The Tailgater's Guide to Portable BBQ Smoking

By Barry Hendrick

Tailgating has always been a spirited blend of camaraderie and culinary delights. While the traditional grill, serving up the classic burgers and hot dogs, has long been the star, a new contender has entered the arena: the portable BBQ smoker. Beyond the usual grilling, smokers infuse meats with rich, aromatic flavors, transforming simple cuts into smoky masterpieces. Designed for mobility and convenience, they fit seamlessly into our dynamic tailgating rituals. In this guide, we go through everything you need to be aware of if you’re thinking about making a portable smoker your next purchase. 

The Essentials of a Portable Smoker:

Selecting the perfect portable smoker for tailgating hinges on more than just its smoking ability. Consider size, heat distribution, setup ease, and cleanup to truly elevate your BBQ experience.

  • Size and Weight: When considering a portable smoker, achieving a balance between its size and weight is crucial. Picture preparing for a tailgating event, anticipating the variety of meats to be smoked, from succulent ribs to flavorful sausages. A small smoker might restrict your menu, while an oversized one can become a transportation nightmare. 

  • Heat Distribution: Even heat distribution is paramount for that perfect smoke. Unequal heat can lead to certain sections of meat being overcooked, while others remain underdone. To counteract this, seek smokers equipped with well-designed vents. Additionally, certain smokers come with heat deflectors, further ensuring an evenly heated cooking surface.

  • Ease of Set-Up: The vibrant atmosphere of game day means you want to dive into the fun without delays. However, some smokers come with complicated setup procedures that can dampen the spirit. Ideal portable smokers for tailgating are those which promise almost instant readiness. Minimal assembly, coupled with clear, visually supported instructions, can make the difference between a cumbersome start and a seamless BBQ experience.

  • Cleaning and Maintenance: Once the festivities are over and the last morsel of BBQ has been savored, the inevitable task of cleaning awaits. Smokers that are a maze of corners and crevices can transform cleaning into an ordeal. In contrast, designs with smooth interiors resist stubborn residues. Features such as detachable ash collectors and grease trays make post-BBQ clean-up considerably more manageable. 

Types of Portable BBQ Smokers Ideal for Tailgating:

Tailgating is as much about the cooking as the game itself. Therefore it’s important to know what to look for when it comes to the many types of smokers available on the market.

  • Pellet Smokers: These machines are the bridge between modern tech and classic BBQ taste. It's not just about ease; pellet smokers grant you the ability to switch up flavors simply by changing the wood pellet type. Mesquite, cherry, hickory – each pellet variation introduces a distinct aromatic experience to your BBQ.

    Tailgating Tip: For a quick taste switch-up, mix pellet types!

  • Offset Smokers: For the BBQ aficionados who swear by tradition, the offset smoker is akin to the vinyl record of the smoking world. With a distinct firebox adjoining the primary cooking chamber, they produce a radiant heat, enabling meat to absorb every nuanced flavor from the smoldering wood.

    Tailgating Tip: Use hardwood for a prolonged burn and richer flavor profile.

  • Vertical (Bullet) Smokers: Aptly named for their tall, cylindrical appearance, these smokers are a common sight at tailgating events. Their vertical stature not only saves on space but also aids in uniform heat distribution.

    Tailgating Tip: Position poultry at the bottom to prevent cross-contamination.

  • Electric Smokers: The convenience kings of the smoking world, electric smokers have made BBQ-ing accessible to many. Achieving ideal smoking conditions becomes simple with accurate temperature control at your fingertips, making it excellent for both beginners and experts.

    Tailgating Tip
    : Always have an extension cord handy for distant power sources.

  • Propane Smokers: The hybrid that combines the speed of electric smokers with the authenticity of flame-based cooking. Their ignition is swift, making them ideal for colder tailgating days where a quick heat source is paramount.

    Tailgating Tip: Always check propane levels before heading out!

  • Kamado Grills: These grills are steeped in history, inspired by ancient Japanese cooking urns. Whether you're grilling, smoking, or even baking, a Kamado does it all, holding heat exceptionally well.

    Tailgating Tip: Use lump charcoal for optimal performance.

  • Drum Smokers: They might not win beauty contests, but in the BBQ arena, they're champions. Average cuts are transformed into mouthwatering smoked gems.

    Tailgating Tip: Elevate the drum on bricks or stands for better air circulation.

  • Cold Smokers: A favorite among culinary enthusiasts seeking to broaden their gastronomic horizons. The essence of cold smoking is flavor infusion without cooking, making it perfect for cheeses, fish, and even some fruits.
    Tailgating Tip: Cold-smoked salmon with cream cheese on a bagel? This a go-to breakfast treat for early tailgating sessions!

