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An excess of outdoor cooking space is nice to have, but it's not a prerequisite for a summer of good grilling. You can make great things happen with a quality small, portable grill fueled by propane, electricity or charcoal. These smaller grills will do double duty if you're the adventuring type since many can be slipped into the back of a car or even over your should to keep you well-fed on all those summer jaunts. 

Speaking of which, this is shaping up to be a big summer for safe outdoor activities and on-the-go travel. For most of us who've been cooped up all winter -- or longer -- getting outside is of high priority as the weather warms. The best grill for camping, hiking, road trips or beach days depends a bit on the sort of grilling you do, how many people you're cooking for and how mobile you need to be. But one thing is true: A day on the sand, in the woods or out at the park is made inarguably better by the presence of a small, portable grill to char all your summer barbecue favorites

Portable grills are perfect for campers, city folks living in apartments and anyone without a big backyard or who's often on the move. Finding a reliable portable grill that works for your limited space or nomadic lifestyle takes a little research and not all mobile grills are created equally, so we're sussing out the best small outdoor cookers and portable grills available in 2021.

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David Watsky/CNET

In general, gas or propane grills make for the best portable grills since they're clean, easy and fast to get fired up. Charcoal is a fine alternative but it's heavier, a bit messier and takes longer to light. Small electric grills are also an option and while they sound great, remember you might not always have access to power, especially if you're camping or spending a day in the park. Plus, you won't get any of that flame-grilled goodness since there's no, well, flame. 

There are countless brands with small or portable grills and various styles to choose from. Some fold up and are light enough to carry on a long hike while others we'd define as semi-portable and though they can be moved, will have some heft and are probably best transported by car. 

To cover all my barbecue bases, I tested some of the most popular portable gas grills, charcoal grills and hibachis, electric grills, pellet grills and even solar ovens to find the best in class and help you choose a small grill that will suit your barbecue plans this spring and summer. I've considered the total square inches of grilling space and capacity, how hot each grill gets and how well it maintains that heat. I also evaluated the ease of assembly and overall sturdiness of each grill along with the quality of the frame and grill grates, once they're assembled. Finally, the ultimate test: I cooked a variety of meat, fish, meat substitutes and vegetables on each to see how the portable grills performed in their most critical of duties.

No matter how mobile your lifestyle, there is a great small grill to make it that much tastier. Here are the best portable grills in 2021.

Weber

This sleek portable gas grill from Weber is superior in almost every category and was a fairly clear winner as the best portable grill overall. It's easy to assemble, with just a few parts, and once completed feels solid and sturdy, even when given a few vigorous shakes. The igniter works well and, once lit, the grill got hot, reaching its advertised 500 degrees Fahrenheit after just 15 minutes with the lid closed. The flame is easy to control and keeps a consistent temperature throughout cooking, even when grilling with the flame turned low. 

With 189 square inches of cooking surface, this grill was not the biggest on the list, but it's plenty big enough to cook burgers, chicken, fish, and veggies for a group of six hungry people. It's also nice-looking with flare-out trays to hold your plates and grilling tools, plus an ergonomic design. It comes in a bunch of fun colors, or jet black if you prefer. Despite its sturdy build, the Q-1200 is still light and limber enough for a camping grill to take on a camping trip or for one person to carry with relative ease. This grill, like all on the list, can use any small propane tank sold at most camping or hardware stores.

NomadiQ

While all the grills on this list are portable to some degree, certain models are decidedly more portable than others. The NomadiQ portable propane grill folds up into a case the size of a small bag, with easy-grab handles. It weighs just 12 pounds, making it the most portable gas grill I tested.

So how did it actually work? Pretty darn well I have to say. Setup was a snap -- you just unhinge the sides and the entire thing opens up like a clamshell. The grilling space is large too with 226 square inches of ceramic-coated nonstick grates.

At under 10,000 BTUs, it didn't get quite as screaming hot as my top pick -- the Weber Q -- but it is decidedly more compact and easier to transport. Though the grill has a large cooking area, some parts of the nonstick grill surface got much hotter than others, but they did so in a consistent fashion so you simply have to learn where the real heat comes from and where the cooler spots are (mostly around the edges and middle). 

The NomadiQ grill is not particularly cheap clocking in at $300, but if you want something that is truly portable -- I mean, you could bring this on a last-minute trip to the beach without breaking a sweat -- this is the perfect small gas grill.

GoBQ

While the Weber Original Kettle may have taken the top spot in CNET's list of best charcoal grills, this newcomer is my pick for the best portable charcoal grill. 

Carrying a dusty, dirty charcoal grill around isn't an attractive proposition, but the creators of the GoBQ have mostly solved the issue through intelligent design. The entire unit folds out and up in about 20 seconds and then wraps up again after you're done, securing all the nasty cooked charcoal. 

It's only nine pounds, and with the fitted carrying case can be slung right over your shoulder and taken out for grilling on the go. This take-anywhere charcoal grill is probably the most portable of all the grills I tested and is perfect for campers or hikers who need a small, portable grill while on the move. 

