Abstract Pre-drinking (e.g., pre-gaming, pre-loading) occurs frequently among young adult and college-aged drinkers and is associated with increased intoxication as well as alcohol-related problems. The purpose of the following study was to examine pre-drinking behaviors in situ, and to test whether drinking intentions mediate the relationship between heavy episodic drinking history and pre-drinking behaviors. We randomly selected a sample of 1040 young adults bar patrons at 32 bars in a major metropolitan city in Southern California and asked participants to complete an interview concerning drinking behavior as well as provide a breath sample used to measure breath alcohol concentration. We used multilevel path analysis to test two meditational models. Results showed drinking intentions mediated the relationship between heavy episodic drinking history and pre-drinking behavior as well as the relationship between heavy episodic drinking history and level of pre-drinking intoxication. Gender did not moderate these meditational relationships suggesting similar pre-drinking behaviors for both men and women. Potential methods to prevent pre-drinking behaviors in this population of young people are discussed.