9 Heart-Healthy Ways to Transport Big Game

9 Heart-Healthy Ways to Transport Big Game

A buddy recently passed up a bull elk when he realized there was no way he could get it from the kill site to the pickup. He was alone and the air temps were in the 80s.

"I looked at the bull and I looked at where I was," Jack told me. "It would have been almost impossible for me to pack that meat out in timely fashion." Jack is 63 years old and in fairly good shape, but he has knee problems. His pickup was more than a mile away and uphill, and there were plenty of bears in the area. He made the right choice. 

Another pal passed on a bull for the same reason. It was too far away and would have been tough to retrieve. But luck smiled on him later when an elk offered a 250-yard shot while he stood next to a two-track. My friend made a good shot and backed his pickup to the animal.

We can forget to use logic when confronted with a large animal, especially when it's a tough hunt and the quarry is elusive. The adrenaline is flowing, the brain is rattled and there's often little or no thought about the logistics of getting the harvested animal out of the woods. A common reaction is to squeeze the trigger or loose the arrow and figure out the logistics after the fact."Whichever system you use, be sure you have a plan before you squeeze the trigger."

That is never a good idea. It's not only unfair to the animal, but it's also unethical, immoral and illegal if any of the game meat ends up getting wasted. Twice I have stumbled onto an elk carcass where only a quarter was taken and the rest of the carcass abandoned. One carcass was at the bottom of a deep canyon with only one rugged trail leading out of it. Even a horse would have difficulty negotiating that trail. The other carcass was in a heavily timbered area miles from the nearest road. I only discovered it after I heard and followed the ravens and magpies.

It is impossible to determine why the hunters left the animals. Maybe the first developed a physical condition while carrying the heavy load such as a back problem, hernia or chest pains. And maybe the second hunter simply never found the elk. In any case, it begs the question: Even if you exercise regularly and your cholesterol and blood pressure are in check, how do you transport an elk or other big-game animal out of the woods? An average quarter from a mature bull elk weighs approximately 80 pounds, and a large whitetail or mule deer can dress at 175 pounds or more. The best-case scenario would be to drive to the carcass but that's often impossible. Another ideal scenario would be to shoot the animal while it is standing on a ridge or steep slope with your vehicle below it so you can drag it to the road.

Let's assume that neither of these are options. You're stuck with the dilemma of dismantling the carcass into pieces that can be moved. Once the animal is skinned and quartered or boned, the meat should be placed in game bags. Game bags are essential in keeping meat clean and away from blowflies.

Here are a few options:

1. Vehicle
If you're lucky enough to drive to the animal, you still aren't out of the woods, especially if it's an elk. You must, of course, load it in the truck. Unless you have a winch system, you'll need to get the carcass onto the tailgate and slide it into the truck bed manually. If you're alone or with a companion with a bad back or heart condition, this can be a major effort. I once gleefully drove up to a big cow, but the glee faded when I realized I had to cut her in half to load her. Another time, I shot a big muley buck. I had an injured leg and it was all I could do to bend over and field dress it. There was no way I could load it without whittling it down to manageable pieces. Then I had an idea. I tied a rope to the buck and dragged it to the top of a small mound and then backed up the truck to it. With the tailgate level with the buck, I slid it into the bed. Later, I congratulated myself for that bit of ingenuity. Some hunters opt to use an ATV, but be sure this is allowed, whether you're hunting public or private land.

2. Backpack
This is the most challenging method. Without question, you need to be in good physical condition to carry 70-plus pounds on your back. You'll need to make several trips to get all the meat, either by carrying each load to the road or by "leapfrogging" each piece from one spot to another.

3. Horse
Backcountry hunters often use horses to pack out their animal. You can pay for a guided hunt where the outfitter will transport the animal or you can pay a local packer to assist if you're on a DIY hunt. The cost for this service averages $200. You also can rent or borrow horses from friends. Just be certain they are broke to carry meat. Otherwise, you may have a rodeo on your hands, and someone may be injured considering many horses are terrified at the sight or smell of raw meat.

4. Cart
A wheel is one of the greatest inventions. It's much easier to roll something than it is to carry or drag it. There are a variety of carts designed to carry game—one-wheel and two-wheel options. In my opinion, the two-wheeler is not as efficient unless you're using it on a road or a wide trail because it will hang up on logs, rocks and brush. I opt for a one-wheel cart that will bounce off obstacles. Make sure it has brakes so you can control it when going downhill. Be aware that wheeled devices are strictly prohibited in wilderness areas.

5. Sled
There are two types of sleds—portable and whole. The portable type is usually a piece of lightweight plastic that rolls up, easily accommodated in or on your backpack. The other is the type used by ice anglers. In either case, you must drag the meat-laden sled. This may be challenging, especially in steep terrain, but it offers far less friction than dragging the meat or part of the carcass.

6. Two-Person Log Carry
This method requires two people. Cut a lightweight, sturdy log approximately 8 feet long and about as wide as your arm. Tie the piece of meat in the middle, trussing it securely to ensure it doesn't swing from side to side. Be sure the log is strong enough to handle the weight. When carrying the log, switch shoulders frequently. Also consider placing a shirt, sweater or coat on top of your shoulder to ease the discomfort of the weight.

7. Portable Winch
Made especially to drag logs out of a forest, these lightweight, gasoline-engine-powered devices are easy to carry and can drag your animal long distances. Affix the winch to a distant tree and pull the carcass with a long, sturdy rope. Then attach it to another distant tree and repeat the process until you've reached an area you can access with your vehicle. If you're hunting on public land, check whether regulations permit this system.

8. Vehicle Winch
Some enterprising hunters use a truck winch to pull a carcass to the road. This is often the case in areas that have road access. It's wise to have one person carefully following the animal being dragged in case it snags in brush.

9. Vehicle Tow
Where there's good vehicle access, some hunters carry an extremely long section of wire cable or heavy-duty rope for securing to the carcass. Drive the vehicle slowly until you reach the road. Again, a companion should walk behind the carcass to untangle it if it gets snagged in brush.

Whichever system you use, be sure you have a plan before you squeeze the trigger. I personally know three people who died of heart attacks while attempting to transport elk. Caution and planning is always necessary.

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About the Author
Jim Zumbo is best known as a Western big-game hunter, though he has hunted deer in all 50 states and is an avid turkey, upland game and waterfowl hunter. With two degrees in forestry and wildlife, he has had more than 2,000 articles published in outdoor magazines, written 23 hunting books and conducted numerous hunting seminars nationwide, including for NRA Hunter Services. In addition to serving as a full-time writer/editor for Outdoor Life magazine for 30 years, most of them as hunting editor, he was host of the popular outdoor TV show “Jim Zumbo Outdoors.” A Benefactor member of the NRA, Zumbo has won numerous awards for his writing and remains active with conservation groups, including serving three terms on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s board of directors. For information on his biography, “Zumbo,” released in November 2016, click here.