Image by Ben Vardi, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
First things first! If you were to ask a random person on the street: “Hey, random person on the street! What is tailgating?” …you'd get one of two very different answers.
The person might assume you're asking about the term tailgating in terms of driving your car. You know, that moment on the freeway where you glance at your rear view mirror to see the car behind you is too close.
We're talking uncomfortably, dangerously close.
Fortunately, that's not the kind we mean. That is the bad kind of tailgating, and you should never, ever do it. Ever.
What we're talking about here is the good kind of tailgating. The joyous, raucous, and so totally righteous parking lot celebration that takes place in the hours right before the big game.
Why? Because if something is fun (like really, really fun), you find an excuse to work it into the schedule, somehow.
For those of you who are still asking “what is tailgating exactly?” Well, if you've never done it, then you're missing out. And if you have done it, you already know. We're not just talking about a party.
We're talking about a ritual.
A (Non) Crash Course in Tailgating
The tailgating tradition has been around for decades. People still argue that their school or their city is the place where it all started. But regardless of origin, tailgating has developed an identity of its own.
For some, the tailgating party is the main event. Some studies indicate that as many as a third of all tailgaters don't even have a ticket to the game. They just want to party with other fans.
So how does it work?
Tailgating, put simply, is a largely informal gathering. It starts when a group of people shows up early to an event, pop the back hatch of their SUVs, vans, or trucks, and use their tailgates to have a good old party before the show starts.
There's usually a grill. Or… several dozen. Some music, some mingling, and plenty of brewskies.
There's team spirit (there better be, anyway). There are outdoor games, die-hard fans, and spirited debates about who has the best shot at this year's title.
Tailgating is a joyful celebration for fans of the sport, folk bursting with hometown pride, or simply people who love to have a good time with friends.
So pull up a folding chair, have a burger, grab a few drinks (you're not driving anywhere for a while) and have some fun…
The First Brave Tailgating Pioneers
Image by Luis Quintero, CC0, via Pexels
Realistically, tailgating has been around since the late 1800s or early 1900s, depending on who you ask.
The American Tailgater Association lists the first tailgating event as the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. As you may or may not remember from AP US History, that was a major battle early on in the American Civil War, that took place in Manassas, Virginia.
Locals treated the upcoming battle like a spectacle, flocking to the scene to observe the fight from a safe distance. They brought food, drink, and binoculars.
The horrors of war turned out to be less of a picnic than they had hoped, and suffice it to say: that example doesn't really fit with the vibe most of us look for in a good tailgating experience.
When we think about the question “what is tailgating?” we're usually thinking sports. So let's look at some of those examples instead.
The earliest claim to an actual sports event comes from an 1869 football game between Rutgers and Princeton. This early form of football was more like rugby than the version we watch on Super Bowl Sunday. But at this game, some fans showed up wearing their school colors and cheering on their team.
When it comes to food and a party? Yale claims it had the first of those in 1904. Parking was scarce, and fans traveling to the game needed something to tide them over, so they brought food and drink ahead of time and had a party before the game.
And lastly, there's the origin of the term itself. The Green Bay Packers may have the rights to this one. The Cheeseheads claim they started it in 1919 when some fans would park near the stadium to watch the game. The preferred method? Turning their trucks around and folding down the tailgates as seating.
It Ain't Just For Football
Tailgating may have its roots in the proud sport of football, but the tradition has gone far beyond the borders of the NFL and NCAA. From baseball games to NASCAR to the UFC… if there's an event with a parking lot and hungry fans, it's fair game for tailgating.
And what is tailgating if not a way to unite fans of all stripes and loyalties?
NASCAR has its own dedicated fan base. And I mean dedicated. NASCAR fans are legendary for how much love they show their sport, and when it comes to tailgating, they go all out.
It's not uncommon for fans to show up days in advance.
The midsummer months belong to the sport of baseball. And perhaps because there's a game almost every day, the tailgating culture tends to have fewer people on any given day. But from the double-A farm teams to the MLB, it's a perfect tradition for those sweltering afternoons.
One day stands out from all the rest, and that's the MLB All-Star Game. Whatever city is hosting will see an influx of fans from other towns, all coming to cheer their favorite players. Because this game has a little less rivalry than a regular season game, it's a tailgate that anyone can enjoy.
