How long do you have before you need to field dress an animal? If you leave an animal in the field overnight or for X number of hours, will the meat still be good? What temperature is safe for hanging your animal and for how long without the risk of spoilage and bacteria growth? There is no one-size-fits-all answer, as the conditions in every situation are different. However, there are some staple things you can do to avoid meat spoilage in warm temperatures in the backcountry:
- Skin & Field Dress Immediately
Field dress and skin your animal where it lays. The internal organs hold a lot of heat so don’t wait until you get back to camp, your vehicle or your home. Opening up that cavity and ditching the guts will remove a large heat source and also create more surface area for wind to hit and start cooling the carcass. While some people like to leave the skin on the carcass to protect it from dirt and debris, it is in essence a big thermal blanket holding heat in. By skinning your animal, you will allow it to cool much quicker. (With the hide off, care must be taken to keep the animal as clean as possible.)
- Go Gutless
Traditional field dressing and skinning techniques work great, but if you plan on quartering your animal, as is most often the case with larger animals on backcountry hunts, it may be more advantageous to go gutless. In addition to heat and bacteria exposure, contaminates from the stomach cavity can also taint/spoil your meat. With the gutless method, you don’t disturb the stomach cavity. Also, by removing and using the skin as a blanket via the gutless method, you then have a buffer between your animal and the ground, creating a cleaner work space to process and quarter your animal in the field without exposing it to excessive dirt and debris.
Pack a tarp so you can lay out your quarters and pieces on a clean surface as you process. You can also create a rack with timber you find in the field to prop up the front and hind quarters and hang backstraps and tenderloins. This will allow the air to circulate around them and begin cooling while you process.
- De-bone Your Quarters
De-boning your meat right away is important in warm temperatures. Like the vital organs, bones also radiate an enormous amount of heat and if left on the bone, the meat can quickly sour. This is especially true of larger bones like the femur and shoulder, that excess heat can cause spoiling from the inside out. As a result, losing an entire quarter or more to bone sour is possible if you aren’t careful. So, debone your meat and let that heat out.
Don’t want to debone your quarters? Many hunters prefer to leave the meat on the bone which helps keep it more tender as it goes through rigor mortis. If that is the case or if there is some other reason you can’t or won’t debone your meat, you can instead make a large incision in the meat, all the way down to the bone. This cut should run the length of the bone, exposing it and providing a vent in the quarter to allow the heat to slowly escape.
- Bag, Treat and Hang
Place the quarters or entire carcass in game bags. Game bags, like Cabela’s Antimicrobial Game Bags help reduce the growth of surface bacteria, keep egg-laying insects off, and protect your meat from leaves, dirt, hair and other debris. Once your meat or animal has been stowed away inside clean game bags, tie them up and get them off the ground and into the air where there is plenty of air circulation. Keeping them out of the sun is important so choose a shady location. Dark, thick timber is a great place to hang your bagged quarters. If shade is limited, it may be necessary to move the bag(s) periodically throughout the day as the sun moves.
QUICK TIP: Cabela’s has a variety of different size game bags available to fit the hunt you are planning. You can get “Carcass” bags that will hold a small deer or antelope, “Deer/Antelope Quarter” bags, “Elk/Caribou Quarter” bags and “Moose/Elk Quarter” bags. Each of the quartering options comes with 4 bags. Another good way to protect your meat is to use an antimicrobial spray directly on the surface of the carcass. Many people will use black pepper to prevent insects from landing on the meat and contaminating it, however Cabela’s Antimicrobial Carcass Spray is a quick, easy and very effective treatment. It’s essentially a game bag in a bottle that can be sprayed generously to a skinned carcass and it will reduce bacteria and mold growth. It also forms a barrier and prevents flies and insects from tainting your meat. Cabela’s Antimicrobial Game Bags and Antimicrobial Carcass Spray can be used separately or in conjunction for maximum protection.
