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What’s the best way to pack game meat: Bone in or bone out?

Packing out deboned elk meat in Mystery Ranch backpack

Packing out deboned elk meat in Mystery Ranch backpack. Photo credit: Brady Miller

The time spent hanging out in deer camp with my dad were times well spent as a child. While most of my friends were sitting around back home playing video games, I was outside enjoying the real world. Everything was so new to me back then. The sights, sounds and smells were all things that caught my attention as a youngster and still do to this day. I can remember back before I had ever walked up on a deer that we had harvested. We’d talk about how we would gut it and then drag it out of the woods when the time came. There wasn’t any talk about quartering or de-boning anything. Fast forward to present day and I can’t imagine doing things any other way than how I do them now. Every animal that comes home with me is either quartered bone-in or boned out in the field. Each method has its pros and cons.

Bone-in method

Packing wild game meat with the bone in

Photo credit: Josh Kirchner

As far as time goes, this is the fastest way of taking care of things out in the field. After skinning back the hide, all you are doing is removing the quarters, backstraps, tenderloins, etc. All of these parts are stored in game bags until it is time to process the meat for the freezer. Another plus about doing things this way is the meat is way easier to handle. You don’t have bits of meat falling every which way as you are trying to work with it. Everything is nice and uniform right on the bone. Because of that, it also sits really good on a backpack. The bone acts sort of like a frame for the meat. Lastly, when you get home, actually starting from scratch with the meat on the bone is way easier when it comes to processing if you ask me. The meat isn’t in a big blob and you can clearly see what you’re looking at. Trimming is also easier like this as you are only having to trim the outside of the whole quarter rather than each individual muscle piece like you would if it were boned out in the field.

Is this way perfect?

Processing a Coues deer buck

Photo credit: Josh Kirchner

Sounds perfect, right? Why would you ever do it any other way? Well, believe it or not, there are some drawbacks to not boning your meat out. The first one that comes to mind is the pack out. I know I said that the meat sits better on your pack when it is on the bone, however that bone is extra weight that you are probably just going to throw away (unless you make your own bone broth or something). This really isn’t an issue if you have some buddies with you, but if you are alone, that’s a lot of extra weight to carry, especially if you are on a backpack hunt and also need to carry out camp. To contrast what I said earlier about the meat being easier to work with on the bone when you get home, it is more work when you get home. Instead of having everything already broken down and off of the bone, you now have to de-bone the meat anyways. Bones also have a tendency to hold heat, so by leaving the bone on, you might increase the risk of getting bone sour, which is when the meat rots from the inside out.

Pros:

  • Quicker when out in the field
  • Easier to work with when you get home
  • Sits great in/on a backpack for the pack out

Cons:

  • More weight for pack out
  • More work when you get home
  • Increased chance of getting bone sour

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Boned out method

Deboned elk meat in game bags

Dealing with boned out meat can be a huge bonus for large animals like elk. Photo credit: Brady Miller

The other option you have once you have an animal on the ground is to bone the meat out. Just take that meat right off of the bone, right out in the field. It’s a lot less weight to carry out back to the truck and saves you a step in processing when you do get home: the boning out portion is already done. That is, of course, if you aren't preparing any bone-in recipes. This also allows you to carry smaller game bags, which is less weight (minimal) and takes up less space in your backpack. You don’t need a bag to fit a whole quarter—just one to fit the meat from that quarter. In light of that, you can fit multiple quarters in one game bag and, sometimes, even the whole animal. I know I said that bone-in meat in easier to throw on a backpack, but if you have a good solid game bag and distribute the meat well, boned out meat can ride pretty nice on your back. This is something I have really started to do for most of the critters I am fortunate to harvest. I choose this method because most of the time I am not exactly next to a road or with buddies to help me out. Sometimes, I get lucky and have help with the packing job, but most of the time I don’t. Because of that, I opt to bone out meat in the field.

Boned out for the win?

Getting game bags ready for boned out meat

All other photo credits: Josh Kirchner

So, like anything else out there, cons definitely exist to boning out meat. It’s not all cake and balloons if you catch my drift. Remember when I said that it was less work when you got home? Well, that is right in a sense, but not entirely. Because the meat is broken into various muscle groups and all of that surface has been exposed to the air, usually you need to trim it all. This is as opposed to having everything in one piece and just trimming that piece. Instead, you now have a plethora of pieces to trim. There is also the extra work in the field. You’ll spend more time out there cutting meat than if you were to just leave the bone in. Another downside that I haven’t really experienced, but have heard from others, is the quality of the meat. Meat goes through stages after that animal hits the ground. At first, it is pretty pliable. After time though, rigor sets in. This is when the muscles stiffen up. After a while, the stiffness will go away. If the meat isn’t on the bone when this happens, it is said that the meat will retain some of that stiffness. This is due to it not being attached to the bone and having the tension of joints and ligaments pulling it back to zero.

