How to Preserve Meat in the Wild

Now that you’ve had a wonderful day out hunting and have a surplus of meat left, you must be wondering how to preserve it without a refrigerator out in the wild. Preserving the extra meat will ensure that you have a safe supply of protein for a few days or weeks.

In fact, long before the invention of refrigerators, for centuries man has been preserving meat so that it is safe to consume. So how do you keep your meat safe to consume for days after the kill? Drying the meat in the sun, smoking the meat, curing it with salt or using a blend of these techniques are the common ways by which you can preserve meat in the wild.

Preservation ensures that all the moisture is removed from the meat and prevents the growth of bacteria and microbes. Also, once you preserve the meat, you should ensure that it is protected from high temperatures, oxygen, water and flies. Enzymatic and chemical processes can cause the meat to spoil.

In the absence of refrigeration in the wilderness, the aim is to extend the shelf life of the meat by slowing or stopping the degradation processes by removing the water, reducing the temperature and producing a protective covering on the surface of the meat, thereby ensuring a safe supply for days, weeks or even months.

In my guide, I will discuss effective ways of how you can preserve your meat in the wild.

Why Do I Need to Preserve Meat?

After a kill, unless you eat the meat immediately, you must safeguard it from the growth of microorganisms, which make the meat unsafe for consumption by humans. Bacterial growth is the biggest health concern and is difficult to prevent without refrigeration.

The optimal temperature for bacterial growth is around 41oF to 135oF and the bacterial growth can become two-fold in around 20 minutes. The bacteria level cannot be turned around once it reaches infectious levels. Despite the live bacteria being killed, the high temperatures will not eradicate the microorganisms in the meat.

The spores remain dormant when the meat is cooked and start to multiply when the temperature returns to the conducive zone. So, preventing the unalterable bacterial growth of strains like E. coli, Shigella, Salmonella, Listeria and Staphylococcus from the time you kill the animal is a tough task. Ingesting these strains of bacteria can cause food poisoning, which can be quite hazardous, especially if you’re out in the wild.

So, the key tool for survival in the wild is to preserve the meat and ensure that you’re safe. Also, while you’re handling the raw meat, you should be careful to prevent any cross contamination, which you can ensure by cleaning your hands, knives and clothes that have touched the carcass of the dead animal before you touch anything else.

How Do I Prepare Meat for Preservation?

I have discussed this earlier; microorganisms usually thrive well when the outdoor temperatures are ambient and you should ensure that the meat is cooled as quickly as possible to prevent the bacteria from multiplying. I’m not really saying that the meat should be at a freezing temperature, but reducing the temperature slightly will give you sufficient time to begin the process of preservation.

To get the meat cooled quickly, you should remove the connective fat tissue and the natural insulators while cleaning the meat. Cutting the meat into very small pieces will help to dissipate the heat more quickly.

If you’re in a place with colder climates, then you can cover the game with snow or just expose it to the cool breeze. If you are able to, then you could also cut into the ice to help create a refrigerator for the meat naturally. But if the ambient temperature is not below 41oF, then using nature to keep the meat cool will not help in preserving it for very long.

Once you have prepared the meat for preservation, I would recommend using one of the 5 techniques that I have described below to preserve the meat in the wilderness.

Option 1: Drying the Meat with Sunlight

The simplest, least technical and effective method for drying the meat is using natural sunlight. Cut thin strips of the meat, trim off the fat and keep them in direct sunlight. This is the most effective way to dehydrate the meat. Put the meat into meat bags or cover the drying meat with a mesh net to keep it away from flies and other insects.

Hanging the meat strips between trees and allowing the sunlight to dry the meat from all sides is the best way to dry it. If you’re not able to do this, then lay the strips of meat to dry on a rock; however, make sure to flip the meat to dry on the other side too.

If the meat is dried properly, it will last for 1-2 weeks; however, it may not be very flavorful. Also, you should keep the meat that you have dried in sealed bags. This helps in preventing the oxygen from enabling yeast or bacterial growth on the meat.

Dehydrating your meat can help to reduce its weight because 60% of its weight is because of water. And, this can help in transporting the meat over long distances because dehydrated meat can help to shrink your pack size.

So, in the wilderness, if conditions are conducive, your meat will remain safe. However, if it is raining, overcast or not sufficiently cold and not sufficiently warm to dry the meat, then sunlight will not be sufficient to preserve the meat effectively.

Option 2: Curing

Curing or corning essentially involves adding salt to the meat to dehydrate it. The salt helps to remove the water via the process of osmosis, where the electrolyte balance is achieved by driving the inner moisture from the meat outwards. When there is no water internally, this prevents the growth of bacteria.

This is a good method to preserve meat in the wild; however, you need to remember to carry salt with you, which can be quite heavy. Also, the salt is not reusable and you must bring along sufficient quantity to last you for the entire time that you’re out in the wild. You can either follow the wet curing or dry curing method.

You can reduce the harshness of the salt and also help in the growth of Lactobacillus or good bacteria by adding sugar to the rub. By adding nitrates to the rub or use celery or spinach, you can remove Clostridium botulinum i.e. bacteria that cause botulism. A curing rub helps to provide an uncongenial environment that prevents the development of microorganisms both inside the meat and also on the surface.

