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Beat the Heat When Field Dressing Game in the Backcountry

A few tips for keeping meat cool during early season hunts.

Beat the Heat When Field Dressing Game in the Backcountry

Early season hunts can be a much more pleasant experience; but once field dressing begins, it's a race against the clock. (Photo courtesy of Nick Trehearne)

From the pages of Backcountry Hunter

It was late afternoon when I loosed my arrow at the big cow elk. The shot felt good. From the sound of impact and her reaction, it was a hit, but in the dark timber, I couldn’t tell exactly where. The light was fading fast, so I hurried to the spot where she stood and found blood. From there the trail was good—bright, red blood and lots of it. In my haste, I probably rushed the recovery and found where I bumped her from where she had lain down. Then, just a few yards on, the blood trail disappeared at the edge of a deep rock slide.

I spent the next hour searching in the dark for any sign of her. Surely, she’d turned and gone downhill, so I looked there first. Then uphill. Then as far into the slide as I could safely go in the dark. Nothing. I walked circles, then did a grid search, my headlamp throwing shadows on the mountainside. Not a sign, other than that last speck of blood in a deep hoof track. It was a long hike back to camp and a restless night of little to no sleep.

We found her right away the next morning. She had gone into the rockslide and tumbled down a crevice. Thankfully, it appeared she had died very quickly. I’d probably stood within feet of her body the night before, but she had been hidden in the shadows. The upper half of her felt cool to the touch, but the rear quarter she had lain on, wedged into the rocks, was still warm, even hot, as all the blood had pooled there.

We skinned her as quickly as we could in the precarious spot and peeled the meat away from the bones. We smelled each piece as we laid it in the shadows and then again as we bagged them and loaded the mule for the pack out. Most of it held that sweet smell of freshly killed meat, but pieces from that rear quarter had started to sour. With a sickness in my stomach, we left much of it behind for fear it would contaminate the rest.


Beat the Heat When Field Dressing Game in the Backcountry
Start the cooling process as soon as your animal hits the ground. It can take a few trips to get all the meat out of the backcountry. (Photo courtesy of Nick Trehearne)

That hunt took place nearly 20 years ago, and I still feel sick about losing the meat. It was mid-September, and although it was the high country, the temperatures weren’t dropping much below 40 degrees at night and peaked well above 70 most days. With those temps comes the threat of losing your hard-earned trophy to rot and bone sour, as I learned the hard way. Bacteria thrives above 40 degrees, so it’s imperative for early-season hunters to get their game animals cooled fast. That is difficult to do anytime during the season, but it is downright impossible when temperatures soar. Still, there are a few things you can do to mitigate meat loss.


Kick-Start the Cooling

The instant an animal drops, the timer starts ticking. The key is to kick-start the cooling process. Get the hide off as soon as possible. On elk, skinning comes even before field dressing as it’s best to skip the standard gutting process and instead utilize the cleaner method of leaving the organs inside. Pull off the four quarters and place them in the shade. If possible, build a makeshift rack from deadfall to increase the cooling effects of the wind. Shade and airflow are the refrigeration system of the backcountry, so maximize their benefits.

Beat the Heat When Field Dressing Game in the Backcountry
Stuffing the animal's cavity with fresh snow is a great way to kick-start the cooling process. (Photo courtesy of Nick Trehearne)

Those big bones hold a lot of heat, so elk quarters almost always spoil from the inside out. To prevent bone sour, pull the meat off the bone in the field (where legal). If you do want to leave the quarters whole (which admittedly helps keep it more tender as it goes through the rigor mortis process), at least make a long, deep slit in the meat along the length of the bones to help release all that heat.

Strip the rest of the meat from the carcass, including the tenderloins, which can be reached by making a small cut just behind the last rib. Lay the backstraps and any other larger cuts out of the sun to cool. Piling a bunch of hot meat into a game bag right away can mean disaster. Let some of that heat dissipate before bagging.

