What to bring to SXSW: a definitive guide

Samantha Grasso

Poor planning leads to poor performance. South by Southwest can be the magical, start-up, tech-dude schmooz fest you always dreamed it could be. On the other hand, underpreparing for long lines, unpredictable weather and last minute secret shows will leave you susceptible to experience the dreaded south-by-shit-show. 

If you want to avoid utter chaos, make sure to bring these things with you in your slouchy vegan leather SXSW tote bag.

Backpack/Tote bag/Free Swag accumulator

You don’t have to have a SXSW badge or wristband to be graced with tons of free promotional items. Some of this stuff you’ll love (like a pair of breakfast-themed socks, free cans of Red Bull or graphic tees). Other things you’ll wish they hadn’t handed to you. For all of this treasure/junk, and for all your other SXSW essentials, bring a backpack with you. Tote bags are cute and convenient for access, but the uneven distribution of weight will become a strain on your shoulders. If you’re looking to carry your stuff hands-free but avoid all the junk, the fanny pack is a great alternative. 


Unless you’re a fan of paying $3.25 each time you withdraw cash from an ATM downtown, bring cash with you. Sure, there are a lot of freebies to be discovered during the week, but if you care to catch a real meal, be prepared for vendors who don’t take credit or debit. At the same time, limiting yourself to cash keeps you from overspending. Yes, we all want to take a ride in that LED-lit boom-box-infused pedicab, but why don’t you just walk instead.

A flexible schedule

Have a good idea of a few shows or events to hit up that day, and make sure that you’ll be able to have access if you do end up going. If you don’t have an idea of what’s going on that night, you’ll become frustrated that you can’t find anything free or available to do. Do not go with the expectation that you will get into everything you want that day, and always have backups. Follow a few SXSW-related Twitter accounts for the latest news on pop-up shows and free giveaways. Overall, go with the flow. You can’t be too demanding or too careless with your South by experience.   

Short-length phone charger/extended battery pack

Sure, it’s common sense to bring your phone, but visitors flooding downtown Austin by the thousands will put extra stress on the cell towers, causing your phone to search for signal longer and subsequently drain the battery faster. Recently, select venues have added cell phone recharge stations to their setup, but don’t bet on there being a short wait for a recharge locker. If you don’t have the cash for an extended battery pack, bring a phone charger that’s easy to plug in on the fly. And as a reminder, don’t leave your phone or any other belongings unattended.

Weather preparation

You will be waiting outside in long lines for hours. So check the forecast before you leave for downtown. Texas weather is unpredictable. The current 10-day forecast from weather.com predicts sunny skies starting Tuesday, and while the high barely reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the sun could have you burning in minutes. Bring what you know you’ll need for the sun, sunscreen and sunglasses included. Around 6 p.m. when it starts getting dark, it’s likely to get pretty chilly out, so bring a light jacket or sweater that you can carry around with you to avoid going home to change and missing the action. 

Comfortable attire

Piggybacking off of weather preparation, dress practically. Yes, you want to look good, but don’t risk feeling uncomfortable when you’re battling fast winds and heavy rain in a long tank and board shorts. Don’t plan on event-hunting downtown in a pair of constricting, 8-inch heels either. Wear shoes that you’ve broken in, that you won’t mind getting a little dirty. 

Refreshing toiletries

If you’re going to be out all day, be prepared. The weather will be hot, then rainy, and then hot again. You’ll be sweating a weird amount and your hair will get all mussed up and someone will probably, most definitely end up spilling their drink down your leg. If you want to keep up appearances throughout the day, do not panic. Bring a small brush, some hair ties or bobby pins, a small stick of deodorant or maybe some body spray, lip balm, just anything that will make you feel more comfortable and clean throughout the day. 

Guest pass

If you want to get into any of the official SXSW free events open to the public like the Gaming Expo or the outside shows at Butler Park (formerly at Auditorium Shores), you’ll need to pick up a free “Guest Pass.” This is a new feature for SXSW, and it allows you to register your guest pass online to be entered to win prizes. You can pick up your guest pass at a few participating locations such as Waterloo Records and Whole Foods on 6th and Lamar, or you can pick up a guest pass at the entrances of the SXSW free events. Keep in mind that guest passes don’t guarantee admission to an event — events still have maximum capacity requirements.