Great Gear for Picnics and Grilling

Charred burgers with all the fixings, ice-cold beer under a beach umbrella, toast with eggs scrambled over a campfire—food just tastes better in the summer. Whether you want a dialed-in picnic setup for concerts in the park, better tableware for camping, or great grill tools for cookouts, investing in a few carefully selected items will make the difference between roughing it and dining in style.

Last Updated: April 20, 2016
We gave this guide a spring cleaning and inserted new picks for hand sanitizer, charcoal briquets, and a citrus juicer, as well as a BBQ tongs and spatula set and a marinade brush. Enjoy the sunny outdoors!
Expand Most Recent Updates
July 30, 2015: Updated with our most recent pick for soft cooler, the AO Canvas 24-Pack. In a new round of tests, the AO performed just as well as our previous pick from Polar Bear, but is $20 cheaper.
May 17, 2015: For this update, our top picnic basket choice returns with a new sturdier design, and a new pewter flask replaces our previous top pick. We found a cheaper, more practical utensil set, selected an excellent alternative charcoal brand, and found a great cheater’s firestarter. Additionally, we added our favorite binoculars, beach chair, and frisbee for playing in the park.
July 3, 2014: Updated with two more pieces of our favorite outdoor cooking gear: charcoal and popsicle molds.

Over the past three years we’ve spent more than 85 hours researching and testing new products, as well as collecting our favorite tools, equipment, and purely fun gadgets from past guides to help you have a great picnic or cookout of your own. We tested our picks over several picnic lunches with friends at Los Angeles’s Elysian Park and Rincon Beach, just south of Santa Barbara, California.

Table of contents

Essentials

Soft cooler

AO Coolers 24 Pack Soft Cooler
Our favorite soft cooler’s lightweight origami structure holds 24 cans plus ice and will keep 9 pounds of ice frozen for over 24 hours.

If you prioritize portability—and you don’t need your food to stay cold for more than about two days—the AO Coolers 24-Pack Soft Cooler is your best bet. Over a 24-hour test, the cooler produced 8 cups of meltwater from an original 9 pounds of ice, a measurement that put it on a par with the best coolers in our test. And it did this while being cheaper and able to fit enough food and drink for a four-person family.

Its insulation is covered with 600-denier nylon and a thick vinyl liner, and its exterior uses origami-like folded corners and two buckles to create a rigid frame out of soft materials. This clever design helps the cooler retain its shape even when filled with bulky items and allows it to fold down flat better than any of the other coolers we tested.

Keep in mind, though, that the liner of the AO cooler is not removable, making it a little trickier to clean. We also read on some boating forums that these coolers can tear and spring leaks if you leave sharp items in them like broken bottles or the edges of crushed aluminum cans, so you don’t want to use this as your trash receptacle at the end of the day. Otherwise, with its collapsible design, excellent insulation, and good all-around durability, we think it’s a great fit for your standard family picnic.

Hard cooler

Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme Cooler
Better insulated and less expensive than the competition, it keeps ice for a week, and its well-designed drain port makes the cooler easy for you to clean.

If you’re going to be out in the heat for multiple days and don’t have to worry too much about mobility, the Coleman 70-Quart Xtreme Cooler is the best hard cooler we’ve found. Despite its five-day rating, our testing showed that it kept ice frozen to some extent for an entire week. It’s a lot less expensive than other similarly performing coolers, and its channeled drain makes the hefty task of tilting and emptying it pain-free.

Ice packs

Rubbermaid Blue Ice Block
The Rubbermaid Blue Ice Block stays frozen seemingly forever and is cheap enough to stock your whole cooler.

To keep food cold without the mess of melted ice, we recommend the reusable drugstore-paperback-sized Rubbermaid Blue Ice Block. When tested in a small cooler, it kept ice frozen for longer than we even intended to test—in fact, when we came back to check the next morning, the ice we kept with the block had still melted only 50 percent. They’re cheap enough to stock up on, so you can use several in a bigger cooler to keep a large quantity of beer or soda (or a whole picnic) cool.

Also great
Fit & Fresh Cool Coolers
The Fit & Fresh Cool Coolers are light and slim enough to squeeze into a lunchbox. Not so long-lasting for large coolers, though.

For individual lunches, we also liked the Fit & Fresh Cool Coolers, which come in a four-pack. They’re much slimmer and lighter than the Rubbermaid—each one is 4¾ inches square and ¼ inch thick. While they didn’t keep ice from melting as well as the Rubbermaid, at less than half the weight of the Rubbermaid, they can slip into an insulated lunch bag without taking up too much room.

We called in the ThermaFreeze Reusable Ice Pack Sheets but didn’t end up testing them—just the process of getting them ready for the freezer is laborious. You have to soak them in water for five to 10 minutes before they’re ready to go, and if you’re using the whole sheet, they take up an awful lot of space in the freezer. And even if they’d been especially easy to use, we’d still have qualms: Numerous user reports on Amazon complain of the gel leaking out, and that’s definitely something you don’t want on your food.

Napkins

Bounty Quilted Napkins
The Bounty Quilted Napkins are tough and can absorb more than 13 times their own weight in water—they're almost twice as effective as the second-place napkin we tested.

Bounty Quilted Napkins are your best bet for outdoor gatherings. We initially tested napkins for our party hosting guide with the intention of finding something reasonably elegant, but we came away impressed by the Bounty napkins’ absorption capabilities and sheer toughness. They’re textured to grab every last bit of sauce off your fingers and capable of absorbing 13.6 times their own weight in water—they’re almost twice as effective as the second-place Vanity Fair napkins, which can soak up 8.2 times their own weight. We ultimately recommended Vanity Fair napkins for party hosting because they look classier for indoor settings, but when it comes to eating outdoors, looks matter less than performance.

Reusable grocery bags

Baggu
The Baggu can fold into a compact pouch for easy storage and holds the most groceries without being difficult to carry.

