Deer Dressing in the Field and at the Camp
by John Coit

Guide - John Coit

You’ve gotten your deer, now its time to turn this large package into a edible and storable package that will temp the taste buds. Critical to the quality of any venison is the way it is handled both in the field and in the camp. Prompt and proper field dressing is required to insure a fine tasting roast or tender ,tasty bacon wrapped loin. As soon as possible your freshly harvested deer needs to be gutted and cleaned to cool down the meat, whether your in the cool backwoods of the NY Adirondacks or sunny Texas, time is of the essence. I will go through two procedures both in the field and from a meat pole in camp of how I take care of the quality of my venison.

The tools required :

The Knife

First and foremost a good sharp knife is an absolute must. Hacking away with a dull knife is a sure way to contaminate meat with hair. I like a good drop point knife with a short 3-4 inch blade. I used a fixed handled knife as it has no crevices and cracks to hide hair/blood/contaminants. Before I even begin to touch my deer I will run a stone across the blade to knock off any oxidization and freshen the edge. While there are a number of qualified skinning/gutting knives and styles  out there to skin and gut your deer , I definitely find for me that bigger is not better and I avoid large classic style hunting knives.

One out of the ordinary skinning/gutting tool that deserves mention is the Wyoming knife. With a short over all length and aggressive gut hook it is a top notch tool for the job in competent hands.

String or Twine

In the early stages of the gutting process you will need to secure the anal tract and urethra to avoid spilling of urine and fecal matter. Thin rope that will take and hold a good knot works best and 20-30 " will do the job.


Unfortunately, these days the hunter has to deal with the possible threat of CWD and other possible health risks associated with deer and disease. While I personally don’t wear gloves here in SC it may be well advised in other states where CWD is present to protect yourself with latex gloves.

Clean towel/ Paper towels

While not an absolute having something handy to clean up yourself and the cavity will only improve your venison and make the cleaning neater.

Ziploc bags ( 3)

These will be used to store the liver/heart and tarsal glands. Each part should be individually packed in the bags. Please read handling instructions for the tarsal gland utmost care is needed to avoid contamination of your meat when handling this strong gland.

Field Dressing

First cut

1) position the deer on its back with the head uphill if possible. Gravity is a useful tool in field dressing.
2) Your first cut needs to be to circle the anus freeing the anal tract not only from the hide but the membranes that hold it in place to the pelvic bone. This is where a small 3-4 inch blade shows its usefulness.
3) once the anal tract is free  you can pull it out of the deer and tie it closed to insure the fecal matter will not spill out and contaminate your meat.
4) in the case of a doe the urethra can be circled along with the anus at this same time and tied.

Second cut

1) In the case of a buck the genitals need to be dealt with. Lay the knife horizontally to the belly and work the knife under the genitalia from front to back. Be careful not to rupture the urethra ( small tube ).
2) once free to the back of the pelvis this should also be tied tightly to prevent urine spillage.
3) cut the genitalia off above the knot.
4) In the case of a doe split your cut around the milk sacks and rejoin behind them. Leave the sack in place until you remove the gut contents, with slight trimming it will come out with the entrails.

Third cut

1) Feeling for the sternum ( breastbone) find the point at which the sternum ends and the gut cavity begins. This is the only cut your going to make with the knife edge facing the deer until we have opened the cavity. Cutting on the sternum open the hide 2-4 inches front to back being careful not to cut into the area behind the sternum.
2)place your index finger and middle finger in the cut and separate the hide from the carcass to allow enough room for you to insert both fingers and the knife edge up facing the hindquarters of the deer.
3)using your fingers to protect the contents of the gut cavity from knife puncture ( one finger on either side of the upward pointing blade) , slide the knife through the hide only down the middle of the stomach to the pelvis area. This cut should reveal a greenish gray colored sack ( gut sack) do not puncture this sack!
4) continue the cut across the pelvic bone to the anus cut being careful not to cut into the inner thighs of the deer. These are prime hams and its worth the time to take extra care not to slice into them.
5)At this point by shifting the deer horizontally to the hill (cut side facing downhill) the stomach bag will come out of the cavity along with the intestines. You should be able to trim the intestines membranes out and remove the anal tract and urethra all at once. Some membrane cutting is going to be needed here to free the urethra. Splitting the pelvis front to back with a small hatchet or bone saw will aid immensely. However, with care you can trim it out without splitting the pelvis. In cases where the deer will be dragged a long ways and possibly contaminated with dirt and debris, I prefer not to split the pelvis.
6) As the stomach bag and intestines are removed the bladder will be revealed just inside the pelvis along the backbone. Carefully slice away any membrane that may be holding it in place and remove it without puncturing. I carry extra empty film cans to collect the urine from the bladder. This should only be done after your done with the rest of the cleaning and your hands will not be on the meat again.
7) Using your knife trim out any excess fat and membrane in the gut and pelvic region.

Fourth cut

1) turning your self around to face the deer’s head will show the next step. At this juncture a decision is needed . If you intend on caping this deer for taxidermy purposes skip this step you will not want to split the hide ahead of the rear edges of the shoulders..
2)with the blade facing upwards slide your knife to one side or the other of the sternum splitting the hide. You should now be able to easily cut through the cartilage and split the rib cage open. A small meat saw is very useful for this but not needed if your knife is sharp.
3) make the cut all the way through the last rib to the base of the neck.
4) a note on this step. This is the best way to allow for maximum cooling of your deer carcass. While not absolutely needed , I personally recommend splitting the entire ribcage.

