Camping at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Annual Festival in Indio, California is often labeled a rite of passage for first-year festival attendees. The party does not end the second the last band leaves the main stage every night; there is something kinetic about the rowdy crowd. Campsite dance floors blast music hours after the venue locks its gates for the night, and other campers who are too wired to sleep re-cap their day and plot a schedule for the next one. This either sounds like a very good time, or a turnoff to those who only go to Coachella to see their favorite bands live.
So why, for five years (going on six) have I camped out rather than get a hotel? The answer is pretty simple: the camping community is welcoming and the benefits of not having to take a shuttle or drive to the venue every day makes the choice a no-brainer. Camping allows you to roll out of bed when you want, catch an afternoon nap, grab snacks or drinks of your choosing and it grants you the ability to slap a burger on the grill whenever you want. To me, camping at Coachella is not just a rite of passage, but also a way to improve your festival experience. Read on to help get the most out of your camping experience, and so you don’t spend your days waiting in line to take the shuttle into town to buy the essentials you forgot to bring.
What to bring
What to wear on your body
Pack for the cold, dress for the heat. Think of the sun as the on/off switch to the heat for Coachella Valley. It’s a desert, so daytime and nighttime temperatures are wildly different. The second the sun rises, its heat feels like a blast furnace even in the shade. But on the flip side, as soon as the sun goes down, it gets awfully chilly. Layers are key, but you won’t need serious winter gear like gloves and scarves. Make a plan to visit your campsite to grab a hoodie when temperatures start dropping later in the day. You don’t put yourself in a situation where you might miss your favorite band because you’re too cold.
Because of the intense heat, many people walk around the venue in swimwear (think shorts and bikini tops for girls and no tops for guys). If you plan to do the same, be sure to religiously apply sunblock to avoid sun-damaged skin. You don’t want to spend days two and three in pain because you failed to take care of yourself on day one.
What to wear on your feet
Sandals/flip-flops/thongs/jandals are the typical footwear of choice since it’s so hot out. However, I pack a pair of solid walking shoes that I change into around dinnertime. It’s the desert, so my feet are exposed to sand all day, which can rub my feet the wrong way. Changing shoes helps give them a break from the elements and also keeps them warm after the sun goes down. Don’t forget to also pack another pair of flip-flops to use in the shower stalls.
Sleeping like a Viking
The green stuff on the ground may resemble grass, but it is closer to concrete when you are lying on it. Make sure you pack something to soften what will become y our bed for a few nights. Some options include foam tiles, a camping mat or a blow-up mattress with a battery- or car-powered pump. Make sure to also pack sheets, a blanket or a sleeping bag to keep you warm during the cold nights.
Whether you should opt for a tent versus cabana/pop-up seems to be debatable among attendees. Cabanas fit several people and are more spacious than tents. If you are traveling with a group, this might be the way to go. Tara and I, however, always bring a tent since we go as a couple. We might meet up with friends during the day, but at night it’s just us sleeping at our spot (and sometimes a random passed-out person sleeps by our tires). A two-person tent is easy to set up, manage and break down. The downside to a tent is that they do not breathe well in the hot sun. Unless you have a pop-up tent above your sleeping tent that can give you shade, the heat from the sun will probably wake you up at 8 a.m. or earlier every morning.
Hanging out at your site
Your car camping spot will be your home for 3-4 days, so make it comfortable. Bring something to relax on, like folding chairs, a self-standing hammock, or beanbag chairs. To help you determine what might be best, consider what you’ll be doing while you hang out there (drinking, socializing, eating, playing cards) and also, obviously, what will be able to fit into your car. A small table or folding card table will also be useful, especially if you want to play flip cup or beer pong.
Protecting your stuff
Are people good or bad? Theft may exist in the campgrounds, but in the five years I’ve camped, I haven’t heard of it happening to anyone around us. Leaving drinks out in the open and unattended may seem like an invitation to some, so keep that in mind before you leave your campsite. If you are worried about theft, lock anything of value in your trunk.
Protecting your stuff extends beyond theft and, oftentimes, people simply lose their stuff. Tara lost her phone one year and it didn’t turn up at lost and found. However, the amount of items turned in to lost and found is staggering – from smartphones to wallets. To help reduce your chances of losing something of value, I recommend either investing in convertible travel pants/shorts that have tons of zippered pockets or, if you like short shorts, opt for a travel neck pouch, fanny pack, (or most importantly your beer) or small bag.
