The most prominent tools of the hunt tend to get a lot of attention—we spend days or weeks selecting the right rifle, the right ammo, the right hunting scope. Game calls and camo patterns get agonized over and debated. But the tools that get used after a kill has been made too often go overlooked.
Downing an animal is important, obviously, but field-dressing it cleanly and efficiently is, too. From the moment your prey is downed, bacteria begin to spread through the meat. The longer you spend struggling to process your deer, the more time the bacteria have to contaminate it, so it’s important to get your game processed and into a field dressing bag as soon as possible.
Moreover, sub-par tools can lead to sloppy cuts and lost meat, or in the very worst case, a nicked intestine, ruining whatever meat its contents touch.
You might be able to get by with nothing but your trusty hunting knife, but those serious about the craft owe it to themselves to try a purpose-built field dressing kit.
What is a Field Dressing Kit?
A field dressing kit is a collection of knives and tools designed for the purpose of processing game after you’ve downed it. Unlike a common hunting knife, these aren’t general utility tools pressed into service, but carefully engineered instruments designed to make the process as quick and easy as possible.
Not that there is anything wrong with a hunting knife; they’re great all-purpose tools that serve a whole host of uses besides field dressing. But when you’re dealing with something this crucial and strenuous, you don’t want a jack of all trades—you want a master of one.
A field dressing kit typically includes anywhere from five to twelve tools, depending on both price and the scope of game it attempts to address. Field dressing a turkey is substantially different from gutting a deer, and so some kits will include field dressing knives specifically for fowl. Some kits even include specialized knives for cleaning and descaling fish.
Even the most spartan of kits will generally include a small caping knife (also called a caper), a cleaning or skinning knife with a gut hook, a butcher knife, and a bone saw. More sophisticated kits will often add ribcage spreaders and sharpeners, as well as more niche knives that excel at their specific tasks.
When shopping for a field dressing kit, though, don’t use the number of tools as your sole gauge of quality. It’s not uncommon for companies to offer big, flashy kits with lots of shiny tools, but use low-quality materials to cut costs and offer a similar price point to smaller kits.
Quality is essential with a field dressing kit, so it’s important to take into consideration not just the quantity of tools, but their materials and craftsmanship as well. A good quality field dressing kit is a massive aid in the chore of game cleaning, but a poor quality one can actually hinder you more than a decent field knife would have.
The Benefits of Using a Field Dressing Kit
The primary benefit compared to a standard hunting knife is ease of use. There’s simply no comparison between dressing a buck with a quality field dressing kit versus a hunting knife.
Take, for example, the initial cut along the belly of the animal to open the body cavity. With a hunting knife, it’s a careful process of cutting in with the tip, but not too far for fear of puncturing the viscera, then carefully working the blade down the length of the animal, again taking care not to nick an intestine.
With a gut hook (a common, but specialized field dressing knife found in most kits) it’s essentially as simple as pressing in the hook and unzipping the body cavity. Both the potential for error and the time required are substantially reduced.
Likewise, the other tools in the kit simplify their respective tasks. A proper caper makes detailed cuts around important areas easy, while a full-size hunting knife will struggle to exercise fine enough control around the point. Cutting through tough bones to quarter a carcass is likewise much easier with a bone saw.
The benefit of a good dressing kit goes beyond convenience, though. As we noted previously, field dressing game is essentially a race against time. The longer it takes you to dress and cool the meat, the more potential there is for bacteria to spoil it. Expediting the task helps to ensure you get your game into the freezer faster.
For these reasons, a quality field dressing kit should be part of your hunting essential.
Factors to Consider when Choosing the Best Field Dressing Kit
It is a universal fact that not all products in a given category are created equal; the corollary to this is that in most cases, no one product can truly be called the best, either.
“Best” will almost always be relative, and will change depending on who is asking the question. Nevertheless, there are a few key considerations to take into account when shopping for a field dressing kit.
Number of tools
The number of tools in a field dressing kit is perhaps the best example of the above principle. Field dressing kits range from minimalist three-knife sets to expansive models that rival a professional chef’s knife block.
Neither of these can really be considered best, or really even better than the other, as each will serve a different purpose more suitably. Hunters who hike 20 miles into the bush with a pack full of long-range hunting gear are going to be counting every ounce, and certainly won’t be inclined to lug twelve different knives around for game processing.
Those who use a vehicle to reach their hunting site, on the other hand, have much more capacity for weight and may enjoy the utility of all those specialized tools.
The number of tools in a kit will have a direct impact on its size and weight. Moreover, not all hunters will need every tool in a kit. Certain kits contain specialized knives for fowl or fish, which would be entirely useless to a deer hunter.
When selecting a field dressing kit, consider your tolerance for size and weight, as well as which tools will be truly useful to you, and which can be forgone.
Material and Durability
Quality materials and durable construction are of paramount importance in any piece of hunting equipment. Hunting gear gets used hard. It gets dragged through the rain and the mud. It may get stained with blood or battered against rocks and trees. Your tools need to be able to work just as hard as you do.
The most important part of a field dressing kit is quality steel. In hunting knives, both carbon and stainless steels are common, as well as laminate steels, such as VG10. For a dressing kit, though, we highly recommend sticking to stainless steel.
A field dressing kit is going to spend a great deal of time in contact with blood and viscera. That kind of use tends to rust carbon steels very quickly, although the issue can be ameliorated by cleaning your knives thoroughly immediately after use. Nevertheless, stainless steel will on average tend to hold up the best over years of this sort of use.
