Field Care Basics for Big-Game Hunters

The old adage, “The job’s never over until the paperwork’s done,” can be projected to big-game hunting thusly: “The hunt’s never over until the meat has been properly cared for.” 

Field Care Basics for Big-Game Hunters
Image Courtesy of Bob Robb
You should always wear gloves when field-dressing, quartering and otherwise handling game meat afield.

Proper care of the meat of an animal you’ve taken means field-dressing the animal and/or quartering the carcass, then cleaning the meat and preparing it for the butcher, all while keeping it cool. While a big bull elk takes more work than small Southeastern whitetail, both go through the same easy process and require nothing more than a few basic tools and some simple skills.


Image Courtesy of Bob Robb
Field-dressing is a good way to begin to the cooling process when you can transport the animal to a clean butchering facility. Leaving the hide on will help keep the meat clean.

There are two basic ways to care for meat in the field. The first is old-fashioned field-dressing, or gutting, a process designed to both remove the entire digestive system, as well as the heart, lungs and windpipe, and facilitate cooling before internal bacteria begins to multiply and taint the meat. This is the most common method of meat care when the sportsman has easy access to mechanical or four-footed transportation, like an ATV, truck, or pack animal, and the carcass can be transported to a clean, civilized area to be skinned, washed and cut up. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Make sure the animal is dead: Approach it from uphill if at all possible and watch for movement. Touch the eye with a long stick. If it doesn’t blink, the animal has expired.
  2. Unload your firearm. Safety first, last and always!
  3. Position the animal with its head uphill and butt downhill. This will facilitate the drainage of blood and body fluids. Prop the carcass on its back, and secure it (your backpack, some rocks or tree limbs, etc.) so it will not roll or slide around.
  4. Remove your field-dressing knife and other tools from your pack and set them within easy reach. 
  5. Put on your rubber gloves.
  6. Make an incision that encircles the external margin of the animal’s anus, cutting deep enough to free the terminal end of the digestive system from the surrounding tissue.
  7. Make a small opening in the abdominal wall—taking care not to puncture the underlying internal organs—from the pelvic bone upwards to the bottom of the sternum. Using the index and middle finger of your non-knife hand to lift the abdominal wall away from the internal organs helps.
  8. Pushing the stomach out of the way, locate the diaphragm, the thin horizontal wall of muscle that divides the digestive tract from the chest cavity. Completely cut the diaphragm from one side of the rib cage to the other.
  9. With your free hand, reach up past the heart and lungs, locate and securely grasp, the windpipe. Sever the windpipe with your knife blade as high up into the throat as possible. Take care not to nick yourself with your knife! (Note: Using a serrated blade or small saw to cut through the center of the sternum up to the throat before you do this will make removing the heart, lungs and windpipe much easier.)
  10. Holding the severed windpipe, begin pulling the heart, lungs, and internal organs free and out of the chest cavity. It may be necessary to cut several adhesions to the body cavity, but this whole mess should come free relatively easily.
  11. Reach down into the pelvic opening and grasp the lower end of the intestines, then pull them up and out of the abdominal cavity. If you’ve cut the anus free, everything, including bladder and rectum, should come free. If not, use the knife to carefully cut through the resisting areas. Take care not to puncture the bladder and get urine on the meat.
  12. Elevate the carcass, draining all the blood out of the body cavity through the hole where the anus used to be.
  13. Transport the carcass to civilization, where further cleaning, skinning and butchering can take place.

Quick tip: While rapid field-dressing will promote cooling, when transporting the carcass whole from the field, I like to leave the skin on simply because this will keep the meat cleaner and free of debris that would otherwise need to be trimmed away later.


Quartering the Animal

Image Courtesy of Bob Robb
Guides Kelly Lee, Jr., and Angie Denny are beginning the quartering process on a bull elk prior to backpacking the meat to the truck.

