In a field, a man’s hands prop up the rack and head of the deer he brought down on a hunt.

How to Field Dress a Deer Faster and Cleaner Without a Bone Saw

Planning an ultralight backpacking hunt? Discover how a basic hunting knife can outperform a saw in field dressing a deer, saving you weight and time.

I used to carry a bone saw in my hunting pack — the key term there being “used to.”

With just a bit of time and technique, you can learn to break down a deer and cut quarters off without a saw. It’s a beneficial skill to have if you’re planning an ultralight backpack hunt and you need to decide what ounces are essential to pack — and what you can leave at home.

Quote: How to Field Dress a Deer Faster and Cleaner Without a Bone Saw

How Is It Possible to Field Dress Big Game Animals Without a Saw?

All joints on deer are connected by tissue, and all tissue can be cut with a good blade. There are no hard connection points that can’t be worked through or around with a blade. You just need to be willing to go slow and take your time, like a surgeon, instead of using a saw and “hacking away.”

When you learn how to field dress a deer with a knife, you can use the same technique to dress an elk, antelope, or sheep. 

What Tools and Equipment Do You Need to Field Dress a Deer?

You’ll need the following tools and equipment to effectively field dress a deer with a knife. (You’d still need many of these items if you were using a saw.)

  • One 3″ long blade (or longer)
  • Game bags for the meat
  • A tarp to keep the animal clean
  • Rubber gloves to keep your hands clean
  • An MKC Med Kit for cuts or injuries
  • A sturdy pack to carry the meat
  • A sharpening stone to keep the blade sharp

Step-by-Step Guide to Field Dressing a Deer

Positioning the Animal

First, it’s helpful to position the animal in a way that allows you to move around it freely, without overgrown brush or trees hindering you, if possible. This enables you to position yourself ergonomically, so you don’t get a sore back or muscles. Plus, it keeps the meat clean.

We also recommend positioning the animal in a way that allows blood to drain away from the workspace. This helps you work without interference and ensures the animal is placed correctly. Ideally, it’s best to drag the animal to a slight decline free of obstructions.

Sometimes, it’s helpful to position the animal near a tree and use the tree to hold the weight of one leg. This keeps the cavity open to provide better access to the animal.

Preparing the Meat

Another factor to consider before field dressing an animal is where to set your tarp and game bags. We suggest placing them in the shade, where they won’t get too hot.

You want the meat to cool off as quickly as possible, especially in hot conditions, so a shady spot is best.

Choosing a Dressing Method

Next, decide on your field dressing method. You can either gut the animal out or quarter and debone it. Or, you can go with the gutless method.

There are several field dressing methods, and the one you choose will likely depend on several factors, including the size of the animal, the distance you need to carry it, the time of day, and how many people are available to help you.

Infographic: How to Field Dress a Deer Faster and Cleaner Without a Bone Saw

Quartering Without a Saw

To quarter an animal without a saw, you first need to locate the pelvic bone and cut the meat away, following it to the hip joint.

When cutting meat, it’s important to begin around the hip area. Start by cutting from the back to the hip bone, releasing the meat as you go until you reach the hip joint. To separate the joint, use a gentle cutting motion to cut through the tendons and connective tissues.

If you have a hunting buddy, it helps to have that person lifting, pulling, or applying pressure to the leg. This enables you to find the connective tissue, and when the pressure is released, your hunting buddy can help you lift the meat away from the animal. The animal’s leg can be removed with the leg bone still entirely inside the quarter without a saw.

A deer’s front shoulder doesn’t have a joint, and it’s not connected through a joint — it’s only connected by muscle. You’ll need to cut the meat by following it around the shoulder blade and down between the shoulder blade in the chest cavity. You can remove the front quarter with the bone still inside the meat.

You can also cut an animal in half through the rib cage using a knife and cut the connective tissue between the animal’s vertebrae. This technique allows you to cut an animal in half without a saw.

Final Thoughts

Once you start learning how joints and connected pieces work together on a deer, elk, or other animal, field dressing an animal with a knife becomes just as fast as using a saw — and a lot cleaner, too. You make less of a mess of the animal and can be confident you’re not running a saw through your meat.

You get a sharp, clean cut when field dressing with a knife that you just can’t accomplish when using a saw!


by Josh Smith, Master Bladesmith and Founder of Montana Knife Company