A Beginners’ Guide to Backcountry Hunting

Introduction

Heading out into the wild with the intention of hunting a whitetail, elk, mule deer, or even a bear, to fill your freezer with clean organic meat and sustain your family for the remainder of the year may sound idyllic, but it is not that simple. Hopefully, this guide to backcountry hunting will help, especially when it comes to the prey we are mostly looking for, and our primary reason for hunting—food.

The notion of fully understanding and being truly involved in where your food comes from is becoming increasingly popular, and the majority of people are beginning to feel a sense of responsibility in this regard.

There are many facets when it comes to hunting, from governmental rules and regulations to equipment, hunting methods, and the different species available to hunt. Being self-sufficient through hunting is a great way of living but there are restrictions and there is certainly a right and a wrong way of doing things.

Thankfully this guide will break down and simplify the entire process of hunting for food in 2022 and hopefully give you all the insight you need to get started and become self-sufficient.


Which Species Available To North American Hunters?

Before we dive into issues of equipment and best practices, let’s first highlight which game species are available to hunters and which of those make the best table fare.

Whitetail

By far the most common and popular species amongst meat hunters. The whitetail occurs throughout the entire US, north to south, and from public land to private land (which is another topic we will discuss later).

Often categorized as medium-sized game, the whitetail is often the first animal a new hunter will target. The male whitetail, known as “buck,” is easily distinguishable from the females by their antlers and larger body size. 

Both male and female Whitetail are suitable for eating but regulations as to when each can be hunted is specific to certain seasons and State game regulations.

A mature Whitetail buck should weigh from 150 to 200 pounds depending on region and achieve an average dressing percentage of 70%. Dressing percentage means the removal of internal organs, skin, legs and head, leaving just the carcass. Therefore, a buck weighing in at a solid 170-pounds will have a carcass weight of 120 pounds. But that does not mean you get 120 pounds of meat, there is still the actual meat processing to come, and we go in depth on that later.

In terms of taste, whitetail and most deer species, for that matter, vary from region to region, and this is because the flavor of the meat is determined to a large extent by the diet of the animal. Descriptions range from like beef to a heavy game taste with an almost sour aroma. It really depends on the area, personal preference, and how the venison is prepared.

Elk

A freezer filler for sure, the Elk is a chunky animal giving up a lot of meat. Mature bulls can weigh anything from 700 to 950 pounds, that is a lot of meat to process and is enough to keep a family of four well fed for an entire year. 

Be sure to have either a good group of hunting buddies happy to help you pack out this big beast or a truck close by because you will need it when going after Elk.

Hunting an Elk is high up on every hunter’s species list. They tick all the boxes that meat hunters are looking for, a large animal, that occurs in beautiful surroundings, a challenging hunt, good eating, and has a high dressing out percentage, not to mention they make for an incredibly impressive mount for those hunters wanting to preserve the memory of that hunt.

Elk is certainly one of the healthiest and leanest red meats available to hunters. Low in cholesterol and as organic as you can find. The taste is similar to beef, but some would say a touch sweeter.

Mule Deer

Not as common as the Elk or Whitetail yet the Mule deer offers the hunter a real challenge and sense of great achievement when successfully hunted. Slightly larger in body than a Whitetail and smaller than an Elk, the Mule deer is the perfect medium sized animal for those hunters looking to stock up enough venison in their freezers for only a couple months before the urge and excuse to go hunting again comes around. 

Like the Whitetail, the region, age, and diet of the Mule deer will affect the overall taste of the animal. Many hunters swear by taking only does or young bucks for meat because the older matured bucks have a mustier taste, and the meat is not as tender. It must be said though that Mule deer bucks hunted during peak rut season will have a strong odor to them which will have an impact on the flavor of the meat.

Pronghorn Antelope

If ever there was a physical definition of fast food, then this unique animal would be it. The Pronghorn is the fastest land mammal on the Western Hemisphere, with running speeds of up to 55 mph. A small to medium sized animal with males weighing between 90 and 120 pounds. 

Unlike the Whitetail, Elk and Mule deer, the Pronghorn does not have antlers but rather horns that are permanent. The females lack these horns making them easily distinguishable from the males.

