The Elements And Weather
As mentioned previously the Black Rock Desert is one of the harshest environments in North America. I have put this page together to give you some idea of the conditions you may encounter there. Hopefully you will never encounter the worst of them, but you must be prepared. When things go to shit on the playa - it tends to happen rapidly.
The playa is approximately 4,000 feet above sea level (3,907 to be exact). This is one condition that is unlikely to change much in our lifetime, let alone while we are there. At this altitude the suns rays are more intense as they pass through less atmosphere to reach the surface - you will sun burn more easily. The air is thinner as well, although most people won't feel any effects from this, a general listlessness is not uncommon on your first day if you live closer to sea level. If you have medical issues related to breathing, you may wish to consult your physician before attending (the dust may be an issue as well).
I know it is hard to comprehend in a place as dry and hot as the playa, but in the winter a fair amount of snow falls there.
The playa surface is a dry lake bed. The lake's name is Lake Lahontan. The surface is dried silt that has packed down from standing water over the winter months. The more water it gets in the wet season, the tighter it packs down. The only thing that lives there are a type of brine shrimp (you may know them as sea monkeys) which hatch when there is standing water on the lake bed and the eggs lay dormant in the dry season.
The predominant condition you will encounter on the playa is dust. As vehicles and people pass over the dry lake bed, it eventually crumbles into its component silt particles making dust. This is not sand like what you normally think of in a desert, but ultra fine dust particles about the same consistency as talcum powder.
The dust is pervasive. It gets in every nook, cranny, and crevice. It gets in your mouth, your food, your drinks, your eyes. It has been likened to living in a snow globe full of talcum powder for the week. Even on a mild day if you set your drink down for a couple minutes, you may find a dust dune in the bottom.
Water trucks spray down the streets several times a day as a dust abatement measure. Never walk or ride on a freshly sprayed road (see mud below).
There is no escaping the dust so embrace it and become one with it. Make sure you bring goggles and a dust mask. It may have some negative health aspects for you as well - see: Dust Issues
The wind is rarely completely still on the playa. 20 - 30 mile per hour winds are fairly common as are gusts in the 60 MPH range. The wind can actually gust way higher than that as well, but that is less common. It is important to keep everything secured at all times because a strong gust may hit at any time.
The wind picks up the dust making for dust storms, and sometimes dust devils (mini dust tornados). These dust storms sometimes blanket the entire event, but more commonly just parts of the event. It is common to be in a clear section and looking at a complete whiteout a mile away. A strong enough wind may actually pick up chunks of playa surface (pebble size) and pelt you with them.
Under certain high wind conditions, a whiteout may occur. This is a severe dust storm that brings visibility to near zero. If you see a whiteout heading your way - head for the nearest large structure. Try to find some shelter and hunker down until it passes. Wandering around in whiteout conditions is extremely dangerous as responding emergency vehicles might run you over and you could end up further from your camp / shelter.
One last word about wind is called Condition Alpha. It has never happened during the event but is extremely dangerous so hope we never witness it. It happened after the burn in 2002 - this is a good account of it along with a survival guide. Alpha is an extended period of exceptionally strong winds - 100 MPH or so. That is pretty much hurricane force winds and will blow down anything in its path. Do not venture out into it if this happens - you can't see 12 inches and if a 400 pound piece of something rolls over you chances are you will die before the med teams can find you.
This video shows how important it is to have your shit secured at all times
The playa is exceptionally dry, even the air normally has close to zero humidity. I don't normally keep track of it, but I believe the most humid I have seen there (aside from when it rains) is about 2% humidity. Rain is rather rare there.
In a place that dry you'd think rain would be a welcome thing and normally it is. Most of the rain I have experienced on playa was barely a sprinkle and lasted a couple minutes. The kind of thing everyone runs outside to catch a few cooling drops.
In 2014 we had an actual thunderstorm during the event - a very rare occurrence. This was a full blown storm with about a dozen lightning strikes within the city and heavy rain. Although there were some minor injuries due to lightning (mostly concussion related), as far as I know no one was actually struck by lightning which is a miracle in itself. It was the most awe inspiring and frightening storm I have ever witnessed because due to the flatness of the playa I saw several lightning strikes and there was really no place to hide from it if you wanted to.
Mud is the result of rain on the playa. It is a nightmare. The dust turns to a concrete like substance that sticks to everything and is difficult to remove. The roads become impassable as there is no way to control a vehicle safely. In 2014 the city was shut down to vehicular traffic for over 24 hours due to mud.
When mud occurs there is little you can do but stay where you are. Every step will add about an inch to your height as the playa concrete sticks to your shoes (we call them playa platforms). The same applies to bikes as it will stick to the tires until you can't move. It dries like cement and has to be hammered off.
When you pack to go home, your ground cloths, carpet, tent bottom, or whatever else was touching the ground will be stuck to it.
The mud created by the water trucks is a nuisance, but is very shallow so it's only a temporary nuisance to those who need to walk or bike across their path.
In light of the 2014 storm and its aftermath, it is now highly recommended to bring a 5 gallon bucket with lid to use as an emergency bathroom. Since the porto potties can't be pumped when something like this happens, they may very well fill up and be unusable. These may be used with a WAG Bag or just go right in the bucket and then pour it into the portos once they have been pumped. Do not dump anything into the portos that did not come through your body except for single ply toilet paper.
One of the things that can make life on the playa miserable is not being prepared for cold weather. Yes, it is a desert and usually very warm, but it can dip below freezing 32 F / 0 C at night. Bring warm clothes and bedding!