Retrieving Game

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Thank goodness for snow and a downhill pull! Effortlessly tugging the rope, my toboggan slid as though it were self-propelled. Ankle-deep, the powdery white stuff was a blessing. Fortuitous indeed, I'd brought my sled and it's a good thing. Not long before, I'd been hiding in my blind. Overcast skies kept things dark for a few minutes longer than usual. As daylight finally illuminated my surroundings I heard the welcome sounds of a buck grunting in the trees nearby. This would be my last deer hunt of the season. I'd decided to take the first deer that presented a shot. As it turned out, a doe emerged from the trees and stood motionless 75 yards away. Taking careful aim with my .50 cal. T/C I squeezed. A thunderous boom broke the morning silence and the billow of smoke lingered for a few seconds. Then, as I stuffed another sabot down the pipe, the buck emerged from the woods and stood in the same spot. With two tags in my pocket there was no deciding. Playing out the scenario one more time, I was rewarded with not one, but two blackpowder deer for my efforts. With the fun part done, I was then faced with moving 400 pounds of deer to my truck. Relieved that I'd brought my sled, both deer were loaded and easily pulled several hundred yards to my vehicle. Although not the be-all or end-all, the sled made retrieval a piece of cake.

On another hunt, I used a large tarp to slide quarters of a moose over a 300 yard distance to my vehicle. Labor-intensive it was, but again a skiff of snow made that strategy more practical than carrying it on our backs. The bottom line - a little creativity goes a long way when faced with the task of moving hundreds of pounds of meat from point A to point B.

In many respects, today's hunter is spoiled. For most of us, retrieving downed game is not an issue. Our states and provinces are laced with farmland, backroads, and cutlines. In turn, access to the areas we hunt is often straightforward. With emphasis placed on the words "relatively" and "effortless", by comparison hunters in some places are faced with a significantly more complex task when retrieving game. Think about it. While we can often drive right up to a moose or elk with a pick-up or ATV, load it whole and drive away, remote backcountry destinations don't offer the same luxuries. In my own endeavors to hunt bigger critters, over the years, my hunting adventures have taken me into more remote places and special areas where vehicles are prohibited. In turn, I've had to adopt creative methods of retrieving my game. From backpacks to sleds, game carts, using mountain bikes, and more, the options are numerous; all it takes is a little creativity.

Game Carts, a Great Alternative on Flat Dry Ground
As I hunt more places, every once in a while I come across landowners who allow hunting but don't allow me to drive on their land, either with a truck or an ATV. In turn, I'm forced to consider the alternatives. Without snow, and as long as the terrain is relatively flat, the best option is often a game cart. Visit any hunting supply retailer and you're likely to see a variety of options. Alternatively, Bass Pro ( and Cabela's ( ) are great places to turn. Several models are available but let me offer some advice. Not all game carts are created equal. Weight, durability and stability are all key features you'll want to look for if you're in the market for a new cart. I presently own a smaller version of what I'd really like. When I picked up my game cart several years ago, my thought was to keep it compact. In hindsight my emphasis should have been more on stability than size. For the most part, the bigger the wheels, the better. Likewise, a wider wheelbase is more stable than a narrower one. The wheel itself still has to be slender in order to navigate uneven ground and bump over debris. The frame itself must be sturdy and big enough to support the game you're transporting. Game carts designed to fold down for portability in transport are most ideal.

Sleds, a Super Option in the Snow
What about when the snow arrives? Snow can be a blessing or a curse depending on your situation. In many instances, even a thin layer of snow will create a world of opportunity for anyone with a sled. But again, not all sleds are created equal. If you're in the market for a sled, consider similar features. Most importantly make sure it is durable, lightweight, has a tapered bow (front end) to assist in cutting through the snow and navigating logs and other debris, and make sure it's big enough to hold the loads you plan to move. Several years ago I visited a plastics shop and found the ideal sled. It's got 16" sidewalls, it's durable, and it can easily transport two deer or the equivalent. As I spoke with the customer service guy, I learned that the shop had a bunch of seconds, sleds with minor imperfections. In the end, the price was right and I bought four of them. I now use them for all types of hunting and even ice fishing.

