I’ve been to a heap of festivals. These days I do it comfortably, but it wasn’t always that way.
The first festival I went to wasn’t comfortable. I spent one night in my tiny Barina. I’d borrowed a tent and it was a type I hadn’t set up before. I was clueless and it was embarrassing. It was missing tent pegs and there was even a hole in the corner. Then it rained, of course.
The second one wasn’t much better. A tiny tent, a tiny car and a tarp. But we had no tarp poles and no trees to tie the tarp to. This was different to the family camping I remember.
But seven years and a few too many fails later, I reckon I’m prepared for any festival.
Here’s my ultimate survival guide. It does assume you have the basics sorted, like sleeping arrangements and clothes.
This changed my festival life. I can’t stress enough how awesome it is to have a marquee. It provides shelter from the sun, rain and, to some extent, wind. I could never be without my marquee now. You can hang fabric from it for privacy. Even towels will work, and they always stay dry in the wind. The marquee I have allows you to leave the canopy on so it’s so quick to put up and pack down. Go to a camping shop and get the biggest tent pegs you can find that will fit the feet of your marquee and buy them. Unfortunately the standard marquee pegs aren’t good enough for the harsh conditions of many festivals.
Depending on how generous you are with your friends, the marquee can provide a common area, or you can use it to shade your tent or car. If you’re shading your sleeping area, I use a 9m x 6m tarp with the silver side up and find east using the compass on my phone so I can sleep in. Peg or tie the tarp to the ground on the east side.
Glass and what to do about it
Almost all festivals ban glass. Usually this makes you think of glass bottles. But it also means jars, so think salsa and vegemite. I’ve worked gate duty at festivals and confiscated salsa from people. I’ve never felt more like a Grinch.
Use alternatives such as peanut butter tubs and tubes of vegemite. For salsa, bring a plastic container, wait until the last servo stop before you enter the festival and transfer the contents. Stick it straight in the esky and remember the salsa is now open and won’t keep long.
As a rule, festival food will be delicious, but expensive. The quality and variety of festival food has come along way. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good value, but the costs add up when you factor in three meals a day.
I pre-pack as much food as possible in the esky. Cut up watermelon in zip lock bags with lemon and mint is great. Bananas and apples are hardy if you pack them well. I make salads in layers that I can just shake and eat at the festival. Dip and cut-up vegies/crackers works really well. If your esky is cold enough dip can last a while. For breakfast I put portions of muesli in zip lock bags and just add milk. Nuts are a good option that will keep, and protein balls can be handy. Some festivals allow camp stoves, which gives more options.
Festival food is so delicious that I now factor it in my festival budget. There’s almost everything – Gozlemes, burgers, ice cream; I’ve even tried a drinking coconut crammed with nuts, seeds, chocolate and more.
Coffee can be a challenge. Festival coffees usually start at $4 if you’re lucky, $5+ is standard. If coffee is a priority and you aren’t allowed to bring a camp stove, you’ll either need to set aside a budget for it or consider your options. If you’re running power (more on that later), you can use a kettle for hot water. Another option is to get a water immersion element you can power from your car. It takes a while and I’ve only seen these online, camp shops have stopped stocking them. Or there’s instant coffee for making an iced coffee. Cold-pressed coffee is available and a convenient option, also for iced coffees. You could switch to energy drinks or buy store-bought iced coffee. Some of these options may seem blasphemous; it all depends on how much you love coffee. There are also chocolate-coated coffee beans. Put these in the esky.
A festival is the only place you will ever see me drinking sports drinks. Normally I consider this the realm of elite athletes but dancing and hot weather will take the sweat right out of you. Your best and cheapest options are powdered tubs or effervescent tablets that are added to water.
Vitamins are important, especially if you’re subsisting on chips and lollies for the weekend. B12 is important and I always bring Berocca and/or B12 supplements. Think about what you need and what you can bring in terms of food, supplements or both.
A dark campsite is a miserable campsite. Don’t forget lighting. Fortunately options range from utilitarian to decorative. I use a mix of both. Solar or battery-powered fairy lights are good. There are torches available from major hardware chains that have both hooks and magnets. I plug in rope lights to power (again, more on that later), which are brighter than solar or battery options.
Similar to lighting, your campsite will be miserable without them. I’ve sadly found that inflatable chairs blow away. Couches are a no-no unless you take them home. I’ve been known to rescue an abandoned camp chair at the end of the festival. I only pick the good ones in pristine condition. It’s a win-win, you get a free camp chair and the organisers get one less thing to clean up.
Always take a torch and carry it with you. Festivals are usually on uneven ground with plenty of tripping hazards. Also handy for using the toilets at night. Sometimes toilets have lighting, but don’t rely on it. Also remember to put your torch in your pocket on the way out or people will form an orderly queue asking to borrow it.
Useful for garbage, but also other things like dirty clothes. They can also be a makeshift poncho in the event of rain.
Zip lock bags
Similar to garbage bags, these always come in handy. You can put the more delicate types of fruit in them (berries, nectarines, etc) and put them in the esky. You can bag up food portions before you go so you don’t have to think once you’re there. If it’s raining, you can pop your phone in one. They’re reusable and have so many uses. Probably even some I haven’t thought of yet.
