Dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) has a temperature of -109.2ºF/-78.5ºC and this makes it great for keeping food frozen in a cooler or when you don't have electricity.
But when packing frozen food with dry ice there are some important precautions you need to take, both for the food so it doesn't get spoiled from the excessive cold and for yourself so you don't get hurt.
But how exactly should you pack frozen food with dry ice in a cooler?
The best way to pack frozen food with dry ice is to wrap the ice in a newspaper or towel and keep it at the bottom of the cooler. You can then place your frozen food and drinks on top. Alternatively, you can put all your food supplies first at the bottom of the cooler, then cover it with a towel or cardboard with holes, and add your dry ice on top.
Generally speaking you want to avoid the dry ice coming in direct contact with your food. Dry ice is just THAT COLD that it can ruin some foods by freezing them too much and other get ruined during the thawing out process.
There’s more to using dry ice than just dumping it in your cooler with some frozen food and closing the lid.
Here are some key tips and consideration on how to pack frozen food with dry ice to keep it fresh for as long as possible and to avoid freezer burn that could potentially damage your food.
Should I Put Dry Ice at the Bottom or Top of the Cooler?
There are numerous perks of using dry ice instead of regular water ice.
- Dry ice is much much colder
- it doesn’t melt but turns into gas so there is no mess
- it can last longer in some circumstances
- it can keep food completely frozen
- and you only need a small amount of dry ice in your cooler compared to regular ice
- it can also be combined with regular ice to keep your cooler cold for days at a time
There are two main methods of packing dry ice, each with its advantages and disadvantages.
Dry Ice at the Bottom
Dry ice is so cold it can cause frostbite or burn your skin, making it safer to place it at the bottom of your cooler. It's also so cold that often it can make items in your cooler TO COLD and so you want to keep them away from direct contact with the dry ice so they stay frozen, but not too frozen.
When dry ice is placed on the bottom of your cooler with a layer of cardboard or towels on top it can last longer than when it's placed on top and it can keep items cool without freezing them too much.
A lot of people also like to place a base layer of dry ice on the bottom of their cooler and then place regular water based ice on top of that instead of using a newspaper or towel.
The regular ice insulated your food items from the extreme cold of the dry ice and will keep things frozen but not too frozen and once your dry ice is all gone the regular ice will still keep everything cold for another 1-2 days until you can get more dry ice or top up on ice.
It also makes it very convenient to just place your food on top which gives you easy access without worry about touching dry ice with your bare hands everything you go into the cooler..
The best part is that you can stack your foods in a smart way to keep the foods at the bottom frozen and items near the top such as drinks refrigerated but not frozen. However, this does depend on the size and quality of the cooler, amount of items the dry ice is keeping cold and how much dry ice is used.
- Safer access without touching dry ice
- Perishable foods at the bottom will remain frozen
- You can keep drinks cold (not frozen) at the top
- Only the food at the bottom will remain frozen
- It's harder to check the levels of your dry ice and know when to replace it
- Doesn't keep all the food evenly cold
Dry Ice on Top
If you have perishable food like meat from your hunting escapades that you need to actively freeze (as in it's at room temperature and you need to freeze it) then it’s better to place dry ice on the top of your cooler.
Cold air sinks so when you place dry ice on the top of your cooler the cold air will sink down through your cooler freezing everything.
Again you probably want to use a layer of newspaper, cardboard, towels or regular ice down first so the dry ice isn't directly touching your frozen food and making it too cold or causing freezer burn.
Placing dry ice on the top helps the food freeze faster and prevents the risk of contamination by bacteria and other microbes. Many people also use a combination of dry ice at the top of the cooler and on the bottom of the cooler so you get cooling from all directions.
Dry ice on top works better because as the ice sublimates, it sinks rapidly, freezing the components of your cooler.
The downside of placing dry ice at the top of you cool is it means you will run out of dry ice faster as the dry ice is being kept in the warmest part of the cooler near the lid.
Dry ice near the top is also inconvenient if you need to regularly access food in your cooler. Dry ice is dangerous to touch with your bare hands and the extra layer of cardboard or whatever needs to be moved as well before you can get to your food.
- Best for keeping perishables fresh
- Effective at ensuring food cools down faster
- Ideal for hunting adventures
- Not ideal when you need to access items regularly
- You risk running out of dry ice faster
Can You Combine Dry Ice and Regular Water Ice?
If you are planning a long hike, a day at the beach, or a long drive to quench your wanderlust, you might be wondering whether you can combine your dry ice with regular ice.
Combining the two is safe and is often actually the best way to pack your cooler.
Ideally, combining the two allows you to enjoy the best experience with dry ice at the bottom of your cooler and regular ice on top.
The regular ice both works to insulate the dry ice and your food. This means your food won't get too cold from the dry ice but it also means the dry ice will last longer than it otherwise would.
The added benefit of this is once the dry ice has all sublimated and turned into gas you still have cold regular ice left in your cooler that will keep your items cold for at least another 1-2 days.
Air space in your cooler causes everything to warm up faster so you can fill the dead spaces with regular ice cubes, which the dry ice will then help to keep frozen for longer.