Pros:

  • Less weight for the pack out
  • Boning out portion is already done
  • Can use fewer game bags and smaller ones
  • Easier to portion out carrying meat with friends

Cons:

  • More trimming at home
  • The possibility of tougher meat in the end
  • More work in the field

In closing

Packing out a velvet Coues deer buck

After reading through all of that, which do you think is better? Is there a clear winner? If you ask me, I say no. In my opinion, each method has its place and those places are to be determined by the person doing the work. Some folks might be completely fine leaving the meat on the bone and making multiple trips. Some might not be. There really isn’t a right answer here. Just like gear, you need to find what works best for you and the situations that you put yourself in. For those who have possibly never done this, I know it might sound a bit intimidating to break a whole animal down out in the field, but I can assure you that it’s pretty simple. There are lots of resources out there that can break this process down for you step by step. Some of the best ones can be found by Jay Scott: How to perform the gutless method on big game and How to cape the head of a big game animal for the taxidermist. Study those so you are better prepared when the time comes. Whether you choose to bone out your hard earned game meat or not, do so in a timely manner. Either you will spend more time packing (if solo) or more time cutting. Once that animal hits the ground, the clock is ticking. Once you get home, it's essential to wash up your game bags no matter what method you use. You can check out this article for more information on this easy process.

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10 Comments

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Ben_4
Bendrix B. - posted 4 months ago on 01-27-2019 05:18:38 am
Rochester, MA
goHUNT INSIDER

Rigor shortening is real. Unless the packout were some extreme case where multiple trips, if needed, could not be made, I’d never take meat off the bone. If I felt I had to, and the weather would allow it, I’d hang the meat for a day on the bone before deboning and packing it out.

Heat though is a bigger enemy of flavor than rigor shortening and that was not mentioned here. That meat has got to cool down. It does not have to cool down rapidly, but it should cool down steadily. On large quarters it makes sense to cut in line with the bone, down to the bone and open up cavities for heat to escape. You can prop them open with sticks.

You can put meat directly in cold water to cool it and that will do the best job the fastest. Look, the meat is already wet on the outside and its not going to “saturate’ internally becuase its not porous. The water is not going to wash out the meat. The outer layer may turn a bit gray, but that is not detrimental to flavor. If you want, you can trim that for stew.

Speaking of color, I see here and have seen folks get worried about the hard, dark red layer of meat that will result from hanging meat exposed to air. Not a problem. It is just dehydrated. On a trip to the arctic we were breaking down caribou to box for the trip home. Guys were trimming and tossing the hard outer layer. As fast as it got tossed (onto the table) the Inuit guys gobbled it up, jabbering away in Inuktitut. I asked what they were talking about and it boiled down to how white hunters waste perfectly good meat. So I ate some of the trim. It was like unflavored jerky only softer and really meaty tasting, and no, I did not get sick. No more trimming for me. When I got home and vacuume sealed cuts with the red “crust’ on them I discovered something else. The “crust” re-hydrates. After a couple of days wet aging in the bag the crust was gone.

Bottom line, don’t trim that crust and dont fear it.

My simple rules for field care are:

1: Separate organs from meat ASAP (field dress, trim all meat exposed to guts and toss it)
2: Start the cooling and keep it going.
3: Hang it on the bone till the rigor has passed and the muscles relax.

Josh S. - posted 5 months ago on 01-14-2019 03:24:04 pm
S.E. Idaho
goHUNT INSIDER

I like to use the bone-in gutless method and leave the hide on the quarters so I get less meat loss to drying while hanging/aging the meat. I do give my large dogs the leg bones after butchering as well so that helps me rationalize the extra weight in my pack. I've packed elk further than I like to admit this way. I will say I hunt later in the fall when it isn't so hot and if I ever did notch a tag in warm temps I am sure I would reconsider this method. Does anyone else leave the hide on when quartering and packing out?

Mark L. - posted 5 months ago on 01-04-2019 11:16:32 pm
Columbia Falls, Mt.

Back when I was a lot younger I hunted very steep mtns and always dragged my big mulies out whole. Most of those big rutted up mulies in NW MT were very gamey to say the least. It seems since I started boning out the bucks, they have been a lot less gamey. I don't know for sure or just the luck of the draw.

John W. - posted 5 months ago on 01-04-2019 06:08:49 pm
Pittsburgh, PA
goHUNT INSIDER

Good article. I think it depends how far the pack out is and the temperature.

sboyce@srk.com
Steven B. - posted 5 months ago on 01-03-2019 10:12:32 am
Spring Creek, NV
goHUNT INSIDER

I've done both. It is always best to get the animal out in one piece for hanging/aging if possible. Quarters are next best. Bone-in is next best, all when considering the potential losses due to trimming after aging. That said, when packing out a long way, I always do the boneless method and come up with ways to minimize the losses. That usually equals less aging and more hamburger, but life is about trade-offs. Great article!

Nick S. - posted 5 months ago on 01-03-2019 08:26:48 am
Lafayette, Colorado

@Alexander K. Thanks! I'll have to check that out!

alex.penulo
Alexander K. - posted 5 months ago on 01-03-2019 08:15:11 am
Denver, CO
goHUNT INSIDER

@Nick S. Jay Scott and Chris Roe did a great set to videos that show a detailed Gutless Method and how to leave proof of sex for both cows and bulls. They can be found on youtube: https://youtu.be/KAb0OE3wEYk

While online instruction is not as good as on-the-ground practical instruction, this series is the best I have found.

Nick S. - posted 5 months ago on 01-03-2019 07:15:57 am
Lafayette, Colorado

What's the best way to leave proof of sex on a boned out animal?

Gary H. - posted 5 months ago on 01-03-2019 04:59:44 am
goHUNT INSIDER

I always leave the bone in and then feed the bones to my cats when I get home.

That was a joke.

Tim V. - posted 5 months ago on 01-02-2019 05:14:18 pm
goHUNT INSIDER

Meat on the bone can hang for 10-14 days if kept in cool temps, once you break the meat down and let is lay against itself, that's how bacteria starts. If you break it down you need to get it out and processed a lot faster.