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Hellfest: Or A Guide to Surviving a Metal Festival

The first festival I went to was Reading in 2000. I was 18. I didn’t have a goddamn clue what it would be like. I didn’t know what to take; I just had a vague idea that a sleeping bag might be a good idea. Thankfully, my friend Kat, a veteran of other festivals, brought the tent, so accommodation at least was sorted. I survived, just about, helped by a lack of mud, and the remarkable regenerative powers of a young and relatively undamaged liver.

This year, attracted by a killer lineup, I went to Hellfest for the first time. Four nights of camping, metal, and general debauchery in France: it seemed like a great idea when we booked our tickets at Christmas, and again when we found cheap Eurostar trains a few months later. It seemed less of a good idea at 5am on a bright Thursday morning in East London a couple of weeks ago, when, laden down by a backpack roughly the same size and weight as a dead body, my travelling companion/love of my life S and I set off to get the Tube, then the Eurostar, then the Paris Métro, then a TGV, then a local train, then a shuttle bus to Clisson.

When we finally made it to our campsite, we were pretty knackered; such is the way of festivals. Luckily, some compatriots/camping buddies had arrived before us (by car, the lucky sods), and had staked out a place, cracked open a case of beers, and got a couple of camping chairs out for us. We pitched our tent and had a can of beer, then felt just about alive enough to go to the supermarket. I adore French supermarkets (just look at all that cheese!), so having one an easy 10 minutes’ stroll away made Hellfest shoot straight to the top of my list of favourite festivals. And seeing civilians, wearing pastel-coloured clothing and pushing their kids around in trolleys, utterly bemused by the black-clad and cheering hordes of metalheads stocking up on booze, meat, and toilet paper is never less than amusing. Every few minutes, a great cry would arise, a communal “RAARRRGGHHH” of exhilaration and belonging, while the cashiers smiled and shook their heads. Obviously prepared for the arrival of the metal tribes, the Leclerc staff had stockpiled crates of beer and camping supplies; a wise precaution, as you might expect.

A note on camping: I really fucking hate it. I don’t get the appeal. You’re either too hot, or too cold, and sleeping on a roll mat is murder on my old bones. If it rains, welcome to a whole new world of misery. Of course, I’m allergic to pollen, grass, and insect bites, too – the Great Outdoors can bite my arse. Camping at festivals is something I tolerate, with gritted teeth, in order to get to see as many bands in three days as I usually get to see in half a year. I cope with my loathing of camping by compiling a really elaborate spreadsheet, refined and revised over many years of festival-going, which helps me to manage my pre-festival nerves. Once every box is ticked, I know I can set off, relatively confident that I’ve got everything I need.

Of course, once I’m actually at the festival, all my carefully-laid plans (shower every morning! Apply makeup! Don’t forget the sunscreen! Drink lots of water!) go to pot, and I spend four days wandering around the post-apocalyptic setting of a festival campsite with a dazed grin on my face, can of beer in hand and nose merrily peeling. But never mind – I’ll still share some of my oh-so-useful festival survival tips with y’all, anyway.

Make friends with your neighbours
. . . because sitting in a loose circle and shooting the shit with people from all over the world is what makes festivals special. It also makes strategic sense; the Belgian kids I camped next to at Graspop in 2007 loved to play a game they called tent-diving, whereby one member of the group would be designated “gollum”, then picked up and thrown bodily onto the nearest tent. I bribed them with a coconut and made them promise they’d leave my tent alone. It worked.

Festival bogs require you to have a strong stomach (here’s one revolting and possibly NWS example of a Hellfest loo, taken by a friend). Nothing much you can do about it. Women have it a bit tougher, as blokes can wee in the piss rockets (or in the vines at Hellfest, or just about anywhere). Although my friend O swears by her Shewee. My advice: Never be without Wet Wipes, loo roll, and hand sanitiser. And if you can, go into a Portaloo vacated by a woman; if you see a guy come out of a cubicle, you know exactly why he’s been in there. Use the long-drops at your own risk; let the cautionary – and possibly apocryphal – tale of Poo Girl stand as a warning.

Jeans suck
I never understand why people wear jeans at festivals. If it’s sunny, they’re far too hot; if it rains, there are few sensations more unpleasant than six inches of wet, heavy fabric slapping at your ankles. Soggy jeans also take forever to dry, and get mud all over the inside of your tent; much easier to clean bare skin with a Wet Wipe instead, if you get mucky. Wear combat shorts (pockets!) or a skirt/leggings. Kilts also work, if you’ve got the calves to pull ’em off. Kudos to the guy I saw at Hellfest queueing for a loo and wearing nowt but a kilt – not even shoes. That takes some guts.

Don’t forget your Sharpie
This may seem slightly less than obvious, but a Sharpie/marker pen comes in handy in all kinds of ways, from applying corpse paint to a bit of fabric from a Hello Kitty camping chair to make it suitably frostbitten, modifying tattoos especially for the event, to helping your friendly neighbours apply temporary ink to passed-out mates of theirs. Gaffer tape is another must-have, for slightly different reasons.

Cigarettes and alcohol and rollerblading
. . . OK, maybe not rollerblading; I just can’t resist a gratuitous Father Ted reference. Anyway! Booze: make sure you check what you’re allowed to bring onto the festival campsite before setting off. Hellfest didn’t give a shit if you brought in crates of wine bottles; Bloodstock, by way of contrast, has a strict no-glass policy. As a result, I’ve seen people in the queue to Bloodstock frantically trying to polish off entire bottles of JD and Jägermeister, having neglected to find out whether they’d be allowed on-site with them. Cigarettes: I don’t smoke myself, so got some advice from a friend who does. She says: “Bring more cigarettes than you think you’ll need, as they’re really expensive at festivals. Attach a lighter to a lanyard and keep it round your neck – at the last festival I went to, I took five lighters and lost them all on the first day.” Other substances: Again, I have no first-hand knowledge of this (yes, I’m boring, I know), but common sense says to leave the experimenting with new chemicals for when you’re back home, and to make sure your friends know what you’re on and where you are. Stay safe, kids!

Know your limits
Possibly this is just me being old and grumpy again, but I’ve found that learning to let go of expectations has been very helpful to me at recent festivals. At Hellfest, for example, I was pretty excited to see Amon Amarth headline the death/black metal tent on the Friday, as even though I’ve seen them about a dozen times before, they’re a great live act, and work well on a festival stage. But when it came to it, I realised that waiting up until 1am to see a set lasting until 2am – when I could barely keep my eyes open after seeing 12 bands that day already – was a less appealing option than going back to the tent and getting some valuable sleep to prepare me for the next day’s onslaught. Likewise, after a blazing set by Winterfylleth, I could have gone to see Insomnium – playing in the same tent, even! – or fought my way into the packed-out Valley tent to see Alcest, but neither option was as tempting as going back to base camp for a beer and a sit-down. (My reasoning: Insomnium tend to play lots of their inferior new material live, and I’m seeing Alcest later this year anyway.) Having a nap can be a life-saver, although I prefer to do it in less public spots than these guys.

Try and keep back one set of clean clothes
. . . for the journey home. It’ll make a huge difference to your Monday-morning festival decamping blues, I promise.

I’d be keen to hear your tips in the comments. If you think I’m a soft-handed waste of space who shouldn’t be allowed near any festival ever, yeah, well, y’know, that’s just like, er, your opinion, man.

Oh, I nearly forgot! My musical highlights at Hellfest: getting to see Darkspace killing it live (so intense I actually cried); getting a barrier spot for Moonsorrow’s set, and getting so into it that the security guy in front of me clearly found my antics hilarious; Anaal Nathrakh spitting blood and sweat and tearing up the stage; Napalm Death showing why they’re still utterly relevant after all this time, despite a few sound issues; the singalong for Winterfylleth, who were stunningly good; Shining back on form, re-energised by a new lead guitarist, with Kvarforth showing what he’s capable of when not acting like a petulant child; the crowd’s reaction to Nergal after he shouted, “It feels so fucking good to be alive . . . Never, ever give up!”; Enslaved, who are always fantastic, and whose cover of “Immigrant Song” is a warm and thrilling live treat; Sunn O))) acting as a perfect Sunday night palate-cleanser, preparing us for the necessary evil of re-entry into the real world.

French speakers may enjoy this bafflingly coded but vivid collection of multimedia from Hellfest, and non-francophones can at least appreciate the excellent photos (navigate using the arrow keys). There’s also Hellfestagram, which brings together photos taken by mobile phone at the festival. These professionally shot videos are excellent, too.

My next festival will be Bloodstock Open Air. I’ll be the one at the back with the bag full of medication and a nice cup of coffee, sitting on a camping chair and peering at the main stage through my opera glasses. Feel free to tell me how pathetic I am in person!

— Jo Tacon
Header picture by Insane Motion.

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