Eaux Claires was our first experience at a music festival (you can read more about it here.) It was also the inaugural year for Eaux Claires. So, naturally, we learned a lot – and I’m sure the Eaux Claires folks did, too.
We’ve shared how we felt about the event itself, but I wanted to write a post with a focus on the behind-the-scenes side the adventure for those interested, and provide some of the tips we learned as first-time festival goers, in case you’re considering going to your first music festival soon, or plan to attend Eaux Claires next year – especially if you plan on camping!
Jeremy and I took off for Eau Claire, Wisconsin early on a Thursday morning. The journey was quite smooth in the beginning stages.
We stopped for a delicious lunch in Madison at The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company – where I had the best vegetarian “BLT” (made with mushroom in place of bacon), a delicious hard ginger beer, and an apple cheddar hand pie that I haven’t stopped thinking about since.
- Tip: If you’ve got a lengthy drive, try to plan a couple of fun stops along the way to break it up. I love using Roadtrippers for this! We usually research and jot down a few restaurants or attractions that we’ll encounter on our route every third or quarter of the way. For example, this trip was about a 9 hour drive, so we planned to stop every 3 hours to stretch, eat, or do something for a bit.
Once we got back on the road, we encountered lots and lots of rain and lots and lots of construction. When we reached Eau Claire, we were getting nervous about setting our tent up in a rainy, muddy field, and saw that it was supposed to storm each day we were there. So we stopped at a Menards in town and grabbed a tarp to put under the tent and also purchased some cheap galoshes, just in case. Then we made a pizza and beer run and stocked up on ice for the cooler before making the final leg of the journey to the campground.
- Tip: Consider extreme weather, even if it’s not in the forecast right before you leave, beforehand, and prepare accordingly.
The Eaux Claires staff did a great job of posting signage to get us to the festival grounds (there was a lot of country road driving involved) and we got there just before dark.
- Tip: Get a pizza (or just have some kind of food and drink) for the wait!
As we approached security, we saw that they were actually having people get out of their vehicles and going through everything. They were also confiscating glass bottles, and that’s why the lines were so held up. Almost every vehicle had either liquor or beer bottles on board and security was letting them plead their case and/or chug what they could before moving along. Definitely something we hope changes next year!
- Tip: Thoroughly, thoroughly read the campground rules before getting there. It was stated that glass bottles weren’t allowed on-site!
When we finally got through security and checked in, we were told to go ahead and find our camping space, and that someone would be ahead to direct us (the field was massive, and at this point, very dark.) We pulled forward and waited a few minutes but no one approached us. Finally, we decided to try to find our site ourselves. This must have been the case for everyone ahead of us, too, because cars were slowly creeping along the field trying to see the markers, and many of them were getting stuck in the mud along the way. It was a huge mess, and fortunately we only got stuck for a short while before making it to our site.
- Tip: Study the campsite map very hard before arriving, and absolutely, positively WAIT for a volunteer to direct you to your site if it’s dark and muddy out!
Once we got our car parked at our site, we started setting up the tent. In the dark. In the rain. We had discussed doing a practice round of setting up for days, as it was brand new, but never got around to it. Somehow, after tons of fumbling, a few choice words, and several minutes of hands-on-hips, tilted heads confusion, we got it up. Seconds later, it started pouring like mad!
- Tip: Practice assembling your tent beforehand. If we had done this, we probably could have gotten it up with our eyes closed, it was so easy!
The next morning, it was a little dreary and muggy, and so, SO muddy. The trek to the port-a-potty was a treacherous one (and if there is only one thing I just simply cannot deal with at events like this, it’s port-a-potties) and on day one, most of them we already out of toilet roll and hand sanitizer.
- Tip: Bring toilet roll, hand sanitizer, jugs of water, and soap. Fortunately, I’d thought to bring toilet paper with us, and while it felt awkward at the beginning, by the end of our stay, I was marching through the muddy campground with a wad of it in hand. No shame. Note that port-a-potties are also the only way to go when you gotta go at the actual festival, too, so toss some TP in your bag even if you’re not camping.
