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Volunteering at festivals – 22 essential survival tips

Oxfam team photo Reading, Volunteering at festivals

Fancy seeing some rock icons at a summer festival whilst doing your bit for Oxfam? It sounded too good to be true. I could take my newly minted 18 year old with me and embark upon a new era of working family holidays. In my excitement to don a tabard, pick up a radio and dance the night away, introducing the next generation to the joy of festival life, I briefly forgot why I hadn’t camped for 4 years. I signed up for surfy Boardmasters in the fabulous Watergate Bay and to mosh with the Killers at Reading. In for a penny…

How does volunteering at festivals work?

Why are Oxfam involved in stewarding festivals, you may well ask? Well, the deal is that Oxfam provide a willing army of would-be festival attendees who man the gates and patrol the campsites and arenas. In return for working three 8 hour shifts volunteers get to attend a music festival for free. The festival organisers then make a sizable donation to Oxfam for providing smiley, up-for-it staff. A win, win scenario.

Volunteering at festivals top tip #1

If you volunteer at 2 festivals in one season you get “priority booking” for next year and are in with a chance of nabbing a stewarding spot a the holy grail of festivals, Glastonbury.

How do you apply?

Enter your details and a referee on this website. There are 3 types of jobs available – campaigner,shop keeper and steward. To be a campaigner you need to submit a 3 minute application video. The shifts are shorter and essentially you need to ask people to sign petitions. There are daily targets and reward. (The tricky bit is finding people over 18 to approach.)  The shop job sounds the most cushy (am assuming no overnight shifts) but you need to have actually worked in an Oxfam shop in the previous 3 months. Stewards generally patrol the site and check wristbands. This seemed like the role for us!

Is there any training?

You will be enrolled on a 2-hour live online training session and receive instruction in everything from how to operate a radio to manning a fire tower and rolling the unconscious. Smiling and being helpful are the main responsibilities for the steward, acting as the eyes and the ears of the festival. Security and medical issues are to be notified to the professionals. The training lasts 4 years (validity not session duration).

Does it cost anything?

The volunteer pays a deposit of the cost of a festival ticket. This is refunded 4 weeks after your last festival (to ensure you have actually turned up for your shifts and not just wangled a free festival). So volunteers are not temporarily bankrupted, no matter how many festivals you work, you only have to pay one deposit.

You can get paid work through other festival staff suppliers but the shifts are long (security were working 9am until 4am the next morning) and you don’t always get days off.

Volunteering at festivals top tip #2

Some employers even give you paid time off from your day job for charity work. 

Can children camp with you?

Children under 18 are too young to volunteer and can camp with you, but must have their own festival ticket and under 16’s must have adult supervision when you are on shift. Lots of volunteers are parents of 16 year olds and have children staying in the main camping fields. It is a handy way of supervising fledgling festival goers from a distance.

Volunteering at festivals top tip #3

The VIP camping is the Nirvana of festival accommodation – flushing loos, banks of sparkly clean sinks (with mirrors), a covered canopy area with benches and Air stream coffee vans. The field comes with its own 24 hour security detail too, thus avoiding final night intruders/ mayhem. Park your child here if they don’t want to stay with you and you want to protect them from the mele of the general camping fields. The bring-your-own tent option keeps the costs down.



Boardmasters: A golden “crew catering dinner ticket” is issued for each shift worked. You can’t get to the crew tent in your 30 minute shift break, so save these for your day off evening meal. You will dine under bunting and rain-protective tarpaulin with the luxury of seats, tables and cutlery. We were there at opening time every night to beat the queue. Infinitely better than a trader’s £10 noodle dinner on your lap sat on the wet ground. If you run out of vouchers, you can buy your meals for about £6.

Volunteering at festivals top tip #4

You are encouraged to bring Pot Noodles for on shift snacking, but after 2 shifts with no sign of a kettle or the tea van I learned to move on to already-hydrated packet rice.

Reading: Of the 3 meal tickets, only 1 is for the crew tent. It can be tricky finding the small number of traders who accept your other 2 meal tickets on site, even with their photos posted in the marquee. It does mean that on your night off you can stay in the arena for your tea rather than completing the 1 and a half hour return trip to camp though.


