“Surviving Outside Lands?” my friend asks me, incredulously. “The only way to survive three days of loud music, hot weather and hordes of people is to not go to Outside Lands.”
It’s a common misconception, the idea that huge music festivals are for teenagers with boundless energy and a bottomless capacity for indulgence. But even if, like me, you’re not exactly a spring chicken anymore, there are ways to spend three days in Golden Gate Park this weekend, see great performers, and get out of there alive.
Take it from someone who’s been at Outside Lands every year since its inception. Here’s what I’ve learned in the last decade.
There’s only been a couple years I actually parked in the neighborhood, and even then, it was an eight-block, hilly walk to the park. One year I fought the crowds on MUNI, waiting in a huge throng to squeeze onto a packed bus. Neither were ideal. And Uber's "surge pricing" for the festival is insane.
Easily the best way to get to Outside Lands is to take that clunky old 10-speed, throw it in your trunk with a bungee cord, park for free near Ocean Beach and ride your bike in. This way you can pick up any provisions you’ve forgotten (and cheap sandwiches!) at the supermarket and say hi to the buffalo along the way. And at the end of the long day, it’s a downhill ride all the way to your car, with no traffic getting out. Easy.
What to Wear
Clothes-wise, a music festival is like snow skiing -- you’re gonna have to set aside delusions of fashion for optimal functionality. Don’t try to wind up on a “15 Sexiest Outfits from Outside Lands (NSFW)” clickbait list. Realize that the fog rolls in. Remember that you will get dusty. Be prepared to walk between stages, logging multiple miles each day. There’s no shame in looking like a Kirkland model from the Costco catalog if it’ll keep you comfortable. Rock those lame-looking tennis shoes, man. Put on an A’s hat. And yes: wear sunscreen.
Important: In 2018, the festival began a very restrictive bag policy. Similar to the NFL's widely criticized bag policy, it requires you to bring a clear, transparent bag in place of a purse, backpack or messenger bag. Read up on it here, and be prepared. (I don't know where the hell to buy a clear backpack, sorry.)
Where to Watch
The best vantage point at each stage varies depending on your taste, but here’s what I recommend. At the large Lands End stage at the Polo Field, walk along the food booths on the south side all the way to the left side of the stage. The north side is clogged with the VIP area, and so sidling southward can get you close, with some nice breathing room. At the Twin Peaks stage over in Hellman Hollow, crush past the logjam near the bathrooms and head up the incline to the left of the stage; there’s often a sea of blankets, but finding a place to stand isn’t hard. The Panhandle stage area gets downright claustrophobic for more popular bands, but if you walk along the eco-themed booths on the left of the stage, you can get right up front. (If you’re sneaky, you can even walk behind the booths, but I didn't tell you so.)
By far the most frustrating stage is the Sutro stage. Because the ground at Lindley Meadow takes a sharp dip in front of the stage, if you’re not down in the “bowl” at the front, it's very hard to see the performer. You can angle for a spot on the crowded hill to the right of the stage, but I recommend snaking around the disabled seating platform to the left of the stage. Be persistent, and once you’re on the other side, you’ll find plenty of room, shade, a nice incline and even some picnic tables. You’ll also be close to the band.
What to Eat
Outside Lands has such an excellent variety of cuisine that it’s easy to forget you can bring in your own food. But if you’re not going to pack deli sandwiches with fruits and vegetables in a backpack, then remember to bring money, because foodie delights like banh mi, huaraches, empanadas, pork belly, porcini donuts, arepas and fried egg sandwiches don’t exactly come cheap. (Over near the Sutro stage, there's usually more common festival fare like Philly cheesesteak and chicken sandwiches.) The Choco-Lands area is where you'll find your sugar fix. Remember that lines for pour-over coffee and wood-fired pizza will move very, very slowly.
I’ve said it a hundred times: all outdoor festivals should supply free water. Outside Lands is finally doing so, after years of charging you to fill up your own reusable water bottle, or charging for a commemorative water bottle that comes with free refills. Water fountains are virtually nonexistent (there's one near the fenced-off bathrooms adjacent to the Twin Peaks stage), and ground spigots, last I checked, are turned off. Thank goodness, then, for Rock Medicine, which always keeps a water cooler and paper cups on hand for thirsty festival-goers. Their booth is usually between the Panhandle Stage and the Polo Fields.
Make sure to walk through McLaren Pass, a forest-like path where all manner of weird clowns and marching bands seem to show up. (This is also where Jack White once played an unannounced set.) Do definitely inhale aerosol art at the triangular graffiti wall. Avoid any and all marketers handing you glossy handbills for a cheaper phone plan or a new social network. Be wary of special events in corporate tents draped with logos of credit card companies. Do not, I repeat do not, agree to see any “intimate show” that requires you to "like" a company on Facebook to get in.
Certainly, gawk at the slow-moving line for the Buckminster Fuller-esque DJ tent, which is always filled with colorfully dressed people hoping their MDMA high lasts until they can get inside. Also try to find time for the Barbary Coast comedy tent -- the old-style wooden décor is beautiful inside, and if nothing else, you’ll be able to sit for a while. (More popular comedy acts are accessed via a Fastpass-style situation with the line; be sure to check in well ahead of time to get a reservation.)
You can plot your day ahead of time using the performance schedule, but don’t cleave too tightly to any rigid plan. Chances are you’ll be happiest if you float around freely. Go ahead and ditch out on a living legend and see a smaller local rapper instead. If your favorite indie band starts putting you to sleep this weekend, go see whatever weird jazz performance is happening in the forest. Or heck, go check out someone you’ve never heard of. After all, at their best, music festivals are all about discovery. Come with an open mind, and leave with a well-rounded sense of what’s happening.
And... congratulations! You’ve survived!
The Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival runs Friday–Sunday in Golden Gate Park. For more information, visit sfoutsidelands.com.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.