Using dry ice in a cooler can be a great way to keep things frozen and can extend the life of your regular ice too. But you need to be careful when using dry ice in a cooler and follow specific steps to ensure you're safe and the dry ice does what you need it to do.
Make Sure Your Cooler Is Dry Ice Compatible
The first thing you need to do is to make sure that your cooler is compatible with dry ice.
Not all colors can handle the extreme cold of dry ice which is -109ºF (-78ºC).
Generally speaking, soft coolers are unable to carry dry ice as the extreme cold will make the inner lining brittle and cause it to break.
Most hard sided coolers are dry ice compatible and the plastic can handle dry ice.
If you're looking for a dry ice compatible cooler than check out my list of the best dry ice coolers.
Handle The Dry Ice Carefully
Dry ice is so cold that handling it for more than a second can kill your skin cells and cause severe burns and even frostbite.
Therefore, it's very important that you handle the dry ice correctly so that you don't hurt yourself.
Use insulated gloves or use something like a towel when handling and moving around the dry ice so it doesn't touch your bare skin.
If you're breaking up the dry ice with a hammer than it is advised that you wear safety glasses. The last thing you want is the dry ice to get in your eye and blind you.
Pre-Chill Your Cooler
If you're using a high-quality cooler with thick insulation then you want to pre-chill your cooler before you put the dry ice in there.
While insulation is designed to keep heat out if left in a warm area it can absorb a lot of heat itself.
Placing dry ice in a warm cooler will cause your dry ice to disappear much faster than if you put it in a pre-chilled cooler.
To preach to your cooler simply use a sacrificial bag of ice or some frozen water bottles and leave them in your cooler overnight. This will lower the temperature of the insulation and your dry ice will last longer.
Click here for more tips on how to pre-chill a cooler effectively
Place The Dry Ice In The Bottom of The Cooler
In most circumstances you'll want to place the dry ice at the bottom of the cooler.
Because cold air sinks and because the opening to the cooler is at the top this will protect the dry ice from the hot air and outside heat and cause it to last longer.
Placing the dry ice at the bottom of your cooler also has the added benefit of protecting people from the burning effects of dry ice.
People are much less likely to burn themselves if the dry ice is at the bottom underneath a bunch of food and drinks then if it is directly on top of your stuff.
Wrap Dry Ice in Paper, Cardboard or a Towel
Because dry ice is so cold it's a good idea to put a layer of cardboard, newspaper or towels over the top of dry ice to protect your food and drink from the extreme cold.
Placing food directly next to and touching dry ice can cause freezer burn and ruin your food.
For larger blocks of dry ice consider wrapping them in a towel, newspaper or cardboard. This will protect your cooler from the extreme code of the dry ice but will also protect anyone's hands who accidentally touch it.
The added benefit of this is that it also insulates the dry ice and causes it to last longer.
Place Frozen Food Closest To The Dry Ice
Once you put the dry ice in your cooler and you're adding your food and drinks you want to put the frozen food closest to the dry ice.
Because dry ice is so cold it will freeze anything that is close to it and it will keep it frozen.
Putting your frozen items next to the dry ice will ensure that they stay frozen and it will also protect other things in your cooler that you wish to just be cold and not frozen.
Place Non-Frozen Food Further Away From The Dry Ice
If you're putting items in your cooler that you don't want to completely freeze over then you want to put them as far away from the dry ice as possible.
The dry ice will make the entire cooler extremely cold, sometimes even colder than a freezer. Sometimes you can't avoid everything inside freezing over but the further away something is from the dry ice the less likely it is to freeze.
You can use dry ice for drinks in a cooler but it can be quite difficult to stop them from freezing.
The more frozen food you have surrounding the dry ice insulates your non frozen items and makes them less likely to freeze over.
Place Dry Ice On Top Of The Cooler To Keep Everything Frozen
Well usually you would put dry ice on the bottom of a cooler sometimes it makes sense to put it at the top.
If you have limited amount of dry ice and you want everything in your cooler to be completely frozen then putting the dry ice at the top is the best idea.
As the dry ice causes the surrounding air the cold air will sink to the bottom of your cooler freezing everything as it goes down.
Doing this will cause the dry ice to disappear faster but sometimes this is worth the trade off in order to keep everything in your cooler completely frozen.
You can also put some dry ice on the top of the cooler some dry ice on the bottom and even some dry ice in the middle if you really want to keep everything frozen.
Ensure Gas Has a Way To Escape Your Cooler
Dry ice doesn't melt like regular ice does, it sublimates, which means it turns directly into a gas.
If this gas doesn't have anywhere to escape then pressure can build up inside your cooler and ultimately lead to it breaking or even exploding.
Luckily it's very unlikely a cooler will explode from dry ice because very few coolers are completely airtight.
Regardless, it's a good idea to partially open the drainage plug or leave the lid on lunch so that the expanding gas can escape.
Don't Keep The Cooler In a Confined Space
Dry ice is made of frozen carbon dioxide and if it's kept in a confined space with no airflow then it can build up to harmful toxic levels.
Whenever you're using dry ice in a cooler you'll want to make sure the cooler is not in a confined space and that there is lots of airflow.
If you're using your cooler outside then you don't have anything to worry about but if you're using it inside make sure you open all the windows.
If you're driving with dry ice in a cooler in your car make sure that all your windows are down so fresh air can blow away the excess carbon dioxide.
It's extremely rare but it is possible that dry ice can kill you if you aren't careful about this.
Use Dry Ice Combined With Regular Ice
You can combine dry ice with regular ice for some great results in your cooler.
The dry ice will help to keep things frozen and it will also help to keep the ice in your cooler frozen as well.
The dry ice will disappear first but when it's gone you'll still have the regular ice to keep your cooler cold for a longer period of time.
Ensure Items are Pre-Frozen or Pre-Chilled
Whenever you're putting items into a cooler with dry ice you want to make sure that those items are either pre-frozen or pre-chilled.
If they on pre-frozen or pre-chilled then the dry ice will freeze them but you will lose a lot of dry ice in the process and it won't last as long.
The More Dry Ice You Use The Longer It Will Last
Just like regular ice the more dry ice you use in a cooler the longer it will last overall.
Using just a small block of dry ice in a large cooler isn't going to do much and it isn't going to last very long.
Do you want to make sure that you have a decent amount of dry ice in your cooler so it can keep items frozen for an extended period of time.
You can check out this article I did on how long dry ice lost in a Styrofoam cooler for more details on how much dry ice you should use.
You can also check out this article on the smart ways to make dry ice last longer. These temps will help extend the length of your dry ice and allow you to keep items frozen for longer.
Using Dry Ice in a Cooler Isn't Hard, Just Be Smart With It
Overall, using dry ice in a cooler is pretty simple and pretty safe if you were smart with it and take the proper precautions.
Always use protection, wrap your dry ice where possible and make sure people are aware there is dry ice in your cooler and the potential dangers of it.
Follow the simple steps outlined in this article and enjoy using dry ice on your next adventure to keep items frozen or cold in your cooler.
Click here to learn more about how to use dry ice