Should You Use Dry Ice in Your Cooler?

Dry ice
Nevit/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Is dry ice a good solution for keeping items cold or frozen in your ice chest when you are going camping? Using dry ice in your cooler is a great idea, but there are some safety precautions and disadvantages as well.

Ilustration depicting on how to safely use dry ice
 TripSavvy / Melissa Ling

Advantages of Dry Ice for Camping

Dry ice is colder than the usual ice made from frozen water. It is frozen carbon dioxide gas at a temperature of -109.3 degrees F (-78.5 degrees C), much colder than regular ice, which stays around 32 degrees. Because of its icy temperature, it should be more effective at keeping your ice chest cold.

Dry ice also doesn't melt. As it warms up, it becomes a gas rather than a liquid, saving the items in your ice chest from ending up in a puddle of water.

Disadvantages of Dry Ice

Dry ice has a short shelf life. You can't store it in your home freezer and keep it frozen as it needs to be kept at -109.3 degrees F to stay solid. You can expect to lose five to 10 pounds of dry ice within 24 hours. Make sure you buy your dry ice immediately before you head out camping for optimal use.

Dangers of Dry Ice

If you are transporting your cooler in your car, keep in mind that it will constantly be giving off carbon dioxide gas. Depending on how long it sits, carbon dioxide levels could rise and create an unhealthy environment. You can get a headache, suffer from rapid breathing, and even pass out. It's best only to use dry ice if you are transporting your cooler separately from your driver and passenger compartment.

In camp, your cooler with dry ice should be stored away from your tent or camper so you won't be affected by too much carbon dioxide. Remember that carbon dioxide is heavier than air, so it will pool in lower areas. This can especially be a hazard for pets in vehicles or if you've placed the cooler in a depressed area.

You will need to wear gloves and long sleeves when handling dry ice. It can burn your skin just like fire, so treat it as if you were handling a red-hot iron rather than an ice tray.

Locating Dry Ice for Camping

Most large grocery stores sell dry ice, including Safeway, Walmart, and Costco. Call to check that they have it in stock, and keep in mind that you must be 18 years old or older to purchase it in some stores. Don't forget to check the stores near your camping destination as well—you may want to restock while you're out at your campsite.

Using Dry Ice in Your Camp Cooler

  • For the most effective use, wrap the dry ice in a few layers of newspaper and place it on top of the food.
  • You can place regular ice below. The dry ice will last longer if you don't let it come in contact with any water.
  • Fill any dead space in your cooler with wadded-up newspaper. If there is less dead space, the dry ice will sublimate more slowly.
  • Freezing foods before a trip is also a great way to conserve ice in your cooler.