October 24, 2022
On paper, hard-core backcountry hunting sounds glorious. You hike into the most remote terrain in the country, mindful of every pound and ounce of your gear. You hunt and kill a hard-won trophy animal. And, once back in cell service, you bask in the social-media glow of your accomplishment.
But there's one detail missing from the common narrative of backcountry hunting success: the hard reality of getting the animal you killed from remote basin to trailhead. And that aspect of the hunt is just as gear- and labor-intensive as your efforts to reach the animal in the first place.
As a confirmed meat hunter, I've encountered this problem more times than I care to recall. I hope you are in the same meat-hauling situation as I am, because it's the best indication that you’ve succeeded in your hunt. But I'm not going to sugar-coat it: Hauling meat can be a pain in the butt. And neck. And shoulders. And thighs.
For the purposes of this story, assume that you can't drive anywhere near your kill, which means you're going to have to break down your trophy into packable pieces. You'll need three essential tools for the task: a good knife, quality game bags and a pack that's capable of carrying between 50 and 70 pounds.
Packing meat is ultimately a physical task, but it's made easier by good decisions. Your first will be to either quarter or debone the animal. Quartering is quicker and less messy, but because you're packing bones along with meat, it's also more laborious. Game bags are handy in either case because they keep dirt and air off the cut portions of quarters and, for boneless meat, they provide the structure necessary to lash the loose meat to a pack while also keeping it relatively clean.
EXTERNAL VS. INTERNAL FRAME
Your hunting pack of choice will fall into one of two categories: external frame or internal frame. An advantage of the former is that among many brands, you can buy a customizable frame that will pair with any number of bags. That means you can buy a small (2,500 cubic inches) pack for day hunts or size up to a large (5,000 cubic inches) bag for multi-day expedition hunts. Many of these frame systems also have a meat shelf that enables hunters to pack meat between the frame and pack. This keeps the contents of the pack clean and positions the weight of the meat close to the back where it’s easier to carry.
The advantage of internal-frame designs is their compactness and capability to load meat directly into the bag, which minimizes the need to lash it or otherwise secure it. And the best of these internal frame packs, including Stone Glacier's gargantuan Talus 6900, is they have "load shelves" that accommodate meat between the bag and the frame. Or you might opt for a skeletonized meat-hauler. These are essentially frame packs without any bag. They have only a meat shelf that serves as a floor for your meat, which is then anchored onto the pack with a series of compression straps.
HOW TO FIT A PACK
Any of these designs should be capable of toting more than 50 pounds of meat and have a capacity north of 3,500 cubic inches. If you're planning to pack elk-sized animals, a 5,000-cubic-inch pack is probably a better choice. Regardless of capacity, you need to buy a model that's sized to your torso, and then spend some time fitting it to your specific dimensions. Even better, buy a model that has an adjustable yoke—most models from Mystery Ranch, Stone Glacier and Kifaru have this custom-fitting feature. Others, like those from Kuiu and Sitka, have various sizes of yokes, shoulder straps and waist belts that allow users to get a close-to-custom fit.
Fitting a pack is best done with a partner who can size up how it rides on you and help make the incremental adjustments required to find a perfect fit. The first step is to put about 25 pounds of weight—a bag of rice or dog food will work—into the bag or on the meat shelf, then loosen all the straps, including the waist, shoulder and load-lifting straps. Next, slide into the shoulder straps and, while they're still loose, make sure the lumbar pad fits snugly into the small of your back. Most lumbar pads are adjustable; move it so that the weight of the pack catches you about at the very top of your butt.
Next, buckle the hip belt and tighten the straps enough that you feel where the belt meets your hips. The waist belt should ride just above your hips on what's called the iliac crest. Don't over-tighten the waist belt at this point. Instead, tighten the shoulder straps and feel where the yoke of the pack meets your back. Ideally, the cushioned shoulder pad and yoke body should hit the top of your shoulder blade. If it's too low, raise the yoke (assuming your pack has an adjustable yoke).
If it's too high, lower the yoke. This is probably the most critical part of the fit. We've all seen friends whose packs have shoulder straps so high you could pass a cantaloupe between the top of the strap and the shoulder. With an ideal fit, the top of the pack’s shoulder strap conforms to the top of the user's shoulder.
Finally, adjust the chest strap, pull the lifter straps tight and then tighten the waist strap so it's snug without being painfully tight. You now have a pack that will move with your anatomy and keep heavy loads close to your body, but also put downward pressure on the larger bones: your hips first and your shoulders second. Make sure the pack doesn’t move excessively when you load more weight into it. One of the most uncomfortable parts of packing meat in a poorly fitted pack is all the needless motion of the load. Ideally, it should move only when you move.
LAYER THE LOAD
Let's say you shot a high-country mule deer and you're packing out the boned-out meat in one trip. Between the cape, head, meat and your lightweight gear, you should expect an 80- to 90-pound pack. That's a lot of weight to carry, but it's not impossible as long as you load it correctly.
Start with the biggest game bags, probably full of rump roasts and backstraps—or the rear quarters—at the bottom of your pack's bag or lowest on the meat shelf. Next, add a bag of trim, then your heavier hunting gear. You want to make sure the heaviest portion of your load is closest to the small of your back, and the lighter, less dense payload—the cape, sleeping bag and outerwear—are toward the top.
Next, you want to employ all the lashing and compression straps that your pack provides, plus a few extra compression straps that I encourage you to carry, to secure the load so that it doesn't toggle from side to side as you walk. There’s nothing worse than a load that moves of its own accord, just as there's nothing more comforting than a heavy load that’s securely lashed.
The upshot of any successful backcountry hunt is that it’s going to be painful work to get out all the meat. But there's no better testament to the quality of the hunt than to savor a roast or steak from an animal you hunted hard and then hauled out honestly.