So you have been living on MREs, canned beans and freeze dried pouches of mush since things went south. You have come to a harsh understanding that this survival thing doesn’t really include fine dining. Just when you believe you would sell your soul for a steak, you spot a whitetail deer and manage to kill it cleanly. Now what? If you have never processed your own deer meat, it’s likely you don’t have the tools that your local butcher has at his disposal. Not to worry, you can do this with nothing more than a knife. Sure, all those other tools help, and it’s even useful to have several different knives. But I think it’s safe to assume a survival situation can be called a “pinch,” and in a pinch, you can process deer meat with a single knife.

Skinning Skills

deer meat cutting
A little tug here and a little slice there.It’s way easier to skin a big-game animal when its body is still warm.

As soon as you shoot the deer, gut it and let the deer’s body heat fade. Some people argue for hanging the carcass to let it age, but with deer that’s often a mistake. Hanging the deer in uncontrolled conditions will usually do more harm than good, and it’s better to process the deer soon after shooting it.

I find it much easier to skin a deer that is hanging by its hind legs. Cut the skin between the tendon and the bone on each of the back legs and insert a 1-inch-diameter green stick. Tie a rope in the center. Use some paracord or wire to tie the legs to the stick to keep them spread out as far as you can. Toss the rope over a branch, pull the deer up off the ground, and tie the rope off to something.

Raise the deer until the back legs are at a comfortable working level. You can adjust the height as needed as you proceed. Starting just below the cuts you made for the stick, follow the ridgeline of the hair formed where the white and brown meet and make a cut in the hide all the way to the anus on both legs. Remember when cutting deer hide that you should always cut from underneath. Cutting from the top cuts the hair and loose hair will make a mess on the meat.

Now ring each leg at the point where you started the cut, again always cutting from underneath the skin. Begin peeling the skin off the deer by pulling on the hide as you cut it away from the meat. Use the knife to cut the connecting tissue as you pull on the skin. When you reach the tail, you will need to cut through the cartilage. Pull on the tail and chop at the junction with the body, using the knife to part the cartridge. When you’ve freed the hide from the legs and started down the torso, you can switch to the front legs.

Cut a ring around each of the front legs close to the knee joint. Then make a cut following the cowlick of hair up the leg to the armpit and continue the cut on an angle that joins with the cut you made when gutting the deer. Free the skin on the front legs by pulling and cutting.

Back at the rear; continue peeling the hide off by pulling and cutting. Often just pulling down on the hide will free large sections, particularly if the deer is still warm. As you come to the shoulders, work the remaining hide from the front legs. Continue skinning down the neck until you reach the head. You may find it easier to raise or lower the deer as you are working to keep the work area at a comfortable level. You should have a skinned carcass with the hide hanging down over the deer’s head.

Deer Meat Cuts

deer meat backstraps
Removing a whitetail’s backstraps is easy and produces some of the choicest cuts.

The front shoulders attach with just muscle tissue, not bone. Have somebody pull on the leg while you hold the deer. Use your knife to cut under the leg and shoulder where it meets the body until the shoulder comes free. Place it on a clean surface. Now, do the same with the other front shoulder.

The backstraps are the two long strips of choice meat that run parallel to the top of the a game animal’s backbone. Follow the muscle back to where it appears to end or merge with the hind quarters and make a cut 90 degrees to the backbone to define the rear of the backstrap.

Now use the knife to follow the backbone as you cut the meat free from the spine. Turn the blade slightly to the backbone so that the edge rides the bone and leaves little meat attached. Follow this cut forward until you seem to “run out of meat” around the shoulder and neck. This muscle will be well defined, and you can easily locate the other edge. Using your sharp knife, separate it from the other tissues, making a parallel cut to the one along the backbone.

Go back to the first cut near the hindquarters and pull on the meat, peeling it away from the deer similar to what you did while skinning. As you pull the backstrap away from the deer, cut it free from the bone along the back of the meat. Be careful not to leave a lot of meat still attached to the spine. There are ridges and valleys, so don’t let them fool your knife into leaving meat behind. When you’ve finished, you will have a long, flat, piece of meat. Now repeat on the other side.

There are two much smaller and shorter muscles along the underside of the backbone, inside the stomach cavity, that you can remove the same way. These “tenderloins”—also very choice—are soft and are easy to detach. They are well defined, and you simply cut them away from the backbone.

