This post is related to the last post; How much Meat to Pack Out on a Mule Deer? As an attempt to answer common questions about how much meat is on an animal and how do you pack out large animals, especially without horses. I continue the theme with elk.
As with mule deer, the best source I am aware that answers the question about how much meat is on the average elk comes from a University of Wyoming publication; The Elk Carcass (also see The Mule Deer Carcass).
For the record, the University of Wyoming study is on the Rocky Mountain subspecies of elk. For these elk, a field dressed weight (defined as viscera and feet removed) is 70% of the live weight and field dressed weights range from 176 lbs for a calf to 540 lbs to mature bulls and yield between 88 to 270 lbs of boneless meat.
Table 1. Average Rocky Mountain Elk Field Dressed Weight and Weight of Boneless Meat
Age class Bulls Cows Field Dressed Weight Boneless Meat Field Dressed Weight Boneless Meat (years) (pounds) (pounds) Calves 184 92 176 88 1½ 280 140 244 122 2½ 337 168 304 152 3½ – 4½ 400 200 329 164 5½ – 6½ 504 252 359 179 7½ – 8½ 506 253 355 177 9½ 509 254 369 184 10½+ 540 270 394 197
In the sample, field dressed cow elk averaged between 176 lbs for calves up to 394 lbs for an old cow. The Roosevelt subspecies of elk found in the coastal Pacific Northwest (primarily Oregon and Washington) are larger.
You can quickly see that packing an elk is whole ‘nuther ballgame than packing a deer, as even elk calves can weigh more than 4½ year old mule deer bucks (See Table 3 below). Despite many stories of 1,000 lb elk, and luckily from a packing standpoint, the vast majority of of bull elk will weigh less than 800 lbs and after field dressing would be about 560 lbs.
Also keep in mind the average elk head weighs 39 lbs and the skin weighs 34 lbs, so you could easily find yourself with 250-300 lbs to pack out. If you got lucky and killed that bull of a lifetime, you could be packing as much as 350 lbs or more.
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Packing Out an Elk without a Horse
Elk Down! Woohoo! Now what? If you have horses, or several friends and family members on standby, you have the means to pack out a large animal like an elk and you’ve obviously already made plans for packing the animal out. Just hope the weather stays cool and it doesn’t take everyone too long to show up.
This subject reminds me of a comment made by an Air Force general responding to reporters at the beginning of the 2nd Iraq war. He said the amateurs (referring to some politician), always start talking about tactics, but the professionals start planning the logistics. Before you go elk hunting, you have to plan the logistics of packing an an elk out.
When you have a deer down, you have more options, because most deer aren’t too big to drag out by yourself. Unless you are very close to a road, an elk is too big to drag. At the very least, you should know how to quarter it (need a simple butchering kit to skin and quarter?) and many times an elk might have to be completely de-boned.
Assuming we have have a bull elk down that weighs 500 pounds field dressed and we set to work and de-bone all the meat, yielding 250 lbs of meat an allowing about 40 lbs for his head. It will take 3 trips at 97 lbs per trip, 4 trips at 73 lbs per trip and 5 trips at 58 lbs per trip. Of course I would rather carry 58 lbs instead of 73 lbs, but five trips out and 4 trips back can add up to a lot of miles. Each trip takes time and time increases the chances that the meat spoils or that predators (2 and 4-legged) steal the meat. More on packing strategies later.
I am no longer in the prime of my life. I am going “over the hill”, but not so far that I can’t still hunt alone. Between 2014 and 2021, I have packed out 3 elk by myself and 3 more with one person helping (no horses). Closest was about a quarter mile and farthest has been just over half mile from the road.
For the longest pack-out, I shot an elk just before dark about 6:00 pm and we had it in the truck six hours later by midnight.
Elk Packing Strategies
I have used two different strategies for packing out an elk without a horse.
- Build a travois to drag the meat out (read post)
- Pack the meat in short stages
If good poles are available and if you have enough paracord or rope to build a travois, that will be the easiest method in the long run even though it takes time to collect poles and lash them together.
I have packed leg quarters (hide on and hide off) and game bags full of boneless meat on a pack frame and I have carried leg quarters over my shoulder for short periods of time. Obviously removing the hide and bone lightens the load, but it is easier to handle a leg quarter with the bone in than a loose game bag full of meat. And despite rumors of elk quarters weighing 100 lbs, most hind quarters (hide on, bone in & feet removed) weigh much less.
