Music festivals are fun but, be warned: They can also be pretty taxing. After x days of spending x hours listening to x bands while making questionable life decisions, you might be riddled with looming regret. Why did I just do [unconscionable thing] in [a large, public place] while surrounded by [every variety of stranger]? I’ve been to all types of these things, my first ever being Austin City Limits in 2008, followed by upstate New York’s wook-friendly Camp Bisco, San Francisco’s lovely Outside Lands, and most recently, last weekend’s Coachella. While these festivals certainly vary in size, musical genres, general vibe, and amenities, you can apply the same general preparation guide to all of them. Trust me.
As with many things, doing a little bit of legwork ahead of time is going to make your life a hell of a lot easier. Getting tickets and whatnot? Okay, that’s pretty much a given. But where you stay is something you might want to put more thought into. Many festivals offer a camping option, which is great if you’re trying to save some money: Camping is fun, and you meet all kinds of weirdos. Looking to meet unsavory characters and super-skinny dudes with dreads who suspiciously carry a backpack everywhere? You should camp! Especially if you’re seeking an added layer of sketchiness to the whole experience.
That said, camping also adds an extra layer of physical punishment. You may or may not have access to a shower, and you’ll be stuck with port-a-lets for three days. (Believe me, you do not what to see what those things look like at the end of the weekend.) If you can spend the money (and planning ahead will help you space out the spending), stay in a hotel. Better yet, rent a house. It gives you the space to sleep and shower and recover each day, and you can buy food and cook, and just have a relaxed place to hang out in when you need a break. Taking time to regroup and chill at the beginning and end of each day is really important.
Another factor to take into account is transportation. Every festival is different in this regard. Some are mostly or only camping, so you’ll be on the grounds, and getting to the actual stages won’t matter. Others, like Coachella, are a little trickier. The area around the actual event is huge, and, god forbid, you might have to stay as far as a 40-minute drive from the grounds. Renting a car is one option, and you might have to do that to get from the airport to where you’re staying. But in most cases, I wouldn’t recommend driving to the actual festival. There are a number of variables, the most obvious being you and other festival-goers will maybe be drinking and taking drugs, and you absolutely should not drive if you’ve been drinking or taking drugs. Obviously! Even if you’re staying sober, you can never be sure if anyone else is. If you can avoid driving, avoid driving. Pay for a shuttle (many festivals will offer them, but you’ll have to buy ahead). Or pay for Uber. It is worth the cost and peace of mind.
Packing for Survival
Man, I know that festivals are a chance to be like, a fashion guy or gal or whatever, and if that’s your thing, good on you. Otherwise, don’t try too hard. Just wear stuff you like! The main thing is to wear comfortable clothes. Put comfort over everything, and fashion will follow. That’s pretty much how shopping works, too, by the way. Unless you just have terrible taste.
Check the weather, and plan for anything that might come up, be it rain or dust storms. Coachella almost always has a dust storm and can get really dusty in general, so something like a bandana to wrap around your face is a good thing to have. Don’t forget sunglasses. You’ll always want sunglasses, no matter the destination. Also, if you go to a place where rain might happen, plan for a poncho. Channel your inner Boy or Girl Scout and be prepared for anything.
Shoes are more important than anything, for several reasons. First of all, you’re going to be on your feet for 12 hours, give or take. You’ll be dancing, you’ll be walking, at some point you’ll be moving your feet without understanding how they’re still operating. Also, your feet are gonna get stomped by someone eventually. It just happens. So protect your feet. I know a girl who wears wedges to every festival, all three days: I applaud her, because she looks great, but I also have no idea how she is still standing by the end of the weekend. I rock sneakers and I can barely support myself by the end.
Yeah, I recommend wearing sneakers of some sort. I always wear an old pair of Vans: They’re comfortable, durable, and they look good. Here’s a thing I’ve realized going to festivals: Someone might have the full-package outfit going, and then you look at their feet, and they’re wearing Merrells or something, and the shoes betray the entire outfit. Don’t be that guy. Don’t get too broken up over your outfit, but pick something that looks fine enough and feels way better.
Have fun with what you wear, because everyone else is, too. This year at Coachella, I wore a crop top with Drake’s face all over it for day three, because Drake was closing out the festival. It was probably one of the best sartorial choices I’ve ever made and became a huge conversation starter. Dress in a combination of utility and fun: overalls and crop tops, jorts and crop tops, dresses and hats, or stuff that’s loud and will look cool under crazy lights. And it’s great to look fun when you’re actually having fun too.
Last thing: Get a good backpack/fanny pack/something to carry your survival kit in. You’ll want something durable that fits a lot of stuff. I had a Dickie’s mini-backpack that I wore to festivals for years; it was magical in that it was impossibly child-sized while simultaneously fitting anything I could possibly want.
Navigating the Festival
This is tricky, because every place is different and large, and sometimes you get to an Oh my god, I think the acid is kicking in, man point. Losing your people is pretty terrifying, especially at nightfall when the freaks come out, the drugs start working harder, and the whole place starts to look like some sorta Neon Western town. First, grab one of those paper maps at an information tent. It’s just good to have it on hand. The group I go to festivals with uses a hand signal to find each other; I’m not going to tell you exactly what it is, because I really don’t want to go to Coachella 2016 and find that everyone else is using what we use. That would make my life hard.