The staff camping field is infinitely better than bedding down with the paying crowds in the main campsites. Aware of the different shift patterns, your fellow campers are delightfully quiet neighbours. There are hot showers and a marquee with chairs/ phone charging points and free tea and coffee. 

You can bring your own campervan if you are lucky enough to own one. This would totally transform the experience in terms of bedding and general supplies.


The allocated field is a bit nettle/ thistle filled (bring gloves for tent assembly). We were next to a 24-hour flood-lit haulage area so it was not totally peaceful. Bringing an eye mask gave us a fighting chance of sleep.


The field is bigger, and there is more room for each tent. We “cleverly” pitched near (but not too near) to the toilets and to the marquee for coffee runs. We were wrong on both fronts. Our chosen pitch was in fact too near the marquee which doubles as a post-shift party venue. The toilets were out of use. We had to walk 3 fields down to the general crew ones – nightmare for the 3am dash.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #5 and #6

5) Pitch your tent as far from the marquee as you can and

6) don’t forget your lanyard on your loo trip or you won’t be allowed back into the Oxfield.


One of the main perks for the volunteer is the ability to shower, so you can feel like the girl from the Timotei advert rather than festival Shrek.

Boardmasters: There was a bank of 6 sparkly clean hot showers in our field and the queue was never more than 10 minutes long. 10/10.

There are no sinks at Boardmasters so toothbrushing is a standing tap affair.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #7 and #8

 7) Take flip flops or even water shoes for your journey between tent and shower on muddier days. 

8) There is talk of communal showers at some festivals so the Oxfam advice is to take a swim suit just in case.

Reading: There were about 14 showers for 6 fields of crew (I’m guessing 1000 people). They were  located next to the toilets i.e. 3 fields and a 10 min walk away. As the festival wore on, only 4 were still hot and all a bit litter-strewn. By day 2, the area beneath the tooth brushing standing tap had transformed into a mud bath. I sunk into it in flip flops and made a note to seek another source of water. On day 3 I discovered that one of the shower banks had a sink. Hooray! Sadly as I approached it, used shower water sluiced underneath the doors to form a cold brown pool up to my ankles. Equally unpleasant in your flip flops.

On day 4 I queued for 1 and a half hours for one of the remaining hot showers, but there were still 4 people ahead of me when the heavens opened. I gave up. The idea of drying with a wet towel and redressing in sopping clothes did not appeal. Trudging back, unwashed, under cover of a damp towel was a festival low point. We embraced the grunge and gave up on the showers for the last 2 days. Score 2/10.

Campsite Toilets

Boardmasters: So, although these are the same portaloo type plastic cubicle as in the general arena and campsites, they are in slightly better nick as they are generally not used by the uncontrollably drunk/ill and are subject to regular cleaning.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #9

Loo roll and sanitiser are replenished sporadically – so worth brining emergency supplies.

Reading: All I can say here is location/location/location (see above)! Also the toilets in the arena are actually better than the staff camping – totally acceptable, clean, flushing variety as you would encounter in real life.


Travelling light verses camping comfort is the trade off here. The entirety of my load was dedicated towards achieving a good night’s sleep – the festival outfits were jettisoned.

  • I went for a 3-season sleeping bag, a fleece liner and literally the biggest single airbed in Christendom.

    Having failed to find a camp bed that let me sleep on my previous 3 camping trips, I had invested in the bed voted number one for comfort on the Independent’s top ten best camping mats list. This was for campervan owners, rather thank hikers, but at 6kg and about a metre long I was going to be able to lift it. My bed of choice was a self-inflating memory foam/airbed combo and was bigger than most people’s tents. I resembled a hammer head shark when I added it to the top of the ruck sack and bystanders regularly risked decapitation. Doorways had to be tackled side on (particularly tricksy when disembarking from a train).

