Backcountry Meat Care with Steven Rinella
One dream many bowhunters have is to spend an extended period of time in the backcountry chasing elk, deer or other big game animals. One of the biggest problems a backcountry hunter faces is what to do with the meat after the kill. When the daytime temperatures are in the fifties or cooler, a bowhunter can take his time cutting up and deboning an animal. When the temperatures are extremely warm, everything changes. Getting the meat off the animal and cooled down becomes a top priority. In warm temperatures, when one member of a hunting party kills an animal, all hunting stops and everyone pitches in until the animal is off the mountain and on its way to a game cooler. After all, for most of us, taking home high quality meat is one of the main reasons we bow hunt.
Making sure meat stays clean and cool and doesn’t spoil is a tough job when hunting deep in the backcountry. No one knows that better than Steven Rinella, Host of the MeatEater on the Sportsman Channel. He makes his living harvesting game and turning it into high quality meals that his friends and family enjoy eating. “One of the main reasons some wild game tastes bad on the table is because it isn’t taken care of properly in the field,” says Rinella. “Making sure field care is done right often results in good table fare.”
GET RID OF THE HEAT
Heat is enemy number one when hunting in the backcountry. “When I kill something in the backcountry, I don’t like to leave the guts in the animal overnight. If for some reason, I need to leave an animal overnight before I start cutting it up, I always gut it. A big animal like an elk cannot be cooled fast enough. Big game animals hold a lot of heat in them and you need to get rid of that heat. Gutting an animal is a must, even when it is cold out, if the animal must be left for a long period of time,” Rinella explained.
Another thing Rinella does is get the hide off. “The hide of an animal also holds heat so I don’t like to leave the hide on my quarters. Some people think it keeps the meat cleaner, but the meat can spoil faster, especially in warm weather, if the hide is left on the meat even for short periods. Always get the hide off and let the meat cool,” Rinella added.
KEEP IT CLEAN
One major thing hunters do wrong is allow their animal quarters to get dirty. “Keeping meat clean is very important. You don’t want your meat to get covered in dirt or worse yet, get a lot of hair on it.” Hair from a big bull elk, for example, may be covered in mud or have urine or feces on it which can result in the meat not tasting good on the table. To keep hair and debris off of your meat, always hang it or lay it on a clean tarp of some kind when cutting it up in the field so it doesn’t come in contact with the ground.
When skinning an animal, use an extremely sharp knife so you can quickly skin the hide away from the carcass without having to tug or pull on the hide. The more tugging and pulling you do, the more hair will come loose from the hide and likely fall onto the meat. One thing no one wants to find in their elk burger is elk hair.
When Rinella is taking care of an animal in the field, he likes to cut the meat in large pieces instead of deboning most of the time. “I like to quarter an animal and keep the quarters whole. I also keep the ribs in large pieces. I keep the neck and backstraps whole. Keeping the meat in large pieces allows me to keep the meat a lot cleaner and decreases the amount of surface area that is exposed to bugs, dirt and other contaminants,” Rinella noted.
HANG IT HIGH
After everything has been removed from the carcass, Rinella puts it in the trees. “When possible, as soon as I have the meat removed from the animal, I put it into breathable game bags and hoist them in the trees. People should never put meat in anything other than a breathable game bag. Game bags are made of mesh material that allows the meat to breathe and cool and prevents bugs from getting to the meat. By mistake, some folks use non-breathable bags which can quickly spoil meat because it can’t cool down fast enough.”
Meat gets hoisted into the trees for a few reasons. It keeps the meat out of reach of most animals, keeps the meat in the shade under the branches of the trees and even a light breeze when hanging in a tree will quickly cool the meat. “I am always amazed at how long meat will last in the backcountry when properly taken care of. Even when daytime temperatures are extremely warm, meat will do well if it is in the shade and the nighttime temperatures drop a little and get cool. Getting the meat in a tree is a must if a hunter can’t make it out of the backcountry for a few days,” Rinella advised.
One more reason you want the meat up in the air and in the breeze is because it will form a hard layer on the outside of the meat which protects it from almost all things bad. “A gentle breeze and cool temperatures will result in a hard rind forming on the outside of the meat. It is similar to a rind on an orange. This hard layer is dried out meat that actually protects the inner meat. I want this hard layer to form so my meat is protected. After I get the meat out of the field and start processing it, all I have to do is trim away this hard layer to get at all the quality meat underneath. This is one reason I don’t like to debone the meat. Deboned meat can dry out quickly. When kept in large pieces, only the outside layer becomes hard.”
KEEP IT DRY
One enemy of all game meat is moisture. “I try to keep moisture away from the meat. This is another reason I hang meat in a tree under the branches. The tree can keep a little bit of rain off the meat.” When it is raining after a kill, using a tarp hung above the meat in a tree is one way to ensure meat doesn’t get wet. Moisture and humidity are your worst enemy after a kill. If you find yourself in these conditions shortly after you have killed something, get the meat out of the field as soon as you can and do your best to keep it dry.
NEVER LEAVE HOME WITHOUT...
When heading into the backcountry, there are a few things you never want to leave the trailhead without to ensure your meat makes it out of the backcountry in good shape. You will need a great backpack for packing out meat and super sharp knives. Rinella uses a Havalon knife, a tarp, a paracord for hanging meat, high quality game bags and pepper, Meat Savr or some other type of fly deterrent that can keep flies away from your meat if it has to be hung for long periods.
MAKE A FEW CALLS
Call several game coolers before heading into the backcountry so you have a place lined up ahead of time so you are not looking for a game processor after the fact. Most small mountain towns have game coolers nearby who will either process your meat or at least cool it for you.
Coming home with a cooler full of meat is one of the most rewarding things about bowhunting. By following the meat care guide above, you can ensure you and your family will have dozens if not hundreds of high-quality organic meals. Nothing beats a steak on the grill from a free range wild animal that was raised in the mountains on grass and drank from mountain streams which is a far cry from the meat you buy in the store.
Outdoorsmans Pack System
A good pack is as important as high quality game bags when hunting in the backcountry. Rinella uses the Outdoorsmans Pack System when hunting off the beaten path. “There are several reasons I like the Outdoorsmans Pack. It has a liner that can be pulled out and quickly cleaned so I can throw a game quarter into the pack and remove the bag when I get home and hose it out for the next trip. I sometimes clean it in a creek during the hunt. The liner quickly dries and is ready to go again so I don’t have to worry about all my stuff getting bloody. This big internal bag works well for packing out meat and gear and is easy to keep clean,” said Rinella. The pack can also be removed and the frame can be used to pack out large quarters. A pack like the Outdoorsmans can make a 75-pound load feel much lighter which is a must when packing out large loads of meat.
Food good enough for family and friends
“If I were to be completely honest, my favorite thing to eat is elk backstraps,” said Rinella with a laugh. “But I like making great tasting meals out of things people don’t always utilize. For instance, I love taking the neck of an elk or deer and browning it in a crockpot. I slow cook it for hours until the meat falls apart. Then I put it in BBQ sauce and serve it like pulled pork. A neck is always fatty and greasy and it tastes a lot like pork when cooked down. This type of recipe is easy to do and everyone I serve it to loves it.”
About the author: Tracy Breen is a full-time outdoor writer, marketing consultant and motivational speaker. To learn more about him, visit www.tracybreen.com.