After the food runs out, after the stores are littered with barren shelves, and after you’ve desperately decimated every last scrap of edible produce from your dying garden, it is time to branch out by returning to your ancient roots as a hunter/gatherer.
Regardless of what mankind wrought on itself, most calamities — man-made or otherwise — will, more or less, not affect the indigenous animal populations. Hopefully, a short foray into your local mountains or fields will produce a variety of game, all ripe for harvesting, from deer, rabbit, and squirrel to bear, moose, and elk.
However, pulling the trigger is the easy part. Then what?
Whether you harvest game to feed your family or you are in an emergency survival situation, how you prepare the game that you secure could mean life or death. It doesn’t matter if the game is a moose or a rabbit; what you do after the hunt is very important, because improperly prepared game leaves you and your family open to bacterial infections, some of which can be very dangerous if not fatal.
Positioning The Deer
Before I start field dressing the animal I like to scan my surroundings for anything that may aid me in this task. In the case of large animals (like a deer), gravity is your friend. If possible, hoist up the deer head first from a strong branch of a tree. This allows the weight of the internal organs to work in your favor. If this is not available, try to position the deer on a downward slope with the head pointing uphill. If on the ground, position the carcass on its back and use rocks or logs to help keep it stable.
Use a very sharp, thick-bladed fixed-blade knife (ideally, it should have a gut blade). A huge “Rambo”-style knife to field dress anything smaller than a moose or an elk isn’t necessary, and, of course, the smaller the animal, the smaller the knife will need to be.
There are two schools of thought on which direction to start, either from the pelvic area going up or from the chest area going down.
Tom Flynn, Program Manager at Owl Brook Hunter Education Center in Holdernes, N.H., starts at the chest cavity and works down to the pelvic area. His reasoning is that because he is working in the direction that the hair was growing he will get less hair on the meat while cutting. However, cutting from the pelvic region and going up to the chest opens up the stomach cavity quicker, exposing the internal organs and allowing more heat to escape. It also makes it easier to avoid piercing the stomach, bladder, and/or colon.
Cut around the anus. Be very careful to prevent any spillage. All you are doing is loosening up these organs to be removed later (as they are still connected to the colon).
On a buck, make two incisions on either side of the penis and scrotum. Those cut lines should follow the inside of the pelvis down to the incisions made around the anus. Pull the scrotum and penis downward as you slice them off and discard them along with the anus.
Cutting out the anus keeps the bladder intact but allows a clear path for the removal of the organs. Also, remove the scrotum for the same reason, but check with your local laws, as some agencies require the scrotum to remain when recording your deer.
Make a few slices right in the middle of the pelvis. It relaxes the tension on the legs allowing more access to the underside of the deer.
Making a slice through the thin muscle wall right above where the penis/scrotum were, make a shallow cut through the skin to the breastbone. Next, placing your index finger inside the cavity created between the skin and the intestines, slowly guide your knife up to prevent it from accidentally cutting into any organs. Some people like to cut all of the way up across the breastbone to the jaw. I don’t do this as all I want to do is field dress the deer. All of the other cuts will be made during skinning and processing.
Consider switching to a heavier knife to the breastbone. If your knife is sharp enough, it will easily slice through the bone, exposing the lungs, heart and throat. At the base of the throat will be the trachea and esophagus.
Now move to the chest cavity. Reach up inside the cavity and grab the windpipe. Carefully cut both the windpipe and the esophagus as far up the neck as you can. Work slowly as you will be doing this by feel. After this is complete put your knife down and reach inside once again and with both hands, grab the windpipe and pull hard.
Returning to the chest cavity, spread open the ribs and notice between the bottom of the lungs and the top of the stomach is this meaty diaphragm, which looks like a wall separating the two cavities. Slice that away from the bottom of the rib cage all the way around to the back of the deer.
Step 7 (Optional)
On the other side of the pelvic bone is the bladder and colon. If you’ve been careful they shouldn’t have ruptured. With your hand, reach in and pull up the bladder so it is out of the way, and then slice through the pelvic bone. It might take some sawing (with a saw blade), but be careful as you are working close to the bladder. Splitting apart the pelvic bone will allow the deer to be laid wide open, which will make removing the guts very easy. This is an optional step, however, as you can merely scoop out the guts or turn the deer slightly on its side.
At this point most of the internal organs should break free and come out easily. With your hands, grab the esophagus and start to tug the organs toward the pelvis. You might have to cut more of the diaphragm as you go. Double check to make sure you removed them all.
If on the ground, roll the carcass to either side and spread his four legs apart to help drain out the blood and other body fluids.
Any spillage from the bladder, intestines or stomach should be wiped out with a rag, paper towels, or even dry grass. Do not use the water from a nearby brook or stream as it may contain bacteria. My rule of thumb is if you won’t drink it, don’t rinse your deer with it. If there is clean snow on the ground, pack the animal’s cavity with it. Otherwise prop the cavity open with a stick to help the body cool down.
Your deer is now field dressed and ready to be dragged out for skinning and final processing. Though many hunters take their deer to professional butchers for these next steps, they can be done at home or at your camp. Whether you do it yourself, or have someone else do it, it is a long process requiring sharp knives and skill.
You owe it to the animal to get the most meat from your kill as you can and this all starts with the proper field dressing of the kill. Proper processing is vital for those times when hunting is a recreation, but in dire times of survival, cut off a slab of meat and toss it on the coals until charred to your liking.