The meat from the Pronghorn is mild-tasting and finely grained with a third the calories of beef. Pronghorn venison is very accepting of spices and marinades and hence care should be taken not to overpower the flavor of the meat.

Moose

There isn’t any deer or antelope larger than a mature Moose and this incredible animal will do more than fill your freezer, it will most likely fill your hunting buddies’ freezers to. Reserved to the Northern States and as far up as Alaska, the Moose is a special hunt, and an animal of this size requires not only experience but the correct equipment from start to finish. You wouldn’t want to be caught out in the wilds of Alaska with a downed Moose and no way of getting it out of there.

It weighs the same as some cattle, the meat is a similar color to beef and to tell the difference in flavor would be difficult, but one thing Moose meat has over beef is that it is extremely healthy being virtually fat-free with only one gram of fat per serving and less than half of that gram is saturated fat.

Bison

If big steaks are your thing, then a Bison is the animal for you. But be warned, you will need a lot of freezer space for these gigantic animals.

Hunting them requires weaponry that packs a punch and a rifle caliber of a .375 and higher is recommended. For a bow, you will need specific tuning and a selection of arrows that are heavy enough and fast enough to penetrate through the thick hide and that solid muscle of a mature Bison.

Bison are becoming increasingly available on more and more ranches throughout the mid-west making them a little more affordable and accessible to the everyday hunter. Private ranches that have Bison on them would more than likely have the correct facilities and equipment to handle the large carcass, so it makes sense to discuss the logistics post-hunt with the property owner or outfitter.

Caribou

For those hunters living in the lower 48, hunting Caribou would not be a common occurrence. Think of it as an adventure of a lifetime with the added bonus of bringing home some unique venison that you can share with family and friends.

Your biggest concern with hunting Caribou for meat, or any animal far from home for that matter, would be the storage and transportation of the meat for the long trip back home. Make sure to do your research and have the necessary resources available such as coolers, dry ice, and freezer bags. The added effort and hassle of bringing Caribou meat home will be well worth it, as the meat is likened to finely grained veal with mild flavors.

Some insider knowledge with regards to hunting Caribou for meat is to try and harvest them outside of the rut which generally runs from mid-September through to mid-October. 

Bear

Bear may not be the first animal that comes to mind when someone mentions venison or wild game meat, but the truth is many people do hunt Bears for food and will gladly choose it over Whitetail or Elk.

Described by some as “sweet beef” the flavor of Bear meat will vary between the black and brown bear sub-species. One important factor that needs to be highlighted is because Bears are omnivorous it is not recommended to eat raw meat or under cooked meat from a Bear. For this reason, many Bear recipes suggest preparing Bear meat in stews, chilis, slow cooked roasts or well-cooked sausage.

Turkey

Who doesn’t enjoy Turkey? Christmas, Thanksgiving or just a big roast over the weekend. This big bird is high up on the preference list of hunters and just because it is a big bird does not mean it is any easier to hunt. If you want to hunt them correctly then you will have to learn how to speak their language. Calling in a bearded tom to within 20-yards while it gobbles, and parades is a cool experience.

Hogs

There is no shortage of these tough critters in the US, and although they are viewed as complete vermin by many down in Texas they still can’t be overlooked as a good source of protein. 

Is it pork or closer to beef? While that question is up for big discussion, the one answer that comes from it, is that the hog is extremely versatile in what it offers. Chops, roasts, ribs, cured hams, smoked cuts, bacon, trimmings for chili, and sausages can all be created from a quality hog.

With numbers in excess and the naturally destructive habits of these animals, young hogs and sows should not be overlooked when wanting to shoot one for food. Large boars will most certainly have a soar taint to them and will not produce the best tasting meat no matter how long you cook it. 

Looking to do a full hog, slow roasted over a BBQ fire for a family gathering? Then a juvenile hog will be the size to target. The ratio of meat to fat will be ideal and should provide more than enough for a gathering of 20 to 30 people.

