After the Shot - Breaking Down and Packing Out Your Elk

By Zach Lazzari | Photos by Ryan McSparran

You put in the hours, hiked the steep hills and made a great shot. Everything came together and you have a bull elk down. Not many things compare to that feeling of success. After the tag is punched and a few photos are taken, the work begins. Breaking down and packing out an elk is a serious chore, especially when you are deep in the backcountry. 

Hunting with a guide and horse-packer makes things much easier. Even then, the guide would still appreciate some help getting the meat packed to a trail where you can load up on horses. Having multiple hands to help means the meat gets dried, cooled and transported to safety quickly. In the warmer weather of archery season, getting the meat cooled down is especially important.

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Gutting vs Gutless Method

There are two theories here. Using the gutless method is fantastic. It’s clean, efficient and fast. Going gutless with multiple helpers can have your bull broken into quarters in short order. Gutting the animal however is also a good route as it pulls a ton of heat away from the meat. It also makes organ retrieval easier. Ultimately, the method is a matter of preference and comfort. I personally like going gutless for elk.

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Protect Your Meat

Do everything necessary to safely transport every ounce of meat home. In warm weather, rub the meat with citric acid to repel insects while discouraging bacteria. Place your quarters in game bags, debone if you have a long pack out. The bones are very heavy and deboning can make a huge difference if you are packing a long distance with little or no help. Hang your meat in the shade to encourage air-flow while maintaining a cool temperature. Hang them high in bear country and store meat well away from the leftover carcass.

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Pack it Out

There is a method to the madness of packing an elk out on foot. First, avoid the temptation to overload your pack. Take an assessment of the distance and difficulty of the route. Walking relatively even terrain means you can carry more. Steep terrain calls for less weight. Know your capabilities and keep in mind the fact that several trips are in order. 

One great method for packing out involves short shuttle trips. Say you have a three mile hike out. Load up a quarter and hike it one and a half miles out. Hang it and return for the next quarter. Continue running these shuttles until you are finished. The distance does not change and the shorter legs aide recovery while preventing burn out.

Home Stretch

When your elk has safely reached the truck, it’s time to really cool it down. I will place the quarters in trash bags and lay them on ice in plastic storage tubs for the drive home. This gets the meat temperature down and has everything ready to hang and eventually process. Icing everything is important during the early archery season. In late rifle, it’s typically plenty cold and there may even be snow to pack around the meat. Make a judgement call based on the outside temperature.