Western big game hunters often hunt remote areas far from access points, and the only way to get their harvest back to the vehicle is to skin and quarter it in the field and pack it out. The idea is slowly catching on with Eastern deer hunters, especially with those who hunt remote areas of public land. Success in these areas often means going where other hunters aren’t willing to go, and that can mean hiking several miles beyond access areas. Trying to drag a big-bodied mature buck out that far is simply unreasonable.
The idea of skinning and quartering a deer in the field hit home for me a few years ago when I was riding my mountain bike five miles back a gated forest road to hunt. According to my GPS, if I killed a deer in that location, I could drag it directly south for two miles and down a mountainside to the nearest road, but I’d be fighting a section of woods that had been recently timbered. Have you ever tried dragging deer over fallen trees and rugged terrain? It can seem like a Herculean task by yourself. Not only that, but I’d then have to hitch a ride back up to the top of the mountain to get my truck, and then hike back into where I’d hunted to get my bike.
My other option was to ride my bike back out to my truck and then hike back in with a deer cart. That wouldn’t have killed me, but it would’ve been extremely time-consuming. And that last trip back with the deer on the cart would not have been fun on that bumpy, hilly road. So when I finally connected on a nice buck that far back on public land, I chose the third option: skin and quarter it on the spot. It might sound like a time-intensive business, but with a little know-how, you can have a carcass broken down and in your pack in no time.
Tools of the Trade
I’m good with a knife, but it doesn’t take an expert to skin and quarter a deer. I’d anticipated this possibility, so I carried several items in my backpack just in case. These helped make the skinning and quartering process very easy. The first item is a sharp knife. I started with two or three folding knives in my pack. When breaking down game in the field, the last thing you want to do is waste time sharpening knives. It’s much easier to simply grab a new one once a blade starts to dull.
Since that first experience breaking down game in the field, I’ve streamlined this even more: instead of multiple knives, I carry a razor blade knife with replacement blades and one small fixed- blade knife as a backup. In my opinion, Havalon and Wiebe are two of the best brands on the market; they’re durable and you can buy models that utilize the same style of replacement blades. And their sharpness is incredible.
To help keep the meat clean, I now carry a 9×12 plastic drop cloth. These come in a variety of thicknesses, some as thin as 0.4 mil, which weighs practically nothing and can be squeezed into a pocket in your backpack. With the first few deer I skinned and quartered, I used a couple of trash bags and old tee-shirts instead of the plastic drop cloth, and these worked just fine, too.
A good rope can come in handy if you want to quickly raise the deer off the ground to skin. This can help keep the meat clean; but most of the time, I find it unnecessary. However, if you’re uncomfortable bending or hunching over for a short time while skinning, then having a rope handy to elevate the deer is certainly an option. A rope is also good to have with you in case you don’t recover the deer until late and need to hang it overnight so coyotes don’t get to it.
Don’t forget to add a good flashlight or headlamp with a spare set of batteries to your pack. The extra batteries are very important. It’s no fun trying to skin and quarter a deer with no light, trust me.
The last items in my pack are cloth quarter bags. These are made of lightweight, breathable material that protects the meat from dirt and insects.
Cutting Up Buck
The cut you make when field-dressing the deer is the first step in the skinning and quartering process. If it’s a deer I’m not going to mount, I cut from the anus up to the head. After the deer is field dressed and the chest cavity drained of blood, drag it away from the gut pile and over to a fresh patch of ground.
I’ve heard some folks suggest not even field-dressing the animal and doing a “gutless” method of skinning and quartering. I’ve used that method on moose in Newfoundland, and there’s no doubt that it is an easy way to break down very large big game which are difficult to move around because of their size. But it can get messy if you try to do that with a whitetail – especially if you’re inexperienced and it’s your first-time skinning and quartering a deer in the field. I’d much rather dress out the deer and then move it to a relatively clean working area.
