When prepping your ride, it’s important to keep one thing in mind: Conditions on the playa will deteriorate over time as the week goes on. What worked well on Monday, may be hell on Sunday! The deep playa won’t be as bad, but by Wednesday the city streets will have 4 in. deep potholes and washboards. If it rains, it could be even worse!
All wheelchairs and scooters must have lighting, front and back as per DMV (like blinkies, solid or strobes, EL wire, glow sticks, something to make you visible to bicyclists and art cars) if you plan to operate them at night. Being knocked over by a drunk on a bike or getting run over by a huge Snail is no fun!
Tires on the drive wheels should be a smooth wide tire tread (1 1/2 inch to 2 inch wide), front caster wheels should be as large as possible.
You really should explore the 3rd wheel option. Small front caster wheels will quickly sink into the playa surface and make your wheelchair useless.
There are some commercially available options, or if you have a handy friend maybe they can make something for you. It needs to lift your front caster wheels 3-4 inches off the ground and place a 3rd larger wheel (large scooter wheel, smooth tired bike wheel, etc) on a free wheeling mount that supports the front of the chair. But even with that, the long distances at Burning Man are a challenge. However, in camp it works great!
You should shift your axle back to balance the heavy daypack you need to carry survival gear and the more energetic pushing required to move about on the playa surface.
You will need a high quality gel type wheelchair glove but even with all the adaptations, don’t plan on using your manual chair much outside of camp. Distances are just too far without assistance.
A Roho, or other high quality gel cushion is essential. The last thing you need on the playa is a pressure sore!
Do yourself a favor and do NOT bring your hand cycle! If you don’t use it every day, all day at home. Honestly, it’s useless on the playa. After one day your shoulders will be so tired you won’t be able to move for the rest of the week. Also, you don’t want to expose that expensive equipment to the harsh alkaline dust.
If you have a $30,000 wheelchair, Do yourself a favor and leave it at home. Talk to your wheelchair mechanic about finding a “Beater Chair” chair, and setting it up to survive the Playa.
We have had the most success with the Invacare H frame, Ranger/Aero models. The mark 5 controllers have rollback and shut down features that keep your chair from burning up your $2,000 controller in playa conditions.
What we like to do is run the high torque 4 brush motors. If you can find one, these work best.
We like to replace the stock tires on the rims: install the common wheelbarrow tires,don’t fill them all the way, about 10-11 lbs, works well, they give fantastic ride and flotation with increased range, will fit and work like a “Dune Buggy”. With these tires, if you have access to a programer, the controller can be programed to reach a top speed of 6 miles an hour on the SP-torque 4 brush and 7 1/2 miles an hour on the Standard 4 brush. (Always remember that you are NOT allowed to go faster than 5mph!)
On the front casters, we suggest getting as fat a tire as possible, like a 2.8/2.50-4 inch . Front suspension (Frogg leg style) forks are a plus. If you can find the long frame, even better!
We suggest getting one of the newer, high quality ones, with as large tires and batteries as possible, anything with a battery smaller than a U-1 is a waste of time and money. Front and rear suspension is a must! 4-wheeled shooters are the way to go for playa driving. If you plan on riding your mobility scooter for the entire day and want to have a true 30 mile range, we suggest building a small trailer to carry 2, 24 series batteries. Inflatable tires work well to support the weight, wheelbarrow tires are great.
To protect your electronics you will need:
A tube of dielectric silicone grease. You can find this at any auto parts store, it is used on the high voltage spark plug connectors.
High quality duct tape (the real stuff that doesn’t melt at 200 degrees.)
a roll of “Saran Wrap” or “Press ‘n Seal” type wrap
Heavy clear vinyl
What you want to do is unplug every connector and plug on your device one at a time (so you don’t screw things up!) Now you want to coat and pack every connector with the dielectric silicone. As you plug each connector back in, a secondary step to keep the dust out is to take a roll of “Saran” wrap”. Cut off a section about the size of an ace bandage, 3-4 inches wide. We like to wrap the plug connector 2 inches up the wire on either side of the plug. This will prevent any of the alkali dust from getting into the connectors, coupled with the dielectric silicone this prevents alkaline dust from causing oxidation corrosion of your connections. A little electrical tape at the edges of the saran wrap will keep it in place during the week.
We have chairs that have been out to the playa for 6 years, and they still work! There have been no electronic issues with any of them caused by the playa dust.