The GoBQ also performed well, cultivating a steady and hot fire, and has a robust 185 square inches of grilling space. There are no bells and whistles on this grill, so you'll have to adjust and maintain the fire as you would most charcoal fires or campfires -- with a careful flow of oxygen and good charcoal management. It's a little more expensive than some on the market, but it's built to last. If you want portable charcoal grilling in a truly portable package, this is the best grill to buy. 

Wayfair

This portable gas grill from trusty kitchen brand Cuisinart has foldable legs and a twist start ignition. It has a decently sized 145 square inches of grilling surface with an easy-to-clean porcelain grilling grate (which is a lot handier than having to buy new grates). It uses natural gas tanks and ignites quickly with a steady and consistent flame.  However, it was ultimately less powerful than the Weber (just 5,500 BTUs), topping out around 450 F. It didn't maintain its heat quite as well but wasn't terrible in that regard either.

The Cuisinart gas grill is definitely lighter and a bit more portable than the Weber. It also feels slightly less sturdy while grilling, but is not flimsy by any means. It was equally easy to assemble. At just over $100, it is the best portable grill on a budget -- especially if you don't plan to use it more than a handful of times per summer. The Cuisinart portable grill also runs on any small propane tank you can find at camping or hardware stores.

Weber

Surely you've seen -- or possibly even owned -- one of these little guys in the past. The Weber Smokey Joe is a staple at park cookouts and on camping trips and that's for good reason. It's simple yet very soundly designed, doesn't take much skill to operate and works great. 

The Smokey Joe doesn't have many fancy features but it has what you need including ventilation dampers that allow you to control the temperature with ease and the body is made from enameled porcelain which keeps it from rusting. This Premium model has a built-in lid rack so you don't have to put the grill cover on the ground while you're flipping burgers and chicken.

Charcoal, with its inherent messiness, may not be ideal depending on your portable grill needs but this is a workhorse that will get the job done and last you a good while. Plus, it clocks in at a budget-friendly $48 (for the black model), making it my pick for the best cheap portable charcoal grill.

GoSun

Perhaps you didn't even know this was a category. Well, it is and these GoSun solar-powered grills actually work pretty well. When I tested it, it got scorching hot and cooked chicken thighs, sausage, fish and veggies all in under 25 minutes or less. 

This solar oven requires no charcoal, propane or any fuel source (hooray for the environment!) and is super light and transportable. It's a perfect camping cooker except remember you do need sunlight to function so I don't rely solely on this for eating if you're heading into the woods for an extended period. 

The big drawback with this nifty portable oven is its cooking capacity. Since food has to be loaded into a tube, you can't really cook many of the traditional barbecue meats such as ribs. Some foods such as burgers need to be formed into a more cylindrical or elongated shape to fit inside -- which is not a big deal -- and the device is perfect for cooking hot dogs, most veggies, fish and chicken which slide in with ease.

Also worth noting, that you'll be getting more of a baked or broiled result versus a traditional grill since there is no actual flame, so don't expect char marks on your oblong burgers. There are a few solar grill sizes, including this mid-size GoSun Go but also the larger GoSun Survival if you're planning on cooking for a group.

Akorn

This small kamado from Char-Griller is small enough to take for portable charcoal grilling on the go but just clunky and heavy enough (37 pounds) that you might not want to. It's also top-heavy, which makes for more precarious car-packing.  

One thing to love about this model, however, is the damper adjustments that allow you to control airflow and, in turn, the heat for more precise grilling. (This is not something every charcoal grill has). The Akorn Jr. charcoal grill got hotter than any other grill I tested, which is not surprising since charcoal grills often do. The shape and style of this grill make it very good for heat retention, heat distribution and evenness of grilling. It has a relatively small 153 square inch primary cooking area, but with its tight-locking lid and egg shape that circulates heat, the Akorn Jr. is a great grill choice if you do lots of low and slow cooking, such as pork ribs or barbecue brisket. 

Some folks mentioned having trouble with assembly and misaligned parts in verified purchase reviews. I did not experience this, and the model came together in less than 30 minutes. It was not the easiest of them all to assemble but not so complicated as to dissuade you from buying it and, once assembled, felt compact and sturdy to the touch.

BioLite

This multifunctional charcoal grill doubles as a wood-burning fire pit, and it even features a small fan attachment to blow smoke out of your face for comfort. You can also use the lower fan setting to help get charcoal going or kindling for a fire lit and save yourself some fanning and blowing. 

The overall design is smart and functional. The fan did indeed cut down on smoke blowing in my eyes and both the charcoal and wood burned nicely giving me both food and then warmth after dinner as I sipped a nightcap. It also functioned well as a grill with good ventilation to keep the coals hot -- although the cooking capacity is on the small side. It wasn't obvious at first but the coal tray raises up to get closer to the grill grates so you can achieve a hibachi-like close heat source with this grill or keep the coal bed low and cook at a lower temp.

I wanted to love this model because the concept is great but it does have some flaws. For one, it feels a little bit cheap and I read in several reviews that it can rust and peel over time, confirming my suspicion. Also, the grill grates are thin stainless steel where I would have preferred nonstick ceramic or iron. On the plus side, it's light and portable considering its size. And it's perfect for going from cooking a barbecue dinner to a post-meal fire pit session.

