How to Tailgate: The Ultimate Tailgating Guide

How to Tailgate

If you have ever been to a tailgate before, you know that they are a blast. I wish tailgates could last forever. If you have never tailgated before, you can expect an awesome time. If you do not know what a tailgate is, a tailgate is basically a massive party in the parking lot before whatever event you are attending. People typically tailgate college and NFL football games, but there are plenty of other events that you can tailgate as well. Some other popular tailgating events include NASCAR and concerts. If you have never been to a tailgate before, we will go over how to tailgate and everything you need to know for your next tailgate.

Even if you have been to a tailgate before you still might not know exactly how to tailgate. We will go over all the basics, including everything that you should bring and everything you should do to be prepared. Most of all though, just remember to have fun at your next tailgate. That is what you are there for after all. Soak up all the good times and enjoy it while it lasts.

What is a Tailgate?

When most people think of tailgating the first thing that comes to mind is NFL football. While it is true that NFL games are probably the most popular events to tailgate, there are plenty of others. College students come out in droves every Saturday to tailgate their college’s football team. You will find plenty of tailgaters at almost every concert. NASCAR tailgates can last for an entire weekend.

All of these events are different but their tailgates are all similar. Think of a tailgate like a pre-game for the event. You hang out with your friends, drink a couple cold beers, grill up some food, and have an all-around great time. Tailgating season peaks in the late Summer and early Fall but you can absolutely tailgate in the late Fall and into Winter. Football season can go into late January and fans still show up to tailgate those games. Frankly, you can tailgate year round if you find enough events to attend.

Tailgates are fun for people of all ages. Even as a kid I really enjoyed it because I got to play games and eat junk food before watching my favorite team play. As an adult it is even more enjoyable because it is a nice break from stress and a chance to just relax and let loose. For college students though, tailgates are especially fun. You get four years to tailgate almost every Saturday in the Fall with a bunch of your closest friends.

Show Up Early

You are probably going to want show up earlier than you would think to a tailgate. For the average tailgate, you will probably want to show up about four hours before the event starts. This will of course depend on what time the lot opens, but that is a good rule of thumb. If you want more information on how early you should show up to a tailgate, check out our article where we broke down how early you should show up to a tailgate.

Showing up early will give you plenty of time to set up and enjoy yourself. Setting up will take longer than you think. For football games especially, you might find yourself spending more time tailgating than watching the actual game. I would make sure to check the stadium’s site beforehand so you know when the lots open up. Some stadiums are open all day for tailgating but sometimes the lots only open three hours before kick off.

Be Prepared

Before you leave the house, check the weather! The easiest way to have rain ruin your tailgate is to not even know it was supposed to rain. If it is going to rain, make sure you are prepared. I would at least bring a poncho or umbrella to protect you from the rain. You can still have a great tailgate in the rain, you just have to come prepared. A little bit of rain isn’t going to cancel the game, do not let it cancel your tailgate either.

You will also want to make sure you dress appropriately for the weather. If you are leaving your house early in the morning, it might be a little cold so wearing long sleeves might seem like a good idea. However, by the time you start tailgating it could be 15 degrees warmer. Do not forget the sun screen for those summer tailgates! If you are going to be tailgating for hours you will definitely want to protect yourself from the sun.

Same thing goes for a cold weather. It would be smart to wear layers. That way you can always take a layer off if it is warmer than you thought it would be. If it is going to be really cold, definitely bring a warm coat along because you are going to be there for a while. For more tips on tailgating in the cold check out our article on How to Stay Warm at a Tailgate.

Make sure you know where you are going to be parking. Many stadiums have designated lots for tailgating. You can always find that out by checking the stadiums website ahead of time. In some cases you can even reserve a spot ahead of time. Knowing exactly where you going will make everything a whole lot easier. It will also be helpful to know which lot you are going to be tailgating in in case it rains. If it is a grass lot and it is going to be really muddy, you may have to rethink your plans a little bit.

Bring All the Essentials

There are a few things that you should absolutely bring to your next tailgate. I would even consider them essential to having a good time. If you are tailgating with a group you can easily split up all these responsibilities too so you don’t have to cram everything into your vehicle. If you don’t have all of these items, it does not mean you can’t tailgate, you will just have to improvise a little bit. There is a decent amount of things to cover here so let’s go item by item.

