Skip to main content

Handle with Care! How to Care for Game Meat in the Field

Recently, Bowhunter reader David Price wrote to ask me about game care in the field. Must you skin an animal immediately? How cold must the temperature be to safely keep an animal in the field overnight? How do you keep bears off your meat?

If you hunt where you can retrieve game with a vehicle, field care is simple: Immediately haul your deer to a cooler for processing. But in the backcountry, where game could remain in the field for days, your actions dictate the outcome. Over the years, I've researched game care, and have personally handled well over 100 animals in the backcountry. Following the steps below, I've never lost any meat to spoilage or scavengers.

Body Heat


The No. 1 cause of meat spoilage is an animal's own body heat. Normal internal temperature is about 99 degrees. When an animal dies, its temperature can actually rise because the muscles keep generating heat, while the cooling mechanism — the circulatory system — has shut down. To prevent bone sour, you must reverse that process. If you can lower meat temperature to air temperature, you're 90 percent home free. Here's how:


  • To skin or not. If you shoot a deer in weather 40 degrees or colder, gut the deer and leave the hide on. Deer are small enough to cool quickly, and the hide acts as a sterile game bag during transport. In warmer weather, you should skin animals — especially big ones like elk — quickly. Removing the heavy hide is the first step in rapid cooling.
  • To hang or not. Yes, good air circulation promotes quick cooling, and hanging promotes good circulation. But where is the coolest air? Cool air sinks and warm air rises, so it makes sense to place meat as low as possible. In camp, you probably will hang all meat, but in the bush before you pack it to camp? Maybe not. (More on this below.)
  • To gut or not. I rarely gut large animals like elk. Rather, to avoid wallowing in guts and blood and to ensure rapid cooling, I slit the hide up the back from the tail to the head, skin the upper side, remove the front and back legs, and bone out the neck, ribs, backstraps, and brisket. Then I flip the carcass, repeat the process, and finish by boning out the legs. I gut and quarter elk only for horse packing. Many packers prefer to pack elk cut into four even quarters.

  • To bone or not. Boning reduces a 700-lb. bull elk to roughly 300 lbs. of pure meat, a welcome reduction if you have to pack the meat on your back. Equally important, boning ensures rapid cooling. Even in cold weather the thick portions — hips, shoulders — of big animals can retain heat for hours, and the fastest way to cool them is to remove the bone and expose the meat to the air. Some hunters argue that boning opens up meat to dirt and drying. Yes, you must bag the meat to keep it clean, but I've boned-out dozens of animals with no negative results.

Moisture


Meat-spoiling bacteria thrive in a moist environment, but water isn't all bad. After all, when a butcher kills a beef cow, he hangs the carcass and washes it top to bottom. In the field, if you kill an elk on a 70-degree day near a cold stream, I suggest you skin and bone the elk, and then wash the meat in the creek to cool it quickly and eliminate contamination. Then wipe the meat dry, bag it, and lay it out to air dry. From then on, keep it dry. In rain or snow, make a tarp canopy that keeps the meat dry but allows good air circulation.

Flies and Dirt

In temperatures below 40 degrees, flies are rarely a problem, but in higher temperatures, blowflies are your nemesis. In warm weather, always bag skinned meat immediately. To be of value, bags must be light and compact (so you'll carry them), and guaranteed fly and dirtproof (no holes). Some manufacturers say flies cannot blow eggs through cheesecloth bags. Wrong! Stretch cheesecloth tight, and flies can blow eggs through it.

For years my wife has made bags for me out of 4-oz. cotton muslin. They're lightweight, durable, and dense enough to prevent fly blow. Caribou Gear Outdoor Equipment Company makes excellent bags of a synthetic blend. Super lightweight, durable, and breathable, Caribou bags come in various sizes. For deer, I carry four bags; for elk six, and for moose 10.

Air Temperature

Once you get all body heat out of a carcass, air temperature is almost irrelevant. Commercial butchers age beef for up to two weeks at 40 degrees, and they quick-age beef for three days at 65 degrees. Guided by that continuum, I believe if you can cool meat to 65 degrees, you have roughly three days to get it into a cooler. If you can cool the meat to 40 degrees, you have up to two weeks.

Air temperature does not have to be constant. When I shot a mule deer in Nevada in mid-August, daytime temperatures were hitting 80 degrees, nighttime about 40. So that my companion could keep hunting, I did the following: After sundown (when flies disappeared), I removed all the meat from the bags and hung it in camp, which cooled the meat to about 40 degrees overnight. Before sunrise, I rebagged the meat to keep it clean, stacked it in a shady spot, and covered it with sleeping bags. During the day, the temperature of the meat rose only about five degrees. Doing that each day, I kept the deer in the field for eight days — in 80-degree weather. I've handled many other warm-weather kills similarly.

