How to Keep a Charcoal Grill Lit (11 Fail-Proof BBQ Tips)

By Joshua Davis •  Updated: 04/10/22 •  8 min read

Note: This guide assumes that a traditional charcoal grill is in use requiring matches or an external lighter rather than grills with electric starters.

Grilling is a summer favorite for many, but it can easily turn into a disaster when the fire keeps going out and you have to start all over again.

This problem is so frustrating, especially when you’re cooking for a large group of people. You spend all that time getting the grill ready, and then the fire keeps going out!

A struggle those gas grill folks just don’t get.

Outdoor Family HQ has your back. In this guide about the best way to get a charcoal grill to stay lit, we will teach you helpful tricks to make sure your fire lights and stays lit the first time, and other useful information about grilling with charcoal.

Fail-Proof Steps for Lighting a Charcoal Grill

Lighting a charcoal barbecue or grill can sometimes be a lengthy process; but, with the right tools and techniques, it can be a breeze. Here are the steps you need to follow to have a successful cookout:

1.) Clean Your Grill

Before you do anything, make sure your grill is clean. This means removing any old ashes, grease build-up, or leftover food from previous cookouts.

Pro Tip: Cleaning your grill should actually take place AFTER each time you use it. This will prevent unnecessary corrosion and lengthen the life of your grill.

Debris from previous grilling sessions affects the flow of oxygen to the fuel, making it difficult to keep it lit and to control temperature via the grill vents.

This is especially true if you’re using a charcoal grill that is stationary like the ones you’d find while you’re camping.

2.) Choose Your Charcoal

There are several different types of charcoal on the market, so it’s important to select the one that is best suited for your needs.

If you’re looking for a quick and easy start, opt for self-lighting charcoal. This type of charcoal is treated with a chemical that helps it light quickly and easily.

Pro Tip: Chemically treated charcoal has a downside: the chemicals don’t just dissipate when the charcoal burns. The chemical residue coats the cooking grate of the grill (and your food) and can end up affecting the taste and aroma of your food.

Briquettes are made of charcoal, coal dust, and binding agents. They are easy to light and produce a long-lasting, steady heat making them great for all-day grilling.

Briquettes mostly burn with cooler heat. Because of their higher BTU content, they produce little ash and so are ideal for indirect “low and slow” cooking or closed appliance barbecues. They also make temperature regulation easier.

The healthiest grill fuel and the universal choice of grill masters, lump charcoal is made of natural hardwood that has been charred, cracked, and sorted.

Lump charcoal is the purest form of barbecue fuel and imparts the most flavor to food. No chemicals, no binding agents. Just pure, simple, quality charcoal.

Hardwood charcoal heats faster and produces a hotter fire than briquettes; so, you can get the food on the grill grates faster and achieve a deeper sear and better flavor. It produces little ash, so you won’t have to clean your grill as often.

Also, it responds well to changes in airflow, making it easier for you to adjust the temperature with the grill vents.

The drawbacks: lighting and maintaining a grill fire with this fuel takes practice and patience. It doesn’t burn as long as briquettes and is a pricier fuel.

3.) Arrange Your Coals

Once you’ve chosen your fuel, it’s time to start arranging your coals.

The simplest way to successfully light charcoal the first time is by using a charcoal chimney. We recommend the Weber RapidFire Chimney Starter. Also, select a non-toxic lighting aid, such as newspaper or the charcoal bag itself (if it’s paper).

Another, more convenient option is Weber’s Lighter Cubes. These are odorless, non-toxic fire starters that won’t affect the taste or smell of the food.

Pro Tip: Sure, you can always use lighter fluid; however, like the chemicals in quick-start briquettes, chemical residue will coat your grate and food, compromising taste and aroma. The easiest way is definitely not the best way!

Remove the grate of your grill and place the chimney starter in the center of the grill.

Bunch up two pieces of newspaper, the charcoal bag, or lighter cubes in the bottom of the chimney starter. Pile charcoal on top of the paper, mixing in some wood chips if you want to increase the smoky flavor.

Pro Tip: How much charcoal you require depends on what you’re cooking, how much you’re cooking, and how long you plan to grill. A little research is in order here.