Portable Grill

One of the biggest parts of a tailgate is the food. Tailgates have classic summer and game day food like burgers, hot dogs, and sausages. To cook all that food you are going to need to bring a portable grill with you. You do not have to spend a ton of money on something super fancy, but you will want something that is reliable and will get the job done for you. In addition to bringing the grill, do not forget about the propane. Propane tanks for portable grills usually come in one pound tanks. I would bring at least two of these with you so you do not run out. One of my favorite portable grills for tailgating is the Weber Q2200 Liquid Propane Grill (link to view on Amazon).

The Weber Q2200 is small enough that it is easy to bring along to a tailgate. That said, you can easily grill for a big group with a cooking area of 280 square inches. The grill uses disposable propane tanks which makes grilling on the go very convenient.

“Portable vs Disposable Grill”

If it is snowing or raining and you can’t bring a grill, you still have options. One thing you could do is make all the food ahead of time. Then just keep it in a chafing dish that you can warm up once you get everything set up. Another option is to bring food that can be made in a crock-pot. Crock-pots are incredibly easy to use and a great product for tailgating when it is really cold outside.

I talked about more options for tailgate food with a grill in my post How to Keep Food Warm at a Tailgate, if grilling is not an option for you. Having a grill would be ideal, but don’t let not having a grill get in the way of you having a good tailgate.

Canopy Tent

Whether it’s sunny, snowy, or rainy, you are going to want to bring a canopy tent along with you. Your canopy tent will provide you with protection from the weather and create a home base for your group. It will give you a shady place to sit and relax under. You will also be able to set up your table and put all the food out underneath it. Canopy tents at tailgates are really common. If it’s just a small group tailgating, like two to four people, you might not need one, but if you’re going to tailgate with a large group it will definitely help. If you do bring a canopy tent, make sure to weigh it down properly so it doesn’t fall over!


Sometimes overlooked, a generator can be really useful at a tailgate. Obviously being outdoors, there aren’t going to be any electrical outlets, which is why you might want to bring a generator. The generator will allow you to have a mobile outlet.

During hot weather tailgates you will probably want to bring a fan with you that you can stick under your canopy tent. Generators are especially helpful during cold weather tailgates though. You might not be grilling as much if it is really cold outside but you can bring crock-pot dishes. For that to work you will obviously need to bring a generator along.

You do not need a generator to tailgate, but it can be helpful if you want to plug anything in.

Tailgating Food

Like I said earlier, food is probably the most important part of any tailgate. Don’t let your crowd down by making sure you have plenty of food on deck to have a great tailgate. You can bring whatever food you want, but classic barbecue and game day foods are typical for a tailgate. Burgers and hot dogs are really easy to grill up and make for fantastic tailgate food. You will also want to bring some sides too. I think pasta salad, potato salad, and chips and dip are all great options here. One of my favorite tailgate foods that is not super common is buffalo chicken dip. Especially if you are tailgating in the cold, buffalo chicken dip is amazing. It is also really easy to make and can just sit in the crock-pot.

If it is cold out, one great food option is Chili. It is really easy to make and will warm you up. Chili is also a staple game day food so it makes sense to have it a tailgate. You can just make it ahead of time so all you have to do when you get there is warm it up and you are good to go.

If you have a sweet tooth, don’t forget the desserts either! Brownies, cookies, and cupcakes are all great options.


For the 21+ crowd, don’t forget to bring your drink of choice to the tailgate. Beer, spiked seltzers, and wine coolers are probably the most popular drinks for tailgating. Just don’t forget to drink responsibly! Make sure to keep your drinks cool with a koozie too. One my favorites is the YETI Rambler Colster. It fits any standard size bottle or can and is insulated to keep drinks cold for hours.

Besides alcoholic drinks, you will also want to be sure to have plenty of water on hand. It is very hot out for most of tailgating season so you will want to stay hydrated. Being out in the sun for hours at a time will dehydrate you quickly so drink plenty of water. If you have younger people people in your group make sure to bring some drinks for them too.