Switches are the first thing to die on the playa. Usually the off/on switch becomes filled with playa dust, which quickly kills the switch. Depending on what type of switch you have, adding a rubber boot, or covering the switch with tape, or replacing the switch with one of a better design, perhaps from a tractor or other outdoor vehicle will help. If possible, bring a spare switch with you to the playa.
Back to that roll of saran wrap. If you have a mobility scooter, bring your roll of saran wrap with you! We find that wrapping all the controls between the handles and down the tiller will help prevent 95% of the dust from settling in the control panel. Before wrapping the tiller head, if you have toggle switches or key switches, we have found putting a flap of tape or felt with wd-40 on it over the key hole will help prevent most playa dust from settling into it while not in use.
Cut a 2 in x 2 in piece of duct tape. Now take an ice pick and poke a hole in the center, push the toggle of the switch through the hole then apply the duct tape, you may need more than one layer.
Speed control knobs:
Remove the knob, you may need a small screwdriver or an allen wrench. Remove the knob, cut another 2in x 2in piece of duct tape and poke a hole in the center, place over the shaft and apply, then replace the knob.
Now, those pesky rocker switches:
God, we hate these things! Most of them were junk before they left the drawing board. What we have found for these is to cut a small piece of felt that is a 1/4 inch wider and a 1/2 inch longer than the rocker. Place the piece of felt in the center of a 3 inch x 2 inch piece of duct tape. Now center felt over the rocker in it’s “neutral position”. You might need to add some extra tape to the sides to keep the tape secured. The felt will allow the rocker switch to slide beneath the tape, so play around with it. The felt will also help catch any stray dust before it gets to the electronics.
Method #2 of protecting these switches: Take a heavy duty piece of vinyl to cover your entire instrument panel, loose enough to move all your switches. Then tape around it all with duct tape (I was surprised at how easily the duct tape goo came off with goo-gone!)
On either side of a scooter are usually the throttle levers, one for forward one for reverse. There is a large open channel for them to move, but also will let in a bunch of dust! Take a strip of felt, large enough to cover the entire channel, cut down the center and slide it over the lever. Then secure it in place with duct tape. run a little wd-40 alone the cut edges. Now your lever can move freely, but the felt will collect the dust!
Parking break safety switches:
It is pretty damn impossible to protect these switches based on where they are and how they are designed. This is probably the #1 breakdown on mobility scooters.
These switches are usually mounted on the trans-axle. If you remove the rear cover on the mobility scooter you should be able to see it. Look at the wires connected to the drive motor. There are two large wires. These go to the motor. There are two very small wires going to a switch. These wires are the ones going to the safety switch. If you move the break release lever up and down, you will see the little arm on the switch move. This switch needs to be in the closed position (making the connection) or the scooter will not operate. Usually indicated by a flashing light and/or buzzer letting you know it cannot operate.
You may find it best just to bypass this switch. By connecting the two wires together (with solder if possible) that power the magnetic brake release.
The second most likely to fail point on mobility scooters is the connector from the tiller to the main wiring harness (you should find this at the base of the tiller, near your toes).
On wheelchairs they are usually located in the end of the motor, under the cover near the lever that gives you a manual release for the parking brake, so it can be pushed. If you look at how that lever engages into the motor there is usually a significant gap. What we find is the best thing to slow down the dust penetration into the motor is to cut a piece of felt that will slide over the lever. You want to spray this felt patch with WD-40 before sliding it in place. It will now become a Playa Dust Magnet! You can either use tape or saran wrap to hold the felt in place. Please make sure the lever still operates.
Removing all that Dust…
Preparing you wheelchair or mobility scooter for easy cleaning when you get home:
We like to use the Turtle Wax F-21. We find that this works very well if you use this on any area you want to be slippery (excluding private parts). It leaves a thin, non-stick film like “Teflon”.
How to clean your Mobility Equipment when you get home:
Compressed air with a large paintbrush works really well. Canned “air” for cleaning computers or other electronics works well, but is pricey. Brushing everything down with a large paintbrush helps too. Water or any other liquid should be the LAST STEP when doing your post-playa clean. First spray every surface with a citrus solvent or straight vinegar. Let it sit for a few minutes, before you wipe it off or rinse with a high pressure garden hose. We do not endorse spraying your electronics with water, but it works well for your manual wheelchair and parts you can do without hitting any electronics.
These are just suggestions. You need to use your own common sense when you decide what works for you!