Hunkering down at Winnipeg Folk Fest? Here's how to be a happy camper

There are a few essential survival tips every happy camper at Winnipeg Folk Festival should keep in mind before making the pilgrimage out to Birds Hill Park this week and hammering that first tent peg into the ground.

An assorted grab bag of tips to help you navigate the marathon community camping event and party

Folkies dance to the rhythm of their own drums. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

There are a few essential survival tips every happy camper at the Winnipeg Folk Festival should keep in mind before making the pilgrimage out to Birds Hill Park this week and hammering that first tent peg in the ground.

Performances at the 45th annual celebration of folk music get underway on Thursday, but eager campers can arrive at the grounds to set up as early as 7 a.m. Wednesday (although many line up in cars at the park gate well in advance).

When it comes to making the best of your camping experience, there are a number of things everyone ought to consider— including how and where to camp — and some things that should go without saying (that I wish someone told me before my inaugural year).

Eat, hydrate, stay alive

First, let's start with a brief blow-by-blow of what might seem like obvious reminders that nonetheless bear repeating for everyone from the less-seasoned to varsity campers.

It's an equation based on instincts you passively honed as an infant: eat food + drink water + sleep + repeat = stay alive.

Campers set up their spot at Birds Hill Provincial Park, a day before the Winnipeg Folk Festival begins in 2015. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Simple enough, yet ask a Folk Fest camper and many will tell you about that one bacchanalian year where the consumption of various mind-bending substances, sleepless nights, and failure to hydrate and eat regularly caught up with them. 

Take care of yourself, or at very least assign your fate and well-being to a friend who is more responsible than you.

Fresh eats, shelter

This rather salient point should also go without saying too, but in case it isn't obvious: remember to bring your tent, sleeping bag, a pillow and air mattress. If you can, bring a bug tent, so you can entertain guests if the mosquitoes get bad.

Bring a pop-up table and chairs of some kind while you're at it. Chairs can't be taller than two feet if you plan on using them to watch music at the stages.

Make sure you've got a short chair if you want to sit on it to watch the acts. (Travis Ross, photographer)

As for food, there's an ATM (you'll need cash) and a bunch of amazing food trucks inside the campground slinging warm dishes throughout the weekend, so if you aren't the prepared type but have deep pockets, maybe that's your lifeline.

That adds up fast though, so if you want to live on the thriftier side, make sure you or someone in your group brings one or more coolers.

For fresh food, you can't go wrong with a bag of apples or other fruit that has a relatively long shelf life without refrigeration. You should still keep that stuff in coolers and out of the sun.

A loaf or two of bread and some dried, cured sausage can also last a couple of days in the cooler if you're re-topping with new ice every day. 

This isn't glamping

Load up on a few other essential, nonperishable items like energy or granola bars, dried fruit and trail mix. These pair well with lukewarm, citrus-y electrolyte-replenishing drinks. 

This isn't about glamping, folkies — it's fuel for the long days and nights of walking around.

Speaking of energy, if you want to make your own coffee, you'll need to pack a camp stove and fuel, as well as a pot to boil water and a portable coffee press or something similar. A stove also opens the possibility for rice or beans or soup or hotdogs. 

Bring lighters (for the stove, I mean).

Glass: no. Funny hats: yes.

If you're bringing beer or alcohol, do not bring glass bottles. They will break. On the bare ground. 

Many people are stumbling around half-clothed (if you're lucky), shoeless and the opposite of sober at all hours. The last thing anyone wants is to be responsible for sending one of these free spirits to the medical tent for glass-shard removal and foot stitches. 

Sunscreen and bug spray, loose-fitting linens or breathable cotton clothes are your friend, as are big-brimmed hats.

Borrow Dad's boring tan Tilley hat, or let your freak flag fly and pick up one of those loud, big-bowed, Sunday-church-service hats. Wear the latter and you will blend in nicely with the creatively dressed camping crowd.

Bring more than one pair of shoes or sandals, and if you are wearing sandals, remember to cover your feet with sunscreen or risk one of the more painful and embarrassing sunburns ever.

Drums. All. Night. Long.

Obviously the jewel of the fest is its host of brilliant musicians, and you wouldn't go in the first place if you didn't enjoy listening.

What's hard to comprehend before you camp that first time is that many people also attend the festival to create music in the campground at all hours with a variety of instruments.

Bonus: no need to haul your own djembe or bongos all the way from home. There will be literally hundreds of them sounding ceaselessly through the night. If you're lucky, you may end up camping directly beside one of these drum-loving souls and get an unsolicited wake-up call every morning.

Needless to say, bring ear plugs. If it's still too loud, next year consider the quiet campground.

Study campground map

Before you ever set foot in the campground, buy a provincial park pass and avail yourself of the campground map, and download the Folk Fest app.

A full-season park pass costs $40, and you can get one at most business locations that sell fishing and hunting licences (including Canadian Tire and select gas stations). Fail to buy in advance, and prepare to shell out when you get to the campground and endure the delays that come with that.

Get to the campground as early as possible and seek out one of the highly coveted shady spots in, or by, the trees. (Winnipeg Folk Festival)

Studying the map is important because it shows where all the bathrooms and cold showers are (these are more pleasant and life-changing than I can possibly convey). There are also hot showers and washing machines in the park, although those cost money.

The map also points out where the medical tents are located. If you or a friend get hurt or are experiencing any kind of medical condition, including a possible overdose, get there quickly or alert volunteer staff.

Unlike harm-reduction services offered at B.C's Shambhala Festival, Winnipeg Folk Fest does not offer recreational drug users the option of testing drugs to ensure they don't contain unwanted or dangerous substances.

First aid crews do, however, carry overdose prevention kits they can administer in the case of a suspected overdose.

Condoms and hygiene products are also free and available in the medical tent area. On that note, practise safe sex and consent. 

Shade and bikes are key

Every opening day of the festival begins with the same convoy of fresh-faced cyclists happily peddling from Winnipeg to the campground at Birds Hill Park (a roughly two-hour ride, the festival says, and there's even a big group ride on Wednesday morning.)

Many prefer the path of less resistance and drive. While less exhausting and far easier if you're carrying loads of camping gear, the cyclists have the upper hand in other ways.

The festival, which began in 1974 to mark Winnipeg's centennial, has grown into one of the continent's premier folk music events with annual attendance of over 80,000. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

When it comes to getting the highly sought after shady spots in the trees, cyclists are some of the first to get into the campground and so have more treelines and shrub clusters to choose from. (Another reason to study the map.)

Many groups will send one or two people in on a bike with a tarp or two so they can claim a patch in the trees early, while their friends drive in a car or two full of the rest of the gear.

Great strategy, but if you don't have someone willing to sweat it out on a bike, another option is to pack a bike or two in a car. If you do this and arrive early, as soon as you park you can hop on the bike with a bag and tarp, peddle like mad into the campground and still find some shade.

Cyclists arrive at Birds Hill Provincial Park for the Winnipeg Folk Festival. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

A cart or something else you can use to move gear from the car to campground can also be a huge energy-saver.

The campground and festival stages cover a vast area, which means you are going to wear out your step counter in a hurry. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from the far side of the campground to the main stage, which is about as good an argument as any for bringing a bike with you. 

The camping experience is a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself, take a night off to bank some z's and please try to shower once or twice over the course of the festival.

Camping opens July 4 and the music runs from July 5 to 8.

Tips from Folk Fest staff

Whether you are a seasoned folkie or it's your first time, it's good to be prepared:

What should you bring?

  • Tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag.
  • Tarp and rain gear.
  • Cooking gear (pots, pans, camp stove).
  • Food and a cooler.
  • Black garbage bags and clear recycling bags.
  • Blanket or a low chair.
  • A bike (to get to and from the festival site).
  • Water bottle and jugs (look for the water taps marked by blue flags to fill up).
  • Flashlight and extra batteries.
  • Sunscreen and bug spray.
  • A hat for sun protection.
  • Warm clothing for the cool nights.
  • Comfortable shoes.

DON'T bring:

  • Fireworks, fire sticks, batons or tiki torches.
  • Glass (this includes beer and liquor bottles).
  • Pets (unless they are registered service animals).
  • Household furniture.
  • Amplified music.
  • Drum kits (the festival welcomes djembes and hand drums though!).
  • Generators.


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