Big-game seasons throughout the West will start opening up in the coming weeks. Elk, antelope, and deer hunters will be hitting the woods, even as warm temperatures still hang on in September and October. With those temps comes the threat of losing your hard-earned meat to rot and bone sour. 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.
Elk quarters almost always spoil from the inside out as those big bones hold a lot of heat. To prevent bone sour, pull the meat off the bone in the field. 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 spell disaster. Let some of that heat dissipate before bagging.
Invest in Quality Game Bags
Once all the meat is removed, cover it in good-quality game bags. Cabela’s and 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.
Find a breezy spot that will remain shaded for most of the day. Thick, dark timber is your ally here; 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.
Keep It Cold
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 heat in, 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.
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 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.
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. (Visit storeitcold.com to watch a how-to video on the complete trailer build.)
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.