  • Fully waterproof coat, trousers, socks and boots saved the day on more than one occasion.
  • A head torch was handy for rucksack delving and dealing with dark/grubby toilets.
  • Don’t take glass or aerosols (Nutella/ peanut butter jars/ mirrors were all contraband in Boardmasters).
  • For Boardmasters you can bring in a limited amount of alcohol on first entry only, so use your full allowance on arrival (if you can carry it). In Reading you can bring as much as you like on each entry so pack less and top up in town.
  • Bring medications in their original packet so they don’t look illicit.
  • Pack an eye mask for early summer dawns,  night-shift recovery lie-ins and campsite floodlights.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #10

For the full festival packing list subscribe here


The Oxfamily

Even before you arrive you feel part of the family. A Whatsapp group provides virtual access to the volunteer community for each festival – so you can ask about anything you are unsure of, arrange shared lifts and social meet ups.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #11

Join Whatsapp and follow on FB for everything you need to know – from how to deflate a self inflating airbed to bagging extra early bird shifts

Travel to the festival

Volunteering at festivals top tips #12

 If arriving by train, choose a direct train if at all possible. And book a seat, on every leg if more than one. Extracting your luggage from under that of 10 other people and running with it over bridges to catch connections is hard work. Locating new / empty luggage racks on your second and third train becomes nigh on impossible as the trickle of people heading in the festival direction concentrates into a flood.

The Boardmasters arrival odyssey and abandonment

As our first festival we naively went for economy over ease in train ticket selection. Our journey involved 3 trains, and the Trainline had only allocated us seats on the first 2. We also paid more for flexible tickets, thinking we may want a day on the beach on our last day if it was sunny. In reality, unless you have a seat booked on your return train out of Newquay they will not let you board.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #13

Book a cheaper advance single train as there is no flexibility to pick and choose your exit train out of Newquay.

On the first 2 trains, although we had seats, luggage was an issue. Ours was buried deep and on each change of train we had to prepare for disembarking at least 15 minutes before landing at the station to fight our way to the doors and be ready to exit the train when it stopped. On our final leg, 4 carriages of festival goers were seeking to enter a 2-carriage train. It was like travelling in Asia. Suitcases were passed over the heads of people already in the doorway, then tiny but nimble old ladies clambered through miniscule gaps between legs into the already full aisles, adding further pressure on those (me) already squeezed into the doorway like sardines.

Judging this entire scenario to be ridiculously unsafe, the driver asked most of the passengers near the doors to get off again as “coaches had been ordered”. An hour later there were no coaches, the station had closed (and with it, the toilets) and there was no one to ask for an update. The next train was due in 2 hours and was likely to be a repeat overcrowding performance. Also, we would have missed our 7pm registration cut-off time at the festival site.

We Googled our location. Par (where?) was the middle of nowhere somewhere in the vicinity of St Austell on an entirely different coast of  Cornwall. We proceeded to call the first 6 taxi numbers on page 1. None were available or “doing Boardmasters this year”. Millenia later, whilst still forming part of a sizable crowd looking  bit bewildered at having been stranded in a field, a lone taxi (who had a mate living nearby who had spotted the station crowds) appeared and agreed, for £60, to take us across Cornwall to our destination. Not a great start. An 18 year old volunteer on their own could very easily have been stranded. Maybe some of them are still there…

Reading pack-horse style arrival

This time, without access to my 18 year old sherper, I had to carry all my kit by myself. I had my backpack and tent combo on my back, an arena compliant A4 ticket/snack bag around my neck and my ridiculously oversized sleeping mat dressed up in a bodyboard bag so I could sling it over my shoulder. I’d made the rookie error of not checking I could actually lift all these items simultaneously before my taxi arrived and got a bit of a shock moving from the front room to the street. This was going to be interesting!

Volunteering at festivals top tips #14

Pick up all bags the night before and discard items until the pack can be lifted from the floor without injury. My 3 litre wine box, packed in the middle of the bag, would have been binned had I had the time to repack.

The train was direct, with a booked seat, so I was winning at this section of the journey. On the train I glanced at the Whatsapp group and could see that for those who arrived early there were 60 new vacancies for a day shift that afternoon, before the punters arrived (a dream shift). This meant we were now against the clock and the race was on with the other 500 stewards arriving that day.

Next stop was the shuttle from Reading train station to the festival site. Here, I was too excited to meet my travel buddy to pay attention to the fact that there was more than one shuttle type. We just followed the crowd and boarded the first bus, which took us to totally the wrong end of the site (red gate), over an hour’s walk away from Oxfield.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #15

There is a staff bus from the station which takes you to White Camp – from where it is only a 10 minute walk to the Oxfam camping fields. Boring but crucial information.

