Hunters in the 21st century pursue the sport for a variety of reasons. We love the solitude and beauty of wild places. We crave the adventure. We cherish the time with family and friends. And we enjoy putting healthy meat on the table.
Hunting for food is as old as humanity itself. But admittedly, there has been a growing buzz around the interest in wild game. Over the past decade or so – well before Covid19 was a household term – we’ve had the privilege of meeting many first-time hunters who were attracted to the sport, at least in part, by the food element.
Now that shelves at grocery stores are empty and worries about meat shortages are on the rise, the interest in hunting seems to be accelerating. We’ve seen headlines from major news outlets, citing an increase in hunting license applications in many states.
As many new hunters prepare to take to the field, we thought it might be good time to revisit some meat care basics and field processing tips. Whether you’re a first-time hunter or a longtime veteran, hopefully there’s something here you can take away. For more information, check out our previous article specifically about warm weather meat care.
When working to put the best possible wild game meat on the table, here are a few critical things to remember:
Start with the Right Tools
Whenever you head into the field, be prepared to take care of your game meat quickly and cleanly. We’re not successful every time we go hunting. But we need to be prepared for that possibility.
Make a “kill kit” that you keep in your backpack at all times. Along with essentials like a first aid kit, this is something you should never leave behind.
The gear in your kit may depend on what you’re hunting and where. But for most big game hunts, my kit contains a Havalon knife with several replacement blades. Along with these, I carry a set of forceps. It’s shocking how sharp these blades are. They are great for processing an animal, but it means you need to use extreme caution and care. I use forceps to remove and replace blades. I’ve taken apart animals as large as moose with only a Havalon, but I also carry a sturdy fixed-blade knife for heavy-duty work.
My kill kit also contains a set or two of nitrile gloves, a Hunter’s Tarp for laying quarters or boneless meat on the ground, and a set of game bags that’s appropriate for the size of animal I’m hunting.
In addition to these items, I always carry parachute cord for hanging game bags if necessary and zip ties for attaching the carcass tag. Be sure to follow local state regulations when tagging game. In some states, tags go on the antlers – in other states, tags must be attached to the meat.
You can keep your kill kit in a lightweight nylon bag, a gallon-size zip-lock bag, or even a vacuum-sealed bag. Finally, don’t forget to put a pen in your kill kit if you’ll be required to sign your hunting license.
A Word About Game Bags
Of course we’re biased. But game bags are what we do. So take it from us – a quality game bag will make a world of difference when you’re working hard to bring home the best possible wild game meat.
The design for Caribou Gear game bags came from years of experience and the need for something better. Caribou Gear founder, Ted Ramirez, spent nearly a decade researching fabrics and designing what would eventually become the only patented game bags on the market.
Avoid nylon bags that do not breathe (think tent material). Yet you want a material that dries quickly and doesn’t hold moisture like cotton. Caribou Gear game bags breathe with the airy benefits of cotton – but with no cotton in the material, they clean easily and dry quickly. When meat is hung in Caribou Gear game bags, it is able to form a perfect protective rind. Unfortunately we’ve seen many other “lightweight” game bags that trap moisture and leave the outside of the meat feeling slimey and prone to bacteria.
The ideal situation is to have your meat covered and protected from flies and dirt – yet maintain a dry outer crust. When hung like this in reasonable temperatures, your meat can stay safe for days. In fact, Ted has successfully kept meat in great condition for more than two weeks on float trips in Alaska!
The Rules for Game Meat Handling
If someone describes meat as “gamey” it usually means something was contaminated or went wrong in the process. The first two rules for great-tasting game meat are to keep it clean and keep it cool.
When first removing the hide from the animal and when subsequently removing meat from the carcass, take every step to keep the meat clean. Try not to get hair on the meat. When you remove a quarter from a large animal like a mule deer or elk, it’s going to be heavy! Don't drop it in the dirt. Have a buddy ready with a game bag, or be ready to lay it on a clean tarp. Clean meat is the first step toward success.
Next, your job is to keep it cool. If it’s warm outside, get it to a cooler as soon as possible. If you’re in the backcountry, keep it in the shade until you’re able to transport it. Remember that heavily wooded north-facing slopes tend to stay cool. And cool air collects down in ravines and along creek beds. These places can be great locations for hanging meat when necessary. If needed, cut limbs or hang a tarp to create shade.
Wherever bugs are present or when the weather is warm, we also highly recommend using a citric acid spray on the meat. Citric acid is naturally anti-bacterial and it repels insects. When you get home, just lightly wash the quarters with diluted vinegar and water (a step we recommend anyway, whether or not you used citric acid). Then, pat the meat dry. This will clean up the outside of the meat and won’t leave any taste from the citric acid.
In order to let the meat cool properly, never keep the hide on. Sure, this may keep the meat surface clean. But don’t underestimate the insulating power of an animal’s hide. Even during cold weather hunts, skin the animal as quickly as possible so that the meat can begin cooling and place it in a game bag to keep it clean and protected.
Finally, do your best to keep the meat dry throughout the process from field to freezer. Moisture is a breeding ground for bacteria. Cool, dry meat is your goal. If you are transporting meat in a cooler, keep the meat up off the ice for the best results. It is possible to place the meat in a plastic bag and place it in a creek or river to cool. But think of this as a temporary quick-cooling step, not a long-term storage option.
Enjoy Your Wild Game Meat
Wild game meat is lean, healthy and delicious. Here in the North America where we follow science-based game management practices, we can harvest wild game responsibly and sustainably.
Please take a look at our selection of game bags and other hunting gear. The gear we carry in our store are items that we personally use in the field. Feel free to contact us with any questions and happy hunting this season!
By Ryan McSparran
Ryan is an outdoor writer based in Colorado, and is proud to be a part of the team at Hunting Gear Outfitters.