How to Pack and Quarter Game Meat in the Field
July 18, 2016
When it comes time to get the edible parts off a game animal you've just dropped in wilderness country, throw out the standard butchering practices often used for whitetails (skin on, gut, drag 100 yards to truck and take to butcher). Far from a road, there is seldom a need to gut an animal as it is likely going out in game bags.
The steps are simple: Get the skin off of one side quickly (caping the front half if you plan to mount the animal) and lift the quarters off of that half of the carcass. Fillet the backstraps and neck and trim the ribs down to the bone. Roll the carcass over onto the laid-out hide and repeat.
Quartering is easier than it sounds. At the front, just lift the leg and slash through the armpit. As you do so, the shoulder will lift farther away from the carcass. Keep slicing, cutting close to the rib cage to keep meat with the front quarter. There is no joint connecting a front shoulder to an animal; just cut through the connective muscle and tissue and voila! You've got a free quarter.
Rear quarters are attached a bit more firmly. Probe out the contour of the spine, pelvis, and hip; sink your knife in and cut the heavy muscle free from them. Topside pre-cuts complete, lift the rear leg and carve away at the connecting tissues in the groin area, being careful not to slice the intestines.
Soon you'll find the hip joint; cut the sinews that attach the hip ball and work through and around it. At this point work your way up along the planes and contours of the pelvis until you meet the topside pre-cuts, then lift the quarter off.
Hang and Cool
Hang all this bloody goodness in the shade, preferably where a bit of breeze can reach them, to start cooling while you then — and only then — go into the guts for the tenderloins.
A slit in the abdomen just below the spine will allow you to access and lift out the tenderloins, and if you want the kidneys, liver, and heart, you can get to them through it as well.
Put each quarter in a separate game bag and stick the backstraps, tenderloins, trim, and neck meat in another. Hanging them across a tree branch to cool and dry a bit prior to bagging them makes for less mess and cleaner, less sticky meat.
At this point, you're ready to load your meat onto a packhorse or — where legal and ethically accessible — onto an ATV. However, if you're backpacking, you've still got some work to do.
Nobody in their right mind carries heavy bones out on their own back unless the hike is short. Now is the time to bone that meat out.
There's no need to carefully cut each quarter up into roasts and whatnot; just pare the meat away from the bone in one big layer. Rear quarters are easy; front shoulders — specifically the shoulder blade — are a bit more technical. It's not hard, it just takes time, and when you heave your pack aboard, you'll bless the many pounds you've left behind in the form of bones.
If you prefer not to bloody your pack, drop the boned-out meat into game bags, then into heavy-duty plastic garbage bags. Plastic isn't good for long-term storage of raw meat — it slows cooling and can promote bacteria growth — but the meat's going to be smushed inside your pack where it can't breathe anyway, right? For the short term, plastic works fine and keeps your pack clean.
As a bonus, if you're camped along a cold, flowing creek, you can drop the plastic-bagged meat right into the water, which will cool it aggressively and preserve it for several days — a real boon in hot weather. Be sure to anchor it to creek-side bushes to prevent it from drifting away.
When the meat is traveling out aboard your shoulders, the size of the animal you've just turned into future culinary bliss has a huge impact on the packing-out process.
One sturdy fellow in good condition can pack a boned-out mule deer, cape, and antlers out of wilderness country in a single trip if he really wants to. However, if you've just dropped an elk — or worse, a moose — you've got your work cut out for you, particularly if the weather is warm.
A hunter in good condition can carry about 50 to 70 pounds of dead weight, as long as the terrain isn't too technical, over a series of trips. Carry much more than that and you'll waste yourself in one trip.
A big, mature bull elk can yield upward of 300 pounds of pure, boned-out meat. Even a young spike bull can give up 200 pounds or more. Do the math — unless you've got good help, you're in for a multiple-day job. Working alone on a moose that you dropped five or six miles from the trailhead could take a week of work to get it all out.
If the weather is cold, below freezing at night and not more than 45 degrees during the heat of the day, packing out is much simpler because you can take your time. Hung in the shade, meat will partially freeze during the night and stay cool all day. However, if it's hot you've got to work hard and fast — and call help. Early-season bowhunts are the most problematic; daytime temperatures can reach the mid-80s even in alpine country.
Before dropping the hammer on a moose or other such behemoths, you owe it to the animal to consider several things. How far are you from the trailhead, how warm is the weather, and will you have help hauling? You may be just too far, or the weather just too warm, to allow you to get all the meat out before it spoils — if so, pass the shot.
Ethically — and in some areas, legally — hauling the meat first and the antlers and cape out last is the right thing to do. In Alaska, you'd better get every last scrap of edible meat off that carcass: You can get a whopper ticket and have your trophy confiscated if you get lax.
What about ribs? I'm as much a fan of barbecued ribs as the next guy, but if I'm boning out an animal for a long pack out, I leave the ribs after paring the meat close to the bone. Birds and other small wilderness scavengers need to eat, too. But check local laws and pack the ribs out if required.
The first step toward success is having a good pack that freights meat well. Daypacks are all but useless, and even top-quality mountaineering-type internal-frame packs aren't optimal. For pure packing purposes, a premium external pack frame that you can simply lash quarters and game bags to is ideal. I've used a Frontier Gear of Alaska pack from Barney's Sports Chalet with great success.
However, it's ludicrous to expect wilderness hunters to haul an external-frame freighter pack around while hunting, so the best bet is a heavy-duty, large-capacity internal frame pack with a very good hip belt. Kuiu's Icon Pro 7200 is a great option, as is Eberlestock's V90 Battleship.
Such a pack will get you, your meat, and your camp out to civilization, and when not full with gear and meat, it can be collapsed in size to make day hunts easier while wearing it.
Most moose hunting and much elk hunting is done in grizzly country, and no bear is above a free steak dinner. After quartering or boning-out your animal, hang meat sacks away from the carcass, preferably 100 yards or more.
Ideally, hang them high on a cross pole in a location you can observe as you approach. Keep an eye on the carcass, too, and use caution as you load your pack with meat and head back toward the trailhead. And it doesn't hurt to hang a can of bear spray on the front of your hip belt — it has been proven on numerous encounters with bears and is often a great first line of defense.