Tools Needed for Field Butchering of Alaska Big Game
Proper meat care begins well before the hunt, with the collection of the right tools for the job. And it's different in Alaska; the remote nature of most hunts means that you need back-ups and you have to be able to take the entire animal apart right where it fell. Let's review the items you should have with you in the field.
Keep it With You
The best tools money can buy won't do you any good if you don't have them with you when the need arises. That's why most experienced Alaska hunters bring everything they need to field-butcher an animal with them every time they leave camp. Just getting around on foot in Alaska burns a lot of calories; battling alders, slogging through muskeg bogs, and stumbling through fields of tussocks that extend for miles is extremely taxing on the body. The last thing you want is to get an animal down and then walk all the way back to camp for your tools. Bring everything with you in your pack; knives, sharpening gear, saw, game bags and cordage.
Bring two knives; if one breaks you have a backup. For caping, skinning and butchering chores you don’t need a large blade; something between two and three inches is perfect for the task. Sharpen your knives before your hunt and save time in the field. Some good models include the Helle Nying and the Havalon Piranta series. The Nying has a short, strong blade that's ideal for heavy work like slicing through thick moose hide and boning out carcasses. The Havalon blades are too brittle for this kind of thing, but are ideal for detail work such as removing the cape and such. To avoid cutting yourself while replacing broken blades on your Havalon, use the pliers on a Leatherman tool. Your hands will be slick with blood and fat from working on your animal, and one slip with those razor blades can cut you to the bone. Havalon makes a thicker blade that doesn't break as easily. Consider these blades for working on an Alaska big-game animal. More information on the Havalon can be found in our section on Field Care of Trophies.
The diamond sharpeners are excellent for keeping an edge on your knife (though unnecessary if you’re using the Havalon knife). The E-Z Lap Model M round sharpener comes in a little leather pouch and is an excellent all-around sharpening tool. Another great one is the DMT Diafold Double-side Sharpener; it folds up into it’s handle. Keep your sharpener with your knives in your pack at all times, so you are ready to deal with a downed animal right away.
Saws and Hatchets
For antlered or horned game, it is necessary to remove the headgear from the skull, assuming you are not doing a European mount (where the upper skull is left intact and the lower jaw removed.) A hatchet is, by far, the fastest way to do this. It leaves a mess of jagged bone shards behind if you’re not careful, however, so care must be taken to keep your strokes straight and close. It's an excellent tool for splitting the brisket and for separating the ribs from the spine, if you are taking the ribs out on the bone. The Estwing Camper’s Axe is excellent and doubles on float hunts for removing sweepers and strainers that may block the channel.
Some hunters prefer a folding saw for antler and horn removal, because the tool weighs a lot less than a hatchet and gives a nice clean cut. The ARS GR-18L has a hooked blade that cuts on the pull stroke. This is much more effective than flat blades that cut on the push and pull stroke; flat blades tend to flex and break on the push stroke. The ARS saw also has a bulge at the end of the handle that prevents your hands from slipping off while you are working. It is recommended that you bring a spare blade in case you break yours in the field. Make sure you have a screwdriver to change the blade (the one on your Leatherman will work). Finally, place some duct tape over the teeth on the blade to prevent it from cutting your gear while it is packed away.
Video Review: Tools for Alaska Meat and Trophy Care
There are many types of game bags, but not all are suitable for Alaska game; especially on remote hunts where it may be several days before the meat can be flown out of the field. This is particularly true of the cheesecloth-type bags that allow fly eggs to pass through, and which are also torn during the process of loading meat in and out of boats, airplanes, and so forth. Additionally, many of the cheesecloth-type bags cling to the meat like a pair of pantyhose, which can inhibit drying of the surface of the meat, which is critical to preventing bacterial spoilage.
Another consideration is the size of the bags. Some bags are not large enough to completely enclose a quarter, particularly when it comes to moose. The front shoulder on a moose, the longest piece by far, averages 48 inches from the knee joint to the top of the scapula. This means you need a bag that is at least 50 inches tall, in order for the bag to hang loosely on the quarter. Meat that is jammed into the bag tends to stick to the bag, preventing the meat from drying adequately.
The emergence of synthetic game bags on the market has received a warm welcome by Alaska hunters who, in most cases, need something that will preserve and protect meat in field conditions for up to two weeks. This is a far cry from hunts in other places where the animal is killed in the morning and hanging in a butcher shop the same day. When synthetic bags first appeared on the market, they met mixed reviews. Hunters really liked the light weight and packability of the bags. Where traditional cotton bags can take up nearly half the space in your backpack, you can pack enough synthetic bags for an entire moose into a package the size of a Thermos bottle. On the negative side, some brands of synthetic bags don't absorb moisture and they don't ventilate well enough to allow the meat to glaze over properly. Consequently, some synthetic bags actually create a moisture problem and contribute to the risk of bacterial spoilage, rather than protecting the meat from it as they should. These kinds of bags force a lot more work onto hunters in the field, by requiring frequent bag removal and re-applications of citric acid solution to keep the meat from spoiling.
