The largest of the deer family, moose can make for an intimidating hunt. More often than not it is not the hunt itself but the logistics and handling of the downed animal that sends most minds into a spin.
How do you possibly deal with an animal so large, especially when you find yourself deep in the woods?
Unlike whitetail deer, where a motivated person may be able to throw one over their shoulders, one moose hindquarter alone can weigh more than a decent whitetail buck.
Unless you down the moose in a vehicle accessible spot, and have some serious machinery to pull it out of the woods and back to your yard in one piece, you will be field dressing, quartering and likely (at least in part) butchering in the field.
“There’s more than one way to skin a moose” I believe the old saying goes, and in this article we will dive elbow deep into the different methods for getting your moose pieced out, packed out and ready for the journey home.
Quality gear makes every hunting adventure just that little bit easier. This is definitely the case when field dressing an animal; especially those as large as a moose.
Whilst you may get by on a smaller animal with one semi-sharpened knife, moose is a different story.
Here are some of the key items worth having on your when preparing to skin out a moose in the field.
Sharp knives (+ sharpener)
Good quality, sharpened knives: The most important part of any field dressing, skinning or butchering session.
Breaking down a moose is an arduous task, and having dull or under-performing blades will make it infinitely more difficult.
Some hunters have different preferences; whether opting for a knife setup with replaceable surgical blades, an old leather bound knife handed down by their grandparent, or a full field-dressing kit.
Regardless of your preferred choice when it comes to butchering and skinning, be sure to have enough knife to handle the situation, and a method to always ensure a sharp edge.
Bone saw or hatchet
Beyond your handful of quality knives, bringing a bone saw, hatchet or axe (or potentially all of the above) is a near-necessity when field dressing a large animal.
These come in handy especially when trying to cut through the sternum, rib cage and pelvis, as well as separating the head from the neck.
If you have large quarters that you wish to break into more manageable sizes without deboning all the meat these will also help to achieve that.
Game bags… No different to any other big game hunt where you do not have the luxury of dragging the whole animal back to an ATV or rear truck bed.
Game bags keep the meat clean and protected, whilst still allowing air to flow and heat to dissipate. They can come in different materials such as cotton, canvas or synthetic.
Game bags are reasonably strong and flexible, allowing for a lot of meat to be stored or carried in each bag. They are also regularly used strung up in trees to keep the meat off the ground.
Rope or paracord
These are items that should be in every hunter’s backpack. An essential camping and survival item, but also very helpful when attempting to field dress a moose.
Using rope or paracord, you can tie off each of the moose’s legs to a nearby tree or branch, helping to splay open the body, creating room to attend to field dressing, skinning and meat removal.
As moose usually takes multiple trips to pack out, rope also comes in handy for being able to hang or tie the meat up into trees to protect them from other animals.
A tarp is always handy when it comes to butchering in the field. Being able to throw the meat onto a dirt-free surface will save you from a lot of cleaning time later on, and at the same time helps to retain the quality of the meat.
Beyond the meat aspect, the tarp is also a safer place to lay down knives or other small equipment that could easily get lost or misplaced in the dirt. It’s always worth keeping your work space tidy and organized.
This can come in many different shapes and sizes depending on the location of the hunt and your own resources at hand.
This can either mean pack frames for hauling it out on your back, game carts for pulling it down trails, or even inflatable rafts for floating it across the waterways.
Either way, this needs to be a step that is well thought out when you consider the hundreds of pounds of meat that need to be extracted from the bush.
Straps and pulleys
Beyond just the rope or paracord mentioned above, having some proper ratchet straps or pulleys can be really helpful when trying to deal with a moose in the field.
There are times when the moose drops in inconvenient areas; such as laying in a stream, where it is much easier to field dress on dry, flat ground.
Proper straps and pulleys will be able to assist in moving the moose into better positions for field butchering, as well as offering a stronger way to splay out the moose for cutting or rolling it over.
So, you’re deep in the woods and spent days calling in a big bull moose. He finally shows himself, opening up a shooting window. You let off a shot… It feels good.
You give it some time and venture down to see what happened. Blood spatter and broken brush… You follow the blood trail and come across a downed 1000 pound beast, laying between some bushes, a couple miles from camp. Now what do you do?
