The main thing that will send you packing home if you are not prepared for it is the environment: The combination of playa, altitude, and weather that you’ll encounter.
One year, a freezing dust storm hit on Friday night and overnight, despite people still coming into the city, the population actually fell by a thousand people because it was too much for them. Then the only place to go is Reno, a hundred miles away, so think about how bad it must have been for those people to leave the day before the burn and big event, probably not to come back. In 2008, a dust storm caused BMorg to close the gate, stalling a 20-mile line of cars waiting to get in simply because visibility was less than 10 feet and it was too dangerous to have people driving in it.
Meanwhile, in both cases, some people and camps went about their business without much issue because they were prepared for it and accepted it as part of the experience.
The playa is ancient lake bed and the flattest place on earth. It is slightly basic and will foam if you pour vinegar on it. Nothing grows there and nothing lives out there (for long). Depending on how much it rained the previous year and how much it has been driven over, it can range from concrete hardness to loose, talcum-fine powder. How much it affect a person ranges widely. For every person who has an adverse reaction walking in it, there’s another that has been barefoot the entire week.
The worst part is that it will get over everything you take there. Accept that it is going to be a ubiquitous part of your Burning Man experience, and none of it will ever be completely clean again, but how long you keep your stuff clean can make a big difference. The one time you leave the container with your clean clothes open will be the time a dust storm hits, and for the rest of the week, you’ll have no more clean clothes. Forget to cover up your bedding, and going to bed can feel like climbing between two sheets of fine grit sand paper every night. Zip lock bags work well for keeping things clean. You can pack your clothes in them till they’re ready to use. You can keep your small electronics in them. They’re clear so you can see the contents, and they’re resealable and withstand multiple uses.
Keeping things clean inside your tent is a bit harder. I usually leave the rain fly off my tent and use it inside to cover everything up. When I come back to the tent after a dust storm, the thick layer of playa that is covering everything is on the rain fly instead of my gear and can be carefully dumped to the side.
Keep in mind that you are not at the beach, but the high desert. The event is at 4000′ and the atmosphere is thin and it can get cold quickly at night. Luckily, it is the flattest place on earth so walking around is not really an issue but exerting yourself in this environment can be.
It also take longer to cook things over a fire. Although the average day is in the 100s, soon after sundown it is comfortable t-shirt weather going to jacket weather by midnight. By dawn, it might be in the 30s only to be back in the 90s and to too hot to stay in your tent by 9am. You’ll need plenty of hot weather clothing and some cold weather clothing, or at least plenty of blankets. After all, if it gets really cold, nobody does much of anything but head back to their camp and go to sleep anyway.
Combine the above with the winds (sometimes 40-60 mph, sustained) that are found on the playa and you end up with dust storms. These storms can break tent poles, blow away large items (like couches), level entire camps, and make people wish they were home.
The difference between packing up and going home and deciding to go for a bike ride in the middle of such a storm is often a matter of preparation and perspective. The goggles and dust mask you are supposed to carry around with you at all times is for such an occasion. Even simply standing around without being able to see or breathe can an uncomfortable experience. Walking a a mile or two back to you camp to get them when needed can be almost impossible. Inhaling a major amount of dust into your lungs can also lead to health problems, so don’t neglect to put some kind of barrier over your mouth and nose when the dust kicks up.
When setting up your camp, be aware the the closer towards the center tends to mean less wind (due to everybody else acting as a wind block) and more dust, and that the wind typically comes from the South West or the North East directions. Usually from the South West (back towards Gerlach) so park your vehicles at that side of your camp to act as a wind break for your tents and stuff. Use large (12″) stakes to put your tent into the ground not those six inch things they usually give you. It doesn’t hurt to add extra guy-lines to your tent and any structure that might catch the wind such as your shade structure. Even large and heavy objects such as the car ports that some people use can catch the wind and be blown away. A few extra lines tied to good stakes can keep this from happening. A few lines of rope thrown over a flapping shade structure can prevent it from being torn apart. Make sure everything in your camp is good a secure before you leave. A dust storm can come up with little warning and it’s no fun to hike back home and find a disaster where your camp used to be.