A popular alternative to field-dressing is to simply quarter the animal, leaving the guts inside the body cavity. It’s cleaner and quicker, and the only meat you leave are the ribs. After making sure the animal is dead, here’s what I do:

  1. Position the animal on one side, making sure it won’t roll around.
  2. Skin out the up side of the carcass. Start by making an incision up the backbone from tail to neck. 
  3. Skin down the up side, including the legs.
  4. Remove the rear leg. 
  5. Do this by cutting up from the underside of the hip towards the backbone, then down through the ball (hip) joint. The joint will separate easily using only your knife.
  6. Remove the front shoulder. Lift up on the front leg and cut under the scapula as high as you can while pulling the leg away from the rib cage until the front leg comes free.
  7. Remove the backstrap. This process is similar to filleting a fish. Insert the knife blade tip into the loin and follow the spinal column from the hip to the neck. Next, cut across the grain of the meat at the hip, finding the point where the ribs disappear under the loin and inserting the blade tip along the ribs. Cut and peel the meat away from the spine and rib cage towards the neck until it all comes free.
  8. Bone the neck meat off by simply filleting the meat away.
  9. Roll the carcass over and repeat the process on the other side.
  10. Finally, cut down along the spine through the rear of the ribcage, reach inside, and remove the tenderloins.

Cool It Down

Image Courtesy of Bob Robb
Another great option for keeping meat cool is to use a portable walk-in cooler. This one’s from Koola Buck. They’re spendy, but work great for decades.

Getting rid of body heat and keeping meat cool is key no matter when or where you’re hunting. Big ice chests and lots of ice are standard fare. Once my meat has been washed to remove blood and debris (hosing it down with lots of water is highly recommended), I place it in heavy, 3mm garbage bags inside an ice chest with plenty of ice. The plastic bags keep the meat from soaking in water, which would remove a lot of the flavorful juices. 

Another great option for keeping it cool is using a portable walk-in cooler like this one from Koola Buck. They’re not cheap but work great and will keep working for decades—and if you are someone who regularly invests thousands in their hunting seasons, it’s not hard to view this any differently than a new scope or rifle.

Source of Pride

Image Courtesy of Bob Robb
Congratulations! Now it’s time to get to work to take care of your hard-earned meat.

Promptly caring for downed game in the field helps ensure you’ll end up with the most flavorful meat possible. It’s a source of pride for my family and shows great respect for the magnificent animals we hunt. Want to see how it’s done? Outfitter Fred Eichler has a great YouTube video showing a step-by-step field-dressing process on an elk.

The Right Tools for the Job

Several “little things” can make field-dressing quicker, easier and cleaner:

  • Knife blade shape and length—Either a clip- or drop-point design between 2½  and 6 inches long is ideal for nearly all North American big game. Longer blades tend to get out of control and contribute to user fatigue.
  • Knife handles—Non-slip synthetic materials help you keep a sure grip even after they’ve been covered with blood.
  • Whetstone or steel—Your blade edge should require no touching up if you are simply field-dressing an animal. When quartering or boning meat, however, it may. Carrying a small whetstone or sharpening steel makes this easy. Replaceable-blade knives like those from Havalon and Outdoor Edge also make it easy to always have a fresh, razor-sharp blade. 
  • Small saw—A lightweight pack saw is handy for cutting through the sternum during the field-dressing process, as well as removing antlers from the skull. 
  • Gloves—Infection is a real concern when field-dressing big-game animals. I once deeply cut an index finger while skinning an Alaskan brown bear. It got so infected I nearly lost it. To this day, it throbs in moderate weather. To avoid such problems, always wear rubber gloves when field-dressing game. I use inexpensive, heavy-duty, forearm-length gloves used for washing dishes in restaurants.
  • Tarp—To keep meat as clean as possible, I always carry an old space blanket in my pack. It doubles as part of my survival gear, but I also use it to lay meat on during the boning process. This helps keep it clean. A heavy-duty plastic garbage bag or three work well for this, too.
  • Game bags—Never store meat in plastic bags, where it cannot cool properly. Heavy mesh cloth game bags are the ticket.
  • Wet Wipes—These little gems make cleaning hands and arms in the field easy as pie. 

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