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Tailgating Essentials for the 2021 Football Season

Guess what? It’s almost fall, which means it’s almost football season — and after being disrupted all through 2020, the games are back in play, so that means it’s time to get ready to go tailgating.

Whether you’re a newbie to the tailgating scene or you’re just feeling a little rusty, we’ve got the skinny on how you can make your tailgating experience an absolute blast.

When Did Tailgating Get Its Start?

Believe it or not, nobody is really sure — although there are plenty of theories.

Some anthropologists say tailgating is just a modern version of the harvest celebrations (complete with games) that used to take place in much of the ancient world. 

Historians speculate that tailgating had its roots in the carnival-like atmosphere that reigned during uprisings and wars in the more recent past, likening tailgating to the spectators that gathered to watch the guillotine in action during the French Revolution or the folks that traveled by wagon to watch the Union and Confederate forces meet at the First Battle of Bull Run back in 1861.

Football aficionados, for their part, suggest that tailgating began at Ivy League events during the era when students at such lofty institutions as Oxford and Yale were known more for their hard-partying (and hard-playing) ways than their academic prowess. 

One thing is for certain: Tailgating in its current incarnation is a uniquely American tradition that seemed to arise organically out of the sense of camaraderie that football fans (even those rooting for opposing teams) share between them. 

The first use of the term “tailgating” may have officially started among Green Bay Packers fans in 1919, and the term seems to have been fairly well-known by 1933. Tailgating didn’t really take off, however, until the 1980s or 1990s. By then, tailgating became a social phenomenon of epic proportions and parking lots became entire communities of fans who shared their food, their liquor and their high spirits with each other.

What Do You Need to Go Tailgating?

Tailgating is an experience. Like any great experience, you’ll get more out of your adventure if you’re properly prepared. Here’s what you need to have to get ready for this parking lot party:

Cooking Gear and Dining Essentials

Grills are a huge part of tailgating, so make sure that you pack that first. (Do check with the stadium rules to make sure of what type of fuel is allowed on site. Some stadiums don’t allow anything with an open flame, so that means no charcoal or wood chips.)

Aside from your grill, you will need:

  • A slow cooker to keep the side dishes you prepared at home warm
  • Grilling accessories, like an apron, mitts, tongs, meat thermometer, spatula, scraper and tinfoil 
  • Coolers (plural) for cold items, beer, wine, liquor and all the extra ice that you need
  • Trash bags and/or a trash can so that you can clean up easily 
  • Plates, napkins, serving spoons, plastic tableware, drinking cups and serving trays 
  • Plastic containers and bags to store leftovers
  • Extra bottles of water (which can be pre-frozen and used as ice)
  • A plastic tub to haul back any dirty dishes or utensils
  • A metal bucket (for still-warm charcoal, if your grill requires it) and lighter fluid
  • Paper towels or napkins
  • A small fire extinguisher (just in case)

It’s always wisest to have as much of your food prepped for cooking or consumption before you go. Make the potato salad at home, press the hamburger patties into shape, get single-serve condiment packages ready and pack as much finger food as possible. Chips, pretzels and popcorn go well with beer, cider and spirits, so remember to bring those along.

Seating and Comfort Items

Above all, you want to be relaxed and comfortable when you’re tailgating, so plan around the weather wherever you happen to be. Some of the items you may need to put on your list include:

  • Folding chairs and folding tables 
  • Battery-operated fan (where it’s warmer)
  • Blankets (which can be needed both in colder weather and to lay down over the bed of your truck when it’s hot)
  • Washable or waterproof tablecloths or a tarp (in case it gets windy or starts to drizzle and you need to cover everything up in a hurry) 
  • Sunscreen and a canopy or beach umbrella
  • Insect repellant and hand sanitizer

You should also have a small first-aid kit on hand, or a bag packed with the basics, like burn spray, bandaids and topical antibiotic ointments — just in case.

Entertainment and Fan Gear

Finally, what’s a tailgating party without music and fun? To make sure that you’re ready to party with the best of them, pack these items:

  • Portable phone chargers or a portable battery, so you can keep your phones charged
  • Portable speakers, so you can rock your favorite tunes and get the momentum going
  • Games that are easy to play, like corn hole, ladder toss, frisbee, UNO or other card games
  • Signs, so that you can announce what you’re serving 
  • Swag, so you can show off your team spirit and let everybody know whom you’re rooting for at the game

If you’re going to go tailgating often, go ahead and invest in decor in your team’s colors. Your chairs, blankets, plates and cups can all reflect your team pride and create a more festive atmosphere. 

Finally, we have one last essential tip for the novice tailgater: Get there early. 

If you want the full tailgating experience, you probably should give yourself at least four hours to find a spot, set up, cook, eat, drink, play some games and visit with your friends before the game starts. At its heart, tailgating is always about community, so make time to really connect with the other wonderful folks who are there.