A reusable grocery bag can come in handy for picking up snacks to take to an impromptu picnic or hauling empty recyclables home at the end of a get-together at the park. We recommend the Baggu. It holds the most groceries without becoming difficult to carry and folds up into a compact 5-by-5-inch pouch. We tested it against two of the other best-selling reusable bags—the ChicoBag and the Flip & Tumble 24-7 bag—and it beat them in (almost) every way.

Yes, we wish the bag folded into itself like the ChicoBag and Flip & Tumble. Because it doesn’t, losing the included stuff sack can mean sadness and despair, and the Baggu becomes a little less portable. But we’re willing to forgive this design choice because it’s simply a better bag than the others. In our tests it easily handled grocery loads that the other two struggled with. Whereas the ChicoBag and Flip & Tumble both can carry only 25 pounds, the Baggu can handle up to 50. It’s bigger, too, with plenty of space for at least two paper/plastic bags’ worth of groceries. Plus, thanks to its 2½-inch-wide handles, it’s comfortable to carry (even over your shoulder).

In more than a year of long-term testing, we’ve loved everything about this bag—except the fact that its stuff sack is separate and thus easily lost. If you end up misplacing it, you can always do as one of our readers suggests and use a small Ziploc bag. Stocking up on extras is also worthwhile. Considering that the bags are so inexpensive, it never hurts to pick up a few so you can keep them in your desk at work or your glove compartment.

Stain remover

Shout Stain Remover Wipes
These single-use wipes are handy and work well even if you can’t take your shirt off. In our tests, they were the only stain remover to really get rid of red lipstick.

Picnics and barbecues can get messy. We pitted three instant spot stain removers against some DIY methods, and our favorite is Shout Instant Stain Remover Wipes. We splotched a silk shirt with wine, coffee, lipstick, and mustard, treating the fresh stains immediately. In our tests the Shout wipes easily outperformed the Tide To Go pen. They were the only stain remover that got rid of almost all traces of lipstick on the collar.

The single-use towelettes mean you won’t wind up redepositing an old stain on another piece of clothing. They also did a fair job on wine and coffee spills, leaving a minimal ring where the stain spread out across the silk.

Bluetooth speaker

UE Roll
The ROLL offers the best combination of sound quality, ruggedness, water resistance, and portability, at a modest price.

After testing 30 finalists, we recommend the UE ROLL for picnics and small get-togethers. The flat saucerlike shape of the ROLL makes it easier to slip into a picnic bag or to lay on a blanket, and it provides 360-degree sound for listening from any angle better than most conventional Bluetooth speakers. It doesn’t offer much bass, but the sound isn’t thin or harsh as it is with many Bluetooth speakers. In our tests the battery lasted about seven hours, which isn’t great but is plenty for most picnics and BBQs.

Frisbee

Discraft Ultrastar 175
For less than $10 you can get a flying disc that fits perfectly in most people's hands and is easy to grip and balance. Plus, it's the preferred disc of MLU Frisbee player Nathan Hurst.

For working off that picnic meal, there’s no better game than Frisbee. Rather than making do with a crappy promotional disc or one from 7-11, get a substantial one like the Discraft Ultra-Star 175. We asked MAKE magazine editor (formerly of WIRED and Outside) and Major League Ultimate Frisbee player Nathan Hurst to help us pick. He plays for the San Francisco Dogfish and has tried every disc on the market. (Note: Whammo has a trademark on the Frisbee name, so these things are often called “flying discs.”)

“The AUDL [one of the two Ultimate Frisbee leagues] uses what has traditionally been the most popular flying disc, the Discraft Ultra-Star, which continues to be used in most other non-MLU play, from kids to college to amateur to screwing around on the beach,” Hurst said. The Ultra-Star fits perfectly in most people’s hands and is easier to grip and balance—customer reviews and Yahoo Answers agree.

For weight, you can go up to 200 grams, which is supposed to be best for playing in the wind, but Hurst told us that “it’s just a gimmick.” We’d stick to the standard 175 grams. For children or beginners, Hurst likes the Discraft J-Star. It weighs only 150 grams and is 9½ inches wide, in contrast to the regular Ultra-Star’s 10¾-inch diameter.

Binoculars

Nikon Trailblazer
If you'd like a pair of travel binoculars, the Trailblazer will serve you well. This set is both waterproof and easy to pack.

Even if you aren’t watching birds (or people) out in nature, using a pair of binoculars is a fun way to pass the time between courses of food or to help find errant kites lost in the trees. The travel-size Nikon Trailblazer 8×25 set was recommended to us by Milan G. Bull, the senior director of science and conservation at the Connecticut Audubon Society. These binoculars are waterproof, but note that if you get sea mist on the glass, you should not wipe them dry, as the salt crystals will scratch your optics; instead, get them damp to melt the crystals with a wet lens cloth and then work that salt off and out.

Picnic

Picnic basket

Picnic at Ascot Collapsible Insulated Picnic Basket with Cutlery Set
The Picnic at Ascot Collapsible Insulated Picnic Basket is roomier and better-insulated than other picnic baskets and backpacks we tried. Its place settings are also a bit sturdier.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $75.

We’ve looked for an easy-to-store picnic basket for several years, but unfortunately none have really lived up to our expectations. After considering seven models for our full guide, we’ve found that the Picnic at Ascot Collapsible Insulated Picnic Basket with Cutlery Set is the best option available. Its aluminum frame and reinforced sides keep the basket upright even when empty, making it easier to fill. It folds down compactly (18½ inches wide by 11½ inches deep by 5 inches high), making it easier to store than other options we looked at.

picnic-collective-picnic-at-ascot-basket

We like that the Picnic at Ascot basket holds plenty of food and still folds down compactly. The included place settings make impromptu dining easy.

The basket comes with plastic plates, acrylic glasses, stainless steel cutlery with plastic handles, and cotton napkins for four (you can also buy the basket alone, if you wish). The servingware feels sturdy, and we like that the acrylic glasses won’t break like glass. It’s moderately well-insulated for keeping foods like salads and grapes chilled for a few hours and large enough to hold a decent-size picnic for two or a small picnic for four. If you need something with more cooling power, we recommend getting a soft cooler and using that to lug your food, drinks, and plates to the park.