The tailgating trend even extends to golf and tennis, where both US Open events in recent years have seen tailgaters gathering well ahead of time. Whatever the sport, the tailgate's appeal is universal.
So… who does it best?
The Best Tailgating in the World
It's a strange thing to be talking about the best tailgating in the world. I mean… we're comparing parking lots, right? Who in their right minds would even want to think about parking lots unless they have to?
But of course, the secret here isn't the space but the people that transform it. It goes from being a barren slab of concrete or hard dirt to being the life of the party.
Some have their own traditions and even rivalries. The Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators have a legendary rivalry, and the hype drives the fans nuts. The tailgating there is said to be the world's “biggest outdoor cocktail party.”
The tradition has become so entrenched with college football fans that schools have their own guides for new tailgaters.
You'd think warm weather would be a key ingredient in tailgating towns, but NFL faithful are a hardy bunch. The Bears and Broncos both get plenty of love, even as the weather can get pretty cold in Denver and Chicago. And of course, the Green Bay Packers make the cut as well… what is tailgating without the place that started it all?
The best schools? Ole Miss and South Carolina are numbers two and three… and coming in at number one? Louisiana State, picked as the best spot for tailgating among the college football crowd.
I'm Your Biggest Fan
Sports fans obviously, and tailgating is particularly popular among college students. But the tradition continues through young sports fans; 60% of tailgaters are between the ages of 35 and 44.
If you wanted to build a prototype of the “average tailgater” you'd wind up with someone who is male, late thirties or early forties. He spends $500 per year on tailgating food and hosts or attends between six and ten tailgating parties a year.
So that's a good chunk of a football team's home games in a season.
And 59% have college degree, which suggests that tailgating is a tradition that starts in college and continues after graduation. Obviously, plenty more show up, and tailgating party doesn't require you to get a fancy degree for admittance.
But college tailgating seems to be a gateway drug, and once you're hooked, you're hooked…
Who Wore it Best?
Okay, so what is tailgating attire? Are there rules, or do you just wear whatever you feel like?
Really, there are no rules. Although this isn't Burning Man, so maybe save the most extreme outfits for your trip to Cali.
Most tailgaters dress for comfort and for team spirit. Look, you're going to be cooking, you're going to handling beer and ketchup and BBQ and who knows what else. So if you show up in your favorite khakis or some expensive getup… well… don't say we didn't warn you.
Or you could just go all out…
If you go this route, don't hold back. Go big or go home!
Dress for the game, and if you don't have your team's jersey or a shirt, maybe pick out some pieces from your wardrobe that are the proper colors. Just don't wear the colors of the other team, unless you're actively trying to get your friends to razz you.
Remember the elements. If it's brutally hot, make sure you don't overheat and bring sunscreen, hat, and shades. If cold, sweater and jeans. Think of it as the world's shortest camping trip.
The Sweet, Sweet Taste of Victory
And now, for the best part.
Really, what is tailgating without the food?
This is a cookout, after all — a big one. We've got our usual suspects… burgers, hot dogs, BBQ on everything. Chips, salsa, guac, and queso. Pretzel bites and cheese dip. It's all fair game, just bring enough to share.
If you're planning a tailgating party of your own, you want to consider how many people you need to feed, and what they'll usually eat.
Most everything is set up, cooked, devoured, and put away again in the space of a couple hours. If you want to make it easier on yourself, prepare some of your ingredients ahead of time. It'll save you the headache of trying to deal with the prep work on the spot.
And What is Tailgating Without a Little Friendly Competition?
Answer: we have no idea, because we've never seen such a thing.
Games are an essential part of any genuine tailgating experience. At most of these festive gatherings, you'll find corn hole boards, beer pong tables, and horseshoe stakes set up with plenty of players and onlookers alike.
Need a refresher on the rules?
The rules to most of these are simple, but remember everyone is there to have a good time. Don't be that guy (or gal) who takes it all too seriously. Invite the people from the car next to you to take a turn at your beer pong table. Toss a stranger a Frisbee (unless they're at the grill).
The undercurrent of all this is that we humans are social animals. And games are a unique part of how we relate to one another. The big game brings us together, so what do we do while we wait? More games.
