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Tailgating is now a massive tradition stateside, so it’s beyond time to step up your game off the field. According to Merriam-Webster, tailgates have blossomed into full day-of-the-game parties where everyone is invited. Even in below-freezing weather, you'll find football and hockey fans or skiers and hunters setting up eating areas and games by their vehicles to get into the spirit.
The grill is a key component to a successful tailgate. Burgers, hot dogs, sausages, and pimento cheese are regularly on the menu, plus it's a small source of heat in those cold winter parking lots. Tailgating grills have a different set of requirements than other grill set-ups. First, the most obvious one: you need to be able to easily transport it in your car. Then, it needs to be easily functional as well. Anything too heavy or too complex might be more trouble than they're worth. Lastly, there needs to be easy clean-up so you can get on your way home (or into the game if you lose track of time).
Thankfully, there are a number of excellent tailgating grills to pick up to help make your tailgate the most noteworthy in the parking lot. Here are the best grills for tailgating, broken down into helpful categories for even the most newbie tailgater all the way to veteran grill masters.
Best Overall, Propane Gas: Coleman RoadTrip 285 Portable Stand-Up Propane Grill
What We Love: Easy to transport and set up, powerful and adjustable burners, multiple cooktop options
What We Don't Love: Wheels are lower in quality, grate isn't nonstick
Our favorite overall grill for tailgating is the Coleman RoadTrip 285. Jeremy Schaller, the third-generation owner of Schaller & Weber, New York City’s longtime German butcher and market, shared that this is his go-to tailgating grill used every weekend at the mountain during ski season.
“It is super easy and has its own integrated base and work table. It also gets pretty hot even in cold temps thanks to the integrated thermometer that assists with temperature monitoring,” says Schaller."[The] locking lid secures the grill during transport along with rolling wheels and adjustable handle ease carrying!”
When you need to set it up, the legs on the Coleman RoadTrip 285 quickly snap into place. The three burners below the cast-iron grates range from 3,250 BTUs to 20,000 BTUS, and each can be adjusted on its own. A push-button ignition means the wind won't blow out your matches and there's an adapter for those who want to bring along a 20-pound propane tank. When it's time to go, the removable water pan makes it a cinch to clean up the grease.
Lastly, the Coleman RoadTrip 285 comes in five fun colors, conveniently folds up for storage after cooling, and has the option to switch in griddles if needed. Brunch tailgate anyone?
Dimensions (LxWxH): 45.6 x 19.5 x 35 inches | Cooking Area: 285 square inches | BTUs: 20,000 | Weight: 52.5 pounds
Best Overall, Charcoal: Everdure CUBE Portable Charcoal BBQ
What We Love: Lightweight, easy to transport and store, built-in serving trays
What We Don't Love: No airflow control, ashes can take a while to cool
Some grillmasters prefer charcoal, such as James Beard Award winner chef Gerard Craft. In fact, Craft even has an entire eatery, Cinder House at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, that embraces how fire interacts with food.
"For grilling everything from burgers to pork butt, the Everdure by Heston Blumenthal is my current grills of choice," says Craft. "The grills are well insulated and built to withstand long cook times, without utilizing much charcoal." Craft likes the Cube for camping, impromptu gatherings, and tailgating.
The Everdure Cube is sleek, modern, and aesthetically appealing, and is one of the lightest portable grills out there. Underneath the waterproof, heat-resistant cover, you'll find a storage tray and removable chrome grill inside the porcelain enamel firebox. A few quick minutes of set-up and you'll be having shrimp skewers and grilled chicken before you know it. The charcoal tray is removable when it comes time to clean, and the top can double as a prep board or serving piece.
A downside is that sometimes it can take a very long time, up to a day, for the coals/ash to cool all the way.
Dimensions (LxWxH): 16.7 x 13.7 x 9 inches | Cooking Area: 115 square inches | Weight: 15 pounds
Best Budget: Weber 10020 Smokey Joe 14-Inch Portable Charcoal Grill
What We Love: Lightweight, adjustable airflow, 10-year warranty
What We Don't Love: Height isn't adjustable
Robyn Lindars (a.k.a. the Grill Girl), is an author and grilling enthusiast who has been featured on Food Network, the Today Show, and the Travel Channel for her grilling prowess. She especially loves empowering women with her “Women Grilling Clinics” and Grill School YouTube Series. Her go-to for tailgating is the Weber Smokey Joe, since it’s portable, cheap, and weighs less than ten pounds. "I bring this along with a cooler and a chimney starter and I’m all set for cooking on the go," says Lindars. "This is also my son's first grill. It is small and perfect for him to learn how to grill on as a 6-year-old!"
Weber's 18-inch-high Smokey Joe is definitely small, but mighty. The steel cooking grates are a little over 14 inches in diameter, allowing for 147 square inches of cooking area or the space for six hamburgers (though probably fewer if you're doing Juicy Lucys). This affordable and durable grill is also great for searing.
Weber's glass-enforced nylon lid handle stays cool during cooking, and the lid is also where you'll find Weber's signature four-vent aluminum damper (there's also a damper on the bottom). Both the lid and bowl are enameled with porcelain, with an aluminum ash catcher below.
