Water is Life: Preparing Your Body for the Playa


Drinking enough water to maintain your normal level of hydration is difficult on the playa.  Remember when you were a child, playing with a hose in the heat of summer and the water disappeared really fast off the pavement after you sprayed it?  Maybe you made sun-dried tomatoes with your mom or saw what happened to your garden if you went away for 4th of July weekend and no one watered it.  On the playa, that’s you, you’re the tomato,  your body is being rapidly depleted of water and if you don’t replenish it, you won’t have enough moisture in you to cry about how awful you feel.  

The effect of the Black Rock Desert environment on your body is like you’ve sprung a billion leaks from every sweat gland, eyeball and lubricated orifice and you’re steadily being turned into a piece of human jerky.  Sound’s pleasant, doesn’t it?  The truth is your body will get stripped of moisture almost as fast as you can absorb it. Even veteran burners can get heat stroke or severe dehydration. In fact, people who have been to the Burn several times are even more susceptible to dehydration because they have a false sense of security. They forget that the beer their drinking is teaming up with the heat, sun and dust to completely drain the water from their bodies. Dehydration cases made up 6.1% of  5,748 total patients receiving medical care at Burning Man last year.   Many cases of dehydration go undocumented but leave suffers pretty miserable: lethargic, rapid breathing & heart rate, low blood pressure and confusion.

The preparation survival guide encourages over-hydrating before the Burn so that you get used to drinking that much water, but for some burners this proves to be a problem:

Over-hydrating trains your body to be water inefficient.

The body needs to maintain certain “balances” to function optimally.  A human body needs to have a specific level of water and electrolytes to maintain normal optimal function…or homeostasis (this varies by individual).  When a body starts consuming more water than normal, the body gets used to having a greater amount of water flushing through the system.  To maintain homeostasis however, the body needs to dump the excess water through sweat and urine, and replace the electrolytes it looses along with it.

What this means for you: If your body is used to flushing all that extra water through its system, it becomes inefficient with water and natural water-conservation mechanisms within the body switch off.  In the default world setting it isn’t that noticeable, but you want your body to be efficient with water on the playa. If you’re body gets used to higher water consumption in your natural environment (say a coastal city like San Francisco, Portland or Seattle) then it’s going to operate that way when you travel to the playa.  You’re body isn’t going to automatically switch on its natural water conservation mechanisms.  The end result is an uncomfortable acclimation process.

There’s a lot of information on hydration at BRC. If you’ve stumbled on this article because you’re doing your research, you’ve probably read other survival guides that recommend potential burners get their bodies used to drinking lots and lots of water before they go out to the playa. I’m not going to say this is wrong because you’re body DOES need lots of water in the desert, and you need to get used to drinking lots of water.  The thing is, it’s a lot easier to keep the swimming pool filled if it doesn’t have any leaks.  So before you go out to the playa, try a few things to make your body more water efficient:

Solution: Train your body to be more water efficient at home.

(If you’re a healthy individual, this should be no problem, but if you’re not, or are on some expensive meds, or have a pre-existing condition, consult your doctor first.)

I traveled in Egypt in 1998, it was the hottest summer for the last decade, with daily highs well over 100 degrees F in parts of the country.  The most helpful advice I received in preparation for this journey was: Train your body to function affectively with less water before you get there.  Sound counter intuitive?–Here’s how it works. I started back home by drinking LESS, not MORE, water about 8 weeks before we left.  The idea is to acclimate yourself in your home environment to drinking less water by gradually decreasing your water consumption up to 1/3, but not to the point where you’re unhealthily dehydrated (i.e. if you’re normally drinking 8 glasses of water a day, gradually cut down to 5 glasses of water a day). Do this for at least a month before you go to Burning Man. The goal is to have your body be more efficient with the water you put into it while you’re on the playa by teaching it to be efficient at home.

Then the week before you go to BRC, start drinking more water, not gallons more, but enough so that your urine is clear.  Once out on the playa, start drinking about double what you were at home during water training.  The increased water consumption, plus your newly trained water-efficient body, should better prepare you for the high-altitude-arid environment by encouraging your body’s own natural water conservation mechanisms.  The key thing to remember is do things gradually.  Your body’s going to get a big shock going from whatever comfortable zipcode it calls default home to the playa which is one of the most inhospitable environments in North America. While you’re busy packing your bags with the most wonderful sparkly rainbow fur coat anyone has ever seen make sure to also drink some extra liters!

Love and Dust,


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