In that deer’s honor, you’ll survive another day.
A wise Native Elder once told me, “Everyone knows something, but nobody knows everything. We are always learning. If you are not learning you are either dead or a fool.” I have spent most of my life living from what Mother Nature provides, but I am the first to admit that there are things I’m not good at. One of those things is the butchering of large game; in my area, that means deer, moose, and bear.
Rick Warbin, an instructor from the Black River Deer Farm in Wentworth, N.H., points out that very sharp knives will make your job a lot easier. As well, stop often during the butchering process to sharpen those knives if possible. “Take your time and do it right” is what he said numerous times during the game processing workshop he conducts at his shop. Moving too fast sometimes leads to accidents and to wasting meat.
“If it takes you three hours or three days to properly butcher your deer, who cares? Just do it right,” Rick said. He also pointed out that proper aging of the meat is vital to good cuts, but what is proper aging? Certain cuts can be taken sooner than later and this is where years of experience come into play.
Bacteria, Temperature and Skin Safety
Many people fail to realize the potential risks involved with cleaning any wild game. Most diseases carried by animals are found in the blood and when field dressing game there is always going to be plenty of blood. Protect yourself from harmful bacteria and other pathogens.
Skin: While your skin will protect you a great deal, any cuts or open wounds you may have, no matter how small, need to be well protected. For this reason I always carry a couple pairs of disposable plastic gloves. Don’t have any? Wrap your hands in plastic or work through plastic bags.
Bacteria: There is always the risk of contaminating the meat while field dressing the animal. There are many pathogens that live in the intestinal tracts of all warm-blooded animals, and if the animal is improperly dressed (i.e. the stomach, bladder, or colon is pierced), then these bacteria can get into the meat, thus making it a health risk to eat.
Temperature: The warmer the meat is, the quicker that bacteria will set in and the quicker the meat will start to spoil. Field dressing the removal of internal organs is the quickest way to cool down the animal’s body temperature. Once the organs are removed, propping the body open with a stick or packing it with snow or ice will cool it faster.
Maybe you’re not the best hunter in the world or maybe all of the larger game has been hunted out in your area, so you’ll have to resort to smaller game, rabbits and squirrels. The process in gutting and preparing a squirrel, for example, is very similar to that of a deer, just with smaller parts and slightly smaller tools.
Step 1: Gather your materials. An ideal list includes a knife, a pair of pliers, a pair of scissors, and a bucket, but you can get by with just a knife and a bucket for scraps. If you’re in a survival situation, only a knife is needed.
Step 2: Cut off its paws. When cutting off the front paws, cut as close to the actual paw as possible. When cutting off the back paws, cut right after the carpal pad (the black pad on the back side of the paw). Discard them into the bucket.
Step 3: Skin it. Lay your squirrel belly down. Fold its tail over its back so that you can see its anus. Use your knife to cut completely through the bottom of the tail. Make sure you cut at the very bottom so you don’t actually sever the tail from the body, because you need the tail to still be attached by the skin that covers its back. Your cut should have exposed the flesh at the very bottom of the back of the squirrel. From there, hold your squirrel by the legs so that its head is facing the ground. Place the tail under one of your feet and step on it as hard as you can. Pull the back legs upward, removing skin from flesh. The skin isn’t going to completely detach.
Hopefully, at this point, you will be looking at a skinless squirrel from the belly up, with the skin dangling from the head of the squirrel. Leave the tail under your foot. Then either use a pair of pliers or your hands to pull the belly skin off. Pull until not only the belly skin has peeled away, but so has the skin on its back legs. The skin will not detach here either.
Step 4: Cut off the head and legs. Cut the entire head off, taking the dangling skin along with it. This is important because while it is best to eat every part of the animal that you can, recently there have been squirrels found with brain disease. As for the legs, cut off as little as possible. We’re only doing this to get rid of the skin but want to preserve as much meat as we can.
Step 5: Cut off its genitals (if it’s a male). If you’ve caught a male squirrel a good way to tell the age is to look at its testicles. The more hair there is on the testicles, the younger they are. If the testicles are larger and hairless, they’re older. In any case, cut off its testicles and penis.
Step 6: Gut it. Use your knife (or scissors if you have them) and cut straight up the stomach, starting at the navel. Cut through the ribs and out through the neck. Lay the squirrel on its back and pull out every intestine you find. The heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys are all edible, so save those.
Step 7: Wash it out with safe, purified water. Make sure it is nice and clean and empty of blood.
Step 8: Dispose of the parts you aren’t going to use. Throw them as far away from camp as you can. You can even throw them in the river; fish will eat them.
Owl Brook Hunter Education Center
Many states offer education programs to the state’s hunters, fishermen and women, and trappers with the thought being that an educated outdoorsperson is a safe one. With that in mind the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Education Division operates Owl Brook Hunter Education Center in Holderness, New Hampshire.
Throughout the year the Center offers a variety of programs, many of which are free of charge, in everything from large game processing and hunter safety courses to workshops on map and compass reading and trapper education. During the summer months the Center offers day programs for youths (ages 10-15) which teach young people about the shooting sports, archery and other outdoor skills.
You don’t need to be a hunter to take advantage of what the Center has to offer. There are plenty of workshops on outdoor survival, wildlife tracking and identification and others. All of these programs are taught by experts in the field and are open to the public, though registration is required for many of them.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the September/October 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide Magazine.