Dry ice is a popular way to keep perishable foods cold during shipping. But is dry ice good for camping?
Dry ice can be used for keeping food cold while camping, but it has a number of notable drawbacks and hazards. While dry ice is arguably superior to regular ice in its ability to keep food frozen, it can also pose some major health risks and lead to serious or fatal injuries. If you choose to use dry ice while camping, you need to understand and accept these risks.
Because dry ice comes with so many pros and cons for campers, the question of whether it’s good to use while camping is more nuanced than it might first appear. While it’s ultimately up to you to decide if you’re willing to use dry ice during a camping trip, we’ve put together this article to answer some of the most common questions that people have about using dry ice in the mountains.
Important Facts – Camping with Dry Ice
Before we can answer the question of whether dry ice is good for camping, we first need to discuss what dry ice even is and how it differs from regular ice.
Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide that is at least –109.2ºF (–78.5ºC) cold. This makes it different from regular ice, which is made from water and is at least 32ºF (0ºC) cold.
You can normally buy dry ice in blocks from grocery stores and hardware stores, but the availability of it will vary greatly depending on where you live. Regular ice, on the other hand, can be made at home in a freezer or you can buy it commercially at gas stations and grocery stores.
Okay, so at this point, we’re all on the same page as to what dry ice is—but is it good for camping?
The answer is maybe because it all depends on what you plan to use it for and if you understand the risks and benefits of using dry ice in the great outdoors.
There are two main benefits to using dry ice while camping:
Superior Freezing Ability
Since dry ice is so cold, it is very good at keeping food cold. It’s particularly popular for use with frozen foods or for freezing any fish that you catch during your angling adventures.
Dry ice sublimates (i.e., changes directly from solid to gas) instead of melts (i.e., changes from a solid to liquid). As a result, it’s a popular choice for use when storing or shipping frozen meat and fish. That’s because, unlike regular ice, dry ice won’t melt and get everything wet, which can ruin all of your food and make everything pretty gross.
If you’re someone who hates warm food and soggy coolers, there are clear advantages to dry ice while camping. But dry ice also comes with a number of major risks, hazards, and disadvantages, including:
Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide. When it sublimates, it releases carbon dioxide into the air around it. If you have dry ice in a closed or poorly ventilated environment, such as in your car or tent, and you inhale the fumes, it can lead to a potentially fatal issue known as carbon dioxide poisoning. This is why the NY State Department of Health recommends that you only keep dry ice in ventilated areas.
Dry ice is cold – like really, really cold. Touching dry ice with your bare skin can cause burns that are similar to what people experience with severe frostbite. The CDC states that people should not handle dry ice with bare hands. Rather, the CDC recommends wearing safety goggles and well-insulated gloves while handling dry ice.
Causes Food to Freeze
Since dry ice is so cold, anything that comes into contact with it is likely to freeze. This could cause the food that you just wanted to keep cold to become frozen, which could be problematic if you need to cook a meal at short notice.
Potential for Cooler Explosions
When dry ice is stored in tightly sealed containers, like some high-end coolers, the gas from the ice can build up, expand, and cause the cooler to explore. If you want to use dry ice in a cooler, be sure that your cooler is dry ice compatible.
So the moral of the story here is that you can use dry ice for camping, but it’s not always a good idea. If you’re willing to accept the risks and hazards of camping with dry ice, that’s your own choice. But many people will find that it’s less stressful to just use regular ice during their travels.
How Long Will Dry Ice Last While Camping?
There is no simple answer to this question as it all depends on how much dry ice you have and the quality of your cooler.
You’ll commonly hear people say that 5 lbs (2.3 kg) of dry ice will last about 24 hours in a well-insulated environment. Does this mean that you’ll see the same results with your dry ice? Not necessarily. It really depends on the quality of your cooler’s insulation.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that dry ice isn’t actually intended to be a long-term food storage solution.
Rather, dry ice is more commonly used in the shipping industry to keep frozen food frozen for as long as possible so that it arrives at your front door without spoiling. Since most perishable foods are shipped overnight, the dry ice only has to work its magic for a day or two. So, even though dry ice is really cold, it’s not a miracle worker and it probably won’t keep your food frozen for weeks on end.
Will Dry Ice Explode in a Cooler?
Dry ice can explode in a cooler under certain conditions. This is actually one of the biggest dangers of using dry ice while camping, so it’s important to be aware of this issue as you decide whether it’s the right option for your needs.
Since dry ice turns into a gas instead of a liquid, that gas builds up inside coolers and other poorly ventilated spaces as the ice sublimates. In a well-sealed or airtight cooler, this gas can eventually build up so much pressure that it causes the cooler to explode.
Thankfully, there are some dry ice compatible coolers that are designed not to explode as the dry ice sublimates.
According to Grizzly Coolers, all of their coolers are dry ice compatible. YETI also says that some—but not all—of their coolers are dry ice compatible, too.
Ultimately, it’s up to you as a camper to ensure that your chosen cooler is dry ice compatible. Contact your cooler manufacturer directly if you have specific questions about your gear.
Dry Ice For Camping: Yay or Nay?
Dry ice can be used to keep food cold on a camping trip, so long as you know what you’re signing up for. Even though dry ice is a powerful tool, it also has its hazards and drawbacks. If you choose to use dry ice while camping, be sure you take proper safety precautions to prevent illness or injury to yourself or others in the mountains.
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David Parnell is the founder and lead editor at Trail and Summit, who enjoys writing on a wide range of topics from travel trailers to trail running. He’s an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.