If you like the look of this and need a fire pit on top of a charcoal grill, I say go for it. But be aware that it might not last for as long as you want it to.

Kenyon

This is a fully electric grill built into what looks like a traditional gas grill unit. Many apartment buildings, even those with outdoor spaces and verandas, don't allow gas or charcoal grills that heat with actual fire. If that's the case, this is the perfect grill to sidestep those rules. 

What I love about this electric grill versus other griddles or similar units is how searingly hot it gets and how fast it gets there. Though you're not going to get the flame-broiled flavor of a gas or charcoal grill, you will get a comparable char and sear. Because it's an electric grill, its cooking surface area is also naturally going to maintain a more consistent temperature. I didn't notice any cold spots during my cooking test.

I also like that this electric grill has a grill plate that's easily removed for cleaning. It's big (252 square inches of grilling space) and sturdy enough so it feels like a real grill, but not so big that you can't move it. There is also almost no assembly required -- just slotting the grill plates into the base and plugging it in. This unit is not cheap, clocking in at over $600, but the brand does have a smaller, less powerful but more affordable grilling model -- the Kenyon City Grill -- available online for $475.

Casus

Single-use grills exist, and while they may not be the most practical option for every day use, if you have one long hike planned and want to do some grilling, this is a good option. The Casus grill can only be used once, of course, but it actually gets fairly hot in about five minutes and stays lit for over an hour. It also has enough space to cook three or four burgers, sausages, dogs, veggies or chicken. 

If you're worried about the garbage pile factor, this grill is actually 100% biodegradable made with bamboo charcoal cakes on a bamboo grate, so you could technically bury it after use without harming the earth or the creatures around. Note, that you should remove as much grease as possible before burying the grill.

Amazon

If you're looking for something simple and reliable to achieve a grill-like experience but while still using your stovetop as a heat source, I would recommend this cast iron griddle from Lodge. This griddle works wonders when you have steaks and burgers to grill but no outdoor space to fire up a traditional grill. Cast iron gets scorching hot and retains heat exceedingly well, so you'll be able to mimic the grill marks and sear of an open-flame situation. Plus, it's a steal at under $50.

How I tested the grills 

Cooking

To evaluate these grills I assembled each one from scratch and then cooked an array of foods at various temperatures to see how they performed. Foods cooked included steak and burgers, which do best with a hot sear. I also cooked chicken breasts, which appreciates a hot grill to get those outer marks and retain juices but ultimately requires a lower and more consistent heat to cook the chicken through without burning the outside. I also tested more delicate foods like fish, mushrooms and Beyond Meat (plant-based) to see how the grills performed at lower temps, but also to see how the different grill plates would handle more delicate foods.

Temperature and control

Temperature control is crucial with any grill. It's a little-known secret that the built-in thermometers on most grills don't work well, so I used a standard kitchen thermometer to see how hot things got and how well they held that heat. Most grills performed about as well as advertised, with some topping out at as much as 100 F hotter than others. The better grills also generally ended up reading out a more consistent temperature throughout cooking. (Temperature consistency is important, especially if you don't plan to be chained to your grill for the entire cooking process.) I not only measured the temperature of the grill but also their consistency at it holding temperatures -- both high and low temps -- and flagged when there were issues. 

Assembly and sturdiness

I also took into account ease of assembly and how sturdy a grill felt once it was assembled (for those that required assembly). Though the limits of a pesky time-space continuum would not allow me to measure the quality or durability of each grill over time, there were sight and touch tests employed to help determine how hefty and hearty a grill was. I also dug through verified purchase reviews to determine if any had any consistent or glaring wear-and-tear issues to be concerned about. 

grills
David Watsky/CNET

Other small grills I tested

PKGO Charcoal Grill This was a very solid charcoal grill and the only reason it dropped off of the main list is because of how heavy it is. Though it's a manageable size, at 35 pounds it's a little heavier than a grill I'd personally want to be lugging around. The PKGO it's solidly built and has a very cool dual function where the lid pops off and flips over into a hibachi so you can actually double your cooking surface and get that close-to-the-coals hibachi seer if you're looking for it. If you don't mind a little extra weight on your grill

Giantex tabletop propane grill: I had no major issues with this grill. It worked fine, got hot and cooked evenly. When compared to the Weber Q and NomadiQ I simply like the design of those small gas grills better. The Weber Q is more solid and has those handy built-in shelves while the NomadiQ is simply the most portable gas grill I've ever seen. That said, this is a fine grill and worthy of the $170 price.

Char-Broil Portable Gas Grill: This grill is cheap and the product matches the price tag. It was rickety, once assembled, and didn't feel like it would last more than a season -- but for $33 what more could you really hope for? If you just need something to get you through a camping weekend or two, this should do the trick.

Char-Broil: Char-Broil Deluxe Tabletop Grill: While the above Char-Broil might work as a no-nonsense budget grill, this model is way too poorly designed and crafted to waste $90 on. One of the worst bangs for your buck in the small grill category and a definite stay away.

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