Preserving meat in the wilderness is not an easy task, but if you want to live off the land as our ancestors did, then you need to learn how to preserve meat in the wild without refrigeration.
Otherwise, there are no reasons to hunt for big game. If all of your meat is going to go bad in less than a day without refrigeration, then you might as well stick to hunting small game such as squirrels and rabbits.
And if you’re anything like me, that’s not going to happen. I plan on providing my family with a good source of protein for more than a meal at a time.
But what’s the best way to preserve meat in the wild in order to stop it from going bad?
You can preserve meat in the wild by draping thinly sliced meat 2-3 feet over a small fire for 3-5+ hours at a time. Build a structure that traps the smoke from the fire around the meat to help repel bacteria-carrying insects and further dry the meat out. Meat jerky can remain edible for weeks (or even months) if properly stored away from sunlight and moisture.
Don’t worry, I was confused as well when I first began the process of learning how to preserve meat without refrigeration. Fortunately for you, I’m going to make this whole process as simple as possible. Everything you need to know to preserve meat in the wild without refrigeration is laid out below.
What Do You Need to Preserve Meat in the Wild?
While it may seem complicated to preserve meat in the wild, it’s actually quite simple. The only tools you’ll need are the following:
- Knife – The first step to preserving meat in the wild is to properly butcher your animal. Then cut its meat into thin strips so that it can be quickly dried. This will require a sharp knife.
- Water – You may need water to wash any dirt off the meat.
- Fire – A fire will be used to create smoke and heat. Both are needed to preserve meat in the wild.
- Sunlight – Sunlight will be used to extract moisture from the meat and to dry it out over time.
- Smoke rack – A smoke rack is used so you can lay out strips of meat on the rack. Place or build your smoke rack over a small fire and let the smoke do its thing.
- Time – One of the most important tools you’ll need to preserve meat in the wild is time. The whole process of preserving meat in the wild is going to take a while so be prepared and have patience.
Something else that’s required to preserve meat without refrigeration is good weather. If there’s not enough sunlight or too much rain in the forecast, then you’re going to have trouble keeping your meat dry and not full of moisture.
How to Preserve Meat in the Wilderness
The three best methods for preserving meat without refrigeration are smoking, drying, and salting.
The goal of all three of these methods is to remove moisture from the meat so that the growth of bacteria will be dramatically slowed down. The slower the growth of bacteria, the slower your meat will spoil. It’s as simple as that.
Remember, the optimal growth zone for bacteria is between 41° to 135° Fahrenheit. In this temperature range, bacteria can actually double in just 20 minutes. And once the bacteria has reached infectious levels, it simply cannot be reversed.
The main types of bacteria that you’re trying to stop from multiplying are e-coli, salmonella, shigella, staphylococcus, and listeria. Ingesting any of these five strains of bacteria will result in food poisoning and lead to symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pains, fever, and chills.
To help you avoid these symptoms, let’s discuss the three best ways to preserve meat in the wild.
Before the invention of refrigeration, meat was primarily preserved through a process known as salting – also referred to as curing or corning. Salting is essentially the process of covering meat and vegetables with a thick layer of dry salt (dry cure) or a salt-water mixture known as a brine (wet cure).
A brine can also be mixed with sugar, herbs, and spices to help add flavoring to your meat and/or vegetables. Sugar is also used to help reduce the harsh taste of salt and to promote the growth of the good bacteria Lactobacillus.
The reason salt is so effective at preserving meat is it slows down the growth of microorganisms by extracting water out of the microbial cells of the meat through a process known as osmosis. This lack of moisture helps to create a less hospitable environment for bacteria.
The only downside of using this method to preserve your meat in the wild is that you’re going to have to carry a lot of salt to make it possible.
The easiest way to preserve meat in the wild is to simply use the heat from the sun to dry it out. Just make sure to cut your meat into thin strips so that it can dry itself out as quickly as possible. Thicker cuts of meat will take much longer to dry out.
If you do plan on drying your meat out in the sun, then you need to set everything up in an open area where there’s nothing that can block out the sun. Once I find the perfect location to dry out my meat, I then build a rack (typically made out of wood) so I can lay my thin strips of meat out to dry.
