Ranger Origins
A look back
The first year of Burning Man on the Black Rock Desert was a small and intimate affair. Driving instructions for the event were simply: “Find your way to Gerlach, Nevada, drive another 12 miles, get off the asphalt and drive for 16 miles, then turn right and drive another 4.8 miles.” Before the advent of the GPS, it was easy to get lost in the 400 square miles of Black Rock Desert, even with a compass. The camp was small and always over the horizon. An error of 3 degrees for a new arrival or a group returning from a hot springs, could send a vehicle to the other end of the playa 20 or 30 miles away.
In 1992, Danger Ranger realized that there was an increasing need for a specialized group of seasoned burners who could navigate the desert, locate lost participants and bring them safely back to the community encampment. Knowing that desert skills and communications were key components of this endeavor, he contacted long-time friend Rob Schmitt, who acquired 8 used citizen band radios and helped put together a special training program.
The early Rangers learned how to find their way on the Black Rock Desert. They were highly mobile, equipped for survival, and had radio communications. The open playa was like deep space. Travel was accomplished by vectoring. With average speeds of 80 to 90 miles per hour, distances were measured in time. During the day, directional steering was done by aiming at elevated geological features. At night, by maintaining the angle of moon or star constellation across the hood. During whiteouts, it was navigation by feel. The playa surface has different characteristics depending on location. Changes could be sensed through a vehicle’s wheels. Running blind became an art.
Over time, the camp became a city and a community became many communities. The role of the Rangers has changed and grown at the same time, but the original purpose still holds true; Helping lost souls to find their way home.
Rangers set up a “Flying Wedge” formation prior to leading lost cars back to camp. Before the advent of the trash fence at Burning Man, the Rangers did search and rescue on  the vast open playa as part of their primary duties.