Fifth cut

1) Your remaining cuts will all be inside of the cavity. Take caution here as broken rib fragments, broadheads ,new and old may be present. One of the worst cuts I’ve ever seen a man get was on a partially healed over broadhead hidden in a chest cavity.
2)laying your knife against the inside of the ribcage circle the inside cutting the diaphragm ( thin membrane that separates the gut and chest cavity).
3) Reaching inside and towards the neck feel for the windpipe and cut it as far forward as possible.
4) take hold of the loose end of the windpipe and carefully slide your knife under it against the backbone. By pulling and cutting membrane as you go you will free the remaining contents.
5 )If you wish to save the heart and liver now is the time to do it before it spills out onto the forest floor. Pat clean with your towel and place in separate ziplock bags taking care not to contaminate them any more than absolutely needed.
6) Remove the remaining lungs ect. From the cavity and tip the deer downward to pour off any blood that has gathered in the cavity.

Carcass care
First thing I suggest you do is move your deer away from the gut pile to a new
location you don’t want to be stepping and working the body contents. At this point try and drain as much of the remaining blood as you can from the cavity again. After you’ve done this use the towel to pat and absorb up as much fluid as you can. Old woods lore suggests propping the rib cage open with a stick to promote cooling. While this certainly is a good idea, for the sake of keeping the cavity free of debris I wouldn’t suggest propping it open until you’ve gotten your deer out of the woods.

A few points of interest here, I haven’t mentioned the tarsal glands at all at this point. These glands located at the joint inside the back of each leg are super deer lures for the future. However your knife has no business around them until you’ve finished with the deer and have it somewhere you can wash the knife between future steps. They are definitely worth harvesting later and should be stored in a ziplock bag and frozen until you want to use them. They are the best deer scent I’ve ever used, forget what you buy at the store this is the real deal!

At this point your deer in most fall climates will be good to go for several hours if not days by simply hanging and letting air circulate around the carcass. If you wish to prop open the chest cavity now is the time to do it.. Temps below 50 degrees are a must for hanging and aging meat safely. Hide on or hide off hanging , it’s your choice both methods are acceptable by hunters and butchers. I personally skin my deer as our hot southern climate will keep a hide on carcass to warm for proper cooling, and our deer are hung in indoor coolers where insects cannot invade the carcass.

In real terms temps over 70 degrees give you about an hour window to recover and gut your deer before spoiling will begin. Time is critical , get that heat out of that deer ASAP! If your a southern hunter or seasonal temps are warm in your area , be prepared, time is of the essence for good meat quality.

You’re done get to dragging!

Hanging method

While the deer’s anatomy is  the same the methods somewhat vary when gutting a deer in a hanging position. This is our preferred method of gutting in my area of the south, as rare is the hunt where we cant transport the entire carcass to a skinning pole within 20 minutes .In this case we bring the deer out whole and do the entire chore at the pole. Again temps and spoilage factors dictate which method you use, if you cant make it on time field dress the deer on the spot.

1) remove the tarsal glands and store in a ziplock. Clean knife thoroughly before continuing.
2) cut the skin between the tendon and the leg bone above the first joint in the leg.
3) using a leg spreader ( gambrel) hoist deer so its head is clear of the ground. In the case of large deer it may be needed to make the anal cut and genitalia cuts prior to hoisting.
4) cut the skin from sternum to the anal cut as in the field dressing method. By placing a large bucket or drum under the deer you can begin to drop the guts right into the bucket with little mess.
5)follow bladder and intestine removal as in the field dressing procedure.
6) cut diaphragm membrane
7) split the ribcage allowing the vitals to spill into the bucket. You will have to work your knife blade along the back bone to free membranes holding the vitals in the cavity.
8)Cut windpipe
9) Rinse with clean water
10) pat cavity dry with towel.

In this method gravity plays a major hand in helping the job go on. Splitting the pelvis is not needed at all in this case and can be skipped.

While it isn’t usually recommended to rinse a carcass , as water builds a bacteria friendly environment, in controlled situations where towels and coolers are present the water can and will assist in cooling and cleaning the cavity of any accidental contamination’s. In the South this is the preferred method used by hunters and butchers.

All in all this is not a complicated procedure and a man unknowing with a sharp knife can get the job done. Taking time to minimize and eliminate possible contamination’s ( urine fecal matter, bile, blood, tarsal glands, dirt, leaves, hair) will make for better table fare every time. While the job seems complicated it is not and in truth I had a hard time actually narrowing down the steps I go through to clean a deer. I clean 50 to 70 deer a year and its become a task like tying my shoes, its done now without much thought .

My advice to the first timer is get in there ,clean your deer best you can, and enjoy the fruits of the hunter prey relationship. This cleaning process is a major part of the bond a hunter has with his game and shouldn’t be shunned or pawned off on the hunting buddies. I gain great satisfaction from taking my game from the hoof , out of the  field , to the cooler, and eventually to my families plate. Its my hope this will help you do the same!

Good hunting and eating to ya !

John Coit


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