Sheep and Goat Species

The sheep and goat species, such as the Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goat, Dall Sheep, and Stone Sheep, are generally reserved or rather viewed as trophy species as opposed to general meat hunting species. That isn’t to say they are not edible. Quite the contrary, if handled and cooked correctly, they can be delicious. However, the rugged nature of where they occur, the rarity of drawing a tag, and general trophy prices have pushed them outside the limits of your everyday meat hunter.

Should you be fortunate enough to draw a tag or have the means to hunt anyone one of these incredible animals, chances are you will be targeting a mature male past their prime. If this is the case, it would be helpful to read up on how to best handle the meat, which cuts are less desirable in older rams and what are the best cooking practices for wild sheep. There may be a lot of aging the carcass and soaking of cuts in various marinades to get the desired taste and textures.

Smaller Game and Birds

Let’s not forgot that hunting for food is not only reserved for the medium to large game species, although they do provide more sustenance but there are also many out there who live happily off the smaller creatures.

Rabbits, hares, beavers, squirrels, prairie dogs, quails, pheasants, doves, and ducks are all edible and should be considered by those hunters who would like to remain strictly self-sufficient but also would like a variety of meat in their diet.

The real advantage of focusing on the smaller animals is the sheer variety in flavors, smells, and recipes you can experience, not to mention hunting methods. Take the time to experiment and learn from others along the way on how to get the best quality flavors from small game. Many of the older generational hunters grew up in households where these tiny animals were staples in their everyday meals and the skills and knowledge of how to prepare them should not be lost.


What’s Needed for the Hunt?

More than likely your choice in which animal to target for a food source is largely determined by what is found closest to your home. Be it Whitetail, Elk, Pronghorn or Bear. You have read up on each animal and made your decision. Now the question of what exactly do you need in order to hunt that animal?

Rifle

Not all animals are created equal, and neither are the firearms required to hunt them. Your choice in rifle and the associated caliber will be largely determined by which animal you intend on hunting the most and the conditions under which those hunts will take place.

There are two primary goals of a meat hunter. 

  1. The first is to ensure the animal is killed in the quickest and most ethical way, studies show that wounded animals or those that produce excessive adrenaline have a negative effect on meat quality. 
  2. The second is to recover the highest amount of meat possible from the animal. That means choosing a rifle that is accurate in hitting the animal’s kill zone at a distance that the hunter is comfortable shooting at, without causing excessive damage to the carcass. If you are getting groupings of 2-inches at 100 yards with your .243 consistently and your aim is to shoot a whitetail from a blind overlooking a feed plot, then you are good to go.

For waterfowl (such as ducks and geese), doves, pheasants, grouse, and turkeys you would use a shotgun, either a 12-Gauge or 20-Gauge, depending on your preferences and capabilities.

For small game such as hares, rabbits, squirrels, prairie dogs and beavers a .17 Winchester or .22LR may be your caliber of choice, or possibly even an air gun. It wouldn’t make much sense to use a high caliber rifle on these categories of animals as there would be too much meat damage after the shot. Generally, the smaller game species are trapped as opposed to shot, for this very reason.

Medium sized game has a wider variety of calibers you could choose from. Ranging from a .222 Remington to a .338 Lapua and equally suitable calibers in between such as the .243, .270, 7mm, .30-06, and .300-Win Mag.

Each caliber is very specific and performs differently from the next, as shown in their ballistics charts. You would need to do considerable research into what it is you are wanting to achieve with your rifle before deciding on a caliber and within your final choice of caliber would be deciding on which weight (grain) of bullet is best.

Let’s take the .300 Win Mag as an example, as it is a popular choice amongst hunters. The .300 Win Mag as a caliber is capable of successfully hunting anything from a Whitetail up to an Elk, but with a range of bullet weights from 150-grain up to a self-loaded 250-grain, not every .300 Win Mag bullet may be the best choice. A 250-grain bullet may be excessive and too heavy for a Whitetail causing significant meat damage to the carcass, whereas on an Elk that additional weight and added ballistics is just the right amount to reach the animal standing 350-yards away while still holding enough kinetic energy and velocity to achieve deep penetration.

