Your Survival Guide to Camping Bonnaroo

Whether you're a seasoned Bonnaroo veteran or planning your first trip, these key tips and tricks will ensure you plan the best camping experience and get the most out of your trip.

Each June, the population of Manchester, Tennessee, swells from 10,000 to more than 80,000 during music and arts festival Bonnaroo. While you won’t be miles from civilization in the desert like Burning Man, the farm still transforms into a city of its own for the weekend. Sure, you can find essentials like ice and water—as well as luxuries like cold brew coffee and vegan fare—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come prepared to set up a decked-out camp of your own. From clothing checklists to campsite essentials, here are a few survival strategies to plan and pack like a pro.

1. WHEN AND HOW TO ARRIVE AT THE FESTIVAL

If you plan on flying to Bonnaroo, Nashville is one of the closest cities, just more than an hour drive away. Consider booking with a carrier like Southwest Airlines, which allows two free checked bags, meaning more space to to pack festival gear. Traffic into the campgrounds is notoriously bad at all hours, so once you park, don’t plan on moving your car until the weekend. Bonnaroo officially begins on Thursday, but General Admission Campgrounds open Wednesday at 8 p.m. Aim to arrive as early as possible to beat traffic and stake out a camp spot close to Centeroo, the main festival area.

2. DIY CAMPING VS. GLAMPING

If you want to secure the best campsite on the festival grounds, go VIP. At Bonnaroo, this means you’ll be camping next to Centeroo and the Main Venue, and get VIP access to the lounge and certain stages. The campgrounds, formerly known as Tent City, now go by the chic title of Le Bon Tents. The biggest advantage with this option is that you can leave the heavy lifting involved in setting up your tent to the pros. Of course half the fun is styling the campsite, from a sleek canvas safari tent to a round, weatherproof bell tent or cabana. These fully equipped tents are the ultimate festival glamping experience, featuring luxuries like mattresses, bedding, and cooling units—a game changer in sweltering temperatures.

3. HOW TO SET UP CAMP

Once you enter the campsite at Bonnaroo, you’ll be directed to a plot of land that’s yours to do as you please, whether you want to stake a good old-fashioned tent or prefer a tailgating setup with a canopy next to the car. Camping with friends? Try and meet before making your way into the campground so you’re able to snag spots nearby. Once the sun rises, it’s unlikely you’ll be sleeping inside. This is Tennessee in June, after all. Many festivalgoers opt for a combination of tents and tarps or cabanas, with a supply of lawn chairs to lounge on after the final acts wrap up in the early morning hours. Campsites also become an expression of creativity with everything from flags to colorful tapestries serving as a marker of your home away from home for the weekend.

Tents and shelters in a forest near the Bonnaroo Festival grounds
PHOTOGRAPH BY EPICUREAN, GETTY IMAGES

4. CAMPING AND CLOTHING CHECKLISTS

Each of the campground sections has amenities like restrooms and showers, but a portable shower for your personal campsite is worth the investment. Campers will need basic gear, such as sleeping bags, blankets, coolers, flashlights, and headlamps—lifesavers when using porta-potties in poor lighting at night. Toilet paper, bug spray, tissues, hand sanitizer, and baby wipes (the festival version of a shower on the go) are other survival kit essentials. Rain and mud are almost guaranteed, so pack rain boots and a lightweight poncho.

As far as your ensemble, music festivals are a place where (almost) anything goes. Keep in mind the practical—bandanas for sweat and dust, sunglasses and hats for shade, boots and sneakers for dirt and mud—but don’t be afraid to rock the festival look of your choice. During the day, cut-off shorts, loose sundresses, swimsuits, and tank tops will keep you cool. By night, switch your daywear for something a bit more whimsical, from neon wigs to glowing numbers trimmed with battery-operated LED lights. Since it’ll be dark and crowded, craft your own “friend-finder” totem pole out of a foam pool noodle or flagpole. Get creative with lights, glow paint, balloons, inflatable toys, and recognisable signs to make it easy for friends to find you.

5. WHAT TO BRING AND BUY ON THE WAY TO THE FESTIVAL

Festival campgrounds are similar to a massive tailgate, meaning days are spent lingering around with beer and barbecues, playing music and games with friends. Pass by a convenience store en route to fill your coolers with ice, bottled water, and picnic fare (think sandwiches, burgers, and bacon for breakfast). You can bring portable grills or stoves, as well as a limited amount of alcohol (sorry, kegs are banned). If you aren’t fully prepared, don’t worry about starving. Food vendors—who sell everything from fried Oreos to award-winning BBQ—are scattered throughout the festival and campgrounds. Two Bonaroo General Stores also sit near the entrances and sell all the basics at a premium price.

6. PREPPING YOUR DAY PACK

Pack like you would for a hike. Carry the essentials for a variety of situations, whether hot, cold, rainy, or muddy. Throw in sunscreen, a tapestry to use as a lightweight blanket or shawl, ponchos, portable chargers, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and baby wipes. CamelBak hydration packs are a festival favorite, but you can also bring one sealed bottle of water into Centeroo at Bonnaroo. Glow sticks and food are a no-go in the main festival grounds, but you can carry a few small snacks, such as power bars and nuts.

7. HOW TO MAP OUT YOUR DAY

Festivals may seem like they’re all about the music—and with more than 130 acts at Bonnaroo, it’s a major factor—but the festival friends you encounter along the way are what makes camping here different from simply communing with nature. Make the most of your day with a leisurely morning, wander through the farm, and take part in activities from yoga to movie screenings. Save your energy though—the best shows typically start later in the afternoon and linger until dawn. You’ll want to be wide awake when acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2 hit the stage around midnight. Once the main acts end, don’t expect to call it a night just yet. There’s always an after-party, from a 90s rave to karaoke and silent disco.

Header Image: Campsites and stages at the 2013 Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee PHOTOGRAPH BY DOUGLAS MASON, GETTY IMAGES

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