Arrival on site

The Boadmasters festival brings to mind surf, sea and sand. So we were surprised to find that the taxi driver’s sat nav wanted us to enter via an MOD military zone, complete with barbed wire fencing. After initial misgivings, and for want of any other plan, we drove into the armoured area anyway to find the festival is in fact held on the edge of military land. The place is dotted with post-apocalyptic looking khaki bunkers, which look like a laser tag team is about to jump out of them. Weird. Despite a total lack of sign posting we were eventually dropped off at what appeared to be staff accreditation.

Reading: After disembarking form our shuttle, we asked one of the volunteers for directions and set off on the hour long speed walk along the Thames to our camp, my 3 bags buffeting my legs and others as we went. To ease the journey pain, the sun was shining and the path lead us past swans, willow trees and mansion houses, something of a contrast to our Cornish military experience.


Volunteering at festivals top tips #16

 Locate the correct accreditation area. We stood for some time at Boardmasters in a long line before working out we had joined the a general staff line not the Oxfam one, in a totally different field.

Boardmasters: With 10 minutes to spare before accreditation closed, we found the Oxfield where we  needed to register. We caught the end of a staff briefing before collecting our official tabards and passes and setting about finding a pitch in a very full field. There were some spaces free by the toilets, we were told – handy but fragrant.

Tent pitched, we joined the party in the marquee, organised for the first night so you get to meet everyone. The marquee was more plastic than canvas and erected on concrete rather than grass, but…there were fairy lights, someone had brought home made flapjacks and a jar had been filled with freshly cut roses. There were cup cakes, BYO wine and an overwhelming sense of community. The party had started.

Reading: Having thought I’d cracked the whole registration thing, I made a beeline for the Oxfield. But you are  not permitted to enter the site at Reading without a staff wristband. Chinese whispers from semi-informed security staff along the everlasting perimeter suggested we head to a random portacabin near the White camp exit. Oxfam did indeed have its own cabin here where you briefly debag, show your id and wristband-up before wrestling bags back on for the final push. Almost, but not quite, jogging at this point ( tick tock) back along the perimeter, security let us through a secret gap in the fence, allowing us to traverse the bridge which had been specially erected over the Thames for the event, and stagger through White campsite into the crew area. In the Oxfield we practically collapsed in front of the marquee.  It was 2pm and there were 8 spaces left for the 3.45 shift. Hooray! Just had to pitch the tent, eat some food, collect my pal’s pre-ordered airbed and be back for a briefing for 2.30pm. No rest for the wicked or chance to join the welcome cheese and wine party that evening.

Oxfamily activities

Regular activities are planned for the volunteers: marquee games’ evenings, pub/band meet ups, sandcastle building and photo competitions. Boardmasters has its own dedicated social stewards. Even if you arrive alone, you will meet people to hang out with in the coffee tent or to head down to the arena with for your favourite band.

Over the 2 festivals we met a couple who had given up work for 2 years to travel, an academic who doubled as a pet sitter in stately homes, a former paramedic with a sister in show biz, a student who had had her leg shattered by an octogenarian driver and who used her leg pinning bracket as a fairy-lit Christmas tree, my child’s Y5 teacher and 2 Wetherspoons managers. All walks of life are represented here and to hear their life stories is an absolute honour – one of the best parts about volunteering. We shared GCSE results day together and traumatic midnight shifts which needed a bit of a hug at the end.

The setting


The Boardmasters’ backdrop of Watergate bay is wildly beautiful (one of the best beaches in the UK), so contrasted sharply with the behind-the-scenes military setting for volunteers. The beach is accessible from the site. It is transformed for the weekend into party central, appearing not unlike Benidorm on a sunny day when the tide comes in to concentrate the crowd.

Newquay is 4 miles away so you can’t just pop in for supplies or sanity. The waiting time for the shuttles is over hour at peak times for paying customers, but free for staff who can walk to the front of the line, like a Disney fast pass. 

Reading Festival is within walking distance of town (and essential supplies) but feels like it is in the country side. It backs onto the Thames which is just beautiful and edged with the fanciest houses in the land, sporting turrets and thatched boat houses. 