Another example, if Elk is your animal of choice and you want to hunt a mature bull once a year in the hills of Montana, then you will need to choose a rifle caliber that can deliver strong ballistics at distances of 300 to 400 yards with very little bullet drop. Therefore, you would be looking at something like a .338 Lapua. If you are hunting for Whitetail from a blind overlooking a corn feeder and the max distance you will be shooting is 120 yards, then a .243 Winchester is ideal. 

Bow

Meat hunting is not only reserved for gun hunters. The technology of bows has come a long way over the decades and their capabilities of bringing down game are impressive. Although the method of hunting with a bow can be vastly different from that of a rifle, the aim remains the same. Killing the animal effectively, ethically, and with minimal meat damage.

As with rifles, you will need to have the correct bow and arrows that meet the requirements of the animal you will be hunting. From poundage to arrow weights, and broadheads it all counts when it comes to bow hunting. The best piece of advice would be to discuss the various aspects of bow hunting with those hunters that have been doing it for many years. Get advice from bow shop owners, fellow hunters, join bow clubs and partake in 3D shooting competitions to get a better understanding of what type of bow you will need.

It is no secret that the success rate with a bow is considerably less than with a rifle and for the simple fact that a rifle provides the hunter with distance and power. Animals 80 yards and out are too far to be ethically and effectively hunted with a bow. Whilst any animal within a 600-yard radius (of course depending on the proficiency of the hunter and capability of the caliber) is well within reach of a rifle.

If time is of the essence and you need that meat in the fridge as soon as possible, then hunt with a rifle. But if you are wanting a real hunting challenge and that sense of truly earning your food, pick up a bow and head on out there.

Optics

Good quality optics are invaluable for hunting, whether they come in the form of binoculars, rifle scopes, range finders or spotting scopes, optics are a piece of equipment no hunter should be without in the field.

You can’t hunt your quarry if you can’t find it and when you do, it helps to tell if the animal you are looking at is the one you intend on hunting. With the naked eye a Whitetail buck at 250 yards looks to be like any other buck, but with good optics you can easily identify it as a young buck with a good set of antlers. Impressive yes, but not the old 10-point you were looking for that your trail camera picked up 3 days before the opening of hunting season. 

Having just that additional piece of information will save you time and effort in putting a stalk on the animal only to find out later that it isn’t the intended target. Although the wounding of an animal is never something a hunter wants to do or experience, it does sadly happen and having a good pair of binoculars or spotting scope will assist you greatly in glassing over an area looking for the wounded animal or even having a closer look into a herd to see if the wounded one is in the mix.

Clothing

It’s not just camo styled clothing you will need when going hunting, there is more to it than simply trying to blend in. Your comfort needs to be at the core of your decision-making process when choosing the correct clothing for your hunting exploits. If hiking long distances through rocky terrain is part of the adventure, then be sure to invest in good boots that hold your feet snug while offering enough protection and stability to your ankles.

Rain, snow, sun, and strong winds are all part of the experience when you are out in the woods and you’re going to need the correct clothing to handle those conditions. Hiking three, four or even five miles in sopping wet clothing is not fun by any means.

Knives and Bags

There isn’t much point in hunting for food if you can’t cut it up and process it correctly. A sharp quality knife is invaluable when the animal is down on the ground and the work of processing it begins, not to mention the endless list of other uses a knife can provide.

One knife won’t be enough, and you will need various knives to perform different tasks. A short, angled skinning knife for removing the cape of the animal partnered with a longer thinner deboning knife for instance.

Apart from having a set of knives, there are a few other handy items to bring with on the hunt:

  • A ground sheet, to keep the carcass clean of dirt while you cut it up and process it
  • Ropes with a pulley
  • Meat bags  
  • Five gallons of clean water
  • Latex gloves

Specialist Equipment

Hunting for your food is not as simple and certainly not as boring as heading down to the local grocery store and picking out a piece of meat. It’s an adventure, an opportunity to get outdoors, learn new things, form bonds with fellow hunters or family members and really create a strong connection with the where and how of being self-sufficient.

Heading miles into the backcountry on horseback, loading up the tents and camping equipment for a weeklong hunt, putting up trail cameras to see what is out there and learn the different habits of each species, or climbing into an ATV and heading over to a deep valley that you just know is teeming with big bucks.

