If there is one tradition that truly represents the American experience when it comes to sports, it’s tailgating.
I love a good tailgate. There’s nothing that compares to celebrating with fellow team fanatics or family and friends in the parking lot before the big game. Tailgate parties make for a better overall experience, not to mention, great memories.
You can tailgate any level, be it youth sports, college or pro, and at any sport. You can tailgate with kids, with serious sports fanatics, and with the ones who are only there for the food.
As an avid tailgater myself, I’ve discovered that…
There are four basic tailgating styles.
Simple: Your basic pre-game hangout means a few chairs, a little music, drinks, and snacks.
Active: Some tailgates bring the competition from the field to the parking lot. There are plenty of games set up, balls to throw around, active children in the mix, and games for people to play in pairs or teams for added entertainment.
Mobile: Not everyone can establish a base camp with tables, food, and games. The mobile tailgaters wander around to mingle. This means they check out the food situation from spot to spot to see what they can muster up at one of the more legit tailgates in the parking lot.
One Upper: Here, you’ve got it all. They are the destination tailgate everyone’s talking about out. They’ve got numerous tables set up, lined with sides and sweets. They’ve got the tunes, and everyone’s loving the playlist.
The smoker or grill is at full capacity spilling flavorful smoke up and out for hours. They probably were one of the first to show up because set up for the ultimate tailgate takes serious prep work and effort.
They know it’s important to have plenty of shade for folks to stop by and hang, so they’ve come prepared with multiple tents side by side to really spread out.
They’ve got coolers stocked and separated with kid-friendly options and adult beverages (in case those mobile tailgaters end up being fun but didn’t BYOB).
They’ve got team flags flying high and probably some sort of team regalia on the truck, grill, cooler, tent. And naturally, everyone involved in this tailgate is wearing team merch.
Tailgating Tips That Win Big
Now that you know the range of possibilities for your next pre-game parking lot party, let’s break it down into practical tailgating tips that win big!
- Be prepared to have bites available early and be ready to replenish them often. You don’t want people standing around the first hour waiting to snack. Whether it’s pretzels and chips or appetizers off the grill, be ready for hungry friends.
- I like it when the food comes in waves (sample menus to follow). Simple snacks are available right away, hot food comes off the grill to snack on, more dips and chips become available, and finally, the main course.
- Think through your menu beforehand so you can make sure you have the right plates, utensils, and condiments to support what you’re serving. Don’t get caught with BBQ beans and no utensils or burgers with no fixings!
- In my own (extensive) tailgating lifespan, I’ve changed from the days of “anything with bacon on it, please” to “I’ll have veggies, thank you.” The good news is that vegetables are an easy option to prep and pack and they usually become a popular option for people to munch on in between their trips to the potato chip bags. Carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, hummus, pita bread, watermelon, grapes, melon bites, celery, and bell peppers are my favorite healthier options to bring along.
Depending on your personal tailgating style, here are a few of easy menu ideas to get you started.
Basic: Hot dogs and chips
Even if you aren’t transporting a grill to your tailgate, you can prep and foil wrap plenty of hot dogs ahead of time. Grab plenty of bags of chips and you have enough basics to officially call it a tailgate party.
Better: Burgers, brats, and beans
The beauty of grilling burgers is that you can customize this to fit many diets and preferences. Have a cheeseburger option, double cheeseburger option for the ex-linebackers, a veggie option and, of course, buns are always optional for those nixing the extra carbs.
Best: Bacon-wrapped jalapenos appetizers, chips and homemade salsa, veggie and fruit spread, BBQ brisket, pork ribs, and potato salad.
Whoever is manning the grill will stay busy, and they probably started before the sun came up. But, this is the life of the true “one upper” ultimate tailgaters who are there to build memories and enjoy a full day of sports-related good times.
Elevate the Entertainment
Grilling and throwing back a cold one are tailgate traditions, but there are many ways to tackle your time before and after the game.
Get your inner DJ ready. Charge your phone or speakers so you have plenty of juice. Consider your crowd in case you need a special playlist. It’s not cool to have your uncensored 80s rap kickin’ when young kids are around. So, take the few minutes and make a playlist so you aren’t having to censor on the spot. More time for eating, less time changing your music.
For a college football tailgate, go ahead and mix in a fight song for your team if you’re a super fan. It’s a polarizing way to make friends in your parking lot, or find out how many of your enemies are out there, too.
You need games. Adults-only tailgates need only a few but don’t underestimate the power of friendly competition to get people talking. Corn hole is an easy parking lot set up. Just bring your boards and bags and make use of any space you have – done. Throw a football in your car to play catch, or maybe a volleyball to pass and bump.
Washers is similar to corn hole, with two small boards and sets of small washers. It’s a fast game option that anyone can play.
Ladder Toss is another crowd-pleaser. Almost any age or ability can participate with little effort. It’s fun and the setup is lightweight and simple.
Kan Jam came onto the tailgate scene a few years ago, and I’m still trying to master it. It’s harder than it looks to throw a frisbee into a slot, but it’s a nice partner game that works well in a light wind situation.
Consider bringing a TV for the non-ticketholders. Usually, I’m tailgating as a pre-cursor to going inside the stadium to watch the game. However, I know sometimes friends join without a ticket to the game and the tailgate turns into a watching party.
This is where your ultimate tailgaters come into play again and you’ve got a tv on showing the game. I don’t even know all the power supplies needed and complexity of actually getting the channel you need to watch the game, but thankfully, there are pro tailgaters a lot smarter than me out there who do. (Try this: The 4 Best Ways to Get a TV at Your Next Tailgate)
Avoid Rookie Mistakes
Personal Foul: You’ll need a place for you and your crew to stash those empty bottles (as in plastic cups or aluminum bottles – don’t even think about messing with glass bottles), cans, and food trash, so bring trash bags and plenty of them.
Delay of Game: Plan your cooking time so you not only get to eat before the game, but you chill the grill and do your clean up with enough time for you to comfortably walk into the stadium to make the national anthem. Don’t miss the game and get left out in the parking lot manning the tailgate!
Facemask: If you plan to spend several hours outside, break out the sunscreen and hats. Bonus points if you have room to set up a tent or canopy for shade. Your friends will appreciate it.
Offsides: Check your site ahead of time if you are planning a tailgate party. When do the lots open? Is there a cost? You don’t want to get stuck in a lot that charges per spot if you’re rolling in there with your extended cab pulling a trailer with a smoker and you need four spaces for set up.
Also, be aware and considerate of alcohol policies, which can vary according to the campus or venue. You don’t want the party ruined by the golf cart patrol checking for rule-breakers.
Holding: Know the rules for what you can and can’t take into the venue. If you have to re-pack a few items to fit into the right sized bag, purse, or pockets, you’ll want to do that before you make the walk to the gates from the tailgate lot.
The Ultimate Tailgater’s Packing List
Preparation is key to a successful pre-game. Here’s a basic list of tailgating essentials.
- Bug Spray, Ant Spray
- Trash Bags
- Lighting for Night Tailgate
- Tent or Canopy
- Paper Towels
- Music playlist, speakers or fully charged phone
- Coolers (and don’t forget the ice!)
- Condiments, plates, forks
Here’s hoping your next tailgate is delicious, entertaining, memorable, and safe – and that your team wins. (Go Dallas Cowboys, FC Dallas, and Texas Tech!)