- Ensure moose is dead: You want to be cautious when approaching a moose, as one that is laying down motionless may not be completely dead, and can still jump up and charge.
A way to check this is to approach with caution and to touch the moose’s eye with a stick. Moose will often die with their eyes open.
- Clear the area: You need enough space to work, room to move away the gut pile and area to handle the meat. If you are not equipped to relocate the moose, then clear as much brush and impeding objects as you can before starting the task.
- Get the head facing uphill: Turning the moose’s body so that the head facing uphill means that when the gutting process is taking the place, the innards will naturally fall with gravity out of the stomach cavity, making for a much easier removal.
- Get the moose on its side or back: A moose can fall different ways, especially in differing terrain. If the moose is laying on its stomach, you will need to roll it onto its side as the key to these methods involve having access to the underbelly, or at least an open side to work with.
- Splay open the legs: This is where the ropes, paracord, straps and pulleys come into play. Tying off the legs to nearby trees or branches can help to open up the torso area and create the space you need to be able to begin the field dressing process, especially when field dressing.
This method is the standard in-field skinning and butchering process which you see most commonly with middle-sized game animals such as deer.
In this method you start by opening up the animal from the torso area, completely removing the inner organs and then proceeding to remove the meat in large portions.
When it comes to game animals, where possible, it is important to try to get the stomach and innards removed from the body. These organs retain a fair amount of heat, and the aim of the game is often to cool the body down quickly so that the meat doesn’t spoil.
- Slice from sternum to anus (with gut hook): You can do this with a gut hook or a knife. With a gut hook make a small incision at the sternum to get the hook under the skin and wall of the body cavity. Be careful not to pierce any organs below this.
Slowly slice up the torso along the middle, all the way up towards the groin region. The stomach will continue to expand as you open up the area. This is completely normal. It is best to cut around the animal’s genitalia and anus.
- Slice from sternum to anus (with knife): To do this with a knife, make a small incision near the sternum so that you can get your knife under the skin and wall of the body cavity.
Be careful not to pierce any organs below this. Place your index and middle finger under the skin, slightly lifting it up to create separation between the skin and innards.
Place your knife with your dominant hand between those fingers, under the skin, facing upwards.
You should be able to slowly work your way down the torso, slicing it open from underneath, whilst also keeping clear of accidental cuts to the stomach and organs. It is best to cut around the animal’s genitalia and anus.
- Saw open the sternum and ribs: You can now continue the same skin cutting from the sternum up to the throat, before then proceeding to open up the rib area. This is the part that requires the bone saw or hatchet.
Starting from the sternum, saw or break open the sternum and the ribs, all the way to the throat in order to open up the cavity. Once you have done that it helps to pull open and prop open the rib cage if possible.
- Cut the wind pipe: For this part you want to cut the windpipe and oesophagus as close to the head as you can, by reaching up from the body cavity and severing it. It is helpful to tie a string tightly around the oesophagus to prevent any stomach acid from spilling out of it.
- Cut and tie off the anus: Continue the skin cut around the entire anus to free it up completely from the body. Be careful whilst doing this to not puncture the bladder.
Once you have done this, tie off the end of the lower intestine by the anus to prevent moose droppings from dirtying the meat or the work area. You can also use a butt out tool to expose the lower intestine and tie it off.
Note: Some states or provinces require proof of sex to remain attached to hind-quarter.
- Open the pelvis: Before finally removing the internal organs we need to open the pelvis. On one side of the pelvis, cut through the meat to get down to the pelvic bone.
From here using either the saw or a hatchet, saw or crack through this to open it up. This allows us to free the lower intestines.
It is optional if you want to open the pelvis from both sides and remove the front pelvic piece completely, or whether you can get by having only one side open.
- Start removing the stomach and organs: By this point the stomach will have expanded and hopefully be trying to fall out of the moose, with the help of gravity.
From here we need to get our hands in underneath to start pulling it out, from the sternum area downwards.
There will be some connective tissue holding the stomach and innards to the body cavity. As we get our arms underneath and slowly back out the stomach pile, cut any remaining connective tissue and continue the process, until it eventually comes out.
