How to Use Dry Ice in a Cooler

Pelican Flyer  |  May 04, 2020

We all get satisfaction out of dumping a 10-pound bag of gas station ice atop the contents of a perfectly-packed cooler, but is there a better way to keep the cooler... cooler? Actually, yes, and it involves the same subzero stuff you used to mess around with in high school chemistry class. Dry ice is the underrated cooler companion that helps keep all your perishables cool and dry for longer. Here’s how to master it using your Pelican hard cooler.

What Is Dry Ice?

Without getting too scientific, it’s important to know a little bit about dry ice before you go overflowing your hard coolers with the stuff. Dry ice is simply the solid, cooled and condensed form of carbon dioxide, and it’s really cold (around -109.3 degrees F, to be exact). Dry ice is so cold that it can actually cause frostbite, so make sure you always wear heavy-duty gloves when handling it.

Unlike regular ice, dry ice doesn’t melt but instead sublimates (turns from solid to gas) slowly. The sublimation process can be accelerated when dry ice is placed in water, and the result is a release of dense, fog-like clouds. This process is often used to create a hazy, foggy atmosphere at concerts, haunted houses and theaters.

Dry ice is quite versatile, in fact. Besides being used to create a fog-filled environment at rock concerts and to keep the contents of your cooler ice-cold, dry ice has been used to exterminate rodents from the New York City subway system and even to shrink floor tiles and wood planks for easier removal.

Why Use Dry Ice?

There are some distinct advantages of using dry ice in a cooler. Compared with regular nugget ice you’d get from the convenience store, dry ice is colder, drier and less bulky.

  • It’s Cold. The freezing point of water is 32 degrees F, but dry ice can get colder than -109 degrees F. That means it has the unique ability to keep your frozen goods frozen rather than simply chilled. It’s a good choice if you’re traveling long distances with frozen food or don’t have access to a freezer.
  • It’s Dry. Dry ice doesn’t melt or leave you with a pool of soggy packages and water-logged soda cans at the end of the day. Instead, it sublimates into gas that escapes into the air when the cooler is opened. As a result, the contents stay cooler and dry for longer, and you don’t have to worry about draining the liquid after the fact.
  • It Takes Up Less Space. You only need about a quarter-pound of dry ice per five-gallon cooler, whereas you should use about three pounds of regular ice per gallon. If you want to maximize space or have a lot of food and beverages to chill, you’ll want to go for dry ice.
  • It’s Longer-Lasting. Dry ice starts out colder and is therefore longer-lasting than wet ice. When stored in a cooler, the baseline is about 18 to 24 hours, but many people report that their dry ice keeps food and drinks cold for days when properly packed in a durable hard cooler.

pelican consumer blog 45qw elite wheeled cooler

The Pelican 45QW Elite Wheeled Cooler is dry ice friendly.

Mastering the Dry Ice Cooler Strategy

Did we mention that dry ice is really cold? That means that it needs to be handled with care using thick gloves and that, if packed improperly, it could cause damage to your cooler and its contents.

  • Use the Right Cooler—We don’t recommend using dry ice in your soft cooler, simply because the stuff is so intense that it could damage the material. Hard coolers are your best bet. Since a well-stocked cooler can be hefty, definitely go with a wheeled cooler if you’re going to be moving a lot.
  • Handle with Care—Again, you’re going to need to wear gloves when handling dry ice. Be sure to choose a pair made of a protective material (leather, thick cloth or heavy-duty rubber is best). You’ll also want to wrap the dry ice in thick sheets of newspaper, cardboard or cloth to prevent it from coming into contact with your food, beverages or the walls of the cooler.
  • Position it Properly—Dry ice should never come into contact with the walls of your cooler. Do not place it on the bottom of your cooler beneath the contents. Instead, either set it on top of packaged foods and beverages or use a small cardboard box to keep it propped up in the middle of the cooler. If there’s a ton of unused space in your cooler, make sure to fill it with crumpled up newspapers or regular ice. The more open air, the faster the dry ice will sublimate, so this will help it last longer.

Not All Coolers Are Dry Ice Compatible

Remember to choose a dry ice compatible cooler—such as a Pelican Elite 50 Quart Cooler —before you go crazy with the dry ice. As long as you have the right vessel and know the proper protocol for handling this stuff, you can count on cooler, drier performance when you opt for dry over wet.

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