I began learning how to hunt in the spring of 2016 at 23 years old. Hunting was not a common activity for anyone in my family or that of anyone in the community I grew up in. Over the years I have learned a lot from others and through my own experiences. From those experiences, I have tried to boil down the lessons I’ve learned and knowledge in this series of posts as an introduction to new hunters and a way to further my own understanding. It is something that I wish I found when I was first learning how to hunt and my hope is that it can serve as useful to others.
In my experience, the greatest fear when hunting is wounding an animal and not being able to finish a kill. But the part that caused the most anxiety and a sense of overwhelmment in the beginning was field dressing. You have made your kill, now it’s time to prepare the meat to take out of the field and back home. The quicker this is done, the better, as the meat will spoil due to heat or moisture if not cared for properly.
How you take care of and deal with meat in the field has a large impact on how the meat will taste. Meat that is improperly cared for will taste off and what people consider to be “gamey.” If you have common sense, work diligently and follow a few steps, you can avoid this and sit down to eat high quality steaks, stews and other meals down the line.
Everyone seems to have their own way to dress an animal out, but there are some techniques that work much better than others. In the beginning, it is best to follow that of an experienced friend, or if you are on your own that of an online expert. You will make mistakes, it’ll take a long time and some of your cuts won’t be pretty. That’s OK, it’s all part of the learning process. Once you know how to dress out one animal, you have the basic knowledge to dress out them all. There isn’t much of a difference in style, just a difference in size and therefore, time involved.
To gain experience quickly, hunt small game frequently. You can scale up as you feel comfortable and you will likely be less anxious, overwhelmed etc. as you move along.
With large animals there are two main methods of field dressing the animal. The first involves removing the guts before proceeding with the rest of the animal. The other is the gutless method, which as the name indicates, does not involve removing the guts but otherwise is very similar. What you pursue will come down to a matter of circumstances and personal preference.
Having a sharp knife is of the utmost importance. You will want some means of sharpening your knife while you are dressing out the animal. Especially for the larger ones such as elk or moose. Much of this boils down to personal preference. This is the knife I use. Don’t let the price fool you, it’s value is hard to beat. It’s easy to form and keep an edge and cheap enough to replace easily if you lose it. There are knives that are bigger and more expensive. Find what works for you and learn how to sharpen it. There are also knives with interchangeable blades. This can ensure that your knife is always sharp and there is no longer a need to sharpen. I used these for a while but have been moving away from that as I don’t like the associated consumption and waste.
The following are great resources on dressing out animals by three experts in the field. The first two are professional hunters/media stars and the third is a renowned elder from my neck of the tundra. Watch the videos often. Take notes. I’ve watched the third video 10+ times and still made plenty of mistakes the first time I dressed out a caribou. No matter how much video you watch, there is no substitute for practical experience. It still helps though.
Hunting is simply backpacking with more of a purpose and as such the same rules apply. Every ounce counts. It is worth lightening your load as much as possible so as to minimize the load and effort necessary to haul any potential animals out. Quarters of large animals can be upwards of 100 lbs. With multiple packs, it is not pleasant to have to take more than necessary, especially when gear is so widely and cheaply available. Look at sites like backpackinglight.com for tips, ideas and strategies that you could incorporate into your hunting setup. You may also find plenty of good advice among those who travel self supported via human power for long periods to hunt in remote areas.
It is preferable to keep the meat free from dirt, hair or other plant matter. This can best be achieved by taking time when skinning out the animal and placing cuts of meat on other surface. Some people elect to bring out a small tarp or sheet of tyvek. I have used garbage bags and game bags in a pinch. In the winter when snow is widely available, this is not as much of a concern. The animal can also be skinned out so as to roll the animal over onto the separated skin so as to prevent the meat from coming into contact with the ground.
If you hunt further off the road and will be spending nights out with your meat, you will need to know how to hang the meat and ensure that it remains cool and dry. Best practice is to find a tree with branches large enough to support it, or construct a meat pole (tree across two other trees) to hang them from. It is best to hang them beyond what you can reach, in order to prevent any unwanted visitors in the interim. Some areas, like in the mountains and tundra, hanging meat won’t be possible. In these circumstances, it is still best to do what you can to keep the meat cool and dry. Heat and moisture are the quickest ways to spoil meat.
When hanging or transporting meat, it is best to place it in some type of game bag. Game bags are cotton cloth bags designed to hold meat and allow adequate ventilation to keep the meat cool and prevent moisture build up. These are available at any sporting goods store and can be reused more than once if cleaned. In a pinch, garbage bags can be used as well but should not be used long term prior to the meat being frozen.
How the animal is taken from the field will depend on personal preferences and means available. In some instances, you may be road hunting and only hunting within close proximity to the road. This is the most simple way in that the animal is usually not far away if taken and can be simply brought back to the car. On other occasions, it may involve multiple trips, shuttling or multiple days to get to your exit point.
There are different means in which one can get out. The simplest is walking, whether on trail or off, with a pack full of meat. An easier way is using some type of watercraft as the main means of transportation, whether a canoe, packraft or something else and floating to your exit point. Packrafts with the cargo zip option offer the hunter a means of storing his camp and personal gear inside the boat, thereby allowing plenty of room for any potential animals on the bow. In the winter, skis and snowshoes can be used. Of course, there are also motorized options like 4 wheelers, power boats and snowmachines. Many areas have specific regulations governing the use of motorized vehicles and some areas prevent their use completely or during specific periods. I have not used any of them for hunting beyond motorized boats. You can get to further areas but it comes at the cost of more complexity and much louder noise. I am not convinced of the advantages for most cases, but perhaps your situation is different.
No matter your means of transportation, in most circumstances you will at least need to move the meat a little ways. Frame packs are designed to carry large loads and can be used to carry almost any amount of weight up to and beyond a moose or bison quarter. Your choice of pack will come down to personal preference, intended use and available budget. Kelty Freighter Frame is a more budget friendly freight frame that hauls well. Seek Outside makes a unique aluminum frame that is on the lighter side that I have used to haul large loads. Barney’s in Anchorage makes a freighter frame that is supposedly designed for Alaskan conditions that has me intrigued. Those are just a few that I am familiar and have direct experience with. They are not necessarily the best for you. I am not a gear junkie and suggest you do your own research.
If you are hunting smaller animals, anything from caribou on down, you may find that you do not need a frame pack. I have packed out a all of a caribou (bone in) with the hide in a 55 L HMG Porter. Though Alana carried most of our camp out and I would have needed to return for a second trip if she was not there.
Sleds are also an option in the winter time if your area has snow that aligns with hunting seasons and make for very easy hauling. We have a Shappell Jet Sled HD that I have used to pack out all of the meat and hides from two caribou. It makes for easy hauling and I will be pursuing this practice with moose, sans frame pack, this coming winter.
In the next post, I will address what to do with the meat once you bring it home.