The first thing to remember when skinning deer is that you should never have to work too hard to get the desired results. Let the knife do the work; if you ever find yourself pushing harder to make a cut, it could mean your blade is getting dull. A dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one. Any time I’ve cut myself over the years, it was because I found myself putting too much effort into skinning instead of letting the knife do the work, and the knife would slip and slice my finger. Also, whitetails’ bones, like ours, are held together by cartilage. This is why I don’t carry a hacksaw in my backpack. For instance, if you take your time and find the joint where the leg bone connects to the pelvic bone, you can easily separate the two just by cutting the cartilage.
That’s probably the most important thing to remember when skinning and quartering deer in the field. Take your time. It’s not a race. Work slowly and methodically, and you’ll be done in no time. Making the first cuts are easy since you’ve already field-dressed the animal. On the inside of each hind leg, work your knife tip just under the skin and between the meat and slice it up to the knee joint. If done right, you should be slicing just the skin and not digging your blade into the meat. If the deer’s still warm, you’ll have no trouble separating the skin from the meat by hand and probably won’t even need the knife after these cuts are made. I find myself just using the blade sparingly during this process, and I can usually expose the whole hindquarter with only a few small cuts.
Next, cut the cartilage around the knee joint so that you can snap off the lower part of the leg. At this point, I usually roll the deer onto its side and then pull the skin off of the top half of the hindquarter. I then work up along the ribcage, pulling the hide off the meat until I get to the front leg. Insert the knifepoint at the knee joint on the front leg and cut along the inside and down toward the brisket until you reach the cut you’d made when field dressing the deer. With that done, begin peeling the skin off around the front quarter, and then separate the lower leg at the knee joint and pull it all the way down to the shoulder. You can then work on freeing up the hide around the neck. When done correctly, you should end up with the deer on its side and then skin folded out on the ground with a hind quarter, front quarter, and ribcage exposed.
At this stage, I remove both backstraps, which begin on each side of the spine directly above and between the shoulders and extend down to the hip joint and set them aside on the drop cloth. I then remove the shoulder, which is attached by just cartilage, and set it aside, too.
The hindquarter is a little trickier because it’s attached via ball and socket joint. I like to lift the quarter up and work in from the abdomen. Usually, just by lifting the quarter, you’ll see where to cut along the pelvic bone to get to the joint. Once you find the joint, cut the cartilage surrounding it and the quarter should easily break free. Once that is done, I roll the carcass over onto the loose hide and repeat the process on the other side of the deer. At this point, you can trim off any large portions of meat that look edible, such as the neck meat. I try to salvage as much meat as possible, but it can be really difficult in the field to get everything. And that’s okay. Coyotes and other scavengers will thank you.
Once the skinning and quartering are done, you may choose to debone each quarter. This can certainly help you fit everything into your backpack so that you have to make only one trip out. It doesn’t take long to get all the meat off of the bone. After deboning, I can usually fit all of the meat into an oversized backpack and not have to step up to an actual pack frame.
In the mountain country where I hunt, how far you had to drag your deer has historically been a major talking point, and sometimes competitive. Hunters often brag about dragging a deer for miles or hours, as if the farther it was and the longer it took them to get it out of the woods meant something. I’ll never forget the first time a group of hunters saw the head and antlers of the buck I killed and quarter bags full of meat in the back of my truck. To them, it didn’t make sense. A couple of them downright disapproved and criticized me for taking the “lazy” way out.
Personally, I’ve never understood that line of thinking. In my youth, I also dragged deer long distances, sometimes by myself and sometimes with help, and it wasn’t exactly enjoyable. I never felt like a better hunter or like I deserved a deer more because I had such a long haul out of the woods. And now that I’m older, it makes even more sense to skin and quarter my deer in the field when I’m hunting remote places. And why not? Western hunters have been doing the same thing for years.
It’s no secret that killing a mature white- tail on public land takes a considerable effort, and you’ll soon find out that the kill is often the easy part. There’s just no easy way to get a whitetail out of the woods when you’re hunting solo miles from the nearest road. But with a little preparation and the proper tools, skinning and quartering your deer onsite is a great option.