Picnic blanket

Nemo Victory Blanket
With a soft flannel top, padding, and a waterproof underlining, our favorite picnic blanket will keep you dry and comfortable even on damp grass. It also rolls easily and compactly, thanks to an attached flap and elastic bands.

Barring rain, there’s no quicker way to kill a picnic than lounging on a damp blanket. After testing seven blankets (and considering 38) for our full guide, we think the two-person Nemo Victory Blanket offers the best combination of water resistance, comfort, durability, and compactness.

picnic-collective-nemo-victory-blanket

The Victory stays rolled thanks to a well-designed flap and elastic straps, and the handle makes for easy carrying.

Made of a flannel top and a padded waterproof polyurethane underlayer, the Victory is thick enough to lie on without your feeling every stick and twig underneath. The top will withstand people walking, rolling, and jumping across it from time to time. It also folds neatly into a compact roll, thanks to an attached flap with two sewn-on elastic bands. And depending on your needs, you can pick up either the two-person or four-person model.

MIU Color Blanket
This tough, spill-proof blanket isn’t the cushiest for lounging, but it is the easiest we’ve found to keep clean.

If spills are a special concern, or if you value toughness and durability over comfort, the MIU Color Blanket is the easiest we’ve found to clean. Its polyester fabric feels similar to what you might find on outdoor lawn furniture or a tablecloth. It isn’t exactly soft, and it doesn’t feel like a traditional picnic blanket, but it will definitely last. Instead of elastic bands the MIU comes with a Velcro strip that you use to wrap it up fully. This design means you need to be slightly more precise than with the Victory when rolling it up. But for basic durability and spill and water resistance, the MIU can’t be beat.

Corkscrew

True Fabrications Truetap Metal
The Truetap is our top corkscrew pick because it’s straightforward and “just works.” Our picnic testers enjoyed using it.

A good corkscrew should reside in your basket at all times so you’ll never ruin a picnic by forgetting one. In testing for our corkscrew guide, we found that the Truetap offers a tried-and-true design, and it’s one that our picnic guests really appreciated. (In a pinch, the foil cutter can double as a small knife.) A picnic attendee used it to open a bottle of wine and said it was unremarkable in a good way: “The best design is invisible.”

Flask

Steadfast and Strong Pewter Flask
The 6-ounce Steadfast and Strong flask won’t impart a flavor into your liquor like a stainless steel one might, plus it’s sturdier than steel due to its thicker walls.

If you’re not in a wine- or beer-drinking mood, a flask full of your favorite spirit is the perfect way to booze up a picnic. We like the 6-ounce handmade pewter flask from Steadfast and Strong, which replaces our Kaufmann Mercantile pewter pick from last year. Although that pewter model is available now, Kaufmann Mercantile has had stocking issues with its flasks in the past, and our new top pick is $10 cheaper.

You could, of course, pick up a budget stainless steel flask, but many people complain that the material imparts an unfortunate metallic taste to liquor (although we haven’t found hard evidence that stainless steel actually affects the taste of whiskey). Pewter won’t pick up any funky flavors, and unlike stainless steel, it won’t rust because it’s made mostly of tin (92 percent). And because pewter is a softer alloy, manufacturers need to create thicker walls to keep it from denting. Thus the flask is sturdier and more solid—it’ll last longer, so you can pass your love of surreptitious drinking on to your grandchildren.

The only potential drawback is that this flask doesn’t have a captive lid, the kind that has an attached arm to secure the cap to the flask itself. It would be easy to lose the screw-on cap in the grass. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, note that our prior Kaufmann Mercantile pick does have a captive lid.

Hand sanitizer

Purell
Although not our absolute favorite, Purell is a decent hand sanitizer that’s easy to find. It leaves some residue, but it’s effective and better than alcohol-free formulas.

In an ideal world, we’d have access to a sink with warm water and soap every time we needed to wash our hands. In reality, that’s almost never the case. Carrying hand sanitizer and using it properly can fill the gaps between sink visits. In our original review, we recommended Method Sweet Water, which has since become hard to find. Purell was our next favorite. It feels a little more like lotion than Sweet Water, evaporates a touch slower, and leaves a bit more residue, but overall it performs about equally.

We also looked at alcohol-free sanitizers, but the CDC doesn’t recommend them, and neither can we. The compounds in some alcohol-free sanitizers have been shown to trigger antibiotic resistance in some cases—that is, bacteria that medicine can’t kill. Yikes. For other sanitizers based on thyme and other essential oils, which have been shown to have antibacterial properties, it’s hard to find information on how effective they are in comparison with alcohol-based offerings. Better to stick with what you know works.

Reusable utensils set

4 N 1 Utensil Set
The 4 N 1 is a full cutlery set that stows away easily and takes up minimal space. It will open bottles, too. At around $5 for each set, it’s particularly affordable if you want a few for your picnic or camp setup.

Stowable utensils that can slot together are the workhorses of any overnight camping adventure. These knife, fork, and spoon sets are usually made of stainless steel with rivets, holes, and sometimes hinges to help them snap or fold together for tidy storage. They’re great to own if you eat outdoors often, don’t like wasting disposable plastic cutlery, and prefer not to break up your good flatware set every time you go out.

We tested four of the top-rated sets, and we think that the 4 N 1 Utensil Set offers the best quality at the best price. The individual pieces are sturdy and compact when fit together, and the knife is sharp enough to cut through meat. The set should last a long time.

We also tested a German Army Surplus model that was sturdy but larger than we liked and difficult to pack away after use, as well as the Stansport Camping Set, which was decent but more expensive and still not quite as sturdy as our top pick.

