Years ago, I was crowding the timberline deep in Montana's Crazy Mountains when I came across a grazing spike bull elk. He was unaware of my presence, and I had a clean shot angle. Since it was late in the hunt, the thought of young elk steaks for the freezer was very appealing. Then I remembered where I was. No way I'm hauling that spike out of here on my back! I thought.
All hunters, regardless of the type of game pursued, must ponder what sort of recovery effort may be necessary before dropping the string. Whitetail country can be very nasty in places, bears can be especially difficult to haul out of the bush, and even hogs can be a problem. Of course, recovery plans are prerequisite to hunting the West.
Regardless of the scenario, every hunt calls for some sort of recovery "tool." Here are some options for various situations.
One of my most prized possessions is an old freighter frame from the early 80s when I started elk hunting. I don't even remember where I got it, but I still use it to this day.
Frames designed strictly for hauling meat pose one problem -- you have to go back to camp for them once your animal is down because you're generally wearing a smaller daypack while hunting. You may be able to avoid the wasted trip if you hunt with an internal frame pack that allows you to haul a load out on the first trip back.
The Alaskan Guide Model Frame from Cabela's is a practical option that will handle whatever loads you can handle. Unlike my old frame that has noisy pin-and-ring attachments, this pack features a silent adjustment system that eliminates noise as you walk. As with many packframes, you can attach pack bags to the frame for hauling gear into camp and then remove the bags for packing meat.
The packframes made by the folks at Bull-Pacs in Idaho are well designed and built to last. Tested to over 200 lbs., they come in two sizes: regular for average-size people, and a larger model for those with a chest of 50" or bigger. You can also choose either the shelf design or a lower-profile beavertail design.
Badlands has a new pack called The OX. It has an extremely light external frame built to handle heavy loads. Equipped with the suspension and meat bag, the frame weighs just over 4 lbs. The pack bag also weighs just over 4 lbs., for a combined total of about 9 lbs.The Mystery Ranch NICE Frame is designed specifically to haul heavy loads, but it also can be fitted with a pack to increase versatility. The NICE Frame, weighing only 4.25 lbs., can take as much abuse as you can give it.
The Horn Hunter Hybrid Curl Frame, an internal frame pack with about 600 cubic inches of storage space, is designed to haul heavy loads. A Flex Shelf helps keep the load centered.
The Kelty Cache Hauler is another option that includes a shelf, a patented Scherer Cinch to secure the load, lots of padding, and a wicking back panel.
The Magnus RackPack is a dual-use packframe designed to help you haul a ground blind to your hunting spot, but it will also work to pack a decoy and other gear. It quickly converts to a comfy chair, and it's also capable of hauling heavy loads of meat.
A wheeled cart works very well for retrieving dead critters, provided the terrain isn't too rough. Side-hilling with a two-wheel cart doesn't work well, but that's where the single-wheel cart comes into its own. With a single wheel, or in one case mentioned below, two in-line wheels, you can traverse the narrow game/cattle trails typically encountered in the high country. The only downside is having to hike back to your vehicle to get the cart, but you probably need to get rid of your pack, bow, and other gear anyway, so that's not a big issue. And the cart could save you a lot of work in the long run.
The trick in using carts is balancing the load so you can put all your effort into propulsion. A cart can save you a lot of energy, not to mention the long-term health of your back.
Cabela's Super Mag Hauler features 20" puncture-proof tires, and an optional Wheel Shield kit keeps branches out of the spokes. This cart is capable of handling 550 lbs., but the Dual Wheel kit raises that limit to 700 lbs. This heavy-duty cart weighs just under 40 lbs. and folds to 44" long.
Ameristep's Non-Typical Deer Cart has solid rubber wheels and a telescoping aluminum frame. Weighing only 22 lbs., it can carry loads up to 300 lbs., and it folds down to 23" x 27" x 6" for storage and transport.
The Folding Sportsman's Cart by Yukon Tracks is a tri-fold design that doesn't take up much room in your truck. Weight capacity is 300 lbs., and a wide wheelbase of 25" prevents tipping. This cart weighs 33 lbs. and has 18.5" puncture-proof wheels.
The Neet Kart works very well on narrow trails where two-wheeled carts do not work. With two in-line wheels, the Neet Kart has better balance than carts with single wheels, and you can push down on the back handles to get the front wheel started over logs and other obstacles, and then lift the back wheel over. Once you've balanced the load, pushing the Neet Kart is like steering a bicycle, and it's easy to lean against a tree for loading and unloading. You can even haul your camp and backpacks in to save energy for the hunt. With handles at both ends, two people can haul 400 lbs. of gear or meat. The Neet Kart is a very cool idea.
In some areas, wheeled vehicles, including carts, are prohibited. Or the terrain may not lend itself to the use of any type of cart. In other instances you may feel the need to haul your extraction device into your hunting area with you. In these three scenarios, a dragging sled may be the solution.
Generally, sleds are lightweight and compact, so you can strap a sled to your back for the hike in to camp or a kill site. Because sleds are designed to make dragging easier, they may not be the best option for moose or elk. But for deer-sized game they work great.
Even pronghorns can be dragged out without damaging their fragile capes.
The Deer Sleigh'r Transport Sled consists of very slick, durable plastic that slides easily on any surface, including snow and grass. It's virtually weightless when hauling it into your hunting area. Simply run the included rope through the grommets, wrap your animal up snuggly,
and take off. The Deer Sleigh'r also comes in a magnum model.
The Game Sled is more of a deluxe dragging system that features internal attachment straps that secure your animal so it doesn't shift during dragging. You can wrap your deer tightly so no damage occurs to the hair and no dirt gets in the meat. You can configure it for a two-man drag or even attach it to the back of an ATV for dragging so you don't have to lift the animal onto the vehicle. The Game Sled weighs only 6 lbs. and comes in a handy carry bag for easy transport.
The Dead Sled is another option that's extremely lightweight and economical. Three cinch straps with self-locking buckles secure your game to the slippery plastic sheet that measures 24" x 72". The Dead Sled rolls up for easy transport.