Specialist equipment can help you in your hunt, it can take you places where others can’t go or even something simple like having an electronic cooler in the back of the truck will help preserve the meat once hunted. When you have your basic equipment such as rifle or bow, clothing, optics, and knives all sorted out, then start looking at what types of specialist equipment could aid you in your hunt.


Hunting Rules and Regulations

Unlike a grocery store, you can’t just head out anytime and grab the food you want. Hunting is well regulated and for good reason, it is a natural resource that needs to be managed accordingly for the benefit of everyone and future generations.

Hunting seasons vary from State to State and within those seasons there is a bow season, a rifle season, and a black powder season. Just because it is officially hunting season and you have a rifle at the ready, doesn’t mean you can head out and start shooting. It is your responsibility to first educate yourself about the regulations of your county and state. Make sure you know the answers to the following questions before heading out:

  1. Are there licenses that need to be purchased? 
  2. Do you have to enter a lottery and wait for a tag to get drawn?
  3. Are you as a legal resident entitled to hunt a certain number of animals?
  4. What are the legal hunting times?
  5. What date does bow season officially end and rifle season begin?
  6. Is the feeding or baiting of game allowed?
  7. Are there restrictions on calibers or bow poundage for certain species?

If you can hunt on private land, behind a high fence, then the rules and regulations may be slightly different. In states such as Texas, where the exotic game is plentiful and very tasty, chances are the hunt will take place behind a high fence.

With private land hunting it is more a case of, if you want it, you can pay for it and have it. Now that’s not to say the hunt is any easier, it’s simply a matter of paying the landowner or hunting outfitter for specific animals. 

A private land hunt is more expensive than hunting public land, but your chances of success are greater, and it often comes with added benefits such as having the correct equipment already supplied to you, the guide who will skin out and process the animal for you after the hunt, and even a cozy lodge to rest up at the end of the day.


Basics of Hunting

The beauty of hunting is that it is open to everyone and there are many ways to go about it.

Sitting high up in a tree stand or having a blind setup near a feeding plot is a great start to hunting. The advantage of hunting from a blind is that it allows the hunter ample time to get correctly set up for the shot. Ranging your distances and getting the rifle set up on a steady platform to ensure the best shot. 

The ability to call in your game whether it be through a mouthpiece, rattling antlers together, or even using a scent strategically on the wind, will again be a huge advantage in ensuring you will be in the best possible position for the shot.

Then there are the hunters that prefer the long stalk, the hours of glassing, and the crawling through the open grasslands to get within range. 

It is all part of the hunting experience. However, there remain the basics of hunting that every hunter needs to follow in order to be successful:

  • Each of the animals mentioned has a keen sense of smell, eyesight, and hearing. While hunting you need to be aware of your scent through wind direction, the noise you create while stalking, and remaining unseen through slow movements or having the correct clothing.
  • Hunting is something that should never be taken for granted and as a hunter, you have a duty to ensure the animal you are targeting does not endure any unnecessary pain. If wounded, you must do all you can to retrieve the animal.
  • Safety should always be a priority.
  • Be prepared. Do your research before venturing out, learn about the animal you are wanting to hunt, the area and terrain it lives in and the conditions you may encounter. The better prepared you are the more adaptable you can be should the unexpected arise.
  • Shot placement. Obviously, to retrieve the maximum amount of meat from the animal a well-placed shot to the head would do the trick. However, to hit such a small target in comparison to the larger kill zone of the shoulder area, should only be done by experienced hunters, who are confident in their capabilities and have extensively tested their rifle and ammunition to hit a target that small on a consistent basis. Under no circumstances should a head shot be taken on any animal using a bow or caliber that is too small. The correct shot placement should be where the heart and lungs of the animal are located.


Post Hunt Practices

Congratulations, you got your animal. Now what? Well, if your number one objective was to hunt the animal for food then now begins the most important part of that process. To make things easier we will break up the post-hunt procedure into steps.

