Handle with Care! How to Care for Game Meat in the Field
June 04, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.