How to make a shade structure for Burning Man that won’t blow away!

Some years ago now I went to the Burningman festival in Nevada numerous times. After my first visit I went away determined to build a shade that would not blow away, I spent some time over the next year designing and building one. Second year on the playa we tried it, it was a massive success! I came home and blogged about it and people seemed to find it really helpful because it spawned dozens of copies.

Jon and his brother Rob at Burningman in about 2008.

Jon and his brother Rob at Burningman in about 2008.


Note - many people have copied this design (brilliant, this is the idea!) and contacted me with their version, skip to the end of this post for photos of them and please send me details of yours!

This post was in my old blog and can be viewed on the Wayback Machine here. I'm slowly working on importing it and other posts here to my new website. 

How do you make a shade structure for Burning Man that won't blow away?

I first went to Burning Man in 2007… My challenge for 2008 Burning Man festival; to provide a shade structure for about 15 people that could not blow over, or otherwise fail, in the viciously strong winds that you get on the playa while shading us all from the sun. We used it again in 2009… and again in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Since then it has returned to BM without me in 2013 and 2014. 

Why bother?

Why you do need to bother to do it properly and not just use a cheap gazebo? Here are two photos of our 2008 neighbour’s shade structure, taken about one minute apart :

Now you see it…

Photo 1.jpg

 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonstarbuck/2849422004/in/photostream/

…now you don’t!

Photo 2.jpg

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonstarbuck/2848589553/in/photostream/

I have no what happened to it or who it hit…

To make one that won't blow away you will need:

Measurements imperial or “English”. The rest of the world use metric, but you will be buying your components in the USA.

  • 21 foot by 21 foot bit of 70% Alumanet – about $200 – Search the Internet for garden suppliers in the US, tell them what you want it for, they have heard it all before. You can buy Alumanet with webbing sewn around the edge and eyelets fitted. I have not used this myself, if you do you will need to adjust the design as the square won’t stretch  - see rest of description.  Alumanet is used because it is light, strong, reflective and above all it has thousands of holes in it – a tarp will not do as an alternative!

  • Sixty, or more, special grommets/eyelets for the edge of the Alumanet – about $1 each.

  • One 100 foot length of cheap 3/8 inch rope (to help reinforce the seam/edge of the Alumanet) – $20 – cheap because it will be dynamic/stretchy and it does not need to take any real load.

  • One 100 foot length of good quality rope (we used a length of retired climbing rope) that has as little stretch in it (static rope) as you can find. One person used a length of wire rope, this seems like an excellent idea so long as you use an appropriate size/type and use the right fittings.

  • Loads of 1/4-inch wide zip-ties. Don’t take white ones, find some black ones and buy them, or you will loose them in the dust and create MOOP.

  • Four 7-foot bits of 2×4 (to make the four corner uprights) – about $5 each.

  • Four eye-bolts (one for each corner) and a penny-washer for each – about $2 each.

  • One 9 or 10-foot bit of 2×4 with a big heavy thing at its base (your batteries, maybe?) to make a central pole. Maybe think about cutting it in half if you can’t transport it in one piece. You will need to bolt it together when you get there, so don’t forget to drill holes in it and buy two bolts.

  • Eight ratchets (to make the whole thing very tight) – $5 each?

  • Eight x 2-foot lengths of 1/2-inch re-bar (for pegging it down) bent over at the top – $2 each? – Do not follow the instructions all over the Internet that say you should bend the top of the re-bar over in a rounded way. This is terrible advice as it makes them very hard to get into the ground as when you hit them they go “boing” and curl up. Instead, bend the tops over sharply to 90 degrees or more, you will find this easier if you use a large engineer’s hammer, a large vice and a gas-torch heat the re-bar up where you are going to bend it.

  • One 100-foot, or so, length of thin 1/8-inch rope / thick string / cord – £10? – to do corner-to-corner and tie the lights etc. to.

  • A big-ish hammer, a 10-pounder should do.

Corner detail:

Photo 4.jpg

http://flickr.com/photos/jonstarbuck/2848590307/

The finished structure:

Photo 6.jpg

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonstarbuck/2848590495/

Inside the structure:

Photo 5.jpg

http://flickr.com/photos/jonstarbuck/2849419842/

The entire structure is put up and tensioned without the Alumanet in place; each corner is placed about 21 feet apart with the eye-bolt in the top and facing inward. Two two-foot re-bar pegs per corner, about 4 feet from the corner-post at 90-degrees from each other, a ratchet strap on each and the 100 foot piece of good-quality-rope going through the eyebolts, tied together at the ends to form a square… once erected tighten the ratchets so the perimeter rope makes a tight square of rope about 25 feet by 25 feet strung between the 7-foot uprights. This needs 2 people or more, practice before you leave home.

The perimeter rope does not need to be so tight that you can do pull-ups on it, but it needs to form a solid structure. This is why you need to use such long corner pegs. There must be no chance of the structure moving, collapsing or the pegs coming out when the wind gets up; this would be the worst time for it to fail, do it right!

As an alternative to the 100-feet of good quality rope you could use a 100-feet length of wire-rope to make the perimeter as this will really easy to get tight as it won’t stretch – just make sure you use suitable wire rope and fittings!

Only once this is up, 25 feet square, stable and solid… the 21 foot square of Alumanet is added… stretching it gently, corners first, using the (black!) zip-ties to attach it through the rings. It may well droop a lot in the centre, don’t worry about this.

After that the 9-foot centre pole is placed in the centre. Something big and soft attached to the top so it does not wear a hole in the Alumanet during the week. Put the top of the pole in the middle of the Alumanet first, push up and bring in the base of the pole to the centre. Then add a big heavy weight at the bottom or use some more re-bar to stop it moving because people will lean on it and it will wobble about in the wind and you don’t want it falling over and killing someone.

Add, maybe, a corner-to-corner cross of some string to suspend your lights or whatever from.

Come find the original, and us, in the AEZ (Alternative Energy Zone); we are Camp Starstruck.

The same, but improved, structure in 2011:

 

The entire structure during a strong gust of wind blowing from behind the photographer:

Photo 7.jpg

Detail of the top of the centre pole. Yes that is a saucepan lid screwed to the top.

Photo 8.jpg

Here is some instructions of another shade structure from BM 2011 written by someone who used this design.

Photos of other people’s versions of my shade structure from BM 2012:

Photo 9.jpg
Photo 10.jpg

My structure at BM 2012:

Photo 12.jpg
Photo 13.jpg
Photo 14.jpg

Another version at Kiwiburn in New Zealand 2012:

Photo 13.jpg

Delyth’s version at Nowhere festival in Spain 2012:

Photo 15.jpg

And Ian Wallace’s 2013 shade…

Photo 16.jpg

If you follow my design then I'd love to know. If you can help improve this description or the design then please do. Send me photos of your structure or links and I’ll add them. While this was all my idea I'm sure it was not original, if you know more then please let me know: