A gigantic guide to bringing your young child(ren) to Bonnaroo

Updated Oct 12 2015
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We took our kid to Bonnaroo and it was awesome.

Two weeks ago I asked you guys how we could make our trip to Bonnaroo easier on our three-year-old, and I got a TON of awesome feedback. We recently completed our first-ever trip to the festival, and I'm happy to report that everything went a TON better than I thought it would.

If you're not familiar, Bonnaroo is a four-day long music and arts festival that takes place each year in Manchester, Tennessee. All kinds of bands and musicians have played (past line-ups have included Bob Dylan, Erykah Badu, M.I.A, The Black Crowes, and Ludicrous), and this year's line-up included headliners Radiohead, who we were SUPER stoked to finally see. The festival is always heavy on sustainability, and each year they've taken up initiatives to make everything as environmentally-supportive as it can possibly be. In short: if you're into music, festivals, and being outside it's a good place to go… but if you have a kid, it might be a challenge.

A lot of people tend to balk at the idea of bringing a young child to something like Bonnaroo, and when you consider the temperatures might exceed 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) and there are THOUSANDS of adults milling around who don't exactly expect to stumble upon a kid, I get it. However, it makes sense to me that as the population of people who have been attending Bonnaroo since the beginning (2002) are starting to have kids or think about doing so they'll also be thinking about sharing the experience (albeit in a different way) with those kids, and they'll want bringing a kid or two along to be something feasible to do.

We were a little worried that our kid's presence would kind of throw others off — who wants to have to worry about walking into a small child while you're out having a good time? — but we were BLOWN AWAY by the immediate feelings of happiness and warmth (the person-to-person kind, not from the sun) we were greeted with by our fellow festival-goers. SO many people were genuinely excited to see Jasper there, and questions abounded: How much was it for him to get in? (Kids get in free up to age 6) Was he having a good time? (his gigantic smile and squeals of "BONNAROO!" usually answered that) Were we ALSO having a good time? (Usually!).

Note: this is LONG. If you're at all interested in ever bringing a kid to Bonnaroo or a similar days-long camping event, I've included as many details as I could remember in this. I spent hours prowling the internet for info about bringing young kids before we went and didn't come up with much… so here we go!

Pre-festival: packing, meal planning, and organization

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To bring: a whistle and sun/rash shirt.

We were repeatedly advised by my good friend Kimberly (a six-time Bonnaroo veteran) to pack light… but also repeatedly worried that we'd end up packing TOO light for our son. We ended up keeping it as simple as we could — here's what we brought with us for our three-year-old:

  • Kid's sized Mack's Earplugs
  • Two metal whistles
  • A toddler-sized sunhat — I can't find the exact one, but it's terrycloth, like this one
  • One long-sleeved rash/sun shirt and one short-sleeved rash/sun shirt
  • Five pairs of shorts and five short-sleeved shirts/tank tops
  • Four sets of pajama pants and four long-sleeved pajama shirts
  • Disposable diapers (he's mostly toiled-trained, but we were worried about the toilet situation) and baby wipes — the latter proved to be EXTREMELY useful in many situations
  • Alba Kids Sunblock
  • Velcro strap sandals (they have three straps — over the toes, over the ankle, and behind the heel) and socks (the reason for bringing socks is two-fold: first so he shoes wouldn't rub his feet raw, and second so his feet wouldn't get completely disgusting)

Of all of that, we used everything except all the clothing — he ended up wearing one of his sun shirts during the day with shorts, and slept in the same set of pajamas each night. Since toddler-sized clothing is small his didn't take up too much space in our car, but we could have probably done without some of it.

I bought the whistles on a whim and explained to my son that he should blow into them if he gets lost/can't see us or if someone he doesn't know tries to pick him up or take him somewhere. I didn't anticipate either happening (and they didn't), but he understood the reason behind wearing a whistle and didn't abuse it (in other words, he didn't run around blowing it at 6 in the morning while everyone else was sleeping… too often). The earplugs are a little rough to get in (you have to roll them in a ball and then smash them into the ear — but not into the ear canal — until they're flat), but they were exactly perfectly sized for him.

We also opted to only bring four gallons of water, metal water bottles, and basic foods — mostly cereal, granola, and fruit — with us and to buy our meals at the festival itself. Our logic was that if we brought food in it would probably go bad, and it was also MUCH easier to eat a breakfast of dry Cheerios and an orange at the tent, buy lunch at the festival, head back for napping and/or a snack of granola, and to get dinner at the festival. For whatever reason all three of us ate fairly light — usually splitting a quesadilla or pizza — even though that wasn't the initial plan.

The only other concern we had going in was about cleanliness — not so much ours as much as his. We brought along a few rags and used bottled water to sponge bathe our kiddo during the day (as needed — you need to accept that you and your kid are both going to get dusty and dirty) and at night, and completely skipped washing his hair. Lots of muss, little fuss.

Bring a family member or adult-aged friend if you can

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Friends at Bonnaroo = good.

My husband's cousin Ashley ended up coming with us on our trek, which was perfect — having a third capable adult around allowed my husband and I to go see the bands we wanted (Radiohead! The Roots!) at the times we wanted (10pm!) without having to split up. Even though the two of us watched our son most of the time, it was amazing to know Ashley could take over when we asked. It's important to not abuse this and to realize that whoever you bring with you wants to have fun, also, so we tried to be really fair about it.

Having an additional adult with us also made things like mealtimes and bathroom breaks way, way easier. One of my biggest concerns was the whole Toilet Situation that happens at Bonnaroo — portable toilets aren't big, and I wasn't sure how I would get myself and my three-year-old in one if my husband was at a show and vice-versa. Having someone else with us totally erased this concern: I could simply pop in, do my thing, and pop out.

We also met up with a few friends that our son knows well throughout the weekend — we wanted to see them, and it was also nice for HIM to see them. It was basically a bit of a "Oh hey! I know and love you!" that he seemed to really dig.

Major concerns: coming in contact with drug use, wild behavior, and staying healthy

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Do you even SEE what's going on over there?

I'm going to go ahead and hit this at the beginning because I know a lot of parents are worried about the things their kids might come in contact with while at Bonnaroo — namely drug use, nudity, and people running around crazy. I'm happy to say that we didn't experience ANY problems with any of this. I think this was partially due to only keeping our son out on the festival grounds between 7AM and 11:30AM in the morning, and then 3PM and 7PM in the evening — daytime Bonnaroo and nighttime Bonnaroo are two different beasts, and we opted to just not bring him into the nighttime goings-on at all.

We also didn't bring him into the actual concert-watching crowds too often, and when we did we took him to afternoon shows and hung out at the back. Honestly, if we caught a whiff of pot smoke it was gone before we could even figure out which direction it was coming from, and we never saw any obvious drug-induced behavior during the day. I'm not saying it wasn't there, but we weren't looking for it to begin with.

Bonnaroo also has several medical tents around and one HUGE tent in Centeroo. Our son kept rubbing his ear throughout the weekend, so we eventually popped into the Centeroo tent on Saturday to have it checked out. Everyone there was incredible — they gave him a ballooon, took time to listen to the symptoms, and even called in another doctor who had an otoscope with him to double-confirm that our kid was fine. This was especially cool considering that most of the stuff the medical tent sees includes foot injuries and dehydrating adults — not little kids with itchy ears. It was nice they went out of their way to make sure our dude was alright.

In the swing of things: keeping everyone mellow, avoiding over-stimulation, and dealing with noise

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Jasper and I hanging out during quiet time.

As a lot of parents probably realize, if your kid is happy and having an amazing time somewhere then it's way more likely you're going to as well. When I originally asked you guys what we should keep in mind at Bonnaroo, a lot of you mentioned that it'd be SUPER easy for everyone (and especially our son) to get over-stimulated. So for that, I say THANK YOU: you were totally right, and we saw proof of this immediately. As such, we decided to bring out our son between 7AM and 11:30AM and 3PM and 7PM. It was awesome to see Bonnaroo mostly empty so early in the morning (note: Bearclaw Cafe has amazing coffee and bagels and Plant 'Roo Cafe is incredible — and both open by 8AM). We came back to our tent between noon and three very day to avoid heat, encourage nap time (he only napped one of the days and it was BY FAR the best day for everyone), and in general to have quiet time. We didn't REQUIRE sleep, but we did all stay in the area until the sun had settled a little.

I'll also say this: if you want to attempt something like Bonnaroo with your kid, realize that you need to stay as mentally flexible as you possibly can. You don't need to give in to every whim your kid has (because seriously: too much lemonade is NOT a good thing for anyone), but these kinds of events are the time to realize that releasing your own expectations and accepting whatever reality your kid is bringing is the best, and honestly the easiest, course of action.

Kidz Jam and Splash-a-Roo: the most awesome of awesome places

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OHMYGAW IT'S KIDZ JAM YOU GUYS!

The first three days of the festival were sunny and perfect — temperatures were between 85 and 88 but didn't go over 90 — and we very quickly discovered two wondrous areas: Kidz Jam and Splash-A-Roo.

I don't have enough marvelous words to say about the women and men who operate Kidz Jam: they're stupendous. The group sets up every day at noon and packs up at 6PM, and their goal is to make sure all kids attending Bonnaroo stay out of the sun, entertained, and hydrated during the hottest part of the day. We usually moseyed over around 4PM and hung out until they wrapped things up at 6PM, and it was surprisingly easy to just hang out. The tent was located between two stages, which meant we could enjoy music but didn't have to deal with crowds, and our son had a blast both seeing and hanging out with other kids. I think being in a seriously adult-heavy environment was a challenge for him, because whenever he saw another kid it was like they were long-lost BFFs — even though they had just met. My ONLY qualm with Kidz Jam is that it would be INCREDIBLE if they operated in two shifts — one in the morning when all the kids are up anyway, and one in the afternoon/early evening.

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Splash-A-Roo: home of a biiiig slip-n-slide.

Bonnaroo is home of "The Big Ass Waterslide" which is what it sounds like: a huuuuuge waterslide that looks awesome to everyone — including your kid. Unfortunately it's totally not something your young child can actually get on… but this is where Splash-A-Roo steps in. There are tons of adults also taking advantage of the makeshift slip-n-slide (several large tarps on the ground + water = fun), inflatables, and kiddie pools, but they were all super respectful of our son while we were there, and patiently waited while he took turns on things.

Accept that you WILL miss things you really want to see

Responsibly bringing a kid to a festival means that you're automatically prepared to compromise on a lot of things. You're not going to get to see every band you want to see, and (at least in our case) you're probably going to spend more time than you realize doing something like pushing a toy bulldozer around in the sand while people jam out at stages on either side of you. I'm thinking most of you who have kids already know this is life with those children anyway — you have to give up some things and gain others.

Now, as much as I'm going on about this and thought I was mentally prepared to give up some bands and shows in order to put the needs of my kid first, it was challenging to accept when I was in the thick of it. The hardest moment was when we woke up Sunday morning to buckets of rain falling from the sky and a weather prediction of rain all day combined with a temperature not exceeding 75 — which meant not only would it be wet and muddy, it would be COLD, wet and muddy. When we left home there wasn't any rain predicted for the weekend so we didn't pack jackets or boots, and we ended up deciding to leave Sunday morning to avoid dragging our shivering child around in the cold rain and mud all day long. This was especially painful as it meant I missed out on Bon Iver — the band I actually was most excited about seeing the entire weekend — and tears (mine) were shed. Ultimately I'm glad we didn't try to keep him confined to a covered area or hunched under an umbrella all day, but man.

SO! That was our experience. I am totally prepared to answer questions: what else do you want to know about our experience taking our kid to days-long festivals?

  1. This is GREAT. My parents are long-time attendees of the Strawberry Music Festival in Yosemite, and have been hoping (loudly) that we'll bring our baby next year when she'll be about 18 months. I've been super, super nervous about the idea even though Strawberry is in general a very kid/family friendly festival, and this article is not only super reassuring but actually makes me excited about the idea!

  2. I grew up going to the Clearwater festival on the Hudson. Festivals can be really great memories for everyone on any age. I hope it has stayed am.awesome moment in time by the time I have kids

  3. This is so reassuring. Our entire family is heading to the Beloved Festival in Oregon this August, and this post is totally reminding me that it's going to be AWESOME.

    (Oh and BTW: Stephanie and I are actually going to be doing an Offbeat Mama workshop at Beloved! More news about that coming soon.)

  4. This is so reassuring. I'm a lover of the festie world, and I do not want that to change when the kiddos come around.

    Random question: Where the hell are there trees at Bonnaroo? I was looking at your pics and got super confused,

  5. Thanks for this! Finally a good web post of bringing kids to festivals!! There are many family friendly ones here in the UK (and many that aren't) and it can easily be done with a little prep work and knowing your family limits! Thanks for sharing!
    P.S. You'd never even think to go to a UK Music Festival without your rain gear ;-P

  6. This is a great guide, thanks for sharing your findings! I think kids at shows and festivals are great because it shows other people that it is doable, that they can have kids and go do fun things still. I remember at a small show at a YMCA one of The Dead Milkmen was playing and he had his kid with him, complete with tiny denim jacket and pins, and my teenage brain thought, "Hey, this guy is awesome and having a kid can be too".

  7. Thank You! Thank You! For this post. I've been trying to talk my husband into taking our little guy to a festival concert this year, which he thinks is totally not possible. Now I have proof….it can work with a little planning!

  8. Great article Stephanie! You nailed it. And boy, did I learn my lesson on the rain bit. Even if the forecast looks bright, rain gear no matter what. I stand by packing light, but packing light with extras. We had a pretty miserable Sunday night with that freezing rain. I'll give you a Bon Iver play by play (but even I had to miss the last 30 to catch the Shins…ugh the trials of the Roo). I'm so glad you guys were there. Jasper was the best possible person to run into, like most every child one runs into at the festival. Except even better, but I'm Mimi so I'm hugely and happily biased. I think festivals bring out the giddiest kind of kiddo in all of us, so seeing actual children is amplified and always a joy.

    Kimberly
    (LOVE the bubble pic. My fave Bonnaroo pic of me, ever, ever.)

  9. Thanks so much for this post. My husband and I have been to numerous festivals childless (ahhhh Bonnnnnnaaaaroooooooo), but now we have a 7 month old. Two weeks ago we went to Mountain Jam in Hunter, NY and while we didn't bring Quinn time I think that we may be able to in the future. I think we all need convincing that we can have kids and still have fun, thanks!

  10. We went our 7th time with our then 15-month old Arthur. It was a blast, and we later were excited to get a mass Bonnaroo email with our cute little ringleted baby boy sitting in a wagon in a daishiki stamped on it and on the web site as well. It was there for a couple of years. We took a break because of some major family changes (read: unexpected additions–plural–to the fam) but plan to return soon. We had an amazing time.

    I would add that it is very important to take hearing protection; for us we used the 13 dollar headphones for babies from amazon. He didn't like them at first but learned fast they help him. We now use them with our autistic nephew at outdoor events. We used a covered wagon and weren't afforded the luxury of traveling light, but family camping was amazing and not very crowded. Peace.

  11. This is a awesome article! My bf and I really want to go to Bonnaroo this June, but we have a 4 month old. She will be close to 8 months by the time the festival starts. Do you think she will be too young to bring?

    • I totally saw people with babies there! I think as long as you're being safe and taking the precautions you need to be — and you're willing to be SUPER flexible — you'll be fine!

      • Awesome! Thank you for the advice!!!! We will try it out! I think it will go good. I guess one of my biggest concerns is the heat. I will try and do what you did: staying in during the really hot hours. 🙂

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