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The basics of dry ice: Sending items that need to stay cold

How UPS customers ship fresh food far and wide.

Cooking up a storm? If you're sending home-cooked food or fresh meat to a loved one, you'll need to know the basics of shipping items that must be kept cold.

This article was originally published in October 2011 and was updated in February 2015.

For a hunter fortunate enough to cap an outdoor adventure with a prized elk, there's never a shortage of willing recipients to share the spoils with – so how to ship such items is something we're often asked at Compass.

Naturally, elk meat isn't the only food that people like to send across the country. Some parents and grandparents, for example, enjoy preparing home-cooked meals and sending them to loved ones.

The problem, of course, is spoilage, so shipping food items through UPS requires coolant products such as dry ice or frozen gel packs.

As dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) is considered a hazardous material for air travel, it's subject to regulations and labeling requirements not applicable to ground transport. Another issue: Most people have no experience shipping with dry ice or gel freezer packs so they're unsure where to find these products or how best to pack them.

Here are a few useful tips: 

  • Where can I buy dry ice or gel freezer packs? Most grocery stores and butcher shops sell both products, while gel freezer packs can be found at some The UPS Store® locations. Go here for a partial list of dry ice vendors across the United States.
  • What's better for shipping meat – dry ice or gel freezer packs? The quick answer: They both work but have their strengths and weaknesses. Dry ice (-109 F), as the name suggests, keeps a package dry, whereas gel packs dampen as they thaw. Dry ice is also colder but doesn't last as long as gel packs. One significant advantage of gel freezer packs: There are no restrictions on the amount that can be shipped by air.
  • How should I pack meat to keep it frozen? For best results, use a Styrofoam cooler, preferably at least 1.5 inches thick. Next, place one layer of coolant inside. Then place a sealed bag of meat inside the cooler, followed by another layer of coolant. Final step: Seal the cooler lid with tape, as this helps preserve the coolant.
  • Which shipping option should I choose for perishables like meat? The effectiveness of dry ice and gel packs vary, with three days considered the maximum time a product can be stored. So UPS Next Day Air®, guaranteeing delivery by the next business day, is your best option. If using 2nd Day Air®, remember to add more dry ice or gel freezer packs. Send shipments early in the week.
  • How should I handle dry ice? It's important to take precautions. Use gloves when handling dry ice as extreme temperatures burn skin. 
  • Other recommendations to consider: It's important to fill the empty space inside of the cooler with either 60 lb. kraft paper or bubble wrap. The additional void fill will help keep the cold confined into one area. Use a combination of both dry ice and frozen gel packs. Place the dry ice in the bottom of the cooler, next place the frozen gel packs, put the meat on top of the frozen gel packs. Then follow the opposite pattern to the lid of the cooler (meat, frozen gel pack, dry ice, cooler lid). The dry ice will help keep the frozen gel packs cooler longer.

For more information about dry ice shipping regulations, go to
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    Reader Comments

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    Elizabeth May 25, 2015
    Can you ship just a styrofoam cooler taped or do you have to add a box?
    Compass Guy December 1, 2014
    Dr. Lou, I would bring the package to UPS in late afternoon. UPS Ground within Kentucky is one-day service, so you can avoid the extra cost of Next Day Air service this time. The advantage of Next Day Air is that it'll be delivered in the morning and UPS Ground is typically afternoon. But frozen meat in a cooler should keep 24 hours. That choice is up to you, of course!
    Dr. Lou November 29, 2014
    Wanting to ship venison from Murray, Ky. to Lexington,Ky. Will pack frozen meat in a cooler. What is best time of day to bring to your site to overnight it? AM?
    Compass Guy September 29, 2014
    Cupcakekaay, we have a video on this site about a pie company, The Right Slice, in Hawaii that ships pies to the 48 states with custom boxes and packing from The UPS Store. That might be a good place to start.
    @cupcakekaay September 26, 2014
    I'd like to know how to cold-ship cupcakes stateside.
    Carrie W August 28, 2014
    I want to ship duck eggs, so I want them to stay cold but not freeze. Any suggestions?
    Paul L. August 20, 2014
    I've shipped a good deal of frozen beef from Vermont to California without any dry ice or gel packs. The secret to success is buying a good cooler from one of the big box stores or online. Pack the cooler as full as possible and tape the cooler shut tight. 125 pounds of frozen beef @ -25F will last at least 3 days in a good cooler with no thaw. The plastic cooler holds up better than Styrofoam during shipping, too. Coolers aren't that expensive and you save big on shipping cost over next day or even second day freight, and you don't pay to ship dry ice or gel packs. Just food and the cooler. Ship late in the day too, so it doesn't sit at the terminal all day. Check weight and size limits with UPS before buying your coolers.
    The Compass Guy January 9, 2012
    Yes. The key ingredients are dry ice, an insulated container and preferably next day shipping. Whatever you do, don't ship so that your product ships over the course of a weekend. And remember that our Saturday Delivery service is available should you find yourself shipping on a Friday. I don't suppose that you'd be willing to share the recipe, would you? The Compass guy likes to make pizza at home once in a while! ;-) Regards - Jerry.
    Anonymous January 7, 2012
    I want to ship frozen pizza's how would I ship them same method as above
    Anonymous October 7, 2011
    It's very interesting elk meat is a commonly shipped item (I may be reading the article wrong). lol. But I see that you recommend a styrofoam cooler as the shipping container. I was reading on this <a href="">dry ice</a> website that you are not supposed to seal containers because it could explode. You specifically say to seal the cooler. Is that different because it is styrofoam?
    The Compass Guy October 6, 2011
    Hi commenter. You're right. This article is just a quick overview. You can find all of the information in detail here: Coolants and Refrigerants (Dry Ice). Best, the Compass guy
    Anonymous October 6, 2011
    Isn't there a limit of 5 lbs of dry ice for air shipments? I did not see that listed in the article