Last year we chose the Ka-Bar Hobo Knife, a utensil set that folds down into a multitool-like package. Although we still like it, for this year’s update we wanted to find a more affordable alternative that would work for a multiperson picnic setup. You can buy four of the 4 N 1 sets for $20, while the same number of the Ka-Bar Hobo Knife would set you back nearly $80. The 4 N 1 set has a slimmer profile than the Ka-Bar set when it’s packed together, and we didn’t notice any substantial difference between the cutlery sets when cutting chicken, slicing bread, or spreading cheese. In fact, the knife of the 4 N 1 set seemed better suited for spreads than the more aggressive pocket-knife-style blade of the Ka-Bar.

One of us once spent six months living in a tent, eating meals day after day with a utensil set nearly identical to the 4 N 1, and the experience was excellent. Having a spoon, fork, and knife snapped together in one spot every night ensured that, come dinnertime, they were always where they needed to be.

Enamelware

GSI Outdoors Table Set
GSI Outdoors makes nice-looking and affordable enamelware that lets you be more environmentally friendly while ditching the paper or plastic bowls, plates, and cups at your picnic.

Enamelware is great for outdoor eating because it has the lightness and durability of plastic and an appealing aesthetic. After considering seven sets, we found two we like. For an inexpensive set that’s good enough to replace disposable plates, bowls, and cups, look into GSI Outdoors’s enamelware. You can get plates, bowls, and mugs for four people for about $50, or you can buy them separately (here are the plates and bowls, though we don’t love the mugs). We don’t think the GSI set offers the absolute best quality, but we do believe its quality is vastly better than that of other cheap sets and will work perfectly fine for picnics or camping.

Most speckled enamelware, regardless of who brands and sells it, is made by the same company in Mexico. So you’re basically looking for the brand that has the strictest quality control—and GSI is it. While other brands’ user reviews complain of chips out of the box or corroding enamel, GSI has very few issues. The 10-inch plates, the highlight of the set, have a large usable area. The bowls are decently sized but have narrow bases that leave us a bit concerned about their stability. The mugs, however, are the weak link, as the handles are simply too small. This design makes them unusable with hot liquids because the thin metal conducts heat straight onto your knuckles and can burn you.

We’ve seen a few Amazon-user complaints about this set rusting and being of low quality overall, but those complaints are from a few years ago. After a year of owning these and using them while camping, we haven’t seen rust from normal use. Most of the new reviews are four or five stars, and currently the set has an overall rating of 4½ stars (out of five) across 25 reviews.

Upgrade pick
Best Made Two-Person Seamless & Steadfast Enamel Gift Set
The Best Made Seamless & Steadfast enamelware is much more expensive than that of GSI Outdoors, but it’s also much more durable and even suitable for indoor use.

If you want a higher-quality set with a nicer overall design, get Best Made’s Two-Person Seamless & Steadfast Enamel Gift Set (also available piecemeal: plates, bowls, mugs). Yes, these pieces are about four times as expensive, but they’re arguably four times better. Just don’t lose them at the beach!

Unlike the cheaper, thinner, Mexican dishes, Best Made’s Seamless & Steadfast items are made in Poland and come across as thoughtfully designed place settings that are durable and lightweight enough for outdoor use yet classy and solid enough to serve as rustic table settings at home. The bowls are deep and have a wide base that resists tipping. And the mugs have larger, more squared-off handles that give your knuckles plenty of space to avoid burns. Our only complaint is that the plate has a large bezel that cuts into the usable surface area. Each dish is embellished with Best Made’s signature red X logo. At our picnic, attendees had nothing but praise for the pieces’ lack of seams, substantial (but not heavy) weight, and flawlessly painted finish.

Though they are expensive, we think the Best Made dishes are worth the money. We tested Best Made’s mug against similarly priced mugs from Emalco (which makes similarly priced mugs for Stumptown and Ghostly International, among others), and everyone agreed that the Best Made model was a noticeably better product. The Best Made mug is taller and can hold a full 12-ounce cup of coffee without spilling, while the Emalco can safely handle only 11 ounces.

Paring knife

Victorinox 3¼-Inch
Our favorite paring knife is from Victorinox. In our testing it performed as well as those five times more expensive. It’s cheap enough that you won’t cry if you lose it.

Having a small, sharp knife is important for slicing cheeses or charcuterie and for opening packages. While the knife in a reusable utensil set can cut many things, you’ll want a separate knife for shared foods. The Victorinox 3¼-inch paring knife fits that bill perfectly. We found in testing that it performs just as well as models that are about five times more expensive, yet it’s cheap enough that you won’t miss it if you lose it. We also like that it comes with a little plastic sleeve that makes it safe and easy to transport.

Wine tote

Wine Enthusiast Two-Bottle Neoprene Wine Tote
It won’t win you any fashion contests, but the Wine Enthusiast Two-Bottle Neoprene Wine Tote was the most effective in keeping wine cool during our tests.

The Wine Enthusiast Two-Bottle Neoprene Wine Tote is kind of dorky-looking—like something you might carry home from a winemaker’s trade show—but it’s excellent. We compared it directly against the popular Built totes, and it kept white wine cool for longer in our tests. As nice-looking as the Built totes might be, they just can’t compete with the Wine Enthusiast bag. Both bags are made of neoprene, but whereas the Built bag just has a thin layer that meets in the middle to create two separate wine compartments, the Wine Enthusiast tote is structured with a section for each bottle (or one bottle and some glasses) and a zippered top. The trump card: It also includes two gel packs that you can freeze, ensuring that your white wines will stay cold for much longer than the Built could ever promise. But even without our freezing the gel packs, this tote still beat out the competition.

Picnic attendees thought that it was a good idea but didn’t like the neoprene’s aesthetic. Ganda said, “I thought it was quite comfortable, good if you accidentally drop the bottles along the way. I can’t imagine having the forethought to put the freezer pack in the freezer, but I guess you could just leave it in there all the time.”

picnic-collective-wine-enthusiast-tote

The Wine Enthusiast tote comfortably insulates and protects two bottles.

In addition to having our guests evaluate the totes, we tested the two top totes for insulation performance. With two bottles of white wine, and even without the frozen packs, the Wine Enthusiast bag caused temperatures to rise an average of 11.5ºF over two hours. The Built bag caused temperatures to rise an average of 15ºF. That isn’t a huge difference, but it is absolutely noticeable in the taste and temperature of the wine.

