Lightweight and portable
Mysterious temperature swings
Awkward to fold up for transport
Traeger is widely considered to be the number one wood pellet grill company in the U.S. and growing. The brand started building somewhat of a cult following before pellet grills were as widely available as they are today. Now, you can buy a Traeger anywhere from Williams Sonoma to Home Depot. The Traeger Tailgater Pellet Grill is pitched as a travel smoker for car campers and tailgaters, but it might be most useful for people in smaller apartments or with limited outdoor space for smoking. We tested this Traeger at our Colorado home (and on our tailgate on some short road trips) to see just how well it performed—and traveled.
Setup: Tool-free build and seasoning
If buying in-store, you may purchase a pre-assembled version, but most folks will receive the Traeger Tailgater Pellet Grill in a large cardboard box, partially assembled. The build is less complicated than most IKEA furniture, but the simple instructions lack photos and assume some basic understanding of tools and hardware.
The Traeger Tailgater comes with some basic stamped wrenches so you can still complete the assembly even if you don’t own a single socket wrench. Wiring is limited to simply connecting a cable on the hopper to a cable coming from the temperature sensor inside the grill.
After we had the smoker assembled, we needed to season it by going through an initial startup process. This involved a burn-off procedure where we ran the grill relatively hot for about 45 minutes to make it food-safe. Many of the internal pieces such as the hopper/burner assembly and heat shield come heavily oiled, and as soon as we started burning that off, we smelled why we weren’t supposed to cook in it right away. In our testing, the smell was mostly gone after a half hour of burn-off.
Design: Made to move
To start, let’s remember that the Traeger Tailgater is a portable smoker grill, and many of its design features are aimed at mobility. It’s short, light(er), and the overall barrel size is smaller than traditional standing grills, yet it still maintains enough cooking power and surface area to make enough food for a small group.
Folding the legs up is advertised as a one-person job, but we found it was more awkward than we’d like.
Ergonomically, the height isn’t ideal for average-sized BBQ chefs: The grill sat below the waistline of even shorter-than-average-height people and about 11 inches below the waistline of our 6-foot tester. This is likely a compromise height to keep the legs light and sturdy despite being smaller and foldable. Still, it was hard not to notice the first time we fired things up. You might be better off folding up the legs and placing the Tailgater on its namesake—your tailgate—or even on a stand or cart of some kind if you’re not moving it often. The height feels about right on a 3-foot deck railing.
The bronze smoker door is a nice touch and, though made thin to reduce weight, the metal feels substantial enough. We were glad for that trade-off while carrying it around, but it doesn’t feel as serious as larger and heavier stay-at-home smokers.
The plastic handles and wheels feel a bit cheap, and we wondered why the company couldn’t have used a light metal such as aluminum instead, particularly for the plastic handle on the smoker door.
Portability: Best if you have a buddy (and a generator)
The Traeger Tailgater doesn’t come with any power options other than the standard 110v plug, so if you take it on the road, you’ll need a power source such as a generator—or you can buy an inverter that hooks up to your battery or accessory plug of your vehicle. Traeger sells an inverter with jumper cable-style clips for $69.99 that fits the bill.
Folding the legs up is advertised as a one-person job, but we found it was more awkward than we’d like; it’s much easier with two people. With one person, we ended up having to set the pellet hopper on the ground and tip it, which without a latch to keep the hopper lid closed meant we risked dumping some pellets (unless we happened to have run the hopper empty; the Tailgater doesn’t feature a hopper drain so emptying the hopper is another two-man dump job).
Another hiccup in the portability was securing the legs after we tucked them under the grill. Even when we hand-tightened the knobs meant to hold the legs in place, there often wasn’t enough resistance to keep the legs pinned up when moving the grill.
Performance: Mostly reliable temperature control, but don’t look away
Despite Traeger’s slogan “set it and forget it,” this grill does not always live up to that promise. While the Traeger Tailgater will mostly stick to a reliable pattern of oscillating 40-50 degrees above or below the set temperature, we found that it occasionally swung wildly in one direction or another. It either seemed to shut down and stop feeding the firebox or overfeed and blaze out of control, spiking our temperature sometimes beyond 500 degrees and putting our food at risk of burning. Even 375 degrees can be enough to burn food if not caught quickly. So much for that whole “low and slow” thing.