We packed out 238 lbs of meat, bone & hide from this cow elk. That resulted in 197 lbs of fresh boneless meat after processing (see Table 2). We packed the hind quarters separately, but included the back straps with each shoulder and the other trimmed meat was added to the game bag with shoulder 2, so our heaviest load was 65 lbs and the lightest was 52 lbs.
Table 2. Adult Cow Elk Pack Weight
Section Weight in Pounds Meat Bone Hide Total Hind Quarter 1 51.5 6.5 7.0 65 Hind Quarter 2 51.5 6.5 7.0 65 Shoulder 1 34 4.0 6.0 44 Shoulder 2 34 4.0 0 38 Back straps (2) 16 16 Rib, Neck & Loin Meat 10 10 Total 197 21 20 238
By staging the meat, I mean to move the meat in stages from one shady spot or snow bank to another 100 – 200 yards away, then return for another load. This way, you may work very hard carrying a heavy load for a few hundred yards, but you get to rest on the trip back. You can even stage quarters without a pack frame by throwing them over your shoulder (last two times, it was hard to keep my balance on steep, wet terrain with a full quarter on my shoulder; I fell down too many times).
I can keep going longer if I work hard for short periods of time and take many short breaks instead of packing one heavy load on a death march all the way to the truck and then walking all the way back with an empty pack. In the end, it is the exact same amount of walking and the same amount of meat gets packed out.
There are several other advantages of staging the meat. If you are never more than 100 to 200 yards from any portion of the meat, you don’t have to worry about coyotes or two legged predators. Mr. Griz may be another issue (read post on where to watch out for Grizzly Bears).
It’s also easier to make sure the meat stays cool if you are nearby to make sure all the meat is in the shade or covered in snow.
At night, you don’t have to worry about losing meat or wasting time because you can’t find the stash in the dark. I have looked for meat in the dark with GPS and wasted nearly an hour because for what ever reason, the GPS was pointing 60 meters away from the spot. That may not a big deal in the daylight, but it is in the dark.
Hint: Carry Glow sticks (chem lights) or flashing fishing bobbers to leave at each stash site in the dark so you can find them quicker.
Packing out an Elk Calf
I have harvested several elk calves. Ever since I saw a calf nursing as late as November, I don’t shoot cows that have calves. So I have harvested several elk calves.
One year I had hunted by myself for 6 days and probably covered about 30 miles in a foot of snow. I saw tons of tracks and sign, but saw only one bull elk during that time.
A friend said she would go with me the next day if I waited to hunt after lunch. We went to a different area and trudged about half a mile through the snow to a ridge. She spotted elk about 1,000 yards away, so we started in that direction. At the bottom of the hill before we came out of the trees, I caught sight of two calves and a cow elk feeding in the open sage at 135 yards. So I took one of the calves.
I have never used a game cart, or panniers made for humans, but would like to try them in the right circumstance. But since there was so much snow on the ground, we finally got to use an old ice fishing sled to haul out the elk calf. We each still had our packs (an excellent game pack) and I still had my rifle, but the quartered elk calf and hide was carried in the sled in one trip (see Table 3).
It was a tough haul uphill and we had to dodge lots of sage in the flats. It took us about 2½ hours to make the 1,050 yards (0.6 miles according to the GPS) back to the truck. Assuming our actual path was about 1,200 yards, we blazed along at 0.27 mph. There is no substitute for GPS to find the closest point on the road to pack out an elk.
I think it’s worth noting the boneless meat from the elk calf quarters were about 28% the weight of the cow elk in Table 2. The weights in Table 3 include the entire foot on each quarter.
Table 3. Elk Calf Pack Weight
Section Weight in Pounds Meat Bone Hide Total Each Hind Quarter 14.5 6.5 0 21 Each Shoulder 9.6 6.5 0 16.1 Back straps (2) 6.2 6.2 Rib, Neck & Loin Meat 1.6 1.6 Heart 1.4 1.4 Partial Liver 1.3 1.3 Hide 12 12 Total 58.7 26 12 96.7
A Friend’s Elk Packing Experience
I still tease one of my good friend’s about his elk packing experience. About 15 years ago, while he was a big strapping young man in the prime of his life, he killed a cow elk over three miles from the road. He de-boned the meat and left the head and skin behind and packed it all out in two trips. We were roommates at the time and when he got back home about 2 a.m., the first words out of his mouth was “I’ll never do that sh*t again!
