For most individuals, going camping means sleeping in a tent, cooking your meals over an open fire, and getting closer to nature. Without your typical daily accommodations and amenities such as electricity and running water, you will need a way to keep your food items cold.
The simplest and most common method to keep food cold while camping is by using a cooler. The cooler itself won’t keep items cold for very long so you will need to add ice. You can either use wet ice or dry ice, or a combination. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses but certainly will help to keep your food cold.
So Can You Put Dry Ice in a Cooler?
You can use dry ice in a cooler, but there are some things you need to know. When putting dry ice in a cooler, you have to make sure that bare skin does not come into contact with dry ice. This will cause what is called an ice burn or cold burn. You will also need to make sure that you open your cooler occasionally to avoid gas build-up. Another important thing to know is we do not recommended products like cans of soda in an ice chest with dry ice. They will explode!
What is Dry Ice?
Many of us have seen experiments done with dry ice, such as smoke bubbles using soapy water, but the truth is dry ice can be somewhat dangerous and is not for the faint of heart.
Unlike wet ice, which is frozen water, dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide gas. It is much colder than wet ice with a surface temperature of -109.3 degrees Fahrenheit.
This extremely cold temp means that it can cause burns if not handled properly. Another interesting feature is that instead of melting into liquid dry ice turns into a gas as it breaks down, this process is known as sublimation.
Its freezing temperature and sublimation characteristic make it an optimal choice to keep things cold for a long period of time. In order to make dry ice, carbon dioxide gas is pressurized and then cooled until it takes on a liquid form.
The liquid carbon dioxide can then be poured or injected into block molds or a pelletizer. At this point, the liquid is still pressurized. Once the pressure is released the liquid begins to sublimate, changing to a gas, but also a solid-like “snow”.
The combination of this expansion and evaporation from the release of pressure quickly cools any liquid remaining in the container, changing it directly to a cold solid. The dry ice, either in block form or pellet form, can then be stored, sold, and used in a cooler.
What Are The Dangers Of Using Dry Ice In A Cooler?
In order to use dry ice, you need to understand how to handle it safely so that you do not end up with severe injuries.
- Beware of Burns
Just as the freezing surface temperature can damage your skin, it can also damage other bodily tissues. Therefore, you should never eat or swallow dry ice.
To pick up the dry ice, you will need heavy gloves. Long sleeves can also be beneficial to protect any exposed skin. When digging around in your cooler, you will want to use proper protection to prevent skin damage.
- What Should You Do if You Do Get Burned?
A dry ice burn is similar to any other burn. If you do receive a burn from the dry ice, soak the burn in warm, not hot, water for at least twenty minutes. You can repeat this process in twenty-minute intervals until you begin to feel relief.
If you are camping, you may need to put some antibiotic ointment and a bandage over the burn to prevent it from coming into contact with dirt and other particles and becoming infected. If you can leave the burn uncovered it is best to do so.
Like all burns, it should heal in time. If the burn is bad enough that a blister forms or skin begins peeling, you should see a doctor.
- Avoid Gas Build-Ups
Another concern with dry ice is the gas it produces when it breaks down. When wet ice melts, it results in harmless, if annoying, puddles of water. When dry ice sublimates, it gives off carbon dioxide gas.
As the ice breaks down and gas builds up in the cooler and seeps out, you will want to take care not to inhale too much of it. When transporting your cooler, you need to be especially aware of gas build-up.
Carbon dioxide is heavier, meaning that it will sink to the bottom of the space in which your cooler is stored. It is never advised to keep a dry ice cooler in a sealed area such as a car or a tent; you should crack the windows and maintain proper ventilation.
When traveling with a pet, take precautions to keep them away from the cooler. Because the gas is heavier and sinks, it can more quickly build up in the area where your pet is lying on the floor or on the seat.
Make sure you keep your cooler in a well-ventilated area. If you start experiencing symptoms of carbon dioxide poisoning such as headaches, or respiratory problems, you need to ventilate the area and move away from the dry ice cooler.
How to Store Dry Ice In a Cooler
Now that you know how to exercise safety when using dry ice, we can discuss the specific ways in which it can be stored in a cooler. Much like wet ice, you can either choose to keep your ice on the top or on the bottom of your stored food items.
- Choose your packing method and food choices wisely
Dry ice tends to keep food, drinks, and wet ice is frozen instead of just cold. This means that drinks, plastic containers, and glass containers are susceptible to bursting and breaking. As will be discussed later on in the article, it can be helpful to bring along two separate coolers.
- Ice on the Bottom
No matter the type of ice, most people, put it on the bottom of the cooler and set everything else on top. This has its advantages and drawbacks when using dry ice.
The weight of whatever you are placing on top of it could cause it to sublimate faster, ultimately shortening its lifespan. However, placing it on the bottom makes it more difficult for the gas to escape, protecting you and your pet from a noxious carbon dioxide gas build-up.
