latest

How To: Packing out Big Game in the Backcountry

Lead Photo: When you pack back into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, you've got to have horses. In 10 days, we killed 1 moose, 1 bear, 2-3 elk, and 3-4 deer. Our base camp was 7 miles in, and we'd hunt miles and miles away from camp every day. Horses are the lifeline in the backcountry. I still walked over 40 miles in 5 days in bad country.

By: Tom Claycomb

I love hunting. I love eating antelope, deer, elk, and moose. If you live back East or down South, usually you can drive right up and throw your deer in the truck, but if you live out West, you’ve got to figure out how to pack it out, maybe 5-15 mile.

Therein lies the problem. So out West, you’re limited to packing it out on horses or on your back. I know, some of you will say, “What about pack goats or llamas?” I hear about them, but I’ve only seen llamas one time in the backcountry, and they were at the trailhead when I was about to pack in. The two hunters were scared to death. A pack of wolves had been stalking them.

The best way is to pack out on horses. Most people use canvas panniers. They’ll quarter out their game and stick it in the panniers. They put the quarters in game bags to protect them from getting dirty.

You can also just tie quarters onto a pack saddle. My buddy Shawn Lee designed and made a riding pack saddle. That way you can ride the horse in and then load it down and lead it out. My buddies get their horses into places you don’t think possible, but still, sometimes you’ll have to pack the meat up to the top of an accessible ridge or downhill out of the dark timber.

But what if you don’t have horses? Then that means it’s about to get real. I usually just take off hunting, and wherever I end up or shoot something – so be it. But if you’re smart, you plan ahead a little better than that. For instance, on my first moose hunt, I’d just take off across the mountains. By day 6 or 8 I got thinking: “If I shoot a moose, then it’s going to take me 12 trips to get it packed out.” Let’s say he was only two miles in. That’s 48 miles, 24 of it with a load. That’d be a killer. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: You need to plan ahead a little.

I remember one black powder hunt in Colorado when a buddy and I were dead by the end of the week. We were eating good, and I still lost 12 lbs. Opening morning, we both shot our deer. We could have had a semi-easy 3-mile pack, but looking at the map, he said it’d only be 1 ½ miles if we packed cross-country. That pack turned out to be a killer, and my worst pack ever.

Then four days later we shot an elk up near timberline. Not a super terrible pack out, but still, it was tough. With the first load, we didn’t get back to camp until 11:00, well after dark and still had one more big pack.

We backpacked into the Rawah Wilderness for a black powder deer and elk hunt. For a week hunt, you'll pack in a big load just taking your gear and food. We got pounded by a blizzard, so of course you have to have clothing to endure that, too.

Get a good pack

So, let’s walk through that scenario if you have to backpack out your game. Here’s a few things I do to be prepared: First, have a good pack. I remember when I first moved to Colorado. Everyone said – buy a good pack with a padded waist belt and how glorious it would be! Yes, it’s possible, but a 60 lb. pack is still a 60 lb. pack! I’m old school and still use an old Kelty frame pack I’ve had for more than 30 yrs. I take off the canvas shell, bag the meat, and strap the bags to the frame.

Use game bags

To keep your meat clean, use game bags. Game bags allow for ventilation, which chills down the meat. The less you process it on the mountain, the better. And don’t worry about trimming off all the dirt. It will just get dirty again, and you’ll have to trim another layer when you get home. If possible, it’s best to let your carcass go through rigor mortis before boning it out. Here’s why: If you cut the meat loose from the bones, then it is going to retract. That will make it tougher. It’s best if it can at least go through rigor mortis before boning it out, which takes about 18 hrs.

Beware of wolves, bears, ravens

With the above said, what if you’re in wolf or bear country? Sometimes you don’t have a choice but to pack it out right away. The first elk I ever shot, we packed out what we could that evening and came back the next morning. A bear had dragged the head 30 yds. away. So usually I’m in bear and wolf country, so I have to bone it out and start packing right away.

Another dilemma. You’ll be hunting with a day pack. I used to use a rinky dink daypack, but if I shot something, I ended up packing more weight than it could handle. So use a good daypack. That way you can still pack out the horns and maybe backstraps and then go back to camp and grab your frame pack.

Everyone says to hang the meat in a tree, but truth be known, if a bear wants to get it, he most likely will. You might try hanging up a sweaty T-shirt. Also use the rest room around the tree.

Another problem you’ll encounter is ravens. They can carry off a ton of meat. I learned that while baiting for bears. I stuck a bag of kidneys under a snowbank and ran around a corner to check another bait. I couldn’t have been gone 5-10 minutes, and yet when I returned, they had carried off nearly all of it. Ravens can mess up your meat. Here’s what I do now: Carry a Smith’s folding saw and cut off some pine limbs. Using twine, tie the limbs over the hanging meat so ravens won’t see it. This also blocks the sun.

One time I took two nephews on a 5-day bear hunt. Monty shot one the first evening. We had to put the meat in bags and submerge in the river to keep it cool so it wouldn’t spoil. But the bags can kinda float, so you’ll have to put a big rock on the bag. Also, hang limbs to block the sun.

Carry a .44 mag

When you hike back in to pack out your second load, you don’t want to carry heavy rifle, but what if a bear is on your deer? A buddy downed an elk with his bow. He and his two uncles went back to pack it out. Two bears had found his elk and claimed it. They false charged them 2-3 times. Spooky deal. I advise carrying a .44 mag., and really it’s best if 2-3 of you go back so you can watch each other’s backs.

Well, there’s a lot more, but we’re wayyyyyyyyyyyy out of room. Hopefully, this is enough info to get you started. Good luck.

Tom Claycomb III is a product tester for outdoor manufacturers, hunter, and outdoor writer, writing from Idaho.

You've successfully subscribed to Gunpowder Magazine
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to Gunpowder Magazine
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Contact - Terms of Service - Privacy Policy