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A first-timers' guide to South by Southwest

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • SXSW veteran Omar Gallaga offers his advice for how to best appreciate the festival
  • Make tentative plans for what you want to see and have it handy on a mobile calendar
  • A SXSW Interactive day can be 12 hours long, so bring power-charging supplies
  • Be flexible, go with the flow and have no regrets about missing something

Editor's note: Omar L. Gallaga is a tech-culture reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, a technology contributor to CNN.com, NPR and Kirkus Reviews, and a veteran attendee of South by Southwest.

(CNN) -- For first-timers, South by Southwest Interactive can be a little intimidating.

The Austin technology festival, which kicks off Friday, swelled to nearly 20,000 participants last year. This year, there'll be more than 1,000 panels and presentations spread across 15 campuses in an increasingly crowded downtown.

Surviving is one thing, but really experiencing and enjoying the fest often depends on what you bring, and just as importantly, don't bring.

Here's some advice on what to equip yourself with and what to ditch before you hit SXSW.

Behind the scenes: Soledad at CNN Grill

Bring: A game plan. The Interactive schedule is daunting, and that's not even counting nighttime parties and unofficial gatherings. It pays to go through the schedule on the official site and also to skim it on sites such as lynrd.com and sched.org, or sxshhh.com, a new paid site that for $5 rounds up RSVP info for SXSW-adjacent parties.

Make a tentative plan for what you want to see and have it handy in a phone or online calendar you can access at any time during the fest. The official app of the fest, "SXSW Go," is available for iOS, Android and soon Windows and BlackBerry phones.

I find the iPad version is the easiest to browse through, more so even than the SXSW website itself. It doesn't hurt to double- or triple-book your calendar for panel slots or parties in case a room fills up or if a line is too long. Always leave yourself some extra options.

Don't bring: Inflexibility. Once you have a set plan, be prepared to abandon whole chunks of it. You'll meet new people, perhaps find old friends, hear about a great party that's happening or discover that the panel you were dying to attend has been canceled or has reached capacity.

Be flexible, go with the flow and have no regrets about missing something; there's plenty to see and do. You'll wear yourself out and miss potentially serendipitous moments if you hold too firmly to your schedule.

Bring: Extra battery packs and your own Internet. A good day at SXSW Interactive is at least 12 hours long, and you might be using your smartphone, tablet or laptop a lot to look up information or try new apps. Your batteries will get depleted, and it's not always easy to find a free power outlet in packed panel rooms.

Bring charging cables and power supplies for your gear. You can also find cheap, portable backup battery chargers for most smartphones on Amazon for as little as $6 to $10. Buy at least one, maybe two. A portable power strip wouldn't hurt either if you want to share power outlets with your fellow attendees.

Some years, wireless phone networks haven't held up under the strain of all the tech-centric attendees. Outside the Convention Center in the downtown wilds, there aren't as many free Wi-Fi locations as you'd hope. If what you're doing at the fest requires a constant Internet connection, consider bringing your own Wi-Fi hotspot device.

Don't bring: Expensive tech gear or cameras that haven't been backed up. Every year, I hear about someone who had a laptop stolen or lost a camera containing a memory card full of precious photos that were never transferred to a computer. Keep your stuff safe and don't bring anything irreplaceable.

Bring: A giant smile. Texans are very friendly. We want nothing more than for you to go home after your trip and rave about how delicious our barbecue tastes and how we're all as soulful and attractive as the characters on "Friday Night Lights." But it only works if you're humble and attitude-free. Which brings us to ...

Don't bring: Attitude. In recent years, the influx of social media gurus and marketing mavens has changed the vibe at some parts of SXSW Interactive from a spring break for nerds to a focus group for startups aimed at Twitterholics.

Leave behind the smarmy business networking and condescending attitude toward those who aren't online rock stars. Don't be That Guy (or Gal).

Bring: Comfy shoes, light clothes and an umbrella. March and October are our best weather months in Austin, but it can turn on a dime. Dress lightly, but bring a jacket for the colder evenings and have an umbrella handy in case a thunderstorm rolls through. And wear comfortable, broken-in shoes -- you'll be on your feet a lot.

Don't bring: Ostentatious cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat you only wear when you're visiting Texas. We Texans see right through that crap.

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