Elk Down—Now What?

By Jace Bauserman

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downed elk with a rifle laying across it

Elk are addicting, and my infatuation with them is second to none. They are big, regal and inhabit some of the Creator's most magnificent and rugged terrain. As public land hunting has grown in popularity and pressure has increased, the “go-deep” drum has been beaten hard. It’s good advice, but it comes with a caveat all elk hunters must keep in mind. A mature bull can crack the 800-pound mark, and a younger bull will tip the scale between 500 and 600 pounds. Cows are big too. 

When first-time elk hunters are lucky enough to down a bull or cow, the reality of its size sets in. Then comes the realization of how far from the truck they are. I've been with several first-time elk hunters who walk up on an animal and say, "I didn't realize how big they are. What do we do now?" It’s a question we need to answer.

Planning for how you get the meat out of the backcountry and back to your vehicle needs to take place before your hunt. If you're planning to go deep, and I promise you a mile in the mountains is a long way to carry weight, make preparations ahead of time. Here are your options.


I've hauled lots of elk out on my back, and it's a chore, but if you have the right backpack, are in decent physical shape, and have a buddy or two, it's very manageable.

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Terminal Ascent packaging

Regarding pack choice, I like a lightweight frame that allows for the attachment of multiple pack sizes. One of my favorites is the Xcurve Frame from Stone Glacier. It’s lightweight, incredibly adjustable, and will haul a load. 

Place your meat in game bags, and distribute the weight equally among the group. If you have three hunters, you can pack an entire bull (if you first bone the meat out) in one trip. You might have to come back for the headgear and the cape, but my hunting partners and I have often packed a bull—meat, horns and cape—back to the truck in a single trip. Take your time and be sure to take breaks regularly. 

If you must make a return trip, hang the meat in game bags in a tree that's in the shade. North-facing slopes are ideal; they are shaded most of the day, which will help keep the meat cool. 

elk being skinned in the field

Another option, if you're near a small creek, is to build a shelf from branches across the stream and place the meat on the shelf. The meat will stay dry because it's above the water but will stay much cooler. Temperatures near a mountain stream in the timber are often several degrees cooler as you get close to the water.

Hire A Packer

This is a great route, and if you want to save your back and not worry about where you kill a bull or cow, it's great. If you're considering a packer, plan ahead of time.

Start by looking at the websites of guides and outfitters in your area. Most will say on their page if they offer pack services. If you strike out on that route, call a local business that sells hunting licenses and gear—gun and bow shops are great—and ask if they know anyone in the area who offers a packing service. 

Dude ranches are another great option. I've contacted a pair of dude ranches over the years. Neither packed meat for hunting clients, but both recommend local horse/mule guys in the area. I contacted them, and they were willing to work out an agreement. 

Once you get in touch with a packer, provide as much information as possible, and be sure you work out all the logistics. The most significant piece of the puzzle is how to contact them when you need their services. Some will have a satellite phone option, and others will ask you to text them your location via a Garmin inReach device, which is already a must-have item, in my opinion, for any backcountry adventure.

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Next, hit social media. Put a message on Facebook and Instagram asking if anyone knows of or can recommend a horse/mule packing service. You don't have to give away your honey hole. Just use the name of the town closest to your hunting location.

Do Your Part

Whether you plan to haul the meat out yourself or hire a packing service, keep it clean and tidy. Have plenty of sharp knives and quality game bags on hand. I also highly recommend a small tarp or a few emergency blankets—they keep meat off the ground during cleaning.

Remember, the work begins when the animal hits the ground, and you owe it to yourself and the animal to get every ounce of meat off the mountain. Proper planning prevents poor performance. Get after it.