Skiing and riding look a little different this year. There are reservations to be made, base areas that are patrolled for face mask compliance, and chairlifts that wing up the hill holding only a single passenger. The biggest shift, however, comes in the form of dining and après-ski.

Ski lodge capacity restrictions mean that opportunities to take shelter, hit the bar, or tuck into a lazy lunch are few and far between. A common refrain (both in casual conversation and on social media) has been “But, where do I warm up?” For some, this is reason enough to skip a trip to the mountains. For others, it’s an excuse to step up the tailgate.

I fall into the latter category. Stripped of the ability to gather friends and safely entertain at home, I’ve poured my energy into creating the same experience from the back of my husband’s Toyota Tundra. We’ve hosted après spreads of lamb shawarma with homemade pita, piled-high pulled pork sandwiches, and DIY banh mi. We’ve brought in fire pits and blankets and industrial-size thermoses brimming with hot cocoa (good for spiking with whiskey or Fernet!) to ward off frigid temps. Friends have gotten into the act, trading weekends with us to create chili cook-offs, make-your-own taco stations, gourmet grilled cheeses, and pancake breakfasts.

Of course, this is nothing new. Eating in the elements has been part and parcel with mountain activities since, well, forever. There’s always the guy cooking bacon and eggs over a camping stove or the friend who stows sandwiches and a six-pack in the snow (Don’t forget where you hid it!). This is not that. This is a primer on how to eat and drink well from the tailgate. P.S. You don’t have to ski or ride to partake—you can always host an outdoor feast in your driveway or at a trailhead.

Find your spot: Depending on where you ski or ride, do your homework ahead of time: Is tailgating allowed? Is the parking lot accessible from the lift (no one wants to shuttle back to the car for lunch)? Is there trash and recycling nearby?

Do you like to cook? If so, get creative. Think of easy-to-assemble, handheld items like sandwiches, gyros, and wraps. Look up recipes or wing it. Do everything you can the night before, including grilling, roasting, and slicing meats; washing and prepping veggies; making salad dressings and sauces, etc. Do all the messy, dirty work at home where you have countertops and running water.

Since folks will prefer to assemble their own meals, think about aesthetics. How best to lay out the ingredients? Got a spoon for the sauce or a fork for those pickles? Do you need a cutting board for the baguettes? How about something to hold fresh herbs? (A note on fresh herbs: Subzero temps and tender herbs like mint, basil, and cilantro are not friends. The herbs will freeze within minutes, which I know from sad experience.)

Consider your fellow tailgaters: Know and accommodate food allergies and preferences so no one ends up hangry.

Recipe jumping-off points:

If you don’t like to cook: Pick up goodies like grab-and-go Parisian sandwiches (French ham, Brie, and butter) at Marczyk Fine Foods; hummus, pita, and a collection of sides at Safta; or any of Leven Deli Co.’s Park & Trail boxes (sandwich, side, and a treat), which were created with takeaway in mind. If you’re traveling along I-70, stop off of at Argento’s Empanadas & More in Silverthorne for an assortment of hand-held savory pastries.

Either way, you’ll want:

  • A propane grill (for reheating meats and flatbreads, and grilling, of course)
  • A gas fire pit (optional, but trust us, you’ll want one for heat and ambience)
  • Tailgate (ideal!) or a portable table
  • Camping chairs (and plenty of them so you can space out)
  • Blankets
  • Cooler with n/a and full-strength beverages (stick to cans)
  • Cast-iron skillet or griddle (this one is a winner)
  • Spatula
  • Serrated knife
  • Cutting board
  • Silverware (avoid plastic; pick up mismatched sets at thrift stores or antique stores)
  • Tin or plastic plates (something that has some weight, in case of wind)
  • Foil (good for leftovers, and these foil sheets are great stand-ins for plates)
  • Tablecloth or blanket that can be easily washed
  • Napkins or paper towels (in this pandemic moment, skip the cute cloth napkins)
  • Mason jars of all sizes for sauces, condiments, fresh herbs, pickles
  • Thermos (The 25-ounce KTPro Klean Kanteen is the ultimate, able to keep liquid hot for days; ideal for coffee, hot chocolate, cider, or hot water for hot toddies)
  • Assortment of dish towels for lining baskets, using at hot pads, wrapping hot items, covering dishes, cleaning up spills
  • Trash bag(s)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Masks and social distance (because that is the way)

Amanda M. Faison
Amanda M. Faison
Freelance writer Amanda M. Faison spent 20 years at 5280 Magazine, 12 of those as Food Editor.