What's it really like taking your kids to a festival?

A parent holds their child in a festival crowd
(Image credit: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns)

Summer festival season is well underway in the UK. As a new parent, when the year's festival announcements started to roll out, I looked at them in the same way I have viewed every major tour, live music event or general Big Night Out announced over the last two years, which is with the mindset that, well, sounds like fun, but it's probably Not For Me. But the more announcements I saw, the more a little voice in the back of my head kept asking... going to a festival with a kid – would it really be so bad? So, in the spirit of investigative journalism, I decided to try it out. 

I chose two festivals which represent very different ends of the festival experience: 2000trees, a small-scale festival hidden away in rural Cheltenham with a bill of small-to-medium-sized bands (headliners included Soft Play, Bullet For My Valentine, Frank Carter), and Bruce Springsteen's second night at British Summer Time, a sprawling 10-day event made up of a series of standalone one-day festivals, with big artists, big productions and even bigger crowds.

I'll go into proper detail on each event below, but the TL;DR is that all told, we all had a pretty good time. Predictably most of my anxieties in the lead up to the festivals related to 2000trees, where I was going to have to camp, and included fears that my toddler wouldn't sleep, that he would hate it and that it would be one long meltdown. Gladly, they proved unfounded. I was reliably informed that the organisers of 2000trees have children, and therefore have planned the festival and all its various family elements with their very own kids in mind. One of the parents I spoke to at 2000trees told me he'd been attending the festival since it began, bringing his kids with him for the last three years. "You can kind of see how the organisers have matured," he told me. "When the festival first started it was all kind of sparse and austere... as they've got older, everything's become a bit more comfortable".

In general, I’d say your experience will depend on the unique temperament of your child as much as anything else – if your kid thrives on routine and a dependable schedule then throwing them into the necessary unknown that comes with attending a music festival might not work for your family. But if you think they can cope with throwing the rules out of the window for a couple of days, then go for it. Your enjoyment will also depend on your own ability to be flexible and open-minded. Try not to jam-pack your schedule with must-see bands, and allow for the fact one of your kids will need a wee, or a snack, a nap or just some downtime right when your favourite artist is about to start. Go with it – keeping your kids as happy as possible will mean a better time for all of you in the end.

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What was camping with a toddler like?

Honestly, camping with a toddler wasn’t ideal, but that’s because I hate camping and have actively chosen not to attend any festivals where I have to do it since Reading 2003. So, my gripes were really related to the camping itself – having to schlep to a grim Portaloo in the dark, waking up freezing cold in the middle of the night and so on – more than doing it with a child in tow. Experienced campers no doubt have tips and tricks to deal with the crap side of camping, but loads of extra jumpers in the event you end up having to share your sleeping bag with a child who doesn’t want to sleep in their own bed is mine (more on that below). 2000trees – along with many other UK festivals – has designated family camping, as far away from all the music as possible, but it’s still pretty loud late into the night which isn’t great for trying to get (and keep) kids asleep. What was brilliant about the family camping area, though, was that it had a well-equipped (and, essentially, well-shaded) play area in the middle which provided many moments of respite over the weekend, and allowed the kids (and parents) to make new pals. 

We had a big tent with three separate compartments, which I thought was probably overkill, but even that paled in comparison to the mega-tents a lot of the other families had opted for. We naively bought a little blow up toddler bed for my son, assuming he’d sleep happily enough with that in one of the aforementioned separate compartments, but it immediately became clear he wasn’t going to be having any of that and he ended up sleeping with us. That seemed pretty dreamy for him – he slept fine – but was predictably horrifically uncomfortable for both parents. In future, we’ll just bring two double airbeds for the obvious eventuality that he’ll end up sleeping on one of them. It bears mentioning that of all the parents I spoke to, 95% of them said their child’s sleep was somewhere on the spectrum between bad and terrible, whether that was because they wouldn’t go to bed until 11, woke up constantly overnight, or were awake as soon as the sun came up around 4. 

Obviously when you have a kid, the amount of stuff you have to take with you to stay overnight anywhere is intense, whether you’re going for two nights or two weeks. Lugging all that from the carpark to the tent was gruelling even with a pram to wheel a lot of it in, so packing as lightly as possible is advised, even if totally unrealistic. A lot of people had little trolleys which they could stick their kids AND a load of luggage in, which might be something for parents of slightly older children to look into.

If your child is anything like mine, by which I mean constantly filthy, two or more nights of no bath/shower is just not going to cut it even if you’re top and tailing. So here’s an amazing tip for the toddler shower I accidentally developed: leave a 5L bottle of water in your very hot tent all day, and by the evening you will have five litres of nice, warm water. Lather ‘em up, splash ‘em into oblivion, and as if by magic you have a vaguely clean child on your hands. See you on Dragon’s Den next festival season.

What about food?

