Walking up to any big-game animal you just shot in difficult terrain can be intimidating. The first time I dropped a whitetail in a steep Western coulee that required packing was just as worrisome as my first backcountry elk extraction. But what made both experiences better was the fact I’d planned for just such scenarios.
Before the anxiety of a remote DIY buck harvest gets the best of you, take a minute to enjoy the success. Now roll up your sleeves. You’ve got this, but yes, you’ll have sweat on your brow before you’ve finished. Breaking down a whitetail takes approximately an hour if you debone and don’t do a complete caping job. Double that time if you completely cape the deer.
What makes any meat job go more smoothly is having the right gear. If you hunt solo, as I often do, well-chosen tools can make that packing job far easier.
With a deer down in a motorless hunting area, you must make some executive decisions. First, how do you plan to transport it? You have three basic options: (1) go old school and pack it out on your back; (2) use a game sled and slide your way to the trailhead; or (3) use a game cart and bounce the load back to civilization. Some of you might have access to horses, but in modern whitetail hunting that’s uncommon. Plus, horse packing requires an entire article on its own.
How far must you transport the animal? If using a sled or cart for a trip that’s less than a mile, you might get by transporting the deer whole or halved, especially if you have friends along. Regardless, always plan for a worse-case scenario.
Terrain and distance can negate those options, as can the lack of a cart or sled. Then it’s up to you to pack out the deer on your back. For this task a standard daypack will work, but you’ll struggle like a 6-year-old with a carry-on suitcase in a busy airport. A better option is to look at a larger pack with a capacity of 2,500-4,000 cubic inches. As I’m a gear and clothing freak, I use my elk backpacks to accommodate all my deer gear. I switch between two models. One is 3,500 cubic inches, the other is 4,500.
Depending on whether you pack out bone-in quarters or deboned meat, you might need more space or even a meat shelf. Look for a pack with ample compression straps to minimize size when not packing meat and generous padding in the waist, plus shoulder straps for comfort.
Backpack selection becomes important when you realize you could need to ferry two or more 50-pound loads with bone left in the quarters. After deboning, you can whittle the average mature buck down to approximately 75 pounds of meat. Make that about 45 pounds for a doe. Add another 20-30 pounds for the cape and head, again depending on if you leave the skull or just take out the skull cap.
Deboning is rather easy, even if you don’t repeatedly watch YouTube videos on it. Basically, cut out the major muscle groups and slice around any bone to release a future steak. The backstraps and tenderloins rest against the backbone and require finesse to free. Carve neck and rib meat to your desire for additional cuts or burger fodder.
Don’t forget you’ll also be carrying your rifle or bow, plus extra clothing and hunting equipment, on the way out. If you attempt all this in one haul, the load could be north of 80 pounds, or two loads north of 50 — again, depending on whether or not you debone.
Besides transportation, nearly every move you make after a deer is down depends on having a sharp knife. You’ll use it to notch your tag, gut the deer, skin out quarters and possibly cape the head if taxidermy is planned. One knife can handle it all, but make sure it’s sharp.
A sound option includes the use of a knife with replaceable blades, such as the Outdoor Edge Razor-Lite EDC folding knife. It’s only 3 1/2 inches in length, but the surgically sharp replacement blades can easily slice hide or trim meat from the bone. When it’s time to cape, drop in a new blade.
I also have a fondness for fixed-blade knives. To ensure the edge stays sharp, I pack along a lightweight knife sharpener, such as the Work Sharp EDC Pivot Plus. It’s designed with two sharpening slots: one carbide steel, the other ceramic. These allow you to sharpen and then hone a blade to perfection. It’s amazing how quickly skinning and deboning a deer can dull a knife. And dull knives easily can lead to nasty cuts on you if you try to muscle them too much.
As for a saw, leave it at home to save weight and space. With enough slices, you can detach legs, skulls and cartilage-held bones using your knife only. The only real job a saw can do best is to remove the skull plate. As I’m a zealot of European mounts, I remove the hide and the lower jaw to reduce weight but keep the main skull intact.
Stow at least two pair of latex surgical gloves in your pack. They’ll help keep your hands clean, plus protect you from any blood-borne illnesses. To keep your sleeves or arms free of blood, add in arm-length, plastic veterinarian gloves available at most farm and ranch stores. The full coverage allows you to reach in deep to remove the heart, especially if you only cut to the sternum to save hide for taxidermy.
For deboning and to remove excess weight from bone-in quarters, you’ll want to skin the deer. When that protective layer is removed, place skinned meat in game bags for protection from dirt, mud, grime and possibly insects. Standard game bags work fine, but if the weather’s warm you might wish to consider the antimicrobial bags offered by Cabela’s and others.
In addition to game bags for meat protection, a handful of extra garbage bags can prove helpful. Utilize them as additional backpack liners or to lay processed meat on as you prepare a game bag for hauling. Wrap your cape and skull in one to contain blood or brain matter. Purchase non-scented varieties, and never store meat in them for long periods; the trapped heat can hasten spoilage.
Those are the main ingredients of the meat-removal recipe when you’re using a wobbly backpack. In addition, stash 6-10 feet of paracord in the pack. You can use it to tie up a leg during skinning or tie off a game bag. Other uses will rise should you hit a roadblock.
