How to stay safe at festivals and events this summer, according to a public health doctor

Composite of images associated with festivals, including people kissing, condoms, pills and a mask
Need a refresher on the hazards of hedonism? A doctor has shared how to stay safe this summer. Photo credit: Composite: Getty Images / Newshub

Although the recent weather would suggest otherwise, summer is in full swing, meaning fun, flirtations, fake tan and festivals aplenty. 

But while many of us swim between the flags, slap on the SPF and call it a day, staying safe in the summer extends far beyond the beach. Festivals, gigs and outdoor events might be fun, but they can also be hotbeds for chaos and carnage - and all the debauchery that comes along with it.

Yes, we're talking drugs, alcohol and unprotected sex, so if you skipped health class in school and need a refresher on the hazards of hedonism, buckle up: you may just learn something. 

To get the 411 on Summer Safety 101, Newshub spoke to Dr Mataroria Lyndon, a public health doctor and senior lecturer in medical education at the University of Auckland. We picked his brains to compile the ultimate guide to staying safe at events this summer, including a fail-safe festival checklist to ensure you can enjoy all the fun, without dialling 111. 

So it's your first festival - here's an intro to staying safe

If it's your first time hitting the festival circuit, it's important to know you can still dip your toes in the debauchery while staying as safe as possible. Safeguarding your own health and wellbeing doesn't equal boring, and you can still experiment while taking precautions to protect yourself. 

Of course, you may not want to take part in any of the, ah, 'extra-curricular activities' associated with festivals, and that is totally okay. There is still plenty of fun to be had without drinking or getting dirty with Dave from the neighbouring tent. 

With that being said, Dr Lyndon has a few top tips for first-timers to mitigate chaos on the campground. 

"Go with a group of people who you trust, and make sure everyone looks after each other," Dr Lyndon told Newshub.

"If you're drinking, start later in the day and make sure you're regularly eating and keeping hydrated. Eat balanced food and don't drink on an empty stomach. Often festival attendees will pack very little food or choose not to purchase food at the venue, but it's important to keep your body nourished, especially when drinking and staying up late."

Of course, you're not going to be having much fun in the sun if you're burned to a crisp, so don't forget to slip, slop, slap and wrap. Drink water and rest frequently in the shade to prevent heatstroke, a condition caused by the body overheating due to prolonged exposure to - or physical exertion - in high temperatures. 

And with COVID-19 still lurking about, you may want to make a mask or face covering part of your festival fashion. Dr Lyndon recommends donning a mask if you're in a large crowd to avoid catching - or spreading - the virus. You could even tie a bandana to cover your nose and mouth (which looks a little bit cooler than a blue surgical mask), which doubles as protection from inhaling dust and dirt while dancing or moshing. 

Dr Mataroria Lyndon
Dr Mataroria Lyndon. Photo credit: Supplied / Tend

Safe sex is hot 

Yes, people get frisky at festivals. After all, it's a time of making new friends and experiencing the ecstasy of being young, wild and free. How do we celebrate this? By inviting a stranger back to our sleeping bag or having a bonk among the bushes. 

Of course, with so many people feeling the love, festivals can be breeding grounds for sexually transmitted infections. So if you're going to get freaky in the tepee, make sure you're being safe - protected sex is hot, people. No one wants chlamydia as a souvenir.  

"Contraception and protection are definitely key. The only form of contraception which protects against STIs are condoms, so it's important to have those on hand. If you don't pack any, often stores on-site will have condoms for sale," Dr Lyndon said. 

"If you do have unprotected sex, then it's important to get an STI check at your GP or Family Planning, just to be safe." 

Drugs on the menu? Do your research

We all know people take drugs at festivals, but not all drugs are created equal. Despite drug-checking being legal for two years now, some major festivals - including Bay Dreams and Rhythm and Alps - missed out on the service this year due to organisers not having enough kit or capacity.