It didn’t seem so awful on day one, but by days two and three, using make-up remover wipes just wasn’t cutting it for me. I have acne-prone skin, and between make-up, sweat, and sunburn, it was a MESS by the time we left. It took several days for it to get back to a normal state.
- Tip: If you’ve got problem skin of any kind and you’ll be roughing it on the campground, bring some extra water and washcloths just for giving your face a good scrub. There are showers available, at least at Eaux Claires, but they were a lengthy trek away and, from what we heard, very full and very cold at all times.
The Festival Grounds
After getting ready on day one, we ventured to the entrance of our campground to hop a shuttle to the festival grounds. I have to say, the transportation situation at Eaux Claires was more than we expected. There were plenty of shuttles (school buses) going back and forth between the campgrounds and festival grounds at all times. We hardly ever had to wait and the drivers were all super pleasant!
- Tip: Check the rules for other festivals, but at Eaux Claires, you’re allowed to bring in a non-glass bottle to fill at the watering stations there. Jeremy and I each had a 42 oz. bottle, which sounds crazy, but we filled those things up more times than I can count over the course of two days! We like these BPA-free bottles (also invest in some clips for attaching to your backpack!)
From there, we darted to the merchandise station to grab a few items we thought might be out of stock later on. We’d both worn our boots, thinking it would be muddy at the festival grounds, but it wasn’t too bad and we were getting really uncomfortable (hot), really quick. The sun had come out in full force and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. So, we made a quick trip back to our tent to swap shoes and double check that we had everything we needed for the day.
We had some time to kill before the first act started, so we ventured around the grounds to familiarize ourselves with where each stage was, where the food, drinks, watering stations, and toilets were, and go over our chosen schedule one more time.
- Tip: Make sure you grab any available maps and schedule sheets or booklets as soon as you arrive. The amount of performances at any given music festival is both wonderful and difficult. You really need to determine who you want to see and have an idea of how to get from stage to stage, as well as when you should start heading toward the next act, before it all gets started. Eaux Claires created a great app that helped you plan your own unique schedule, housed a map of the grounds, and sent notifications of surprise, pop-up performances!
We snagged a great spot in the crowd for the first performance, The Lone Bellow, and while I was getting so stoked for them to take the stage, I was also feeling really, really out of sorts. Blurred vision, waves of dark and bright flashes, dizzy, faint, and ringing in my ears so loud I couldn’t hear anything else. I don’t even remember the band coming out, I just recall that the second the first chord was struck, my heart started flipping and I felt like getting sick. I yelled at Jeremy to stay put and enjoy himself, and that I was going to find a place to sit behind the crowd.
I tried so hard to hear and see what was happening, but my body just wouldn’t let me. A few guys from The Blind Boys of Alabama walked out on stage as a surprise appearance, and I was so upset that I couldn’t take it in. Jeremy found me as the set was wrapping up and forced me to drink my entire water bottle and take off my hat, telling me I probably had heat stroke. After a few minutes, I was feeling quite a bit better. We made our way to the food vendors and I got a smoothie-on-a-stick and almost instantly went from 0%-90% in time for Sturgill Simpson.
- Tips: First and foremost, whether you’re in the middle of major crowds in 95 heat or not, DRINK WATER like your life depends on it. Because it does. I’ve always been bad about getting enough water, but at a music festival like this, it’s so important. Also, eat, and eat well. Before we left the grounds (a few hours prior to this incident), I had a granola bar and a banana. I thought that would tide me over until lunch, but it sure didn’t. We saw several campers making eggs over the fire, PB&J sandwiches, oatmeal, and other truly stick-to-your-ribs foods before we left, and in my excitement to leave, I didn’t think about eating some of the more protein-packed foods we’d brought.
- Secondly, while festival fashion is all the rage, your health can sometimes suffer from it. I was appropriately dressed by way of shirt and shorts, but my beloved brown hat was just not the right accessory for this day. It’s made of a fabric that doesn’t breath and it’s dark – a double whammy for a hot summer day. Taking it off, I felt instant relief. I was a little bummed that I lost my hip festival accessory, but I was able to enjoy myself so much more. I saw so many festival-goers throughout the rest of the day wearing similar hats (and also: scarves, leather vests, fashion-forward boots and heels, etc.) who looked MISERABLE. Literally pouring sweat, grimacing in pain… but refusing to ditch their accessories. If it’s not comfortable, let it go.
- Don’t forget to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and, if you’re prone to headaches or allergies, medication. A mini first-aid kit isn’t a bad idea, either. You’ll probably develop some blisters, sunburn, and aches and pains no matter how hard you try to prevent them!
From there, it was a real whirlwind of getting to, and taking in incredible performance after incredible performance.
It definitely takes some time to master the art of making it from stage to stage with enough time to 1.) fill up your water bottle, 2.) use the “restroom”, 3.) grab a bite to eat, and 4.) find a good spot in the audience.
- Tips: Even after day two, we didn’t quite have this down. But we did find a few tricks that helped. First, we would often decide to leave one performance a little early in order to get to the next one in time. Because Eaux Claires really only had three main stages, running around wasn’t too difficult. The only real downer is when two acts you love equally are playing at the same time. At that point, it’s a matter of deciding which one you want to have a good view for and watching half of that show, then catching the other half of the second performance.
- Wear comfortable shoes. Jeremy wore tennis shoes and didn’t complain too much about his feet during the festival, but I was in so. much. pain! I wore some slip-ons and some sandals that I thought would be perfect, but it turns out they weren’t. This kind of goes back to the festival fashion bit mentioned above, but wear your go-to comfy walking shoes if you’ve got them and if you don’t, invest in a pair. You’ll be glad you did.
- We’d also sometimes get to a stage and find a spot, then one of us would go for a potty/water/food run while the other stayed put.
- Plan to grab food and drinks during those longer-than-usual breaks between performances. We’d usually have just one major meal per day (an early dinner) and one of us would get the food while the other would wait in the drink line and we’d meet at a pre-determined spot. Also, pack a ton of snacks – think pretzels, trail mix, protein bars, fresh fruit – that are easy to eat while standing up. My only real complaint about the whole festival is that the food available for purchase is pretty much all hot, fried, and greasy (a little is fine, but when that’s your main course on a scorching hot day, ugh) and there weren’t a whole lot of options for vegetarians (when there were options, I’d get SO excited, only to order and be told that they’d run out.)
- For those times when you want to be in the area, but don’t mind not seeing the stage or want to sit down for a breather or to eat, bring a blanket! We totally spaced on this and while there was plenty of ground to sit on, it was often uncomfortable grass, rocky ground, or muddy.
Preparing for the Worst
This is a random and extreme way to end the post, but around 2 AM one night, we woke up to the sound of security guys on ATVs screaming, “Seek cover in your vehicles! Tornadoes five miles away! Take cover now!” We could hear tornado sirens sounding in the city several miles away and it may have been the most terrifying few hours of my life.
We quickly threw some of our more important possessions from the tent into the car and got inside. Minutes later, we watched as forceful winds ripped tents from the ground and threw them into the surrounding fields, folding chairs and coolers flew into cars, and thunder rattled the cars windows. We were stuck. In the middle of a field, with no protection, and no way to leave.
While everything turned out fine (and somehow, our tent stayed put), we ended up waiting and dozing in the car for several hours, until about 4:30 AM. Many people ended up having to sleep in their cards for the remainder of the festival.
- Tips: Make sure your car is totally fueled up before getting to the campground. You might end up leaving it turned on for awhile waiting in lines and, worst case scenario, sleeping and getting ready in it. Also, pack some jumper cables. There were a lot of campers who had dead cars the morning after the storm!
- Bring a phone charging stick. There were a few phone charging stations around the festival grounds, but I’m so glad Jeremy invested in a couple of backup chargers for us. We never needed to make an emergency call, but had we needed to, we were prepared.
- Give your closest friend(s) and or family member(s) a basic overview of your schedule and location, so that if something crazy happens, they have a starting point in tracking you down.
One thing’s for sure: The music festival experience is one like no other. You learn so much during your first. There were several instances where I felt so silly and oblivious for not thinking to bring/do something that would have made the experience go a little more smoothly.
Experienced festival goers: What are some of your best tips? Please share!