Fresh meat, field to table: this is the dream of meat lovers, hunters, and locavores alike. But for anyone who didn’t grow up around hunting, farming, or butcher shops, knowledge of how to turn a whole animal into an individual meal is usually missing. It certainly was for me for most of my life.
Three years into my hunting journey, I am by no means an expert in wild game processing or butchery — I still consider myself a novice — but I do have expertise in the art of being a self-taught hunter. Everything I know about animal processing I have taught myself through the use of mostly free and widely accessible resources. It is not only possible to do, but a lot easier than you might think. So, for the new hunters and the do-it-yourselfers, I’ve compiled a compendium of videos and instructionals to help you break down whole animals in the field without an in-person mentor. You can teach yourself to process wild game!
I embarked on a seven year journey through vegetarianism and veganism shortly after I started cooking for myself. As such, I had relatively little experience handling meat — nevermind a whole animal — before I started hunting in my mid-20s. I had never even cooked a whole chicken or turkey from the grocery store (and when one was cooked for me I ate only the breast meat). Animal anatomy, as it related to food consumption, was a complete mystery.
So for the true beginners out there, I understand your trepidation. We’ll start with the basics. First, what does “process wild game” even mean? Processing is a broad term that refers to the act of breaking down a whole animal into useable bits. The early stages of processing includes skinning or plucking the animal and gutting the animal. Depending on the size of the creature it can also include quartering the animal (removing front and hind legs and associated meat), gathering the rest of the meat and edible organs, and potentially removing the meat from the bones — all of which I cover in this article.
The other later stages of processing may be more properly titled “butchery” which includes cutting or otherwise working the meat into its final form in the kitchen, be it steaks, roasts, burger, sausage, et cetera. Aging and curing meat also fits into the butchery category. With so much information available on butchering and meat preparation, it’s a topic deserving its own post (or two!). So for now, I’ll only discuss early stage processing — the part that many of us do in the field.
My goal for this article is to put together a living library of free resources that I’ve used and found valuable in teaching myself to process wild game. I want to keep everything in one place — the one stop shop for learning field processing without a mentor. As such, this article is very long. To ease navigation, I’ve inserted subsection links below. This should make it simpler to click to the areas of the article most relevant to your own hunting goals.
As a final disclaimer: the contents of this article are not set in stone, and some areas are a work in progress. I’d eventually like to cover nearly every game animal out there, but I’m not there yet myself. As I continue to learn and discover new instructional gems, I will update this article. If you have or know of a video that would add a valuable perspective to this post, please send me a link!
DIY Wild Game Processing Library:
Before jumping into specific techniques, there are a few general principles that, if followed, will serve you well as you learn to process wild game.
1. Cool the meat as soon as possible
Even on a warm day, meat will cool down substantially when it is removed from the rest of the body, set in the shade, and exposed to good air circulation. Evaporative cooling works wonders when you remove the meat from the animal body and remove the hide that covers the meat. The goal is always to do this as fast as possible. Just how fast you need to be will depend upon the animal you kill, the weather, and your hunting climate.
2. Keep the meat clean and dry
Bacteria like to grow in warm, moist environments, so drying the meat is almost as important as cooling it. As long as the air isn’t too damp and there’s a bit of a breeze, meat can form a dry top layer if placed in a shady spot for a little while. In my experience, there are four primary contaminants that are most likely to make clean meat dirty in the field: dirt/dust, insects, the animal’s own hair, and the animal’s own “gut fluids” — contents from the stomach, intestines, or bladder. While a little dirt and hair probably won’t ruin your meat outright, feces and digestive juices can. Much care is warranted. Hence, rule number three:
3. Try as hard as you possibly can to NOT puncture the stomach, intestines, and other “guts”
Rest assured, there are techniques to minimize this risk. Some folks have also devised good “gutless” methods for processing wild game where the gut cavity is avoided entirely.
4. Respect existing muscle groups
Learning to process wild game is quite a lesson in animal anatomy. This includes learning how the muscles are laid out across the animal’s body. When you are taking the animal apart, you want to make your cuts in line with these muscle groups to keep each individual muscle as intact as you can.
Processing is an acquired skill, but having the right tools can make a big difference in your speed, accuracy, and overall effectiveness. The tools to process wild game need not be numerous or expensive, but I would strongly recommend getting dedicated gear for the job. Here are some items you may want to consider, depending on your situation.