Festival Campsites

Like a Tardis, the Reading site feels bigger on the inside. With a capacity of 100, 000 it houses  more people than a small town and the campsites are vast. There is Co-op onsite, the likes of which you will never have seen. Music pumps out from speakers on the front and the queues are gated. 

As it gets dark there is an element of mayhem, as you would expect when effectively pupils from 100 of the nation’s secondary schools amass away form home for the first time, with no supervision but with rivers of alcohol thrown into the mix. As a volunteer, you are shielded from the ensuing madness in your staff campsite but may encounter it on a shift at campsite information stand. 

If your own teens are attending, direct them to White campsite for the most peaceful stay. It is over the river from the arena and generally the sanest. Purple campsite near the arena was the craziest.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #17

If you have teens and they are not in the VIP area, the general rule is the closer the site is to the arena, the more mayhem ensues. For offspring attending the main campsites,  direct them to camp as far from the arena as possible to save them from the worst of potential trouble.

Boardmasters, with its 53,000 attendees, is half the size of Reading so is quicker and easier to get around. There is a supermarket, but no alcohol is sold. The crowds are even younger here, mainly 16 -17 year olds but there is still an edginess after dark, especially towards the end of the festival.  The quietest fields, Marvericks or Waiema are again to be found furthest away from the arena. Some of the campers staying in Pipeline, Boilers and Jaws looked genuinely scared to be there at times. You will probably be involved in an incident or two as Oxfam volunteers are on 24 hour campsite patrol.


Boardmasters is compact and bijou. Haybales, hammocks and fabric flowers pretty-up the site. Don’t miss the Lidl sponsored flower-garlanded bar and viewing platform, where you can purchase a hot dog and prosecco combo for a festival-reasonable £9.50 Listening to music whilst overlooking the sea is as magical as it sounds. The bars are always empty as most attendees are under 18 or just over 18 so unable to afford the prices.

Reading festival arena caters for the discerning customer, adults down from London who have bought a day ticket and a hotel room. Toilets are clean and flushing. The Bar teems with wooden benches – no floor sitting required. There is a 3-storey Pepsi Max stand with bean bags, bar stools and a viewing platform, where you can bring drinks from any of the bars and watch either stage in surprising comfort.

The music

Boardmasters: The big draw of volunteering is that you get to see your favourite headliners for free (or 24 hours’ labour anyway). For me, Liam Gallagher singing Oasis songs was a 20-year long dream come true. You can also experience chilled acoustic sets (some even in Cornish) overlooking the Atlantic, whist resting against a giant ball of hay. A retro highlight is shout-singing along to Beatles and Oasis cover bands in the on-site Keg and Pasty pub.

Reading: The music here is total A list quality – Sam Fender, The Killers, Billie Eilish. My personal new discoveries were Frank Turner and Magic Dragons. There are 2 main stages which alternate sets and more mini-stages to explore here.  

Days off

Working 3 shifts over 5 days or so, means you usually get 2 days off when you get to feel like a paying customer (but without having to camp in the scary bit).

Between shifts at Boardmasters you can have a day at one of the best beaches in the land, Watergate Bay, or take the shuttle into Newquay for chips on the harbour and/or cocktails at the beach bar overlooking the surf competition at Fistral. We did all these things in our 2 days off. It was like being on a real holiday. 

Reading: In my mind I would be spending my time off trudging around a modern town centre in the English summer rain. In reality I could stroll along a scenic Thames path, next to swans and squirrels, with locals rowing and motorboating by. Heavenly.

We spent day one catching the two free ferries into town, wandering through palm-strewn formal gardens and ancient abbey ruins, before having some home-cooked quiche in a Georgian hotel. We stocked up on fruit, to top up the vitamin supplies before heading back on the boat to the festival for the head liners.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #18

The first ferry is for staff only and goes from White Camp to half way down the site at Green camp. There is a second ferry from here into town, open to everyone. This is free so very popular. Staff can go straight to the front by showing their wrist band.

The second day we chatted to other volunteers in the marquee and then spent the evening on the 3rd floor of the Pepsi Max stand watching the Killers from the comfort of front row seats. Rumour has it  that there is a discretion to allow unfilled seats on the accessibility stage to be used by Oxfam staff but we were too chicken to try this out for fear of appearing to be stealing seats from the disabled.


