Spring has finally graced the once snowy plains of the northern hemisphere, and all around you can hear the excited whispers as people pack away their snow boots and puffer jackets: "summer is coming!" And for music and camping (and alcohol and recreational drug) enthusiasts, this means one, very exciting thing: festival season is almost upon us!
For many people, a single dose of muddy/dusty/hot/wet/deafening/ unsanitary/overpriced /drunken revelry is enough, and all they can think of is seeing their favourite bands and then getting the hell out of dodge. But for the true festival enthusiast, the campground is home, and who needs sleep when you have (possibly psychedelic) guarana balls and red bull to keep you going?
We all have our favorite festivals - the old faithfuls we go back to with the same mates year after year (for me it was Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland, Australia). Traditions such as these should be preserved, but what about those of us who are planning to travel through the summer? How do we get our festival fix? Here are five essential tips for those of you planning to backpack your way through festival season.
Step one: Pick your party
The beauty of backpacking is that you are no longer constrained by geography, so the first thing to consider (obviously) is where you are planning to travel. Pick your continent - they all have killer festival lineups - and keep in mind what you plan to be doing when you aren't dancing your ass off.
Now, research, research, research. What kind of music flows through you? Do you want a beach? A desert? A city? Picking the right festival (or festivals) is half the battle... but remember! Don't just go for the safe and familiar option. Travel is all about challenging your pre-existing tastes and preferences. If you like house music, maybe try to fit in a blues festival. If you live for the beach, maybe mix it up with a visit to Oktoberfest or Running of the Bulls, both of which take place in towns away from the coast. Consider your budget: some festivals are free entry, and you need do no more than turn up on the day; and some have a huge ticket fee, something you will need to purchase well in advance.
Once you have your itinerary fleshed out and your tickets purchased, it's time to move on to step two...
Step two: Get informed
Read up on your chosen events as much as possible. Festival websites will typically have FAQ, first timers and tips sections, so make the most of them to ensure there are no nasty or inconvenient surprises in store when you arrive. Get information on what time of day the shows are on (many Spanish festivals are purely nocturnal - make sure you find out how you can occupy yourself during the day); find out if it's likely to pour torrential rain, or be stinking hot and dusty; suss out what the camping amenities are like (portaloos and hoses anyone?); and most importantly, figure out how you will get there, and where you will sleep.
Step three: Pack your bag
This will depend a lot on the overall nature of your trip. When I was backpacking in Europe, I was mostly hiking, rock climbing, and sleeping in campsites, so it wasn't a huge stretch for me to survive at a camping festival: I already had a sleeping bag, mat, camping stove, and torch. However, if you are planning on hosteling your way around the place, and stopping in for one or two festivals on the way, you are faced with a choice: lugging unnecessary (and smelly) camping equipment around with you for the whole time, or purchasing it at greater expense right before the festival. I would unequivocally advise the latter option. If you are in Europe, Decathlon is your one stop festival supply shop. If your festival is more that two days long, and you intend to spend any time at all in your campsite, I recommend the following guidelines for purchasing gear:
- Tent: Unless you are traveling with something light and state-of-the-art, get the cheapest model that looks like it will stand, because, my friend, that thing is going to get trashed.
- Mattress: I've spent several nights with the sand as my mattress and the stars as my blanket and let me tell you, my poor body and I regretted every minute of it. Get a decent, bulky, blow up mattress, or invest in an expensive, light-weight camping mat. Trust me, you'll find it hard enough to sleep as it is, and on the off chance that you manage to lure some attractive fellow festival-goer back to your tent, you don't want them complaining of back cramps and gravel rash.
- Hammock: Travel hammocks are, quite simply, the bomb. They're light enough to bring with you on your whole trip (I would recommend them even if you aren't planning on going to a festival - hang one up on your hostel balcony and take a siesta), they're comfortable enough to sleep in (if you don't want to deal with the aforementioned mattress and tent scenario), and they look pretty damn cool. You can get uber cheap ones at REI, or splash out and get something more exxy, but I would consider it an essential.
