A pickup truck's useful as a tool, but it's more fun as a toy. When you're not lugging cargo for work, here's some good gear to have on hand for one of the greatest joys of pickup truck ownership: impromptu tailgate parties.
This list is what I think makes the best compromise between space usage and utility-of-fun based on extensive fieldwork. But I hope you'll share any extra items I might have missed, or crap you can't tailgate without!
I'm not getting paid to shill any of these particular products, they're just some starting points for you to get shopping!
[3-footer should do the trick]
Starting simple; a little shovel goes a long way. Takes up essentially no room and is great for digging fire pits and making sand or snow couches. Not to mention unearthing a stuck truck.
2. A sturdy wooden board (even better; two boards)
[Maybe 5' x 12", depending on how wide your truck is]
Think you're better off hitting the local hardware than Amazon for this.
A board thrown across a bed, perpendicular to the gunwales, makes an awesome instant mini-table for food and beverages. There's plenty of space to sit in an empty truck, but it's awkward (and a little gnarly) to eat food off the floor. Plus, people are always stepping in your grub.
A pair of boards will come in handy when your rig gets stuck in the sand; throw them down ahead of the drive wheels to get extra traction. Though you might wanna pressure wash them before they become tables again.
[2 cubic feet to as big as you want]
Or if you're really not messing around with your beverages, you've pretty much gotta go with this:
Also pretty righteous (man, there are lot of slick coolers out there):
Because the cardboard box beer comes in doesn't stay cold too long, duh! Even if you can't be bothered to pick up ice, throwing sandwiches and drinks in a cooler keeps them from getting tepid.
Leave a corkscrew and bottle opener in there to be a real hero.
4. Compact grill and grillin' gear
[Say, 5 cubic feet]
I personally like to run a Weber Smokey Joe; under 2' high and maybe 1.5' wide it doesn't look like much, but there's enough cooking surface to grill four big burgers at once and the thing basically disappears in the bed of any modern pickup.
A bag of match-light charcoal takes up about the same amount of space, and works if you don't mind a little lighter fluid flavor but I carry a chimney starter and some newspaper to get a proper cook going... totally worth the extra one cubic foot of space or whatever.
You can improvise a spatula with a big crescent wrench, but it's kind of a pain in the ass and nobody likes car grease on their burger. Don't forget a grill lighter, either.
5. Some blankets (those beefy Mexican ones you buy at music festivals)
[Folds up to 1 or 2 cubic feet]
Throw 'em down on the ground or use to make the bed a little more comfortable on asses. Also useful when the sun goes down and whoever you're trying to woo gets chilly but you really don't want to give up your sweatshirt.
6. Canopy tent
[Tend to fold down to about 4' long, and 1' tall by 1' wide]
Really only necessary for endurance-level tailgating or braving beat weather, but those canopies that fold out to like 10' x 10' are so unbelievably cheap at Wally World it's cool to have even if it saves you from getting soaked once.
I will say it's clutch to have an extra roof for music festival or concert tailgating, even if you came in a truck with a cap or an SUV- sun protection becomes essential and it makes the camp feel more like home.
If you've got the bucks, a mounted roll-out awning is the "much cooler" version of this.
7. Power inverter
[Probably 0.25 cubic feet]
More modern trucks are starting to come with house-style AC outlets, but even those tend to be fairly low powered. An inverter can get rope lights, a TV, or guitar amplifier going... just watch those battery levels.
Check the wattage of what you want to run before you pick an inverter; your gear won't run if it's underpowered.
8. Battery jumper-pack (extra points for one with a compressor)
[Around 1 cubic foot]
Tailgating often involves lights and sounds running when the truck's not, causing a lot of dead batteries. Jumper packs are prime for those moments. Plus it's nice to be able to help other stranded tailgaters without them scrambling under your hood with questionable cable-jumping skills.
Spring for a jumper pack with a little air compressor in it; they don't seem to take up more space and come in handy if you've dropped tire pressure for sand driving.
9. Chains, recovery straps; some system to rescue your rig
[Let's call it 5 cubic feet put away]
If you do any off-roading at all, it's important to be able to extract yourself from inevitable boggings. It's also cool to rescue fellow motorists.
Having your own recovery set that you're familiar with and know how to use makes the recovery process smoother and less stressful. Don't forget to figure out where you can clip a tow line to before you're stuck.
A winch might be the most versatile option, but they're not cheap. If you do go that route, make sure you practice with it before you hook up.
10. A lockable, watertight box to hold all that stuff
[Any size you please; or get a cap and make your whole bed a "box."]
When I drive a pickup, I tend to get frustrated with having heaps of cargo space but nowhere to put things I want dry if it rains. But not everyone's wild about the weight (or look) of a cap.
A really robust tool box or high-quality Pelican case can help you out with this and make a sitting bench as a bonus. But I've found that cheap plastic trunks from Target or wherever actually do a damn good job of keeping water off grilles and blankets for almost no money.
For casual theft mitigation I drill and bolt flanges to the case then padlock that to another flange on the truck bed. If someone really wants your stuff they can break the plastic, but I think most opportunistic thieves would give up as soon as the box didn't move when lifted.
Bonus: Air mattress (or pillows)
[Deflates to about 3 cubic feet]
An air mattress takes up a decent chunk of space and a little time to inflate. But if you're thinking of taking a special someone on a "tailgate for two" kinda date, everything's going to run a lot more smoothly if you've got a soft surface to lay on.
You can even pick up air mattresses that are form-fitted to the bed of some pickups, but they're a little more spendy.
Pillows are the worst thing to travel with no matter how much spare space you have. But while my bros never complain about the comfort of a tailgate-as-chair, all two women I've introduced to tailgating have suggested turning the truck into a mobile pillow fort. They might be on to something.