Always have one flashlight or headlamp, as there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll be working in the dark. I always carry two light sources and extra batteries for backup. To safeguard against a finger nick being a problem, a small first-aid kit is also advisable.
Finally, always mark the location of your vehicle, trailhead, kill site and safe crossing points on a reliable hunting app. It’s comforting, two hours after sunset, to look down at my HuntStand app glowing the way home in a dark Midwestern coulee.
Try to get the loaded backpack on a slope above you so you can almost be sitting when you slip into the shoulder straps. The downward slope will help you stand up more easily with the load. Once upright, tighten the waist belt securely, with most weight riding on your hips. Light the way and hike slowly to avoid tripping. In steep terrain, a collapsible trekking pole can offer extra stability.
See? You’ve got this!
You’re in the middle of nowhere on a DIY hunt and face the backpacking retrieval of the buck you just shot. In addition to getting the deer back to camp, another dilemma now surfaces: You want to have the buck mounted. That will add even more work to what’s already a demanding extraction.
You have two choices. First, you can cape the entire hide from the shoulders and head. If you go this route, you’ll want to carry along a compact Wyoming Saw to cut off the skull plate.
Making the finer skinning moves around the eyes, preorbital gland, nose, gums, ears and antlers all takes precise slicing. Cutting too close or leaving too little can give your taxidermist fits or even ruin the cape. Watch the process repeatedly on YouTube and then practice on several unimportant capes before tackling the buck of a lifetime.
The second option is to cape the buck all the way to the skull and leave those fancy cuts for a professional. This option adds approximately 30 pounds of skull, antlers and hide to one of your loads, but what’s the price for a beautiful, lifetime memory on the wall?
The taxidermy process actually begins with never slicing above the sternum during field-dressing. Keeping more hide intact for your taxidermist is important, especially for mounts that will be on pedestal forms.
Where your field-dressing cut ends, make a circular cut around the body one foot or more behind the front legs. Next, grab the front legs and make a circular cut around both knees. Then look on the inside of the front legs and where the hair flows together making a colic, cut upwards to the buck’s armpit. At that point, extend the cut parallel to the body to your midsection circular cut.
Now stop cutting and begin skinning. Today taxidermists prefer the tube-sock method. Envision rolling a tube sock off your leg and begin skinning the hide from the midsection all the way to the base of the skull, using your cuts for entry points.
When you get that entire hunk of hide peeled to the skull, look where the neck bone enters the back of the skull. Now take your knife and cut around the cartilage while flexing that ball joint. Eventually you’ll be able to severe it without a saw. A good twist helps.
At this point you’ll have a heavier load to pack out, but your taxidermist will appreciate finishing the finer points around the buck’s face. Fold the cape skin to skin and keep the entire bundle refrigerated or frozen until you can get to your taxidermist.
For a visual guide to this process, visit: lewons.com.
Be Sure You're Legal
Once the lawyers and legal nerds step into hunting, there’s not enough room in The Bible to list all game laws that come into play before and even after you take the shot. Throw in the fact that many DIY hunts occur in places a guy might never have hunted, and potential legal slips are even more of a concern.
So before you touch your deer, know all the laws. That begins with studying all tagging requirements. You might be required to tag the animal immediately or wait until you get it back to camp. In my home state of Wyoming you must validate your tag immediately after the kill, but you can keep the tag in your possession as long as it’s with the carcass or trophy game hide to ensure it doesn’t get lost on the pack out.
Preserving evidence of sex also comes to mind. Here, Montana stands out. The state used to require you to keep evidence attached to the carcass, but the new rule states it doesn’t need to be naturally attached. It must, however, be packed out.
Make sure laws allow you to quarter or debone an animal in the field. Some states require game check-in and might frown upon pieces as opposed to a carcass.
The monster set of laws you need to truly analyze deals with chronic wasting disease. Most states now restrict the transportation of heads with brains, spinal columns and whole, unprocessed carcasses. The wording differs, but if you plan to transport a head across state lines, the skull or skull plate must have no visible brain matter or spinal cord tissue.
While it takes time, pressure washing and boiling is a solution to the legal transportation of the European or skull-plate mount you hope to finish back home. Capes are fine to ship in most instances, assuming they’ve been skinned precisely — and again, with no visible spinal or brain tissue on the hide.
Deboned meat is typically allowed in transportation, but for the most hassle-free option, have it processed and bring along a quality cooler to transport little white packages.
Many hunters who drive take along small freezers. These are plugged in at camp and then unplugged full of frozen meat when it’s time to travel home. Research rugged coolers from trusted names.
Research meat transportation laws carefully, as you might need another transportation form — especially if a party member is hauling several deer and is traveling separate from the hunters who shot them. For those flying, again processed meat is best. Double-wrap all packages and line boxes to guarantee no leakage. If airline workers detect blood, your venison will be sent to the landfill immediately.
In anticipation of filling your deer tag on any DIY hunt, always research your hunting destination’s regulations well ahead of the trip. The time spent understanding the heaps of legalese will ensure your trip is hassle-free.