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A Survival Guide to Music Festivals

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The open-air music festival is a strange and wonderful phenomenon of modern society which, when boiled down to the bones, consists of a large number of people milling around in a large field, sometimes in front of a band on a large stage. Most musical genres have a festival devoted to them. Rock music had Monsters of Rock and more recently the Ozzfest, created and headlined by Ozzy Osborne. While dance music has Creamfields. Other festivals deliberately appeal to a wider audience, such as the English "V" Festival and T in the Park in Scotland.

Some festivals have grown in standing and reputation as an institution in their own right, such as the world famous Glastonbury festival in Somerset, UK, which attracts festival-goers from around the world and features an eclectic bill of artists from all backgrounds and disciplines.

While the idea of spending a weekend in the country watching your favourite bands and sleeping under the stars may sound like a good idea, there are practicalities to be considered. The prospect of spending a few days in remote locales without running water, and other home comforts, is a little daunting to natives of the inner-city who tend to think of grass as a green and springy variety of concrete. But with just the smallest amount of common sense and know-how anyone can get through the trials of a festival with relative ease.

So let's look at a few different aspects of the modern festival...

Camping Versus Festival-going

There will no doubt be some folks out there, full to bursting with tales of their life-affirming experiences: from excursions with the cub scouts, to trekking through wilds of Cambodia and the camping each night while they were building character in the great outdoors. It must be stressed that these people are by no means prepared for pitching a tent at a festival and are likely to perish on the first night there.

The first difference between pitching a tent when camping, and doing likewise at a festival, is the availability of space. Arriving early, the day before the festival's start date, is always a good idea. You will be presented with vast expanses of green on which to pitch your tent, but unlike camping this space will vanish very quickly. While you may find that people camp a sensible distance from you in other circumstances, festival-goers (especially late arrivals) have a nasty habit of pitching their tents in any space available, no matter how small, when they are desperate. Leaving more than two feet between tents in any direction is an open invitation, and you may find upon opening the flaps in the morning you are greeted with the side view of another tent.

For these reasons there are a few rules that you may wish to observe to make your camping experience a little more hassle-free:

  • If you have multiple tents in your party, pitch them facing each other and consider surrounding them with a makeshift fence. This marks out the territory between tents as occupied, and discourages people from wandering between the tents. Strength in numbers also helps to discourage thieves.

  • Camping within clear sight of a landmark helps when you're trying to find your way back to your tent in the dark. Of course camping near a light source kills two birds with one stone. Camping close to, but not right next to, any road or track that runs through the campground will also keep you from staggering aimlessly through the dark (in an environment in which guy-ropes are lethal).

  • While you may be tempted to strike out for the far end of the campground where nobody has pitched their tents yet, just remember that however far you trek before you set up camp is the exact same distance that you'll have to tramp back to get away on the morning that you leave. Camping within a short dash of the exit (and as a result, the shuttle-buses to the station) is a smart move.

  • While it may seem convenient at the time, don't camp within 40 feet of the portable loos. No matter how often these are cleaned out, they still stink to high heaven and they are a favourite place for people to dump their rubbish as well. And remember your own toilet-paper.

Apart from these points you should remember the fact that the organisers will impose their own rules and regulations on the campsite. This environment is the closest modern man will ever get to his primitive ancestry in morals, behaviour and personal hygiene. The issue of starting fires is a good example.

It may sound a no-brainer, but fire can get quickly get out of hand; tents are very flammable and some people will burn whatever comes to hand, regardless of what it is (polystyrene cups, for example, release cyanide fumes when burned).

Also, for the safety of all concerned, you should only pitch tents where indicated. Pitching a tent on a communal track or road is a selfish thing to do as it restricts access to the campground and hinders the passage of both the clean-up crews and the emergency services. Some festival organisers will simply remove tents pitched in this way by pulling them up and leaving them in a heap for their occupants to find.

The Weather

Everyone has seen the pictures of the years that Glastonbury was turned into a mudbath by the rain, but hot weather can be just as much bad news for your festival experience:

  • Make sure that you have clothing and footwear suited to most weather conditions and always take something waterproof no matter what Ian McAskill1 is predicting. It's also a good idea to have a complete set of clean clothes in reserve at the tent in case you get caught out by the rain.

  • Uninterrupted sun may sound good, but remember that you'll be spending most of the time wandering around in the open. Sunglasses, sunblock and a hat, to keep the sun off the top of your head, are all essential. The alternatives are sunburn, sunstroke (not pleasant at all) and, in extreme cases, skin-cancer. Drink plenty of water (which should be made readily available) .

  • While you may enjoy moping around in sandals or trainers, you'll be in trouble if the rain turns the field to a quagmire of mud. If you're lucky you'll lose a shoe getting stuck in the mud, if you're unlucky you'll snap your ankle trying to pull yourself out.

  • For those who didn't bring their own waterproof jacket, you can always buy a plastic 'wrap-mac' (a transparent hooded smock, very stylish) which are sold at most festivals on the cheap and can be thrown away afterwards. The moral to be learned here is that a dry prat in a wrap-mac will be dry, while a stylish prat in his best t-shirt will be wet.

The practical upshot of all of this is to be prepared beforehand, or have the means to deal with problems as they arise. There are almost always stalls that sell everything from torches to tents and wellies2. But be warned, the prices have been known to rise inexplicably when nature makes the items in question essential. Don't land yourself in trouble because you're trying to impress the assembled masses with your fashion sense. A few days into a festival and everyone stinks and looks like they've been dragged through a hedge backwards.

The Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle

A common delusion that some people suffer when they attend a festival is that they have somehow left behind civilisation and all its trappings; others still replace civilisation in the same delusion with reality as a whole. A hard-and-fast rule to live by is this: as at a festival, as in the real world. Don't think that just because you can't switch the TV on and watch Coronation Street that the real world won't come knocking:

  • People are going to take drugs at a festival, no matter how many horror stories they are told. Don't think that the same dodgy dealers and bad gear3 won't be here in force. Remember that the police will be present and are very vigilant about illegal substances in this environment. It's proven to be as easy as picking daisies for them to collar drug-users at festivals in the past.

  • Alcohol is expensive at most festivals above and beyond the outside world. Have a drink and a laugh by all means, but know your limits and realise that you're in a different environment here. Also make a point of only drinking what you can vouch for. Urinating in a bottle or can is a very old and very nasty festival trick. GHB4, also known as 'the date-rape' drug, has no odour or taste and can be added to a drink in a matter of seconds.

  • Apart from making sure that you don't bring back either a STD5 or paternity-suit as a souvenir be aware of the danger of rape at a festival. Individuals have fallen victim to this, and have been sexually assaulted while their friends were unawares in the next tent. Sticking together and telling people about your movements always makes good sense.

  • Jumping the fence could be called an act of rebellion, but take Glastonbury as an example. In the past, lax security resulted in the numbers of people in attendance doubling and the festival was only saved when organisers clamped down firmly at the 2002 event. Want to go back next year? Then buy a ticket.

Use your common sense. There will be access to both police and ambulance personnel at the festival, but prevention is better than cure. One awful case of death at a festival only came to light when the clean-up crew clearing the campgrounds in the aftermath found a body badly decayed in the heat and alone in an abandoned tent.

A festival is an experience like no other and you'll always look back on it with fantastic memories, just don't look into the bowl when you have to use that chemical toilet...

Sensible Sun Exposure
1A BBC weatherman.2Aka Wellington boots.3Heroin, dope, speed, charlie - you know the stuff.4Gamma-hydroxybutyrate.5Sexually Transmitted Disease.

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