As of this writing, on Amazon the Wine Enthusiast bag has a rating of 4.7 stars (out of five) across 66 reviews, and on Wine Enthusiast’s own site it has 4.5 stars (out of five) across 68 reviews.

Cookout

Beverage dispenser/water jug

Buddeez Unbreakable Beverage Dispenser
The 3½-gallon Buddeez Unbreakable Beverage Dispenser keeps your drinks chilled but not diluted, plus it’s virtually unbreakable and dishwasher-safe.

Water pitchers and stoppered bottles can dress up a dinner table, but it’s a lot more convenient to have a large dispenser that you don’t have to worry about refilling. We were hard-pressed to find many reliable professional write-ups of beverage dispensers, but after sifting through hundreds of user reviews, we found the 3½-gallon Buddeez Unbreakable Beverage Dispenser. Not only will this dispenser’s internal ice cone keep your drinks pleasantly chilled (and undiluted) for a few hours, but it’s also made of Tritan plastic (making it virtually unbreakable), dishwasher-safe, and designed with a nonskid base (which you’ll be thankful for when you’re tilting the thing to get the last drops of your beverage out on a hot day) plus liquid measurements on the back for mixed drinks. Buddeez also makes a double-walled version for extra insulation on those unbearably balmy August weekends.

People love the Buddeez. Currently its 720 reviews combine for an overall rating of 4½ stars (out of five) on Amazon. About 89 percent of reviewers really like the product, versus 71 percent for its closest competitor, the popular 3-gallon model from CreativeWare. This difference in ratings is partially the result of the CreativeWare’s inefficient design, which places the ice storage below where the beverage sits. This arrangement means that the ice will be in contact with the beverage for only a little while until it melts, at which point it loses most of its cooling effect.

As for other options, initially we also considered stainless steel or glass dispensers. But the stainless ones, such as the cafe-classic fusti (originally meant for olive oil), turned out to be too expensive (you could buy five of our pick for the price of one similar-size fusti). Glass looks nice but weighs too much; safety is also a concern, especially if little kids are involved.

Charcoal

Royal Oak Ridge Briquets
Royal Oak briquets burn hot and evenly, don't add any negative flavors to your food, and don't generate much ash. Buying this charcoal online can be pricey, so we suggest looking for it at local grocery stores or other retailers.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $10.

Whether you’re hosting a cookout at home, in the park, or on the beach, we recommend having a bag of Royal Oak Ridge Briquets.

The Royal Oak offering doesn’t burn quite as long as our runner-up pick from Stubb’s, but its near ubiquity in stores makes it much easier to find. For your average outdoor-picnic grill, the Royal Oak briquets leave plenty of time for you to get at least two rounds of hamburgers out before the coals lose their heat. Our testers reported no negative taste to the food cooked with this charcoal. Like our runner-up, the Royal Oak charcoal can get pricey to buy online with shipping, so we recommend keeping an eye out for it at local grocery stores or other retailers.

Runner-up
Stubb’s 100% All-Natural Bar-B-Q Charcoal Briquets
These briquets burn extremely hot, last a long time, and produce minimal ash. For the best price, go to a Walmart store, where you should find them for $8 a bag.

If you can’t find Royal Oak, or if you really need the small amount of extra burn time, we recommend Stubb’s charcoal as your next-best pick. When we tested it head-to-head with six other top brands, Stubb’s 100% All-Natural Bar-B-Q Charcoal Briquets emerged as the clear winner. This charcoal burns hot and evenly, so you’ll get a good sear while grilling up meat, but it doesn’t spark or spit like some other all-natural briquets. It also doesn’t add any bad flavors to your food, and it flakes less after burning than the competition, which means you have less danger of ash blowing everywhere if the wind picks up. The only real minus for the Stubb’s choice is that it can be difficult to find at times (and expensive to buy online). We’ve found that Walmart is probably the most reliable source, where in store you can pick up a 15-pound bag for $5 to $10 depending on the time of year.

Citrus juicer

Proctor Silex Alex’s Lemonade Stand Citrus Juicer
For making fresh lemonade or summery citrus-based cocktails, we recommend our favorite citrus juicer, the Proctor Silex Alex’s Lemonade Stand Citrus Juicer. It performed on a par with units we tested that were 10 times the price.

If you’re planning to make enough fresh lemonade to hydrate a block party, invest in the Proctor Silex Alex’s Lemonade Stand Citrus Juicer. We tested it against 11 other electric and manual models, and it performed as well as a $130 Breville model. It isn’t the prettiest or the quietest, but it gets the job done cheaply and efficiently. And the fact that $1 of the proceeds from each unit goes to Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer certainly doesn’t hurt.

If you prefer a manual press for making cocktails, we recommend the Chef’n FreshForce Citrus Juicer. It comes with recommendations from several top bartenders, and it outperformed other popular, highly rated models in our barware tests.

Outdoor fire pit

Landmann City Lights Memphis
Easy to assemble, the Landmann City Lights Memphis has that fire-pit ambiance and can hold a lot of wood (great for long marshmallow-roasting sessions in the backyard).

A grill is essential for the actual cooking, but when it comes to ambiance (and roasting marshmallows), you want an outdoor fire pit. You’ll find a wide variety of pits available, all with different vibes (one even looks like a flaming Earth). For a more universal aesthetic, our pick is the Landmann City Lights Memphis. It has a look that will appeal to just about everyone. It’s durable, capable of holding a good amount of wood, and easy to assemble.

We like that the sides of the Landmann are partially exposed. This design does two things: It allows air to circulate around the fire, and it lets your partygoers enjoy the flame whether they’re sitting or standing, no matter how small the fire is. Solid-walled models, like the CobraCo Copper Fire Pit, block out the view of a small flame unless you’re standing right next to them.

Because the Landmann is deep, it offers a lot of flexibility in fire size. The large bowl (almost 2 feet across) also translates into less stress—you don’t have to worry about the fire shifting and a log falling out like you do with shallower models similar to the Fire Sense Folding Fire Pit.