Despite Traeger’s slogan ‘set it and forget it,’ we found that this grill’s temperature occasionally swung wildly in one direction or another.
We kept an eye on the readout (as well as a separate grill thermometer) and were usually able to stop these infrequent incidents before they ruined our meals. Sometimes it worked out. We were smoking brined and then dry-rubbed chicken drumsticks and when the smoker unexpectedly spiked over 400 from a set temp of 225, it put a nice char on the drummies which were just about done anyway.
Once, however, we tried leaving a pork shoulder (a more forgiving cut to cook) for a few hours unattended and came back to the smoker shut down and the pork still hours from being done. So just know that if you do completely “set it and forget it,” you’re taking the chance, however small, of coming back to severely under- or overcooked food.
One practice that seemed to improve the consistency of the Traeger was to minimize opening the smoker door. (Always a good rule: “If you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin’!”) You’ll always want to rotate foods or need to baste things, but the more we kept those to a minimum, the better the Traeger seemed to stay on its temperature target.
Another challenge to the “set it and forget it” promise is that the left side of the grill (above the firebox) is noticeably hotter, so when we filled our cooking area, we needed to rotate foods through if we wanted them all to finish cooking at the same time.
Versatility: Good—but best for smoking and grilling
The Tailgater promises “6-in-1 versatility” supposedly replacing the functions of your stove, oven, grill, and more with this one smoker.
We found that grilling was easy enough—crank the controller dial to the higher temperature ranges for burgers, hot dogs, and more traditional quick-sear fare. Folks accustomed to gas grill convenience will immediately notice that it takes a few minutes longer to come to those temperatures than with a gas grill, but we thought the improved flavor from the addition of real wood smoke was a fair trade-off. Running the higher heat does (literally) burn through pellets much faster, however, so you’ll want to have a source for cheaper bulk pellets if you’re doing a lot of this style of cooking.
Even if you only use it for smoking and grilling, the Tailgater can replace your gas or charcoal grill and deliver better flavor than either.
Baking/braising are theoretically possible in this smoker, but the temperature swings made the experience less predictable and sent us running back to our indoor oven for certainty. Product marketing photos for smokers often show nicely charred homemade pizzas inside the barrel, but most smokers, including the Tailgater, fall short of the high heat ranges needed to properly bake a thin-crust pizza.
Still, even if you only use it for smoking and grilling, the Tailgater can replace your gas or charcoal grill and deliver better flavor than either.
Price: Cheaper, but not cheap
If you’re not versed in the costs of a smoker, $450 can hardly seem like a budget option, but it’s hard to find many small smokers of this size for much less. Traeger’s own Scout Pellet Grill is even more portable and only costs $299.99, but the cooking surface is so small, it’s hard to imagine preparing food for more than two people—and what kind of tailgate only has two people?
If you don’t intend to take it on the road and you have the space, it might be worth spending an additional $100-$150 to just get a larger stay-at-home smoker, but the Tailgater is a great option for apartments and smaller spaces.
Traeger Tailgater Pellet Grill vs. Green Mountain Davy Crockett Grill
The Green Mountain Davy Crockett is a similarly sized tailgate-style smoker grill that comes in around $120 cheaper than the Tailgater but boasts similar features and functions. The biggest differentiator is that even at a lower price point, the Davy Crockett comes packaged with power connections for regular AC plug, your car’s DC plug (cigar lighter) or a 12v battery. It also boasts Wi-Fi control via a smartphone app; however, the controller interface is less intuitive than Traeger’s and takes some getting used to.
In general, if you mostly want a smoker for travel, camping, or tailgating, the Davy Crockett is a better fit. If you just want a small smoker that’s easy to move around—and you don’t mind buying power accessories for taking it on the road—the Traeger is a better buy thanks to its 30 percent larger cooking area and simpler interface.
- Product Name Tailgater Pellet Grill
- Product Brand Traeger
- SKU 6 34868 92045 5
- Price $449.99
- Weight 62 lbs.
- Product Dimensions 36 x 37 x 18 in.
- Color Bronze, blue, silver
- Grilling Area 300 sq. in.
- Hopper Capacity 8 lbs.
- Warranty 3 year