The Best Tailgate Grills for Every Level of Tailgating

By Bob McCarthy

Cool nights and the changing leaves, school supplies and pumpkin flavored everything—fall is here and its onset marks the start of another glorious football season. Saturday, Sunday, Monday night, Thursday night—from Labor Day through the New Year, over half the week features a kickoff and, of course, tailgating.

To have a game, you must first have a pre-game, complete with great food and beer. Sure, you could just pack sandwiches or, if it’s a big game, get crazy and break out the spicy queso. But, like a fan wearing the game jersey of a subpar player cut two seasons ago, you’d be telling the world you can’t be taken seriously.

You’ve seen the pros in the parking lot, their grills billowing smoke and burdened by sizzling meat. Want to play in their league? Here are our favorite tailgating grills, grouped by their pre-gaming abilities—and they can all be easily transported without an oversized truck.

The Rookie

Sometimes, you’re satisfied to just get into the game. The Weber Smokey Joe Premium Charcoal Grill and Weber Go-Anywhere Gas Grill allow you to get into the tailgating game with only a modest investment. Small, portable, affordable, both are perfect for entry-level tailgating. Love charcoal flavor? Go with the Smokey Joe. Prefer the ease of propane? Choose the Go-Anywhere. Either one will give you the ability to fire up burgers, dogs, wings, and sausages while arguing the merits of a 3-4 defense.

However, just like that rookie walk-on from South Boise Junior College, these grills have limited ability. With less than 200 square inches of cooking space, you won’t be hosting many people at your tailgate party. And if you’re thinking about pre-gaming with real-deal BBQ, think again, because smoking and indirect cooking aren’t options.

The Third Down Specialist

Everybody dreams of getting their number called in a big spot and making a game-changing play. The Napoleon Apollo 200 and Weber Smokey Mountain 14.5 are true game-changers, taking a ho-hum tailgate to the next level with authentic BBQ. Want to win fans? These small smokers feature dual cooking levels for more cooking area, so you can wow the crowd with low-and-slow pulled pork and baby back ribs. Thanks to a stacked design, both can be easily broken down and packed in the trunk of a car.

Much like that undersized scatback, these cookers are primarily specialists. Although you can use the lower tier of both cookers as a small charcoal grill, their strength is smoking.

The Stud Quarterback

Everyone loves a quarterback with a howitzer for an arm, but wouldn’t it be great if he could also run a naked bootleg for fifteen yards. Both the Kamado Joe Jr. and Traeger Tailgater bring that kind of do-it-all versatility to tailgating. Grill, smoke, bake or roast, they do it all. Despite their big abilities, both have a compact size that makes going from backyard to parking lot hassle-free.

A small kamado that weighs just 56 pounds, the Kamado Joe Jr is one of the few ceramic grills you can actually take on-the-go. Whether you want to serve low-and-slow BBQ or flame-grilled burgers, the Joe Jr. will do it masterfully. It can smoke at 250°F for hours then be cranked to 700°F to sear steaks or bake parking lot pizza. It even comes with key accessories like a cast iron stand and the deflector plate needed for smoking.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could spend more time hanging out at your tailgate and less time cooking? The Traeger Tailgater pellet grill will grill, smoke, bake, and roast at the touch of a button. Because it has automatic temperature control, you just set the temperature and let the Tailgater do the rest. While it cooks, you’re free to pregame like a champ. Tailgate-ready, it features fold-away legs for easy packing.

The All-Pro

Greatness isn’t given, it’s earned through excellence. Want to be a Hall of Fame tailgater? Bring your A-Game and an amazing menu. The Broil King Keg 5000 and Louisiana Grills Tailgater have the versatility you want and the performance you need to achieve legendary status.

Wish you could take a full-sized kamado to the stadium, but can’t fathom loading and unloading a 200 pound ceramic grill? The Broil King Keg 5000 is a steel kamado with all the capability of a ceramic grill, but weighs less and is more durable. With the included secondary cooking rack it has 480 square inches of cooking space, so whether you smoke brisket or grill ribeyes, there will be enough for all of your adoring fans. Despite its size, the Keg is easy to transport—it can be outfitted with an optional Trailer Hitch Adapter.

The Louisiana Grills Tailgater is another portable pellet grill, but it takes set-it and forget-it to another level. This Tailgater can hold its temperature within a few degrees, even during those cold weather games. It also has a programmable meat probe that will turn down the heat when food is done—even if you get caught up in an epic game of Cornhole, it’s impossible to overcook food. The Tailgater even includes a direct grilling feature, so you can use this pellet grill for searing burgers and steaks over an open flame.

No matter where you rank as a tailgater, there’s a grill to help you get game-ready, including a number of portable charcoal and gas grills.