The general idea is that everyone gets a morning, afternoon and night shift. Shift sheets are allocated on arrival and opened like an Oscar’s nomination. There are definitely winners and losers.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #19

Do a recce of the location of your next shift the night before. The sites are huge and you need to work out where you are going and how long it is going to take you (rarely less than 30 minutes).

Boardmaster shifts

These can vary enormously from patrolling campsites or arenas to manning entry gates or the Oxfam field or directing  traffic on site or in town. The shuttle journey is factored into your shift timings.

Shift 1 - morning camp patrol

We lucked out with our first two postings. The first morning was a 7.15am shift at Waimea campsite. This was  40 minute walk from our tent so entailed a very early and misty start. As the site was only just opening to the public and this field was furthest from the stage, it was practically empty for the entire shift. Having arrived less than 12 hours earlier ourselves, we were pretty useless as an information point for the first hour or so until we got to grips with the map. We made sure tents weren’t erected over fire lines and chatted on the handful of still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed arrivees. I shared life stories with my shift buddy and, even though we walked our legs off for the entirety of the 8 hours, the time went pretty quickly.

Shift 2 - morning wristbanding

Shift 2 , at 7.45am the following morning, was on the yellow entrance gate scanning tickets and handing out wrist bands. The latter had to be done from behind a barrier in case some chancer decided to make off with the whole bag.

Watching the dismay on the 16 year-old faces when their illicit aerosol deodorant and dry shampoos were confiscated at the gate was comi-tragic. The queue was immense and only grew throughout the shift. But the customers were excited to have arrived and were loving the sparkly bands. Everyone said “thank you “:  A full-on but up-beat shift.

Shift 3 - evening camp patrol

This was crunch time – Jaws campsite on the 4pm-midnight shift. It was the last night of the festival in the party field. The stewards’ radio waves were filled with tales of 17-year olds being sick or having convulsions, possibly having been spiked. We were told that campsite wars were on the agenda for later. There were rumours of tent pegs being sharpened. Groups of 15+ were to be radioed in. Gangs of boys were harassing girls and kicking them through their tents. One tent went up in flames and the volunteers had to madly unpeg and remove its neighbours. There were 2 mallet incidents, both of which my 18 year-old radioed in. I felt a bit protective and wondered whether this was too much life exposure?

During the shift we all received a text to say we had been such great stewards that a free drink voucher was available to us, to be collected by 6pm. We were on shift until 12pm. Bitter sweet.

At the end of the shift, I had bonded, as if it were the war years, with my shift buddy and shared a shattered hug before shuffling off in the mud to bed. There was no group photo. The volunteers relieving us, starting their shift at midnight, looked uneasy. We passed them again at 7am the next morning just before their shift ended, and one of them was definitely crying

Reading shifts

At Reading, the campsites are patrolled by real security, so there is more chance of getting an exciting arena shift. There being more stages, the chances of an accessible platform slot are also increased. Whistle while you work!

Shift1 - Red gate afternoon ticket checking

Our first 3.45pm-midnight entrance gate shift was a dream. We met at the marquee and were taken to the staff ferry, for a leisurely drift down the river, alighting at Green Gate before walking to Red Gate, where we had originally arrived by shuttle. Even if we had noticed the unmarked ferry stop on our marathon walk earlier, I’m not sure whether we would have been allowed to board it before getting our staff bands. I like to think not for my  own sanity.

This shift involved directing the arrivals to the least crowded side of the wrist banding tent. As it was early, both sides were empty most of the time and having 4 of us on this duty seemed a little excessive.

We were then rotated to a spot nearer the entrance where we were to ask those entering site to drop all their luggage and show us their ticket on their phones. After this initial screening they would need to pass the security/sniffer dogs and then show their tickets to the real ticket people who would provide wrist bands. We didn’t really need to be there, but seeing an orange tabard probably made the queue more orderly. As the hours passed and day turned to night, there were fewer and fewer arrivals and we got to know our fellow gaters. At midnight we all hopped back on the ferry, which had now turned into a party boat belting out sing-along songs that we inevitably all sang along to (Sweet Caroline…).

