How to Pack a Cooler with Dry Ice

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Are you going camping, hunting, to the beach or the mountains? If you are planning more than a short excursion, consider using dry ice when packing your cooler. 

What is Dry Ice?

Dry ice is made from solid carbon dioxide. Because it has a lower temperature than regular ice and evaporates rather than melts, dry ice is the best method for cooling and keeping foods frozen when away from a freezer or refrigerator. It is perfect for a cooler -- no more digging, dipping or dripping around or through melted ice for drinks or risking wet food.

Safety Precautions

But, because of its extremely cold temperature, dry ice cannot be used or handled safely without proper protection or preparation. Dry ice can irritate or burn the skin, so should always be treated using gloves or thick towels.

Also remember that because it is carbon dioxide in solid form, it is essential to be around fresh air at all times - being in a poorly ventilated area can cause mild carbon dioxide poisoning, ranging from headaches to rapid breathing, or more dangerous levels which can be lethal.

Make sure to pack your cooler outside or in a highly ventilated space. And when driving in your car, make sure to keep the windows open a crack.    

For these reasons, it is important to remember never to handle directly without gloves or a towel, and please keep small children and pets away.

Getting Ready

Your Checklist: Things You´ll Need

While using dry ice in your cooler has many advantages, it does come with a few safety precautions. Please read carefully and make sure you have everything at hand before you start to pack.

The Right Cooler

You will need to select the right type of cooler to use with dry ice. The thicker, the cooler, the longer dry ice will keep. 

If you are going on a short day trip, you can pack dry ice in a lightweight styrofoam cooler or urethane-insulated box. If you use a box, make sure it is at least 3-inches thick.

For larger or longer trips (or for more substantial packing jobs), you may want to consider purchasing a plastic or roto-molded cooler.

However, it is crucial to purchase a cooler with or fashion an adequate ventilation system so that the evaporating gas can safely escape. 

Shop for a cooler with a drainage cap near the bottom of the cooler, which can be used again for wet-ice packing. If you cannot find a cooler with a drainage cap, for short trips you may place the lid on top so that it doesn't wholly seal shut, in order the gas to escape as it evaporates.

Packing Materials

To best pack the dry ice in your cooler, you will need styrofoam or pieces of thick cardboard, and some newspaper and plastic bags. You may also want a pair of scissors handy to cut the pieces to fit the cooler, and pack some extras to take with you (just in case!).

Gloves or Towels for Handling

Because the extremely cold temperature of the ice can harm the skin if it comes into direct contact, make sure you have gloves on hand. Think thick rubber dishwashing, gardening, or sturdy industrial gloves -- not the sheer variety produced for medical supply.

In a pinch, you can also handle with thick towels -- but again make sure never to touch dry ice with your bare hands.

And during your trip, please advise others to take care when opening the cooler or removing items (such as food or drinks) and warn them not to touch the dry ice directly. If this will be a frequent occurrence, keep everyone safe by adding a layer of cardboard to cover over the dry ice.

Purchasing Dry Ice

Decide How Much You Will Need

In addition to getting packing materials together, you will need to calculate how much dry ice you will need to purchase. 

The amount you need will depend on:

The Size of Your Cooler

Of course, you will want to measure how much dry ice will fit inside your cooler, around the size of the items you want to pack. For example, a 40 to 60-quart (37 to 56-liter) cooler can usually hold 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of dry ice for one day.[3]

Type of Food-Drink to Pack

If you want your items to keep cold instead of frozen, you can layer the sections of dry ice with regular wet ice (see Step ??? for instructions).

The Type of Dry Ice Available for Purchase

Depending on where you will buy the ice in your area, you may have the option of buying small pieces or baler.gs of pellets, or larger blocks or chunks. Keep in mind that not only will the larger pieces last longer and are safer to handle, they are also easier to measure how many blocks will fit inside your cooler.

The Length or Duration of Your Trip

For every day or 24-hour period, they recommend purchasing 10 to 20 pounds of dry ice. If you want to make the dry ice last longer, read on and keep to the dry packing method and wrap with newspaper.

Buying Dry Ice

Dry ice is easy to purchase, but you may need to plan ahead. Do a little research in your area for stores that sell dry ice. Most grocery or general merchandise-home goods stores will carry it for sale, but you may need to call ahead.

After calculating how much dry ice you will need, make arrangements to purchase and pick up as close to the time, you will pack it as possible. Dry ice is the solid form of a gas, so it has a very short shelf-life. 

Dry ice is relatively cheap and depending on its form, can range from $1 to $3 per pound, depending on the store and where you live. Please keep in mind that some states require you to be at least 18 years of age to purchase.

