One of the signs of summer is a glowy haze of earthy charcoal smoke. Often, that haze is found in parks, campgrounds, tailgating parking lots, or at the beach, emitting from a portable charcoal grill, wheeled or carried into place, to cook up a fantastic summertime picnic.
Just because you’re away from home doesn’t mean you have to compromise when it comes to portable charcoal grills. We spent 28 hours testing every aspect, from setup to cleanup, of popular models. Afterward, we rated each one on how easy it was to use, how it performed, its design, and more.
Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker with Cart
Clever hopper design
Very accurate built-in thermometer
Heavy, but easy to move
Broiler pan-like grill grate
This Masterbuilt hits all of our portable grill requirements—easy to transport, easy to fill, the ability to control airflow and heat, and produces a great sear. Unlike the portable charcoal grills you’re used to, this one functions almost like a smoker. You fill a 1.5-pound hopper on the right side of the grate and adjust the back damper for airflow. An electrical fan then blows the heat and smoke from the coals to the grill, with the fan being powered by plug or batteries.
This clever layout thoroughly impressed us while testing it out. Even though the coals are off to the side, this grill can, and does, get hot—just be sure to add enough coals. While monitoring the warm-up, we also greatly appreciated the very accurate built-in thermometer. We didn’t like the porcelain-coated grate as much since it was more like a broiler pan than a grill grate.
It’s also a very sturdy grill; you won’t have to worry about a strong gust or runaway soccer ball knocking it over. And even though it’s heavier, transporting it around is simple. Lock the lid tight, collapse it down, extend the handle, and you’re good to go over any terrain. Plus, the whole grill can detach from the cart to be carried.
While any DIY skill level can put this together, we’ll warn that it takes about a half hour since there are a few tricky parts. We also suggest picking up its compatible grill cover to keep this investment safe during storage.
Price at time of publish: $330
Dimensions: 36 x 45 x 19 inches | Weight: 52 pounds | Cooking Area: 200 square inches
Best for the Beach
Everdure Cube Portable Charcoal Grill
Super lightweight and easy to carry
Able to handle high heats
Only good for small groups
If you’re a big fan of barbecuing at the beach or in the park, you’ve probably noticed the relatively new and very stylish Everdure CUBE. And we can tell you that it’s definitely worth it.
The Cube’s cooler-turned-grill design means everything fits nicely into a box that’s small and light enough to carry to your spot with ease. Unlock the lid, which doubles as the bamboo prep tray, add your charcoal, replace the grate, and you’re ready to start grilling. We observed high heat temperatures on the grates after a few minutes of fire, enough to get great grill marks on our food including a nice char on our corn.
Since it’s on the smaller side, you don’t need to bring a lot of charcoal along—one layer sufficed during testing. How much you add will determine your amount of heat since there’s no lid and no air vents. It’s important to note that this is not for feeding a crowd. While we were testing, the most we could fit on the grate were two burger patties, two bratwursts, and two corn on the cob. On the plus side, it’s ready to go out of the box with no assembly required.
Price at time of publish: $199
Dimensions: 13.7 x 16.7 x 9.1 inches | Weight: 15.4 pounds | Cooking Area: 115 square inches
PK Grills PKGo Camp & Tailgate Grilling System
Gets hot enough for sizzling
Very durable and should last for many seasons
Essentially two grills in one
Exterior stays hot after cooking
No built-in thermometer
Frequent car campers or tailgaters know they need a grill that’s built to last and can easily handle a few extra servings for just-met friends. The PK Grills PKGO can do both, plus get hot enough for a satisfying sizzle.
The PKGO may look underwhelming, but this all cast-iron portable grill was one of our best performers during testing. After adding a chimney full of coals, we reached temperatures of over 600 degrees. This led to that sizzle when we placed bratwursts on for grilling, and everything came off the cast-iron grate with picturesque grill marks. Despite not having a built-in thermometer, controlling the temperature was simple thanks to the two dampers and two vents.
The two vents double as dampers when you need some extra cooking space since the lid itself can work as a second grill. When it comes to that, we suggest having an extra-large cast-iron skillet on hand to use as a makeshift lid.
Being fully made from cast iron not only contributes to the grill’s weight—we don’t suggest carrying this for long distances—but also to its heat retention. It’s a great thing for the actual grilling, but it means everything gets hot and stays hot for a while. We needed gloves and tongs to take off the lid and move the grates, and the exterior can be hot to the touch.
Price at time of publish: $400
Dimensions: 15.3 x 20.9 x 13 inches | Weight: 39.5 pounds | Cooking Area: 204 square inches (plus 204 square inches for separate lid grill)
Expert Grill Premium Portable Charcoal Grill
Can reach very high heats
Lots of cooking space for a portable grill
Easy for beginners
Accurate built-in thermometer
Time-consuming to assemble
Doesn’t disassemble for transport
The enameled fire bowl and porcelain-coated cast-iron grates are just two aspects we liked when testing this inexpensive portable grill. It also had enough cooking space for a few servings, with easily enough room to flip burgers, and is even large enough under the lid to have its own warming rack—not something you see a lot of when it comes to portables.
