How to Pack Out an Elk: The Complete Guide to Becoming a Human Pack Horse
I have done my share of packing, as an elk guide it is the whole crux of the job. I have honestly lost count of the number of elk I have packed out. I have used about every method know to man and while horses and mules are an awesome way to get game out of the mountains, they are not always feasible for hunters to own. The vast majority of elk hunters take meat out on their backs or by man power. For those that carry the weight this article is for you.
Now while no elk pack outs are “easy” there are tactics that can make the pack out easier on you. There are ways to carry more weight and feel less strain as well as methods that make the pack-out smoother both mentally and physically. This article is specifically targeted to hunters that may not have a lot of help packing out an animal. Although these tactics won’t carry the elk out for you, they are lessons I have learned from packing a ton of elk meat primarily on my own. They have kept me injury free and allowed me to relish the challenge no matter the level of difficulty.
Pack choice and adjustment
Let’s face it… packing out is tough work, and anytime you are lugging around a heavy pack it is uncomfortable, but there are some simple things to make it is as comfortable as possible. For carrying a heavy load, pack choice is the first and really the most important step. I have tried a lot of packs and I have gotten rid of a lot of packs, because for me, I want a pack that can do work and comfortably haul weight. If it can’t work as hard as I want, it gets retired. That being said, for packing out animals you want a pack with a good frame that is designed to carry 100+ pounds.
There are two different versions of frame packs, internal and external. These really boil down to personal preference. I use both and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Both can be constructed to haul weight, but how they distribute the weight and how they should be loaded can be different. I will say that in my opinion a frame pack is generally better for hauling heavy loads, but there are some great internal frames that can be put to the test. I really want to focus more on the how of the pack in this article, not which specific pack to choose. This is because no matter which specific brand of pack you choose; the most important thing is going to boil down to the overall fit.
I am always surprised at how many pack companies come out with a pack that is not adjustable to fit your torso, or how many hunters have a pack that is adjustable, but don’t know or have not taken the time to fit it properly. An improper fit on a pack is the same as boots that don’t fit, and can often be worse. It can hinder movement, misplace weight to the wrong spot, be inefficient, and even make it harder to hike. One time I wore a pack that was too long in the torso, I could not figure out why I was so tired hiking. After undoing the waist belt I realized that hiking was much easier. What happened was my legs and hip flexors were actually working against the pack. Just by having an improper fit, it made me work harder and tire out quicker.
When fitting a pack, the pack should not be on your waist but should sit on your hips. If you were to put your hands on your hips with your thumbs back you would be on your iliac crest. This forms a shelf above your waist near the top of the hip bones where the pack should rest and bear the weight.
Your pelvis is designed as the weight bearer for your upper body, so you want to have a pack that fits your torso and does not sit too high or too low. When fit properly the waist belt should come around the front and be centered along the two points of the pelvic bones.
The key to the pack out is good weight distribution for the type of pack you are using and terrain you are in. It is a game of loading the pack to make the same amount of weight feel lighter and ride easier. Weight distribution focuses around the felt weight not the actual weight. The easier you make it for yourself the more you can carry per tip and avoid fatigue. The intention is to place as much of the weight on your hips as possible.
In general when packing any heavy pack, the best way to distribute weight is to place heavy items closest to your back near your shoulder blades. Mid weight items should be higher in the pack and more central. The lighter gear goes to the outside and bottom.
The optimal weight distribution varies from internal and external packs. With an internal pack you want the heaviest piece of meat centered high between your shoulder blades and tight against your body. The bonus to an internal frame is that you can lower your center of gravity and be more stable with the weight slightly lower on your back.
When packing an internal frame, I will generally put a hind quarter heavy haunch side down in the pack with a jacket or lighter items I won’t need at the bottom to keep the weight just a litter higher. If I am carrying two quarters I will then put the front quarter in on top with the heavier shoulder side of the leg up. For an external frame pack I load it opposite. The heaviest stuff should be at the top of the pack and close against your back, this will help you put more of that weight on your hips and stand up straighter. For a hind quarter I will often load it with the heavy haunch up and the leg down. This can be kind of tricky because you don’t want it above your head. You can do this by cutting the tendons at the knee so it slides down the pack farther. If I am carrying both a front and back quarter I will load the front shoulder with the shoulder down and the hind quarter with the heavy part up. This is the most optimal way to maintain stability and put weight into the hips. Just make sure that you feel stable and not too top heavy. If the pack feels top heavy then you may have to put the hind quarter heavy side down.