During this process we will be running on the assumption that we need to pack out the moose. If you have access to a nearby vehicle and can extract the moose in larger pieces, then do so.
The less time spent in the woods surrounded by large piles of meat, the safer it will generally be.
- Remove the head: To remove the head of the moose, cut close to the base of the skull in order to minimize damage to the neck meat.
To do this, cut through the meat surrounding the spine, before using a bone saw to saw through the vertebrae, releasing the head from the neck.
- Piecing-out plan: Plan on how you wish to piece out the moose. Do you want large quarters, or do you prefer to have it separated into limbs, ribs and key cuts; taking into consideration who you have to help you, your pack-out method etc.
- Proper quarters: To separate into genuine quarters, run your knife along the backbone from head to tail to separate sides. To then separate front and back, cut through the end of the ribs.
The front quarters will have the front leg and half rib cage, and the back will have a rear leg and the paunch. From here, continue to skin out the rest of the quarter, or break it down into smaller pieces.
- Taking the limbs (front legs): To take off the front legs, skin the inside area of the moose leg by slicing the skin from torso up to the knee joint.
From there, peel away and cut the skin free from the meat. You then want to lift the leg away from the body and slice deep inside the armpit area, in towards the chest muscles.
You should be able to continue slicing deep through here until you hit the shoulder blade area. Cut in around this area and the leg should come free.
- Taking the limbs (rear legs): The rear legs are a little more challenging as you have a hip joint to detach. Similar to the front legs, skin up along the inside of the rear leg to expose cutting area.
Slice along the inside of the leg close to the body, following the outside of the pelvis bone, until you find the hip joint ball socket. Continue to cut the meat and ligaments in around this area.
Once all the connective tissue is cut, you should be able to prop open the ball joint.
- Additional cuts of meat: With the stomach and organs removed, the pressure is off, allowing you to continue to salvage any meat you wish from the animal.
In doing so it is easy enough to remove the backstrap, tenderloin, flank, neck or any other pieces without much difficulty or direction.
Most of these are best done using a filleting-style method, to extract as much meat cleanly off the neighboring bones as possible.
- Deboning: Some hunters may wish to debone their moose meat in the field to save on weight, especially those planning of hauling it out on their backs. To do this, it is pretty straight forward.
Any meat you can find, slice down to the bone in line with the direction of the bone, and peel it back. Continue making small cuts in against the bone, treating the meat on bone similar to how you treat skin on meat when skinning.
Slice close and peel away.
The “gutless method” is a process of field dressing usually done with large game, especially in cases where it is difficult to move or maneuver the animal to be able to easily and efficiently remove the internal organs.
Rather than removing the organs first and then processing the animal, you leave the organs where they are and methodically work towards cutting different body parts or pieces of meat away from the carcass.
Due to the complication of working around the organs, we will go into greater detail on retrieving some of the key cuts of meat. During this process we remove every part of the animal from one side, before rolling it over and repeating the process on the opposite side.
- Initial skinning cuts: Skin the side of the moose which is facing upwards, in order to get better access to the meat and cutting areas.
Most hunters when using the gutless method will skin the animal starting along the backbone, opening it up from the top. To do this, peel away one side of the moose allowing the side in contact with the ground to keep the fur on to keep the meat clean.
It is also possible to skin from the belly side outwards, similar to that of the standard method.
- Removing the front (top) leg: To take off the front legs, skin the inside area of the moose leg by slicing the skin from the torso up to the knee joint.
From there, peel away and cut the skin free from the meat. Lift the leg away from the body and slice deep inside the armpit area, in towards the chest muscles.
You should be able to continue slicing deep through here until you hit the shoulder blade area. Cut in around here and the leg should pull free.
- Removing the rear (top) leg: The rear legs are a little more challenging as you have a hip joint to detach, as well as being wary of the digestive organs as they are not pre-removed in during this method.
Slice along the inside of the leg close to the body, following the outside of the pelvis bone, where you see the natural separation between the two main muscles.
Cut slow and closely, angled against the pelvis bone until you reach the hip ball joint.
Once all the ligaments and connecting muscle is cut, you should be able to prop open the ball joint and finishing removing the rear leg.