Volunteering at festivals top tips #20

Never walk when you can get the ferry. An 8 hour shift is hard enough on the legs without an hour long walk at each end. The staff party ferry is a festival highlight.

Because of the last minute additional shifts, Oxfam had to quickly redo all their staff rotas. Our 2nd two slots would not be given out until the following morning. At 9am we stood nervously in line, praying not to get an overnighter. The face of the lady in front of us fell as she drew the short straw but luck was on our side – we had an afternoon and a morning shift. We remained poker-faced until we left the line in case the people behind us were in the night camp, before celebrating.

Shift 2 - Arena gate afternoon wrist band checking

This 3.45pm to midnight shift involved standing behind security at the arena entrance and checking wristbands. If the queue is small you give the band a pull to check they are not sewn on/superglued imposters. If the crowd swells, arms are raised and you do a quick visual check as they file past. Festival goers are encouraged to high five the stewards with their wristband arms– all a bit awkward for the less extroverted staff and punters. I lived in fear of a “comedy” super hard slap and was also, not unreasonably, called a super spreader.

Small children need to show you their adult and have their phone number on a yellow band (a surprising number didn’t). Faces fell all round again as perfume, cans and vodka bottles were confiscated. There was a bit of excitement when more illicit substances were found and the owners made a run for it into the crowd, security in hot pursuit.

For the last hour, the metal barriers are removed and you become a fluid human wall of orange, filtering the exiting crowd whilst directing late comers to the one remaining entry gate. I was a bit scared I was going to be swept away in a tsunami of Sam Fender fans, but positioned myself behind a metal pillar and all went well. 8 hours is a long time and legs turn to total jelly by the end. Hooray for the Neil Diamond singalong with disco lights on the way home.

Volunteering at festivals top tips #21

Watching a headliner on a day off, if the crowd is not moving towards your exit when the set ends it can be tricky to fight the human tide. We left before the end of the set to avoid being swept out into the human sea.

Shift 3 - Arena gate morning wrist band checking (again)

We had been given two of our three shifts at the same station which was a bit of a shame in terms of variety, but the main thing was that we got away without a 12-8am shift or any kind of campsite shenanigans. The shift starts at 8am, but the gates don’t open until 10.30 so you are on to a winner, plenty of time for site familiarisation, chatting and group photos. The fans had camped at the arena gate from 1am and were under strict instructions not to run towards us once the gates were open. The comedy half-runs, in the manner of an Olympic walking event, were a sight to behold.

Ideally, finishing at 5pm, we could still have an evening in the festival with Billie Eilish.

Exiting the festival

Volunteering at festivals top tips #22

Leave early to have a march on the crowds and a train seat with your name on it.

Boardmasters exit

Being aware that 53,000 others would be joining us in our morning trip on the Shuttle into Newquay had incentivised us to rise at 5.30am for packing up. An all-night storm had meant that sleeping was not really an option anyway. The wet tent side had slapped my cheek whilst a Chinese torture drip from the tent top hammered my forehead for the duration.

The site now looked not dissimilar to the Somme. We frog-marched through the mire in the manner of the SAS for 40 minutes to the Shuttle stop. The rain fell relentlessly, unpeopled tents took flight, buffeting into us and the throng heading shuttle-wards grew exponentially. The magic staff pass still worked to allow us to join the shuttle fast-pass queue but there was still quite a mob at the front.

Each person having an enormous pack, loading the shuttle was painfully slow. The entire downstairs was given to bags meaning each bus took only half the usual number of people. We eventually took our seats and arrived in Newquay at 8am for our 2pm train. A 6-hour Wetherspoons stop was voted as the best option. The idea was that one of our group could take advantage of the free coffee refills and the others could wander about town.  Nights of no sleep meant that no one was up for wandering.

We arrived at the station with an hour and half to go. All the day’s trains were fully booked and there was a sign saying that only those with seats would be allowed to board. 3 different barriered queues had been created in the car park by station staff, one for each train leaving that day. There were hundreds of people already in each queue ,sitting on the tarmac. We joined the end of ours, wishing we had ditched the Spoons earlier.

 Sad and tired looking people who had not booked seats were corralled into their own area. There were rumours that they may be able to get out in 5 hours or so if not all the seats were taken.