Using the ice on the bottom cooler is preferred by those who need to frequently access items in their cooler and do not want to have to handle the ice each time they need something.
If you store your ice on top of your food items, the pressure will not cause it to sublimate quickly. However, there is a slightly higher chance of gas escaping the cooler since the ice is closer to the opening.
- Ice on the Top
Storing the dry ice on top is usually the preferred method of using it in a cooler if keeping your food cold, like meat, is vital. The top storage method typically keeps food colder longer. For this reason, the ice on top method is a favorite of hunters.
- Insulate and Pack
Dry ice does not have to be purchased from a special retailer. In most cases, it can be found at department stores, grocery stores, and occasionally gas stations and convenience stores. Once you purchase your dry ice, you can then begin moving it into your cooler.
It is advised that you wrap the dry ice in a brown paper bag or some newspapers prior to using in your cooler. In most cases, dry ice is sold in a brown paper bag. The newspaper will lessen the likelihood of anyone touching the ice with exposed skin and will help to insulate the dry ice.
You can place some wet ice at the bottom of the cooler to help provide an additional cold layer. The wet ice at the bottom can be in block form while cubed wet ice can be used to fill in any voids.
Try not to let the top dry ice and bottom wet ice come into contact with one another to preserve their lifespans. Place paper or newspaper in any empty spaces around your food items to help the dry ice last longer if you would prefer not to use wet ice. Then place your dry ice on top.
It can be helpful to start with frozen food instead of cold food. This will ensure that your food stays cold for the longest amount of time possible. Dry ice usually lasts longer than wet ice, but there are a few tricks you can take advantage of to help extend its life.
Storing the dry ice on top of the cooler is one way. In addition, you want to try and open your cooler as little as possible. Frequently opening it throughout the day or leaving it open for periods will make the ice breakdown rather quickly as it needs to be kept at a temperature of -109.3 degrees Fahrenheit to remain solid.
Finally, using a dry ice cooler rather than a standard cooler may help to lengthen its shelf life. However, in many cases, the extension may be minimal.
You will likely need anywhere from ten to twelve pounds of dry ice for each day you plan to be camping. However, this varies on the external temperature, your packing abilities, and how frequently you open the cooler.
Additional Tips for Cooler Storage
- Place a styrofoam board or sheet on the bottom of your cooler if storing the dry ice on the base of the cooler and putting items on top. This will help to prevent the dry ice from damaging the bottom and sides of your cooler.
- Forgo the small pellets or cubes and choose large blocks of dry ice. They will sublimate slower and last longer than small pieces of dry ice.
- Use a roto-molded cooler instead of a cheap or standard cooler. They will help to seal in the cold and lengthen the lifespan of your dry ice.
- Don’t place the cooler in direct sunlight or particularly warm areas like next to the campfire
- Don’t store glass items with dry ice as they can shatter at very cold temperatures
- Some individuals not only keep their cooler in the shade to protect it from the sun but also cover it with a heavy blanket to provide extra insulation.
Does Dry Ice Perform Better Than Wet Ice In A Cooler?
There are some definite advantages of using dry ice in a cooler instead of wet ice. Dry ice is a lot colder than wet ice. This means that when you use it in a cooler in close contact with your food, it has the ability not only to keep it cold but to freeze it.
Because of its sublimation process, you end up with gas instead of a liquid as it dissipates. This means that your cooler will not accumulate excess water as time goes on. You also won’t have to worry about the contents of your cooler becoming wet and soggy.
Dry ice can not keep your food colder longer because of its ability to freeze items, but also due to the fact that it typically lasts longer than wet ice if stored properly. Wet ice does have its advantages, however.
With wet ice, you don’t have to worry about safety. You and especially little ones can paw through the cooler without worrying about coming into contact with the ice and receiving burns.
Wet ice, if cubed, can also help to fill in any voids in a cooler to keep food more uniformly cold. Blocked wet ice can be difficult to use in a cooler but will last a relatively long time.
Sometimes, using a combination of ice can result in the most optimal freezing and storage of food. A block of wet ice can be placed on the bottom of the cooler with any food or items on top. Cubed wet ice can then be added to fill in any empty spaces between objects.
Finally, add the dry ice on top to keep your food perfectly cold for quite a lengthy period.
Pros and Cons of Both Dry and Wet Ice
- Wet Ice Pros and Cons (Block or Cube Form)
- Can be cubed to fill in spaces
- Can be blocked to last longer and fit on the bottom of the cooler
- Is usually safe to handle with bare hands
- Doesn’t give off carbon dioxide gas
- Doesn’t last as long
- Melts into puddles
- Keeps food cold, does not freeze it
Dry Ice Pros and Cons (Block or Pellet Form)
- Lasts a longer time
- Is significantly colder than wet ice
- Has the ability to freeze food instead of just cooling it
- Doesn’t melt and make food or items wet and soggy
- Gives of carbon dioxide as it sublimates
- Can cause burns if not handled properly
- Must be stored in newspapers or paper bags and cannot fill in empty spaces between items
- More expensive than wet ice
- Can make plastic brittle
Dry Ice Coolers vs. Regular Coolers
Regular coolers, especially cheap coolers, are often not equipped to handle the arctic temperatures of dry ice. This means that they can crack with the cold and become relatively useless. It is better to use a dry ice rated cooler if you hope to store your food with dry ice.
