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Backpack Hunt Gear List || After the shot: Field dressing & packing out

My backpack hunt gear list for big game is identical to my gear list for a normal backpacking trip with similar conditions, with the notable addition of hunting-specific items. In this five-post series I list and explain this extra clothing and equipment, and make them available for download.

Last revised: October 30, 2018


Backpack Hunt Gear List: After the shot

For good reason, hunters often comment that, “The real work begins after pulling the trigger.” I can’t understate the effort involved in field dressing an animal and then packing out the meat (150-200 pounds for an elk), in addition to gear.

Hunt with a friend — you’ll be glad to have them along. Even if you both fill your tags and ultimately do the same amount of work as hunting solo, misery loves company. Plus, it’s safer.

Below I have detailed the hunting-specific gear that I use, followed by more in-depth explanations for select items.

  • Critical = A must-have, no exceptions
  • Suggested = A valuable addition, few reasons not to bring
  • Optional = Not critical, but worth consideration
  • Depends = Contingent on trip objectives, conditions, and/or other selections
  • Unnecessary = Unlikely to need and/or can be improvised
Equipment and supplies for field dressing and packing out big game

Equipment and supplies for field dressing and packing out big game

Marking tape

Ideally, a shot animal drops in its tracks. But that’s often not the case: sometimes they run for 30 yards, sometimes for 3 miles. Marking tape can be helpful in highlighting signs of an injured animal (e.g. hair, blood, tracks) rather than trying to remember the location of those signs in dense vegetation or relocate the signs in the dark.

Some tape will break down over time when exposed to sunlight (“photodegradable”). As an LNT issue, this would be the second best scenario, behind retracing steps and collecting them after finding the game.

Cutting tools

To field dress my cow elk last year, I used a traditional folding knife, the Outdoor Edge GL-10, while Noel had a Havalon Piranta with replaceable blades. Mine was classic and cost-effective, but his was fast and fuss-free. I was sold, and bought the Outdoor Edge Razor-Lite when I returned home.

Buy a knife with a blaze orange handle. When hidden among animal parts and vegetative understory, it will be much easier to find than a black or camo version.

A guthook cuts quickly through thick skin, and saves the knife edge for softer meat and issue. But it’s unnecessary — a knife works, too. If you really want a guthook, consider a combined model like the Outdoor Edge Razor Pro, which is lighter and less expensive than a seperate knife and guthook of similar quality.

The gutless method does not call for a bone saw, so I don’t carry one. But it may be useful or critical for other field dressing techniques.

Ground cloth

Dirt, forest duff, and hair can be cleaned off the meat later, but avoid the extra work by keeping clean the meat while field dressing. I’ve seen suggestions to use the animal’s cape, but found that it’s not:

  • Clean, since it gets stepped on and since it rolls around in the dirt and duff;
  • Reliable, since the animal must be flipped to its other side; or,
  • Big enough for two people, or maybe even one person who needs some working space to debone quarters.

A groundsheet made of coated nylon or window shrink film (aka Polycryo) is ultralight, but also ultra slick and wind-prone. This time I plan to use a cotton bedsheet. It is heavier, but it won’t be Teflon when I spread it on the ground or when I put meat on it.

Packing out

To be properly equipped for the pack-out, one must envision how it will unfold. Last year Noel and I knew it would be straightforward: if we were successful, we would field dress it, carry it out five miles to the car over dry ground or through shallow snow, and drive 90 minutes home. If we had time and energy, we could drive back up in order to fill another tag.

The equipment list was simple: cloth game bags to store the meat, and plastic pack liners to prevent bloodying of the pack or other gear.

Cloth game bags are heavier than coated nylon stuff sacks, but they are less slick, more tear-resistant, and absorbent. They are also breathable, which is critical if the meat must be stored for a few days before processing. The Alaska Game Bags seem to be the standard, but they are not inexpensive, lightweight, or compact. I wonder if a handful of pillow cases from Goodwill (cleaned) would be better.

Pack liners need to be tough — last year a 1-mil bag split inside my pack, allowing blood to soak through the pack bottom and drip on the trail and my pant legs. A gross rookie mistake. Instead, use 2-mil trash compactor bags or 3-mil contractor bags. If the “fresh scent” of the trash compactor bag bothers you, let them air out for a few weeks before use.