Planning Your First Tailgate - Step by Step
So you want to give this a shot, but you're feeling overwhelmed by all the options? With all the food, games, and essentials to remember, how will you make sure you get it all done?
Not to worry! We've broken it down for you. Follow these steps and review the handy checklist at the end of this, and your tailgating party will go off without a hitch!
Step One - Choose Your Squad
It's not a tailgating party without a crew. Pick a handful of your best buds, a group that you feel will have a good time.
Step Three - Pick Your Ride
You don't all have to bring cars, but you should have at least one that will serve as your base of operations. If you have a big group, consider parking next to each other so you can share food and drink more easily, and you're not taking up too much space.
Step Four - Plan Your Menu
Make sure you've got your menu set, and that any dietary restrictions are taken care of. If you split or delegate shopping duties, check in to make sure everything is accounted for.
Step Five - Do Your Research
Make sure to consider the weather and the venue. Many venues allow charcoal grills, but rules about fire and safety often change from place to place. Make sure you've got extra blankets and ponchos if the weather's going to be cold or rainy.
Step Seven - Have Fun
Have fun! Meet some new folks. Share a beer or food with the people in the car next to you or see if you can get into a game.
Step Eight - Leave It Better Than You Found It
There's a creed among responsible campers: leave the area cleaner than you found it. Same holds true for tailgating. Toss your trash, recycle your reusables, and pack everything else out when you go.
Step Nine - Game Time
We're assuming you know how to do this part. Scream, weep, cheer, cry, yell truly unrepeatable phrases at the referees. Hopefully, you still have a voice at the end of the night.
Step Ten - Get Home Safe
Whatever you do, you're going to need to get your people and your gear back safe and sound. Make sure you've got a responsible designated driver who will be sober for the drive home.
The 8 Essential Tips That You Must Never, Ever Forget
Believe it or not, there are people who have been doing this for decades, and have seen just about every situation you could imagine. So what do the veteran tailgaters say to watch out for? What is the old-timer's advice to the would-be tailgater?
1. Check the rules of the site before you show up.
Some lots will allow RVs. Some won't. Rules about fire, safety, and how loud your music should be are going to change from place to place. If your tailgating habit takes you to more than one location, make sure you know before you go. Don't assume that it's going to be the same game everywhere.
2. Don't block traffic.
Don't be that person. If you've got games, stoves, tables, whatever… don't restrict the flow of traffic. Everyone wants to get to their spot so they can have a good time. Be mindful of others, and let them through.
3. Stay in your area.
On that same note… don't let your stuff spill over and overly crowd the people next to you.
4. Clean up after yourself.
Tailgaters know the party generates a lot of trash. Don't be that guy (or gal)...clean up after yourself.
5. Watch the music and profanity.
Most places, you can play music for your party. Just be aware other people may bring their own, so don't crank yours so loud it ruins it for everyone. And remember there are kids here, so be aware of what you're playing.
6. Bring extra toilet paper.
Here's a fun one you don't forget after it happens once. Just because you're tailgating doesn't mean that the facilities will necessarily be fully stocked. Bring an extra roll or two for your crew, so you don't wind up in an uncomfortable spot.
7. Fly the flag!
If this is a big event and you got there early, bring a unique flag to fly. It makes you easier to spot for the part of your group that has to come a little late.
8. Don't forget the important bits.
Ice. Extra ice is never a bad thing. Garbage bags, paper towels. And although we hope you never need it, a first aid kit is a very good idea, while we're on this topic.
Til Next Time
The tailgating life is an occasional pastime for some, a big party for others, and a way of life for a few dedicated fans. Why do people keep coming to them again and again?
It's another way for people to connect with one another. The informal setting, the classic outdoor games are things that we often don't take the time to do. As we become more overworked, more urbanized, and spend more hours of the day indoors, we need excuses to get outside and play with one another.
Tailgating lets us have fun in a way that kids will understand. Okay, maybe not the beer part. But the camaraderie? The fun in the sun? Snacks and frisbee with new friends?
It's a kind of interaction that most of us don't get enough of.
It's a strange thing, how a sense of community can come to life in a moment, and disappear just as quickly. But that's exactly why tailgaters keep coming back. And we're guessing, once you've had a taste of it, that you'll be coming back, too.