Thankfully we had reserved seats. In a brilliant bit of foresight by the train company, our train arrived at the station an hour early giving everyone time to board, and empty seats to be handed out like golden tickets to queue Z. So far so good, but what would happen at Plymouth where we had to change, seats could not be reserved and there was no window for a hour long boarding session? I had tried to add reservations at the station the previous day but was told by a guard that this was not possible at Newquay as there was no ticket office,  could I travel to another station? I could not. An app which allows seats to be booked from 6am on the day of travel had told me there were none available for booking.

In the end, I hammer-headed my way onto train 2, running like a lunatic to the furthest and hopefully emptiest carriage to bag a seat. I won the race (a cross between Chariots of Fire and Splatalot), securing us all luggage racks and chairs. Less committed, slower runners were not so lucky. 

We arrived home at 8pm, wet and slightly broken, and never so happy to see a bed and flushing toilet. We did have a new self awareness that we could operate as first line responders in emergencies and, very much like Bear Grylls/ Ant Middleton, not only survive but march with packs after 6 days of sleep deprivation.

Reading exit

This time I would be racing 100, 000 to exit the site by 2pm, the deadline for all festival goers to be up and out. My camping buddy, with a more limited train option selection rose at 4am. I couldn’t quite face this and set my alarm for 6am, which was about the time that the Oxfam party in the neighbouring marquee ended.

The tent was wrestled into its bag by 6.30 and I was on the staff ferry by 7am. As we were only 7 passengers, a second smaller boat was called and we were transferred on to this, whilst the main vessel waited to be filled. I was ahead of the crowd. This boat took me half the way along the site.  I learned from others already milling around the boat stop, that the second free-for-all ferry to the train station was due to start running from here at 8am. But with 40 minutes to wait, I couldn’t risk the crowd building up either here or at the station. Instead I hiked to red gate where the bus shuttle queue was still reasonable. Wasting valuable time walking to the front to see if there was a staff bus (there was not) or if my magic wristband worked (it did not), the bus queue was building faster than I could return to the back of it. Ridiculously over-laden and slightly panicked trotting was required to secure my place in the expanding line.

When my time came to reach the front of the shuttle queue, I hauled my stupidly large load onto the back of the double decker bus with a sigh of relief/exhaustion. Arriving at the station, I was in time to catch the completely empty 7.54 home. Total result, but a shell of my former self once again from the lugging and lack of sleep.

Is it worth it?

  • This is the million dollar question and will very much depend on what shift you are given and your love of music. If I had been given a night shift I am not sure I would have recovered. If you really want to see a band, there is a chance you will be working. You can try to swap shifts with other volunteers but success is  not guaranteed. So if there is a big name you can’t live without seeing, then it might not be worth the risk of missing it.
  • There are physical and mental highs and lows – at any one point you will be having a really good or a really bad time.
  • The Oxfamily is a friendly, welcoming bunch who will share their insider tips and generally make it easier to bear any bad weather or shift pattern you encounter.
  • The days off and opportunities to socialise make the whole thing is a bit of a working party. Bring resilience for the lack of sleep and a few uncomfortable incidents and you are good to go. I’m definitely glad I did it. Character building. 
  • I thought Boardmasters would be the beachy dream and Reading the hardcore, urban grit element. Instead Boardmasters was military themed and fighty, and Reading was waterside and delightful. If I’d been asked this question after Boardmasters, I would have veered towards the “no” camp but after the sunny, beautiful Reading, with its chatty colleagues and party boat I am more of a fan. Will I sign up for next year? Watch this space. Would you?

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4 thoughts on “Volunteering at festivals – 22 essential survival tips”

  1. This is such an interesting insight on what it’s like to volunteer at a festival, including the reality of it not being all rainbows and sunshine! Thanks for writing such a detailed and useful article 🙂

  2. Volunteering at festivals sounds like a lot of fun but you really need to know a few things. These are great tips, thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Volunteering at festivals sounds like an adventure! 😄🎶 It’s awesome that you can enjoy the music and help out a good cause like Oxfam. 🙌💚 The tips are super helpful, especially about shower situations – no one wants to end up in a mud bath! 😅 Thanks for sharing your festival volunteering experience. 🏕️🎸 #FestivalFun #OxfamVolunteer

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