This year I am hunting several hours away, making it impractical to swing by the house to drop off meat. If we were to harvest an animal early in our hunt, we would need to keep it cool and protected while we continued the hunt. We’ll again use cloth game bags and 2-mil pack liners, but we’ll bring cordage in order to suspend the meat bags in trees.

The Paris Company Expedition Sled or similar could be extremely helpful in packing out meat. Especially in deep snow, it would be easier and safer than carrying it out on our backs. But there is the issue of where to keep the sled while we’re hunting. I don’t want to be carrying it around through the woods, and we don’t have a base camp where we can stash it. Leaving it at the car seems like the best option, but it’s of limited help if kept there.


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12 Responses to Backpack Hunt Gear List || After the shot: Field dressing & packing out

  1. Lewis Martin November 1, 2016 at 9:22 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    Have you ever come across TAG Bags? They are a synthetic game bag that I think is a superior choice over cotton.

    https://pristineventures.com/products/t-a-g-bags-2/

    • Andrew Skurka November 1, 2016 at 11:20 am #

      No, I had not. Thanks for pointing them out.

      Why do you prefer the nylon over the cotton? Less absorbent, lighter, more durable, easier to clean?

  2. Doug K November 1, 2016 at 5:41 pm #

    I had rigged a hardware-store sled similar to the Paris sled with a harness and waistbelt, used for packing in to a winter camp with stove and canvas tent. We left this in the car, figuring that on the first pack-out we’d carry backpack gear and the prime cuts of meat, then go back with the sled to pick up the remaining quarters. Turned out we didn’t get to use the sled ;-< but think it would have worked.

  3. Simon March 16, 2017 at 3:05 pm #

    Kuiu makes a game bag with handles on it. Those guys definitely have it down when it comes to stalking and packing out game.

  4. Terry July 26, 2017 at 11:59 am #

    The traditional natural-fiber game bags I grew up using had issues with the mesh openings stretching when loaded heavy with meat. This would allow flies to access the meat through them. I don’t recall the brand, although the Alaska Game Bags were certainly in stores (I grew up in Alaska). I started carrying cotton pillow cases due to this reason, although they were relatively heavy and the shape was typically not ideal for larger quarters like you’d get on moose.

    Another issue I found with the cheesecloth type bags is that their elasticity made it difficult to manage the load inside a pack, especially boned out meat. The bags kind of end up like an awkward bag of gravel that was difficult to manage inside some packs. Many of the newer hunting-specific backpacks seem to address this, but I have not yet had the budget to try one myself. I recently ordered a set of Black Ovis synthetic game bags for my mule deer hunt this year, and I believe they will solve a lot of complaints I had with previous materials I used. The reflective material added to a lot of the new bags is a nice addition in the event you need to return to your meat in the dark.

    The Black Ovis mule deer kit is 5 meat bags, 2 pairs of gloves, a drop cloth, a roll of flagging tape, and a stuff sack for 16.6 ounces. If I use the spare hank of orange Lawson glowire i carry for guylines instead of flagging, ditch the stuff sack, and use my sleep system ground cloth, I’m down to 12.8 ounces. There is another set that I read about on Rokslide that is around 10 ounces for a similar kit, I believe they were TAGs.

  5. William April 19, 2018 at 9:55 am #

    I just can’t help but cringe at the meat care on this one… not that your meat care was bad or that in the circumstances that your hunt occurred you weren’t totally fine, but in general using a garbage bag is a HUGE no no.

    If you are rifle hunting, looks like you were hunting mid october, and the weather is cool and dry and you allow your meat to completely cool down before you put it in a bag you can probably get away with meat in a trash bag for a short hike. If you used your method during archery season in a low elevation unit and were 2-3 miles out your meat might be spoiled by the time you got to the truck.

    The best approach is to definitely use either an external frame pack either a cheap meat hauler like you would find at cabelas, or something with a meat shelf i.e. Stone Glacier, Exo, Mystery Ranch, or the new Kifaru packs, and then to use breathable game bags that won’t trap heat and more importantly moisture in with the meat and lead to spoilage. Backing bags can me made to work, but they aren’t the best tool for the job. Further you will either break the bag or yourself if you start to go really heavy, they just aren’t designed for those kinds of loads.

