How to Stay Safe during Carnival (or any Major Soca Festival)

This past August, I went to Toronto to celebrate my friend Monique’s birthday with a great group of friends. We all dressed in costume and performed in Caribana. For many people, this was their first time playing masquerade, and they had lots of questions. This trip inspired me to write about safety during carnival.

Toronto Carnival, August 2019

The first time that I played mas in 2014 was with Monique, who is a veteran masquerader. I was so lucky that I could go to her with all of my many, many questions. If you are a carnival virgin, the mom of a carnival virgin, or you just would like a primer on how to stay safe on the road – this post is for you!

You might be thinking… Isn’t talking about safety a killjoy? Carnival is supposed to be all about being wild and carefree!

Carnival Day is all about having fun and the joy of the fête! For this to be possible, you have to consider safety and get yourself organized well in advance. For example, there is a mandatory wristband that everyone in costume must wear to gain entrance into the festival. No wristband = no entry = no partying in the streets for you.

On Carnival Day, you want to feel relaxed and at peace. You don’t want to be stressing out and thinking –  Do I have my wristband? Do I have my meal tickets? Where do I find my friends if I get lost? Does my band provide tampons? OMG I forgot to bring tissues! Save yourself the anxiety attack by planning this all out ahead of time.

This blog post shares an extensive (though not comprehensive) list of several things to consider when you are preparing for your first Carnival. If you’re short on time and can’t read a whole blog post, click here to get a free, one-page guide that summarizes all of the information below.

Continuous exposure to loud noises 

If you’re easily triggered by loud noises, bring ear plugs and prepare for music to be blasting like crazy everywhere you step foot. There are 18-wheeler trucks with speakers that will be pumping delicious soca beats that you cannot help but gyrate your hips to. The trucks are noisy, the drivers will be honking the horn to the beat of the soca songs, and your fellow revelers will be whistling and singing at the top of their lungs. The truck will have an emcee on the microphone singing lyrics, directing the dance moves, telling you where to move when the truck turns, as well as (seemingly) shouting aimlessly at times. Be ready for it.

The crowds are massive

Carnival brings out large numbers of people. That is part of what makes it so great. However, it’s also what makes it easy to get lost in the shuffle of the crowd. Think of carnival like a traveling concert. The artists perform on the roofs of moving 18-wheeler trucks, the speakers blasting music are on these trucks as well, and your band will be assigned to follow one of these vehicles. It is easy for you to get lost and for your stuff to get misplaced (or stolen). Bring the bare minimum with you, and don’t wander away from your group of friends.

Soca artist Kes the Band performing on top of a carnival truck
Toronto Caribana, August 2019

Have a buddy system 

Don’t go anywhere alone. You will lose your friend group or get lost if you do. Since everyone will be wearing the same costume, it will be darn near impossible to pick out your friends in the crowd.

Make sure you always go to the bathroom with a friend. Even if you’re just stepping ahead to get a drink or take a picture of a fantastic float – let someone know. This is especially important if you’re playing mas in a different country, where your cell phone service may not work.

Cocoa butter and sunscreen are your friend

Your costume will chafe, bruise, and rub vigorously on your bare skin. Apply cocoa butter (or Vaseline) to prevent chafing. I always forget to do this, and then I’m left slathering aloe vera gel on my skin for weeks afterwards. See the collar and the waist belt of this cute costume below?

These pieces caused the most bruising for my group of friends.

Also, the calf ornaments left interesting tan lines on my legs that still have not completely faded over a month later (lol). Wear sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun, but know you may get a few hilarious tan lines from your costume anyway.

Wear sneakers

You will be walking, dancing, jumping, and wining on asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks for a full 8 hours (at least). Treat your feet with kindness. Wear a pair of comfortable shoes that support your feet and your natural arch. Nearly everyone will be wearing sneakers on that day. If you like, you can jazz up your sneakers with glitter, feathers, and paint – many people do. I tend to buy sneakers that match my costume and call it a day.

