The 10 steps you must take to properly field dress your deer
Congratulations you have killed your first deer, and now you have a lot of delicious lean meat for you to tuck into. However, your job is not done so don’t crack open a beer just yet.
Depending on where and when you are hunting, there will be different rules on if and when you need to tag and report your kill.
You should have checked all these rules out before you set off on the hunt, so you should be familiar with them already.
Whatever you are meant to do, DO IT and do it when you should. The rules are for your own benefit and the benefit of others, plus you don’t want to be fined or banned.
Do all deer need field dressing
In my opinion the answer is no. If you are only an hour or two away from being able to process it yourself or give it to a processor/butcher and you have mild weather conditions, then not field dressing the deer is an option.
The advantages of this are that you have not opened the animal, so there is less chance of something going wrong, or flies getting a chance to lay eggs, and just general damage/issues that can be caused by dirt, debris, and nature.
What is field dressing
Field dressing involves removing the internal organs from the animal.
The internal organs and especially the digestive track holds a lot of heat, you want to remove these sources of heat so that you can keep the temperature of the meat as low as possible while you transport the meat away from the hunt area.
Field dressing helps slow the growth of bacteria and decreases the chances of the meat being spoiled.
This gives you longer to get the animal away from the kill site, back you your truck, and back to where the animal will be processed, as it is likely you will be in a pretty remote area.
How To Field Dress a Deer
Here are your 10 easy steps in field dressing your deer:
Preparation is key so that you can follow the process in order, and in a timely manner. So, before you start make sure you have everything ready. Lay out the equipment you are going to be using like your hunting knife and gut-hook.
Take off anything you might lose or that might cause damage to the meat or increase the chances of injury, things like watches and jewellery.
Some people like to wear latex gloves, which is handy if there is no or limited water source to wash your hands after.
It is not just about equipment though; you need to prepare mentally. If this is your first time, it can be a very daunting thing to do, and I have seen people struggle making that first incision.
So, just relax and calm your mind. Hunting isn’t just the kill it is everything involved, and field dressing is part of that, by field dressing the animal you are paying respect to it as you will be able to eat the meat.
There is no greater waste of life than taking the kill, but then not following the aftercare resulting in the meat going bad.
The entry point and its resulting wound is where the decomposition could be the worst and quickest, so it needs dealing with. If you used a rifle, then see if you can locate the bullet and remove it.
If you have used a bow and arrow, then find the broadhead and remove it. If you cannot find them, then take care in the following steps and keep a look out for them.
The broadheads are especially important to be careful of as they could cause you an injury which could be dangerous for you and delay the field processing time.
Now you need to start the field dressing. First you need to cut a ring around the anus, this is known as a coring ring. You puncture the skin, and go about 2 inches deep, then do this all around the anus until the coring ring is completed.
Your aim here is to release the colon, but do not puncture it. A puncture could spoil the meat and spread disease. Which is the opposite of what you want to do when field dressing a deer.
Once you have released the colon, you now want to position the deer properly before proceeding. Lay it in a position where the belly is facing upwards, and you are on a gentle slope so that the head is higher than the rump.
Then you want to have the hind legs spread, so you have room to work. This is easier if you have a buddy or buddies with you, who can hold the deer in position.
If you are on your own then use things like rocks, tree, branches, rope, and cord to help you keep the deer in the required position.
It is now time for the first main cut. You start just below the testicles of the buck (if it is a male, this is the time you cut out the genitalia) or the milk sac of the doe.
You are basically looking for the bottom of the V shape that is visible between the back legs of the deer.
With one hand you should grab the skin, then just make a one-inch incision, which is deep enough to get past the skin, but not deep enough to damage the entrails and the meat.
With your knife inside the deer, position it so the blade is facing upward towards the neck, you are going to take the knife or gut hook if you have one, and cut all the way up the middle of the animal.
This should be done in one slow, steady, but firm motion. Firstly, you will free the belly from the pelvis bone, then it is a case of tracing along the middle of the ribcage.
