“Planning a hunt is more than just buying food and gear,” Caribou Gear founder, Ted Ramirez recently commented. “You have to prepare for the job.”
On early season hunts, caring for wild game meat can be a serious challenge. Warm weather, long daylight hours and insects all create challenging conditions for keeping meat in great condition.
“The longer it takes meat to cool, the higher your risk of spoilage over a shorter period of time,” Ted added. “Gamey meat is contaminated meat. If it tastes gamey, something went wrong with your field handling.”
On your early season hunting adventures this year, here are some tips to help you come home with better tasting wild game meat:
1. Come Prepared with Ice in Your Cooler
The best thing you can do for your meat during periods of warmer weather is to get it in a cold cooler immediately. Of course timelines will vary, depending on how far you are hunting from camp or your vehicle. But no matter where you’re hunting, or how remotely, be prepared with a cooler that’s already filled with ice.
“Start with a large enough cooler with plenty of ice,” Ted explained. “On a long hunt during hot weather, you may need to drive into town and refresh your ice after four or five days. If possible, it’s well worth the effort. Because the more quickly you’re able to get the meat on ice after the kill, the more easily you can avoid any spoilage.”
If you have a large chest freezer at home, fill gallon-sized plastic jugs with water and freeze them before your hunt. These will last longer than bags of ice. Make sure you leave a few inches of head space, since they will expand in the freezer. And be aware that it can take several days for a gallon of water to freeze completely. Don’t wait until the night before your hunt.
When you load up for your hunt, place the frozen jugs in your cooler and close the lid. Then, avoid opening the cooler until you’re ready to use it. If possible, you might even bring a separate cooler for groceries so that you can avoid opening your meat cooler constantly.
2. Know the Primary Risks for Spoilage
Before you begin, take some time to consider the greatest risks for spoiling meat. Of course warm temperatures and flies immediately come to mind. But consider other factors that can encourage spoilage.
“With an animal on the ground, the first thing to consider is the hide” Ted commented. “We occasionally hear a hunter tell us that they don’t use game bags. They simply remove quarters with the hide on to keep the meat clean. This makes us cringe. Even in cold weather, the insulating power of a deer or elk hide is tremendous. Failure to remove the hide immediately is a recipe for gamey meat.”
Next, consider the form in which you’ll pack out your meat. Typically, loose meat like backstraps and neck meat will be the first to spoil. When you place loose meat into a game bag, it forms a ball that prevents air from circulating around it. This is also true of boned out meat. When the weight of boneless meat presses itself against the bottom of a game bag, it embeds dirt, hair and other debris and prevents circulation.
Whenever possible, pack out bone-in quarters and cover them with loose-fitting game bags to allow maximum circulation. Of course, it’s sometimes necessary to bone-out meat on very remote hunts. In these situations, do everything you can to promote circulation and then get the meat to a cooler as quickly as possible.
3. Use High Quality Game Bags
Ok, we’re biased. But this is exactly why we spent nearly a decade researching, designing, and perfecting Caribou Gear Game Bags. Our bags are highly breathable, lightweight and extremely durable.
Stocking-fit game bags will embed the dirt and hair into the meat. After it dries, you’ll be forced trim it, causing more loss of meat. The wide mesh on these bags will also allow flies to land on your meat.
We’ve seen several companies offering nylon game bags, similar to a sleeping bag stuff sack, windbreaker, or tent material. Please know this: nylon bags do not breathe. Using a nylon game bag would be only slightly better than using a trash bag – which by the way, is a bad idea. Not only are trash bags non-breathable. They are also treated with chemicals that are certainly not safe for human consumption.
Our game bags breathe like cotton, offer the strength of a synthetic fabric, and promote excellent moisture management. They are loose-fitting to promote circulation. Our Magnum Pack Series offers the widest fit. For a lighter weight option on backcountry hunts, our High Country Series is slightly smaller. And for those situations when boned-out meat is necessary, we offer our Carnivore III pack.
4. Use a Tarp to Keep Meat Clean and Dry
A tarp laid on the ground may be used to place un-bagged meat in situations when you’ll be boning it out. Otherwise, we always recommend immediately covering it with a game bag, and then placing it on a tarp to stay clean and dry.
“With your animal on the ground, be ready to place your meat in game bags as soon as it comes off the animal,” Ted recommended. “Then, you can place it on a tarp to keep the bagged meat clean while you continue working.”
Back at camp, we also use tarps to care for game meat. Hang a tarp over your meat to keep it dry, and to provide shade. However, make sure that a tarp is never lying directly on top of your meat. This will inhibit circulation. Always suspend the tarp above your meat pole.