The Landmann comes with a cooking grill so you can keep the party going while the kids make some hot dogs for themselves (though for actual grilling, we suggest charcoal or propane and an actual grill as opposed to a difficult-to-control wood fire). It also has a screen for wayward sparks and a built-in safety ring so boozed-up Uncle Billy won’t burn his leg when he stumbles past.

If the weave pattern of the City Lights Memphis is too humdrum for your tastes, Landmann has a number of similar models with different bowl cutouts, including the popular Big Sky Stars and Moons and Wildlife.

Grills (full-size)

22" Weber Original Kettle Premium
Building on a decades-old design that has earned the love of chefs and backyard-grilling aficionados alike, Weber’s 22” Original Kettle Premium has everything we loved in last year’s recommendation, the One-Touch Gold.

For three years in a row, we’ve chosen a Weber as our favorite charcoal grill for most people. Weber gets near universal praise for its kettle grills from professional chefs, barbecue champions, and scores of backyard-grilling aficionados. We’re working on an update to our charcoal grill guide, but if we were to buy one now, we’d get the 22” Weber Original Kettle Premium. It comes with all of the features that made Weber’s now-discontinued One-Touch Gold grill great, including a one-touch ash disposal system and ash catcher, premium hinged steel grates, a tough enameled steel firebox and dome, and one of the best warranties in the industry.

Also great
Weber Spirit E210
Weber’s Spirit E-210 is a great gas grill for smaller decks that still provides plenty of heat and durability for many years of use.

In our guide to gas grills, Weber beat out the competition once again with the Spirit E-210. This two-burner gas grill is compact enough to fit on smaller decks or a balcony, but thanks to its excellent design and build quality, it provides enough heat, versatility, and durability to serve most people well for years to come. What’s more, just like the Weber One-Touch Gold, the Spirit E-210 comes with a 10-year limited warranty.

Grills (portable)

Barbecues don’t always happen in the backyard. While you could haul along a full-size charcoal or gas grill to every picnic, camping trip, or day at the beach, actually doing so is a pain. What you want is a compact grill that’s small enough for you to throw it into the trunk of your car but large enough to cook a reasonable amount of food for yourself, your family, and your friends. While we have both gas and charcoal offerings, it makes a bit more sense to go with gas in this case, since a single 16.4-ounce canister can last for two to two-and-a-half hours and is only the size of a Nalgene bottle; you’d need a whole bag of charcoal to get the same cooking time as a couple of canisters.

Weber Q 1200
The Weber Q 1200 is an affordable gas grill made for portability. It has a big cooking surface and plenty of heat at 8,500 BTUs.

The Weber Q 1200 is a gas grill equipped with a single stainless steel burner that kicks out 8,500 Btu of cooking power. That might not sound like a whole lot of heat, but when paired with the Q 1200’s well-designed cast aluminum dome, fire box, and porcelain-coated cast iron grates, it’s more than enough to cook and sear chicken breasts, skirt or flank steaks, burgers, hot dogs, or sausages beautifully. The grill’s 189-square-inch cooking surface provides enough space to cook enough hamburgers to feed six people at a time while still leaving adequate space between your meat or veggie patties to allow for convection.

The Q 1200 comes with a one-touch electric ignition system and is designed to run off of 14.1- or 16.4-ounce liquid-propane cylinders (but you can also buy an adapter that’ll allow you to pair it with a 20-pound propane tank). And to keep your food out of the dirt while you’re preparing to put it to the fire, the Q 1200 also comes equipped with a pair of foldaway side tables large enough to set a small plate on. At just over 27 pounds, the Q 1200 isn’t feather light, but the grill’s chunky fiberglass-reinforced nylon frame and handles make it easy to pick up and haul around. Finally, it’s covered by a five-year limited warranty. That isn’t as good as what you get with a full-size Weber grill, but it is the best coverage you’ll find on a portable piece of hardware for the price. Currently it gets 4.8 stars (out of five) across more than 300 reviews on Amazon.

Consumer Reports, About.com, and AmazingRibs.com are all fans of Weber’s Q-series grills. When we recently asked AmazingRibs’s Max Good about the hardware, he simply told us, “The Weber Q series gassers and their portable kettle grills will perform well, because they’re designed so well. You can’t beat those things, particularly for tailgating.”

Also great
18″ Weber Jumbo Joe
The 18″ Weber Jumbo Joe is a great little charcoal-based portable grill. It’s straightforward and works well, just like its full-size counterpart.

Speaking of Weber kettle grills, If you’d rather cook over charcoal, we’ve got your back: Weighing 22 pounds, the 18″ Weber Jumbo Joe is a portable, 18½-inch iteration of our previous favorite full-size charcoal grill, the Weber One-Touch Gold. Boasting a porcelain-enameled, stainless steel firebox and dome, rust-resistant aluminum dampers, an ash catcher, and a stainless steel 240-square-inch cooking grate, the Jumbo Joe employs the same simple kettle design that has made Weber’s charcoal grills so popular with amateur cooks and professional chefs for decades.

The Jumbo Joe has garnered a five-star rating from About.com’s grilling expert Derrick Riches and a gold medal from AmazingRibs.com, and currently it has a 4.8-star overall rating (out of five) across 386 reviews from Amazon shoppers, with 84 percent of those being five-star reviews. That high percentage of praise from Amazon users is rare in our experience.

To get you off on the right foot with your new portable charcoal or gas grill, we asked grilling and barbecue expert Steven Raichlen for some tips on getting the most out of your portable grill. He told us the following:

  • Bring aluminum foil and an insulated cooler to improvise a holding oven.
  • Select foods that can be direct grilled in minutes—chicken breasts, hamburgers or sliders, skirt steak, fish fillets, hot dogs or brats, etc.
  • Neither a small gas nor charcoal grill has the space to allow two-zone cooking. Create a “safety” zone by placing a wire cooling rack next to the grill. Move food there when flare-ups occur.
  • Always pack extra fuel, whether using propane or charcoal.
  • Do as much prep work as you can at home.
  • Make arrangements for the safe disposal of spent charcoal and propane canisters.