If you need to store for a short time before packing, remember that you cannot keep dry ice in a refrigerator or a freezer. Putting dry ice in your freezer may actually damage your thermostat because of its extreme temperature.

Store in the cooler you will eventually use for your trip, and fill any empty space with wadded-up or crumpled newspapers to slow down the evaporation process.

Packing Instructions

Ready to get packing? Keep reading for our step-to-step guide:

Prepare Your Cooler

Insulate the Cooler

If you are using a plastic cooler, you will want to protect it by lining it with a layer of cardboard or styrofoam along the sides and bottom. This layer will insulate the plastic from the extreme cold and keep the plastic from cracking.

Ensure a System for Evaporation

As the dry ice evaporates, it will emit gas which, without a way to escape, can build up and cause damage to you or the cooler (for example, weakening or warping the plastic). Double-check that the drainage plug is open or loosened, or make sure the lid is cracked slightly ajar.

Grab your Gloves!

Remember that dry ice can be an irritant on bare skin, so make sure you put on your gloves or handle with a thick towel.

Wrap the Dry Ice in Newspaper

Now that your hands are safe wrap the blocks of dry ice with newspapers right before packing. The paper will protect both you from accidentally touching the ice directly, and protect any unwrapped food items from direct exposure. It will help the dry ice last longer, as the extra insulation will slow the rate of evaporation.

If you are using smaller pellets or chunks of dry ice, simply pour or place on the bottom of the cooler and fill in any gaps with crumpled newspaper. Then top with a thick layer of cardboard, leaving a gap or a small hole (about 1-inch) so that dry ice can evaporate.

Ready? Let's get packing!

Packing Chilled Items

Taking a shorter trip or carrying items that don't need to be frozen? Follow these steps of how to layer regular wet ice with dry ice. Combining the two will keep the food or drinks chilled at a lower temperature than with just wet ice and will also keep the wet ice from melting too quickly during your trip.

Take your prepared cooler with the layer of ice in the bottom, following the steps above. Even if you are using large newspaper-wrapped blocks, you may want t top with a thick piece (or pieces) of cardboard measured to the cooler and a thin layer of plastic from a trash or shopping bag. This extra layer will help protect the safety of any kids or guests traveling with you who may try to remove items during your trip. Remember to cut a hole or leave a small gap so that the dry ice can evaporate - if the gas builds up it will damage the cooler or the items inside.

Then, layer wet ice on top and arrange your food and drink. Pour more wet ice on top, and you are ready to go. Easy!

(Remember if you are using a styrofoam or urethane box without a drainage cap, to leave the cover slightly ajar). 

Need more help? Follow this helpful step-by-step video 

Packing Frozen Items

Perhaps you are going on a more extended trip, and you want to keep items frozen, or are going fishing or hunting and have some new fish or meat to transport home.

Store the items in plastic bags and place directly in the bottom of your prepared, insulated cooler. Then, using your gloves or a towel, gently place the dry ice (wrapped in newspaper) directly on top. This method will quickly freeze the items and keep them fresh until you get home.

If you are going to be storing additional items in the cooler, follow the steps above and then: layer with a piece of cardboard, more dry ice and then the items you want to access. This way you can remove them throughout your trip without having to keep moving the ice out of the way. Not only is this sometimes difficult, but dangerous for the unsuspecting hands of kids and guests!

Place the lid on top, and you are ready to go! As with the above instructions for chilled items, remember to unscrew or loosen the drainage cap or leave the lid slightly ajar so that the evaporation from dry ice can get out.

Here is another video to assist in packing a cooler for frozen items.

After Your Trip: Disposing of Dry Ice

After you return home and put any remaining items away, you will need to dispose of the dry ice, carefully and responsibly. Depending on the size, amount and how it's stored, it will take from several hours up to a few days to fully evaporate on its own.

Remember to wear gloves to protect the skin from direct contact with the dry ice. Keep a careful watch throughout the whole process, and, very important: 

Never keep in a confined, unventilated space: without a proper way for the evaporated gas to escape, it can build up and explode, or inside, cause carbon dioxide poisoning.

Also, never leave the dry ice out in the open unattended - please keep small children and pets (or small animals outside) away while the ice evaporates!

Outside

If you are going to leave it in your cooler to evaporate: While wearing gloves, simply remove any cardboard or newspaper packing from the layers, and unwrap any large blocks of dry ice you had covered in newspaper.

Place back in the cooler and leave outside to evaporate, with the lid of cooler of the cooler off or left ajar. 

Inside

Follow the steps above and wearing gloves, remove the dry ice from the cooler and unwrap. If you can't leave it outside place on a solid surface such as a large counter or slab of wood. Make sure to open any windows so that air can flow in and out of the room. 

Never leave in the sink to evaporate -- the extremely cold temperature may damage your plumbing.

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