We didn’t actually weigh all the meat as we finished butchering, wrapping steaks and roasts and making sausage, but we estimated the weight at about 160 lbs. Counting his initial hike in to where he shot the cow, he walked well over 12 miles in very steep country. He packed out nearly 120 lbs his first trip counting his pack and rifle and the last six miles was in total darkness using a puny headlamp. He packed at least 80 lbs on the last trip out. He lives in another state now and despite his vow to never do it again, he still hunts elk. But now he has a horse to pack into camp and pack out the meat. We’re planning a hunt in Wyoming next year.
Packing Alone Limits the Hunt
When I have to pack an elk by myself, it limits the places I can hunt. As I move farther away from the truck, I start thinking about what it would take to get an elk back from where I am. I may want to climb a nearby ridge, but no way would I drop down the other side unless it was just to scout.
I was in situation where I had a shot at an elk on top of a knife blade ridge that dropped very steeply off both sides. The elk was facing downhill in the wrong direction. If I shot and he dropped like a stone, it would mean a long pack out down a very steep ridge, but he was more likely to bolt downhill the wrong direction. If he went the wrong way, I was screwed because the weather was very warm and there was no snow on the ground. The elk would probably be lying in the Sun on the south facing slope. If so, I doubt I could have salvaged all the meat before it spoiled.
I know people with horses that I can call in an emergency if I need help packing out an elk. The problem is, I would be most in need of help if the elk was down a long distance from a road. Here in the west, that usually means a long walk out and then driving to find cell service just to make the call. Then the person has to be home and ready to put a horse on the trailer and haul it out to meet me. What are the chances they have absolutely nothing going on? How long is all this going to take?
In the situation mentioned above, it would have taken me two hours to get to an area with cell service. If my friend with the horse was ready to immediately load up and come to my rescue, It would take at least 3½-4 hours more to get back on the ridge with a horse. On top of that, the ridge was so steep, I also didn’t want to be responsible for the safety of his horse. I didn’t take the shot.
I decided to wait to see if he would turn around so he was more likely to run downhill toward the truck and the shady side of the hill. I don’t deserve to be so lucky. I regret not having an elk in my freezer that year, but I do not regret passing on the shot. If it had been cooler or if there had been patches of snow on the ground, or If someone had been with me, I would have taken the chance.
Hint: I always pack a small tarp to make shade, have a clean place to lay meat and knives or for shelter if necessary.
I saw a T.V. hunting show where an elk was down and the hunter went back to town and rented a horse and trailer and then drove back to the site to pack it out. He didn’t say how long it took and I don’t remember seeing much footage that proved they packed out much except the head and antlers.
Make the Effort to Salvage all the Meat
I give my friend credit for making that last trip, because most people would have left that last load for the coyotes. Many of us hunt for the meat, not just antlers, so we do all we can to make sure it doesn’t go to waste. I think a lot of people leave the 2nd load and that includes most of the T.V. hunting shows.
Of all the shows I have seen, only two (“Meat Eater” with Steve Rinella and “On Your Own Adventures” with Randy Newburg) regularly show the butchering and packing out of more than just the head and antlers. I know that doesn’t make for exciting T.V., but they should all have one quick shot to prove they didn’t waste the meat. Many of us don’t give a crap about antlers and it insults our intelligence when they talk about how difficult the pack out was, but rarely show enough to prove they packed anything out except antlers. You know what I mean; they go from “hero shot” with the downed elk, then the closing shot has the elk head and antlers in the back of the truck.
As “sportsmen”, we have an obligation to make use of as much of the meat as possible. I encourage everyone to do their own butchering and to make their own sausage and ground meat. Why go to so much trouble to take care of the meat, then take it to the butcher so he can mix it in with every elk brought in by Tom, Dick and Harry, some of which haven’t even been field dressed. I especially admire people that salvage and tan the hides. The resource is ours to use, but not to waste.