What to Do if Your Charcoal Grill Won’t Stay Lit

Photo of author
Matt Richard

Charcoal grills are known for imparting food with an authentic smokey barbecue flavor. However, it can be a major headache if your charcoal grill won’t stay lit.

Regardless of whether you have a Masterbuilt, Char-Broil, Pit Boss, Weber (or any other brand), you can encounter this issue from time to time.

Keep reading to learn all the tips to get your cookout back on track.

Key Takeaway

If your charcoal grill doesn’t stay lit, try stacking the charcoal and light the bottom layer so the fire can move upwards. Remember, it takes 15 minutes for the charcoal to start burning before you can put your food on the grill.

Troubleshooting Steps if Your Charcoal Grill Keeps Going Out

Charcoal grills are inherently less complicated than their gas and electric counterparts. However, multiple factors still affect whether your grill will stay burning for the entire cooking time.

Ensure You Have Enough Charcoal to Sustain Fire

Charcoal is the fuel for your grill. If you don’t have enough of it, then the fire won’t last.

As a general rule, use about 30 charcoal briquettes for a small portable grill and 50-75 briquettes for a large grill. [1]

If you’re using a charcoal chimney, you can fill it as follows:

  • 1/4 full for low and slow
  • 1/2 to 3/4 full for roasting
  • Fill to the top for searing

Remember to prepare this approximately 30 minutes before you start cooking, as the charcoal needs to burn for about 15 minutes before it’s ready.

You’ll know the charcoal is ready to use when the smoke changes from gray and thick to thin and clear or blue.

When you put the charcoal onto the grate, don’t just spread it all over. Instead, put the charcoal onto half the grate and leave the other half empty.

Burning charcoal on one side of the grate ensures you have a cool-down or safe space for your food in case it gets too hot. This cool-down space prevents your food from burning.

Stack the Charcoal So the Fire Burns Evenly and Consistently

In addition to the quantity of charcoal you’re using, where you place it on the grill grate is also vital. If you spread the charcoal without stacking it, you’ll have difficulty maintaining the flame.

Pro Tip

Stacking charcoal into a mound or pyramid allows the briquettes to touch each other on all sides so the fire spreads easier. If you lay the charcoal out as a single layer, the surface area contact decreases, and the fire won’t spread as quickly.

One of the best ways to light charcoal in a stacked position is with a chimney starter.

A chimney starter is a tube-shaped device with a grate in the bottom to hold the coals and allow air to flow through. And, of course, there’s a handle on the side, so you don’t touch the hot chimney.

How to use a chimney starter:

  1. Crumple a piece of newspaper and place it in the chimney
  2. Fill the chimney with your desired amount of charcoal
  3. Place the chimney on the grill and light it from the bottom.

The flames then travel upwards through the charcoal, causing the other briquettes to catch fire.

Ensure you wear shoes that cover your toes (not sandals) when pouring hot charcoal into the grill. Proper footwear will protect your feet if some charcoal falls out and lands on them.

Open the Vents So Oxygen Enters the Chamber and Fuels Fire

While charcoal is the “fuel” for a charcoal grill, it still requires oxygen to burn. That’s where the vents on your grill come into play.

The vents allow oxygen to enter the chamber and fuel the fire, so getting a sustained blaze going will be challenging if they’re closed or blocked.

To get your grill up to the desired temperature, you’ll need to completely open the vents so oxygen can enter the mix.

If the vents are fully closed (and the lid is on), your flame may burn out.

Once you’ve reached your desired heat level, you can partially close the vents. At this point, you can put your food on the grates to begin cooking.

How to position the vents while cooking:

  • Low and slow: leave vents 1/4 open
  • Roasting: leave vents half open
  • Searing: leave vents fully open

Use Quality Charcoal That’s Dry and Properly Stored

Charcoal is porous, so it absorbs moisture quickly. And if it’s wet, it won’t light properly.

The charcoal won’t catch fire and produce the desired smoke until the dampness reaches a boiling point and evaporates.

So for the best results, store charcoal in an airtight container away from wet environments.

While keeping a charcoal bin near your grill may be convenient, there are better options. Instead, it would help if you stored it someplace dry in an airtight container.

Pro Tip

Try this simple test to determine if your charcoal is too wet: Place a small handful of briquettes in a metal bowl and set it on fire.

If the briquettes produce a lot of smoke and steam instead of flickering flames, they’re too wet and won’t light properly.

The type of charcoal you use is also important. There are two main types:

  • Briquettes: made of sawdust and other wood scraps bound together with a binder. [2]
  • Lump charcoal: pieces of charred wood that light more efficiently and burn hotter than briquettes. [2]

Use lump charcoal if you’re experiencing difficulties with your fire going out.

Additionally, the quality of the charcoal you use matters. Opt for natural hardwood charcoal briquettes instead of the cheaper, quick-lighting options.

The latter are often made with chemicals and additives that can give your food an off-putting flavor.

How to Accommodate for the Weather Conditions

Although grilling is more fun when the weather is nice (at least in my experience), there are other times you can do it. Nevertheless, remember to consider the effect weather can have on your cookout.

Windy Conditions Can Become Dangerous and Difficult When Grilling With Charcoal

It’s challenging to grill while large gusts of wind are blowing.

Remember that wind can cause your grill to heat up more quickly, so be extra careful when working with open flames in windy conditions.

Likewise, too much wind can cause your charcoal grill to keep going out. [3]

If your grill is small and portable, you can move it to a less exposed location before lighting it. However, avoid operating your grill beside trees or a wooden fence. This setup poses a severe fire risk.

Pro Tip

A better option is to use a windscreen. This apparatus helps block the wind from your grill by acting as a wall, preventing the fire from extinguishing.

You can buy a commercial windscreen or make your own out of tinfoil.

For the DIY version, loosely crumple up the foil and place it around the edge of the grill. Remember to leave enough space between the foil and the grill.

Grilling With Charcoal in Extremely Cold Weather Makes It Challenging to Maintain a Consistent Temperature

There are two reasons why using a charcoal grill in extremely cold weather is difficult.

  1. It’s hard to get the charcoal lit (and stay burning).
  2. The charcoal’s temperature can drop quickly

The best way to overcome this is to use a chimney starter and light the charcoal so it starts burning before putting the briquettes onto the grate.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still have a few unanswered questions about troubleshooting your charcoal grill? Check out the FAQs below.

Do You Have to Wait for All Charcoal to Turn White?

Before putting your food on the grill, you should wait until 2/3 of the charcoal has turned white and the smoke changes from white to clear or blue. This way, your food will cook evenly. This timeframe can take to up to 15 minutes.

Should the Bottom Vents on a Grill Be Open?

When starting your charcoal grill, keep the bottom vents open, so air can enter and fuel the flame. You can partially close the vents once reaching your desired cooking temperature.

Is It OK to Relight Charcoal?

Yes, you can reuse charcoal as long as it’s in solid pieces and dry. If you plan to reuse charcoal, you can store it in a metal container, such as a chimney starter.

Final Thoughts

There are many reasons your charcoal grill won’t stay lit, from the type of charcoal (and how you stack it) to the weather conditions outside.

It’s important to consider all possible causes and follow each troubleshooting step in this guide until you resolve the issue.

With a few tricks up your sleeve, you can quickly get your charcoal grill burning again and cook delicious meals with that beloved authentic smokey flavor.

Photo of author
Hey, I'm Matt Hollingshead, a BBQ enthusiast, beer connoisseur, and the founder of Grill Mentor. When I'm not trying new recipes with my Traeger or sampling a craft beer, I'm publishing articles for this site.

You May Also Like...