You could also dry out your meat on something such as a flat rock, just make sure to flip your meat over halfway during the drying process. The entire drying process will typically take somewhere between 12 to 16 hours.
You may also want to invest in some meat bags (bags made out of fine mesh) to help keep the flies and other annoying insects away from your meat.
Smoking is a great way to preserve meat in the wild. You can even use it in combination with the other two methods (salting and drying) to achieve the best shelf life possible. It’s also a great way to add some flavor to your meat.
The two different types of smoking are known as hot smoking and cold smoking. Hot smoking is the quicker of the two variations as it uses heat in conjunction with smoke to both cook and dry out the remaining moisture from the meat. Cold smoking, on the other hand, takes a lot longer than hot smoking does as there is no heat used to dry out the meat.
To make sure you’re cold smoking your meat the proper way, you want to make sure the temperature surrounding your meat never goes above 100° Fahrenheit. When hot smoking, however, the temperature around your meat can easily reach between 200° to 300° Fahrenheit.
You also want to make sure to use the right kind of wood when smoking your meat. Failure to do so could possibly ruin the taste or even poison you. I recommend using hardwood such as Apple, Cherry, Oak, Hickory, Maple, Pecan, Mesquite, or Pimento. Avoid using wood from conifers such as Cypress, Cedar, Fir, Pine, Redwood, and Spruce.
To set up the hot smoking process, simply build a rack over a small fire and then let the smoke slowly dry and cook your meat over an extended period of time. It also helps to cover the rack holding your meat with a covering of some kind (tarp, wool blanket, ferns, etc.) to help hold in the heat and smoke.
The process of smoking the meat will take up to 3-5 hours so be prepared to keep your fire stoked the entire time. It may take you a little practice to learn how to properly smoke meat over a fire, so don’t get easily discouraged.
The timing process is extremely difficult and it’s not hard to either burn the meat or not dry it out enough. At least you can still eat the latter.
If cold smoking is more your style, simply ditch the covering and maybe add some more space between the rack and the fire. Or build a smaller fire. Really anything to reduce the heat down to 100° Fahrenheit or lower.
Watch the video below if you want to see how our ancestors performed the hot smoking technique in the wild.
What You Should Do Before You Preserve Your Meat
Before you begin the process of preserving your meat in the wild, there are a few steps you first need to take to make sure your meat gets the most shelf life possible.
For starters, you want to make sure to keep your meat clean, cool, and dry. By following these three simple steps, you have a much greater chance of successfully preserving your meat in the wild.
Why clean, cool, and dry?
It’s essentially the opposite of being dirty, warm, and wet. All of which create the perfect environment for bacteria to spoil your meat.
If you’ve just finished butchering your animal, then the first step you can take to cool down your meat is to cut off all of the bone, connective tissue, and extra fat. This removes the insulation from the meat that helps to keep it warm. You can also cut the meat into thin strips to help it cool down even faster.
The next step you want to take is to clean your meat using water so you can both cool and clean it off at the same time. If you have a river or stream in your area, then that’s the perfect place to clean up your meat.
The last step you want to take is to dry off your meat. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to dry off your meat than the three methods we’ve already discussed (smoke, sunlight, and salt).
How to Store Meat in the Woods
After your meat is clean, cool, and dry, you then need to figure out how you’re going to store your meat while you’re in the woods.
Without a refrigerator, there isn’t much you can do to stop your meat from spoiling. Fortunately, you can help slow down the growth of bacteria by taking a few proper precautions. The main precaution you want to take is to prevent your meat from coming in contact with any moisture whatsoever.
You can accomplish this by storing your dehydrated meat in airtight containers. For the best shelf life possible, you should also store your containers in a location that’s cool, dry, and preferably dark.
But what should you do if you’re constantly on the move and can’t afford to carry heavy containers in your bag? Your best bet would be to wrap your meat in some form of plastic foil such as cellophane. While this might not give your meat the shelf life of an airtight container, sometimes you have to do the best with what you’re given.
Remember, your main goal when storing meat for longevity is to prevent any moisture from coming in contact with your meat. As long as you can accomplish this goal, you should get a little more shelf life out of your preserved meat.