Mountain Bikes, a Slick Method for Small Game
More hunters are using mountain bikes to get a further into the woods these days. They're fast, quiet and maneuverable. Likewise, those same mountain bikes are being used to retrieve downed game, particularly for smaller game like deer and pronghorn antelope. While necessity is indeed the mother of invention, hunters across North America implement all kinds of creative strategies for using mountain bikes to retrieve game but the most practical is using or modifying some type of trailer. Historically speaking, Indians rigged a travois that would go around the saddle horn on their horse. In a pinch, that same principle can be applied to the seat post on a mountain bike. If you don't have a bike trailer, you can rig your own travois for your mountain bike. By tying logs together and rigging a triangular shaped trailer of sorts that can be dragged behind the mountain bike, game can be easily removed from the woods. Alternatively, if you've done a little more planning, then a custom-made trailer or perhaps more suitably, a trailer commercially designed to carry small children, can also be used to carry game.

Backpacks and Pack Frames, the Traditional Approach
What about those inevitable backcountry situations where neither a game cart nor a sled are practical? Sometimes we've just got to get down and dirty and haul it out on our back. In these instances, the options are limited. Your goal is to minimize the load and maximize efficiency. Small game like deer are straightforward to deal with. Even if we have to take it out of a steep ravine or through a bunch of timber, deer or other similar-sized game can be taken out whole or cut in half and carried. But what about larger animals like elk of moose? If you've ever killed a moose, you know that moving 1,000 plus pounds is no small task. The best approach is to take a deep breath, strategize, and eventually take it out one piece at a time. I often hunt bighorn sheep or mountain goat in the Rockies and when I do, de-boning and packing the game out is often the only alternative.

Pack horses are a welcome asset, but not always practical nor accessible. When left to my own devices, without letting any meat spoil, the best approach is to skin one half of the animal first, de-bone the carcass quarter by quarter taking extra care to remove all edible meat and load it into game bags and your backpack or on to a pack frame for transport. If you're a sheep hunter, you're well-acquainted with this process. This past fall I was on a caribou hunt in northern Quebec. I watched our Inuk guides do the same thing with our bulls. They simply quartered and carried the meat out on their backs. If you've never done it before, you'd be amazed at how simple this process is. The biggest advantage to this method is that we eliminate the bones almost entirely thus getting rid of a significant portion of the weight and body mass. I used the same strategy on a bull moose last fall as well. In the end, the entire rib cage and bone structure of the torso was left on the spot. I was even able to access and remove the tenderloins.

If you're in the market for a good pack, again, similar considerations apply. Comfort, convenience and durability are the three most important factors. External pack frames are practical in many instances, but I tend to favor the internal frame packs myself. Badlands ( manufactures packs that are second to none. In my ongoing search for the ideal pack, no other company has been able to touch them. In my opinion, they make the most comfortable, strongest and most practical packs available today. On a past hunt, my partner and I took an entire de-boned sheep and head off of a mountain with a Badlands pack - that's over 110 pounds in one load and the pack performed incredibly!

Regardless of where or when you tip over your animal, remember there's always a way to retrieve it. ATVs and 4x4 trucks aren't the only answer.

Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing, waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his outfitting services, visit
Member of OWAA & OWC.


The next big dilemma when you

The next big dilemma when you just shot for yourself is how to carry out on the kill zone. That would not be a problem anymore. Necessity is the mother of all invention. - Garrett Hoelscher

arrowflipper's picture

well written and thoughtful

A very well written and thoughtful piece on packing meat out.  In my years of hunting, I've run the gamut on hauling meat out. 

Where I archery hunted elk for many years, it was in a National Wilderness Area and no vehicles were allowed.  In fact, no wheel was allowed.  I saw one guy have his single wheel cart confiscated and he was given a $100 fine.  Horses are OK and often do more damage than a one-wheel cart would, but those are the laws.  We hunted several miles back in the wilderness and carried every elk out on our backs. 