But I will tell you this: Create either some kind of hand signal, or use a sign that makes you easy to identify. I saw a few groups that put their hands in the air and made li’l duck-quacking motions. That is a good tactic. I also saw some fun signs. One was an image of Wheelchair Jimmy from Degrassi, which was great and thematic because of Drake headlining and whatnot. Another was Scared Ariana Grande, which is truly an image for any season.
My crowd also likes to use the app GroupMe to help coordinate. This app is great because you can turn off your phone’s cell data—which is often unreliable at festivals to begin with—and have messages delivered via SMS. I cannot stress the value of GroupMe enough. It’s also helpful to set up specific meeting spots if your group splits up. Most festivals have crazy structures and art that have the dual purpose of being fun to mess with when you’re fucked out of your gourd and being easily identifiable meeting spots. To be able to say, “Meet me at the top of the giant hippopotamus office building that also serves as a helipad” is a beautiful thing.
Don’t be afraid to split up from time to time, either. My festival philosophy is that any given lineup could potentially have bands that you want to see who happen to be playing at the same time. That’s okay! You’re not necessarily going to see something if you skip one for the other. You’re there for the music, and you’re there for your squad. Just go into things with a few must-sees and wing the rest. This time around, I knew I would see Drake hell or high water, and I knew I wasn’t going to miss Ryan Adams. (Surprise! I also like Dad Rock.) Other than that, it’s all about being open to going along with the group. Everyone makes concessions from time to time. Compromise and be nice to each other. That is a good and nice thing to do.
Feel free to ignore this section entirely if you don’t plan to partake in any of the fun. But if you’re looking for some kind of psychedelic experience, a festival can be a very good venue for that. (It can also be a very bad venue for it, but everyone has a bad trip every once in a while.) My advice from this piece stands, and not just for weed. Other than that, I don’t have a lot of groundbreaking tips here, nor do I have many tips that don’t also apply to life in general. If you’re going to take drugs, don’t be an idiot. Don’t super blatant about it. Be discreet and respectful of others. Don’t be that girl that gets so fucked up she makes out with a tree. That’s funny for YouTube, but bad for your dignity. In that same vein, if you can, get your drugs ahead of time. It is possible to find drugs at a festival, but it’s annoying to be that guy walking around asking people if they’ve seen your pal Lucy. Besides, the bougier the festival, the less readily available the buyable substances. Smaller camping festivals are another story.
Besides that, look out for one another. Listen to what your body is telling you. For example, if you were, hypothetically speaking, at a Tyler, the Creator set and were to find it immediately so grating that staying at the set would make you have a bad trip, leave. Keep in mind that things like a change of scenery and vibe always help. Explore things. Talk to people. And drink lots of water.
Also, don’t take your drugs too early. Get in there and get a lay of the land first. For example, do not pop a mushroom cap or two as you’re walking into the festival like someone I know who is me did this year. You will need to lie down in the grass for a while; you will wonder what you were thinking as you ride out a little surprise trip. It’ll be fun, sure, but get your footing before you jump down the rabbithole.
Take Care of Yourself
This is my most important piece of advice. Three days on your feet in the sun is hard! Take breaks when you need them. You’re going to get sick of being on your feet, so go sit down somewhere. Also, you don’t need to be in the front of every set, or any at all, really. It’s fun to chill and sit and take the music in from the back of the audience, where you have room to breathe. Remember to eat, too. You’re walking around a bunch and exerting way more energy than normal, so you need the calories. And lots of festivals boast some really great food. Don’t forget sunscreen. Be aware of where your group is. And seriously, drink lots of water! Drink lots of water? Drink lots of water. Drink lots of water!
Let Go and Have Fun
Festivals, and Coachella in particular, get a lot of hate. I get that. It’s a three-day event staged as something anti-establishment, when in fact, it’s just super-corporate and establishment. Passes are $400! And that’s if you get in on the first round of sales, which happen 11 months before the festival. But to be honest, you have to just let go. I know that kind of sounds like a copout, but if you get too hung up on the whole thing as A Thing, you’re probably not going to have fun, and also you might generally be a bummer of a person.
But seriously, just let go and take it all in. Yes, there are going to be special surprise guests that, like Madonna invading Drake’s set, are pandering to you. Just enjoy it and leave the snark for another time. Oh, and there are going to be annoying people. There are especially going to be annoying fashion people. They’ll wear those floppy hats and lace dresses and completely impractical shoes and smoke weird, skinny cigarettes. Annoying bros crowd out festivals as well: You know, the ones who wear tanks, call things “gnarly,” wear those tall little skate socks, and ogle girls and crush beers, just as those types are prone to do. Develop a blindness to the bad people. Ignore ‘em. Laugh at ‘em, even. They’re silly festival stereotypes that are stereotypes because they exist and are real, but they won’t ruin your good time.
In 2015, you’re not going to a festival to find some kind of deeper meaning or define your generation in some significant way. You’re going to listen to music, get out of your head a little bit, and above all, have a good time. If you keep that in mind, you’ll do just that.
Image by Sam Woolley; photos by the author.
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