September 05, 2022
Your rifle spoke its piece. The echoes have faded, the smoke has cleared, and now there’s a big-bodied bull elk lying quiet in the mountain grasses.
You’re used to driving Grandad’s old truck to the back beanfield, loading your whitetail buck in the back, and hauling it up the road a piece to the local meat processor. But you’re miles from the trailhead, and here lies 800 pounds of bull.
Properly cutting up, caring for, and transporting elk meat from the backcountry can be a serious challenge. Particularly, if you’re on your own.
First, the simple step. Notch your tag, and if required, attach it to the elk in an appropriate location.
Next, stage and take photos. Take the time to get good ones, but be efficient, because that big-bodied bull offers a ton of fantastic meat—as long as you get it cooled quickly. In the backcountry on your own, the “gutless method” to take apart your bull is the only option. Elk are too big to move much, let alone hang.
The Gutless Method
We don’t have room here to detail the entire process step by step, so we’ll hit the critical points. First, make all your cuts in the hide. All four legs, belly and brisket, and neck. If you’re going to cape your bull for a shoulder mount, do those first—and carefully.
Skin off the entire top half of your elk. Prevent the oily, thick- haired hide in the neck and groin from contacting meat. And that oily stuff? It’s rank elk urine. Keep the flesh-side clean and stretch the hide out flat from the spine. It can serve as a clean place to put loose meat cuts as you carve them off.
Work your knife deep around the top of the shoulder, down the front close to the neck, and around the back. Be sure to stay behind the shoulder blade. Detach the front leg at the knee and make a slit in the shank. Tie a short section of paracord through the slit and around the bone. Heave up on the knee, and slice away beneath, working close to the ribs from the brisket up toward the backbone. When the front quarter comes free, use the paracord to hang it in a shady tree.
Repeat with the rear quarter, working closely around the spine and pelvic bone first. Cut the hindquarter free from beneath, working into the ball joint of the hip and cutting it free. Do this carefully and avoid puncturing the intestines.
Rear quarters are heavy, so be ready when it comes free. Hang it in the shade with the front quarter.
Surgically carve out the backstrap. Whittle off the neck meat and, if desired, chop or saw out the rib rack. At this point, do an informal autopsy to see how your bullet performed. If the heart hasn’t been shot up, now’s the time to bag it.
Using the remaining legs as levers, roll the elk over and repeat the process.
Lastly, make a long slit, tight against the spine, from the hip forward to the rear rib. Be careful not to cut too deep. Treat it like gutting: cut only deep enough to access the body cavity and be careful not to rupture the guts. Reaching inside, push the innards away from the spine and carefully detach the two tenderloins.
Detach the head where the skull attaches to the first vertebra. If you’re keeping the cape and/or hide, spread it to drain and cool. Later, fold it flesh side in, and wrap it into a tight bundle.
Meat Care and Cooling
Depending on season and weather, your meat either may be already chilling well or in danger of going sour. You could be working with cold-numbed hands or swatting away hordes of flies and hornets swarming around the fresh, hot meat.
Whatever environmental challenges you face, cool that meat diligently. Hang it in the shade, where air will circulate around each quarter. If you can, find a shady creek bottom and hang the meat over flowing water, under the wide-spread branches of a big pine.
As the wet surface of the meat dries, bag the meat with game sacks. Tie them off well, so flies can’t infest the meat. If you’re hunting the early season when it’s hot, you’ll want to bag the meat right away as it comes off the carcass, or flies will lay eggs in it within minutes.
To Bone or Not to Bone
If you shot your elk in the morning, it’s now probably time for lunch. If you shot your elk in the evening, it’s time to drag yourself back to camp. Regardless of the time, a packout is the next step. It’s time to decide whether or not to bone the meat out.
Boning meat can be arduous. If you have to bone it out, maintain your humor and work steadily. But boned-off meat doesn’t keep as well and is harder to keep clean. If you’re packing out with horses or an ATV, leave the quarters intact. If you have friends—and are feeling up to the task—carrying the quarters on your back isn’t a bad choice. If you’re alone and the packout will be long, boning the meat is the best option.
Don’t whittle the meat off in little chunks; keeping the muscle groups whole will improve the quality of the meat. Follow the bones and cut between rather than through major muscle groups. Carve off those massive quarters and bag them all in one or two big hunks. Back home, with plenty of time and the music playing, you’ll do a much better job of cutting nice clean roasts and steaks and so will waste less meat.
Extended Meat Care
Sometimes, if you’re deep in the backcountry on a horse pack trip, it may be several days before you head out to the trailhead, particularly if you’re hunting with a couple of pals and you notch your tag early during the hunt.
In this scenario, you’ll have to be diligent in keeping the meat cool. If it’s October or November and the nights are good and cold, you can hang it high on a meat pole out of the reach of bears, and it will be fine. However, warm September weather may dictate that you’ve got to haul it out immediately even if it’s not convenient.
If that’s the case, air cool the meat through the night and start for the trailhead an hour or so before dawn. With a good pack horse, even if you have to walk, you can get a whole elk out in one trip. If you’re backpacking, you’ll have to beg your pals to help, and all of you will need to prioritize hauling meat. Get it to the truck, get it out of the backpacks or pack horse panniers, and spread it to cool. As soon as possible, hang it in a walk-in cooler or layer it on ice in big coolers.
Once the meat is safe, head back in with your pals, hoping you can return the favor.