Dry ice is much colder than regular ice and doesn't get wet as it melts but most people seem to use regular ice in their cooler.
Is dry ice better than regular ice in a cooler? Or is regular ice better? And what should you use in your cooler?
Well the answer is…it depends.
Dry ice can keep food frozen in a cooler and it turns directly into gas so items don't get wet. But dry ice will freeze drinks whereas regular ice will just keep drinks and food cold, not frozen. Both last about as long as each other but regular ice is cheaper to buy in bulk.
Both dry ice and regular ice have their pros and cons and which is going to work better in your cooler will depend on what you are trying to do.
Dry Ice Is Best For Keeping Things Frozen
Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide and it is SUUUUPER cold. At -190ºF (-78ºC) it is way colder than the freezing temperature of water and it's also even colder than your freezer at home which is usually only set to 0ºF (-18ºC).
This means when you put dry ice in a cooler anything that gets close to the dry ice is going to completely freeze.
Whether it be meat, ice cream, sandwiches or drinks. When using dry ice in your cooler most of your items are going to be frozen solid. It's actually one of the best ways to keep ice cream frozen in a cooler.
You can avoid drinks freezing by placing them up top and away from your dry ice and I talk about this in how to use dry ice in a cooler for drinks, but more commonly everything is going to freeze.
This can be great if you're trying to store frozen food. For example if you're going camping and want to take some frozen meat with you to eat in a few days time then dry ice is perfect for this.
However, if you're trying to keep items cold but not frozen (eg. fresh fruit, milk, soda, beer etc) then dry ice in your cooler usually isn't the best option.
Regular Ice Is Best For Keeping Things Cold
Whereas dry ice makes your cooler like a freezer regular ice makes your cooler more like a fridge.
It'll keep drinks and food cold like a fridge does and a good cooler can keep ice frozen for days at a time.
A cooler with regular ice can keep food frozen for a while if the food was already frozen before putting it in your cooler, but it won't freeze food.
So regular ice is great for drinks and great for keeping thinks like milk and foods cool like a fridge does. However, regular ice does melt into water which can make items wet and soggy whereas dry ice turns directly into a gas.
Dry Ice Doesn't Make Things Wet
Dry ice doesn't melt, it sublimates. This means it turns directly into a gas.
The benefit of this is that as dry ice heats up it won't make your food wet and soggy like regular ice does.
I remember storing chocolate and sandwiches in my cooler while camping only to have them get wet and soggy and disgusting as the ice started to melt.
This led to wasted food and a disappointed me when I went to eat some chocolate and it was ruined and I was nowhere near a store to buy any more.
There are some things you can do to keep food from getting soggy in a cooler, but with dry ice it won't get wet at all. You do need to make sure you ventilate the space your cooler is kept in though as the carbon dioxide gas from the dry ice can be dangerous if not well ventilated.
What Lasts Longer In a Cooler? Dry Ice or Regular Ice?
What about how long the ice lasts? Does dry ice last longer in a cooler and so is better than regular ice or does regular ice last longer?
While I haven't seen any head to head comparisons on dry ice vs regular ice and how long they last I have written articles on how long dry ice lasts in a cooler as well as how long regular ice lasts in coolers and to be honest the time periods are about the same.
Dry ice and regular ice last about the same amount of time in a cooler. 1-2 days maximum in a cheap cooler or 3-7+ days in a high end cooler if you're using lots of dry ice or regular ice.
Dry ice has the advantage that it starts out colder so it takes more heat energy to completely warm up the dry ice and your cooler. But then it has the downside that it turns to gas so quickly and once it turns into a gas it doesn't keep food and drinks cold anymore.
Regular ice isn't as cold, but it'll stay frozen up to a higher temperature than dry ice and even as it melts the freezing cold water can still keep things really cold.
There is also the advantage that people tend to use lots of regular ice as it's cheap, easy to buy in bulk or easy to make yourself whereas people tend to buy less dry ice as it's more expensive, harder to buy and harder to handle. Plus too much dry ice makes your cooler too cold.
So a lot of regular ice will almost always outlast a little bit of dry ice but if you're using the same amounts of each then both dry ice and regular ice last about the same time in a cooler.
Can I Put Regular Ice On Top of Dry Ice?
Rather than asking “is dry ice or regular ice better in a cooler?” why not combine both to make the ultimate cooler?
You can put regular ice on top of dry ice in a cooler. This will make the regular ice even colder and make it last longer. When the dry ice is all used up the regular ice will still be frozen and keep your cooler cold.
Using a combination of dry ice and regular ice can give you the best of both worlds.
Put dry ice on the bottom of your cooler along with any items your want to keep completely frozen. Avoid direct contact with your food and the dry ice as it can cause freezer burn. You a towel or cardboard to protect your items from the dry ice.
Then place your regular ice on top of the dry ice and the items you want to keep cold (but not frozen) towards the top of the cooler away from the dry ice.
The dry ice will keep your food frozen and also keep the ice in your cooler frozen.
The dry ice will turn to gas and disappear before the regular ice, but it'll leave the regular ice extremely cold and extremely frozen.
So once the dry ice is gone the ice in your cooler should still stay frozen for quite a while.
The combination of dry ice and regular ice can be a great way to keep food frozen and make regular ice last longer.
Dry Ice Can Freeze Drinks and Explode Sodas
You do need to be careful when using dry ice in a cooler with carbonated beverages.
Sodas and beers can become frozen which causes them to expand massively and it can cause your soda cans to explode or your beer bottles to shatter. Both of these make a huge mess in your cooler so you need to be careful.
Dry Ice Can't Be Used In Soft Sided Coolers
If you've got a soft sided cooler then you don't need to even think about whether or not it's better to use dry ice or regular ice.
Dry ice CANNOT be used in soft sided coolers. The plastic lining of soft sided coolers is not designed for the extremely cold temperatures of dry ice and this can cause the lining of your cooler to break, ruining your cooler.
You should avoid putting dry ice in a soft sided cooler if you don't want to break it so instead you'll have to use regular ice or you'll need to get a hard sided cooler. See my list of the best coolers for dry ice if you need help deciding on what cooler to get.
Regular Ice Is Cheaper and Easier To Buy (or Make Yourself)
Another major benefit of regular ice is that it's much cheaper to purchase than dry ice in bulk.
You can go to your local gas station or convenient store and get large bags of regular ice. You can also fill up old milk jugs or water bottles and make your own ice bricks in your freezer at home.
However, dry ice is sold at less places so it's harder to get. It's more expensive so you're less likely to buy bulk amounts of it and unless you've got a specialized freezer or equipment chances are you can't make dry ice at home.
This makes dry ice more limited and harder to use, which is why most people simply opt for regular ice instead.
While regular ice won't keep items frozen as well as dry ice does for most people it works well enough and the convenience of it makes it a better option than going out to buy dry ice.