  1. Cool it. The minute an animal is killed the process of decomposition begins and it is up to you to slow down that process by a significant amount of time, in order to save the meat from spoiling. Heat will be your biggest adversary and the main objective is to keep the animal’s carcass always cool. Most hunting seasons occur within the Winter months, which is great as the cold outside temperatures will be of assistance. If perhaps it happens to be a usually warm day, then you can keep the animal cool by dragging it into a shaded spot while you retrieve your truck, ATV or pack horses.
  2. Gut it. The internal organs, especially the stomach, need to be removed from the animal as soon as possible. By opening the animal and removing the organs you are also allowing body heat to escape which will rapidly cool the carcass down. Take care when extracting the stomach and intestines, making sure not to break them and contaminate the meat with digestive fluids which are acidic and can spoil the meat.
  3. Skin it. It is easier to remove the internal organs and skin with the animal hanging from a tree or hoisted in a gutting shed. The added benefit of hanging the animal is that excess blood and fluids will drain from the carcass. This may not be possible with larger animals such as Elk and Moose out in the field, so the skinning process will need to be completed on the ground. A suggestion would be to make use of a ground sheet or tarp, to keep the animal clean from dirt and bacteria.
  4. Clean it. Now the skin and internal organs have been removed, the carcass can be washed down with clean drinkable water. Use the water to remove blood, dirt, grass, foreign material, possible digestive juices and meat damaged from the bullet impact.
  5. Hang it. If possible, an animal carcass should hang for a minimum of 3 days at temperatures of 40’F. After this you either process the meat yourself or have a qualified meat processor do it for you.

Make sure you register or rather notify all relevant authorities and landowners about your kill. This will be a mandatory requirement if you hunted an animal on public land with a drawn tag or an over-the-counter license. 


Carcass Handling, Meat Processing, and Trophy Handling

There is of course the trophy side of hunting, every animal is to be cherished from the does and spikers, all the way up to the big bucks achieving record book status. For you to preserve the animal’s skin (cape) in such a way that it can be used by a taxidermist to create a mount, it should be handled in a similar way, with a few additional steps, to the carcass in order to keep it fresh.

There are two main options available to a hunter that wishes to have their animal preserved in a mount.

  • Deliver the entire animal to a taxidermist/meat processor. If your hunting grounds happen to be closer to a town with a taxidermist that can do meat processing, you can arrange for the animal hunted to be delivered there for complete processing. Keep in mind the animal will still need to be cooled and gutted out in the field, this is an important part of the process, so it is essential one learns the basics of gutting an animal before venturing out hunting.
  • Experienced hunters or those that prefer to process their own meat but may not have the skills or time to do their own taxidermy will often remove the cape from the animal with the head on and freeze it. Freezing the cape prevents decomposition and stops the hair from falling out. When the hunter is ready, they can then take the frozen cape to the taxidermist who will finish the product off into a beautiful mount. It is important to note that when removing the skin of an animal you intend to have mounted, you make certain cuts to do so. Discuss this with your taxidermist beforehand and have them explain to you exactly where you should cut to remove the skin, without it affecting the quality of the mount.

Take the time to remove any muscle tissue that was damaged by the impact of the bullet or arrow during hunting. This can usually be done just after you have gutted and skinned the animal. A sharp knife will come in handy here as not all the meat will need to be cut away but at the same time fragments of bone may also need to be removed.

There are many video tutorials and articles on just how to butcher an animal correctly, however, it remains a skilled craft and will seem altogether different from what you saw on YouTube when faced with a giant chunk of meat, bone and cartilage hanging in front of you. For those relatively new to hunting and especially meat processing, it is highly recommended to rather have a professional process your meat and then have them show you where the different cuts are to be found on the carcass.

You will need to decide beforehand what cuts of meats or final products you are wanting, such as tenderloins for throwing over an open fire, enough pieces to make jerky for family and friends, burger patties for the kids or a leg roast to slow cook during those special holidays.

If you are wanting a wide variety of meat products from your animal, then you will need specific pieces of equipment.

Sausages and patties will mean needing a grinder, mincer, patty press, and sausage maker with the desired casings. For jerky one will need the spices, salts, and drying racks. Hence, if you are not willing to spend money on purchasing this equipment because you may only shoot one animal a year, then it is best to have the carcass handled by a professional.

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