You might think that to break down a large animal like a deer or an elk in the field you would need some enormous knives. In my experience, I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. Regardless of whether I’m breaking down a deer or a rabbit, I like to use a fairly small knife. I’ve found I can be more precise with a shorter blade, and as a backcountry hunter I appreciate the lighter weight of a smaller knife. Ideally, you want a stiff, hard blade on your knife, and you want it to be razor sharp. Seriously. I witnessed the importance of razor sharp when we started processing the buck I shot this season. One of Nick’s high-quality knives that seemed pretty sharp stumbled when it came to skinning a deer. We had to put too much pressure on the knife to get it to cut. We gave up on using it because it simply could not get the job done in a timely manner. When you shoot a deer in the backcountry, time is of the essence.
We use Havalon knives as our primary skinning, quartering, and deboning knives and are extremely happy with them. In fact, for field processing, the Havalon Piranta is the only knife I carry. The blades on these knives are downright dangerous. Gently tap one on your skin and you’ll end up with a little cut. But boy, are they ever effective for processing wild game. Havalons are well-suited to field processing because they are relatively small and lightweight and the knife blades are disposable and easily changed. No sharpening tools needed, and no need to pause for more than a minute to get a brand new razor edge.
The only other cutting tool I bring with me for big game hunting is a bone saw. Where I hunt, I am required to retain “that portion of the head which in adult males normally bears the antlers, and shall produce the designated portion of the head upon the demand of any officer authorized to enforce the provisions of this regulation”. So, to put it bluntly, I need to saw off the top portion of the skull and take it with me. I could take the entire head, but again as a backcountry hunter weight and space are at a premium. Carrying out the whole head over many miles of steep terrain is not high on the priority list.
In addition to being able to follow my local regulations, a bone saw can be helpful in other ways. Want to make BBQ ribs from your game animal? You might want a way to cut the rib cage apart for easy transport. In some situations you may want to be able to split the pelvis of your animal. Neither of these are necessary steps, (there are other ways to gather rib meat and pelvic splitting can be avoided) but sometimes they might work for you and your situation.
If you’re hunting close to your home or your car, you may be able to use a saw you already own. But if you’re hiking a long distance or backpacking, you’ll want something small and light. Sadly, I cannot make a specific recommendation for a lightweight bone saw, as the one we use (weighing 1.3 ounces) was custom made for us by another ultralight backpacking enthusiast. I’ve heard good things about the Wyoming Saw, the Outdoor Edge Griz Saw, and the Gerber Myth Saw, but I’ve never tried them.
Game bags are mostly relevant for folks who will be doing their early stage processing in the field. (Those hunting in cold weather close to the road or their house may choose to simply gut the deer and finish the rest of processing in their garage). But for those of us who need to break down an animal out in nature, game bags are essential.
A game bag is basically a dedicated, breathable sack that you can place meat into once you remove it from the animal. You need a place to put the meat where it can cool, dry out a bit, and stay clean. Game bags allow air flow and evaporation while protecting the meat from dirt, wasps, and flies. Clean meat = less waste and better taste. Personally, I use TAG bags, but I’ve heard good things about Caribou Gear as well.
Materials for Hanging an Animal
Depending on what you hunt and where you hunt, you may find it useful to hang your harvested animal while processing. I’ve done this with jackrabbits, but not with deer. With a jackrabbit it’s pretty simple — I just bring a length of thin rope with a small carabiner tied to one end (one of the videos below will demonstrate why this is useful). For deer, pig, and similar-sized creatures, you will need something more heavy duty. Here are a few examples: The Ultimate Deer Hanger, HME 4:1 Gambrel, and Skininrite, though I’ve never used any of these myself. I’ve also seen folks make them out of branches, so you don’t necessarily need to buy a special product.
Nitrile or latex gloves are a good item to keep with your game processing kit. Though instances of this are relatively rare, animals including rabbits, hares, pigs, and bears can carry infections that could be transmitted to humans. Wearing gloves is a key step to protect yourself from the risk from things like Brucellosis and Tularemia that are transmitted through animal body fluids. Again, the risk is small, but it’s good to be safe if you can. It can also be nice to clean your hands as you process wild game by simply changing to a new pair of gloves. Find the right size for a comfortable fit and maximum dexterity.
Whether we are day hunting or on a multi-day backpacking excursion, we always keep a cooler loaded with ice in our vehicle. Living in Southern California means it’s almost never cold enough to keep our meat outside for prolonged periods of time. To make the weekend ice rituals easier and keep our meat dry when it’s in the cooler, we freeze water bottles. We’ve found that, when stacked all the way to the top in the cooler, these water bottles can stay icy for days, even in warm weather, as long as the cooler stays shut. After we get home from a hunting trip, we wipe down the bottles and place them back in the freezer to be used on the next trip. We found that two Coleman Steel Belted Coolers were sufficient for a boned out deer with plenty of ice. Yeti coolers are well respected and worth a look if you need to keep ice for a very long time and you’re willing to shell out some cash.
