How to Gut and Skin a Deer
In this beginner's guide, you'll find an introduction to gutting and skinning a deer, with simple, illustrated steps.
August 23, 2013
By Miles Olson
Picture a world where humans exist, like all other things, in balance. Where there is not separation between “human” and “wild.” Unlearn, Rewild by Miles Olson (New Society Publishers, 2012) blends philosophy with a detailed introduction to a rich assortment of endangered traditional living skills. In this excerpt, Miles Olson teaches us how to gut and skin a deer.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Unlearn, Rewild.
I can remember vividly the first time I gutted a deer. It wasn’t with my dad or uncle or grandfather, it was with another friend who had never done it before. We’d been anticipating it for quite some time, wanting to learn how to eat the deer, raccoons and rabbits we regularly saw dead on the roadside, how to eat wild meat from right where we lived. My friend got a book called Field Dressing Your Big Game, filled with detailed instructions and color photographs depicting the steps in gutting big game (deer, moose, elk, etc.). This and the deer were our teachers.
Eventually we found a road killed deer, and it was time. After stashing the deer in a good secluded spot near the road, we anticipated a lot of blood and gore, so we went and dumpstered some clothes so ours — though they were by no means fancy — wouldn’t get completely soaked in blood. We remembered all the steps from the book, and were quite shocked when we discovered how easy it was. And we only had blood up to our wrists; we did not end up soaked in it as expected. Since then I have gutted (or dressed) and skinned (undressed) countless deer and other creatures. It’s easy. Anyone can do it. You quickly realize how long your ancestors have been doing this once you try it. To many it feels so natural, it’s as though these actions are part of our cellular memory. Here is a brief description of the steps for gutting and skinning a deer, since various species of deer are found throughout much of the world and the steps in gutting and skinning them apply to many other creatures, along with a few tips and tricks we have learned over the years. All you need is a sharp blade, or a dull one and some extra patience.
How to Dress a Deer (Gutting)
Lay the deer on its back. You can keep the deer steady and propped in this position by using rocks, pieces of wood or whatever you have handy as blocks on either side of the body. We begin at the anus. Before you get into the guts, it’s best to free the anus and colon. Cut the skin and tendons connecting them to the body so the colon will gently slide out with all the other guts. Use your knife to carefully cut around it (not into it), until it will slide in and out of its nook.
Use a piece of string to tie it off at the end, so no poo can escape when you get around to pulling this out with the rest of the guts.
Pinch some skin around the belly/paunch and pull it out. This way you can make a cut through this skin and membrane without cutting towards the guts and puncturing them. Make a cut through this pinched-up skin and membrane, until you can see the stomach that lies beneath them.
Now that you have made a point of entry, take your free hand and stick your fingers into it. Make it wider by tearing and prying with your fingers if you can. Now pull this opening up and away from the guts. Take your knife and, with the blade facing upwards (towards you, away from the guts), insert it into this hole, using your free hand to keep the skin (and knife) pulled taut, away from the guts.
Now you are in a position to safely make an incision from the paunch all the way up to the rib cage. Keep the skin and connective tissue you are cutting through pulled away from the guts while you make this cut. Your free hand is at once pulling the skin away from the guts and keeping them pushed down, away from the blade.
This may sound hard, but it is really quite easy once you are doing it.
When you get to the rib cage you can do one of two things: stop cutting there and reach up into this cavity to pull the guts out, or cut through the rib cage up to the neck. I almost always do the latter. On most deer this can be done with the knife you are using. There is a soft cartilaginous spot just to either side of the breastbone. With a bit of finesse and some muscle power, you can find it and, keeping the knife from pointing down into the stomach, cut through the ribs and up to the base of the neck. If it’s too hard with a knife, use a saw or don’t bother.
Now you have opened the body cavity. The diaphragm is a muscle that separates the stomach, lower intestines and other organs from the lungs and heart which rest above. It is attached all around the cavity to the rib cage. You can cut it free at this point or cut and tear it free with your hands when pulling out all the guts.
Now cut the windpipe and esophagus where they come out of the neck. If you didn’t cut through the ribs, you’ll have to reach up and do this in the dark. Now pull down and out on the esophagus — all of the guts are linked to this so they will come with it.
Pull with one hand and use your knife with the other to cut any tissue attaching the gut bundle to the back. Once the diaphragm is out of the way, the stomach and intestines should pull out with a little coaxing. As you work you can remove any organs or fat you want to save.
Now the guts are all out, and if the anus has been properly freed it will come along with them. If it stays put, use your knife to disconnect it completely.
If you have done a clean job (and were starting with a clean kill) there won’t be any stomach contents or poop left in the deer’s cavity. Normally, though, there will be a pool of blood. You can save this by scooping it out with a container for eating fresh, cooked or dried. Blood coagulates almost instantly upon contact with oxygen, so much of this blood may be in coagulated blobs; it’s still good, and even easier to collect.
How to Skin a Deer (Undressing)
Skinning most herbivores is very easy. Once the initial cuts are made, the skin can usually be pulled and pried off. Omnivorous creatures’ skin is not as easily pulled off — a knife usually needs to be used to cut it off. These instructions are for deer, and apply to almost all herbivores.
If the weather is cool and you want to age your deer meat for a while, you can leave the skin on until you decide it’s time to butcher.
It is easiest to skin a deer if it is hanging. This way you can get more leverage, the meat doesn’t get dirty, and you can see what you are doing better. Hang a deer by its head (around the neck) or hind legs, and make your skinning cuts as depicted below.
Make a slit on the back of the hind legs, just about the knee joint. There is a strong tendon there, and you can simply slide a pole through these holes to conveniently hang the deer.
Make skinning cuts on the front of the front legs, where white and brown hair meet, and on the back of the hind legs, where white and brown hair meet. By placing the skinning cuts like so, the hide will have a more useable, square shape when removed.
Once the initial skinning cuts have been made, you can put down your knife. Peel and pry the skin away from the flesh until you can get enough to really grip it — use your knife at the beginning if you have to. Once you get started, the hide will come off simply by using the mechanical force of your hands. Use your fists to get under the hide and really push to separate it. Avoid taking excessive meat off with the skin by using your brute force to guide it as it goes. Pulling, fisting and prying will do the job. This way there is no chance the hide will get cut by a blade, which is very important if the hide is going to be used for anything.
The main difference in gutting and skinning smaller mammals is that for creatures rabbit-sized and smaller, the anus is so small that cutting it free as described above is impractical. Fortunately, the pelvic bone is weak enough that you can easily break through it by prying with your knife. After making a slit from the pelvis upward to the ribs or neck, remove the entrails from the cavity, leaving them attached to the colon. Shove your knife under the pelvic bone, beside the intestine that travels through this canal between the pelvis and sacrum, and pry upwards, breaking the bone so the colon can be easily accessed and removed. Otherwise, smaller mammals are for the most part processed the same as larger ones.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive, published by New Society Publishers, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive.
Illustrations Courtesy New Society Publishers