A Coachella Survival Guide and Manifesto
Perhaps you’re curious why anyone would willingly spend nearly four hundred dollars for a ticket to an event and then trek along with eighty thousand people into a resort town in the desert for no reason other than to hear music for three days. Maybe you’ve only heard of music festivals through ominous, sensational news headlines. Or maybe you’ve heard about Coachella before, but only as some kind of clean, dust-free Burning Man for west coast fashionistas or wealthy teenagers who consider it an opportunity to play at being bohemian for a weekend. Whatever your perspective on large music events, be it oblivious, reluctant or curious, welcome to my Coachella survival guide. My goal is to provide you with a music festival survival manual and the manifesto of a devoted yet realistic Coachella attendee. If you’re interested in maintaining your sanity, comfort and health at Coachella or any massive event like it, or are simply curious about the fine art of achieving a hedonistic equilibrium by maximizing fun and minimizing exhaustion at a huge music event, read on!
Meet your Guide
As a well-organized, dedicated music fan who’d normally avoid large crowds, but who values the synergy of gatherings and live music events enough to brave them regularly, I’m qualified to be your guide. I’ve only been to Coachella twice, but jealously received firsthand reports from close friends for the last eight years. I’ve been to several other similarly large music festivals, earning myself the dubious nickname “festival girl”. Despite having developed a nuanced sense of what works and what’s good for audiences from attending hundreds of concerts and music events over the last decade, I was still apprehensive about attending Coachella for the first time. I convinced some friends who weren’t sure Coachella was worth the time and energy to join me the following year. All of them agreed it was the best concert, or more accurately, series of back-to-back concerts, they’d ever been to. As they left the festival grounds on the close of the third day, they couldn’t imagine having to wait a year to do it again. The experience was more than worth the money, days of driving, or any moments of being at the mercy of sweltering heat or lines. All nuisances were quickly forgotten, supplanted by enduring memories of music and quality time with friends.
To be clear: Coachella is not for everyone. It is an investment you must be willing to make, both psychologically and financially – one that will require time and planning. To attend, you should be prepared to spend around $1,000, which includes the price of the ticket itself, and the costs accrued over the course of one long weekend: transportation to the Coachella Valley and then the venue by car or plane, somehow existing (whether camping on the festival grounds or in a hotel, renting a condo or house, etc.) and then subsisting in the notoriously intemperate desert of southern California. Most importantly, you must be excited and energized by music, especially current independent and electronic music. If you love music, you will find every hour and dollar spent for Coachella worthwhile and the energy of the event and music will sustain you throughout and well beyond the length of the three-day weekend.
But what about all those…people? Yes, sometimes people suck. Dive in anyway.
So maybe you’d be willing to pay for the privilege and even figure out how to get yourself there, but you’re still convinced the people would drive you mad or the crowds would tire you out. The experience of joining a throng of people is what you choose to make of it. It’s up to you what you focus on, whether positive or negative. Large crowds are by their nature chaotic and overwhelming to some of us, and events like Coachella, like any cross section of American society, may expose you to some unappealing stereotypes. If you can suspend your irritation at your particular pet peeves, at Coachella, you’ll also see thousands of sublimely happy, responsible adults enjoying having fled the stresses of the real world, if just for a weekend. You may even see families and small children. Most importantly, you’ll join a seemingly endless sea of die-hard music fans who were willing to make a pilgrimage to one of the west coast’s best-produced huge music experiences.
So, why Coachella?
Music is the great equalizer – one of the few arts in which we can physically immerse ourselves – whether we’re alone or surrounded by other people. I challenge you to consider the last time you saw or felt the palpable, positive human energy of 80,000 people being genuinely happy to be alive, enjoying music and sharing a beautiful place for a weekend – let alone the happy roar of a crowd that size. That energy in itself can be a rare and compelling experience.
Few large events are as well-produced or designed to accommodate big audiences as Coachella. Logistically speaking, the event and shows within it run like clockwork. The venue, the Empire Polo Fields, has acres of clean, soft green grass and can contain huge crowds comfortably. Given its location in the basin of the Coachella Valley, 30 minutes from Palm Springs, it’s also ringed by the sharp ridges of brown desert mountains and palm trees, which at sunset are silhouetted against bold splashes of color.
At Coachella, and almost nowhere else in the US, you will get to see and hear a wide selection of some of the world’s most talented or famous current living musicians and bands - now even life-sized holograms of deceased ones - perform for awe-inspiringly huge, high-energy crowds on some of the finest large line-array sound systems available. For the audiophile, the ubiquity of massive, seamless high-fidelity audio over the entire acreage of the venue is a stunning feat of modern audio technology.
