Spending the Fourth of July on the Esplanade takes toughness: There's the mad dash to claim a coveted spot, there's all that sitting and waiting in the hot, hot sun - doesn't it seem like it's always a thousand degrees on the Fourth of July? - and then there's the crush of the crowds and the pit stops in portable toilets.
But it's all worth it to the 500,000 or so people who make the pilgrimage into Boston every year for a performance by the Boston Pops, followed by fireworks over the Charles River.
The concert begins at 8:30 p.m. Joining the Pops this year will be rocker John Mellencamp, and the show will be hosted by Craig Ferguson of CBS' ''The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.''
The part of the show many people look forward to most - the fireworks - gets started at 10:30 p.m.
The free-for-all scramble for space begins at 9 a.m. (camping out overnight is not allowed), so it's smart to get there by 6 a.m. if you want a decent spot in the oval area near the Hatch Shell where the Boston Pops will perform.
Only about 8,000 people fit comfortably in that area, so event planners usually close it by 11 a.m.
''We don't want people literally on top of each other,'' said Steve MacDonald, spokesman for Boston's Fourth of July celebration. ''We want it to be a nice friendly atmosphere.''
Expect tight security. People entering the oval area will be searched and will be asked to wear wristbands.
Experienced revelers get there early, settle into a spot and then work the day in shifts, with some in their party staying to man the blankets while others stretch their legs in the city.
''You can go in and set up a blanket, then head into the city, go to the Back Bay for dinner and come back for the concert,'' MacDonald said.
If you decide to stick around the Esplanade, fight boredom by bringing books, board games and cards. Take along a radio and listen to the Red Sox game, which starts at 1:05 p.m.
It's OK to set up a tent or canopy for shade, but expect to take it down once the show starts. And if you bring chairs, make sure they're not too tall.
''If you don't bring a low-lying chair, people might be yelling at you,'' MacDonald said.
Bring bug spray and sunscreen. Enjoy the concessions on hand or pack your own picnic lunch, but keep in mind: Alcohol is not allowed.
''Around the whole area there are several checkpoints where the police will check your cooler to see what you have in there,'' MacDonald said.
The event typically draws as many as 500,000 people, yet even with the massive crowds, the day tends to run smoothly, MacDonald said.
''If we have incidents, they're almost all health-related, where people get sunburned or dehydrated,'' he said. ''It's a long day, but it's a very low-key event, and we really don't have fights or anything of a criminal nature.''
After all, most people just want to enjoy the patriotic party.
The spectacular will feature the Pops' now-classic Independence Day rendition of Tchaikovsky's ''1812 Overture,'' with cannons and the live ringing of church bells.
In addition to Mellencamp, the Pops will be joined on stage by the winner of the POPSearch 2007 contest. The winner will be chosen tonight at Symphony Hall after the three finalists perform with the Pops.
Finalist Lydia Harrell, 30, of Everett can hardly believe she has a shot at taking the stage with the Pops on the Fourth. ''It's a really great feeling just to know that I'm close to it,'' she said. ''It's a big deal.''
Many insiders say the Pops' July 3 concert at the Hatch Shell - a rehearsal of the big show - is the best way to go. Sans fireworks, though.
And for many, the fireworks are not to be missed.
Event planners say this year's fireworks show will be the largest and most complex pyrotechnic display to date, involving more than 20,000 pounds of explosives. The show will include the largest shells yet to be used: 10-inch diameter shells that will climb to 1,500 feet - nearly one and a half times the height of the Hancock Tower.
When you're deciding where to set up camp for the day, be aware: The oval area gives you a nice view of the musical performances, but it is not the best place to see the fireworks since the trees surrounding that section tend to block much of the pyrotechnics.
Head further down the Esplanade and set your blanket down on the various grassy spots on both the Boston and Cambridge sides of the Charles River. There's often more open space on the Cambridge side than on the Boston side, where twice as many people are crammed in. If you head to Cambridge, you can arrive later in the day, even in early evening, spread out and have the Boston skyline as your backdrop to the fireworks.
''Our surveys have shown that a third of the people come after 5 p.m.,'' MacDonald said.
If you want to catch even the low effects that hover just above the water, align yourself near one of the four large barges on the river, while parking yourself near one of the 30 sound towers on either side.
''Then you can listen to the concert and have a front-row seat for the fireworks,'' MacDonald said.
Many people come to see the show by boat as well.
''I go just about every year,'' said Chris Harrington, rear commodore with the Squantum Yacht Club. ''You can put the concert on your radio and enjoy being close to the fireworks.''
Yet you don't necessarily have to trek into Boston to enjoy the display. The fireworks, which can be seen as far as 10 to 15 miles away, are visible in various spots, including Squantum and Hull.
And hey, if you don't want to wrestle with the crowds, you can always catch the show from the comfort of your couch. The national broadcast begins at 10 p.m. on CBS.
Dina Gerdeman of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at email@example.com .