Grill tools

No matter what size or kind of grill you opt to cook with, having a few simple, high-quality tools can make cooking over open flames a whole lot safer and more pleasurable. We have a full guide on grill tools, but here’s what you need to get going.

OXO Good Grips 2 Piece Grilling Set
The 16-inch locking tongs that come in this set are strong, easy to use, and the best we’ve found for the price (we also recommend the set’s spatula).

Good tongs are great multitaskers. You can use them to transfer raw chicken from a plate to the grill, turn delicate veggies, or plate a rack of ribs once they’re cooked to perfection. Our favorite set is the 16-inch pair of locking tongs that comes in the OXO Good Grips 2 Piece Grilling Set. We don’t usually recommend sets, but both the tongs and the spatula in this one beat a range of single tools in our tests. We like these tongs because of their excellent construction and delicately scalloped heads, their long reach, and their grippy handles, which feel good in a bare hand or a grilling glove.

OXO Good Grips 2 Piece Grilling Set
The turner that comes in this set has a sturdier feel and a better reach than other grilling spatulas we’ve tried, and it has just the right amount of flex to slide under burgers easily.

Burgers and fish don’t deal too well with being compressed by tongs. That’s where a good spatula comes in handy. Our favorite is the one that comes in the OXO Good Grips 2 Piece Grilling Set. As with the tongs in this set, the spatula performed better in our tests than 10 other models we tried, thanks to its strong, flexible construction; its long, comfortable handle; and its wide head, which has both a beveled edge for sliding under food and a serrated one for cutting grub as you grill.

ThermoWorks ThermoPop
Our favorite digital kitchen thermometer has an easy-to-read backlit display that’s great for day or night cookouts. It will survive a dunk in sauce or marinades, and you can easily clip it to an apron or pocket when not in use.

To ensure that your grilled meals are cooked safely and accurately, you’re going to need an instant-read probe thermometer. Our pick is the ThermoWorks ThermoPop. It takes extremely fast and accurate readings and is designed equally well for indoor and outdoor use. The large backlit display makes it convenient for night grilling, and the numbers on the screen rotate with the push of a button, so you can see the temperature from any angle. The plastic-covered buttons mean the ThermoPop can withstand splatters from marinades, spilled beer, or even a little rain (although it’s not considered waterproof). And the clip-on probe cover means you can easily slip the thermometer onto an apron or into a pocket so you don’t lose it. This model is by far the best standard digital thermometer we’ve found for under $100.

Also great
ThermoWorks ChefAlarm
For smoker enthusiasts, the ThermoWorks ChefAlarm’s probe reads up to 572°F while the cord is good up to 700°F, making it perfect for gauging the temp of smoked brisket without lifting the lid.

If you regularly grill or smoke large cuts and you don’t want to constantly check the meat’s temperature, we’d go with the ThermoWorks ChefAlarm. This professional-grade probe thermometer can stay in the meat with the grill lid down. The probe reads up to 572°F while the cord is good up to 700°F, considerably higher than the 400°F other models allow. It also has an Ingress Protection rating of IP65, meaning the body of the unit is completely protected against dust and “low-pressure jets of water.”

Probe thermometers have a tendency to break easily, but we’ve been long-term testing the ChefAlarm for six months and still love it. We’ve used it about once monthly and found that it’s easy to operate and very durable. Its current Amazon rating of 4.8 stars (out of five) across 364 reviews puts it miles ahead of the competition in customer satisfaction. It’s expensive, but if you do a lot of roasting and grilling throughout the year, this thermometer would be a good investment.

OXO Good Grips Large Silicone Basting Brush
More sanitary than a traditional hair or mop-style basting brush, the 14-inch OXO Good Grips Large Silicone Basting Brush has thick silicone bristles that'll hold on to sauce better than other brushes, and an angled handle that makes reaching the back of your grill easier.

If you’re looking to sauce up a cut of meat or add some moisture to a veggie patty with a bit of marinade, we suggest using the OXO Good Grips Large Silicone Basting Brush. In our testing, its thick, tri-layer, 2¼-by-1½-inch silicone brush head sopped up and spread more sauce over a greater area than any competitors. Its silicon bristles are dishwasher-safe and far more sanitary than a traditional horsehair or cotton marinade mop.

US Forge 400 Welding Gloves Lined Leather, Blue
If you must get your hands close to the flame while grilling, US Forge welding gloves are a cheap way to protect yourself when you need to add charcoal or play hot potato (literally).

From time to time you’ll want to protect your hands from the scorching heat of your grill. Cheap, washable, and tough as nails, these welding gloves from US Forge are just the thing. With a pair of the company’s 400-series lined leather welding gloves on, you’ll be able to pick up hot potatoes right off the grill, safely add charcoal to your barbecue’s firebox halfway through a cook, or even handle a hot grill grate—that’s something a silicone oven mitt can’t do.

Weber 6464 18-Inch Bamboo Grill Brush
Grilling means keeping your cooking grate clean. Weber’s 18-inch Bamboo Grill Brush has a long handle and tough stainless steel bristles that work well to remove carbonized gunk.

Scouring your grill’s grate clean after you’ve finished cooking (and in some cases, before you start cooking) is key to making a great meal and will prolong the life of your hardware. Weber’s 18-inch Bamboo Grill Brush is a simple, long-handled bamboo grill brush with tough stainless steel bristles that will make short work of the sticky residue and carbonized gunk left over on your grill grates after a cookout.

Weber 7416 Rapidfire Chimney Starter
If you’re going the charcoal route, Weber’s Rapidfire Chimney Starter can bring your coals up to temperature more quickly than just waiting for them to heat up in the grill.

Oh, and if you have a charcoal grill, you’ll want to think about picking up a charcoal chimney such as the Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter. Just fill the chimney up with charcoal, set a flame to its base, and watch as your cooking fuel ignites and comes up to temperature in no time. When your coals are ready, all you need to do is carefully pour the chimney’s red-hot contents into your grill’s firebox and start cooking. Magic!

