The Black Rock Desert is a place of extreme weather. While conditions are generally pleasant, you can expect severe wind, lightning, rain, hail, and dust storms at any time during the year, usually with very little warning.
The biggest challenge to any structure, from a small camping tent to an 80-foot-high wooden man, is the force of the wind. Anything you bring out there should be securely attached to the ground for just this reason. Larger structures run the risk of tipping over and crushing someone, and smaller ones like camping tents may be blown miles down the playa, never to be seen again. Keep in mind that 75-mph winds are a common occurrence. In wind like this it is difficult to even stand up on your own two feet. Do everything you can to plan for it accordingly.
Also keep in mind that anything lying around your camp that is not secured down, like garbage, plastic bottles, paper, art or anything else, will get blown downwind when you least expect it. It is your responsibility to take back everything that you bring in, from the largest structure to the smallest bottle cap or cigarette butt. Keeping everything secured means you won’t have to spend hours or days searching for it later.
A large number of people camp in their tents at Burning Man. If you are going to be setting up a tent, have a look at the stakes that came with it. These are usually small and made of lightweight aluminum or plastic, designed for backpacking, trading off strength for weight. Since you probably won’t be carrying the load on your back, go out and buy a few of those foot-long plastic or metal stakes they sell for larger tents. Also, for the same price, you can use rebar stakes, a much better idea, described below.
If you are going to be using the small stakes that came with the tent, at least be sure to keep something large and heavy in your tent when you’re not there, like a loaded ice chest. You don’t want to be searching for your tent 20 miles downwind.
A popular, practical and safe way for securing your camp structures is by using long lag bolts. Lag bolts are essentially large screws that will hold very well when they go deep enough in the playa. Around the playa you’ll find lots of folks using 12-14 inch lag bolts to secure their shade structure, carports, tarps, and anything else that they worry about blowing away. Plus, they are much, much, much safer than rebar because they sit flush with the Playa, so there is nothing for you to trip over.
To secure any pole, you can secure a ratchet strap at the top of the pole, run it to the bottom of the pole, then pass the lag bolt through either the other end of the ratchet strap or add a 2-3 link heavy chain to secure the bolt. You can hook the chain to the ratchet, which has a hook at the end, then use a large washer (if needed) to keep the bolt from going all the way through the chain link. You may be able to fit the bolt through a chain link tightly enough that you don’t need washers, but washers add that little bit of extra security.
Then, using a drill driver or impact hammer, drive the bolt into the playa. This holds incredibly well. Some folks set the end of the ratchet straps about 3 feet out from the base, but some helpful burner shared that it would be just as safe attaching it at the base of the pole without the tripping hazard. Place bolts at each outside pole of your structure and if needed, some of the inside poles. Bolts are easy to remove as well, easier than rebar, in about a half second!
This is just one way to use lag bolts. You can also use shorter bolts (8-10 inches) to secure your flooring around the camp, if you need it.
You can buy up to 8″-10″ lag bolts at most large hardware stores, but you may have to special order the larger ones.
Another way to stake your structure is to use rebar, definitely old-school Burning Man. It is usually sold in 20′ lengths, with a number representing its diameter in eighths of an inch. The most common and useful size is #4 (which means 4/8″or half an inch in diameter).
If you already have easy access to a metal chop saw or bandsaw, (or if you feel like a good workout,a hacksaw) you can save a couple of bucks by going to a construction supply warehouse or scrap metal yard and buy the rebar in full 20 foot sections. They will usually cut it in half for you for free so you can get it in your car.
For those of you without a means of cutting metal, there is a much simpler way: Go to your local friendly Home Club Enormart Depot, and buy it pre-cut in 3 foot lengths, for about six bucks apiece (same price as tent stakes). You could have saved a couple of bucks the other way, but this is much easier for most.
At this point you have an excellent stake, but also a real hazard, as the end sticking out of the ground is surprisingly sharp and dangerous to naked and unaware feet. A large amount of injuries at Burning Man are due to just this reason. So instead of putting holes in people’s feet, you’re better off capping the end somehow to keep people from stepping on it. A cheap way to do this is to use old 1 or 2 liter plastic soda bottles or tennis balls stuck upside down over the end, but you can also pick up mushroom-shaped plastic caps, made specifically for this purpose at construction supply houses. But neither of these options is particularly attractive.
There is a better way!
Professor Flubber’s Patented Kandy-Kane Rebar Method!
It’s easier than you think!
This is an excellent way of making sure no one impales themselves, and if you’re using guidelines for your structure, this will guarantee that the rope won’t slip off the end of the rebar. It also makes it much easier to pull your stakes out when you leave. You just use an extra stake as a handy hook and yank the other stakes out of the ground.
What you need is your three-foot lengths of rebar, and two long pieces of steel pipe to slip over the end, 4 feet long at least, the longer the better. Place one pipe on the ground and brace the far end against your house or anything else vertical and solid. Slip your rebar stake into the pipe so that about 4-6 inches are sticking out of the end. Take the other pipe and put this over the short end of the rebar that’s sticking out, and crank the thing over until you have made a candy-cane out of your stake. This doesn’t take any more time than searching for liter plastic soda bottles, and is a stronger, safer, and much easier way of doing things.
Whatever you do, remember to bring a small sledgehammer to pound the rebar into the ground. A regular claw hammer might not do it. And there are no handy rocks on the Black Rock Desert to pound things in with.
If you’re planning anything tall and vertical and are using guy lines to keep it from tipping over, you might be shocked at the price of decent ropes or cable when you go to the hardware store. 80 cents a foot doesn’t sound like much but if you need 200 feet, it adds up.
A good option for larger structures is used climbing rope – it is unbelievably strong and has a small amount of stretch to it, which helps a tiny bit in sudden wind gusts. Purchased new, it is very expensive. But regular climbers often ditch their used ropes after a short time for safety reasons, and if you call some climbing gyms or put up a notice at a mountaineering store, you may be able to get a cheap or free deal on a 150′ coil. The common sizes are in the 9-11mm range, all are plenty strong for securing most structures, and they hold knots very well. When you cut the rope to the length you want, take a lighter and melt the end down a bit, this will keep it from unraveling.
If you get your rope from a hardware store, try to avoid that slick stiff yellow stuff, which is by far the cheapest and fairly strong for most purposes, but doesn’t hold knots worth a damn.
Any structure designed as an elevated viewing area should be considered carefully. How many people can it hold and how will you police it? Railings are required to be well designed and built; how will you accomplish that? If someone climbs up onto it, how do they exit without causing a traffic jam? Since you cannot dig holes in the playa you will have to use cable to secure your structure. Do you know what gauge cable is best for your needs? If you have not fully considered all aspects of your plan from a structural engineering perspective, you have more research to do.
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