Drinking and Eating
Every year, the drive into the campground is lined with glass bottles. Glass isn’t permitted inside the camping area, so those who come ill-prepared often rush to consume what they brought or give it away to others waiting in the long, slow-moving security lines. Instead of being forced to give away your three cases of Corona glass bottles, do some research and buy only canned beer (This is a list of top ten favorite canned beers, Coachella tested and approved.) or boxed wine. It’s seriously in your best interest. Waking up and walking on smashed glass in the campsite is not what you want to experience.
Besides bringing glass, the second biggest mistake campers make is not bringing enough water. I recommend bringing a minimum of three gallons of water per person per day. This will allow you to drink comfortably, cook, brush your teeth, wash your hands and not have to worry about trying to find clean water or buying over-priced bottles inside the venue. Bring a Nalgene and have it attached to your hip, and always keep it full. Sunstroke, bloody noses, dehydration and more can all be alleviated by taking care of yourself and staying hydrated. (The dry heat will wick your sweat away before you even know it, so pack sports drinks or some Pedialyte powder or EmergenC to keep your electrolytes at reasonable levels).
You’ll definitely need a cooler or two if you are bringing in your own food and beer, so pack them full with ice before arriving. Ice is in high demand in the campground (and overpriced if you’re forced to buy it there), so bring as much as you can, however you can. Bags of frozen fruit or vegetables are a good alternative to ice since they can help keep your things cold and you can just eat them as they thaw out. Dry ice is a solid option, though you should be careful when handling it (http://www.dryiceinfo.com/safe.htm).
You are the master of your meals, so you can bring your own food or buy from vendors (there’s a line of them at the campground in addition to tons inside the venue). Some great news for those wanting to cook for themselves is that the campgrounds allow propane grills (Two caveats: Propane grills are only allowed in the Car Camping areas. Cooking in the Tent Camping area is not permitted. And the maximum amount of propane per campsite shall not exceed 20 pounds or 48 pounds of water capacity.—taken from Coachella’s FAQ.). Whether you need your morning cup of joe (for easy coffee, use instant coffee packets) or feel the need to sear a veggie burger, bringing a grill will give you those options.
In the past, we didn’t bring a grill and probably won’t in the future since we fly in from out of town and prefer not to invest in one for three days. Instead, we pre-cook as much as possible beforehand, such as pasta, rice, quinoa — then we just add canned or fresh toppings when we’re ready to eat. Other easy options are making PB&J sandwiches or burritos. Since eating room-temperature food gets old fast, we do like to mix it up and either buy food from the vendors or go into town and eat at a restaurant (They leave from Companion Parking lot 2, south east corner and run Friday till Sunday from 7am-1pm). Whatever you do, make sure you don’t forget plastic utensils, cups and plates/bowls.
You might get hungry between meals, so load up on filling snacks. Ideally, you should stock up on dry, non-perishable goods that can take insanely hot temperatures. A bag of chips (and salsa!) is an easy choice, but also pack high-protein snacks, like nuts, trail mix and multigrain granola bars. These will help keep your energy up as you race around the venue and could double as breakfast as well.
The shower facilities have steadily improved over the years, but they are still not the Ritz. Pack a college-style toiletry bag that has all that you’ll need (soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.) so you’re not juggling all your stuff in the stall. Don’t forget those shower shoes either. Instead of beach towels pack quick-dry towels instead. They will be your friend and usually dry by the time you walk back to your campsite. The shower lines can get really long (read: the wait time can be hours), so bring a book, smartphone or something else to occupy your mind while you wait.
As for toilets, there are hundreds of port-a-potties to choose from. Even so, always have backup toilet paper on you just in case they haven’t restocked. And if you value your behind, bring baby wipes to keep yourself fresh and clean (four days of 1-ply toilet paper is tantamount to torture). Depending on how sensitive your skin is, you may want to also bring baby powder and Vaseline.
The dust and sand will probably make you feel constantly dirty, but resist the urge to shower constantly, as it won’t take long to feel that way again. Instead, stay clean with hand sanitizer and face wipes. You can even give yourself a dry shower with hand wipes. Don’t forget to re-apply sunblock as you wipe yourself clean.
Bring a bike (don’t forget a lock!) or walk. While bikes are not allowed inside the venue, they make it easy to get around the large campground. It is possible to be as far away as a mile from the venue’s gates if you if show up late. Going back and forth between your car and the venue’s gates will become a chore if you have walk that far multiple times a day.
Your golden ticket
Last, but not least, make sure you don’t forget your wristband. If you’re flying, there is no shame in putting it on before you leave your house.