Caribou Gear Game Bags
Cotton game bags offer superior absorption and better airflow through the bag material than synthetic bags. This hastens the drying process, resulting in meat that is generally in better condition. This is particularly true in warmer weather, when the moisture trapped in synthetic bags cannot wick out. But cotton bags are much heavier and bulkier than synthetic bags, making them less desirable to hunters who prefer to carry their bags with them while hunting. The solution is to carry synthetic bags in your pack and use them for moving meat from the kill site to camp, changing out for cotton once you're ready to hang the meat and start the drying process.
When cotton bags are manufactured, the material is coated with a starch known as sizing. This stiffens the fabric and makes it easier to run through machinery at the textile mill, but it also blocks the weave of the fabric, inhibiting airflow through the material. Always wash new cotton bags to remove this coating before use.
How Many Game Bags?
Refer to the following chart for directions on how many bags of each size you need for common big-game species in Alaska.
|Moose||7 large||3 medium|
|Caribou||5 large||2 medium|
|Black Bear||1 large||6 small|
|Sheep / Goat / Deer||5 medium||2 small|
Explanation: Moose require a large bag for each of the four quarters, one for each side of ribs (if left on the bone), and one large for the cape. You'll need three medium-sized bags for the neck, prime cuts (backstraps and tenderloins), and brisket and trim. Caribou require a large bag for each of the four quarters, a large for the cape, and two smalls for the neck, trim, rib meat, and prime cuts.Black bears require a large for the hide, and six smalls for the meat. Dall sheep, goats, and deer require four medium bags for the quarters, one medium for the cape, and two small bags for the neck, trim, and prime cuts.
Large Bag (minimum size): 36" X 54"
Medium Bag (minimum size): 36" X 48"
Small Bag (minimum size): 24" X 36"
Bring one set of synthetic bags on your hunt, and use those to get the meat from the kill site to camp. Bring enough cotton bags to bag every animal you take. Once you pack the meat to camp, change out of the synthetic bags into the cotton bags. Wash and dry the synthetics and they'll be ready for your next animal.
Game Bags Summary
Let's sum up the discussion with a few last items to consider.
Ropes and Cordage
If you're hunting a timbered area where you'll hang the meat, you'll need about 100 feet of 1/4" braided nylon rope. Braided is better than twisted, because it doesn't unravel as much. Look on the package to ensure that the rope has a breaking strength in excess of 200 lbs. Some rope is of inferior quality and will stretch to the ground under the stress of a heavy moose quarter. If you're not hanging the meat, you can forego the rope.
Bring plenty of parachute cord along. You'll need it to secure your meat tarp and in some cases the tops of your game bags. Some game bags don't have draw cords at the top and you must tie them off securely to keep flies out. Additionally, if you tear a hole in a bag, use some extra parachute cord to tie the hole off to keep flies out.
You will need at least one tarp. Carry it in your pack while you're hunting; it makes a great emergency shelter, and you'll need it to keep dirt and debris off of the skinned carcass of your animal. Later, you can use the same tarp to cover your meat pole or cache. Rinse any blood or other fluids off the tarp before hanging it over your meat, to prevent contamination. The size of the tarp you need depends on the type of animal you're hunting. Moose meat takes up more room than a sheep or a caribou. If you go with a 10 x 12 tarp, you'll have plenty on which to work the animal at the kill site, and to cover your meat cache later.
Recommended Gear List
The following items are recommended by this site as a result of years of collective experience in the field working with Alaska game.
- Helle Nying knife (2 each)
- Havalon Piranta knife (1 each, with extra blades)
- E-Z Lap Model M diamond sharpener with sheath (1 each)
- Leatherman Wave multi-tool (1 each)
- ARS GR-17 folding saw, with extra blade (1 each)
- Estwing Camper’s Axe (1 each)
- Heavy-Duty Game Bags
- Citric Acid Powder
- UDAP electric fence kit for bear protection
- Flagging Tape
Additional Resources on Meat Care
- Alaska Field Care Handbook (two-part e-book by Michael Strahan)
- Field Care Handbook (book by Duncan Gilchrist)
- Float Hunting Alaska's Wild Rivers (book by Michael Strahan; contains extensive meat care section)