"As we lay there, trying to sleep, a constant, never-ending stream of people moved back and forth. All night long, without cease, their feet sloshed and stomped and slammed a few inches from our heads." In an article published in New Republic, a survivor told a story about sleeping bags and clothes hopelessly soaked and muddied, and a "thick, slippery, brown river of boots and muck."
It all sounded terrifying, but the writer wasn't reminiscing about grabbing shuteye in the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge. He was recalling Woodstock – three days of peace, music and a camping debacle from hell.
We've come a long way since. At this summer's inaugural WayHome music festival from July 24 to July 26 in Oro-Medonte, Ont., a VIP experience ($2,499.99 for two) involves memory-foam mattresses and electric fans. At the Squamish Valley Music Festival in British Columbia, $1,300 gets you a 4.5- by 4.5-metre (15- by 15-foot) campsite and access to air-conditioned trailers with flushing toilets.
Getting back to the garden has never been more glitzy.
The "glamping" (glamour-camping) trend is now a common upgrade option at many multiday music and camping festivals. The Squamish Valley festival (Aug. 7 to 9) has offered glamping packages for a few years now, with the interest from year to year growing "exponentially," according to Paul Runnals, the festival's executive producer. "Last year we sold out 75 glamping sites, and this year we've almost doubled that amount. And we're way ahead of where we were last year in terms of sales."
At Squamish, the upsell has to do with access. Usually, camping-friendly festivals offer grounds that are off-site, often a hike away from the music stages. Squamish's elite campsites, on the other hand, are located within the festival grounds. The VIP pass-holders pay for proximity and an easing of the mind. "These aren't kids," says Runnals. "They're in their late 20s or 30s, and they want something that's not as chaotic as a public campground can get."
The price jump for a glamping upgrade is substantial. The basic camping option at Squamish is $350 (in addition to the festival ticket). With the closing beats of Drake's Started from the Bottom still ringing in their ears, the unwashed will hoof it to a nearby field where a three- by 3.5-metre (10- by 12-foot) site and only standard camping amenities await. For about $1,000 more, there is free ice, free water and free WiFi, along with "premium" shower facilities and other niceties.
In Ontario, the WayHome festival at Burl's Creek Event Grounds kicks it up a notch by offering an elegant desert-style tent and a dedicated 24-hour concierge. It reeks of exclusivity – if this tent's Moroccan, don't come a knockin'.
For many festival organizers, the upscale option is a no-brainer. "We've found people who want the more luxurious experience are coming to the festival anyway, and that they'll stay at a high-end hotel nearby," says Shannon McNevan, executive director with Republic Live, the Peterborough-based concert promoter that co-produces WayHome. "We'd prefer to keep those people on site and have them fully enjoy, to whatever level they choose to, the community experience."
But to others, anything less than egalitarian accommodation is an abomination. "It seems to be based on a premise that camping needs to be rehabilitated, and what you end up with is the gentrification of the campground," says Marie Zimmerman, executive director of the long-running Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ont. "The idea of having tiers goes against our value system."
Adds Zale Schoenborn, founder of Oregon's woodsy, artful Pickathon, a festival with no VIP situations. "Festivals have a trapped market and they love to take advantage of it. They're really overcharging for the privilege of comforts that the rest of the people can't have."
In her song Woodstock, Joni Mitchell sang about "going to camp out on the land" and "trying to get my soul free." Forty-six years later, festivals are a booming business, and while souls are still free, the land will cost you.