5 Portable Grills for All Your Outdoor Cooking Needs

It’s been about a year since my husband and I decided to move out of our city apartment to travel full-time in a trailer, exploring the country and visiting as many national parks as possible. Surprisingly, there aren’t many things I miss about a sticks-and-bricks home. We have a queen bed, a stove, an oven, a refrigerator and freezer, and even a flush toilet and shower on board. We’re not exactly roughing it. There is one thing we find ourselves fantasizing about often, though: a grill.

We’ve been craving the experience of standing outside, enjoying the sweet scent of charcoal smoke mixed with pine trees, holding a beer in one hand and tongs in the other, and that slightly charred flavor you can only get from cooking over fire. Making burgers in a pan in a stifling-hot camper is not the same. Not even close. Plus, it just feels right to grill at a campground.

So I started researching. Of course, living on the road comes with certain challenges, which meant whatever we picked would have to check a few important boxes. Space is limited, so any camp grill worthy of the rare real estate in the truck bed would need to pack up small. Cleanup also has to be simple, because when your vehicle is full, even small greasy messes can create big problems. And we often dry-camp, so we don’t have a ton of water to spare for cleaning. Last but not least, any portable grill worth using should still cook food efficiently and evenly.

We put the following travel models to the test (and ate a lot of meats and veggies) to figure out which grills are best for barbecuing on the road, whether you’re RVing full-time or car camping for the weekend.

Best for Technophiles and Gourmands

(Courtesy Traeger)

(Amy Winderl)

Traeger Ranger Pellet Grill ($400)

Like all pellet grills, which use ignited wood pellets and a system of fans, the Ranger gives everything a slightly smoky, wood-fired flavor. (Trade-off: it needs to be plugged in either to shore power or a generator.) If, like my husband, you enjoy splurging on high-quality meat and want to cook it precisely, the grill comes with all the features you need. The included temperature probe, which connects to the digital control panel on the front, made it easy to cook our pork tenderloin perfectly without opening the grill and letting out heat. The Ranger also functions as a miniature smoker. After pressing a button to set the temperature, we waited for the unit to preheat. (Every time you use the Ranger, it heats up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and then adjusts to the set temperature. This requires a lot of charge at first, but then less to keep it hot as your food cooks.) Then we threw on a couple of chicken breasts. Both smoking and grilling them resulted in juicy, flavorful meat. When we were done, the grill latched closed like a briefcase—though at 60 pounds, it doesn’t exactly feel like one.

This is a great option for anyone camping at an established campsite with a power source, people with 12-volt outlets in their cars, or those traveling with a generator or power station. Since we’re living on the road full-time and cooking virtually every meal, and since we have a few different power options, including a small generator, the Traeger has become our new go-to. We figured, why not go all out? On an off-grid testing mission, we ran it for an hour using our fully charged Jackery Explorer 500 power station, and it still had 82 percent of the total juice remaining when we were done. When we were connected to shore power at an RV campground, we plugged it right into the outlet on the outside of our camper.

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Best for a Crowd

(Courtesy Coleman)

(Amy Winderl)

Coleman RoadTrip 285 Portable Stand-Up Propane Grill ($250)

We tested this 20,000-BTU propane grill when we had family visiting and were able to cook enough chicken thighs and legs for six people. Out of the box, it took us less than five minutes to start up: simply attach a one-pound propane canister and push the autoignition to light the burners. Once the temperature gauge on top let us know that the grill was adequately heated, we loaded the 285-square-inch grate with all our meat at once. The three-burner setup made temperature adjustments easier than with a standard two-burner propane camp grill, so we were able to cook our food more evenly. Meanwhile, two foldout side tables were convenient for accommodating condiments and plates, since we didn’t have a picnic table or other surface available.

When you’re done grilling, collapse the legs with one simple motion, and wheel it back to your car (the whole thing is about the size of a small carry-on roller bag). The wheels and legs do stick out a bit beyond the actual grill when it’s folded. But since it lays flat, it fits nicely in the bed of our truck and doesn’t move around—meaning we don’t need to worry about damaging it or spilling any residual grease on other things. 

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Best for a Couple

(Courtesy Camp Chef)

(Amy Winderl)

Camp Chef Portable BBQ Grill ($130)

Sure, it’s smaller and a little more basic than the Coleman, but at 22 pounds, Camp Chef’s Portable BBQ grill is about half the weight. Its 200-square-inch cook surface is plenty for the two of us, and its 12,000-BTU double burner was enough to cook a few brats, zucchini, and corn. Like the Coleman RoadTrip 285, it took less than five minutes to set up and has a push-button ignition, but the rectangular configuration and slim fold-up legs may fit in a car trunk slightly better than the longer Coleman RoadTrip, depending on your setup—we were able to store it in the small compartment beneath the kitchenette inside our camper. The latches on the outside keep the grill shut during transport.

We’ve found that a simple, portable propane grill is great to have when we’re camping in national forests or other remote areas where we don’t have electric hookups and don’t need something very big. I wouldn’t want to cook a complex meal on it, but it’s perfect for burgers, hot dogs, and other basic barbecue foods. It’s also useful to have along if there’s a fire ban, since propane is usually still allowed in those situations.

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Best for Charcoal Lovers

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(Photo: Courtesy Weber)

Weber Smokey Joe Charcoal Grill ($35)

Charcoal grills don’t have the flashy features that pellet and some propane grills do, but that’s part of what makes them great. Plus, there are those who swear charcoal grills make meat taste better. The Smokey Joe was by far the most affordable, lightest (only nine pounds), and easiest to tote around of all the grills we tested. We relied on the lazy lighting method—covering charcoal in lighter fluid and lighting it with a match—and threw on some burgers once the charcoal was hot. If you’re not keen on using lighter fluid, which can impact the taste slightly, you can buy a chimney starter to get your charcoal hot and ready.

One downside to charcoal is that it requires a little more cleanup. The Smokey Joe makes it easy to remove the cooking grates, dump the charcoal, and wipe everything mostly clean. The carry handle latches across the lid to lock everything in place, so the grill won’t spew ash around the back of your car. The classic kettle shape is hard to position in a tightly packed vehicle, but we were able to fit it into the truck bed without a problem. 

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Best for Camp

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(Photo: Courtesy BioLite)

BioLite FirePit ($250)

If campfire cooking is more your style, this fire pit–grill combo from BioLite gives you a way to build a flame that’ll cook your food a little more precisely than your typical stone-circle setup, and without sprinkling it with bits of ash. How? A battery-powered system of fans stokes your fire with the touch of a button. We used it to prepare a few rib eyes, and the virtual temperature controls were helpful to get just the right amount of heat and flame out of our wood. When the steaks were done, we let the fire continue to burn and enjoyed it like a regular ol’ fire pit. (You can use both wood and briquettes.)

As long as the battery pack is charged, you don’t need to plug in the FirePit while you’re using it. Bonus: detach the battery pack when you’re done, and plug your phone into it to juice up.

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