- Backstrap: The backstrap is located on the top of the back, above the ribs, next to the spine. First, run your blade along the side of the spine in order to separate the meat from the bone.
After that you want to make a second slice parallel to that from underneath the meat, almost like you are filleting it off the ribs. It should come out quite easily.
- Tenderloin: To get to the tenderloin we want to reach underneath the spine at the end of the ribs. This is a little bit more difficult process than the backstrap, and you need to proceed with caution not to puncture the stomach.
To remove the tenderloin you need to push gently on the gut lining to separate it form the spine just below the last rib. With a sharp knife start separating tenderloin from the spine. While doing that grab the loose end and gently pull it out from between stomach and the spine.
- Remove organs (optional): At this point one side of the moose is completely open; with the on that side the front and rear leg removed, along with the rib area.
From here you have easy access to the inner organs, and the option to remove them from the body. If you opt to do so it is still best practice to tie off the oesophagus and anus areas to prevent spillage.
- Roll the moose over: Now that one side has been harvested, we can now roll over the moose, turning the un-skinned, un-harvested side upwards.
From here, repeat the same process: Skin the moose, remove the front leg, remove the hind leg, attend to the backstrap, tenderloin, neck and any other remaining meat.
In most cases when a hunter has the resources to get a moose hanging, they also have the equipment to be able to properly field dress the animal; removing the internal organs and preparing it for a proper skinning.
Removing the organs in the field makes for a lighter moose to transport and a much cleaner process there-after. It is also best to recommended to remove the head of the moose prior to hanging.
This hanging and skinning process can be done in the field with the right equipment but is most regularly done in a back yard or garage after transportation on the rear bed of a truck or trailer.
To hang the moose you want to hook through the rear legs, with the moose hanging upside-down.
- Initial skinning cuts: Using the cuts already made across the torso to field dress the animal, make sure those cuts extend fully from the top of the neck down to the pelvis completely.
From there, slice along the inside of each leg from the main body cut, out to the knee joint of each leg (and beyond if you wish). Cut around the skin of the entire knee joint.
- Pulling the skin off: From here you can then start to pull the skin down, starting from the rear legs; similar to pulling off a sock.
At times this can be done just by the force of pulling but may also require a small amount of knife skinning to assist the process. Continue to pull down with force, around the moose to get the skin coming down.
Once it gets low enough to reach properly, you can then either get your firsts in there or your elbow, pushing down with your own body weight to work the skin down and away from the body.
- Freeing the hide: Once you have worked the skin off the meat all the way from the rear legs down past the body, completely remove the hide using one final downwards push (or pull depending on how you choose to work it) to get it past the neck and freed from the carcass.
- Removing the front legs: Start slicing deep inside the armpit area, in towards the chest muscles. Continue slicing deep through here until you hit the shoulder blade area.
As the moose is hung, with enough cuts the shoulder will naturally start to fall away, making for an easy removal.
- Backstrap/tenderloin: To remove the backstrap on a hanging animal, run your blade along the side of the spine to separate the meat from the bone.
You can continue this cut all the way down the neck. After that, make a horizontal, perpendicular cut where the rear hams join the back (similar to where your lower back meets the top of your buttocks); this exposes the backstrap.
You can then pull down on the meat, slowly filleting it off the ribs as you work your way down. You can do the same with the tenderloins, but from within the body cavity of the moose.
- Final large cuts: At this point what you have remaining is ribs, connected to the rear legs. Use a saw to cut the spine and ribs away from the rear legs.
You can then lower the rear legs down and finish these limb-separating cuts on a tarp or table. Separating the legs on the hanging pole (depending on the setup) can cause it to become unbalanced or swing.
After this point you can continue to portion out the moose or send it to a butcher shop.
Skinning, field dressing and butchering a moose in the field can seem like a near-impossible task. Sure, it does take time and you will be sore the following morning, but it is definitely achievable.
Determining the best method to use will depend on what your equipment, vehicle and human resources are, along with where and how the moose drops.
As with any hunt preparation is key; and that is no exception when considering how to get the meat successfully from the field to your freezer.
As long as you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and methodically work your way through the process, you’ll get it done. After all, a moose is still just an oversized deer.