Burning Man bicycle survival guide

beach cruiser vs mountain bike

When it comes to Burning Man, simple is usually better. When it comes to bikes, the beach cruiser has the wide tires you need, the wide seat you prefer, and upright handlebars for sitting back and taking it all in.

The mountain bike has a lot more features that ADD to a great Burn, but the playa dust is unforgiving. It gets into everything. A well maintained mountain bike from a bike shop (NOT a Walmart Huffy) will probably do just fine and you will enjoy the suspension and the ability to change gears. But the risk of a breakdown is high. And if the brake cables or gears get gummed up, your bike will be a pain to ride or completely useless.

As the camp that most people visit when they have a bike problem, I can tell you we spend WAY more time working on broken mountain bikes. And mountain bike problems take more time to fix (if we have the parts) than cruiser problems (generally).

Our rental fleet is almost entirely comprised of cruisers. This is what most people want and are happy to ride. Cruiser bikes are reliable and easy to repair when something goes wrong. A few of our renters insist on mountain bikes. For those people we bring a high quality ride and spend a lot of time tuning these up after Burning Man.

If you're still not convinced, know that playa dust is also slightly corrosive. This means that it can be quite expensive to bring your nice mountain bike out to Burning Man. It will need a multi-hundred dollar cleaning from a bike shop if you want to avoid the damage that the dust does. A year without this cleaning and your bike will show obvious signs of rust. You may need a new chain and cables at the least.

For this reason most people get a cheap bike and just spray it down with vinegar after Burning Man. This generally preserves a bike for a few years, but it will eventually die a painful grinding death. However, if you only get one year out of a hundred dollar bike, it's less expensive than the tune-up of your nice ride.

Whatever you do, do not compromise by getting a cheap mountain bike. To us, the options are a cheap beach cruiser or a nice mountain bike.

One small but non-trivial side note: With cables and derailleurs and brake levers and gear shifters all over the frame and handlebars, decorating a mountain bike without interfering with the performance is a much more intricate endeavor. The simplicity of a cruiser bike offers a sort of blank canvas for el wire and streamers and stuffed animals to make your bike stand out in the crowd (also a non-trivial solution when searching for your bike in a crowd when you leave the Temple at night.)

What about a road bike?


If your camp has a fleet of bicycles for campmates to borrow, the road bike will always be the last one available until every other bike breaks down. The narrow tires mean every bump in the road gets delivered straight to your butt. This is fine on a short ride (or an emergency), but after an hour of touring Burning Man (let alone a whole day OR A WEEK!) your hands, wrists, and butt are going to feel like walking.

Plus, narrow tires cost you speed, which is really efficiency, which is really effort. Road bike tires sink into the dust and dramatically slow your progress.

Yellow Bike


Yellow bikes are the free (green) bikes that litter the Playa. They're not yours and you are not allowed to lock one up. These are great at the beginning of the week, but it is almost impossible to find a working Yellow Bike by the time the city population peaks at the end of the week.

We have a lot more to say about Yellow Bikes here.

Walmart Huffy

We are not Walmart fans. Walmart bikes are the lowest possible quality. That's how they keep the price down. They are basically disposable bikes. However, a disposable bike is kind of the perfect thing for a lot of people at Burning Man.

We're not calling this a recommendation of the Walmart Huffy, but at Hammer And Cyclery we spend all week working on used bikes that unsophisticated buyers picked up at the last minute at an [unnamed] non-profit in Reno. It seems like a lot of resellers do not work on their bikes before selling them. These bikes get donated broken and they stay broken. The average Burner doesn't know enough to avoid the problem bikes, so they end up carting a creaky bottom bracket or a broken chain to the desert and they don't find out till they are just about to head out on their first Playa ride.

Incidentally, this goes for a lot of camps' bikes too. Many camps have bike fleets they loan out to their campmates. But these bikes go into the storage container on-Playa without attention from a bike mechanic, and they come back out the next year in the same condition they went in, but with another year's worth of alkaline dust corrosion. Beware of the free bike!

For us, the problem we know, the Walmart Huffy, is better than the problem we don't know, the unknown reseller or lender. Part of this is that the Walmart Huffy is already ubiquitous at Burning Man. This means the Playa is awash in spare parts. One dead Huffy Cranbrook can be used to repair several others.

The one caveat to all of this is that Walmart's bikes are small. This is fine for most women, not great for men. If you're approaching 6', Walmart becomes a less practical option.

So, if you're not renting from us and you have a local reseller that you trust, great! Go for that. If you don't know your retailer, Walmart becomes a reasonable option. Either way, donate your bike to Stars And Bikes on your way out of town so that the bike can be reused appropriately. DO NOT ABANDON YOUR BIKE AT BURNING MAN. This is MOOP and it is a huge headache for Yellow Bike.

Is a bike a necessity?

Obviously, as a bike repair camp, we think that a bicycle is an essential part of any Burn. With miles of roads and plenty of open desert to criss-cross, Black Rock City is just the right size for bicycles. And taking in all that Burning Man has to offer is a daunting task with only your feet and a week to absorb it all (and art cars rarely go where you want them to). Black Rock City is more than 2 miles across (and getting bigger). It is the third largest city in Nevada (after Las Vegas and Reno).

