How To Smoke Meat At High Altitude

If you look at all the places famous for their BBQ you will notice that they all have one thing in common, they are all at low elevations. This is partly because smoking meats in high altitudes is much different and arguably harder. If you live at a high elevation, then I am sure that you remember having to adjust to cooking at high elevations, and the same goes for smoking.

To get a tender and juicy piece of meat when smoking at high altitudes, you will need to increase your smoking time, wrap your meat, use a water pan, and cook to doneness, not temperature. This is everything you need to know about smoking meat at a high altitude.

What is high altitude?

According to National Geographic, areas above 2,500 feet in elevation are considered high altitude; however, we do not start to see “high altitude” effect our smoking drastically until around 4,000 ft in elevation.

When smoking at high altitudes, the air acts much different than at lower altitudes, which is probably why that smoker recipe did not turn out as good as you wanted.

High altitudes experience:

  • Less oxygen
  • Less humidity
  • Lower atmospheric pressure
  • Lower boiling point

How does high altitude affect smoking?

Smoking meat at a high altitude effects two areas, time and tenderness. The air conditions found at higher elevations allow moisture to evaporate quickly, which directly translates to cooking. If you do not take the conditions found at high altitudes into consideration, then you will end up with a dry and undesirable piece of meat.

Lower boiling point:

As mentioned above, high altitudes have less atmospheric pressure which consequently lowers the boiling point of water. Because there is less pressure holding the water molecules together, it takes less energy to boil.

The boiling point of water at sea level is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. As a rule of thumb, you can expect the boiling point of water to drop 2 degrees for every 1,000 feet (or 1 degrees for every 500 feet) in elevation gain. For example, if you are at 2,000 feet in elevation, the boiling point would be 210 degrees Fahrenheit as opposed to the 212 degrees at sea level (0 feet).

For your convenience, here is a table with the boiling point of water at different elevations.

ElevationBoiling Point
Sea Level212° F
2500207° F
3000206° F
4000204° F
5000202° F
6000200° F

Now why am I telling you this? When smoking meat, you do not want to bring your meat’s internal temperature near the boiling point of water as this will dry out your meat. Because a higher altitude means a lower boiling point, smoking meat at a high altitude will cause your meat to be done at a lower internal temperature.  

A lot of people dry out their meat by leaving it on the smoker too long trying to reach an internal temperature meant for sea level. If the boiling point of water is 200 degrees at 6000 feet, and you are trying to cook your meat to 205 degrees, you are essentially cooking out all the moisture in the meat before reaching your final temperature.

 For example, I live a little above 400 feet in elevation so my ideal internal temperature to pull a pork is 205 degrees Fahrenheit; however, if I were to cook that same pork butt at 6,000 feet, it would be done cooking well before 205 degrees.

Temperature and Cooking Times:

Because of the low oxygen, humidity, and atmospheric pressure you find at high altitudes, you must be careful at what temperature you smoke at. The air conditions at high altitude cause moisture to evaporate quickly. Smoking at higher temperatures like 275 degrees can quickly evaporate the moisture in the meat.

When smoking meat at high altitudes, you should focus on lower and slower. This will keep the meat from cooking too hot and help to hold some of the moisture.

Also, smoking meat at a higher elevation is going to take longer. That is just the nature of the game, so make sure you plan accordingly. Raising the temperature will just dry your meat out more quickly, so it is best to be patient and give yourself ample time to smoke.

How to Smoke Meat At High Altitude:

Now that we understand how higher altitude effects the smoking process, you may be wondering how to counteract these effects so you can produce a tender and juicy piece of meat. Here is how you can smoke meat at high altitudes with success.

  1. Set your smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking at too high of a temperature will dry the meat out quicker. You should aim to smoke at 225 degrees Fahrenheit; however, it is not uncommon to see people smoking at 215 degrees Fahrenheit at higher elevations.
  2. Use a water pan. Water pans help to stabilize your smoker’s temperature, increase the humidity inside the smoker, and add moisture to the meat. Using a water pan and keeping it filled will help prevent your meat from drying out.
  3. Wrap your meat once it hits the stall. While many people do not like to wrap their meat, when smoking at high altitudes, wrapping your meat in tin foil or butcher paper is almost necessary. This will allow your meat to retain moisture and keep it from drying out.
  4. Cook to feel not internal temperature. To check for doneness when smoking meat at high altitude, instead of cooking to temperature, cook to feel. Once the meat starts to reach the 190-degree mark, continue to probe the meat until the probe slides in like butter. You should be able to feel when the meat is tender enough to be pulled off. This will keep you from overcooking the meat. And there is no need to worry about food safety here, as we are well above the meat danger zone of 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
  5. Lastly plan accordingly. Smoking meat at high altitudes will take much longer. According to the USADA, cooking meat at 5,000 feet can add up to a one fourth more cooking time than at sea level. It is best to give yourself ample time and to be patient. 

I found this video to be of great use during my research. Skip to 7:00 minutes to get into the good stuff!

While cooking at high altitudes pose some challenges, by using the steps above, you can still put out great finished products. As with anything though, practice makes perfect. This can act as a great starting point, but do some testing and experimenting of your own to determine what you like best. Plus it gives you an excuse to smoke more meat!

Michael W.

Half of my family lives in Texas and we would visit them often. As a food lover, naturally I fell in love with smoked meat. Smoked brisket and peach cobbler is a staple around where my family grew up and quickly became a favorite of mine. Unfortunately we didn't have good BBQ where I grew up. After enough years, I finally decided to get a smoker so I didn't have to wait for good BBQ until I went to Texas. Getting into a new hobby can be overwhelming. When I first started smoking meat, there was so much conflicting information and so many different styles and techniques that I didn't know where to start. I started this website to help people BBQ better and learn the ropes by sharing my knowledge and experiences.

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