Features Tailgaters Should Consider:

The thrill of tailgating isn't just in the game – it's in the whole experience, including the aromas and flavors of smoked delights shared among friends. When selecting the perfect smoker for your tailgating needs, a few features stand out as essential considerations. Here's an in-depth look at what tailgaters should focus on:

  • Portability: When envisioning tailgating, the first thought is often mobility. The ideal smoker for these adventures should be easy to transport. Smokers with collapsible components should ideally fit into standard vehicle trunks with ease. Additionally, while wheels might seem like a minor feature, they are pivotal. Anyone who's ever struggled with heavy equipment knows the value of a smooth glide. In essence, a portable smoker should be just that – effortlessly portable.

  • Quick Setup: Time is of the essence during tailgating. Between catching up with friends and pre-game rituals, you don't want to spend excessive time assembling your smoker. Hence, prioritizing models that boast quick-connect components or those that require no tools for assembly is wise. In essence, the less time you spend fumbling with parts, the more time you can relish the tailgating spirit.

  • Capacity: It's a common misconception that portability means sacrificing capacity. While it might be tempting to opt for the most compact model available, it's vital to consider your cooking needs. Depending on the crowd, you might need a smoker that can handle larger cuts or multiple food items simultaneously. Models with modular racks or hooks are ideal in such scenarios. 

  • Temperature Control: The soul of smoking lies in the consistent and accurate temperature. It's what differentiates a perfectly smoked rib from a charred one. With technology's aid, many modern smokers come equipped with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi-enabled thermometers allowing you to control your smoker's temperature remotely from your smartphone. 

  • Fuel Source: The age-old debate: wood versus gas.. Wood, whether in the form of pellets or chunks, offers an authentic, smoky flavor that's hard to replicate. Gas (especially propane) provides convenience and consistent heat. When making a choice, consider the logistics of your tailgating location and the event's duration. If you're at a remote spot, sourcing wood might be challenging, whereas propane tanks are often more accessible. 

Further Tips on Portable Smoking While Tailgating

If you've chosen to bring a portable BBQ smoker to the party, here are some more tips to ensure you deliver mouth-watering results every time:

  • Preparation is Key: Before you even light up the smoker, you need to prep. By pre-marinading your meats at home, you ensure they absorb all the flavors, making for a richer, deeper taste. For larger cuts, which can take many hours to smoke fully, consider pre-cooking them slightly at home. This ensures you aren't left waiting for your meal while the game has already started. 

  • Dive into Smoke Science: Different woods create unique flavors. It's essential to understand the flavor profiles of each wood type to perfectly match them with your meats. Mesquite, known for its robust and intense flavor, can easily overpower delicate meats but pairs wonderfully with beef. On the other hand, applewood offers a milder, fruitier note, which is delightful with poultry or pork. 

  • Harness the Tech Edge: We live in a golden age of technology, and even the ancient art of smoking has benefited from modern innovations. Using wireless thermometers or dedicated smoker apps, you can maintain the perfect temperature without being chained to your BBQ. 

  • Be Mindful of the Environment: While it might be easy to overlook, the direction of the wind can greatly impact your smoking. If set up against the wind, your smoker could lose heat rapidly, leading to uneven cooking. Place your smoker in a position where it's shielded from gusts, possibly using your vehicle or other barriers. 

  • Prioritize Safety: While delicious food is the goal, safety should always come first. Ensure you're following all fire safety guidelines. Moreover, set up a clear safe zone around your smoker so that children or distracted friends don't accidentally get too close. Remember, a fun tailgating event is a safe one.

Acknowledging the Pioneers: Leading Brands in Portable Smoking

There are a select few companies that have successfully established themselves as leaders in the portable smoking market.

  • Big Green Egg: Often referred to as the king of kamado-style grilling, Big Green Egg has its roots deeply planted in ancient Japanese cooking traditions. Its design lends itself to everything from grilling, smoking and even baking.

  • Masterbuilt: From their electric smokers, which brought convenience to many households, to their gravity series, which offers the flavors of charcoal with digital accuracy, they've always been at the forefront of marrying technology with traditional smoking. Masterbuilt's products tend to resonate with both novices and seasoned BBQ masters, thanks to their user-friendly designs and consistent results.

  • Char-Broil: A household name for many, Char-Broil has a history that stretches back to the mid-20th century.  From classic charcoal grills to modern infrared cooking systems, Char-Broil has consistently endeavored to elevate the outdoor cooking experience. Their portable smokers are known for their durability and efficiency which makes them quite the popular choice for tailgating.


Portable smokers offer a gourmet touch to our beloved outdoor cookouts. With diverse options from the versatile pellet smokers to the traditional offset types, there's a model tailored for every BBQ enthusiast. Leading brands like Big Green Egg, Masterbuilt, and Char-Broil seamlessly blend the old with the new, ensuring BBQ's rich tradition continues to thrive in our modern times. 

For those who wish to dive deeper, and think about making a purchase, check out this article on the best portable smokers.

Here's to better tailgates with great flavors and good company.


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