Skinning Elk: On the 
Ground or Hanging

Skinning elk is probably the easiest part of butchering an animal. Once you’ve gutted your elk, or decided to use the gutless method, you’re ready for skinning. Everyone has their own peculiar way of skinning big game, but the idea is to get the hide off without getting dirt and hair on the meat.

There is a good video at the bottom of this page of the gutless field dressing and quartering process provided by Dax McCarty of Wagonhound Outfitters.

Secondly, most people want to get it done fast and efficiently without gouging the meat with a blade. Some like to keep from cutting through the hide, so they can use it for something.

For skinning elk that are hanging, gravity simply plays a different role. If there are horns, most people prefer skinning elk hanging from its head. If it’s a cow, most prefer to tie a branch, pole, bar or lift hooks to the back legs between the tendon and leg bone just above the lowest joint. (Be careful not to cut the tendon.) The bar can be inserted through a hole cut between the bone and large tendon.

Skinning on the Ground

When skinning elk on the ground, you have to skin one side and then flip the elk over and do the same on the other. You might as well remove the legs from the first side before flipping it over.

Put the quarters in game bags immediately to keep them clean. If you're by yourself and can't do that, stretch the loose skin out for the skinned side to put it on, or use a tarp or table cloth to put the meat on. If you can put the quarters right in a bag, it will keep them clean and keep the flies and bees off.

Related topics available:
Moving a Whole Elk
Game Hauler Review
Field Dressing Elk
Gutless Field Dressing
Quartering Elk in the Field
Deboning Elk in the Field
Cooling Big Game in the Field
Game Meat Processing: Bill's True Story
Caping An Elk for a Shoulder Mount
Elk Hunting With Horses
Getting Elk Meat Home Easier

My family has grown comfortable skinning elk on the ground, but We still hang it up to skin and quarter it if we get an elk home whole (rare). Hanging makes it easier to cut meat off the bones, but that can be done relatively easily on the ground as well.

To hang it at home, we use a singletree with hooks that a friend made for us. We lift it with a simple chain hoist secured to a heavy cross beam in the garage. I’m always concerned about the weight issue and safety. Be careful hanging an elk in the woods. Pine trees don’t always have strong enough branches.

Frankly, skinning along with someone else can be pretty dangerous, especially when both of you work quickly. It’s easy to get cut in that situation, even by someone who is good at skinning. Just stay separated and use caution.

Detailed Instructions for Skinning:

Using a Sharp Knife Saves Time

Start with a sharp knife. Skinning elk or any big game takes an edge off a blade pretty quickly. The tip tends to dull the quickest, because it does most of the cutting. Try to use the full length of the blade as you cut to avoid dulling the tip so soon. Take a break and sharpen it, or switch knives.

Avoid Cutting Meat or Hide While Skinning Elk

The idea is to avoid cutting the meat or the hide while skinning an elk, deer, or other big game (except for "lengthwise" and "around" cuts). A lot of people start along the spine, but if you need to gut it to cool it quicker, start on the stomach.

After making a start with your knife, pull the skin away from the meat with your hand while slicing parallel to the meat with your knife. You will actually be cutting through the white membranous layer that begins to stretch between the meat and hide as you pull on it.

The key point is that you are cutting the white stuff, not the meat or hide. A skinning knife makes it easier to avoid poking the tip through the hide or into the muscle, but any sharp knife will do.

If you see that you are cutting into meat, angle the blade toward the hide. If you see that you are cutting through the hide, angle the knife a little toward the meat. In some places, you might be able to pull the skin away without making much, if any, cutting motion. Other areas will be tighter and require more patience, care, and shorter cuts.

"Lengthwise" and "Around" Cuts

While skinning elk, consider that everything on the animal is basically “around”. That is, the skin goes all the way around everything: torso, neck and legs. You always have to make a “lengthwise” (perpendicular, or long) cut and then an “around” cut on these round parts.

For lengthwise cuts, cut with the direction of the hair to avoid dropping hair on the meat. You make the first “lengthwise” cut along the stomach or spine. You’ll need one along each leg that meets the first cut. (If you're caping, you'll need to do it this way.)

Then you will need four “around” cuts at the bottom of each leg and one below the head on the neck, or way back on the ribs for caping. Unwrap the whole carcass using the method of separating hide from meat by pulling and slicing the white stuff between them.

Around the butt you’ll have to work at it a little, because the hide goes around this and that curve. You an easily cut off the tail, using a saw or knife, and leave it attached to the hide.

Keeping Hair and Dirt off Meat

When skinning elk or other big game keep in mind that every time you cut through the hide, you will cut hair. The hair falls free and can easily land on meat, potentially tainting the flavor. Avoid it by moving your knife away from the meat as you cut through hide and cut with the hair.

Always try to make cuts through hide from the meat side outward, as much as possible, to avoid getting hair on the meat. That is, cut with the knife blade pointing away from the meat outward (like you do when making the gutting cut). Again, cut with the direction of the hair.

If you make a cut through hide that is above exposed meat, especially while skinning elk that is hanging, hair will drop on your exposed meat below. Loose hair heads for moist meat like a magnet.

If a bull has been wallowing, the mud is usually dry and now the hide will be covered with thick dirt, which readily falls on your meat if you're not careful. I skinned a 5 X 6 in September of 2009 that was filthy. I used several pairs of latex gloves because the dirt covered the glove whenever I pulled on the hide.

Any hair or dirt on the meat can easily be removed before freezer wrapping by cutting off the white membrane on the outside of the muscle. It won't rinse of with water. It's too sticky. Just peel off that membrane and it's clean!

No Need to Carry a Heavy Hide

Incidentally, I stopped carrying heavy hides a long time ago, when packing meat out of the woods.

If you want to take it home, roll it up lengthwise, hair out. Tie it in at least three spots to keep it from unrolling. Then drag it behind you on the ground with a long enough rope to keep it away from your heels. It slides easily on the ground.

Now you’re ready to debone it or cut it up or take it to the butcher shop for processing. Consider cutting and wrapping it yourself. It’s not that difficult. Click here to see the Hunter's Meat Map that you can follow generally. You don't have to do it perfectly!

Here is the gutless field dressing and quartering Video provided by Dax McCarty of Wagonhound Outfitters: 

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