Football season is all but here, which means that prime Tailgate Season is swiftly descending upon us. As pastimes go, tailgating is great because there’s not much to it. You don’t have to know a lick about football or whatever other sport you’re needlessly drinking in preparation for, and you don’t have to like either team playing that day. As you navigate a stadium parking lot, remember that not all tailgates are created equal and, while you’re mostly there to hang out with your friends and drink beer like any other day, there’s an art to getting the most out of your day of sports-themed boozing.

Be Flexible

Think of tailgating as a life skill; like binge drinking, it’s one you may have acquired in college and will be able to hone into old age if you really commit. When you’re tailgating with friends, be flexible about your plans, and hop around from party to party. Flexibility is key, and to maximize your experience, you’ll want to dress comfortably enough to be able to walk around, get sweaty, and go with the flow. If plans change, a friend bails, or the beer at your particular tent runs out, don’t worry about it. It turns out that strangers are especially welcoming when surrounded by beer before their favorite team hits the field. (College football tailgates are especially friendly.)

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If you know where you’re going and plan to stay there for the long haul, remember that the laws of etiquette still apply in the most casual of settings. It doesn’t hurt to ask if you can bring something. Even if you’re told not to, always bring something, even if that’s just a bag of chips or some beers. Do not show up empty-handed. Be sure to give yourself ample time before kickoff to actually enjoy the tailgate too.

Pace Yourself

You’ll be drinking for a while if you’re doing this thing right. Which means that your hand will almost always be holding a beer. The beer won’t necessarily be good beer, but you absolutely will be drinking it. In fact, bad beer is practically a requirement, and a sixer of High Life (in cans please) or Natty Light is a recognized form of currency at a party full of sports fans. Scope out the beer and know where it is. Situate yourself in a place not too close to the beer (you lush!) and not too far (to monitor!). Good tailgates have coolers full of sweaty cans of good ol’ Buds and other affordable brews, and you’ll want to focus on the light brews if you can. Light beer is better to drink more of.

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Don’t go zero to sixty to quickly, or you won’t make it to kickoff. Avoid shots, and don’t forget to hydrate. You should also scope out the nearest bank of port-o-potties while we’re at it. The worst thing is wandering from parking lot to parking lot, looking for somewhere to pee. This becomes a moot point if you’re the type to relieve yourself between cars or behind a crop of trees. (Don’t do that, man.) Related, make sure you identify the places where cops are standing. It goes without saying that while you may be getting wild in public with strangers, you don’t want to act like a complete idiot, because people do get citations at tailgates.

Encourage Games

Be creative with the supplies you’re working with. You may even be playing flip cup if your tailgate is equipped. It doesn’t require much —just solo cups and a flat surface. A deck of cards is one of those things you’ll always be glad you threw in your bag or pocket. Fancy a game of King’s Cup? Don’t mind if I do. If you’re really lucky, cornhole and horse shoes will be laid out. And it’s very likely you’ll run into a rogue college student or wannabe college student toting around a beer bong (funnel + tube situation from which you suck down a whole beer). It’s pretty hard to refuse those types. You’ll be able to spot one from across the lot. Often they’re wearing a belt with a nautical needlepoint design was and some sort of visor.

Games go over well because you’re already going into a tailgate with a team-player mentality. Or you should be! And people will be feeling festive, so it won’t be hard to convince your fellow tailgaters to join in.

Find The Good Food

Food is the other linchpin to a good tailgate. There are people who take this very seriously. They’re the types who start cooking a pork butt low and slow two days before game day. Look for those tailgates. You should be able to sniff them right out. Smoked meats and various types of barbecue items are standard fare at these special pre-game celebrations, as are tortilla chips and salsas, brats, possibly beans, other types of chips, football-shaped foods someone poorly aped off Pinterest, and appetizers that stretch from the stadium’s main gate all the way to the lot where no one wants to park. If you’re in a place with a healthy appreciation for tailgating, there will still be people partying from the trunks of their cars all the way in the back lot. There will be food at all of these tailgates. This will be a trail of food.

Make Friends For Intel

As far as finding the best of what’s in the sprawling maze of parking lot tailgates — talk to people and ask questions. It’s fun to talk to strangers, and these friendly strangers will probably tell you where the best food or free booze is. The best food often = the best party. Identify those who are incredibly decked out. Not the obnoxious ones running around in Green Man-style suits, but the guy in the pair of overalls themed for his team that he looks like he’s been wearing for the past 30 football seasons. He knows what’s up. Talk to him. Ask for pointers. Find out where he likes to tailgate. Those are the old pros you’d at least want to commune with for a bit. It will enrich your tailgate, and you might come away with some good gossip at the very least.

Look The Part

There’s a rule that applies when it comes to going into places you don’t feel like you belong: act like you’re supposed to be there. Be natural. Dig deep inside of you and find some spirit, too. While you don’t have to care much about either team playing to enjoy the tailgating portion of things, it doesn’t hurt to go with the theme and dress accordingly. This doesn’t have to mean wearing a jersey and eye black. A t-shirt or team colors will suffice, and if you’re really going for it throw on some beads and maybe one of those temporary face tattoos.

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For practicality’s sake, guys might want pants with pockets for beers/flasks. Women may want to wear a cross-body bag for hands-free drinking. Don’t forget your dang sunglasses, or you’ll be the one complaining about how you forgot your sunglasses all day. DO NOT WEAR FLIP-FLOPS: One time I cut my foot on some glass at a tailgate and it was homecoming and my parents were there and they had to meet me at the University hospital where I was semi-drunk and getting a tetanus shot, so think about your footwear and if you want to risk stepping on a nail in flip flops. I always pack a koozie or two, because no one likes warm beer. Be sure to check the weather, because it sucks to be surprised by rain or too cold to enjoy a rousing game of cornhole. If you find yourself in an unexpected monsoon, a trash bag will work in a bind as a poncho.

Participate

Join in cheers and chants. Find where the band is playing before the game. Participate in the theatrical burning of a Jayhawk if you’re in Mizzou country. Make a joke about how it’s 3pm on a Tuesday and Oklahoma still sucks if you’re in Longhorn territory. Clown on the opposing team. Everybody’s doing it. The more you get into it, the more fun you’re going to have. Participation is key to a great time.

Fake It

If you’re flying blind into your tailgating experience, do a little bit of research first to enhance the experience. Google the team you’re pulling for, learn a little bit about them, so you’re not totally lost in conversation. Or just ask questions, like “how are the [insert mascot here] looking this year?” The diehard fans will have no problem talking how their team’s defense is doing or how things are going with that new quarterback from Texas. You might learn something too!

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No matter the venue, tailgating is a beautiful thing, even for us who are years out of college. The region or conference doesn’t matter. Who cares who’s even playing? The bottom line is that tailgates are about having fun and getting amped up for a big game. It’s about being part of a community. It doesn’t matter who wins the game. Everyone wins at tailgating.


Image by Sam Woolley.