Hopefully I’ve started to convince you that Coachella is a great experience for anyone who loves music and high-quality audio. But more so than your average vacation, attending Coachella and maximizing your experience there takes planning and attention to logistics. So then what do you need to bring, and what can you expect from such a huge concert, once you’re there? In the following sections I’ll briefly address transportation and housing during the festival, then outline your necessary survival gear, the physical stuff you’ll need to get yourself through three long days in the desert brimming with music and people. Then I’ll address reality versus your expectations and event planning - both of which are critical to optimizing your experience. Lastly, I’ll provide insider tips and advice, drawn from my own experiences.
A Quick Note on Accommodations
Finding a place to stay for Coachella is a topic I won’t be able to address in detail here. It can be even more challenging than getting your hands on a ticket. Just be aware that hotels and house rentals fill up quickly and get expensive closer to the festival weekend, so plan ahead. If you’ve chosen not to camp, you should reserve accommodations early, maybe even half a year in advance. However, some people live to camp at the venue for the complete immersion experience. If you camp there, you can stay on site the whole weekend, but must be prepared for noise, heat, dirt, less sleep, and shared camp showers. I’ve only stayed in hotels and rental houses, and I’ve decided there’s nothing more magical than a hot tub, a real bed and a shower after ten or twelve hours at a concert. If you do stay outside the venue, expect that you may get stuck in one or two long, slow-moving traffic jams. Patience and perseverance is key.
What to Bring and What to Wear
The following is a list of the gear I’d recommend bringing with you to the venue each day.
Backpack or comfortable large purse Sandals or extremely comfortable shoes Camera (point-and-shoot only) Empty water bottle Cash and ID Sunglasses or hat High SPF sunblock (recommended: spray-on or zinc) Light jacket or sweatshirt
Hand wipes or sanitizer A towel or small blanket (only if you don’t like sitting on grass) High-energy snacks Painkiller (such as aspirin, ibuprofen)
Even if fashion isn’t your passion, Coachella is a great place to people and style watch – or make a fashion statement if you wish. Whatever you wear, keep the potential for sweat and incredibly high temperatures into the 100s in mind, and bring layers for the evening. Once the sun goes down, temperatures cool considerably. There are a few air-conditioned tents, but for the most part, you will be outdoors all day. Last year there was an unprecedented cold snap and I was glad to have a parka and sweatshirt with me. As for your feet, expect that even if you rest and sit frequently throughout the day, you will walk, stand and be on your feet the majority of the time. I usually wear comfortable sandals, but recommend shoes if you want to move through dense crowds and are concerned about having your toes stepped on. I’ve found I’m usually happier in the back of a crowd where I can move around.
You can bring a small camera, but SLR cameras are not allowed for general audience members. You will want a water bottle to refill with free water at the venue, and I recommend hand wipes or sanitizer, because although there are portable sinks near the portable toilets, it’s nice to be able to clean your hands whenever you want. Given exposure to the desert sun and being outdoors all day and then into the night, you will need sunblock and sunglasses, and maybe aspirin or your painkiller of choice if you think you might be prone to aches or pains during a long day on foot, and some snacks if you don’t feel like simply buying food at the venue. The key to keeping your energy level high over long periods of time outdoors and in crowds, of course, is hydration and eating good food regularly! They have a great selection of tasty and healthy food vendors available, but I prefer to save money by buying food beforehand and only buying one meal per day inside the venue. As long as you keep yourself comfortable and respect your body’s need to rest and eat, you will find it’s hard not to enjoy yourself.
Your Plans and Expectations, and the Coachella Sets Schedules vs. Reality
So you’ve got all your stuff in your backpack, had a good hearty breakfast or lunch, and made it into the venue and hopefully were spared from waiting in any long lines. You’ve anxiously stared at that schedule they gave you with all the set times and the map with all those stages and tents and saw that a lot of the bands you hoped to hear were playing at the same time. Now what?
While the festival gates open around 11 AM each day, and shows end around midnight, I’ve never tried to arrive that early. Some people may try to see acts early in the day, but I usually enter the grounds in the early afternoon, between 2 and 4 PM – well after eating a hearty lunch, then driving, parking and waiting in line to get in. Eight hours of music is usually more than satisfactory, and there is usually more music going on after midnight at a small stage in the campgrounds for anyone energetic enough to keep going.
Always bring a map of the venue with you until you’re used to where the different stages are located, and keep a copy of the schedule in hand. Schedules are available at the venue, but some Coachella veterans make and laminate their own smaller more durable schedules which turn out to be wonderful tools and get lots of compliments from other concert-goers. I recommend making a list to prioritize the times of your ‘must see’ artists, ‘would like to see’ and ‘can skip’ artists. Keeping this hierarchy in mind will streamline your musical attack plan each day.The main drawback of a huge concert with as many different artists as Coachella is the schedule conflicts. You must accept that there will be artists you will not get to see or for which you will only be able to catch part of their show. The stages are far enough apart that you will probably walk quite a lot, or have to dash if you’re so inclined, and yes – you will probably miss something at some point during the day. To address your concerns about lines and crowds inside the venue, fear not - you won’t have to wait in lines for necessities like bathrooms or food! They manage the crowds very well, but you can’t have that many people in one place without a few bottlenecks here and there – mostly getting in and getting out of the venue. The lines in and out of the parking lots and entrances can be painfully slow – but I’ve also seen them flow, so it’s best to be thankful when the lines move quickly.
No matter how hard you try to meet up with people or stay with your friends at Coachella, you must also accept that you are likely to lose them at some point. It’s often hard to find people in dense crowds, especially at night. Your cell phone is likely not to have reception due to the density of the people in the venue and will also probably lose it’s charge if you use it much. My phone usually dies after about six to eight hours. The many-hours delayed text message and the dead phone is a fact of life at Coachella. Because of this, it’s useful to designate a meetup spot if you really want to find your friends again if you’ve lost them. My friends have a specific area under some palm trees and chose one of the numbered speaker towers as our spot. It’s also a good idea to have decided on a spot near the entrance or exits where you can meet up at the end of the day. Lastly, if you lose your friends, don’t be afraid to wander around and enjoy the sights and sounds by yourself! Part of being a successful music festival attendee is the willingness to surrender some of your own plans and go with the flow. So you’re lost in a crowd and can’t find your friends? It may feel strange, but you’re still surrounded by good music in a beautiful place. Some people prefer wandering by themselves to being tethered to a group anyway.
You should also expect your energy to flag at certain points during the long days outdoors. If you find yourself getting tired, by all means, take a break. There is endless space on the grass to lie down and rest, even try to take a nap. Sitting for an hour or two and some snacks can recharge you for another couple hours of music or get you ready to explore or dance some more.
Lastly, I highly recommend you embark on a journey to Coachella with reliable, drama-free friends. Three whole days at a festival, plus two travel days, can be long and exhausting to anyone, especially people who aren’t mentally ‘on board’ with the experience. You don’t want to waste any of your precious hours at Coachella arguing with anyone or trying to maintain anyone else’s morale. Find friends who you think will be likely to match your energy level and share your tastes in music.
Final Insider Tips from a Coachella Veteran
I’ll conclude with some realizations and things that can make your Coachella experience easier and even more fun.
Simple bonuses: Ride the ferris wheel. The view is great. Explore the art installations and other attractions at the venue. In addition to the music, there are always a few other cool things hiding on the grounds at Coachella, and it’s easy to forget to check them out during all the wandering back and forth between stages. And always read all the instructions in the guidebook and everything that came with your wristband. Those rules matter.
Music-wise, if you really want to get close to a big act on a main stage, you will have to go stake out your spot near the front of the crowd way before their set begins, and should expect to be stuck in an incredibly dense crowd for the entirety of the show unless you want to force your way between rabid fans. I prefer not being wedged between strangers and tend to need to go on frequent bathroom runs, so I’ve never tried to get anywhere near the front of any of the crowds or biggest stages. Also, do make a point of seeing some acts you’ve never heard of before. You could be pleasantly surprised or simply learn something. Coachella is a good place to sample a wide range of music, and nobody got put on the lineup at such a huge festival for nothing!
Finally, it’s worth it to take an extra day after travelling home to recover from the experience and relax before going back to work, if you can. A good night’s sleep is always beneficial before returning to the real world – and your immune system will thank you for it.
Now hopefully you have a better understanding of how to tackle the logistics or calm your personal anxieties when attending a giant music event. Huge music festivals, when as thoughtfully designed and well-run as Coachella, can provide an overwhelmingly positive shared experience for tens of thousands of people. If you’re interested in further information, or are an audiophile of any kind, there are number of blogs available online about the experiences of the sound crews that provide insight into the staggering amount of work required to make music happen on such a large scale. In addition to the musicians and artists themselves, I have massive respect for the coordinators, audio and visual artists, designers, vendors and volunteers who make Coachella run. So next time you hear about Coachella or a similar event in the news, good or bad, no matter what you hear, maybe you’ll think of it differently, as a massive demonstration of human synergy or musical professionalism. And should you go for the first time, be proud of your willingness to brave huge crowds, and you’ll know the rewards you’ve reaped from being there – the memories you create won’t fade.