A roto-molded cooler is often a good choice. A roto-molded cooler, or a rotationally molded cooler, is made using a solid mold of plastic or material. They have a continuous, uniform wall of plastic that is usually thick, all the way around the cooler. This ensures that they are airtight and contain little to no imperfections.
The airtight feature of roto-molded coolers is what makes them a good choice for dry ice but also a dangerous one. Because they do not let air in or out, there is no way for the gas to escape from the sublimating ice. This could result in a pressurized build up.
Chances are very low that your cooler would explode, but the pressure may affect the weakest areas of your cooler, such as the drain plug. To prevent this build-up slightly open your drain cap so that the gas can vent out. You can either leave it slightly ajar or open it a few times throughout the day.
Pelican, Orca, and Yeti coolers offer some great roto-molded models that promise to keep food colder longer. In addition, these coolers sturdy constructions can also usually stand up to the freezing temperatures of dry ice.
Most Highly Rated Coolers for Dry Ice
The coolers listed below work well for wet ice, but they are also very suitable for dry ice. A sturdy and extremely efficient cooler can be somewhat of an investment. Therefore you will likely want to make sure it will be frequently used before purchasing.
- Yeti Tundra 45 – $299.99
- Grizzly 20 – $189.99
- Pelican Elite 50 – $299.95
- Igloo Yukon Cold Locker – $429.85
- Engel High-Performance Cooler 25 – $149.99
Some of these coolers are roto-molded coolers, in which case you should take proper precautions to prevent gas build-up. With any of the coolers, you should still take steps to protect the interior walls and bottom against dry ice. This means using a styrofoam board on the bottom and insulating the ice with newspapers or a paper bag.
How Much Dry Ice Do I Need?
You will need anywhere from ten to twelve pounds of dry ice per day, in you average forty to fifty-quart cooler. The rate at which your dry ice will melt depends on a variety of factors. This includes how often you open the cooler, how well you packed the cooler, and what the air temperature is surrounding the cooler.
As a reference, about twelve ounces of dry ice should keep one pound of stock (food or drinks) cool for about four hours; while five pounds of dry ice will keep the same amount of food and drinks cold for thirty-six hours.
Four pounds of dry ice will keep approximately twenty-four pounds of food items cold for four hours while it will require twenty pounds of dry ice to keep the same amount of cooler stock cold for up to thirty-six hours.
The location of the dry ice within your cooler can also affect these numbers. Dry ice placed on the bottom of the cooler may last a little longer and therefore require less poundage for the same amount of food and time.
You may have to experiment on your first few tries using dry ice in your cooler before you find your perfect ice to food and time ratio. It is always better to have too much ice than too little. Especially, because it can be difficult to obtain more ice in a rustic camping situation.
Are There Other Ways to Keep Food Cold Ice?
Ice, either wet or dry, and a cooler is the simplest and most obvious way to keep food cold. However, there are a few other ways to keep your food from warming even if they do not last as long or are not as practical.
- Iceless Coolers
Iceless coolers use the thermoelectric Peltier effect to keep items cold without ice. The Peltier effect is the way in which heat or electricity is transferred between two electrical junctions.
An electrical current is created when volts are applied to a set of joined conductors. As the voltage flows through the joint heat can be transferred. It essentially removes heat from one side of the cooler and deposits in the other. Therefore, one side gets colder while the other gets hotter.
Because of its use of electricity, it does need to be plugged in. You may not always have an electrical hookup at your campsite, so a thermoelectric cooler may not be practical.
However, they can be large or small and typically don’t use too much energy. Interestingly enough, they can also double as a food warmer. Two of the most well-known producers of thermoelectric coolers are Igloo and Koolatron.
- Bury Your Stuff
This method also isn’t very practical but will work in a pinch and has historically been used for ages. Caves, cellars, wells, and deep holes all have the capacity to keep items cool. It likely won’t keep things such as meats cold enough to be considered food-safe, but it might work for drinks.
- Running Water
If there is a stream nearby, you may be in luck. Depending on the air temperature, running water can be a great way to keep things cool as streams and rivers are naturally pretty chilly due to their spring or aquifer sources.
Again, this won’t be cold enough for meat, eggs, milk, and cheese, but it may help to keep drinks, and other non-perishables chilled.
Take Advantage of Mother Nature
If you are camping in winter, late fall or early spring, take advantage of storing your items outside when the temperature drops. You should store them in an animal-proof container and monitor the temperatures. If it is cold enough to snow or freeze outside than you have one large refrigerator/freezer at your disposal.