The Ultimate Guide to Tailgating in College

It's college football season. You know what that means: tailgating! Here are some tips to host the ultimate tailgate for your college buddies.

Ahhh, college football season. As a student, it’s the only time in your life you can walk through a crowd with your entire body coated in paint and a towering wig on your head (well, probably the only time...).

And whether you’re going to a school with a top-ranked football program or one with only a few bleachers around a multi-purpose field, college football is always a little magical. A big part of that? The immortal American art of tailgating.

It's the perfect time for fans and non-fans alike to catch up before the big game. Fact: there will always be kids who don't even have football tickets but show up at the tailgate party anyways. Tailgating can also be full of fun and unique college traditions (like these!), so you definitely don't want to miss out. And if you’re going to host a tailgate, you better do it right.

Here are some things to consider when planning your ultimate college football tailgate:

Food: munchies galore

If you host a tailgate without food, your guests will likely bolt out of there faster than your star runningback. Buy enough food and drinks to feed however many you’re expecting, but don’t be afraid to over-stock. Even your best friend will leave your tailgate if you run out of food, so err on the side of too much food. Besides, why not share some leftover cookies with that car next to yours? Community and conviviality are what tailgating is all about!

Keep your tailgate food simple, and don’t underestimate the power of basic snacks like chips and dip, cookies, pretzels, etc. You can go crazy with a travel grill, burgers, and dogs, but that can be a big production in terms of packing and set-up, money for ingredients, and time spent manning the grill. 

I recommend keeping your spread to two or three food items, like cheese and crackers or veggies and hummus. This enables less preparation on your part and also helps those guests with picky food tastes or allergies navigate your buffet.

The Interwebz are full of tailgating food ideas (thank you, Pinterest). Here are some of our favorite easy snacks:

  • Tortilla chips with salsa, guac, queso, bean dip, and/or seven-layer dip
  • Potato chips and dip (French onion is best, obvi)
  • Carrot sticks, celery, and hummus
  • Cold fried chicken (pre-bought, because who has a deep fryer in their dorm?)
  • Potato or pasta salad
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Pepperoni or other cured meats
  • Pretzels (maybe honey mustard for dipping, if you're feeling fancy)
  • Assorted cookies, brownies, mini cupcakes, etc.

My parents came to visit me at Penn State my senior year, and it was their first time hosting a campus tailgate. Mama Seraphin—bless her kind, motherly heart—wanted to cook us malnourished college students some chicken sandwiches, but due to a dysfunctional portable grill was unable to properly cook the chicken. She’s been mortified ever since, but what I’ve told her repeatedly—other than the fact that no one really noticed or remembers the chicken fiasco—is that college students have a very simple appetite. Keep this in mind, because the satisfaction of a chicken sandwich is the equivalent of a bowl full of pre-made potato salad. Don’t embrace the fancier tailgating techniques (i.e., grilling) until you’ve armed yourself with the proper tools and have moved out of the novice tailgating classification.

Finally, a note about booze: we're not going to pretend like college students don't drink at tailgates. Obviously, it's illegal if you're under 21. And who can say what college administrative eyes are watching over your festivities? Getting suspended over a game of tailgate beirut just isn't worth it. In any case, play it safe, and if you're going to drink, be smart about it.  

Activities: game on

No, I’m not talking about the big football game. The sun is shining, and you just spent the last week taking exams and writing essays. You want to get moving, don’t you? This is where a tailgating essential comes in: playing a game. Here are some popular tailgating games:

  • Cornhole
  • Ladder golf
  • KanJam (a favorite here at the CollegeXpress office)
  • Cards
  • Horseshoes
  • Paddle ball

If it can be passed around, then bring it with you: a Nerf football, a Frisbee, a soccer ball—anything that’ll keep your guests entertained when they’re not in the mood to talk about that epic loss to your school’s rival last weekend...or upcoming midterms.

Related: The 10 Largest College Football Stadiums

Music: bring in the noise

Hosting a tailgate? No pressure, but you’re in total control of the dance party that may or may not break out at your tailgate, so prepare accordingly.

There are those who choose to have pre-game commentary on the radio while tailgating, or you can stream other college football games to scope the competition. But if you want to keep the football on the field, your music selection needs to be flawless. Think balance: choose old school songs that everyone knows and loves (“Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, and other '80s ballads that will rupture your vocal chords). But also throw in some current hits and dabble into a few calmer songs. (Spotify users: this ULTIMATE TAILGATE PARTY PLAYLIST should do the trick. And the title is in all caps, so you know it's good.) 

The secret to a perfect college tailgate: good company

Throwing the ultimate college tailgate is actually pretty simple: surround yourself with great friends. Some of my most vivid college memories are the ones where I was immersed in a group of rowdy friends preparing for a game that brought together a community with a passion for college football, or even just pride in their institution. Simply mingling before a football game opens doors to lasting memories, a bonding experience, and the potential to further expand your network of close friends. How this all revolves around a bunch of guys throwing a ball around? No idea. But invite your crew and take advantage of the opportunity to create those moments that can only enhance your college experience.

How do you tailgate at your college or university? Let us know here or in the comments.

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About Catherine Seraphin

Catherine Seraphin

Catherine Seraphin is a Multimedia Project Manager at Harvard University and a former Assistant Editor/Online Specialist for CollegeXpress. Catherine graduated from Penn State University with a degree in Journalism, a minor in English, and course concentrations in Business. She was previously an in-depth arts reporter for Penn State’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Collegian, and interned as a features reporter at a paper based in Southern Massachusetts. Catherine previously had a full-year internship with a well-known higher education PR firm. Her favorite experiences during college include her two years as a resident assistant and her involvement in THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. There, she was on the PR committee that helped THON become the third-most tweeted topic worldwide. When she isn’t working, you can find Catherine shopping, reading, or running.


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