Regardless of what type of cooler you buy, I highly recommend testing your cooler performance before you go out hunting. Are you planning a three day excursion in warm weather? Leave an icy cooler in your car for three days and see how it performs. That way you won’t be met with a box of lukewarm water when you’ve just hauled back some precious meat that needs cooling.
Citric acid is a weak organic acid that can be used to decrease bacteria growth and insect activity on freshly harvested meat. As the ph level on the surface of the meat decreases, it becomes less hospitable to these meat-spoiling organisms. Honestly, citric acid is most relevant to backcountry / backpack hunters who may need to pack out their meat over many miles of tough country in warmer temperatures. Hunters who are able to cool their meat rapidly and keep it cold shouldn’t need to carry citric acid.
I used citric acid on the desert mule deer I shot this fall and despite many hours of exposure to a tough desert climate, the meat has been excellent. I will never know what it might have been like without the citric acid, but I’m happy with the result. We carry a small spray bottle with citric acid powder inside that we can fill up with water and apply to the meat with ease. I highly recommend reading this article if you are curious to know more about the use of citric acid for game meat. If you are going to buy citric acid, make sure it is food grade!
Breaking Down Four-legged Mammals
I’m serious when I say that I trained for processing my first deer via jackrabbit hunting. The anatomy of most four-legged game mammals is very similar; it’s just a matter of scaling up or scaling down in size. So while I don’t have recommended videos for every animal you might hunt, much of the knowledge from the below instructionals is somewhat transferable.
This first video is the very first resource I used to teach myself to process wild game when I was a brand new hunter. Nick downloaded this video to his phone and I remember having him hold up the phone for me to follow along with the video in the field. So there I am, in the middle of the desert, jackrabbit hanging by a string, watching a youtube video. It seemed absurd, but it worked excellently. I love the skinning technique used in this video. It is incredibly fast and easy, though it does require some force to pull the skin. This is why I like to hang rabbits and hares when I have the opportunity — so that I have something to pull against. This video shows a “gutless” method for processing a hare, meaning that you won’t ever open the gut cavity. If you follow the video exactly you will end up with front quarters, hind quarters, and backstraps, and it’s very easy to execute.
The one thing I dislike about the above video is that it doesn’t maximize the amount of food one can take from this rabbit. I was happy to use this technique the first few times, but now that I have a bit more confidence in my abilities I will skin and gut the rabbit and take it home whole to toss in the slow cooker. Gutting also allows me to save the heart and to check the liver for signs of disease. So, for those who need to skin a rabbit on the ground (no place to hang it) and/or want to gut the animal, Steven Rinella offers a short but useful instructional. Note how he makes a small incision in the abdominal cavity and uses his fingers to lift belly up high. This allows you to slide the knife underneath and cut without puncturing the guts.
Special precautions: Since rabbits and hares can carry the disease Tularemia, I recommend you always wear nitrile gloves when processing these wild animals.
If you can process a rabbit you can process a squirrel. The only difference with a squirrel is that the hide is much tougher to pull off than that of a rabbit. If you watched the above videos, you probably noticed that the rabbit hide required a little bit of force, but for the most part could be pulled off quite easily by hand. These methods don’t work as well with squirrels. Try the below technique instead:
For a more complete view of the squirrel field dressing process, check out this next video. Skip to the 55 second mark to see the start of field dressing. I really appreciate the attention to detail in this video for things like scent glands. Scent glands appear to be overlooked by some hunters when cleaning animals and their presence can affect the flavor of the meat, especially if the glands are inadvertently punctured. Removing the scent glands is a small step that you can take to improve the taste of your wild game meals.
If you google “how to field dress a deer”, the number of videos and articles that come up will be truly overwhelming. The way I see it, there are two main approaches: the “gut it first” approach and the “gutless method”.
Gutting the animal first is certainly the more traditional way of going about it and there are some good reasons why. The gut cavity on a deer is quite large and a lot of body is stored in the internal organs and viscera. Removing the guts first helps cool the entire carcass. On the other hand an argument can be made that the time spent carefully removing the guts simply delays the time to get the meat you really care about (the leg quarters, the backstrap) out, skinned, and drying. I think this is particularly true is warmer weather, where the majority of the cooling you’ll achieve will be evaporative cooling. A hind quarter can’t evaporatively cool unless it’s skinned. In addition, the risk of contaminating the meat with spilled guts is effectively zero when the guts are left untouched, which makes the gutless method extra attractive for a newbie hunter.