Because regular ice does not pose any health concerns, you don’t need to go through the trouble of separating the cubes from your foods or drinks.
How Much Dry Ice Should I Use?
How much dry ice you need in your cooler depends on your cooler size and quality, how many items you need to keep frozen and what the outside temperatures are.
But a good rule of thumb is expect to go through 5-10 pounds of dry ice per day in a regular cooler and in a high-end cooler like Yeti you can expect the dry ice to last approximately twice as long.
Smaller dry ice pellets will disappear faster than larger dry ice blocks so always go for the big 5-10 pound blocks of dry ice if you can and it'll last longer and still keep everything in your cooler super cold.
The amount of dry ice you need highly depends on your stock, the type of cooler, and how often you intend to access your foods and drinks.
Other factors that may influence your decision include the temperatures around the cooler and whether you want to place dry ice at the top or bottom of the cooler.
Moreover, dry ice blocks sublimate slower, meaning you need less poundage than when using pallets.
Dry ice at the bottom of a cooler lasts longer because it’s harder for the cool sublimated gas to escape. You need several additional pounds of dry ice if you want to place your ice blocks or pallets at the top.
The surest way to know how much dry ice you need is to do a few experiments ahead of your trip.
This will be crucial, especially if you intend to head off the road where you cannot access a refill. If your cooler can only carry as much dry ice, you can make it last longer by insulating it in a newspaper.
Does Dry Ice Need to Be Packed Differently for Food Items?
Dry ice is a popular food preservative approved by the FDA. Its use in the culinary industry is quite prevalent, especially when making cocktails. You can also use it at home to make delicious, fluffy ice cream.
Whether you are using dry ice to flash freeze your meat or ice cream, the sublimating carbon dioxide will not poison your food or alter its taste.
In the same breath, dry ice is dangerous if touched or ingested. While touching it can cause skin burns, consuming dry ice can freeze the tissues in your digestive tract. As the gas sublimates, it rapidly increases in volume and can cause stomach rapture, severe injuries, or death.
You can enhance safety by wrapping the dry ice in your cooler to separate it from food items. Generally, using dry ice is safe, provided you don’t swallow it or use improper handling methods.
Also, when transproting dry ice in your car make sure to
What Should You Use to Wrap Your Dry Ice?
When packing dry ice in a cooler, you can make the ice last longer by wrapping it in several sheets of towels, newspapers or by adding a layer or 2 of cardboard between the dry ice and your food. These materials provide insulation, preventing the dry ice from making your food too cold but also stopping warm air getting to the dry ice sublimating it faster.
Thicker insulation provides better results, provided the dry ice remains in a well-ventilated site.
Wrapping the dry ice also prevents accidental touching. Because the ice has a freezing surface temperature, touching it can cause skin burns or frostbite.
Furthermore, the wrapping material separates the dry ice from your foods and drinks, reducing the risk of cross-contamination.
3 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using Dry Ice in Your Cooler
If you are familiar with using dry ice to keep your frozen food fresh in your cooler, you probably know the basic safety measures.
Always use kitchen mittens or gloves to protect your fingers from frostbite. Also, place cardboard between your foods and the dry ice to avoid the risk of ingesting it. It is also best not to place glass items directly on the dry ice because they could shatter.
Here are some common mistakes to avoid when using dry ice in your cooler.
Buying Dry Ice Too Early
The prospects of an outdoor adventure can make you a little too excited.
A common mistake to avoid is buying your dry ice a day in advance or several hours before your trip.
Dry ice does not last too long, even if you place it in a cooler. It’s best to purchase it one or two hours before you need it.
Your dry ice should remain intact in your freezer, right?
Technically, your freezer is warmer than the dry ice. This means your ice will turn into gas and also cause damage to your appliance. You should not try to store dry ice in a freezer, it'll still disappear over time just like it would in a cooler and a cooler has less airspace so the dry ice will likely last longer.
The ideal way to store dry ice is in an insulated cooler or Styrofoam. Make sure there is adequate ventilation to allow the sublimated gas to escape.
Keeping the dry ice in an airtight container can lead to an unexpected explosion.
Improper Disposing Of Dry Ice
After your camping trip, you could feel tempted to toss the remaining dry ice in your sink or trash can to sublimate.
Unfortunately, this can be risky.
The dry ice temperature can cause your kitchen sink drains to freeze and burst. If your trash can has a tight lid to keep foul smells in check, damping the unused dry ice inside can cause gas buildup.
Excessive gas buildup can cause an explosion.
The proper way to dispose of dry ice is to leave it in a well-ventilated area. If the ice is taking too long to sublimate, you can accelerate the process by pouring warm water.
Packing frozen food can be stressful, especially when embarking on a long journey because the risk of it going bad is always high.
However, packing your food with dry ice can help prevent it from thawing, keeping it fresh. But be sure to keep your cooler in a ventilated area because sublimation is inevitable, and it produces carbon dioxide gas.
Most importantly, remember to handle dry ice with care by wearing gloves when packing it.