Wet Curing

This essentially involves the preparation of a saline solution with around 14% to 20% salt in water. You can add sugar or spices to the solution if you want to flavor the meat. Cut the meat into strips and submerge them into the salty water for around 5 minutes. Remove the meat strips and then hang them to dry.

When the water evaporates, it will leave behind a salt layer on the meat that prevents any bacterial growth. The salt helps to dehydrate the meat more quickly compared to the sun and heat and also provides an inhospitable environment for any bacteria.

Dry Curing

In dry curing, salt is applied to the meat directly instead of making use of a saline solution. Sugar and spices can also be added to the rub for additional flavor. Allow the meat to air dry to ensure that the water content driven by the salt to the surface evaporates.

Once the cured meat is dry, storing the meat in game bags or airtight containers can help to protect it from flies and other insects. Also, make sure that there is sufficient salt between the layers and the pieces of meat don’t touch each other. Curing can help to preserve the meat for many months. The completely dried meat is called jerky, which means “dried and salted meat.”

Option 3: Smoking

One more effective method of preserving meat in the wild is smoking, without actually cooking it. Smoking not only adds flavor to the meat, but it also creates an acidic surface, which inhibits the growth of bacteria and preserves the meat for longer compared to dehydration. But the process of smoking meat is very time consuming and if your aim is to cover the distance, then this may not be a suitable process.

However, for smoking, you don’t need to carry any materials such as salt, spices, etc. with you and may be the perfect meat preserving method in the wilderness. But smoking is a specialized technique and depends on various factors such as:

  • Firstly, you must use hardwood like oak, cherry, maple, hickory or applewood because softwoods such as spruce or pine contain pitch that can coat the meat and produce a bitter unpalatable taste.
  • The wood must be completely dry (rotten, dry wood i.e. punky wood is the best) as it produces more smoke without the moisture. Wet or green wood won’t burn right and will also cover the meat in fire-resistant carcinogens. This is also a reason as to why smoking in the wilderness may not be a good idea unless you’re stationary for many months or are living completely off the grid.
  • A canopy should be made on top of the fire to ensure that the smoke is kept around the meat and does not disperse into the surrounding air. So, I recommend that you bring along some sort of fire-resistive material in your survival kit for this.

You can smoke the meat over a campfire and the best way is to dig a pit and place the campfire. Partially cover the fire so that the heat is blocked and prevents the meat from cooking. The meat must be enclosed by the smoke 109oF to 160oF and should not be too close to the flame to prevent the meat from getting cooked, but at the same time, the smoke is sufficiently warm to help in the dehydration process of the meat.

Making use of slightly dehydrated thin cuts of meat can help to reduce the smoking time. The process of curing along with smoking can help to make the jerky more flavorful. When you cure the meat and then smoke it, the meat will have a layer of salt that maintains the internal dryness and smoking will add another protective layer to the meat, while also adding flavor.

Option 4: Soak in Brine

If you don’t have any way to dehydrate the meat in the wild, then the best technique is to soak the meat in brine, which is a traditional preservation technique. The meat is completely submerged in the salt solution, which helps to protect it from the atmosphere. This process deprives the microorganisms from getting any oxygen and prevents the growth of bacteria, keeping the meat safe for consumption.

Also, brining helps to keep the meat tender, which other methods do not and dried meat can be quite chewy. For the process of brining, I recommend using larger meat pieces or else, the process will take a shorter time and if you leave it in the brine for longer, it will taste very salty. You can add flavor to the brine by using spices, herbs, sugarcane or caramel.

The drawback of brining meat in the wilderness is that it is not dehydrated and will be heavier, adding more weight for you to carry. Also, you must store the meat in an airtight container, which will only add to the weight. And so, I don’t really recommend using brining as your primary method to preserve meat in the wild.

Option 5: Using Preservatives

Today, there are several preservative powders or sprays that you can purchase from the market that make preserving meat in the wild extremely simple. These preservatives usually contain citric acid and create an unfriendly environment on the surface of the meat that prevents bacterial growth. This is a great option if you’re looking to reduce your sodium intake and also don’t want to use fire.

However, since the use of preservative powders or sprays does not preserve the meat for very long since it doesn’t dehydrate the meat and you will need to reuse the preservative every 2-3 days. I recommend that you dry the meat before you apply the preservative powder or spray because this will help to increase the meat preservation time. However, the citric acid forms a crust on the meat, which you must remove before the meat is cooked and consumed.

How Long Does Preserved Meat Last in the Wild?

I have now taught you all the ways by which you can preserve meat in the wild without refrigeration. But you may ask me how long will these methods help to preserve the meat? Well, to answer your question, drying the meat in sunlight or using citric acid alone can preserve your meat for 2-3 days.

The benefit of using citric acid is that you can reapply it; however, it causes more meat to be wasted as you need to trim the meat more before consuming it. The methods of smoking and curing can help to preserve the meat for a longer time and the meat can last for a few weeks up to a month.

The best method that will help to preserve your meat the longest is making jerky, which can last for up to 3 months. However, I find jerky to be the least flavorful and over time, it can become quite chewy and annoying to eat.

Wrapping Up

The hunters in olden times had the knowledge of how they could preserve meat in the wild. And, even to this day, several of these techniques are used by people across the world including native tribes, survivalists and hunters required to preserve meat in the wild. And, now that I have shared these tips and techniques with you, now you too know them and can successfully preserve meat out in the wild.