I originally got the idea to load the hind quarter heavy side up from a professional mountaineer who did not know much about hunting but did know a lot about packing a heavy pack. I have noticed that with the right bag you can keep the weight centered a little higher in the shoulders this way and avoid the heavy drop in the bottom of the pack
Most good packs come with a load lifter. These are the straps at the top of the shoulder straps. They are designed to help balance the weight to your hips. It is used to pull the pack closer to your body up high, in turn putting more weight into the hips by tilting the pack forward.
On your feet
The hardest part about a really heavy pack is getting off the ground. Once you are on your feet the weight is displaced correctly and the pack is doing its job. This may seem like common sense, but there is a proper way to get off the ground. I have seen enough people try so many improper variations I have to mention it.
Just like lifting anything heavy, lift with your legs! I see most the problem when people need help up. Extending your arm to help someone with a heavy load can hurt more than it helps. This puts undue strain not only on the person needing assistance but the person helping. Many people also pick the pack up then put it to their knee and twist into the straps. While both these are fine up to a certain amount of weight, anything over 70 lbs can tweak the body, and does not use great form. I truly believe that most hunters can carry more weight than they think, but most people strain getting up or into the pack wrong. Simple improper lifts don’t affect you right away it is a few hours into the trip when things start to really hurt.
The right way is to start with the pack on the ground and feet downhill. You will buckle into the pack and tighten all the straps while seated before the next step. You will then roll over to your knees and all fours with the pack on your back. From here you can now engage your quads and stand with the power of your legs. This puts less tension or twisting in the back and joints, and lets you stand up using the strongest muscles available. If you need assistance from someone else this method allows someone to help you up by assisting in lifting the pack as you turn over. It also allows the person assisting you to use their legs to prevent injury. With this method of getting up, a fit individual could reasonable safely stand with their body weight or more in the pack. A hiking stick is a great way to assist in standing in this position allowing you support and provide stability to get to your feet with relative ease.
The key to carrying weight is to efficiently use the muscles you have for the longest time possible and eliminate unnecessary work so you can carry more for a longer period of time. A tool as simple as a hiking stick, either found or manufactured, can aide greatly in this.
The function of the hiking stick is twofold. First it aids in stabilization, which means you can use non-essential lifting muscles like your arms, to provide more relief to your back, core, and legs. Second it reduces the felt weight on your back and the amount of exerted force on your knees by up to 25%, according to some studies.
Although there is an increase in energy expenditure incorporating your arms into the process by adding the hiking sticks. The decrease in leg stress and displacement of weight on the back means huge gains when you are hauling a heavy pack full of elk meat. Just by adding a pole or two during the pack out, you are able to carry more weight easier, safer, and faster. In turn you will tire less quickly making the hard task better in the long run.
Floppy pack syndrome
There is no quicker way to get wore out than a pack with shifting weight. The reason is the muscles used in stabilization are working overtime. Once these muscles get fatigued, the whole process becomes more difficult. To counter act this, once you have the meat in the pack, cinch down every strap available on the bag.
Not all loads pack the same, it never hurts to have a few extra webbing straps (inch wide straps 4 to 6 feet in length with buckle at the end, easily found at REI or sporting good stores). These are especially useful when it comes to securing the antlers. Adding the antlers to the pack can cause weight shifting. a few external straps that you can attach to wherever you wish can make a word of difference.
The Multi-Point Pack Method
Would you rather take fewer trips with more weight, or more trips with less weight? I call this the grocery bag dilemma. Think of it like this, you pull up to the house with a car full of groceries, do you A.) grab a few bags per hand or B.) load as many bags as you can all the way up your arms to prevent having to go back out? If you answered B you are in good company. Often the thought of just overloading and bearing it all in one trip mentally is the better option, but in actuality it can be punishing and sometimes slower depending on your physical shape. I opt to carry fewer heavier packs, but this is not possible for all hunters, and sometimes not practical for anyone. The balance comes with the distance to your destination and the amount you can physically bear.
Some trips are just too far and physically too difficult to reduce the number of trips. However, the multi-point method can be easier mentally and allow you to carry less weight per trip. This method also works well because it allows what I like to call moving rest periods. These are the unweighted hikes in between loaded trips. This packing strategy allows you to make multiple trips but not the whole distance at once.
For the multi-point, start by packing the first load and break the trip into multiple manageable drop points. You will carry your first load to the first drop point, then hike back to get the next load and so on. You will do this all the way back to the end point, carrying in stages. This breaks the work into more manageable sections and allows you time in between carries without weight. For extreme distances or when I am hunting alone I use this tactic often.