Preserve and Protect

Once all the meat is removed, cover it in good-quality game bags. Several companies, including Koola Buck, market game bags that are treated with antimicrobial inhibitors. These tightly-knit poly-cotton bags not only reduce the chances of bacteria growing on the surface of the meat, but also repel flies and other insects that otherwise may taint the meat. In my opinion, they are a must-have for hot-weather hunts. Commercially available citric-acid-based sprays are designed to reduce bacterial growth and repel insects. Other tricks include dousing the meat in black pepper or wiping it down with vinegar or a diluted lemon-juice solution.




Let it Hang

Once the meat is bagged, you’ll need to keep it cool. If nighttime temperatures are dropping below 40 degrees, you can hang the bags from a meat pole or suspend them from the branches of a tall tree. Make sure to pack lots of paracord. Shade and wind are your friends here, so find a breezy spot that will remain out of the sun for most of the day. Thick, dark timber is your ally; it’s often 10 or more degrees cooler than the rest of the mountain. Hang your game bags high enough to keep scavenging critters at bay. As long as it’s cool enough at night, meat will keep this way for several days until you can get it all packed out.

Beat the Heat When Field Dressing Game in the Backcountry
Don't forget lots of paracord, you'll need a good bit for a proper meat hanging pole. (Photo courtesy of Nick Trehearne)

In extreme heat, often the only way to adequately cool big-game quarters is to submerge them in a nearby creek or other cold, flowing water. Keep the meat dry by protecting it in construction-grade garbage bags. Just remember, those bags also will hold in heat, so use them only if absolutely necessary. It’s best to sink the meat for short periods of time during the heat of the day and then remove them from the plastic and hang them out at night to chill in the cold mountain air.

Bear & Son Cutlery 3-Piece Game Set

Beat the Heat When Field Dressing Game in the Backcountry
These knives are made for the backcountry hunter who needs lightweight blades that don't add critical ounces but can still handle butchering a big-game animal. The 3-Piece Game Set has three stainless steel fixed blades including a guthook, skinner, and caper. In total, the knives weigh just  9.1 ounces. $38 | bearandsoncutlery.com

At The Trailhead

Once back at the trailhead, hunters either have to make a dash to the meat processor or pick up several bags of ice to chill the meat in coolers. Lately, I’ve seen more and more western hunters haul compact freezers and generators to their roadside base camps, and this is actually a great option, particularly for larger hunting parties trying to punch multiple tags in a week.


Beat the Heat When Field Dressing Game in the Backcountry
A well-made Yeti cooler will hold ice on your game meat for days. (Photo courtesy of John Hafner)

Last season, I did that one better and built a mobile, walk-in cooler that I haul on my hunts throughout the West. I started with an enclosed cargo trailer that I lined with four inches of foam-board insulation. Over the top of that, I glued FRP panels and laid down linoleum flooring to make clean-up a breeze. 

To cool the unit, I mounted a window- sized air-conditioner up front, wired to a CoolBot temperature control device. This little device installs easily, without the need for an electrician, and overrides the standard thermostat, allowing the A/C unit to cool the inside of the trailer, or any small space, as low as 34 degrees.

Beat the Heat When Field Dressing Game in the Backcountry
Visit storeitcold.com to watch a how-to video on the complete trailer build. (Photo courtesy of Tess Rousey)

After a single season of using my wheeled walk-in cooler, I don’t know how I ever lived without it. Even on a November hunt, when unseasonable temperatures soared into the low 80s, the cooler saved the day, allowing me to get an elk and a mule deer out of the heat and into cold storage until we could get the animals cut, wrapped, and into the freezer several days later.

The one downside to hunting the early season is that daytime temperatures are still topping out well above 70–80 degrees, even in the high country. That makes meat care a challenge at best and turns field-dressing and quartering an animal into a race against the clock. Plan ahead and there’s no reason you can’t get the best possible quality meat off the mountain and into your kitchen with just a little extra effort.

One Final Tip

Frozen jugs of water will keep a high-quality cooler cold enough to store meat for several days, and it won't cost you any more than you're already spending on milk. 

Beat the Heat When Field Dressing Game in the Backcountry
(Photo courtesy of Nick Trehearne)
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