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How to survive your first Comic-Con experience

Comic-Con can be amazing, but overwhelming. Here are some tips to make the most out of the geek extravaganza.

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Are you ready for Comic-Con?

Tania González/CNET

In a couple of days, thousands of fans -- donning everything from Game of Thrones armor to X-Men uniforms -- will descend on Southern California for San Diego Comic-Con International. It's an annual gathering of geekdom on Earth that's been running since 1970.

This year, I'm joining the masses for the first time.

Now, I consider myself a seasoned conference-goer. You won't catch me without all my necessary chargers and plenty of granola bars stashed away in my backpack. Comic-Con is a different animal, though. I'm leaving my blazers behind in favor of sneakers and … what else?

If you're like me and heading out to Comic-Con for the first time, never fear. I sought advice from the experts on what to pack, what to wear, what to eat and how to make the most of your time in geekland.

Make a plan. And a backup plan

Tony B Kim went to Comic-Con for the first time in 2006. He got tickets day-of and roamed around the show floor. It wasn't until later when someone asked him what he thought of the panels that he realized there actually were panels.

These are different times.

In the last few years, Comic-Con has offered an almost overwhelming number of sessions and panels for you to attend, not to mention offsite events.  

Here's the catch: You'll have competition.

"If there's something you want to do or see you have to consider there's already 10,000 other people that have considered that too," said Kim, who runs the site Crazy 4 Comic Con and makes geek apparel at Hero Within.

That means having a backup plan, and maybe even a backup plan for your backup plan.

It isn't just about scheduling yourself within an inch of your life, though.

The lines can be crazy long and rooms don't get cleared between sessions.

"You have to pick your priorities and choose them wisely," said Sarah Mertan. Her first Comic-Con was in 2004. She also happens to be my college roommate from sophomore year and, I'm fairly certain, the first person to utter the phrase "Comic-Con" to me. (That was a little more than 10 years ago.)

She says a lot of it boils down to time management.

Along those lines, Kim advises picking one thing each day to be your priority. If nothing else, you did that one thing that was important to you.

Similarly, Leonard Sultana, who has been coming to Comic-Con from the UK since 2010 and runs the site An Englishman in San Diego, said to pick your moments -- chose one thing you want to do every day and stay loose enough that you can make discoveries. Try not to approach the event with a death grip.

"Don't even think you're going to get anywhere remotely close to seeing a sliver of everything that's available," Sultana said.

Pack wisely

One of the first things I asked everyone I talked to was what they carry with them -- the stuff they can't live without.

Kim recommends carrying a Sharpie in case you want to snag someone's autograph, and a poster tube so any posters you pick up don't get bent.

Hillary Chute, distinguished professor of English and art and design at Northeastern University, packs a pen and paper, as well as anything she can amuse yourself with. Chute is the author of the book Why Comics? Mertan carries sunscreen, as some of the lines snake outside, and the San Diego sun can be unforgiving. Violet Krueger, who runs the site GB Reviews with her husband, said that you can't have enough power, so don't forget your chargers and portable chargers. Sultana carries a filtered water bottle.

Also a wise move: a sweater or light jacket.

"All the programming rooms are air condition to the max for when they're full, so you walk inside and it's like the Fortress of Solitude," Mertan said.

Don't forget snacks

Anyone who has been to a few conventions or conferences knows not to expect much from the food offerings. But a nearly unanimous opinion among Comic-Con veterans I spoke with was that the food at Comic-Con isn't just boring convention center food -- it's bad. And it takes forever to get it.

"I would tell people to not get the Frito pie," Chute told me, laughing.

Mertan's strategy has been to pack a lunch, raiding a nearby grocery store for sandwich materials. Kim's happy if he can squeeze in a breakfast and dinner with snacks in between.

"Nothing is easy and quick at Comic-Con," Kim said, "The thing that after 13 years eludes me is just a quick good cup of coffee."

What you pack for snacks is important, though. The consensus is go for the protein and avoid the sugar. That means peanut butter, granola, trail mix. You want energy without the crash.

So, when I get off the phone with Kim, I turn to my Echo Dot and make a request: "Alexa, add jerky to my shopping list."

Wear comfortable shoes

You'd think it would go without saying. And yet, here we are.

Comic-Con is not the place to break in a new pair of shoes.

If you don't have special footwear requirements, such as for cosplay, bring shoes that won't leave you begging for mercy after having traversed several miles in one day alone. Krueger averages 5 or 6 miles a day. Mertan averages 8 or 9. Kim racks up about 25 miles for the week.

Save me, Dr. Scholls.

In hotter years, sandals might seems like a good idea. But your toes are bound to get mashed in the throng at some point. Guard them.

Talk to people

Chute's first Comic-Con was in 2011. She remembers thinking she'd found her people. Kim had a similar experience: "It felt like that mothership was calling me home," he said.

So, why not chat some folks up? You likely have some things in common.

Several of the vets described an atmosphere where people are happy to let you take a picture with them and their cosplay. And when you're waiting in line, chatting is a way to pass the time.

There's also a practical reason Mertan offers for talking to folks -- double checking you're in the correct line. Better to ask than end up waiting for the wrong panel.

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Beware the Con Crud

People are great. They're also merciless germ factories. A lot more gets exchanged than good vibes and business cards.

Multiple folks I talk to tell me about the "Con Crud."

"There's so many people in the same place, you end up getting sick because everybody's passing it around to everyone else," Krueger recounts of her first trip to Comic-Con back in 2012.

That's the sort of intel that makes me squirm and wonder if I could pass off a gas mask as cosplay.

There's hope, though.

Kim suggests loading up on Vitamin C (his go-to is Emergen-C, pouches of flavored powder you can dissolve in water) a few days before the convention as well as while you're there. Krueger goes for the Emergen-C too and hasn't gotten sick since starting to drink it.

Don't just depend on the Vitamin C, though. Take care of your immune system -- a total lack of sleep and diet of corn chips won't do you any favors.

One of the most important things, Sultana said, is to look after yourself.

"If you don't, then you end up not being able to enjoy anything," he said.

Plus, don't forget what your mother old you: Wash your hands. If you can't, there's always hand sanitizer.

Enjoy it

Comic-Con can be a lot. Both Chute and Sultana talked about registering the sheer scale of the event for the first time.

But Chute said not to be intimidated. And if it does get to be too much -- take a breather. She recommends doing that anyway.

After all, you don't want to miss some of the finer small moments.

Chute remembered one particular scene while sitting in the cafe.

"Someone came in [wearing] full body metal armor," she said, "and pulls down the grate of his helmet to order a latte, and the barista didn't even bat an eye."

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