13 Genius Ideas for an Effortless Outdoor Party

Carry out these chores ahead of time, and you can spend your party...well, partying.

Photo: Getty Images

The best kind of outdoor party has cute decor and outdoor games, sure. But it also has plenty of food, drinks, and a slew of functional features to keep guests cool and comfortable, including enough furniture and dependable outdoor lighting.

Sound daunting? It doesn't have to be. Here's how to plan a stress-free backyard party where everyone will have fun and no one will get eaten alive by mosquitos.

01 of 13

Tell Guests What to Expect

Party invitations
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When it comes to the invitations for your summer BBQ, specify when they'll be eating. Avoid refiring the grill for latecomers with something like: "The grill master will be slinging grub from 6 to 7. Come and get it!"

Another biggie: Give a heads-up on attire. Shorts? Tank top? Sundress? Give guests a sense of the vibe: "You wear the flip-flops; we'll flip the burgers" or "Bring your swimsuits!"

02 of 13

Calculate How Much Food You'll Need

summer-barbecue-calculator: grill with food on it
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Take the guesswork out of how many buns to buy and how much potato salad to make with our simple BBQ party calculator. The general rule: Guests will have 1 ½ servings of any burger, hot dog, or sandwich, and 1 ½ cups total of whatever sides you're serving.

03 of 13

Mix Up a Big Batch Cocktail

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Assume each of your party guests will drink 1 ½ alcoholic drinks per hour. Hosting over 25 guests? Plan to serve 2 ½ gallons of a pitcher-style cocktail to ensure the drinks keep flowing with the least amount of hosting effort. Our favorite: a two-ingredient Tom Collins.

04 of 13

Have Enough Seats

Outdoor table and chairs with hanging lights
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So you have 25 guests and only five patio chairs? Assess your indoor furniture. The easiest option is to press dining chairs into service, along with any drum stools or poufs. If you're keeping things casual, you can let people gather on pretty quilts or picnic blankets on the ground.

Renting can be another surprisingly cheap way to go. Folding chairs start as low as $2 each. (You may also be able to rent coolers, speakers, tableware, and a bigger grill.) Many vendors will even drop off and pick up, so all you have to round up is the guests and good cheer.

05 of 13

Hang String Lights or Lanterns

Umbrella with paper lanterns
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Don't leave guests in the dark. All you need is a little ambient lighting, says Jimmy Duhig, the owner of Creative Lighting Design in San Francisco: "If you're outside while it's getting dark, your eyes will adjust."

Just hang strands of outdoor string lights on the deck, the fence, and even tree branches, and add some hurricane lanterns or tealights. Duhig recommends globe string lights and elegant round bulbs that give off a warm glow. "This is what you always see strung overhead at outdoor dinner parties on TV," he says.

If you need to run extension cords through the yard, says Duhig, snip old wire hangers with a wire cutter and bend them into skinny U-shaped pegs (like croquet wickets, but only an inch or two wide). Then arc them over the cords and hammer them flush into the ground.

06 of 13

Make Decor Double as Entertainment

Rainbow piñata

Skip going overboard on decor and invest in a festive piñata that doubles as an activity for guests. From flamingos to hula girls, they come in all shapes and sizes so you can fit the mood of your party. "Fill it with dollar-store items in one color. Monochromatic always looks chic," says Clark. "Buy things people can wear, like sunglasses and necklaces. It will make fun photographs."

Other fun prizes: lottery tickets and—especially for a pool party—mini water pistols. A portable wood-burning fire pit not only adds ambiance but also provides the perfect set-up for toasting marshmallows for DIY s'mores.

07 of 13

Get Rid of Standing Water

Backyard with bug repellent torches
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Bugs are the ultimate summer party crasher. The biggest tip for keeping mosquitos away? Empty any standing water lurking in your yard. "That's where mosquitoes breed," says Laura Harrington, an associate professor of entomology at Cornell University. "The week before the party, empty out the kiddie pool, the rain gutters, and any rainwater that has collected in the bottoms of flowerpots."

Place insect-repellant incense sticks in glass jars, place them on tables around your yard, and light them just before the party begins. Or consider buying a rechargeable mosquito-repellent device.

08 of 13

Plug in Some Fans

Box Fan and Air Purifier

Fans are also a great way to keep bugs away. "Mosquitoes are weak flyers, so even if a fan is set on low, it can create enough airflow to keep them away," says Harrington. This works best in a small area, like a deck, where you can set up two or three box fans around your guests. It's also a good idea to put a tabletop fan near the salads.

09 of 13

Offer Back-Up Bug Wipes

Skin So Soft Bug Guard + Picaridin Towelettes 8's (Basic)

Still worried? Make sure to have bug spray or insect repellent wipes on hand for guests who want some extra protection. "Look for products that contain the repellent picaridin instead of DEET," says Harrington. "DEET can degrade synthetic fabrics, damaging clothing."

10 of 13

Master the Party Music Playlist

Radio with party cups
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We tapped Michael Antonia, the owner of the Flashdance, a production company in Los Angeles, for his best playlist tips. He recommends going heavy on the classics: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson—songs that people recognize. Keep it upbeat, and mix in some newer tunes here and there. "I like Bon Iver, Beach House, White Stripes, and Elliott Smith," says Antonia.

And when it comes to playlist length, plan for five hours. "Most parties aren't going to last longer than that, and if there's anyone who realizes the playlist has started over at hour six, well, they probably need another drink."

11 of 13

Don't Crank the Speakers

Hudson Grace Kitchen Speaker

Sure, your playlist will be great. But no one will want to stand near your speakers if they're blaring. The best setup is four or more speakers, spread out and set at a lower volume.

"If you're using a boom box or an iPod dock, place it above ear level so it's not blasting directly at guests' heads," says Antonia. "And turn it toward the side of the house—you can make it a little louder and the sound will spread out better."

Another option? Go cordless and opt for Bluetooth speakers, which are great for outdoor spaces. Just place your phone inside, and it will amplify your tunes instantly.

12 of 13

Keep Guests Cool in Hot Weather

Beverages on ice
Stefan Thurmann/Picture Press/Getty Images

Wondering how to survive the sweltering heat? Ice-cold compresses are a great hack. Buy a pack of inexpensive washcloths from a low-cost store, roll each up and secure them with a rubber band, then toss them into a cooler of ice water for guests to grab. (The best cooling points are the neck and wrists, where large arteries run close to the skin.)

Another option: Hand fans or classic paddle fans are both available to buy in bulk and look pretty placed in a big basket

13 of 13

Invest in a Few Outdoor Toys

Kid playing on slip n slide

Provide some diversions for the kids so the grown-ups can kick back with the sangría: blowing bubbles, a sprinkler or a Slip 'n Slide, and beach balls. You can also buy a few inexpensive disposable cameras and let kids serve as official event photographers.

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