- Alternative Cooling Method
If it’s hotter than blazes and you are having a hard time air cooling your meat, there is an alternative method. If you have access to a water source like a creek or river, quarters can be put in tough trash bags, sealed well, and then placed in the moving water to cool them down and keep them cool. The water source should be a clean, running, cool water source and not a stagnant warm pool of water. The caveat to this method is two-fold: First, plastic trash bags can really soak up the heat and hold it in, so you have to make sure the bag is submerged in the cool water as much as possible. Second, aside from heat, moisture is enemy No. 2 of wild game meat. Moisture creates the perfect environment for bacteria growth and spoiling so exposure to water should be kept at a minimum. It’s important that the bags are sealed off well, don’t take on water, and that the meat inside stays dry.
- After the Hunt
Once you’ve packed or otherwise transported your animal out of the wilderness and back to your vehicle you need to have a plan. The bed of a pickup is an oven on wheels. Putting a carcass or quarters directly into the bed will directly expose it to the sun and the metal will heat it up. If you are just a quick ride to your butcher or personal processing facility, it will work. However, if not, there are different options:
Have several coolers stocked with ice, ready and waiting for you. Keep in mind, if you are elk hunting they are big animals so come prepared with enough coolers. Remember, moisture is the enemy so it’s best to have some sort of moisture barrier if possible. One way to avoid bagged ice and contain the moisture is to freeze bottles of water and pack them in and around your meat. They will chill the meat, but as they melt the water will stay contained in the bottle. Dry ice is also an excellent option, you just need to wrap or cover it with cardboard or a blanket. Failure to do so will cause freezer burned meat. You don’t have to sell your first born in order to afford a quality cooler. Cabela’s Polar Cap Equalizer Coolers are affordable, available in 25-qt to 100-qt sizes, they are bear resistant and have a proven ice retention of up to twelve days.
Taking a freezer to elk camp may sound a bit unrealistic, however it is a feasible option. What you will need is a portable generator. More and more hunters are making a generator a staple piece of their western hunting gear. This is especially advantageous for a multi-hunter party where there may be several animals hitting the ground in the same time frame. Cabela’s Outdoorsman series generators are great for a situation like this. The Cabela’s Outdoorsman generators come in three different configurations: 1. 3800/4750-Watt Remote Start, 9000/11250-Watt Remote-Start and the 3800/4750-Watt without remote start. Any one of these generators would power a freezer, and an entire camp for that matter. Having a generator gives you a portable freezer to keep your fresh game meat on ice from the minute it leaves the field until it reaches the processor which eliminates heat exposure and helps reduce the chance of spoilage.
- Walk-In Cooler
For hunters who are willing to drop a dime on a portable cooling system, some hunters are now taking small cargo trailers and insulating the interior, adding an easy clean floor and installing temperature-controlled air conditioning units. By chilling the whole trailer, you can in essence create a walk-in cooler on wheels that will allow you to haul quarters or whole carcasses with ease, without heat concerns.
Heat and bacteria issues go hand in hand with fresh wild game meat. There are plenty of opportunities for your animal to be exposed to bacteria - from the wound channel to the field dressing process, handling of your game after expiration and during transport, sun exposure, insect exposure, moisture exposure and more. However, what really encourages bacteria growth is the right temperature. Between 40 degrees and 140 degrees is the optimal range for bacteria to flourish and multiply. In the right circumstances, bacteria can double in number every 20 minutes. As a result, hunters need to be prepared with different tactics to offset warm weather challenges in order to avoid bone sour and meat spoilage/rot. The way you handle your meat, from the time it hits the ground to the time it goes in the freezer, will ultimately dictate its quality and safety. If your meat smells and/or tastes funky, it’s likely that poor field care was the culprit. Take the proper precautions and there is no reason that you can’t fill your freezer with fresh game meat, even in the warmest temperatures.
Good luck on your early season hunts!