My Music Festival Essentials

I am crazy for music festivals. My love affair started in 2007 when I saw Amy Winehouse was going to be at Lollapalooza and I decided I had to go. (good decision since it sadly ended up being one of her last US performances.) I had been to Summerfest—but generally just for the day. The three day festival experience was a new one for me. Based on some random turn of events—aside from a friend popping over for a bit—I ended up going alone. And I was totally unprepared for the experience. I dressed wrong. I had no supplies. I was overwhelmed. But I loved it. There was so much music in one place and I was seeing favorite after favorite or discovering new sounds and acts. An obsession had begun.

So the next year—I got a trusty festival bag, and created and refined a system—and I’ve been a festival regular ever since.

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me and my trusty festival bag, my friend, Rob Thomas and the original photo bomber at Lollapalooza 2012

This year, I’ve either attended or will be attending five festivals (Roskilde, Summerfest, Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, Eaux Claires). I’ve been in sweltering heat, evacuated due to threatening storms, frozen by unseasonable cold snaps, pour on by unnatural amounts of rain and had a dance party in what seemed like miles of mud—and those are just the weather related festival adventures.

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Me after massive rain before seeing Foo Fighters at Lollapalooza 2011

Throw in 100,000 people and there are constantly new challenges coming my way. But I’m prepared for it all. Over the years—I’ve learned to bring some essentials that make me the music festival queen—and I’m excited to pass this list along to you:

  1. Baby wipes: my worst festival experience happened last year at Lollapalooza when I was peed on seeing Florence + the Machine. Seriously. I vowed I would never return (but then radiohead/lcd soundsystem changed my mind). Luckily—I always carry a full sized travel pack of baby wipes with me. This trusty festival pack staple saves your life at the end of the night when the porta-potties are basically not safe for humans, makes you feel civilized when dining on sloppy festival food, cools you off when you’re sweating like crazy, cleans your phone when someone spills beer on it, and calms your rage when some drunk punk pees on you during one of your favorite artists’ sets.
  2. Sunscreen lotion: do not bring spray cans. It will get confiscated during the bag check. One year—I found the First Aid tents carried sunscreen—so I took it out of my bag for the next year to eliminate some weight. And of course that year, the sunscreen option was gone. Better to be safe than skin damaged. Bring your own sunscreen.
  3. Ear plugs: For all the concerts I go to, I’m relatively new at the ear plug game. But one of the best reasons I’ve found to wear them is they cancel out the noise of annoying festival chatter going on during the quiet parts of your favorite song. So they are worth wearing.
  4. Plan: When I go to Pitchfork Festival—I see every single band playing. I don’t see the whole set, but I see some of it. This is only possible with a plan. You can just play it by ear (bad music pun intended) but it makes the experience feel overwhelming and you’re bound to miss something you really want to see. Lollapolloza stretches over a mile, so you need to figure out your priorities to get from stage to stage. I plan out everything—from my meal times to meet-up points because cell phones rarely work at festivals—unless you count getting a friend’s text two hours after the fest has finished. For the price of a festival ticket, it’s worth it to plan ahead and maximize your time.
  5. Poncho: Plan for rain. I now have a legit poncho that folds down small, but $2 disposable ones work great, too. And I like having some extras in my pack to give to some first timer who is defeated when the rain starts—because I’ve been that kid—and it sucks.
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me and angie z braving the rain at lollapalooza 2014

  1. Old, but comfortable shoes: Festival grounds are disgusting. If it doesn’t rain, it will be dusty and dirty. People spill nastiness all over. It can get muddy. And you will walk. A lot. So wear shoes for comfort and shoes you wouldn’t feel bad about tossing after the fest.
  2. Bandana: When it’s hot, your bandana will be your best friend. I also used to bring a blanket to sit on, but I like to pack light, and instead I’ll pull out the bandana if I really need to sit on something.
  3. Ibuprofen: Because I’m old. To save the hassle of the bag checkers opening the bottle to see what’s in it, I throw a couple in my pocket or take them before I head out.
  4. Portable cell phone charger: Your cell phone will lose a charge. There is no service once the festival is in full swing, so my phone is really my camera. Try to remember to turn your phone on airplane mode to conserve battery life—but also bring a portable charger as a back-up. There are sponsored charging stations where you can wait and charge your battery—but time is money. Bring a rechargeable battery and go see some bands instead.
  5. Open mind: Obviously—crowds aren’t a problem for me—but I get it that it can be overwhelming to be around 100,000 people, especially in various stages of sobriety, or lack thereof. But try to keep an open mind. People watching is one of the best parts of a festival. And for me—I just try to remember that it’s about the music. Find a viewing spot you’re comfortable in, pop in your ear plugs and give in to the music. Check out bands you’ve never heard before. You’ll be amazed at the breadth of talent out there—and seeing a band have their first festival experience is a trip!

Side note: Festivals are not playing when it comes to the items they don’t let you bring in. Food is a big one. They will take it out of your bag and toss it. Spray anythings are also out—like toners, sunscreen, bug spray. Read what’s allowed and what isn’t and don’t mess around.

You might notice that I left out bringing water. Each festival has different requirements for water you can bring in. Some allow only empty water bottles and some allow you to bring in two factory sealed bottles. I have found that bringing my own water weighs down my pack–and at some fests–waiting to fill you bottle can take hours. For real. Lately—I’ve just been buying water from vendors. I don’t generally drink adult beverages at festivals—shocking, I know—I justify the time and hassle of filling a water bottle to the money I save on cocktails. I feel bad about the environmental impact of disposable bottles, but I also don’t want to miss bands because I’m trapped in a water line. Lollapalooza is actually good with their water stations but anything at Union Park in Chicago is a disaster, and Eaux Claires had similar issues last year.

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me, erin, grace and disclosure at roskilde fest 2013

As annoying as it is to have to wait in the bag check line to enter a festival—I promise you—having these essentials will make your festival experience a much happier one. So get out, brave the crowds and check out some new music this summer!

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