3 strategies for getting your meat out of the backcountry
Packing out downed game under your own steam is always possible with a little planning and the proper gear
Big-game hunting presents plenty of challenges, not the least of which involves hauling out downed game. It’s typically not an issue if you’re hunting along forestry or oil and gas roads or cutlines, which ATVs, side-by-sides and 4x4 trucks can readily travel along. But in places that motorized vehicles can’t reach, including public lands where they’re strictly prohibited, what’s a big-game hunter to do? And let’s face it, wildlife live in hard-to-access wild places.
My own hunting adventures often take me into remote places and designated special areas where vehicles are either unusable or prohibited. More than a few times, I’ve passed on amazing shot opportunities simply because I was so far into the backcountry to get the animal out, even if I were able to use an ATV. Vast old-growth forests characteristically feature plenty of blow downs, thickly wooded areas, wetlands and more that can stop a vehicle in its tracks. Add variable topography to the equation and, well, you’ve got an environment that creates all kinds of difficulties for hunters.
Then there’s the sheer size of the downed game itself—a 400-kilogram moose or even a 60-kilogram pronghorn antelope can be tough or impossible to move on your own. Even if you’re smart and bring along a friend or two to help, you still need to get inventive in your methods for retrieving game, and that’s where backpacks, game carts and sleds can help you get the job done.
I hunt wild sheep in seriously remote, mountainous terrain. When we get a ram and we don’t have horses, the only option is to bone out the meat, pack it in game bags, fill up our backpacks and begin the hard hike home. Deboned, a ram weighs roughly 60 to 70 kilograms, and one of the things you learn quickly is that meat carries low in a pack, unlike rigid items that can be packed evenly from top to bottom. This can make the hike out that more arduous, so you want to make sure your pack is as comfortable as possible.
I like Kuiu, Stone Glacier, Badlands and Mystery Ranch packs because of the strength of their internal frames, durability and designs. Traditional external pack frames can be practical in some instances—Badlands makes one called the Ox that is very well designed and practical—but I still tend to favour the internal frame packs.
When hauling out meat on your back, your goal should be to minimize the load and maximize efficiency, without spoiling or wasting any of the meat. To do this, quickly skin one half of the animal and carefully bone out all edible meat, quarter by quarter. Load the meat into game bags and your backpack for transport, then roll over the carcass and repeat the process on the other half. If you’re a sheep hunter, you’re likely already acquainted with this process, but if you’ve never done it before, you’d be amazed at how simple it is.
In most cases, it’s best to use proper game bags to ensure the meat doesn’t spoil. Thanks to grizzly bears and other predatory wildlife, however, I’ve also started using clear plastic game bags. This lets me seal up the meat to help diminish the smell. Hiking through bear country with bloody meat on your back makes you an easy target, so anything you can do to suppress the smell can help avoid a bad encounter.
Of course, packing out meat on your back involves plenty of sweat and sore muscles. And whether you’re hauling a mule deer out of a deep coulee or carrying a mountain goat down out of the high country, it’s a psychological game. On every occasion I’ve packed out game, I’ve had to remind myself to simply put one foot in front of the other. Every step I take is another step closer to home.
I occasionally come across private landowners who welcome hunters, but don’t allow motorized vehicles on their land. This forces me to consider alternatives for extracting game if I’m successful hunting on their land. If there’s no snow and the terrain is relatively flat, the best option is a game cart, which I’ve used extensively for deer and antelope.
A variety of game cart styles are available from big-box retailers such as Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops, as well as from smaller retailers and online suppliers, but not all models are created equal. If you’re in the market for a new cart, look for one that’s lightweight, durable and stable. When I was looking for a cart several years ago, I opted for one that was compact. As it turned out, it was too small and unstable.
For the most part, the bigger the wheels, the better, although they must be slender enough to navigate uneven ground and bump over debris. As well, inflatable tires are superior to solid tires, mostly because they give a bit under a heavy load. The wheelbase is also important—the greater the width, the more stable the cart will be.
Finally, the frame itself must be sturdy and big enough to support the game you’re transporting. While most commercial game carts are suitable for carrying loads weighing 125 to 150 kilograms, they’re outright useless if unstable. If the cart is big enough for two hunters to pull, that will also add to the stability and make the extraction that much easier.
Many years ago, my father shot a bull moose just a few hundred metres from a roadway. We didn’t have an ATV, pack frames or a game cart, but we did have a tarp and, most importantly, a few centimetres of snow on the ground. So, we simply quartered the bull, loaded it onto the tarp and slid it down a cutline all the way back to our vehicle. Think of it as a poor man’s sled.
Snow can be a curse or a blessing when it comes time to head home with your downed game—a curse if you only have a game cart, but a blessing if you’re equipped with a sled. But as with the various game cart models, not all sleds are created equal. I’ve purchased several different ones, and found some were more hassle than they were worth.
If opting for a sled to haul out game, make sure it’s durable and lightweight, and has a curved front to help cut through the snow and navigate over logs and other obstructions. You also want it to be big enough to hold and handle the loads you plan to move. Several years ago, I visited a plastics shop and found the ideal sled. Complete with 16-inch sidewalls, it’s durable and can easily transport two deer or the equivalent. I simply fastened a towline and was good to go.
Regardless of where or when you tip over your animal, there’s always a way to retrieve it. Quads and 4x4 trucks aren’t the only answer. Just bring the right gear and attitude and expect to expend a little energy, and you’ll soon have your downed game home and ready for the freezer.