    Tag and Caribou make great game bags that you can reuse for years, blast them with the hose to get all the meat bits off when you get home and then just toss them in the was with a hint of bleach (or vinegar) and cold water (skip the detergent). Another good option are the Stone Glacier load cell bags.

    If you are going to use a back pack without a shelf I recommended 1st trying to rig up something to carry meat outside of your pack and if you can’t do this then really letting your meat cool off for a nice long time/ until it has a good crust (1-2hrs), putting the meat in a breathable bag with the trash bag in the bottom of the pack and just around the very base of the meat, leaving the lid open, and leaving the bone in so that it can get some air circulation and just so that the meat isn’t a giant blob in the bottom of your pack.

    Also pick up your damn tape when you are done, or better yet use a GPS and mark the location of your kill. There are little pieces of tape all over the CO back-country from slobs.

    • Andrew Skurka April 19, 2018 at 10:16 am #

      To be clear, the trash compactor bags are used only to line the pack while hauling it out, maybe 1-2 hours. Before that pack out, the meat has been cooling down or has maybe even froze (if temps are cold enough and/or if it’s an evening kill and we decide to camp before packing out in the morning), and the meat is still bagged inside of the cloth game bags while it’s being packed out. Is this practice so bad?

  6. Todd Anderson December 23, 2018 at 5:34 am #

    It seems like it is pretty easy to get blood on your pack and clothing. Do you use the same pack and clothing during the rest of the year for backpacking? If so, are you able to get the blood and blood smell out of it for those trips?

    • Andrew Skurka December 23, 2018 at 6:54 am #

      If you’re getting blood everywhere, you’re probably doing it wrong. It’s not nearly as bloody as you might think — you should be able to keep it off your pack entirely and maybe even all your clothing except your wrist cuffs.

      The items that get the most blood on them are the pack liners and the game bags. Both can be re-used after cleaning: the plastic liners are good-as-new after being washed with some soap and warm water; the game bags go in the washer and are “clean,” but still stained.

      • Todd Anderson December 23, 2018 at 8:46 am #

        Ah. OK. That is helpful and glad to hear that. Thank you!

  7. Sandy D February 11, 2019 at 4:29 pm #

    I recommend looking at Fred Eichler’s video on field dressing (https://vimeo.com/27839614). It is even faster than the normal gutless approach and keeps the meat cleaner. We can usually haul meat out on plastic sleds, so the extra weight of hide on the quarters is immaterial. If you are carrying it out in a pack, though you would probably want to skin the quarters completely or bone out the meat.

    With Eichler’s approach, we need only two game bags (for loins, tenderloins, neck meat, brisket, flank steak, hanger steak, heart, and liver). Note: Only taking the Colorado legal minimum of 4Qs, loin, tenderloin, means leaving 30 to 40 lbs of good meat behind.

    We made game bags in 2003 from muslin (FQ: [email protected] 40″ x 21″, RQ: [email protected] 40″ x 24″, Loins, etc.: 1 @32″ x 20″). I am still using them.

    A shower curtain liner works well as a ground cloth ($3, 11 oz.). When the warm meat in a muslin game bag lies on the snow or ground, mud will soak through the cotton.

  8. Eric B. April 3, 2019 at 9:09 pm #

    Andrew,
    I have that Jet Sled (small) and strongly suggest you add tapered 8″ long 1″ wide aluminum angle bolted on the bottom rear 1/3 of the sled for “sidehill stability” so the sled tracks well and does not slide sideways.
    Use wide stainless fender washers inside the sled, stainless slotted roundhead bolts and stainless “Nylock” nuts inside. I’ve made a few “pulk” type sleds in my days. These fasteners work and stay put.

    Also, a long aluminum hinge bolted horizontally to the back end of the sled lets the sled slide forward but self deploys to arrest backwards sliding when you stop to rest.

    You can add holes along each side about 10″ apart for lacing cord to hold the load in. Brass grommets are nice in these holes for reinforcement.

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