The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild - Dave Canterbury (2016)

Part III. Living Off the Land

Chapter 14. Butchering Game

“Cook ingredients that you are used to cooking by other techniques, such as fish, chicken, or hamburgers. In other words be comfortable with the ingredients you are using.”

—Bobby Flay

Understanding the basic principles behind cleaning and butchering is an important aspect of cooking. This process can have a positive or negative effect on not only taste but also the freshness of the meat you intend to cook.

It is fair enough to say that any animal killed should have the guts removed at the soonest opportunity as heat is a bacteria-growing paradise. Once an animal is dead, the quality of the meat decreases exponentially without proper care.

Conditions of the Kill

To start, we should think about temperature when we harvest game. Refrigerators are designed to preserve food, and they are set at around 38–40ºF in most cases. So, logically if we harvest meat in a temperature warmer than this we need some urgency in the processing to keep the food in good condition.

There are many mitigating factors to the condition even of freshly killed meat. These include the animal’s health, time of year, age and sex of animal, as well as the timeliness of its death. If an animal runs hard or is scared just prior to dying and its adrenaline is flowing, the meat will not be as good as meat of an animal killed instantly in a calm state. These are all things to consider when taking game.

An animal killed quickly (whether by trapping or hunting) should provide very good-quality meat if it is recovered in good time.

Fish don’t present the same worries. Fighting a fish to land it does not affect its quality. Just process it quickly after the catch.

Butchering Tools

Tools of the butcher are as diverse as for a professional of any kind. However, you need not worry too much about this for camp meat as you will not be doing the detail of the processing butchers do to sell select cuts of meat. You will need certain tools, but most of these you will have already in your kit if you are camping anyway.


A good sharp knife of a butchering style with a 5" blade will handle up to the largest game. A fillet knife is handy if fish will be on the menu. A pocketknife with a smaller blade will help in the process but is not a necessity for down-and-dirty processing of meat for the fire. Ulu-type blades, which are crescent shaped, are used in many countries and are a handy camp kitchen tool, though not crucial to the process. A large cleaver is convenient if you have a mind to carry one but a good hatchet will work as well.


A camp hatchet or axe will suffice for lots of quickly needed tasks like foot and head removal and can also aid in further bone cutting and skinning if needed. Keep your axe as sharp as your knife. A hunter’s-style axe has a rounded pole on the back to aid in pushing between the hide and the carcass on larger animals.

Bushcraft Tip

If you are carrying a large blade such as a machete-type tool, this can easily replace the axe for most chores that require one.


Again this may be something already in your kit, but a good set of heavy sewing shears can come in right handy at times when processing fowl. Shears make quick work of opening a body cavity on small game and are also of good use on fowl with hollow bones that are easily clipped to separate the pieces, like wings from the carcass or discards like feet.


A good saw is an asset to any camp, but the blade choice and type of saw is important for this task. A good bone-cutting blade is expensive, but if you carry a cheap 12" bucking saw with a metal tubular frame, you can buy equally inexpensive hacksaw blades that make great bone-cutting blades. So this can be another item in camp that works for more than one chore.

Gambrel/Meat Hook

Some type of gambrel or at least a meat hook will be needed to raise the animal high enough off the ground to make the job of butchering easy and to keep the carcass out of the dirt. For larger animals, you may need a come-along or winch. Simple block-and-tackle systems are easy enough to craft in a pinch with minimal equipment. You need a rope, something to act as the axle (such as a sturdy tree branch—still attached to the tree), and something to tie the rope to once the load has been lifted.

Safety Concerns

Any time you’re handling an animal carcass it’s a good idea to wear some sort of disposable gloves to protect against bacteria entering cuts and scratches on your hands while working with raw meat.

·        Meat freshness. As far as the freshness of meat, you should trust your nose a lot. If you have questions, give it a smell. If in doubt, don’t eat it.

·        Aging meat. Aging the meat—the process of holding meat at a temperature of 34–40ºF for 7–10 days—breaks down proteins and can make game meats a bit more palatable and tender. However, it is not a very easy or exact science in camp. Better to just cook it and deal with possible toughness by the way it is prepared. If you are in the woods to eat wild meat, fresh is the best and safest eating for my money.

Processing Considerations

For larger game animals that may hang for a day or two in camp while being processed slowly for camp meals, the skin should be left on the carcass after gutting and only removed when being processed. This will keep the meat from drying out and help keep any possible bugs off the surface. However, this is only a good practice in cooler temps—remember the refrigerator conversation. Small game can be processed and cooked immediately as the cooked meat will be less likely to spoil after cooking.

Meat can also be kept cool by placing the processed cuts into a plastic watertight bag, removing as much air as possible and storing it in the creek (depending on water temperature), held down by rocks or logs, and tied to a limb or root so it doesn’t wash away.

Bushcraft Tip

For any mammal, the true key is keeping the meat from being contaminated after the kill. Urine, feces, or other liquids contained within the lower digestive organs should never come in contact with the meat or it can change the taste dramatically.

The Butchering Process

In larger animals like deer, as soon as the animal is dead, you should put on your gloves, place the animal on its side, take your knife and cut deep around the anus, and on a doe the vulva, then pull this material out and tie it off with a cord or zip tie to prevent contamination.

While gutting take great care not to perforate the lower organs with your knife.

Once this is done roll the deer onto its back with the rear end facing downhill if possible and insert your knife into the body of the deer just below the breastbone, at an angle toward the neck so that you don’t puncture the stomach, and open an air gap in the body cavity.

Once this hole is created, withdraw the knife and insert your fingers in a ∨ to guide the knife in cutting shallowly in the other direction all the way to the pelvis.

You can remove the external male organs at this point. You can also remove the internal organs, cutting away any connective tissue from the body cavity, and any leftover material in the pelvis area. Then hang the deer for further processing.

Small Mammals

With any other mammal, the process is much the same with less mess and work as they get smaller. Remove head and feet, then gut the animal. Small game such as rabbit and squirrel can be skinned without hanging easy enough by making a cut through the fur across the backbone and pulling by hand in opposite directions.

Small Game Birds

Small game birds are easy enough to breast by standing the bird on the wings, keeping your feet close to the body of the bird, then bending over and pulling up on the feet. This will separate the carcass and expose the breast meat.

Larger Game Birds

Larger birds like turkey and duck are treated a bit differently. Gut them by cutting just below the breastbone and slicing all the way down to the anus, then removing the innards. As with mammals, be careful not to cut into the intestines. If you want to remove the feathers before eating, do so soon after harvesting and before beginning the butchering.

Tips and Tricks

·        I use some type of food-grade oil on my tools all the time in case I am going to process food with them. The oil protects the tools from rust; using food-grade oil means I won’t ingest anything toxic. In salt-water environments stainless steel is best but I find carbon much easier to maintain in the field.

·        The task of skinning and processing meat requires sharp tools, so an assortment of sharpening aids, like a diamond rod, steel, and carborundum for the axe, will be very useful.

·        When breaking down an animal, use the anatomical lines already in place to guide your knife. Cut along muscle groups (instead of through them) and between bones instead of trying to hack your way through.

·        Remember that any items left from the butchering that you are not using can become bait for other meals and traps, as well as an attractant for hunting later.

·        Be careful to avoid cross-contamination when butchering raw meat. When possible, use dedicated tools for the job, and clean your tools carefully before using them for other processes.