Also great
Weber Firestarters
For a quick charcoal-lighting cheat, we like Weber Firestarters. They’re easier to carry to a park or beach than a chimney starter, can’t spill or leak like lighter fluid, and will still have you up and grilling in no time.

If you don’t want to haul a chimney starter to the park, we recommend Weber Firestarters. These odorless and nontoxic cubes won’t light your charcoal pile as uniformly as a chimney, but they are much easier to carry, and their performance is good enough to get your standard grilling session started. We looked at and dismissed three other firestarters that were all too expensive before choosing to test the Weber cubes.

In our tests they left no lingering odor or residue once it was time to cook. Waiting for our charcoal pile to light did take a little longer than it would have in a chimney, but not by much. We suggest one or two cubes per 70 to 100 briquets (or about a Weber chimney’s worth), enough for one of those public grills in recreation parks. For a mini Weber, which uses about half that number of briquets, one Weber Firestarter would suffice.

We asked Weber directly to confirm what the cubes are made of, and the company did not respond. This material safety data sheet from Home Depot lists the chemical name as N-Alkane Hydrocarbon (C10-C13), a generic term for the Firestarters’ mix of hydrocarbons, the compounds all fats and oils are made of. Lowe’s says these cubes are made of paraffin wax.

Plenty of BBQ enthusiasts on forums swear by the Weber cubes, even using them to start their chimney piles at home.

LED lantern

Ultimate Survival Technologies 30-Day Lantern, Black/Glo
We tested 13 LED lanterns before finding the UST 30-Day Lantern to be the best. Not only does it have three brightness settings, but it also has a month-long battery life.

The good times in the great outdoors don’t have to stop when the sun goes down, provided you’re prepared to beat back the darkness with a little manmade light. We tested 13 lanterns before coming to the conclusion that the UST 30-Day Lantern is the one you should get.

Slightly larger than a pint glass, the UST 30-Day Lantern has three brightness settings, can crank out up to 300 lumens of illumination, and boasts a crazy-long maximum run time of 720 hours (on its minimum 29-lumen setting) on three D-cell batteries. What’s more, the lantern comes with a lifetime warranty.

Paper plates

Vanity Fair Impressions
Vanity Fair Impressions is our favorite paper plate. It’s much tougher than its competitors and resists sogginess, making it great for wet side dishes.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $12.

After we tested several popular designs, Vanity Fair Impressions plates emerged as our favorite paper plates for our party hosting guide because they’re tougher than their closest competitors. They’re thick and resistant to sogginess, which makes them great for wet side dishes like collard greens and chili. Sure, paper plates are not as environmentally friendly as reusable enamelware, but if you’re having a big cookout with a lot of guests, costs can add up quickly—and washing 20 plates covered in barbecue sauce and mac-and-cheese residue is no fun.

Roasting forks

Rolla Roaster
Roasting forks are great for hot dogs and marshmallows, and the Rolla Roaster is long enough to keep you safe while being retractable for portability.

A good roasting fork needs to provide enough control to hold your hot dog or marshmallow at a comfortable distance away from the fire. A sharpened stick you found at your campsite is perfectly capable of that, but you’ll have more success with our favorite roasting fork. We considered five models and found the Rolla Roaster (also at REI and L.L.Bean) to be the best by far. It adds a rotisserie mechanism built into the handle that lets you rotate the fork about the handle using just your thumb. This design allows you to continuously rotate your food with minimal effort, which leads to more-even browning and less burning. Finally, despite extending to a full 42 inches, it manages to retract to just 12 inches for better portability and easy storage.

Currently, 71 L.L.Bean reviewers give it 4.7 out of five stars. Multiple reviewers mention that they appreciate how portable the forks get when fully retracted and how long the forks become when fully extended, meaning you don’t have to sit right next to the fire. Meanwhile, 15 REI reviewers also give it a 4.7-star rating. Reviewer Sorefeet offers some comparison against similar products: “We also had along some Coghlan’s extendable forks of a very similar design to this one, but the Rolla Roasters win out on several fronts: [They] extend longer, by a full 8 inches; come in a reusable plastic case, which is surprisingly valuable, as these are an awkward thing to pack; [are] American made; [and are] available in multiple colors.”

Trash bags

Husky 42-Gallon Contractor Clean-Up Bags
The best heavy-duty trash bags are Husky’s 24-gallon Contractor Clean-Up Bags—they’re thicker than regular kitchen bags, so they’re more durable for outdoor use.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $30.

A good cookout needs good trash bags to clean up after it. We researched the best heavy-duty bags for party hosting and found that Husky’s 42-gallon Contractor Clean-Up Bags are what you want. Whereas your typical kitchen bag is about ½ to 1 mil thick (1 mil = 1/1000 of an inch), contractor bags like this one are 3 mils thick. What makes Husky’s variety stand out are winning reviews on Amazon, near flawless marks at Home Depot’s site, a recommendation for toughness from Good Housekeeping, and a smart price: about $1 each if you buy a 32-pack on Amazon, or just 45 cents each if you buy 50 at Home Depot.

Utensils (disposable)

Kirkland Signature Crystal Clear Cutlery
Costco’s Kirkland Crystal Clear Cutlery is the best disposable set we’ve found—our tests showed that they don’t break easily, and they come in real-world proportions.

We looked into the best disposable cutlery for our party hosting guide and found that Costco’s Kirkland Signature Crystal Clear Cutlery pieces are the best. They won’t break on you mid-meal unless you’re dining with the Hulk, and they come in a huge quantity for cheap, so one package should last you through quite a few dinner parties, bake-offs, and picnics. The 360-piece set comes in real-world proportions of 180 forks, 120 spoons, and 60 knives. If you have a Costco membership, you can get the set for around $16 in stores. In testing, we found them to be consistently stronger than other top-rated disposable utensils.

(Photos by Michael Hession.)

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Originally published: April 20, 2016

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