What’s the best way to pack game meat: Bone in or bone out?

Video how to pack out a deer

Packing out deboned elk meat in Mystery Ranch backpack

The time spent hanging out in deer camp with my dad were times well spent as a child. While most of my friends were sitting around back home playing video games, I was outside enjoying the real world. Everything was so new to me back then. The sights, sounds and smells were all things that caught my attention as a youngster and still do to this day. I can remember back before I had ever walked up on a deer that we had harvested. We’d talk about how we would gut it and then drag it out of the woods when the time came. There wasn’t any talk about quartering or de-boning anything. Fast forward to present day and I can’t imagine doing things any other way than how I do them now. Every animal that comes home with me is either quartered bone-in or boned out in the field. Each method has its pros and cons.

Bone-in method

Packing wild game meat with the bone in

As far as time goes, this is the fastest way of taking care of things out in the field. After skinning back the hide, all you are doing is removing the quarters, backstraps, tenderloins, etc. All of these parts are stored in game bags until it is time to process the meat for the freezer. Another plus about doing things this way is the meat is way easier to handle. You don’t have bits of meat falling every which way as you are trying to work with it. Everything is nice and uniform right on the bone. Because of that, it also sits really good on a backpack. The bone acts sort of like a frame for the meat. Lastly, when you get home, actually starting from scratch with the meat on the bone is way easier when it comes to processing if you ask me. The meat isn’t in a big blob and you can clearly see what you’re looking at. Trimming is also easier like this as you are only having to trim the outside of the whole quarter rather than each individual muscle piece like you would if it were boned out in the field.

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Is this way perfect?

Processing a Coues deer buck

Sounds perfect, right? Why would you ever do it any other way? Well, believe it or not, there are some drawbacks to not boning your meat out. The first one that comes to mind is the pack out. I know I said that the meat sits better on your pack when it is on the bone, however that bone is extra weight that you are probably just going to throw away (unless you make your own bone broth or something). This really isn’t an issue if you have some buddies with you, but if you are alone, that’s a lot of extra weight to carry, especially if you are on a backpack hunt and also need to carry out camp. To contrast what I said earlier about the meat being easier to work with on the bone when you get home, it is more work when you get home. Instead of having everything already broken down and off of the bone, you now have to de-bone the meat anyways. Bones also have a tendency to hold heat, so by leaving the bone on, you might increase the risk of getting bone sour, which is when the meat rots from the inside out.


  • Quicker when out in the field
  • Easier to work with when you get home
  • Sits great in/on a backpack for the pack out


  • More weight for pack out
  • More work when you get home
  • Increased chance of getting bone sour

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Boned out method

Deboned elk meat in game bags

The other option you have once you have an animal on the ground is to bone the meat out. Just take that meat right off of the bone, right out in the field. It’s a lot less weight to carry out back to the truck and saves you a step in processing when you do get home: the boning out portion is already done. That is, of course, if you aren’t preparing any bone-in recipes. This also allows you to carry smaller game bags, which is less weight (minimal) and takes up less space in your backpack. You don’t need a bag to fit a whole quarter—just one to fit the meat from that quarter. In light of that, you can fit multiple quarters in one game bag and, sometimes, even the whole animal. I know I said that bone-in meat in easier to throw on a backpack, but if you have a good solid game bag and distribute the meat well, boned out meat can ride pretty nice on your back. This is something I have really started to do for most of the critters I am fortunate to harvest. I choose this method because most of the time I am not exactly next to a road or with buddies to help me out. Sometimes, I get lucky and have help with the packing job, but most of the time I don’t. Because of that, I opt to bone out meat in the field.

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Boned out for the win?

Getting game bags ready for boned out meat

So, like anything else out there, cons definitely exist to boning out meat. It’s not all cake and balloons if you catch my drift. Remember when I said that it was less work when you got home? Well, that is right in a sense, but not entirely. Because the meat is broken into various muscle groups and all of that surface has been exposed to the air, usually you need to trim it all. This is as opposed to having everything in one piece and just trimming that piece. Instead, you now have a plethora of pieces to trim. There is also the extra work in the field. You’ll spend more time out there cutting meat than if you were to just leave the bone in. Another downside that I haven’t really experienced, but have heard from others, is the quality of the meat. Meat goes through stages after that animal hits the ground. At first, it is pretty pliable. After time though, rigor sets in. This is when the muscles stiffen up. After a while, the stiffness will go away. If the meat isn’t on the bone when this happens, it is said that the meat will retain some of that stiffness. This is due to it not being attached to the bone and having the tension of joints and ligaments pulling it back to zero.


  • Less weight for the pack out
  • Boning out portion is already done
  • Can use fewer game bags and smaller ones
  • Easier to portion out carrying meat with friends
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  • More trimming at home
  • The possibility of tougher meat in the end
  • More work in the field

In closing

Packing out a velvet Coues deer buck

After reading through all of that, which do you think is better? Is there a clear winner? If you ask me, I say no. In my opinion, each method has its place and those places are to be determined by the person doing the work. Some folks might be completely fine leaving the meat on the bone and making multiple trips. Some might not be. There really isn’t a right answer here. Just like gear, you need to find what works best for you and the situations that you put yourself in. For those who have possibly never done this, I know it might sound a bit intimidating to break a whole animal down out in the field, but I can assure you that it’s pretty simple. There are lots of resources out there that can break this process down for you step by step. Some of the best ones can be found by Jay Scott: How to perform the gutless method on big game and How to cape the head of a big game animal for the taxidermist. Study those so you are better prepared when the time comes. Whether you choose to bone out your hard earned game meat or not, do so in a timely manner. Either you will spend more time packing (if solo) or more time cutting. Once that animal hits the ground, the clock is ticking. Once you get home, it’s essential to wash up your game bags no matter what method you use. You can check out this article for more information on this easy process.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>