4.) Starting the Fire

Light the newspaper or cubes. Then, DON’T WALK AWAY!

Watch the charcoal burn. Once the lighting aid has burned off, you should see smoke and clear ripples of heat emanating from the coals, indicating that the coals have caught.

Pro Tip: It can take 15-20 minutes before your coals reach a high heat of 500-550° and are ready to be shaken from the chimney starter. They’re ready when you can see smoke and heat ripples and the coals are about 50% burned with white ash around the edges.

5.) Arrange the Coals and Allow the Grill to Heat Evenly

Shake the burning coals from the chimney, making sure to spread them evenly creating a consistent heat source throughout the grill.

Right away, place the hot chimney somewhere safe where pets and people won’t accidentally brush up against it.

Use tongs to move any unlit charcoal to the center of the smoldering lumps; it will catch eventually.

Replace the grill grate and wait a few minutes for the grill to heat up to cooking temperature and adjust it with the bottom vents, which will vary depending on what you’re cooking.

Once you have acquired the desired temperature, replace the grill lid and adjust the top vents as needed.

You did it! Whose the Grill Master, now?!

Most Common Mistakes When Lighting Charcoal Grills

Mistake 1: Dependence on Quick-Lighting Chemicals

Charcoal grilling is a skill that takes time and patience to master. When you’re new to the craft, it’s okay to take advantage of the convenience of treated briquettes and lighter fluid, just remember, with every squirt of that lighter fluid, you’re introducing chemicals into your food, undermining your hard work to create a robust, flavorful meal.

Oh, and no one is ever impressed by the lighter-fluid guy.

Mistake 2: Don’t Use a Chimney Starter

The convenient, uniform shape of briquettes makes it easy to build the shape of a pyramid that is best for getting those buggers to light; but, keeping that pyramid from falling over for 15-20 minutes is no one’s idea of a good time.

Charcoal Chimney starters are inexpensive, very effective, and do not compromise the quality of your food. Get one!

Mistake 3: Don’t Clean the Grill

It’s easy to get lazy after all of that hard work you did grilling dinner for everyone; but, neglecting to clean your grill increases the corrosion of the grill’s components and compromises the proper flow of air the next time you’re ready for a cookout.

Also, when enough ash and drippings accumulate in the bottom of the grill, it can solidify and harden, making it more difficult to clean.

Once you’ve let that grease build up, you’re setting yourself up for charcoal grill fire or flare-up. Before you know it, your expensive steaks are as black as charcoal.

Do your future self a favor: clean it out, even if it’s going to be a long time before your grill again.

Mistake 4: Hot Grill Phobia

There’s nothing more amusing than watching a grilling novice try to ignite a grill by tossing in flaming matches from 5 feet away. That’s quality entertainment!

Yes, fire is hot. But, lighting a charcoal grill is an intimate process requiring you to be up close and personal.

If you don’t want a fireball singeing off your eyebrows, lay off the lighter fluid! You don’t need it!

Mistake 5: Poor Planning

Do you have the time to wait for the charcoal to heat up properly? Do you know how much meat you’ll be grilling and the amount of charcoal you’ll need to see it through? Will you need two chimneys worth of charcoal to get the job done?

Our ancestors figured all this out without the internet. You have the internet at your disposal. So, what’s the excuse for poor planning?

Mistake 6: Dump the Coals Randomly

Get a grill mitt or tongs that can handle touching the coals directly. Once you have shaken them from the chimney, arrange them strategically.

If you are grilling over direct heat, spread them evenly along the grill bottom to prevent cool spots.

If indirect heat is required, position the hot coals in two zones on the opposite ends of the grill, away from the center where the meat will be.

Wrapping Up Keeping a Charcoal Grill Lit

Lighting a charcoal grill need not be an intimidating task. By following these simple steps and avoiding the most common mistakes for how to keep a charcoal grill lit, you’ll be grilling up burgers, steaks, and hot dogs in no time.

Now, get out there!

Joshua Davis

Being outdoors is freedom! Being outdoors with my wife and two boys is LIVING! Whether in my backyard or getting lost in a National Park, there’s nothing I’d rather do than explore, discover, and experience the paradise that surrounds us. Give me my family, a backpack, and a trail and my life is full!