You're in the middle of Black Rock City in the Nevada desert surrounded by tens of thousands of costumed bodies. WiFi and cell phone reception are spotty at best and that's by design. So how do you find your Burning Man buddies if you get separated?

Some attendees of course use walkie-talkies, but there’s also a newer messaging application that can connect more people than a walkie-talkie network.

San Francisco startup Open Garden gets to take credit for hacking the communications system of Black Rock City.

Open Garden’s FireChat launched as a phone application that allows people at large festivals to stay in touch without the use of telecom carriers, relying on Bluetooth (and when available, WiFi) to bounce transmissions cellphone to cellphone until messages reach the intended recipient.

The app made its first appearance at Burning Man in 2014. At this year’s festival, there is reportedly a “signal totem” intended to expand the range of FireChat’s mesh network.

The app’s maker, Open Garden, has recently seen the messaging service take off in settings where users feared a cut-off in service, such as during pro-democracy demonstrations last year in Hong Kong.

So how popular is the app? Hard to say. Open Garden isn’t able to directly monitor usage because users don’t directly connect to services, according to Venture Beat; but at the very least, 4,000 people logged into the application’s Burning Man chat room last year. It’s possible that not all were physically present at the festival.

As of last year, users seeking a little more anonymity on the application have had the option of using a pseudonym on the service. Open Garden in July launched encrypted private messaging

So, the playa isn't totally off-the-grid, as advertised--it just has its own network of sorts. 

Editor's note: This post has been corrected to reflect a recent addition to the application. The application now allows encrypted private messages. 

Published on: Sep 4, 2015