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What's It Like Camping at Bonnaroo?

It's a fact: When camping at a music festival, you discover your familiar world changes overnight—literally.

You are instantly introduced to new neighbors (dozens of 'em flanking you on all sides), new social customs (hardly anyone bunks down before 2 a.m.) and new realities (porta-potties have replaced restrooms, and they're only sporadically stocked with toilet paper).

Sara and friendsMy cohort, Sara, is a 29-year-old REI teammate from REI Brentwood (suburban Nashville), and together we're soaking up our first Bonnaroo—a huge, 4-day, multigenre music festival spread out over a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn., about an hour southeast of Nashville. I'm the blogger; she's the video editor. We're both big fans of camping, and we're both Bonnaroo newbies—first-timers camped among an estimated 80,000 (or more) Bonnaroo attendees, nearly all of whom are camping.

Some observations that have popped into our heads:

Ice head• It's hot here, up to or over 100° on Wednesday (first arrivals were allowed onto the farm at 7 p.m.) and Thursday. Even the hand sanitizer in the porta-potty squirters is hot. Frequent hydration is essential, and most people seem to have gotten the message. Watering stations (which dispense water that leave a little sulfur aftertaste lingering on the tongue) seem reasonably plentiful, and campers are making frequent pilgrimages to the huge ice truck in our way-out camping sector. It's about a 20-minute hike to the fenced-in performing sites,  known as Centeroo; general-admission attendees have no say where they are assigned to park. Sara's tip for making water even more appealing: Add Nuun tablets.

Field of Bonnaroo Dreams?• Be prepared to wait. We pulled into a line of cars approaching a single vehicle entrance to the farm shortly after 8 p.m. and we finally pulled into our undefined space a little after 11. We've heard stories of 6- to 7-hour waits, so we figured we scored.

• The camping surface is OK. We parked on a large field of random tall grasses and weeds (more grasses than weeds). It's acceptable.  The grass flattens pretty cooperatively and our 2 tents (Sara's Marmot Twilight 2, now sold as the Marmot Limelight 2, and my REI Half Dome 2) both set up nicely on level spaces. The heat makes dust a factor in heavily traveled areas in the performing areas (known as Centeroo).

Tent city• We estimate 80% of the crowd is under 30, and that's probably a conservative guess. The festival is sold out. Tickets started at $209. People are generally pretty friendly. 

• If you shun commotion and value convenience, stay home. This just isn't your scene. Crowds for popular acts can be immense. Comment heard deep within the wall-to-wall sea of humanity gathered for Thursday night's Sleigh Bells show: "I can't do gridlock any more."

• Even in Bonnaroo's huge crowd, it's still a small world. As we drove into the campground in the dark Wednesday night, someone already camped along the road shouted out, "Sara. Sara Williams!" It was group that included a pair of high school classmates from Sara's small hometown (pop.: maybe 2,000) of Bondurant. "For years we've only had a 4-way stop," Sara says. "We just got our first traffic light."

• Bonnaroo really is a temporary city. Shops (one from REI fave Life is Good), eateries, 10 medical pods (marked by huge, floating, illuminated spheres and staffed by 80 medical professionals, according to 2 EMPs I spoke to Wednesday night), even a Ferris wheel are on site. Prices? A 16-ounce beer is $6. One lemonade stand ($4.50, 20 oz. cup) briefly offered free refills. Showers are $7.

• Don't forget toilet paper. Bring lots of water, too. By the way, attendees are permitted to bring up to 2 cases of beer into the camping area (but officially no beverages are allowed to be carried into the performing areas).

• Your ability to enjoy the experience is directly related to your ability to adapt to new social realities. Festival campers need to understand that festivals are parties, and that mindset spills over into the campsites. You can't count on a shared "quiet time" ethic to sweep over a campsite as it usually does in a National Park Service campground. On the other hand, basic rules of civility should not be totally abandoned, either. We wound up plopping down in a large field next to some talkative 20-somethings. They yakked 'til 4 a.m. I get it; they're here to party, but I finally approached them in a peace-seeking manner and said boy, I'd sure love to catch some Zs. They shut it right down and even thanked me for speaking up. Nice, and appreciated. My takeaway: Keep such interactions friendly. Sugar can turn the trick.

Bonnaroo concert crowd• Acts that Sara and I are fired up to see: Florence + The Machine (Friday) and Buffalo Springfield (Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Rick Rosas and Joe Vitale on Saturday; its the last of a handful  of 2011 dates for the group which last performed live together 35 years ago).

Other big attractions: Arcade Fire, Primus, My Morning Jacket, L'il Wayne, The Decemberists, Ray Lamontagne and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (Friday), Eminem, Mumford & Sons, The Black Keys, Wiz Khalifa, Alison Krause and Union Station, Bootsy Collins and the Funk University, Loretta Lynn and The String Cheese Incident (Saturday) and Robert Plant, The Strokes, The Head and the Heart, Iron & Wine, Gregg Allman and Widespread Panic (Sunday).

Thursday's most pleasant  surprise: a stirring performance by Brooklyn trio School of Seven Bells, whose etheral, guitar-driven anthems bring to mind the Cocteau Twins (a nod to the mesmerizing vocals of Alejandra Deherz), Simple Minds and, at times, U2. Worthwhile.

Photos from Bonnaroo by T.D. Wood (top to bottom): Sara connects with some Iowa friends, Nathan Kolbet (center) and George (Shorty) Jackson; Jeremy and Emily from Syracuse load up on ice to try and stay cool; a steady stream of cars enters the camping area after dark create a
Field of Dreams-like scene; waves of tents at Bonnaroo; despite the withering heat, fans still have energy in reserve for the music.


Posted on at 1:23 AM

Tagged: Bonnaroo, Family & Car Camping, camping and music festivals

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Thanks for filming me and my Kingdom 6. It was one of the highlights to my Bonnaroo. You guys should of told me it was your first time there. I probably could have given you tips, and you're the experienced campers. It's not really camping it's like living in a nice refugee camp. Hope to see you guys next year. Maybe REI can bring more than two people and sell some stuff. I broke two CamelBak mouthpieces. Would love for someone to be there selling stuff like that.


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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Hey Michael, thanks for taking the time to chat. Your K-6 looked sweet; it was one of the roomiest motherships we saw at Planetroo. REI is going to look into having a presence at future 'Roos, although that's not a promise that we'll be at the next one. But thanks for the suggestion. We hope you stayed cool and had a great time. Did you check out Neil Young? Awesome.


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