Deboning elk in the field is not as difficult as it sounds. The circumstances might make it more difficult, like a very rough slant or minimal level space to work on. At the same time, because of their huge body size, those negative circumstances might make deboning it necessary, just to get started hauling it out.
Deboning can save you from having to carry out quite a few unnecessary pounds of bone. The meat alone will weigh anywhere from 120 to 200 pounds or more, depending on the size of the cow, calf or bull.
Save yourself some energy and cool your meat down faster, if you have to pack it out on your back. It might even be worth deboning elk when you use a cart or sled. Why struggle on a long, arduous haul with unnecessary weight, when you can spend 30 minutes to an hour deboning before struggling with pushing, pulling or carrying your meat to the truck?
Packing elk meat is difficult, but big game retrieval can even be done alone. There are ways to make it easier, even without expensive equipment, horses or help.
If I have an elk already skinned and quartered on the ground, I’m most likely to go ahead and debone the elk meat.
I’ll haul it out whole only if I can get the elk on a cart or sled, and with reasonable effort and speed get it somewhere fast to be processed, without compromising the meat with time and temperature.
If warm weather forces a need to cool it down fast, but I have a cart, I might quarter it, but forgo deboning the elk. Then I will use the cart to haul out quarters on the bone. But, if I have to pack it out on my back, I’m NOTcarrying the weight of bones!
After your elk has been skinned, quarter it as described on our quartering elk page, then begin deboning it in no particular order. The front legs have less quality meat than the back, so keep it all separate in some way. That way you can tell what you have when you get it home for cutting and wrapping.
Start with a very clean knife for deboning elk meat. On each of the four legs, slice lengthwise along and down to the leg bone. With your other hand, separate the sliced mass of meat, so you can see the bone. Use short strokes with the tip of your knife at the bone to cut the meat free.
Leave the meat in large pieces to make it easier to pack and carry. Small pieces of meat in a bag will keep changing shape to make handling more difficult.
As you cut away meat, place it on a clean surface, like a clean vinyl table cloth, tarp, or on the skin side of the hide. You should place it directly into a game bag to help keep it clean.
To cool the bagged meat faster, hang it from a tree limb, until you’re ready to haul it out. If we have more than one person working and back packs will be used, we often send one person packing meat as soon as a large enough load is available.
You will find a nice long strip of meat on either side of the spine (the back strap) that goes all the way down the spine on each side. With your knife, separate these two strips of meat from the spine with short cuts as you move all the way down from shoulder to the elk’s “waist” area.
The smaller, but tender fillets are on both sides beneath the spine, between the last ribs and butt. You might have to cut the ends to pull them free, but they are nice and tender and easily pulled out by hand.
Cut off anything that looks edible remaining above the ribs and neck area. Some people cut the meat from between the ribs and “flank” area. These cuts will produce smaller pieces and can be bagged tightly together.
There’s not a lot of meat on the ribs and they don’t taste like good, fatty beef ribs. We prefer to leave them.
Some people sprinkle pepper on the outside of the meat to keep flies off. We don’t. Unless there are a lot of flies, quality game bags keep them off the meat.
Once you get your meat to your vehicle, cool it down as fast as possible. The ultimate goal is to get it down to about 40 degrees as soon as possible. The well accepted “ideal” guideline is to get it down to 70 degrees in two hours and 40 degrees in four more hours. Ice chests with ice will obviously be the best choice up arriving at your rig with your meat.
I am a food safety instructor (ServSafe). I have not always met the ideal goal above, but have never lost any elk or deer meat. (Those guidelines are for foods in general from a cooked state.) However, I am very careful to avoid contaminating the meat while field dressing, quartering and deboning elk or other game. I make great effort to cool it down fast.
Remember that fresh meat, from a freshly killed animal, starts out very clean and bacteria free. Once a bullet, dirty knife or dirty hands, etc. touch it bacteria begin to multiply that start the process of making your hard earned elk meat unfit to eat.
In case deboning elk in the field becomes necessary, one idea is to carry large ice chests with frozen jugs of water in them. I often carry buckets of cold water with lids on them. When I get my meat to the truck, I start dropping the meat, bags and all, into the cool water. The water overflows and I put the lids back on them.
It will take quite a few buckets if you kill a large elk. As soon as possible, remove the meat from the water and let it air dry a bit, then transfer it to colder conditions.
If deboning elk is not necessary, you'll need to act quickly to cool the whole carcass down.
The decision about deboning elk or not in the field depends on how far you are from your truck, of course.
I’ll close this page with this photo. In 2007, we only had to cart this cow about thirty yards to the road. The ramp was just a few dozen yards down the road. This was on public access private land (Block Management). It’s so rare for it to be this easy! Frankly, I’m glad it is rare. It just didn’t seem right somehow.
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