Hunting in the backcountry is among the greatest challenges of the hunting world. Those who head into the untamed wilderness in search of their trophy must put in months of research and training. They have to spend hours going over game reports and maps, planning their travel routes and campsites. Once a plan is made, backcountry hunters then have to ensure they have the physical ability to traverse difficult terrain and can carry the proper equipment. Above all, they must be mentally prepared for the trials and tribulations of being truly off the grid. It can push a hunter to their physical and mental limits. Yet when it all comes together, all that work and questioning of sanity becomes worth it following the squeeze of a trigger. But just because you have successfully wrapped a tag around an antler does not mean the work is over. After your trophy hits the ground comes one of the most intense—but ultimately rewarding—steps of any backcountry hunt: the pack-out.
No matter the reason we hunt, be it trophy, personal challenge, or saving on grocery bills, the reality of the sport is that we have taken life, and we are therefore responsible for that life. There is no greater disrespect to a game animal than simply leaving the majority of it in the woods to rot. In order to be a true hunter and to give that animal the respect it deserves, we must use every part of that animal we can. For hunters in the backcountry, that means not just toting the skull and antlers out of the forest, but also getting as much of that precious, hard-earned meat we can. This can be a trial, especially with truly large game animals, but with a bit of dedication, patience, and the proper amount of sweat, a backcountry hunter can ensure they get the most out of their trophy.
Selecting a pack
The first step to any pack-out is ensuring you have the proper equipment. This is going to vary depending on what you’re hunting and where. Although having a large external-frame backpack may be vital to an elk hunter in the high timber of the Rockies, it would be an unnecessary burden for a hunter chasing Coues deer in the desert. Make sure you have the appropriate backpack for the job. A backcountry hunter should select a pack that is light enough to carry and hunt with, but can still facilitate the transportation of meat and necessary hunting equipment.
Although this may sound simple, often enough the perfect hunting pack cannot be found. So to ensure they are prepared, many backcountry hunters bring at least two hunting packs: one that is smaller and lighter for actual hunting and smaller game, and a large pack with an external frame that can be retrieved from a truck or camp, then brought back to the kill site to pack out meat after a larger animal is butchered. Although this may seem like a lot of extra work and expense, it is often necessary to ensure you get as much of the meat out of the woods as possible.
Protect your meat
Meat protection is vital to any pack-out. Once the animal is skinned out it is essential that the hunter takes proper care to keep the meat protected while preparing to bring it out of the woods. Keeping the meat clean and dry is the first job. Before starting to butcher the animal, lay out a lightweight tarp, a rack of branches, or even a small pile of large rocks, upon which you can place the meat as you remove it from the carcass. This keeps the meat off the ground, away from dirt, bugs, and bacteria. If trees are available, a hunter can even hang meat from the branches: In cold weather this prevents the meat from immediately freezing, and in hot weather it provides proper airflow to help keep the meat cool.
Bag it up
After the meat has been removed from the carcass and has cooled, the next step is to bag it up. Game bags are incredibly important for meat protection and a hunter should always carry at least four of them—one for each quarter—but having extras for the organ meats, fats, and loose cuts is never a bad thing. Once each piece of meat is bagged, hang it back up or return it to the tarp until you are ready to add it to your pack.
Although it is great to be able to get all the meat out in one trip, often this isn’t possible or, quite frankly, safe. If you’re hunting solo, especially if you’re going for big game like elk, moose, or bears, it’s usually necessary to pack the animal out in three or four trips. This may seem like a lot of additional work, but the extra trips are simply safer than struggling with an overloaded pack, especially since a slip or stumble on the trail can easily lead to a broken leg or back.
Plan your route
Most of the time the shortest route back to the truck or camp will seem like the best option, but the reality is that the direct route may have thicker or rougher terrain than a longer, more roundabout one. On a pack-out, select a path out of the woods that is easier to traverse, such as a logging road or mountain trail, even if it means adding a few extra miles to your hike.
Beware of scavengers
When hunting in areas where large predators such as wolves, mountain lions, and especially grizzly bears are present, be sure to hang the meat you’re leaving behind out of reach in a tree, and always approach the kill-site with caution when retrieving your next load. On any pack-out, to ease this and a number of other burdens, it’s always best to have a few willing friends on call who can help with the undertaking in exchange for a few choice pieces of backstrap.
No matter how long the pack-out takes, the last item that should be removed from the field is the animal’s head and hide. This is not only because these items have the least amount of vital meat on them, but because most often they are the symbols of the trophy, the signs of a successful hunter. Carrying those last vital items on your back, when the hunt is over and the struggles of the journey have largely passed, delivers a sense of satisfaction that will keep you coming back. The reality is that a pack-out is not fun. A pack-out is tough, miserable, back-breaking work, yet it’s almost always done with a smile.