Insulated Cooler

If you’re going to bring drinks, you will need to keep them cold the whole time. A good insulated cooler will do that for you. It is probably not enough to keep them in a bin on ice because the ice will melt pretty quickly. Tailgates usually last for a few hours so you want to get a cooler that can keep everything cold for that long. YETI makes probably the best cooler for tailgating because there is plenty of space and will keep everything cold for hours.

I would also bring two separate coolers if you need to bring a cooler for food. Putting the drinks in with the food could squish the food. It will also make everything easier when you are setting up. If you do have food that is better served cold, I would keep it in the cooler as much as possible because it will spoil real quick sitting out in the hot sun.

Paper Products and Trash Bags

Don’t forget to bring utensils if you are bringing food that requires a fork and knife. I feel like utensils are probably the most forgettable thing to bring to parties. You can’t just make a quick run to the store if you realized you forgot utensils while parked in a stadium lot. I would also bring plenty of paper towels and napkins. Depending on what you are making, tailgate food can get a little messy. You will want to be able to wipe off that ketchup stain before anyone notices.

I would also bring a pack of trash bags with you. That will make cleaning easier at the end of the tailgate so you don’t have to collect all the trash. I would bring a few trash bags because you never know how much trash you will need to throw out.

Don’t Forget the Entertainment

Every tailgate has to have something to keep everyone entertained. One thing most tailgates will have is a fun game to play. The most popular tailgating games are Cornhole, Ladder Golf, and Beer Pong. Feel free to bring more than one game too. You can’t really go wrong with any one game here but I would definitely bring at least one to give you something to do while you hang out and drink.

My favorite tailgating game is Cornhole. If you have never played before, it is incredibly easy to play and a fun game for large groups. I like to play it tournament style to make it a little competitive. Most tailgate groups will have a set of Cornhole boards out. Here is a quick rundown of the rules if you are thinking about playing:

If you’ve never played before, it’s incredibly simple. It is usually played in teams of two but you can modify the rules as needed if you want to just play with two people. You start by setting up the Cornhole boards about 27 feet apart, facing each other. One person from each team lines up on opposite sides, facing each other. You start with all eight bags on one side (four bags per team) and flip a coin to decide who will go first. The side that goes first will alternate tossing the bags onto the other Cornhole board until all eight bags have been tossed to the other side.

If the bag lands on the board, it is one point. If it lands in the hole, it is three points. Whichever teams gets to 21 points first wins.

“Best Tailgate Games”

I broke down all the games you can play at your next tailgate in my blog post on Best Tailgate Games. If you are looking for a game to play for your next tailgate, check it out. I included options for those playing in small groups, large groups, as well as some fun drinking games.

In addition to games, you could also bring some music too. Every party needs some music, you might want to bring a long a good portable speaker. Especially if you are tailgating a concert, music is a must have for the tailgate.

Remember You Are There to Have a Good Time

Don’t forget to relax a little bit. Arguably the best part of tailgating is getting to sit down, drink a few beers, and just chill out. Don’t worry so much about making sure everyone is having a good time or feeling like you have to socialize with everyone. It’s a tailgate, everyone else is already having a good time, so should you.

Grab your favorite chair, a burger, a beer, and just hang out. You only get a few months of tailgate season so enjoy it while it’s here. Once tailgate season is gone and you are stuck inside the house all Winter, you will regret the fact that you did not take full advantage of it.

Tailgates are parking lot parties so treat it like one. Leave your diet at home for the day and let loose (responsibly). You probably spent a lot of money on the event ticket so get the most out of it by having an enjoyable tailgate.

Clean Up Before You Go

Before going into the event, clean up your tailgate. Even if you plan on tailgating some more after to wait for the traffic to clear out, I would at least put the trash away so it does not blow all over the place. Not only is it the right thing to do, but you could even be fined if you do not put your trash away.

If you do not plan to stay and tailgate after, you could just pack everything up before you go into the stadium. This will make leaving so much easier and you might even be able to beat some of the traffic.

Wrap Up

I hope this guide to tailgating was helpful in planning your next tailgate. Don’t worry too much about planning and preparation, you will have a great time regardless. What is important is that you show up and have a good time with your friends and family.

Enjoy tailgate season while it lasts, because it will be gone before you know it! If you need more tips on tailgating, check out our tailgating section.

Sam Rebinskas

Sam is the co-founder of Improve Your Gameday and loves all Boston sports teams.

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