I made a batch of fruit muffins and flapjacks to take with us to 2000trees, and brought a stash of fruit and veg pouches to ensure my child was getting some reliable nutrition in around whatever we could find in the arena, but festival food these days isn’t what it used to be, and even relatively small-scale festivals have options for every dietary requirement and appetite. There were sushi wraps and rice bowls available which meant access to fresh veg should your children be of the vegetable-eating variety, as well as more conventional festival fare like pizza and burgers. Of course, relying on food trucks for every meal will prove prohibitively expensive for most families, and you can take your own food with you to 2000trees. Many families were cooking up breakfasts and dinners at the campsite, so you theoretically don’t need to rely on festival food at all if you’re organised enough. BST’s rules around food and drink are far stricter – aside from baby food (and I didn’t push what counted as this, but the fruit and veg pouches I mentioned above would definitely be allowed), you’re not permitted to take any food in with you at all, but organisers insist that all food vendors offer kids’ portions and options, so you should be able to find something for them to eat. 

A small boy at 2000trees festival

(Image credit: Briony Edwards)

Is it actually fun?

It’s actually fun in the same way as doing anything with your kids is actually fun – it’s fun with limits. Can you stay out cavorting until four in the morning whilst taking part in a bender that would make Oliver Reed wince? No, obviously not. But equally, having your kids with you isn’t a barrier to having a good time, and festivals which are planned with small children in mind tend to have at least a few spaces designed to suit you all. There are also ways and means to fit your kids around, for example, wanting to see a band late at night. Lots of parents at 2000trees were simply letting their kids stay up late and watch bands, while a few had come with friends or family members and took it in turns heading out to watch bands while their kids slept. One of the upsides of taking a younger toddler was that I could put him to sleep in his pram with ear defenders on at his usual bedtime, and then head off to watch some bands while he slept through it all. I found the experience of watching bands I love with my sleeping baby next to me unexpectedly life-affirming.

BST's early headliner slots mean you can catch a good whack of the set you came to see and still get home/back to your accommodation in time for a reasonable bedtime if you know your kid won't last the full night – although if you're forking out for a ticket, chances are you won't want to leave a few songs in, so it's worth planning ahead as to how you're going to deal with that. 

Small boy watches Bruce Springsteen in a festival crowd

"What, no Born In The USA?!" (Image credit: Briony Edwards)

Anything else to think about?

It’s worth remembering that you’re going to a music festival where, even if there are kids’ areas, the environment as a whole will be geared towards adults. There will be drunk people, there will be loud people and there will be lots of swearing and recreational adult behaviour. And it’s a music festival – that’s the way it’s meant to be. “You can come with your children but it is still very much an adult-led show,” says Sarah Cook, AEG's Stakeholder Manager and part of the team involved in overseeing accessibility at BST. “It's still a music show. It's still something that obviously adults are going to get a lot more entertainment out of than children, and the programming isn't therefore directed at children.”

BST was busy. Honestly, it's probably not the best place for younger kids/toddlers who just want to run around as the crowds can get intense and slightly unwieldy. Also, it's bloody hard work getting a pram out from within a festival's-worth of people. "We allow pushchairs," says Cook, "but it is with the caveat similar to picnic blankets that if you're in an area quite near the front which is going to get very crowded, for your own safety and your own enjoyment, you might be asked to move back."

If the idea of committing to a full-on music festival is too daunting, there are other events which might allow you to dip your toes in to see if it’s the sort of thing that works for your family. BST actually have an "Open House" programme running during the week which provides family-centred free entertainment including Chicken Shed Theatre, sports activities and craft workshops. Big Fish Little Fish arrange family-friendly raves and festivals across the UK where the music is kept to a WHO-approved level, with a ton of specifically kid-geared entertainment and a runtime of between two and four hours each so as to not party anyone out too much (their tagline, ‘2-4 hour party people’, is surely the best in the business). Camp Bestival is specifically geared towards families with small children, and Wilderness Festival has a comprehensive children’s programme (and designated field) as well as nannies for rent who will not only keep your kids entertained during the day, but also babysit them at night if you want to head out. Glastonbury, of course, has something for everyone as well as a ton of stuff for kids. There are plenty of other festivals with children's programmes built in, so a bit of research should give you a good idea of if a festival feels right for you.

I can’t remember if it’s always been this way or if I’m just old and out of practice now, but the music at 2000trees was loud. My son resolutely refused to wear his ear defenders unless I managed to slip them on him while he was asleep, so I was vaguely concerned I was deafening him all weekend, which made it hard to fully relax around the music. If you think your child will react similarly to ear defenders, it’s worth buying a load to experiment with and sending back the ones that are a hard no, while practicing with wearing the others in the weeks leading up to the festival, so your child can get used to them (or you can prepare yourself for the fact your child won’t be wearing them and plan accordingly). 

The weather was kind to us at 2000trees, but at BST it was patchy at best, and pissed it down on and off during Bruce's set. Slogging round a campsite/music festival with your kids in the rain is either 'a bit annoying' or 'a total fucking nightmare' depending on your tolerance for these things, but prepping for rain with wellies, waterproofs and a million changes of clothes (including shoes and socks) might help. Remember what I said about packing light being impossible..? 

Briony Edwards

Briony is the Editor in Chief of Louder and is in charge of sorting out who and what you see covered on the site. She started working with Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Prog magazines back in 2015 and has been writing about music and entertainment in many guises since 2009. She is a big fan of cats, Husker Du and pizza.