

A few smaller RVs at El Monte are available, such as a 22-foot one, which costs $7,640 to rent for the week.

McConnell recommends that people renting RVs look for hidden fees, such as additional charges for generators, and check to make sure their auto insurance covers RV rentals. If not, insurance usually runs about $30 a day, depending on the rig.

Or you can skip the whole desert road trip and fly there in style. You can buy a one-way ticket from Advantage Flight Solutions directly to Black Rock City. Tickets from Reno cost $384; from Oakland it's $760 and from Burbank it's $1,195. Or you can rent a private plane for a one-time trip starting at about $2,000 to more than $14,000 depending on the size of the aircraft and where you depart.

Groceries

Groceries are another large expense for Burners, because they must supply all their meals and drinks while at the festival.

"The lack of a mid-playa Whole Foods causes many a new Burner to panic and bring way too much to eat and drink," Baackes said. "Remember that it's hot and you'll be drinking tons of water, both of which reduce appetite," she said.

Baackes said she spent $179 in 2013 and $140 in 2015 for groceries during Burning Man.

Water is one thing Burners shouldn't skimp on.

Matt Mihaly, 44, CEO of an independent gaming company who runs the website Burn.Life, recommends people bring at least 1.5 gallons of water per day to be safe.

Last year, Mihaly gave water to people from a $10,000 turnkey campsite because they hadn't sufficiently prepared for a week in the desert.

Many Burners bristle at concierge camps because large groups can spend thousands of dollars building their own accommodations and don't appreciate the tourists.

"I don't mind the plug-and-play camps," Mihaly said. "It's not the Misery Olympics."

Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada.
John Horsley | Photoshot | Getty Images
Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada.

Camp fees, costumes and gifts

Large camps form the backbone of Burning Man. Those camps charge members fees for shared expenses, such as the costs of an art car, which is an intricately decorated vehicle used by Burners to travel around the desert.

Baackes paid $150 in camp dues in 2013, but cut that cost when she went with a smaller group last year.

The Black Rock Desert is blistering in the day and chilly at night. It's why so many evening outfits involve fur.

Baackes spent $89 on Burning Man costumes in 2013 and $108 last year. Goggles, boots and dust masks are essential gear when dancing in the frequent sandstorms.

First-timers at Burning Man, known as virgins, may spend a lot on costumes, Mihaly said. Those costs drop with subsequent trips.

"I have a friend who just wears a gray jumpsuit the entire time," he said.

Burning Man's economy thrives on gifts. They are usually as simple as food and drinks or classes taught by festival goers. Or they can be elaborate such as the art installations that dot the playa.

Mihaly, who is returning to Burning Man for the seventh time this year, has helped build a gifting tree where people can take a gift from a tree sculpture as they walk by it.

"By the end of the week, people were taking gifts and leaving gifts and we had more gifts than when we started," he said.