We typically also recommend sticking to kits that advertise the specific type of steel they use. For a stainless set, something like 420 stainless is both suitable and in most cases, affordable. 154CM would be an even better choice, but will come at a substantial premium. If you truly have no budgetary limits, consider looking for something made with S35VN or M390.
Be sure to invest in a good sharpener if you opt for premium steel, though—while high-end steel tends to be better at retaining its edge, it’s also substantially harder to sharpen.
Most field dressing kits will feature some variety of plastic for the handle. As long as the quality of the construction is high, the exact version of polymer is usually unimportant, although both FRN and Kraton are popular choices. Lastly, be sure to look at the construction of the carrying case as well, if one is included. A knife roll will be much easier to fit into a pack, but a hard plastic case will provide your knives with greater protection.
Ergonomics is an important aspect, but a difficult one to quantify. What fits your hand best may not be the same as what fits others.
However, dressing an animal, particularly a large one, can be a physically intensive affair. Knives and tools with poorly sculpted handles are going to create hotspots on your hands, which leads to pain and muscle fatigue. Tired, hurting hands are the exact opposite of what you want for a quick, clean field dressing.
If possible, try holding some of the tools from prospective knife sets. Grip them firmly to see if any pain points appear. If you’re buying online, of course, you’ll have to rely on the reviews, which can usually provide you with a decent idea of the general ergonomics of a kit.
Size and Weight
Although we largely already covered this topic when discussing the number of tools your kit should have, it’s worth revisiting, because size and weight aren’t entirely tied to the number of tools in a kit.
Some kits are designed with backpackers in mind, and feature smaller knives made with lightweight materials. The drawback is that these smaller tools may take longer to process a large animal like a bear or an elk. However, for small or medium size game, you may find that having a larger assortment of smaller tools is more effective than the inverse.
Other sets are of course designed for less mobile hunters and feature larger, heavier tools. These sets can process big game much faster, but at the cost of more weight, particularly if you have already determined that you want a diverse range of tools.
The Best Field Dressing Kits
Just because there’s no one best field dressing kit doesn’t mean there aren’t a few that are leading the pack. Below are a few options well-equipped for a variety of different hunters.
AccuSharp Game Processing Kit
AccuSharp’s contribution to the field is a small but effective range of tools perfect for a backpacker or minimalist. The kit is sparse on luxuries, but dense with essentials, offering caper, gut hook, and butcher knives as well as a bone saw, rib spreader, and knife sharpener.
The compact kit also includes a small bundle of zip ties, which are an unorthodox but exceptionally handy item useful for field dressing, particularly if you are working alone without a second set of hands to hold the carcass in place or out of the way.
Each tool features a bright orange handle, making it easy to locate in the woods if you drop it, and the whole kit packs up into a compact hard plastic case for transport or storage.
Outdoor Edge ButcherLite Game Processing Kit
The ButcherLite kit similarly offers another option for high-mobility hunters seeking a lightweight option. It includes the ubiquitous caping and gut hook knives, but in place of the usual butcher knife, it instead incorporates a hybrid boning and filleting knife.
This switch makes the ButcherLite an excellent option for those who primarily hunt small or medium game and find themselves making a lot of fine cuts rather than a few broad ones. The kit also includes a two-stage sharpener to keep your knives in top condition, a bone saw, rib spreader, and a pair of impermeable gloves, an all-too-often overlooked safety measure that is especially important for those hunting gaming known to carry transmissible diseases.
The ButcherLite kit forgoes a hard plastic carrying case in favor of a low-profile nylon roll pack.
HME Deluxe 12 Piece Field Processing Kit With Carrying Case And Cutting Board
Ideal for those who like to have all the bells and whistles at their disposal, this field dressing kit from HME packs a whopping 12 different items and tools.
Caping, gut hook, butcher, and boning knives all make an appearance in addition to a set of shears and a bone saw, ensuring that users have the right cutting tool for every possible task. The large kit includes the usual rib spreader but also features a cutting board and butcher fork for those who want to be able to process their game beyond simply field dressing.
Tips for Using a Field Dressing Kit Effectively
Proper maintenance is essential for most equipment, but it’s particularly important for your field dressing kit. Dull knives are dangerous knives, requiring more force to make cuts and being generally unpredictable.
A smooth, controlled cut with a sharp knife rarely ends in an injury. The same cannot be said for a frustrated, forceful one with a dull knife.
While most field dressing kits include a knife sharpener, they are usually small, efficient units best suited to small touch-ups in the field, rather than long-term maintenance like reprofiling or thinning the bevel behind the edge. We highly recommend a quality knife sharpening system or a set of bench stones.
Additionally, while all of the aforementioned options are made of stainless steel, none of them are truly rustproof—no steel ever is. After each use, it’s highly recommended to clean your knives at the earliest opportunity. Good stainless steel can delay rust, but it can’t forestall it forever.
Field-dressing a deer with a kit is essentially the same as with a single knife; it’s the same cuts, the same routine, the same stages. When you’ve recently transitioned over to a kit, though, it can be easy to forget that you have multiple tools available and use one knife for much of the task before remembering to switch.
With a field dressing kit, each tool is designed to make your life easier at a specific stage in the process. Remember to use them, and to use them for the tasks they were designed for.
There’s nothing wrong with dressing a deer or other game with a simple hunting knife, just like there’s nothing wrong with hunting with a bow. But, now that firearms have been invented, there is a much easier way to do it. Proper field dressing kits are no different; you can do it the hard way, but you don’t have to.
Field dressing kits make the gutting process shorter and easier, shortcutting the amount of time bacteria have to multiply in your meat and getting you back from the hunt that much faster.