Next, starting on the underside of the neck, carefully peel the meat off the spine. Work along the length of the neck and roll the meat as you cut around the bone. Remove the windpipe. Cut out the rib meat by simply following the shape of the bones.

The Leg Action

deer meat hindquarter
Shown here are the pieces of a whitetail hindquarter.

Free one back leg from the stick that’s holding it and pull it away from the carcass. Cut along the bone in the pelvis to free the muscle. As you pull and cut, you will eventually reach the large hip socket. Pull the leg as you work the knife into the socket to cut the ligaments and tendons to free the ball on the end of the leg bone from the hip socket. Then cut through the remaining deer meat to free the hindquarter. With a rutting buck, be very careful about the tarsal gland on his hock. It secretes a pungent oily substance, so don’t touch it, as you can transfer the vile stuff to the meat.

You should now have two hindquarters, two front shoulders, two backstraps, and two tenderloins, plus the neck and rib meat. You may wish to spend a few minutes removing any good meat still left on the carcass. Hey, you worked hard for the kill.

You can process the deer meat in any order, but I usually start with the backstraps. The key is to remove all the silver skin, sinew, and fat. Never leave any fat on venison. While fat wonderfully flavors beef, venison fat will wreck the flavor of deer meat. It’s important that you have nothing but clean, lean meat when you are finished. You can use the scraps for dog food. They don’t mind the taste of the fat, and it’s good for them.

Once you have all the fat and silver skin removed from the backstrap, trim the ends so that you have a long, flat, slightly tapered piece of meat. There are several ways to approach processing from here. You can cut the backstraps into chops about half an inch thick, or cut them 1.5 of an inch thick like filet mignon. One of my preferred approaches is to cut each backstrap in half leaving me four large pieces of meat. I cook these whole and slice like roast beef. When in doubt, leave them in big pieces. You can always cut them later.

Of course, a lot depends on how you can store the meat. If you have a generator and a freezer, that’s great. But, if you must can or dry the meat, plan accordingly. Just remember, it’s a mortal sin to can or make jerky out of the backstrap. So use that cut for your first meals. Trust me. You won’t regret it. Well-prepared venison backstrap chases away sure-to-get nightmares about MREs.

Clean up the tenderloins. If they are messy from gutting the deer or covered with dried blood, rinse or soak them. Remove any loose hairs.

Cut away as much fat as possible from the hindquarters. There are several clearly defined muscles; use the knife and your fingers to separate them along their natural boundaries. Work your fingers along the junctions and cut (the meat, not your fingers) where it’s needed, including along the bone. Continue until you have all the muscles separated, off the bone and lying on the table. Clean them of all the fat, sinew and silverskin. The options are wide open, roasts, jerky, steaks whatever you like; the hindquarter meat is versatile and eager to please.

Boning Shoulders

deer meat shoulder
A good tug on the front lets you cut between the shoulder and the ribs to free the front shoulder on a whitetail.

There is a raised ridge close to the center of the shoulder blade, cut along both edges of it and then slide the knife between the meat and the bone. Patiently work until you’ve cut all the meat above the first joint. This meat works well for sausage or ground meat. But if you don’t have the equipment for making that, there are other options. Tie the meat up with a cord to make roasts, or cut it into cubes for stew or soup. You can even cut it into steaks on a young and tender deer.

The meat on the lower legs is very tough and full of sinew. You can cut it into small chunks for stew, braising, or feeding the dogs.

The neck makes a fine roast. It also responds well to braising, or you can chunk it up for stew or canning. Go through the scraps you collected and remove all the fat, sinew and silverskin. Again, strive for clean, lean meat; this takes a lot of time and work, but it’s worth the effort. The resulting meat can be cut up for stew meat or canning. The bones can go to your dogs, or you can use them for soup stock. In a survival situation, leave nothing to rot.

Unless you are planning to eat the entire deer in the next few days, you must process the meat for storage. Canning is an outstanding way to preserve deer meat and can be done in a survival situation. In days of old, they just dried the meat over a fire, being careful not to cook it. This primitive jerky for centuries has kept a lot of folks fed through winter.

This article was originally published in “Survivor’s Edge” Summer 2017. To order a copy, visit

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