Note how Steven Rinella uses an upward motion with his knife to reduce the amount of hair that ends up on the meat and starts entering the abdominal cavity from the end of the rib cage, using his fingers to separate the abdominal wall from the stomach and intestines so that he doesn’t accidentally cut them. He makes sure to take the heart, liver, kidney, and tenderloin from the gut cavity. I would never want to forget these delicious bits!
By contrast, here’s what not to do when trying to gut a large animal. Watch just past the 1 minute mark, when the stomach is accidentally punctured.
Once you gut the deer or other animal, the next step will be to skin it and remove the quarters and other meat. If you have the opportunity to hang the animal, the easiest thing to do is to skin the whole thing at once. By contrast, if the animal has to stay on the ground, the best method is to roll the animal onto one side and skin the exposed side and remove all of the meat from it. Then flip the animal onto the other side and do the same.
As you can see here, skinning a big game animal requires more use of the knife than skinning a rabbit or a squirrel. The method is to pull the hide away from the animal with one hand and hold it taught while making gentle, shallow cuts with the knife perpendicular to the meat. This will help free the hide, allowing you to slowly peel it away from the body.
For the next step, this video is a superb example of how to break down a hanging deer after it’s been gutted and skinned:
Note the similarities between this and the hanging jackrabbit video posted earlier in the article. I especially appreciate Steve Graf’s attention to removing the deer’s glands. You can see the insects swarming the fresh meat as he works. Game bags would have provided useful protection from these critters who love to lay their eggs on your delicious venison. Finally, I want to draw attention to the way he removes the meat from the ribs. This is why I said you don’t need a bone saw in order to save the rib meat.
Steve Graf also provides a quick demonstration of deboning. I’ve actually found deboning to be one of the easiest parts of big game processing because the natural division of the muscles provides visual cues as to where to cut. The hindquarter is pretty simple to debone. The front quarter is a little bit trickier because of the scapula.
For guidance on quartering and deboning an animal that is laying on the ground, I recommend this video from Larry Bartlett:
Not only does this video offer a slightly different technique, but it also demonstrates the process on a somewhat “fatty” animal. Larry has to trim away some layers of fat to have good access to the meat below. In this particular video the sheep was not gutted, but the same strategy could be used on a gutted animal. I have modeled my own deboning method after Larry’s. Larry offers tips for using citric acid as well.
Next, a complete demonstration of the gutless method on a deer by Randy Newberg:
One final variation on the gutless method is one where the quarters are removed without skinning. This could be appropriate in conditions where the meat will cool quickly even with the hide on. Leaving the hide on the quarters certainly helps to keep them clean from dirt and debris, but meat temperature is critical, so I would consider doing this if I were in a big rush in a very cold climate. If you’re going to attempt this, remember: never cut with the blade pushing down into the hide — always work the knife up and away from the hide as demonstrated earlier. Otherwise, the animal’s hair will get all over the meat. See the Steven Rinella deer video above for the right way to cut through hide.
It’s a lot of information to take in, I know. But I firmly believe that with dedicated study of these videos, even the most novice hunter can be ready to tackle these tasks in the field.
Special precautions: Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a serious problem for cervids in some parts of the U.S. If you live in one of these areas, I strongly recommend that you learn more about CWD and follow this recommended precautions when processing your deer, elk, or moose.
Processing a bear is, in many ways, very similar to processing a deer. Both the “gut it” and “gutless” methods can be easily applied to bears. There are, however, a few important differences worth noting. First, hunters are more likely to want to preserve a bear hide than a deer hide. Preserving the hide and preserving the meat need not be mutually exclusive. It is very possible to skin a bear quickly in order to cool the meat without causing unnecessary skin damage — it’s all about the location of the cuts.
So for those interested in retaining the skin, follow these skinning guidelines as your process your bear:
The second difference has to do with body composition. Bears are much fattier animals than deer or elk. Fat is known to spoil more quickly than lean meat, so it is truly paramount to cool bear flesh as quickly as possible. Delays that may be acceptable on deer may harm your bear meat more than expected. In addition, a bear’s gut cavity is smaller relative to it’s body size, and the abdominal wall is thicker. This may give the gutting process a slightly different feel, if you choose to go that route.
I have yet to find an excellent, free video on bear field dressing, quartering, or deboning. This link provides a detailed text description of the gutting process, though, with some good pictures. I will be on the look out for good videos and add them here when I find them.
The Future of this Article
As I continue to teach myself to process wild game I will continue to update this article with other types of animals, from upland birds to waterfowl to snake and beyond. If you have a video that might be a good fit for this article, please don’t hesitate to send it my way via the comments section or the Modern Hunters contact page.