As you might imagine, it gets damned hot in the Black Rock Desert. If you've never spent any time in the desert, you probably have a limited understanding based on tv or movies but that really can't prepare you for the heat that is inescapable there during the day time. A good shade structure allows you to get out of the sun, making the heat much more bearable. It also keeps the sun off your cooler, and will keep your tent from turning into a convection oven when the sun rises allowing a few extra hours of sleep in the morning.
IMPORTANT - When you arrive at your camp spot get your shade up first. Everything else will go easier if you have a place to duck out of the sun and cool off as you set up / unload your camp.
There are many different ways to provide shade in your camp, but I find the simplest, most functional, durable, and fairly inexpensive way is the Monkey Love Hut. Monkey Huts are basically quonset style huts made from inexpensive PVC pipe and a tarp. A 20 foot x 12 foot size (requires a 20 x 20 tarp) will run about $120 or so at the time of this writing and is far superior to anything commercially made in that price range.
My Monkey Hut has spent 84 days on the playa over the last 7 years with no issues and will be returning for its 8th year soon.
In use, your tent is placed in one end of the monkey hut. The front end can then be used for a patio, or whatever.
IMPORTANT! - When built exactly as explained in the instructions below, Monkey Huts are reliable and durable. I highly recommend following the instructions precisely. Every Monkey Hut fail I have seen was due to changes to the basic design, failure to follow the instructions, or cutting corners to save a few dollars.
Note: The prospect of driving cross country with a bunch of 10 foot pvc pipes strapped to our roof seemed ridiculous so we cut them in half and they fit in our Prius. We had no problems and in fact they held up better than the steel rebar some of which bent in the wind. Modify the instructions as follows ( thanks to Bluemandrew for this idea in his Eplaya post):
Cut the 10 foot uprights in half.
Make sleeves to reattach the 5 foot sections together using 2 foot sections of 1 1/4 inch PVC with a screw driven into the middle (so it would not slide down the pole it was on).
Creative Shelters is a great source for tarps and bungee balls.
Note: Some folks recommend using aluminet or shade cloth in place of a tarp. I find that a quality multi layer tarp keeps the temperature lower (deeper shade) and has a major advantage in case of rain. Although substantial rain is pretty rare on the playa, when it happens you are pretty much stuck in place until things dry out a bit. Having a dry sitting area is much better than having to sit in your tent for hours.
There are plenty of other ways to bring shade to the playa - the only limit is your imagination. just remember that it has to withstand very strong winds. Gusts well over 60 MPH are not uncommon. If the building of something more elaborate interests you, consider taking a look at Bob Stahl's Temporary Desert Structures page.
Things To Avoid
- Attaching tarps to your vehicle - if not done properly, they will wear through the paint by the end of the week. The combination of dust and wind turns the tarp into sandpaper.
- Cheap plastic tarps - if you can squeeze a few extra dollars out of your budget, upgrade to a good double layer heavy duty tarp. They are more durable, quieter, and provide better shade. The grommets on cheap tarps also have a tendency to tear out.
- Un tensioned plastic tarps - Plastic tarps tend to be very noisy in the wind unless under full tension. Even under full tension they are noisier than fabric / canvas tarps.
- Pop up style canopys - The Playa is where they go to die a gruesome death.