You stop at the neck; you do not want to cut into the neck at all as there is some tasty meat up there and it could make it harder for you carrying the deer out of the kill zone.
You have now exposed the inner workings of the animal, and it is time to start working on the innards. Firstly, there is a membrane that is keeping everything together and inside.
It is called the diaphragm and keeps the abs separate from the chest. It can be fiddly, but all of the visible membrane must be cut away and removed, so you have access to the entrails.
You have already freed the bottom of the colon with the coring ring, but the entrails are still attached to the animal via the windpipe. So, you must release the entrails from the windpipe.
Just above the lungs you should be able to see the windpipe, you should be able to grab it and pull it towards you, this will make it easier to cut through. At this point you can remove the liver and heart.
I believe in nose to tail eating, so I do eat the organs. I bag these up in a plastic or cloth bag, so that they do not get dirty and contaminated.
Once you have removed any of the organs you want to eat, you can now basically just pull all the entrails out.
They should all be free and come out together, you can just keep making nicks with your knife to free anything that is still attached to the carcass of the animal.
Generally, you can leave the entrails on the floor where you have field dressed the animal. This will provide food for other animals.
However, in some circumstances the state or landowners may have different rules. You should know these before you go out on your hunt.
I like to keep the cavity open to allow air flow, I do this by wedging it open with a stick. You should then turn the deer over, to allow the blood to drain out of the cavity.
If you have never field dressed before, then don’t worry if you do the field dressing correctly there will be a lot less blood than you think.
You should take care not to get sticks, plants, and dirt in the cavity, but these things can happen. Make sure it is thoroughly cleaned when you get it back to the processing area.
Do not clean it in the hunt area in streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. This might actually increase the chance of contamination.
Best knives for field dressing a deer
A hunting knife for field dressing needs to be sharp, ergonomically designed, robust, and can handle extremes in weather.
There are many options for you to try.
The set up I am currently using is the:
Gerber Myth Field Dress Kit
The smaller knife is ideal for smaller cuts, like when you are doing the coring ring and removing the diaphragm. The bigger knife is great for the bigger cuts and has a gut-hook to really speed up your field dressing workflow.
The rubber grips are excellent in all types of weather, especially the rain and I find that the handle fits comfortably in my hands.
They are also lightweight and barely make a difference to your pack weight. They would be an excellent addition to a bug out bag, or a longer-term survival bag.
I prefer to sharpen my blades regularly, however if that is not something you keep on top of then you will love the sheath that comes with the blades. They have an in-built sharper, so you can sharpen your blades easily on the go.
How to transport a field dressed deer after hunting it
Once the deer is dressed you will likely need to get it to a vehicle, to transport it home or to a processor.
There are some fancy ways of doing this, like Native American techniques where you basically cut the animal in a certain way that enables you to carry it like a backpack.
Some people who want to show off may carry it across their shoulders. However, the method I prefer is a method that has been around since day one… just drag the damn thing! Sometimes the best way is the simplest way.
I tend to tie some cord around the neck or antlers, then wrap the cord around a stick, long enough to not keep whacking the back of my heels with it, but not too long that it becomes hard to steer.
I face forward, have my hands behind my back with the stick in my two hands, then I just start walking.
Every hunt and location is going to favour different methods, just try to make simple and sensible choices.
If your car is 3 miles away, but you can get it to a half mile away, then it will be easier to walk to the car without the deer, drive it closer, then drag it a shorter distance.
You might be nervous about leaving the deer but bring your car closer is often a better idea than dragging a carcass for longer than you need too.
As with most things in life, practise makes perfect. You might make a complete hash of it the first time, but every time you do it your technique will improve and eventually it will become second nature to you.
Ideally when you are in the early stages of your hunting life, you will have an experienced hunter and mentor alongside you. They can show you how to do it and advise you when you attempt field dressing yourself.
I have lost count of the number of deer I have field dressed, and I am looking forward to the time I can pass my knowledge onto my children.