It’s a feature of summer for us, the round of hacker camps in which members of our community gather in fields and spend a few days relaxing and doing what we do best. This summer I’ll have been to four of them by September, one of which was unexpected because a last-minute ticket came my way. For Hackaday they’re a chance to connect with our readers and maybe see come of the coolest stuff in person.
If you consult the wiki for your hacker camp of choice then you’ll usually find a page of tips about what to bring. Starting with a tent and a sleeping bag and probably going on to sunscreen, a hat, and maybe how to avoid dehydration. I’d probably add spare toilet paper and disinfectant spray in case the toilets are nightmarish. All very practical stuff, but expressed in a dry list format that doesn’t really tell you what to expect. A hacker camp can be overwhelming if you’ve not been to one before, so how do you get the best out of it? Here are a few tips based on our experience.
Don’t Be Too Ambitious
If you follow Hackaday, from time to time you’ll have seen people who have brought amazing things along with them, who zip around the camp on all sorts of funny machines, whose amazing creations of sound and light delight and amaze both readers and camp attendees alike. Let’s face it, you want to do this too, so you resolve to bring along the most awesome hack. You’ll be the darling of the camp, the envy of your friends, and of course we here at Hackaday will be all over you.
A far more likely outcome is that you’ll exhaust yourself in the weeks up to the camp trying to finish the project, and either fail to the extent that you don’t bring it, or alternatively bring it and waste the entire camp trying to get it working when you could have been enjoying yourself. We know this only too well, we’ve been there!
If there’s a take-away from this, it’s to aim to complete the killer hacker camp project several months before. Get it working, hide it away, then turn up at the camp with it looking awesome and you looking cool and relaxed.
You Can’t See Everything, So Don’t Worry
The larger camps can be truly overwhelming, with thousands of people, and hundreds of activities, workshops, spectacles, and talks. Taking everything in is impossible, so have fun with the things you like, check out all the things other people tell you are cool, and only go to the talks that *really* matter to you. All talks at most hacker camps go online, usually for European ones on YouTube or media.ccc.de, and there will be plenty of time afterwards to catch up on them without being slowly roasted in a hot tent. You can even skip the boring bits and watch at 1.5 speed, for extra hacker info in less time!
It’s important to remember that the same people and things will often appear at more than one event, so if you miss something there’s a good chance you’ll see it again, maybe another year.
Find Your People
If you’re visiting your first hacker camp you may be alone, or you may be with a bunch of friends such as your hackerspace. Camps are amazing for people on their own, but they can be even better when surrounded by a like-minded group. They’re loosely organised into so-called villages around social groups or common interests, and as you can see from the MCH2022 village list these can be extremely diverse. If you haven’t got a village to go to then you don’t have to, but cast your eye over the villages and see if any of them sound like you. Get in touch, camp with them, or just hang out and enjoy a Club-Mate together, that’s what it’s all about.
Mostly I’ve been with my hackerspaces at hacker camps, OxHack or MK Makerspace, but as an example I ended up hanging out with my Dutch friends at BornHack 2019 in Denmark because I was the only Brit there. This year at MCH2022 the Brits were way out on the edge of camp so I jumped ship and hung out with the badge.team guys because they were closer to the action.
Beyond villages, hacker camps are volunteer-run events, and you will see plenty of people just like you in orange vests doing all sorts of tasks around the camp. This year at MCH2022 I did a spell working the car park, I helped paint the purple background for the event gate, I spent days driving a small truck all over the Netherlands transporting things, and at the end I spent an afternoon in the sun with a wrench taking down barriers. Sign up with the volunteer system and put in some shifts, it’s a great way to meet all sorts of other attendees you’d never otherwise hang out with, and you’ll often get free food as part of the deal. Don’t just attend, be part of it.
If I can sum this section up: on the whole hacker camps are friendly places, so go on, find your people!
Sleep Is For The Wise
There is so much going on at a hacker camp that it is possible to find interesting stuff 24/7. Thus sleep management becomes a significant issue, as the tendency is to stay up too late and a tent in the hot sun during the day is not the best place to catch up on it. I am permanently tired at hacker camps because after a lifetime on a farm I naturally awake before 7 am no matter when I go to bed, so there’s one piece of personal advice I’ll leave you with.
If there’s one thing to spend extra effort carrying into a camp with you, it’s a bed. Sleeping on a camping mattress in a tent on rough ground isn’t going to cut it, and if my experience is anything to go by you’ll be more exhausted than you can imagine after a few days of short nights spent that way. For me a folding camp bed makes the difference between surviving a good hacker camp and barely surviving it, and among all the other hacker camp village stuff I’ve been known to freight in with me it’s my camp bed that’s the most valuable. Don’t leave home without it!
So there’s my guide to spending several days in a field in the hot sun with several thousand of our awesome community. Hacker camps are an odd mix of rejuvenation and working holiday for me, and life without them would be very hollow indeed. If you go to a hacker camp you deserve to enjoy the experience too, so I hope the above advice is of use.