John Dudley smiles and crouches in camo behind his kill as he shares how to field dress an elk.

How Field Dress an Elk, With John Dudley

Learn how to field dress an elk, from overall prep to skinning and quartering. Discover essential tips and tools needed for an efficient and safe process.

Quick and efficient field dressing extracts the highest-quality meat from your kill. The process can be more intimidating with elk than with deer, though, due to the elk’s larger size.

My name is John Dudley. I’m an Olympic archer and bow hunter who pursues big game every season. Let me teach you how to field dress an elk from top to bottom, just like the pros do. I’ll use the gutting method here, but the gutless method for elk is great if you want a faster result.

Throughout this process, I’ll be using Montana Knife Company’s Triumph XL. It’s an all-purpose elk processing knife that skins, guts, and debones any big game.

Quote: How to Field Dress an Elk, With John Dudley

Step 1: Skinning

Before you learn how to field dress an elk, you’ll have to learn how to skin an elk.

Start by positioning your kill on its back. You may find it helpful to prop the elk against a tree or log to keep it from rolling over.

I can’t over-emphasize the importance of careful knife use. Always cut away from your body, and keep a first-aid kit with you on every hunt.

It’s also a good idea to prep a clean, contaminant-free area to section out your meat before you begin. I recommend using a tarp to keep everything out of the dirt.

Start by cutting north from the anus with your elk skinning knife. Cut all the way up the center line of the belly until you reach the sternum. Be sure to leave proof of sex on at least one-quarter of the animal if your area’s hunting laws require it. If you plan to keep the head as a trophy, take extra care while cutting around the neck.

Once you’ve finished the center line, use gentle knife strokes to separate the hide from the meat. Continue the skinning process along each front leg, following the bone. Make a circle cut around each knee and cut the hide off at that point.

For the rear legs, start at the knee and cut a line up the center all the way to the genitals. Once you’ve finished the legs, you can fully remove the hide. I recommend rolling the hide (skin side in, fur side out) as you cut it away — this keeps it clean and pristine. Cut the hide down to the spine on both sides of the elk.

Step 2: Quartering

Now it’s time to learn how to quarter an elk. You can unroll the hide during this step to create a clean working surface. We’ll start at the hind end by cutting down to the pelvis bone between the hind legs. Avoid cutting into the abdominal muscles.

Next, pull one hind leg away from the elk (have someone else help you with this if possible) and slice along the pelvic bone. Keep cutting until you find the hip socket, and carefully cut around the ball joint. Keep the knife flat against the pelvis as you cut — follow its contour.

Continue to cut the hind quarter away from the pelvis, keeping in mind that you’ll need to double back. Once the quarter is free, remove it and place it on the tarp you prepared earlier.

Next, we’ll return to the front of the animal. Slice along the ribcage on the front quarter, following it until you sever the leg from the body. You’ll want to cut between the ribcage and the shoulder blade.

Repeat the same process for the other two quarters. Make sure to slice the remaining hide off the spine as you turn the animal over.

Step 3: Backstraps

To remove the backstraps, dive in with your knife on one side of the spine around the shoulder area. Cut down along the spine until you reach the pelvis. Extend the cut up the neck to get any remaining meat if necessary, then cut along the ribcage to free the meat. Repeat on the other side to cut out the other backstrap.

Infographic: How to Field Dress an Elk, With John Dudley

Step 4: Tenderloins

To access the elk’s tenderloins, you’ll need to gut it. Carefully cut through the muscle of the elk’s belly. Start at the sternum when you’re ready to cut into the animal’s abdominal cavity. This minimizes the chances that you’ll poke the intestines or stomach.

Cut until you have enough space to fit your hand inside the abdomen. Then, use one hand to slice south through the rest while using your free hand to push the guts out of the way.

Once you’ve cut through the ribcage and removed the guts, you can access the tenderloin. It’ll be adjacent to the ribs and spine. Use your knife to cut along the spine, using the bones as your guide.

Step 5: Ribs

If you’re a fan of a good rib roast, now’s the time to claim your prize. Use your knife or a saw to remove the ribs where they connect with the spine. Take extra care during this process — make sure your fingers are safely out of the way.

And now, you’ve learned how to field dress an elk. Make sure you have a cooler handy to keep the meat fresh while you head home. If you’ve been wondering how to butcher an elk, I hope this post scratched that itch.

Happy hunting.


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

with John Dudley, Decorated Professional Archer and Founder of Nock On Archery