Bears

Most hunters hang meat "out of bear reach." That sounds good, but if you can't get it at least 10 feet off the ground ­ — which few hunters can, especially alone — you're wasting your time.

Besides, how would you bait bears? You would hang scent high in a tree to disperse the smell. What's the difference between game meat and bear bait? Not much. Hanging meat high seems to me like the perfect way to attract every bear within 10 miles.

Thus, when I killed a moose near Yellowstone Park, a place infested with black and grizzly bears, I skinned the moose, boned and bagged the meat, and packed it a half-mile from the carcass to a shaded bottom. In a depression there ­ — where cold air would pool and meat scent would disperse very little — I laid the meat on a rack I'd made with rocks and limbs to ensure good air circulation. Then I went back and cut open the paunch of the moose to create a potent smell that would pull bears away from the meat. I've kept many animals in the field for several days this way with no problems.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Tree Saddle Hunting: Best Saddle Options

Tree Saddle Hunting: Best Saddle Options

Most of these saddle options are offered in kit form with lineman and tree tether ropes plus carabiners, some with MOLLE-attached storage pouches for ropes, aider, drink and accessories.

Tree Saddle Hunting: Tree Climbing with an Aider

Tree Saddle Hunting: Tree Climbing with an Aider

Go farther, hunt deeper, and trek lighter while enjoying all-day comfort with the newest tree saddle hunting gear and tactics.

Better Bow Practice: Pick a Spot When Aiming

Better Bow Practice: Pick a Spot When Aiming

On this edition of "Dead On," Hall-of-Fame bowhunter Randy Ulmer shares advice on picking a spot to aim at when practicing with your bow.

Tree Saddle Hunting: Best Platforms & Ring of Steps

Tree Saddle Hunting: Best Platforms & Ring of Steps

We all need a spot to place our feet in life … and even more so when in the saddle. The two options are a platform or ring-of-steps. For longer hunts, platforms are more comfortable and most familiar. Ring-of-steps are lighter and easier to pack for shorter-duration hunts and long hikes.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Take your hang-and-hunt to the next level with a Trophyline Tree Saddle. Look to Tree Saddle Hunting for Fall Success Treestands & Blinds

Look to Tree Saddle Hunting for Fall Success

Brian K. Strickland

Take your hang-and-hunt to the next level with a Trophyline Tree Saddle.

Black bear meat is dark and rich, and delicious ground up in this Pâté chaud recipe.Vietnamese Black Bear Pâté Chaud (Meat Pie) Recipe Recipes

Vietnamese Black Bear Pté Chaud (Meat Pie) Recipe

Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

Black bear meat is dark and rich, and delicious ground up in this Pâté chaud recipe.

The advantages to using a binocular bivy system are many, and they go well beyond providing full protection for your glass.Why You Should Use A Binocular Bivy System Field Tools

Why You Should Use A Binocular Bivy System

Joe Bell

The advantages to using a binocular bivy system are many, and they go well beyond providing...

Sometimes, it's a mistake to give deer too much credit for thinking.Can Whitetails Reason? Whitetail

Can Whitetails Reason?

Gene Wensel

Sometimes, it's a mistake to give deer too much credit for thinking.

See More Trending Articles

More How-To

Map out killer stand locations using map-based tools. How to Find Public Land Hunting Spots with Apps How-To

How to Find Public Land Hunting Spots with Apps

Darron McDougal - October 30, 2019

Map out killer stand locations using map-based tools.

Once the arrow is off, there are no do-overs. To ensure a successful outcome, listen to your gut — it's seldom wrong.Deciphering The Shot: Be Patient Until You're Sure How-To

Deciphering The Shot: Be Patient Until You're Sure

Joe Bell

Once the arrow is off, there are no do-overs. To ensure a successful outcome, listen to your...

Here's how to go from longbeards to big bucks on public land in the same season.Scout for Whitetails While Turkey Hunting How-To

Scout for Whitetails While Turkey Hunting

Tony J. Peterson

Here's how to go from longbeards to big bucks on public land in the same season.

With these tips, you'll improve your accuracy and fill more tags.How to Achieve Perfect Arrow Flight How-To

How to Achieve Perfect Arrow Flight

Chuck Adams

With these tips, you'll improve your accuracy and fill more tags.

See More How-To

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Bowhunter App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Bowhunter subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now