As a result, festival-goers are being urged to get their drugs tested before they head to gigs this summer. One way to do this is via Know Your Stuff, a volunteer-run community organisation that provides drug-related harm reduction services at events around New Zealand, including drug checking, in collaboration with the New Zealand Drug Foundation. It's one of four licensed providers in Aotearoa that tests drugs - for free - to determine if the substance really is what it's claimed to be.

It might go without saying, but not having your drugs checked before consumption can lead to severe consequences. For example, Billy (an alias) told RNZ he was unable to sleep for five days after taking what he thought was MDMA at a festival a few years ago. It turned out Billy had actually taken eutylone - also known as bath salts - leading to a "zombie-like" state he described as "the worst experience I think I've ever had."

"Drug testing services are available on-site at many festivals now, as well as in many cities across Aotearoa. Make sure you're testing any drugs beforehand in case it's not what you think it is," Dr Lyndon said.

"The Level website has a list of locations where you can get drugs tested prior to and at a festival, such as Northern Bass and Rhythm and Vines."

If you do want to experiment with substances this summer, there are precautions you can take to stay as safe as possible. While having the drugs tested is the best course of action, not all festivals have volunteers on-site, and if you're offered substances at the event, you can't be sure the person had them checked beforehand. In this case, it's important you've done your research, Dr Lyndon added. 

"While taking drugs isn't recommended, we know that it is something people do. So, it's important to minimise any harm that could be caused. 

"If you are going to take drugs at a festival, the best thing is to do your research before taking anything as different drugs come with different effects and risks. If you don't feel comfortable taking anything, don't ever feel pressured to."

Hold on to your drink

Unfortunately, there are bad people out there who might spike your drink if it's left unattended. Keeping your drink in-hand at all times, while occasionally inconvenient, is imperative for ensuring nothing is slipped in your vodka seltzer. 

"Unfortunately, spiking drinks is still common. If someone has offered to buy you a drink, or you are getting a drink made, keep an eye on it to ensure it doesn't get spiked. Likewise, once you do have a drink open, keep hold of it at all times, as it is very easy for something to get added to your drink while you aren't looking," Dr Lyndon said.

Additionally, there are bad people out there who might try and take advantage of someone who is under the influence. Although this is always, always the fault of the perpetrator and never the victim, it's important to look out for your friends - particularly those who are inebriated. 

"This also comes back to the point around looking out for your friends. Being under the influence of alcohol can be a risk, so having a buddy system, or sticking together as a group, ensures everyone is being looked out for," Dr Lyndon said. 

If you are going to drink at a festival this summer, stay as safe as possible by taking precautions to minimise the risk of alcohol-related harm. Dr Lyndon recommends starting to drink later in the day, as opposed to first thing in the morning, to minimise your consumption. 

"And make sure you keep hydrated. It is good to have a glass of water per drink to make sure your body is still getting enough water."

There are always medical staff on-site in case of emergencies, so if you're concerned about a mate's condition, take them over for a check-up. Even I was seen by a lovely St John staffer during my first Rhythm and Vines (after accidentally getting eyelash glue in my eyeball).

The Ultimate Festival Checklist (according to a doctor)

While we've all probably been subjected to lengthy harangues from our mums on the importance of packing essentials, in this case, mother really does know best. It's crucial you have important items like prescription medicines and first aid on hand in the event of an emergency, and like the Scouts say, 'be prepared'. It's 2023, people - if you don't have a portable phone charger, I don't know what to tell you. 

For the scatterbrained or downright clueless, Dr Lyndon has put together a checklist of essentials to have on-hand at any big events.

  • water bottle: try getting a water bottle strap so you can keep your water with you at all times
  • hydration sachets  
  • prescription medications, or EpiPens for people with allergies
  • first aid kit
  • contraception and condoms
  • food
  • sunscreen 
  • a hat
  • ear plugs
  • phone charger and power bank
  • friends' contact details: have your friends' numbers written down in case you lose your phone or it goes flat or additionally, have their contact details as your lock screen, so if you lose your mates or your mobile, they can be traced back to you
  • appropriate footwear to avoid hazards
  • layered clothing: make sure you have something warm to put on in the evening when the temperature cools.