- Day bag: You are not going to want to lug your pack around with you all day, trust me. Find out if your festival has somewhere secure to lock up the stuff you aren't going to need (and always remember the golden rule of backpacking: don't travel with anything you can't afford to lose), or simply padlock it any way you can inside your tent and hope for the best. Invest in a small backpack, hip bag, or over the shoulder satchel - something you don't need to hold onto so you can wave your arms in the air like you just don't care, and ideally, something that zips or buttons closed (to deter those with sticky fingers). Make sure it's big enough for a water bottle, lip balm, sunscreen, snacks, money, phone and ideally a poncho or light jacket (depending on your weather forecast).
- Personal Hygiene: As previously mentioned, some festivals can provide pretty basic amenities. I cannot stress enough the vital importance of bringing your own sanitary wipes, face cleansing wipes, toilet paper, deodorant, dry shampoo, and hand sanitizer. Basically, the less time you have to spend lining up for the toilet and showers, the better (especially you, ladies).
- Clothing: It is a truth universally acknowledged that people like to get naked at festivals (or as close to naked as they can without getting arrested). This is totally acceptable, but consider a couple of things:
1. You are going to be dancing, walking and running around ALL DAY. Not only that, you are going to be fighting for space with thousands of other people, many of whom (if you are anything like me) are taller, heavier and have bigger feet than you. Festivals can get super gross, what with the mud, sweat and beers getting thrown around the place. With all this in mind, may I humbly suggest that you invest in a pair of shoes that will protest your poor little feet. Boots are best (rain boots depending on the climate), but tennis shoes will do in a pinch. Since you probably aren't going to lug smelly, muddy, heavy shoes around with you when you continue on your trip, I'd suggest you buy them second hand and throw them away when you are done.
2. I hate to sound like your mother, but for daytime summer festivals, you are going to need a hat, sun glasses, and sunscreen (and really, you should be traveling with these items anyway). Consider bringing a towel or sarong to drape over yourself if you are somewhere particularly warm. Trust me, sunstroke is a real thing, and it can really ruin your day! So stay hydrated and stay covered up.
3. Obviously take into consideration the fact that you will be around a lot of very attractive, potentially semi-naked people for several days, who are all down to party: odds are, you want to look your best.
Step 4: Start Streaming
I would always recommend traveling with some kind of device onto which you can download or stream new music. The sheer number of new people you meet in a day when backpacking means you are bound to find someone with similar taste as you, and a whole new library of tunes. When you are on one of those seven hour bus or train rides, make sure you are familiarizing yourself with the bands you are going to see, so that you can get the most out of their set (singalong, anyone?). Remember to do some research into the unknown bands who will be there as well, and listen to some of their latest stuff to get an idea of whether you want to catch their set. Some festivals will have their own Spotify playlist that you can stream or download - this is a great way to get into the mood of the festival.
Step 5: make a schedule.
Compare notes with the people you are traveling with, or meeting there, and decide on which acts you want to see together, and which acts you might check out on your own. Download the lineup when it comes out, and the official timetable a few days before, and get an idea of where you want to be for each day. Remember, you will stumble upon some unbelievably cool acts out of the blue, and end up staying for their whole set, and alternatively, you might only stay for one song by your favorite band. It's also possible that you will get so excited about the festival that you pre-game a little too enthusiastically, and miss an entire day of music (this totally didn't happen to me by the way). Be informed, but be flexible.
If all this sounds too complicated....
We totally understand that when you are traveling, there are sometimes more moving parts than you can keep track of whilst retaining your sanity, and its easier just to stick to hostels and pub crawls where you don't actually have to organize anything (been there, it's much less stressful). Luckily, there are people who are willing to drag your happy ass out of the dorm room and onto the road, and make sure you get the most out of your festival season. The folks at Stoke Travel, a Barcelona based company run by Australians, offer personalized, flexible festival and surfing tours, with as many stops as you can handle, cheap and free booze, transport, food, walking tours, tents, and a great party attitude! Check out their promo video from last year's festival season in Europe: