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How To Survive Camping at Coachella

Even if you’re someone who travels the world seeking out summer festivals — a banner I definitely do not fall under, having never been to a multi-day music festival before — Coachella presents something of a challenge (especially if you’re camping). How will you survive three days and four nights in the California desert, where temperatures can soar over 100ºF during the day and get down as low as the mid-40s as night? And more importantly, where will you get your next cell phone charge so you can post photos on Instagram of the ferris wheel at sunset?

Stormy Coachella Sunset

Not quite your typical Coachella sunset shot, since it features a storm cloud rather than dust.

When you first arrive in the campsite, everything can seem a bit overwhelming. After all, the grounds are so large that there are road signs and street names to help you find your way. With the help of a few convenient maps, you’ll begin to find your way around; while the distances can seem long in the heat of the day, you’ll find that you have pretty much everything you need, including food huts, a general store, port-a-potties galore, some shower blocks, a silent disco, and plenty of other people ready to have a great weekend.

Coachella Grounds Map

The map of the grounds from the Coachella schedule.

I felt like I did pretty well in my preparations, but only because my brother — a Coachella veteran — made sure I did. It meant I didn’t spend the weekend stressed — or even worse, dehydrated in the heat — and I didn’t have to worry about missing bands so I could go grab some much needed supplies. So what are my top tips to pass on to you?

1. You Can’t Drive out of the Campgrounds Once You’re In

Car Camping at Coachella

A line of cars in the campsite at Coachella.

It’s important to know, even if you have a car camping spot like most people, that you cannot take it out of the Coachella grounds once you’ve entered. That means that anything you want to buy has to be purchased either on the grounds or in the city via shuttle bus. I can imagine it would be painful trying to lug large pieces of camping equipment or massive cartons of beer on the bus, so make sure you’ve got yourself sorted before you arrive. There’s a Walmart in Indio, but it can end up a bit bare (especially if you’re there for the second weekend) so I recommend stopping at a Target or Walmart somewhere along I-10 before you arrive in the desert.

Don’t worry about lugging all of your gear from your car to a campsite as it’s set up so you camp right next to your car. Each row has a car, a tent, a tent, and then another car.

You’re allowed to drive out of the campgrounds as long as it isn’t between 10pm-2am every night, when the entire grounds are on lockdown (probably to stop people coming back from the festival from getting run over). If you want to leave before 2am on Monday morning (like we did), you’ll need to move your car to the day camping lot for the day so you can leave immediately after the last show (around 12.30am for the main stage).

The no-reentry policy is enforced by security on exit, who make you rip up your car’s camping decal.

2. Get Ready for Being Unshowered (Everyone Is)

I mentioned shower blocks above. Now, I can’t imagine them hosting the event without showers in a place where the temperatures top 100ºF on a regular basis, but at the same time, I can’t imagine the organisation being much worse than it was. It’s the only thing I have to complain about from the entire weekend. Why, when we’re allowed to be in the campgrounds 24 hours a day, are the showers only open from 7am-2pm? I heard that there was a mythical set of showers somewhere in the campground that had 24 hour access, but I simply could not understand why they would be closed during daylight hours at least.

 Because the opening hours are so short, the lines into the trailers (separated by gender) can be massive. For my one shower, I managed to sneak in about 1.5hrs before closing time and only had to wait about 30 minutes for a stall. That was on Saturday; by Sunday, lines were much longer when people realised they just couldn’t go without a shower any longer.

Aroamas

Aroamas: solid perfume sticks, and an absolute saviour for when you’re feeling grubby at a festival.

I’d recommend bringing along a few essentials to help you feel a bit cleaner even if you aren’t able to shower:

  • Dry shampoo was really helpful in making my hair somewhat manageable and less greasy; I had a really cheap Australian aerosol but any kind — like this Dove Invigorating Dry Shampoo — will do.

  • Aroamas travel perfume was a must-have. These sticks, which resemble tubes of chapstick, come in all sorts of scents and can live in even the smallest pocket. I took five different scents with me, and I can’t describe how much better it made me feel just to smell the perfume as I rubbed it on my wrists.

  • Hand sanitiser. Buy small bottles of it and keep it in your pocket. You never know when it will come in handy — after eating, after using a port-a-potty where the sanitiser has run out (although they were pretty good at refilling it), after you sit down and get covered in dust…

3. Slip, Slop, Slap

Covering Up at Coachella

With my trusty hat (and plenty of sunscreen) on the last day of Coachella.

This Australian motto was right at home in the California desert. Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat. While many at the festival didn’t slip on shirts, I definitely did…and it still didn’t stop me from getting sunburned when I was waiting in line to shower. 30 minutes was all it took to get well and truly burned in lovely stripes on my back. If you don’t want to wear a full shirt, make sure you bring some sunscreen in your pack and keep reapplying.

I completely forgot my hat and was able to buy a straw one at the general store on the first day for $20. Even if it’s a bit annoying to carry around once it gets dark, it’s so worth it.

4. Camelbak with a Small Backpack

The Do Lab

You can always go to the Do Lab to get sprayed down with water, but it’s good to have some with you to drink as well.

It may seem like a pain to carry a backpack around a festival for 12 hours a day, but believe me, it’s worth it. It doesn’t have to be a large backpack by any means; a small Camelbak carrier that carries a water bladder and a few miscellaneous small items will do. I chose to carry a slightly larger bag that would carry a water bladder as well as my micro-4/3s camera and some warm clothes for after the sun went down.

The Camelbak/water bladder will be your best friend. Not only will you not have to keep track of a water bottle — something many people don’t do, given there’s a program on the grounds that gives rewards like ferris wheel rides for cleaning up a certain number of water bottles over the course of the weekend — but you can carry 2-3L of water around with you at once, meaning you’ll have to wait in line less.

Unlike many events I’ve been to in America, Coachella is very serious about providing free water. There are Camelbak refill stations around the grounds, and while the lines can be quite hectic at the hottest times of the day, you usually don’t have to wait more than 5 minutes.

Once you fill up, just keep drinking. I struggled to keep myself hydrated and keep the dehydration headaches away even when I was drinking upwards of 3-4L a day. It meant I had to wait in line for the bathroom a lot more, but that was better than the alternative.

TIP: If you buy some ice cold lemonade from the food stands — I highly recommend the strawberry lemonade — you can toss the leftover ice in your Camelbak afterwards and have a few minutes of blissfully cold water!

5. Take a Buff or Scarf

My Brother, Buff-ified

My brother trying to keep away from the dust by using his Buff.

I can see you saying that I’m surely kidding. Why, when I’ve just spent quite a while talking about how hot it is, would you possibly bring a scarf along?

The answer is the dust. While you’re at Coachella, you don’t get constantly reminded that you’re in the desert. The grounds themselves are the El Dorado and the Empire Polo Clubs, which are covered in grass rather than sand. When you look at the stage, you may not notice the dust flying everywhere, but when you look off into the distance, it’s clearly rising in a giant cloud all around you. And that dust gets to you. By the final day of the festival, my brother was battling a sinus infection and I was suffering from a recurrence of the chest infection that I’d just managed to kick.

I think we both would have fared better if we’d actually remembered to wear our Buffs, which are long tubular pieces of fabric that you can transform into any headwear or neckwear that you want. We started off each day with them around our necks, but we didn’t cover our faces until it was too late. Simply breathing through the fabric helped to humidify the air and block out some of the harmful dust.

6. Spare Batteries Are Your Saviour

 

Spare Battery Setup

My spare battery setup, with the Anker Astro 3E, the Nomad ChargeKey, and my iPhone.

One of the main downsides of camping at Coachella is the fact that you don’t really have a source of power to recharge your phones or cameras. Sure, you can use your car battery, but you really don’t want to have to ask for a jump before you leave on Monday morning either.

 Near the general store in the campgrounds, there were multiple towers that had power outlets all over them — I’d estimate at least 600 per tower. I wish I’d taken a photo of them, but since I was so low on battery when I was there, I didn’t. They were a seething mass of cables and dangling phones; to get my own outlet, I had to patiently wait and then frantically push my charger into a just-opened outlet. Unfortunately, that didn’t work too well for me, since I realised at that point that I’d brought along my Australian chargers and they clearly wouldn’t fit in the outlets. Sigh.

Those that have Samsung devices are in luck, because Samsung has a small tent set up in between the Gobi and Mojave tents (inside the festival). Not only can you stand in line in air conditioning there, but you can trade out your battery (drained to less than 30%) for a freshly charged one. I was a bit iffy on the idea since it means giving up your battery for one that may be much older or doesn’t charge as well, but most people were happy to trade out if it meant they went back to 100% charge instantly.

The way I got through most of the weekend — and the way I highly recommend to anyone else — was with a portable battery pack. My Anker Astro 3E has saved me on multiple travel occasions when I would have otherwise found myself without the ability to make phone calls or check maps. Between my brother and me, we managed to keep our phones charged from Thursday-Sunday afternoon before the battery ran out.

An extra piece of gear that was tiny but made a big difference was the Nomad ChargeKey. These little USB cables fit on a keyring and are only about the length of your pinky finger. They were perfect for connecting both of our phones (since I had an iPhone and a microUSB version) to the battery without having long cables dangling everywhere. I did find that I occasionally had an issue with my iPhone saying it was not an approved cable and refusing to charge, but usually flipping it over did the trick.

7. Phone Reception Isn’t…But It’s Not As Bad As You Think

Like at all major events, cell phone reception is a bit of an issue. It’s spotty at best, no matter what carrier you are on, and you’re shit outta luck if you want to access the internet while in the festival itself (although I didn’t have trouble in the campgrounds). Halfway through the weekend, AT&T decided to stop letting me send or receive text messages…and then on Sunday evening, I got about 15 messages in a row as service returned.

That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to try to organise an alternate form of communication. My brother took walkie talkies with his friends the year before and rarely used them. Even when I didn’t have service, we just had organised meeting points at certain times for anyone that got separated from the group.

If you’re interested in setlists (especially on the second weekend, when you can look up what bands played on the first weekend), I’d try to download them to your phone prior to going in for the day. Same with the schedule — it’s handy to have a copy on your phone that you don’t have to wait to download, since paper schedules seem to have a very good habit of disappearing.

8. EZ-UPs Will Make Life Bearable

EZ-UPs

More EZ-UPs than cars visible in the campsite on Sunday morning.

One thing we thought about but we just couldn’t fit into our rental car was an EZ-UP pop-up shelter (or a gazebo, if you’re Australian). Since the festival doesn’t open until noon but the sun makes it miserable to be in your tent after about 8am, there’s quite a bit of time in the morning where you’ll be sitting in full sunlight if you didn’t bring shade along.

On the first day, we made do with lying in the tiny patch of shade cast by our car while the people all around us enjoyed much cooler (and less cramped) conditions under their EZ-UPs. On the second day, we realised that we needed a better solution, so we jerry-rigged a shelter using our tent rainflaps attached to camp chairs, our open car trunk, and a neighbour’s EZ-UP. The difference was huge, and it meant we could enjoy ourselves AND not start the day already dehydrated!

Our jerry-rigged shelter

Our jerry-rigged shelter of tent rain flaps.


I know there’s plenty of other little things I thought of during my weekend at Coachella that I wanted to pass on to you guys, but it was just such a hectic (and fun!) time that I didn’t stop to note them down…and like that, they were gone. These tips are the ones that stuck most in my mind and, in some cases, would have made the biggest difference if I’d been able to do them myself. But most importantly, I hope anyone reading this article with the intent of going to Coachella decides to go — it really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Are you thinking about going to Coachella next year? Have you been to any other summer music festivals and had a similar experience?

Disclosure: I was given my Nomad ChargeKeys prior to the event, but all opinions about it are my own.

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