Gaffa tape, cable ties, carbineers
These are essential. If you can’t repair your things with these items, they aren’t worth fixing. Let them go.
(Not a) bum bag
I have a belt, which is essentially a bum bag but more 21st century. It’s pink and black suede and looks nothing like a bum bag, but comes with all the functionality. Bum bags are making a comeback though, so it could be worth raiding your parents’ wardrobe. Attaching your torch to your belt is handy. Attaching a cup with a carabineer is also handy and means you don’t need to carry (and potentially lose) a drink bottle. There should always be water near any of the main areas.
Always remember these. If you rely on medication, it should be on the top of your packing list. But also stock up on paracetamol, antihistamines and other basics at the supermarket. Depending on the festival, the medics may or may not be able to give you antihistamines. The only time I’ve been stung by a bee was at a festival and I also react worse than most to mosquitoes and other bug bites.
It’s almost guaranteed any festival will run out of toilet paper at some point, and it’s impossible to predict when. It can happen any time and is usually only temporary, but you don’t want to get caught out. Only take what you need or you’ll have a line of people.
Hand sanitiser and soap
Hand sanitiser is essential, because let’s face it, camping is gross. Usually hand sanitiser will be available near the toilets at the festival, but don’t rely on it being there or being full. I’ve recently discovered an enviro soap that will wash dishes, yourself and your hair. It’s handy and works well.
Some festivals have ATMs on site, but don’t rely on it. You will always need more cash than you think you need. Always. There’s always that noodle place that was way better than expected, clothes you simply must have and drinks you simply must try. Think about how much you think you’d need, then probably bring about half that again.
There are usually showers on site, but they’re quick, often cold and the queues are long. Consider the options. You could bring a solar camp shower, which usually come in 20L. You leave them on the top of your car to warm up in the sun. There’s no water pressure, but there is warm water. You can bring a bucket, some soap and a small towel. I also have a battery-powered camp shower. They usually take pretty big batteries (think D), but also come in the car-friendly 12V. The pressure is amazing, better than some houses I’ve lived in. I don’t bring this every time, but if it’s hot and/or you’re there for more than a couple of days it’s fantastic. If you do use the festival showers, wet yourself down and soap up before you go in.
Always make sure you have some kind of private area to shower. You could bring a shower tent or just use hang up some dark fabric. There are various clips you can buy at hardware shops that will easily hang fabric.
If you're really desperate, bring baby wipes.
I like the sun, but the sun doesn’t like me. I take a UV umbrella, but most don’t go to this length. Umbrellas can protect you from both sun and rain. Definitely not wind. Be careful.
Having power can be so handy. It’s not cheap though, so is probably only worth it if you go frequently enough and/or you feel like seriously splashing out. The option I use is a deep cell battery connected to the car battery with an inverter. You can also use solar panels. With power you can charge phones, use lights, and kitchen appliances such as kettles. I also have a desk fan and recently bought a jaffle maker. That probably pushes me well into glamping territory.
I now pack everything in tubs that are usually ready to roll. Non-perishables go in one tub, clothes in another. I have festival clothes that I don’t need anywhere else so it’s easy to organise them this way.
Water canister (and fold-up trolley if you’re really keen)
A jerry can if you’re a serious camper, or even a 10L block from the supermarket because they’re reusable. It’s more convenient than juggling an arms worth of 1L bottles. You can pick up fold-up trolleys pretty cheaply and they can make the distance from the water tank to the campsite seem like nothing at all. Plus, you can wheel a bunch of other things with the trolley too.
Because of the dangly bit, always present your non-dominant hand for wristbanding. The dangly bit is less likely to get in food or anything gross if it’s on the other wrist. If you forget and the dangly bit is in danger of getting in the way, you can fold it back on itself temporarily.
Make your own list
After years of winging it I finally made my own camp list, and I’ve never looked back. It’s saved me hours. I recommend starting with a generic guide online then tailoring it to your needs. When you have the ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had…’ moment at the campsite, remember to write it down or put it in your phone. Also check the festival website, they often have a packing list.
In seven years, I've broken down once on the way to a festival, which I think is a pretty good run. It's worth carrying engine oil and the other basics your car needs. Find out more about RACV Emergency Roadside Assistance.
What to avoid (or reconsider your options)
- Jumpsuits, playsuits and onesies
The reason to avoid them is using festival toilets, where you’ll pretty much need to strip off. This is nearly impossible in a portable and in a compost toilet there will be room to change but nowhere to hang your clothes. If you must wear a onesie or any long and/or impractical items to use the toilet, wear things underneath then just take the whole item off and hand to a friend.
- Metallic temporary tattoos
These can also look great, but generally won’t withstand heat, sweat or rain and get smeared.
- Most makeup
For an extreme test, try makeup or face paint in the shower. There are often misters above dance floors. Make sure it both sticks to your face and is easy to remove. These two requirements would make goldilocks proud, but you don’t want it in your eyes.