Bicycle travel is the most practical way to get around. The Playa isn't like a soft sandy beach. Black Rock City sits on a fine dusty soil that packs hard and smooth after just a little bit of rain. It is more akin to a well trodden dirt road and it makes for a surprisingly good riding surface.

Even though Minneapolis and Portland seem to get all of the credit (we see you too, Seattle), Black Rock City is one of the most bike-friendly towns in the WORLD. Most Burners "commute" by bicycle. It is certainly the most tolerant of bicycle diversity (as in, the more different your ride, the better).

This is your chance to join in a movement that eschews spectators and literally celebrates every effort of participation.

locking your bike on the Playa

Hint: If you are a thief, the bathrooms are a great place to snatch and grab. Riders think, "I'll only be in there a minute. Nobody's going to get my bike in just a minute."
Pssst, riders: Bike filchers know what you're thinking. Lock up your bike even if you just need to pee.

Every year many Burners lose their ability to travel quickly around Black Rock City because someone snatched their bike. Don't let this happen to you. Bike theft at Burning Man was bad ten years ago. Today it is worse.

It is always best to lock your bike to something solid, something that a would-be thief could not easily move. Short of this, lock your bike to a friend's bike. Someone dragging two bicycles across the desert is going to attract attention.

It used to be that you could merely incapacitate your bike by locking a wheel to the frame so that your bike would not roll. And sometimes this is the only practical option. But we are seeing more and more examples of aggressive thieves snatching these rides as well and just cutting the cheap locks after they've dragged the "locked" bike back to their camp. Pro tip: use a beefy lock to discourage this kind of theft.

Please be careful not to lock your bike in such a way that it becomes a hazard to structures, traffic, or people.

Always attach your lock to the frame of your bike. If you've got the room, capture a wheel in the lock as well (the back is preferred). If you lock up your bike by chaining just the front wheel to a camp support structure, you might find that a determined thief has taken your bike and left you with only a wheel.

Finally, bring a spare key (and remember where you put it). Or write down your combination (and remember where you wrote it down).

Burning Man basic bicycle repair kit (recommended)

- Spare tubes (Check your tires for tube size. Also check your tubes to see if you have Schrader valves (standard, like on your car) or Presta valves (skinny and complicated).
- Wrenches that fit your axel nuts (note: front axel nuts may be different size than rear axel nuts or you may have quick release hubs which do not require tools to remove or install). A good 8” adjustable wrench can go a long way, but it's not going to do squat for you if you need a hex wrench (check your bike). The most common bike tools are 13mm and 15mm box wrenches and 4mm, 5mm, and 6mm hex wrenches. A good multitool will include all of these. A five minute conversation with your local bike shop's service department before you head to Burning Man will identify the correct tools to bring.
- Tire levers
- Air pump. Check to make sure your pump works with the valves on your tubes. Bring the appropriate pump or adaptor.
- Pliers (recommend 6" needle nose for versatility)
- Zip ties (small and large for problem solving)

Bicycle specific multi tools can be life savers. For 25 bucks these are compact enough to bring with you wherever you go and they usually pack more tools than just the basics. But don't rely entirely on a multi tool. They can't pack everything into them.

Also see our Burning Man Bicycle Maintenance tips article For on-the-fly repairs, flat tire tube changes, handy tools, clean-up tips, and more.

For anything beyond the basics, trust the experts. Come to Hammer And Cyclery for issues that require special tools or a practiced hand. We'll be at Burning Man all week.

Having said that, do not count on us to keep you rolling. Burning Man is closing in on 100,000 people and most of them bring bikes. Come prepared (Radical Self-Reliance and all). We will do what we can, but you may have to wait (and we're not open 24 hours).

safety lights (must)

Two lights, white for the front and red for the back (just like a car) will keep you visible as you travel across the playa. The front light will provide limited illumination of the path in front of you, but only very bright headlights should be counted on to reveal all of the hazards of riding at night in Black Rock City. Safety lights are usually easy to mount and remove. When you are not sharing the scenery with your bike, your lights will fit in your pocket to prevent the jealous from making their bike as safe as your bike.

cargo (racks, baskets, and crates)

Baskets can be convenient. Do bring a backpack to carry your stuff when you absolutely must walk, but getting ice back to your cooler is way more fun when it's not on your back.

We recommend a front basket so you can see your stuff as it bounces out onto the Playa (and then pick it up) rather than a rear basket that only lets you know what you've lost after you arrive at your destination. And the deeper the better. A wide shallow basket spills your stuff much more easily than something with high sides.

lights, bells, horns, and other obnoxiousness

The crazier your bike looks, the easier it will be to find in the ever-shifting geography of art cars, bodies, and installations (especially after a long night at Disorient).

If you do plan on using your bike again, clean it ASAP (or have it cleaned at a bike shop). The sooner the better. The Playa dust is alkaline (the opposite of acidic, but just as destructive). Check out our Clean Your Bike with Vinegar article.

Hammer And Cyclery and Re-Cycle, Inc share no official affiliations with Burning Man or Black Rock City, LLC.


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Saturday Aug 29 - Monday Sept 7, 2020

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