On a recent elk hunt in Alaska, my brother and I used this method to carry over 700 lbs. for miles with extreme amounts of elevation gain. The trek involved both uphill and downhill over a mountain range. Getting the meat closer to the destination this way was the best method both mentally, and time wise. It allowed us to maximize our hiking time with periods of moving rest as we hiked back to the point for the next load.
The Hind Quarter Drag
Putting this tactic in here is somewhat ironic for me because my number one rule is don’t drag anything. Dragging is a very inefficient way to move a lot of weight and puts strain on the body. That being said, there is an exception to the rule. In a few instances dragging can be effective and I have even used this tactic to pack out a whole elk in one trip. That might sound impossible but I have done it numerous times when the situation is right.
The scenario is mandated that there must be snow on the ground, and the majority of the trip should be at least a slight downhill (for the uphill portions I will use the multi-point method and ferry the elk).
For the hind quarter drag, start by removing the hind quarter from the elk with the hair left on. The hair will protect the meat from dirt and allow it to easily slide along the snow covered ground.
Once I have the quarters removed I will attach paracord to the end of the foot. I have found it best to leave the foot attached for a few reasons. It can be easier to keep the foot slightly off the ground while dragging. Secondly, in brief spots where it may need to be carried, the extra bit of leg can come in handy for throwing it over your shoulder. It gives you a bit of leverage for ferrying in areas where you can’t drag.
You may be surprised how slick and easy the hair-on quarters glide. Dragging in this instance can shave off a large portion of downhill relatively easy. Once I have run out of easy dragging, I opt to skin out the quarters and pack them in the backpack.
Because conditions may not be ideal to drag the hind quarters the entire route, a combination of dragging and carrying can be used. Quarters can be skinned and drug in snow in a durable game bag such as a Caribou Gear game bag, then returned to the pack for sections where dragging is not ideal. These game bags already have cord attached. As long as there is snow they drag with relative ease. The only warning is to lift them over logs to prevent the bag from catching and tearing.
Invention of the wheel
Although this article is about making the pack out easier while backpacking, it is important to mention a few alternative options to think about that don’t require the time or financial commitment to pack stock like horses and mules. With the right scenario, a wheeled alternative can make carrying a substantial amount of weight quick and easy. The drawback is that you will need an adequate trail or cleared logging road.
Although most game carts are meant for whitetail deer or antelope hunters, they can also work well for moving elk. I have found most game carts are designed to take out whole animals, so some modifications may need to be made to haul out a quartered elk. For most carts the bars are too far apart and the quarters will fall through. This can be remedied by cutting a piece of ply wood or attaching a metal mesh to the frame. You will also want to have plenty of tie downs available. Just like putting meat into a pack, the more secure the load is to the cart, the easier the pack out will go.
In some instances a mountain bike can be an awesome option for getting meat off the mountain. The bike allows you to travel gated roads faster than hiking, and carry weight with relative ease. Although any mountain bike will do, you will want to make sure it has good shocks and is built for rugged off-road travel.
The added weight can be hard to get used to at first. As a word of caution, you may want to practice with a lighter pack to start. The first time I packed out an animal with a bike I went over the handle bars in the first ten minutes down the single track trail and was not a happy camper.
If your area is really conducive to biking you may want to look into Cogburn fat tire bikes. These bikes are great off road and can even travel in three inches of snow. There are models available at some Scheels stores equipped with racks specifically designed for hunters. Some options include a tow cart that attaches to the back of the bike to carry extra meat in a single trip. These accessories make it a world easier to take more weight safely with a better ride.
The Final Determination
The most important factor in a smooth pack out is the mental aspect. I am not going to lie; I have been on some brutal pack outs, which were physically and mentally punishing. However, attitude is everything. If you start to tell yourself it is going to be tough or that it is horrible, it will be. The mind is the most powerful motivator.
When I first started guiding elk hunters every time the elk was down the hunter would make some comment about how bad it was going to be. I got into the habit of verbalizing that the pack out was my favorite part and how the harder it was the better it was. I would be excited for the challenge, whether I was or not. Over time I noticed that this attitude allowed me to push harder and enjoy the experience no matter how bad it should have sucked. There is nothing more important than a strong attitude. Even if you have to lie to yourself to start; saying how fun something hard is will be can actually change you mindset about the whole endeavor and is worth a try. There is no replacing a positive mental attitude. So lace up and pack on, because a heavy pack is the best part about being an elk hunter.