Many bowhunters dream about spending an extended period in the backcountry chasing elk, deer or other big-game animals. But one of the biggest problems backcountry hunters face is what to do with the meat after the kill.
Making sure meat stays clean and cool and doesn’t spoil is a tough job when hunting deep in the bush, and no one knows that better than Steven Rinella, host of Meat Eater on Sportsman Channel. He makes his living harvesting game and turning it into high-quality meals for friends and family.
“One of the main reasons some wild game tastes bad on the table is because it isn’t taken care of properly in the field,” Rinella said. “Making sure field care is done right often results in good table fare.”
What follows are Rinella’s top tips for how to handle downed game and ensure the meat you pack home will be as rewarding the as the hunt itself:
Beat the Heat
Heat is enemy number one when it comes to dealing with downed game in the backcountry. When daytime temperatures are in the 50s or cooler, a bowhunter can take time quartering and deboning an animal. But when the temperatures are extremely warm, everything changes. Getting the meat off the animal and cooled down becomes a top priority.
One of the fastest and best ways to accomplish that is to quarter your animal soon after the kill, and Rinella also recommends skinning the quarters to speed the cooling process.
“The hide of an animal holds heat, so I don’t like to leave the hide on my quarters,” Rinella said. “Some people think it keeps the meat cleaner, but the meat can spoil faster, especially in warm weather, if the hide is left on the meat even for short periods.”
Although many backcountry hunters don’t gut their animals because they are quartering them and removing other meat from the carcass right away, Rinella said gutting is a necessity in any situation where meat removal cannot be accomplished immediately.
“If, for some reason, I need to leave an animal overnight before I start cutting it up, I always gut it,” Rinella said. “A big animal like an elk cannot be cooled fast enough. Big-game animals hold a lot of heat in them, and you need to get rid of that heat. Gutting an animal is a must, even when it is cold out, if the animal must be left for a long period of time.”
Keep It Clean
One major mistake hunters make in the field is allowing their meat to get dirty.
“Keeping meat clean is very important,” Rinella said. “You don’t want your meat to get covered in dirt or, worse yet, get a lot of hair on it.”
Hair from a big bull elk, for example, may be covered in mud or have urine or feces on it, which can result in the meat not tasting good on the table. To keep hair and debris off of your meat, always hang it or lay it on a clean tarp when cutting in the field so it doesn’t contact the ground.
When skinning an animal, use an extremely sharp knife so you can quickly remove the hide from the muscle without having to tug or pull the hide. The more tugging and pulling you do, the more hair will come loose and fall onto the meat. No one wants to find hair in their elk burger.
When Rinella is dealing with meat in the field, he likes to keep pieces fairly large.
“I like to quarter an animal and keep the quarters whole. I also keep the ribs in large pieces. I keep the neck and backstraps whole,” he said. “Keeping the meat in large pieces allows me to keep the meat a lot cleaner and decreases the amount of surface area that is exposed to bugs, dirt and other contaminants.”
Hang It High
After all the meat has been removed from the carcass, Rinella hangs it to cool.
“When possible, as soon as I have the meat removed from the animal, I put it into breathable game bags and hoist them in trees,” he said. “People should never put meat in anything other than a breathable game bag. Game bags are made of mesh material that allows the meat to breathe and cool and prevents bugs from getting to the meat. By mistake, some folks use non-breathable bags that can quickly spoil meat because it can’t cool down fast enough.”
Rinella hangs his meat in trees for a few reasons. It keeps the meat out of reach of most animals, keeps the meat in the shade and also allows the wind to circulate cool air around the meat.
“I am always amazed at how long meat will last in the backcountry when properly taken care of,” Rinella said. “Even when daytime temperatures are extremely warm, meat will do well if it is in the shade and the nighttime temperatures drop a little and get cool. Getting the meat in a tree is a must if a hunter can’t make it out of the backcountry for a few days.”
One more reason you want the meat up in the air and in the breeze is because it will form a hard layer on the outside of the meat which protects it from almost all things bad. “A gentle breeze and cool temperatures will result in a hard rind forming on the outside of the meat,” Rinella said.
“It is similar to a rind on an orange. This hard layer is dried out meat that actually protects the inner meat. I want this hard layer to form so my meat is protected. After I get the meat out of the field and start processing it, all I have to do is trim away this hard layer to get at all the quality meat underneath. This is another reason I don’t like to debone meat in the field. Deboned meat can dry out quickly. When kept in large pieces, only the outside layer becomes hard.”
Keep It Dry
Moisture is another enemy of your game meat, because it can spread contaminants over the surface of your meat and promote bacteria growth. “This is another reason I hang meat in a tree under the branches. The tree can keep a little bit of rain off the meat,” Rinella said.
When it is raining after a kill, using a tarp hung above the meat in a tree is one way to ensure meat doesn’t get wet. If you find yourself in these conditions shortly after you have killed something, get the meat out of the field as soon as you can and do your best to keep it dry.
Make a Few Calls
Before heading into the backcountry, make some phone calls and locate nearby meat lockers so you have a place lined up in advance if you are fortunate enough to punch your tag. Most small mountain towns in hunting areas have a game processor who will cut and package your meat or simply store it for you.
Heading home with several coolers full of organic, protein-rich game meat is one of the most rewarding parts of a successful bowhunt. And by following the meat-care guidelines here, you can ensure you and your family will have dozens, if not hundreds, of high-quality meals.
Free-range game meat is a far cry from the beef found at your local grocery store, and nothing beats a freshly grilled steak from a wild animal that was raised on grass from mountain meadows and water from high-country streams.