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How to Cook Meat in the Backcountry

How to Cook Meat in the Backcountry

meat cooking over an open fire on a backcountry hunt.

For those days when a dehydrated meal just doesn’t hit the spot

I’m as big of an advocate as anyone for properly aging meat. However, some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten were feasts of wild game meat out in the mountains, often only a few hours after I released the arrow that killed the animal. 

The author’s recent blacktail buck harvest is soon to become a backcountry meal or two.

Why Eat Meat During Backcountry Hunts

Part of this is certainly the context. When roaming around by myself for one to two weeks, eating nothing but freeze-dried food, anything fresh is a welcome contrast. Add to that the elation of having successfully killed an animal and you’re already set up for a great meal. That being said, not all celebratory backcountry meals are created equally. I’ve found a few items and tips that increase the chances of something spectacular happening.

I hunt by myself in remote parts of Alaska, usually living out of my backpack and sleeping in a different place every night. The weight of my pack is always a consideration; I have to do my best with what little I can justify carrying throughout my hunt. Eating a bunch of meat also decreases the amount of weight I have to carry out. I can easily eat a couple of pounds of meat per day and that makes a notable difference during the pack out. 

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Eat the Premium Cuts

The first decision to make is which parts of the animal to eat. I go for the premium bits. Growing up, my family tradition was always to eat the heart first. That’s a reasonable place to start. In my opinion, the heart is best when eaten fresh and it’s quite tender regardless of the animal or lack of aging the meat.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the other cut I go for right away is the tenderloins. They are tender and take little to no preparation. Sometimes, I feel guilty eating both tenderloins without sharing them with my family, so I’ll dive into backstrap as well. 

If I have some time and access to a decent amount of dry wood, it’s hard to beat ribs. Ribs from Dall sheep are my favorite. The other benefit of eating the ribs in the field is that I reduce my pack’s weight not only by eating meat but by leaving in the woods the only bones that I’d normally carry out with me.

A fresh wild game meat meal being cooked over an open flame in the Alaskan wilderness.

What to Bring to Cook Meat in the Backcountry

I’ve spent a fair amount of effort figuring out how to carry the most calories per ounce possible while still enjoying my food from start to finish on my backcountry trips. One of my favorite calorie “boosters” is freeze-dried butter. It comes in over 200 calories per ounce and also is an awesome addition to any wild game meat. Couple this with a small pouch of salt, pepper, and powdered garlic. With just a couple of ounces of extra pack weight, I have enough seasoning for at least a couple of meat feasts in the field.

I know some folks who pre-mix spices or even bring various pre-made sauces. I like to keep things simple and light for most of my hunts, but I do occasionally slip in a steak seasoning pre-mix that includes rosemary, thyme, and onion powder. 

How to Cook Meat in the Field

My typical cooking setup on these trips is a titanium cup for cookware and an ultralight isobutane stove. I’m not typically using cookware to cook the meat. The fastest way (and often my default method) is to cut meat into medallions, rub in the spices, skewer the meat on my long-handled metal spork, and sear it over the flame of my stove. It’s not fancy, but it’s super quick. After many pounds of meat eaten this way, I can attest that it’s quite tasty. 

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When I’ve shared this idea with others, I’m often asked if the meat is affected by the direct gas flame, but so far, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve eaten like that. It’s also the best technique I can think of if you’re willing to cook inside your shelter/vestibule when it’s stormy out. (I know that’s not always the best idea in bear country, but in certain scenarios, I feel good about it.)

The author’s backcountry setup featuring a butchered and skinned Dall sheep.

Cooking Wild Game Ribs Over a Fire

If I have some dry wood nearby and more time on my hands, I’ll opt for a small fire. This is also a great way to do ribs. I rub down the ribs with my spice mix, heavy on the garlic powder if possible. On sheep, mountain goats, and moose, I keep as much fat on the ribs as possible. On deer, I do a little fat taste test first to decide how “tallowy” that particular deer is.

Once some coals are established, I prop the sides of ribs up on some greener wood right over the flames. When the fat is melting and dripping, usually after around 30-60 minutes, the ribs are ready! I’ve heard of people doing slow cooks like this, but I’ve never had the patience or time to try it. I’ve also had good luck using some aluminum foil to prevent charring. Similarly, foil in the fire works well for whole tenderloins or chunks of backstops. 

A few years ago, I came across a small titanium grill grate that only weighs about one ounce. I don’t always carry it, but it’s not hard to justify and makes grilling over an open flame a lot easier. It also works great for grilling small fish. It works best over a small bed of coals, supported by rocks. I’ve had some wonderful venison medallions cooked this way. 

I eat wild game meat at least once a day, usually twice, all year long. Even when I’m at home with access to a full kitchen, I tend to stick to basic preparations. Part of it is that I love the flavor of wild meat and try not to bury it in spices, condiments, or other preparation. Also, any wild meat cooked over a flame with a little garlic, salt, and pepper immediately takes me back to those incredible moments of eating fresh meat on the side of a mountain somewhere far from humans. 

If you’re not in the habit of eating meat in the backcountry, give it a try. You might just find that it’s your favorite way to eat it and, just maybe, you’ll decide that those are some of the finest meals of your life.

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