Where I hunted moose in Alaska, we had the luxury of being able to drive 4-wheelers in and we drove right up beside the three we got.  Boy, did that take a load off.  One area I hunt deer in Washington, I drive a 4-wheeler up to my deer each year and take it in whole.

In another area, it is federal land and no vehicles are permitted.  We do get to use a one or two wheeled cart though.  Without it, three miles of packing a big buck is a very long ways.

Thanks for a well written article on how to pack meat out.  I learned a lot.


hunter25's picture

This was the first year we

This was the first year we finally gave up on dragging animals out for up to a mile or cutting the larger ones up and carrying them out in packs.

Sometimes a pack is still necessary but with the purchase of a new game cart our lives got a whole lot easier. We have used used it many times for antelope already in Wyoming and the thing is priceless.

If hunting alone a cart can make the difference between a couple of ours or a whole day getting the job done.

I'm going to look for a sled like the one in the picture for the snow covered days as I can see that could be even better.

groovy mike's picture

Game carts and atvs, make life easy

Good points Kevin.  Thanks for the article.


I’ve never used a sled to transport game but I have used game carts to haul HEAVY game twice and thought they were worth every penny and more.  Both times it was on federal land where motorized vehicle access is forbidden.  The first time was when I was mule deer hunting on Bureau of Land Management Property in Washington State and the second was when I was moose hunting in Federal Forest in Vermont.


When I took my mule deer we estimated him at 250 lbs on the hoof.  That’s DOUBLE the size of a decent whitetail at home.  My hunting partner walked the three mile round trip to the truck and brought the game cart back as I field dressed the buck.  After he returned we had a moonlit walk of a mile and a half hauling my big muley and I was VERY glad that we had a cart!  In that case itw as dry level land – actually about a mile of federally maintained access road that we hauled the cart down.


When God gave me my moose, the work began!  We brought the bull out in three pieces by separating the hind quarters behind the ribs and the head from the front quarters.  My brand new two wheeled game cart was extremely valuable and worth every penny over the next two hours.  This was NOT level land.  It was steeply sloped but thank God the moose hauling was down hill!


A gorgeous sunset lit the sky red as we struggled to wheel the moose down the ridge and toward the road.  We managed to load the hind quarters in the truck before returning with the cart for the larger second piece.  Already near exhaustion from field dressing the moose and getting the back half of him into the truck, John and I then returned to the moose and brought the second massive chunk to the truck.  We were standing in the darkness contemplating how on earth we could lift, roll, or slide the several hundred pounds of front shoulder and ribs up to the tail gate when a truck with four hunters pulled out of the darkness of the dead end road and offered to help.  There was no way we could have lifted it on the truck without help, et alone transport it to the truck without using the gander Mountain game cart.


Then there are ATVs!  That is what really makes game hauling a breeze.  Last year My friend Gene’s 4 wheeler came in very handy  We drove right to the deer, loaded him and brought him home.  It was the easiest ‘drag’ I ever had!  That experience and the labor saving the ATV demonstrated snaking logs out of the woods convinced me to buy one for myself this year.



I used my four wheeler to haul two deer out of the woods this fall.  The five point (2x3) buck and probably the heaviest white tail I have ever taken.  I don’t have a scale to weigh him on but I could only drag him about 10 yards at a time and my son and I together couldn’t lift him on the four wheeler.  My wife says its because I’m getting old – but I’m guessing he was at or over two hundred pounds on the hoof.  It would have been a long slow drag without the ATV, so I was very glad to have it.



groovy mike's picture


duplicate post

Advice well taken

I should use your advice.  Lucky, so far I havent been in a predicament where I had to rely on a wheel barrel or something to recover the deer. But I know the day will come.  My wife did buy me a deer sled for just that momment.  So far I have been lucky, thank God. 

Flint J's picture

Game retrieval

Good information. A few years ago we used a wheelbarrow to retrieve a moose in an area where no motorized vehcles were allowed. I looked a little funny but it was better than packing the quarters on our backs.

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