5. Use Citric Acid Spray for Added Protection
Citric acid has been proven to deter bacteria growth, act as a natural preservative, and keep bugs away from meat. On warm weather hunts or extended hunts, citric acid spray is an important part of our meat care routine.
On particularly hot hunts or in places where flies are bad, we recommend spraying meat immediately upon skinning. In these situations, we will often spray the meat as we skin the hide back.
Citric acid spray can also be applied after you return to camp on extended hunting trips. In these situations, apply the spray a day or two after the kill. In the evening, after bugs have disappeared for the day, remove your game bags and spray the quarters with citric acid spray. Let it dry overnight, forming a glaze on the meat. Then re-bag the quarters early in the morning, before insects reappear.
Ideally, you’ll also wash your game bags and let them dry overnight while you’re applying the spray. But we’ll get to that here soon…
6. Label Each Game Bag of Meat
Once each quarter or piece of meat is placed in a game bag, use an ID tag to label the meat. This will allow you to keep track of what’s in each bag. Additionally, you should also note any bags that contain bloodshot meat. This way, you can spend additional time carefully trimming that meat back at camp.
We provide ID tags with our Magnum Pack Series of game bags, and with our Carnivore III pack for boned-out meat. These durable ID tags can also be purchased separately. They include check boxes for sex, species and bullet damage, as well as hunter information and donation details if necessary for transport or butchering.
7. Do Your Part to Assist in CWD Research
If working in an area with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), or if transporting your meat home from a CWD area, follow all transport laws and do your part to help with CWD research by submitting samples to local game and fish agencies for testing. Some game management units in Colorado require testing. Whether or not it’s required, this is critical information that can help our biologists learn more about CWD.
In these situations, remove all edible meat first. Only then should you remove the head or skullcap. Consider using a disposable blade for this work. Havalon knives and saws are perfect. You can easily separate blades that have been used to cut through brain or spinal tissue, and then dispose of them at home.
8. Keep Your Meat and Bags Clean on Extended Trips
If you find yourself in a remote camp without access to a cooler, we prefer to hang bone-in quarters from a meat pole with our loose-fitting game bags.
“How long you can keep meat in camp without a cooler depends largely on nighttime temperatures,” Ted added. “If temps at night get the meat cool enough, that it can stay cool in the shade through the following day, you’re in good shape. If meat is not cooling down sufficiently at night, you’re on a ticking clock to get it to a cooler.”
To keep your meat in the best condition possible, hang quarters by the shank using Paracord Game Meat Lashings. Then, cover the quarter with the game bag. Use the drawstring to keep it cinched down tight and protect it from insects. Now, your quarters can dry and form a glaze. Debris will fall to the bottom of the bag. Using this method, the game bags can be periodically removed to check on the meat.
On the second day from the kill site, we recommend that you remove bags from each quarter. Wait until the evening when most insects have disappeared. Gently wipe any remaining debris from the meat, and spray it with citric acid as described above.
Meanwhile, it’s time to wash your game bags. Using camp dish soap or a backpacker’s soap, wash your game bags in cold water and rinse them thoroughly. You might be surprised how clean they’ll get using cold water and camp soap. Once they’re clean and rinsed, hang them to dry overnight.
In the morning, replace the game bags early before bugs begin to reappear. This process can be repeated if necessary. Even on extremely long hunts in remote parts of Alaska, this method has allowed us to keep meat in great condition for as long as 10 to 15 days.
9. Wash Meat in a Natural Solution Before Butchering
Finally, you’ve made it home from your hunting adventure with the real trophy – a cooler full of excellent wild game meat!
Whenever possible, process your own meat. When you put this much work into keeping your meat clean and cared-for, you want to know for sure that the end product is yours. It would be a shame to have your meat ground and processed along with someone else’s, which doesn’t reflect the same effort.
Before butchering your meat at home, take the time to carefully wash it. Removing any hair, dirt and other contaminants is extremely important. Don’t skip this critical step.
We recommend washing your game meat using a vinegar-water solution. It’s natural, edible and won’t leave an off-taste on your meat. Combine a 1/2-cup of vinegar per gallon of water. Carefully wash all parts of the exposed meat.
In addition to getting your meat clean and decontaminated, this washing process will rehydrate the outer rind that has formed. This is very much edible. At the very least, it can be used for jerky or ground meat. In most cases, there’s no need to trim off that rind and throw it away.
Be Prepared and Enjoy Your Early Season Hunts
With these tips, we hope you find yourself in the field this year feeling well prepared and ready for the challenge of early season meat care. If you have questions, please feel free to contact us. And remember that we offer free shipping within the lower 48 from HuntingGearOutfitters.com when you sign up for our email newsletter!
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.