Another nice-to-have is the fairly accurate built-in thermometer. After placing in hot coals, we got readings of over 500 degrees on an infrared thermometer and the built-in recorded similar temperatures. Getting that hot gave us a nice char on our corn, but grates weren’t hot enough for sear marks. And even though the internal temperature was high, it was still easy enough to maneuver the vent and damper to control the airflow.
After grilling was done, it was easier to turn the grill over to dump the ashes rather than pushing them into the ash pan. While doing so, one of the legs did fall off, which was not unexpected. The entire time we tested it, the legs felt a little wobbly, even though we double-checked all the connections during the somewhat tedious build. It's also somewhat difficult to disassemble, once put together.
Price at time of publish: $74
Dimensions: 24.5 x 17 x 17.5 inches | Weight: 18.5 pounds | Cooking Area: 262 square inches
Best for Camping
Weber Go-Anywhere Charcoal Grill
Can handle high heat temperatures
Legs double as lid locks
Steel grates make it hard to sear
Unevenness in heat
Whether we were cooking on the charcoal Go-Anywhere or the gas version, we admired the performance of these very portable Webers. Even though it’s only a little larger than a Caboodle or toolbox, we were able to fit enough food for two and only needed a single chimney of coals to cook the entire meal.
After dumping in the hot coals and replacing the steel cooking grate, we noticed temperatures a little higher than 550 degrees throughout our cooking. Since Weber designed this to be lightweight and very portable, there’s only enough room for one layer of charcoal inside—there’s only about 2 inches of space between the charcoal grate and the cooking grate—and you have to do without a (better at searing) cast-iron grate.
The smaller space can translate to some heating unevenness—you’ll want to rotate food into the hot spots while you’re grilling. Most of our food was fully cooked, but we recommend bringing along an instant-read thermometer, and testing this out at home before bringing into the great outdoors. Additionally, you’ll want to bring along gloves since the metal vents did get hot to the touch.
Price at time of publish: $78
Dimensions: 19.5 x 11.5 x 15 inches | Weight: 13.5 pounds | Cooking Area: 160 square inches
Weber Smokey Joe Charcoal Grill
Intuitive to use
Doesn’t comes with a lid lock
Hard to get to high temperatures
A miniature version of the classic kettle-style charcoal grill is probably what you thought of as a portable charcoal grill, and that’s exactly what this Weber is. Even though their design makes them a bit unwieldy when it comes to portability, they’re still good grills and very beginner-friendly.
Getting one of these grills set up and started is easy as pie, just be sure to set it up on a solid surface where it can’t get knocked over since the grates don’t lock into place. We only used a single layer of charcoal when testing and suggest you try to get a few more coals in—the steel grates struggled to get to a high enough temperature for grill marks or searing. And with the bottom dampers in an awkward position, it wasn’t as easy to control the airflow as some others.
That all said, this was very easy to use, with any cleaning or maintenance easy to handle. A beginner might need a few rounds to perfect their burger, but it’s definitely possible. If you think you need a lid lock for transport, look into the premium model.
Price at time of publish: $46
Dimensions: 14.5 x 14.2 x 17 inches | Weight: 9.4 pounds | Cooking Area: 147 square inches
Dyna-Glo Portable Tabletop Charcoal Grill
Good amount of cooking space
Can produce great char and grill marks
Grates stay in place
No built-in thermometer
Food can stick to the porcelain grates
This large tabletop grill is a great solution for cabin camping, tailgating, or simply wanting a very small backyard grill. It might take a buddy to get into place, but once you do, this steel-bodied grill will surprise you with its performance.
Being made of heavy-gauge steel gives this a heat advantage. Much like cast iron, thick steel gets hot and stays hot, which allows it to moderate the temperature inside this grill. Ten minutes after placing hot coals inside, we observed temperatures almost to 550 degrees, with it dipping down a bit after cooking.
While that might be too low of a temperature for searing with flimsier plated steel, here, we were able to get a great sear and beautiful grill marks from the thicker steel grates, which sit flush and don’t move. One of our only issues came from the grates, when our food stuck a little bit too much to the porcelain-coating, so a wipe of oil beforehand is advised.
We also didn’t like not having a built-in thermometer, so you’ll need an instant-read or infrared on-hand for cooking. If you have a Dyna-Glo Signature series offset smoker, this can attach to that bigger grill as a smoker box.
Price at time of publish: $200
Dimensions: 24.2 x 18.4 x 21 inches | Weight: 44.1 pounds | Cooking Area: 287 square inches
A clever design and accurate built-in thermometer will make grilling out-of-doors easier with the Masterbuilt Portable Charcoal Grill and Smoker with Cart. Though we did literally lose a leg while cleaning, the Expert Grill Premium Portable Charcoal Grill impressed us with performance and size at such a great price.
