Smokin' at Higher Altitudes


Jason M. Park

TVWBB Super Fan
So a little less than a year ago, I moved from Southern California to the Denver area. I finally fired up the WSM the other night and cooked up 6 butts for a work party. Despite numerous problems with the cooking process, they still turned out great.

Anyway, the biggest problem was getting the WSM up to temp. I normally try to cook in the 225-250 range, but even with all vents 100% open, the dome temp averaged about 200-210. Even after adding half a chimney of lit coals, the temp rose quickly, but settled back at 210 after a little bit.

Another possible problem was the fact that my dome thermometer was broken, (probaly in moving) and I didn't realize that until the meat was going on, oops. I had to use a polder with the probe stuck through the top vent. Now I know the higher altitude means less oxygen, but what else can I do since I already had the vents 100% open?

Things I have thought of...
dry water pan?
sand in water pan?
BBQ Guru?
the polder was not reading accurately?

Hey Jason,
I don't live at high altitude, but there have been a lot of posts about it recently, all regarding not able to reach 250 at 5000+ feet.
I would say definately lose the water and go piedmont, sand or clay pot base.
Also, a Guru or Stoker could be in your future. You may want to check them out.
As a disclaimer, I use none of the above and am just repeating to you what I have learned here.

D Jennings

I live in VA, but will be moving to Western Colorado next year, I'll be at 7200'. The basic problem at these altitudes is there is less oxygen, there for it will take longer for smokers to come to temp and recover if lid is removed. Your fuel will also burn cooler; For example if using the Minion Method in SoCal or VA, I'll start out with maybe 8 coals, in CO I'll have to up that number to maybe 12 to 14...maybe even more.

However, once to temp whatever you're cooking (meaning meat) should cook in the normal amount of time (assuming the lid isn't opened), heat is heat regardless of alt.

Just keep in mind that the boiling point of water is about 202 deg in Denver vs. 212 deg at sea level (SoCal), this makes a differance if cooking something in boiling water.

Also things cool off much faster at higher altitudes. None of it is a big deal, just something that you'll adjust to over time.

Jason Smith

I too currently live in Denver. Did a couple of butts about a month ago using the Minion method and I really didn't have any issues getting up to temp. It did take around 24 hrs to cook the butts though. From what I have learned living here is that it usually takes a little longer to cook. I did put water in the pan but I think next time I may try it without water to see if it makes a difference. My temps throughout the whole cooking process hung around 225.

Jason M. Park

TVWBB Super Fan
I'll try a lump/kingsford mix next time, hopefully that will do the trick. I'm sure a BBQ Guru or Stoker would fix it right up, but I'm reluctant to buy a gadget that costs as much as the smoker itself.

Jason: where is a good place for lump around here, I'm in Aurora, e470 & Smoky Hill Rd. and I work in Highlands Ranch. Thanks.

Jason Smith

I work up in Broomfield and the Walmart up there sells Royal Lump. I would think any other Walmart around here would sell the same.

John Bridgman

TVWBB Super Fan
keep in mind that the boiling point of water is about 202 deg in Denver vs. 212 deg at sea level (SoCal), this makes a differance if cooking something in boiling water
... or calibrating your BBQ thermometer

Jason M. Park

TVWBB Super Fan
I looked at my local Wal Mart the other day, I didn't see any, at least not in the summer/bbq seasonal area. Actually the charcoal they did have looked pretty blitzed. Would it be anywhere else?

D Jennings

Here are 4 places that will most likely have lump. The are Big Green Egg dealers, and BGE has it's line of lump.

Pacific Mercantile
1925 Lawrence
Denver,CO 80202

Ace Hardware - Alameda Station
417 South Broadway
Denver,CO 80209

Fireplace Outlet Supply
4745 W 38th Ave
Denver,CO 80212

Lehrer Fireplace & Patio
2085 S. Holly Street
Denver,CO 80224

Tom O

We live at 5200 ft. I use a 50-50 mixture of lump and Kinsford. The main reason is that we have longer cooking times and I wanted to reduce the amount of ash which was a problem on longer cooks. Lately I have not been using water. I simply foil the water pan for ease in cleaning up and with all vents open, it stabilizes at 300. Sometimes a bit higher

I use Royal Oak from Walmart, but not all Walmarts carry it....tom

Mike Miller

New member
Jason, I live in Littleton and had the same problems you are having. I have followed the advice from Hunter Lewis and have had no problems in getting the temps up (including a high temp briskett).

Hunter's tip is "put the standard 20-30 briquettes in the chimney and light them. After they have started warming up (5-10 min) I place my chimney full of brewing coals DIRECTLY ON TOP of the pile of charcoal in the ring of my WSM. This just begins to ignite some of the coal in the ring. Since I started doing this I have no problem getting my pit temps up to 250-300 easily. the 10-15 mins of hot coals on top of cold gets them going just enough to provide a boos in initial temp. then you dump your chimney of coals into your ring and you can immediately close your vents to about 50-60% open. Your pit will be at 250 before you know it, and if it is a little slow, you can always prop the access door open about 1/2" for a few mins."

Hope this helps.

Terry McCawley

New member
Interesting discussion here, I live in Aurora, CO and want to cook up to 9,000 ft high, am having the same problem with getting up to 230-250 cooking temp and am finding out it is a lack of oxygen. I am concidering boring, say 3 more holes, in the bottom of my WSM, either consistantly to the left or right of the 3 original vent holes. Has anyone got any feedback, positive or negative, or heard of this happening before? I'm considering either boring the three hole pattern and covering with a original equipment vent cover, or shoot, I don't think the vent hole would ever have to be closed, as long as I'm cooking at this altitude. I'm oxygen deprived here.

Jason M. Park

TVWBB Super Fan
Well, in my search for lump, I guess I should have looked at THE STORE I WORK IN, DUH!

I work at Whole Foods Market in Highlands Ranch, and we have 2 brands of lump right here. Our brand (which I think is actually Cowboy, draw your own conclusions there) and Nature's Mesquite Lump. I have heard plenty of bad things about Cowboy, but NakedWhiz gives the Natures Mesquite pretty high marks, very high in fact.

As a bonus, our store is going to be putting the Nature's on sale starting tomorrow for only $1.99 for the 6.6 lb bag. (I even get an additional 20% off that price) I'm not sure about other stores in the Denver area, but I'll be able to check our database tomorrow. So I'll be trying this one out for sure, no plans to cook anything just yet, but I think I'll have to make plans.

Robert W

The altitude I live at in NM is 5500 feet. I used to have issues getting/maintaining decent lid temps when using water pan. My recent switch to a clay pot base has eliminated this problem. My last smoke was two butts (total weight of 16 pounds), which took 17 hours with lid temp of ~250 throughout the cook. I also used Rancher from HD and am sold on the stuff. Hopefully, HD will continue to carry it...

Bob W

Terry McCawley

New member
With the talk about using clay pot in place ofe water at higher altitudes, I'm doing it this weekend. Got my 14 inch clay pot from wally world for $5 and a 5.3 # PB and heading up to about 8,500 ft to check out the scenery and deal w/ the lack of O2 while working the WSM. I have high hopes, excuse the pun...Expect an overnighter, about 16 hours at 250 (3hrs/lb.) Regardless, it gonna be good...
Thanks for the feedback all