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Winter is here. Menacing meteorological phenomena aside, this time of year means one thing to millions of excitable sports fans across the land: It’s Bowl Season, baby! The college football calendar is set to conclude on Monday with the National Championship in Atlanta, Georgia. Legions of face-painted fanatics will descend upon the newly minted Mercedes-Benz Stadium, many of them with nary an intention of entering the game itself. That’s because the art of the tailgate is often as captivating as anything occurring on the field of play.

As with any work of art, copious quantities of skill and technique are a prerequisite. Anybody can put out a few bagged snacks and beverages and call it a day. The true master, however, strives for something greater. If you’re flying to the big game next week — or any of the 10 NFL playoff games scheduled throughout the month — here’s your guide for forming the perfect tailgate.

Getting to the Game 

Most large sports stadiums in the country are conveniently located within proximity of a major airport hub. This year’s college football National Championship, for example, is about a 25-minute drive from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International. If you’re going to see the Saints at the Superdome on Sunday, it’s a similar distance from New Orleans International Airport, so getting there on points and miles should be a breeze for the savvy traveler.

Rent your car from the airport (they typically offer the best rates and redemptions) and remember to go big. You’re going to need serious space for all that gear, so a large SUV is your only viable option. For a recent tailgate adventure, I went with the 2018 Yukon Denali from GMC. Aside from getting three rows worth of seating, the vehicle has a number of technical amenities that elevate your tailgate to the next level: built-in 4G LTE, multiple USB ports, three prong electrical outlet and wireless charging for your smartphone. It also offered impressive gas mileage (~23 MPG) for such a sizable rig, helping me conserve cash for more pressing needs — like bacon, basically.

What to Bring 

As for that grocery list, save plenty of space for the smoked meats, naturally. But first make sure you have your dry goods on lock. An epic tailgate — the kind that’s the envy of every neighboring car in the lot — is built around more than just fantastic food and drink. You’ll want entertainment; corn hole and ladder toss are perennial favorites that can be easily packed in the trunk and a couple of footballs are a natural fit. And don’t forget to pre-program your playlist of riling tunes endemic to the region (Atlantans appreciate The Allman Brothers, OutKast and REM on heavy repeat).

Tailgate scene, cooking hot dogs and sausages on the grill
Photo by AvatarKnowmad / Getty Images

A quality portable gas grill is also essential. Leave the charcoal at home. Walmart and Home Depot both stock several models for around $25, cheap enough to gift to a local after the game, without remorse (you won’t be flying home with it, after all). Also, don’t forget the canopy tent and foldable table. This will form the weather-proofed centerpiece of all your outdoor activities.

Now you’re ready to focus on the fixings. Pre-seasoned proteins will make your work easier on the grill, as you won’t need to do much doctoring on-site. Seek out marinated meats and sauces to keep on the side for dipping. Ribs, chicken wings and candied bacon are finger-food staples that even a first-time cook couldn’t mess up.

While the grill is heating, it’s important to keep everyone sated with proper old snacks. Chips and dip are effective — but boring. Step up your spread — and your Instagram game — with an array of colorful crudités and charcuterie, which can be purchased at most grocery stores, already assembled.

Finally: the drinks. Go local and craft, whenever and wherever possible. Use your imaginatio but be conscious of space. YETI makes a pliable, portable cooler bag which is ideal — and you can even be flown back home as a carry-on. And don’t forget large jugs of water and big bags of ice. Snag a plug-in heated thermos for tea and hot drinks. Stay hydrated and you’ll be happier and healthier for it. I was able to fit all of the aforementioned purchases in my Denali, and still had room to bring three heftily-padded friends along for the adventure.

What to Wear

Whether you’re headed to the sup-tropical south or the frigid tundra that is Foxboro, Massachusetts in January, you are going to be living for (and because of) the layers. Wear thermals, wear flannel, wear a jacket, pile as much as you can on top of one another — and shed it as needed. Cooling yourself down during winter months won’t ever be an issue, but you can never make yourself warmer if you don’t prepare ahead of time. Of course, an added bonus of grilling meat this time of year is that you can huddle around it as a heat source. So the more sausage, the merrier.

Layers are your friend. Photo by monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images
Layers are your friend. Photo by monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images

Last, and certainly not least: Remember to get to the game early to claim prime real estate. You’ll want two parking spots worth of space — minimum — to establish a proper footprint. Once parked, immediately start unloading your dry goods into an adjacent spot, securing it as your own. During playoff season you will be joined by thousands of other tailgaters, hungry for turf.

Book your flights with enough buffer to accommodate the inevitable delays that hamper air travel this season. Have your rental car reserved — and use a card that offers primary rental insurance. Always plan ahead. The perfect tailgate doesn’t just happen, it is the result of equal parts preparation, calculation and dedication. Follow the formula and you’ll attain gridiron glory without ever having to step on the field.

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