How We Tested
We spent a full week testing 14 portable charcoal grills to find the best models. Additionally, we test grills year-round, with many of our winners undergoing even more extensive testing with our experts in their everyday lives—at real tailgates, camping trips, and at home—so that we can update our recommendations and insights on longterm usability and more on a regular basis.
To help with our methodology and analysis, our research team interviewed Mike Davis, executive chef at Terra in Columbia, South Carolina; Ben Jablonski, CEO of The Good Charcoal Company, and Joshua Bousel, founder of The Meatwave. We also interviewed Christie Vanover, the publisher of Girls Can Grill for her advice on portable charcoal grills. While grilling up bratwursts, hamburgers, and ears of corn, we analyzed every aspect of the grills. The tests included:
- Duration and ease of assembly
- Ease of portability by carrying or rolling the grill
- Temperature control at low heat
- Ease of adding hot charcoal
- Grilling ears of corn, hamburgers, and bratwursts
- Cooldown period needed before cleaning
We Tested the Best Charcoal Grills
Other Options We Tested
- NOMAD Grill & Smoker: The Nomad suitcase-like grill and smoker will always be a contender as a splurge option. From the shape to the magnetic grates, it has an ingenious design we really like. But when testing it, we realized that the dampers only have three settings, so your coals might get too hot or, adversely, burn out. But more importantly, at no point did we observe a temperature over 500 degrees, even with two chimneys of coal. This meant cooked food, but no searing or maillard reaction at all. We could overlook this on something much cheaper, but for this price, you can find better.
What to Look for in a Portable Charcoal Grill
"When choosing a portable charcoal grill, there are a couple things to consider when selecting the right size," says Christie Vanover, the publisher of Girls Can Grill. "How many people do you plan on serving and what do you plan on grilling? If you’ll be grilling up 2-4 hamburgers or 1-2 steaks, a 14-inch kettle grill will work great. If you’re planning on cooking more or doing larger items like pork shoulder, smoked brisket or tomahawk steaks, upgrade to at least an 18-inch grill. The advantage of a slightly larger grill is that you can also cook with an indirect heat zone."
At the larger end, you’ll find grills with a little less than 300 square inches of space. This translates to cooking about four servings of food. Once you get under 200 square inches, you’ll need to do a second round of grilling in order to feed four people, or just consistently have food cooking throughout the meal. A smaller grill, though, does translate to needing to carry less charcoal.
There are two important factors to consider with portability: features and weight. If a grill is heavy it doesn’t matter as much if the grill also has features to help with moving it, namely if it’s collapsible or has wheels. And if a grill is light and has two comfortable handles, you should be able to carry it to your grill site. It’s the in-between grills where you need to be careful. You might not be able to carry a heavy grill, or one lacking handles, far without help (or a rest break). Additionally, if a grill doesn’t feature a lid lock or needs some assembly at the site, you could end up having to trek back and forth.
Grills mainly come made of sturdy metal. The lighter grills will have lighter metals like aluminum and plated steel. While this helps with weight, it quickly cools down and loses heat during cooking. When using cooking grates made from them, you’ll have issues getting a great sear due to that heat loss. Heavier portable grills have heavy-gauge steel and cast iron in their builds. These hold onto heat, giving you great performance, but decrease the grill portability score.
Can a portable charcoal grill be used indoors?
Absolutely not. Not only is it a fire hazard, burning charcoal produces an extreme amount of carbon monoxide (CO), according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless gas that can quickly get to toxic levels indoors, even if an area is well ventilated. Always use a charcoal grill outdoors, and don’t bring burning coals indoors.
How do you light a charcoal grill?
"The smaller portable charcoal grills don’t offer a lot of space for indirect cooking, so it’s important not to overload the grill with too many coals," says Vanover. "Heat your coals in a charcoal chimney and dump them into the grill. For even heat, place a single layer of briquets on the bottom."
Starting a grill without a chimney is possible, too. Simply ball up newspaper on your charcoal grate, around the coals, and use a long lighter to light the newspaper. Technically, you can give your charcoal a squirt of lighter fluid, but we don’t recommend it. It can quickly be too much flame and the taste of your food is affected.
What are the vents for on charcoal grills?
The vents and dampers on a charcoal grill are there for airflow and to help regulate temperature. "The bottom vents allow air and oxygen to flow into the grill, which feeds the fire," says Vanover. "The top vent allows the air to escape and serves as an exhaust. When the vents are open wide, more air enters the grill, which increases the grill temperature. To lower the heat, reduce the vent hole openings."
With portable grills where you have multiple vents, you can open and close the vents in a certain pattern to direct airflow and smoke when cooking with indirect heat.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
The Spruce Eats Editor Siobhan Wallace compiled testing data from our official Lab to write this roundup. She also interviewed Christie Vanover, an expert on grilling, about charcoal grills.