Resting our tired little feet at the end of Carnival Day, Toronto 2019

Don’t bring irreplaceable items

Carnival is not the place to wear your grandma’s irreplaceable pearls or the diamond ring your great-aunt gave you. You will be dancing half-naked in the streets while drinking rum in the hot sun. You probably won’t have the greatest discretion.

On that note, I urge you to bring copies (not originals) of your driver’s license, passport, or any other official ID. It’s not safe to have the original on the road. If you’re staying at a hotel or Airbnb, secure your key in a safe place – bring a wristlet, fanny pack, or purse with an internal zipper.

Fanny pack or purse 

A small purse, tiny backpack, or fanny pack is very useful to carry essential items. These could include tissues, makeup, wipes, Chapstick, your hotel key, and other little items. Some bands provide feminine hygiene products and wipes…others may not. Some bands have bathroom trucks staffed with attendants…others do not. Know what you’re getting into and pack your little purse accordingly.

I usually bring a small purse or wristlet, like I have in my hand here

Dancing with strangers

Carnival is all about taking in the sweet soca music and dancing to your heart’s content. The joy of carnival is getting to dance in the streets with other people. People who you may not know will want to dance with you. It’s totally normal for people to make new friends and dance with strangers during carnival. However, if you feel uncomfortable dancing with someone you don’t know, it’s perfectly acceptable to say so. You do not owe anybody a wine, a jook, or even a look. Your body is yours alone.

Hydrate with water

The drinks will be flowing from dawn until dusk. I exaggerate not. Hydrate with water. If you can’t stand the taste of water, make sure you are guzzling down Gatorade and Pedialyte. Drink at least half your body weight in ounces of your non-alcoholic drink of choice the day before carnival and the day of.

Drink at least 16 oz of water before you leave your hotel for the parade.

Eat a light breakfast so you’re not drinking alcohol on an empty stomach. Concentrated sunshine and heat will make alcohol rush to your head faster and make you drunk quicker. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes. Alcohol poisoning is a very serious condition. Do not let it happen to you.

This was around 6 am Carnival morning, shortly after eating a light breakfast

You may even designate someone in your friend group as the road mom – someone in the group who is responsible, sober, and will look out for anyone who’s exceptionally tipsy. This could be a friend or an actual aunty or mom. (And yes. Many island people play mas with their mom or aunty alongside their group of friends, holding the snacks and taking the group photos lol.)

Watch out for the trucks

On that note, watch out for trucks and listen to the emcee on the loud speaker. The band leaders want you to be safe. They will tell you when the truck is turning, reversing, stopping, and going. Be sober enough to understand what they’re saying.

When in doubt –  Ask! 

There are so many resources at your disposal! You are not alone if you have a question.

  • Weeks and days leading up to the event, you can reach out to your band or section leader. This is the person in charge of organizing everything (costumes, trucks, payment, etc.) for your band.

  • If you have a friend who played mas before, he or she is a great source of wisdom!

  • The day of carnival, you can direct your questions to the road marshals. The road marshals are volunteers who typically wear a neon safety vest or a tee shirt with the name of the band. They are responsible for keeping the revelers safe, guiding everyone onto the carnival stage, and keeping random pedestrians (who often try to sneak in) out of the parade. Certain bands do a better job than others at training road marshals; so be aware that they may not know everything.

  • You can leave me a comment, and I’ll do my best to answer it 🙂

If you’d like all the information above summarized in a convenient one-pager, get your free mini-guide on safety during carnival here.

If you’d like a little extra help getting organized for Carnival, I created a Carnival Prep Guide. It’s a 6-page workbook, and every page is dedicated to a specific step in preparing for the celebration. There’s a table to help you start creating your budget, a page for brainstorming which band to choose, guidelines on deciding where you want to stay, a page planning out your transportation, and more.  To purchase the Carnival Prep Guide, click here.

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