Dimensions (DxWxH): 14.5 x 14.2 x 17 inches | Cooking Area: 147 square inches | Weight: 9.5 pounds
Best Pellet: Pit Boss Tailgater Wood Pellet Grill
What We Love: Collapsible design for easy transport, pellets create great smokey flavor
What We Don't Love: 5-pound hopper might need refilling during your tailgate
No tailgate-adjacent roundup can be complete without an expert from where it all began: Green Bay, Wisconsin. It's where the term “tailgating” was invented. Mad Dog of Mad Dog and Merrill Midwest Grill’n TV Show, is based in Wisconsin and prefers the Pit Boss 340 Tailgater.
"This gives me the ability to bring my backyard skills to the tailgate and I get a real smoke flavor doing so. The best thing about the pellet grill is that for us 'grillologist' tailgaters, there’s plenty of different flavors of smoke to enhance your meat," says Mad Dog. "I started in the ’80s with a charcoal grill, but the pellet grill allows you to sit back without a worry and enjoy the tailgate atmosphere."
This current version comes in a collapsible design, for easy loading in and out of your truck. The hopper can handle up to 5 pounds of wood pellets, and an auto-start heat rod lets you get to grilling quickly with less fuss. A rear exhaust and temperature dial help you achieve the perfect interior temps, that you can read out on the thermometer built into the lid. The 341-square-inch grill can hold up to 15 hamburgers at a time, though you may need to spatchcock poultry for gameday.
Dimensions (LxWxH): 40 x 22.5 x 41 inches | Cooking Area: 341 square inches | Weight: 88 pounds | Hopper Capacity: 5 pounds
Related: The Best Portable Grills
Best Indoor/Outdoor: Pampered Chef Indoor/Outdoor Portable Grill
What We Love: Versatile, dishwasher-safe grate
What We Don't Love: On the small side, pricey
This super-versatile piece from Pampered Chef easily converts for easy indoor-to-outdoor options, making it an affordable item with multiple uses. Outside, you'll be able to grill using charcoal with a locking lid and two air vents for temperature control. Inside, you insert the heating element and choose between high, medium, and low for electric grilling.
With a large grilling surface, this portable grill can cook nine burgers at once, a great pick for feeding a small crowd. It includes a removable drip tray, and the grill grate is even dishwasher safe for easy cleaning after the big game, a major win. Just be sure to let the grill cool completely before you transport it.
One con of this item is its small size, which means it’s not designed for indirect heat, just direct heat cooking. It's also shouldn't be the main grill for larger get-togethers.
Dimensions (LxWxH): 15.5 x 15.5 x 16 inches | Cooking Area: 13.25 square inches
Related: The Best Grill Thermometers
If you're looking for an easy gas grill that's easy to transport and can be set up on any flat surface, the Coleman RoadTrip 285 Portable Stand-Up Propane Grill (view at Amazon). Whether you're on a budget or prefer charcoal grilling, the Weber 10020 Smokey Joe 14-Inch Portable Charcoal Grill (view at Amazon) is a surefire bet.
What to Look for in Tailgating Grills
When deciding on your perfect tailgating grill, consider your experience with fuel type. If you’re a wood pellet lover on your deck, it makes sense to choose a pellet option for on-the-go. That way, you already know how to handle the fuel and always have pellets on hand. The same goes for charcoal or gas.
Keep in mind how you'll have to set up the grill (and how early you'll need to get a good spot), and the clean-up afterward. You might prefer charcoal over gas grilling, but charcoal needs time to heat up and cool off. Plus if there isn't any charcoal waste bin, you'll need to get them home.
Another key factor for choosing a tailgating grill is its portability. Factors to take into account are how it folds up, and how long does it take to cool down. Transporting the grill safely in your vehicle and its weight should also be considered.
Ease of cleaning matters in terms of tailgating, since it’s not as simple as at-home grilling. Dishwasher-safe elements, especially removable ones, help simplify things and save you time. Since you can’t really clean in the parking lot, it’s best to get a grill with a locking mechanism to ensure the mess stays put until you are safely home and ready to clean. Be sure to read which type of cleaning materials are allowed for use for your grill too, since some can discolor your item(s).
To ensure long-term usage of your tailgating grill, research what type of grilling utensils are best for your specific item, whether they be metal or wooden. Incompatible utensils can scratch and wear your grill grates, and you'll need to have them replaced before next season.
Can you set up your grill in a truck bed?
Heat can damage paint on cars as well as light tents on fire, so it’s best to grill away from the party. That means using the ground, not grass since that’s flammable, as a grilling base.
How do you safely grill while tailgating?
First up, research the rules of your particular place to make sure you’re abiding by all local ordinances.
In terms of food safety, the USDA recommends packing raw meats in a cooler, plus bringing a thermometer to ensure they stay at 40 degrees or lower during transport to the game. When it’s time to actually cook your items, refer to the USDA Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart, which provides temperature guides for every type of meat including popular tailgate picks like chicken and beef. Also, store your leftovers in a cooler right away if you plan on enjoying them later.
Why Trust Simply Recipes?
Katy Spratte Joyce has been a prolific home cook and un-fussy foodie for over a decade, and now she’s writing about it. She’s a season ticket holder for the Nebraska Cornhuskers Football team (Go Big Red!) and has lots of opinions about tailgating. Catch her using a Coleman 285 to make her famous Jucy Lucys (if you know, you know) near Memorial Stadium on Game Day.
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