Ask any bowhunter what activity puts them at maximum risk for a heart attack and you may get answers like shoveling snow, pushing a stuck car, or taking part in a triathlon. While these are all certainly stressful, the activity near or at the top for causing a potential heart attack is dragging a deer out of the woods.

Little research had been done on this subject, however, until the son of a friend of mine spent several months one summer working on his master’s thesis on adult fitness and cardiac rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. Andy Peterson is an avid deer hunter, so he decided to do his dissertation on something that combined his two major interests—cardiology and hunting. His research measured the effects on the hearts of his “guinea pigs” as they hauled deer carcasses over a quarter-mile course.

Sixteen subjects in their early 20s and in good physical condition were first subjected to a treadmill stress test to gather baseline data. Later, they walked a half-mile trail, each dressed in hunting clothes and carrying whatever equipment they normally had with them, wearing instruments that measured their pulse rates and oxygen consumption levels. Finally, they each dragged a 125-pound deer carcass along with their gear.

The results were startling. The stress the subjects put on their hearts while dragging was within ten percent of the maximum levels they had registered during their stationary stress test going “flat out.” According to Andy, “That’s a level only an ultra-marathoner in top shape can safely sustain.”

There were other factors that could not be measured yet could push the danger needle even further toward a coronary catastrophe. First of all, the subjects were young and active. How would a fifty-something desk-bound guy fare under the same circumstances? The dragging course was only a quarter of a mile long, and the path was an easy one. What would the readings have been if the subject were packing out an elk quarter through mountainous terrain for a longer distance?

Other unmeasured factors were the effects of recent alcohol consumption (which dilates the blood vessels) or cigarette smoking. There was also no way to measure the impact of adrenaline levels in the system as a result of the excitement of shooting the animal. And if the kill was a way from camp as darkness was approaching, the anxiety of getting back safely is also something that could kick up the adrenaline.

There are ways, however, to offset some of the stresses that dragging dead weight puts on your system. The first is to be aware of the very real risk of a heart attack. This should inspire one to be in the best physical shape possible prior to the hunt. Another factor that greatly reduces the danger is forcing oneself to take it slow and easy.

The best way I’ve found to keep from killing myself while dragging out an animal is to break the task down into smaller pieces. I leave the animal where I dressed it and move my jacket, bow, and pack 60 or 70 yards in the direction I want to go. Then I walk back and drag the animal to that spot. I continue leapfrogging until I reach my destination. During the gear-moving trips my heart has a chance to slow down. This is consistent with a runner doing a “cool down,” moving, rather than sitting immobile, immediately after exertion.

This system is often used by the canoe-camper who knows that transporting a heavy canoe and a pack along a portage trail is really better done with two carries. The first trip with the lighter load also allows scouting out the terrain ahead.

It’s a good idea to stay hydrated. A bottle of water is as important for a hunter as it is for a runner. (There’s a reason why there are hydration stations along every run longer than a mile.) Even a 6-oz can of something sour like cranberry or grapefruit juice can be a big help during a drag and takes up little room in a belt pack.

If you’re hunting within a reasonable distance from your vehicle or cabin, consider getting one of those wheeled deer-haulers. It would have been interesting if Andy had used the same test subjects to haul the same deer over the same trail with a wheeled cart. Having done it both ways, I’d guess that the effort would have been cut significantly.

Andy Peterson’s research into the effort of dragging a deer was a real eye-opener for me. Knowing that your heart could be running an ultra-marathon by the time your hunt is over makes a pretty compelling argument for giving the matter some thought and being prepared.

Regular contributor Duncan Pledger is a journalist from Milton, Wisconsin.


The research Andy conducted had some definite low moments. Since he did the project during a summer term, he had to rely on the highway department rather than hunters to supply carcasses. Some of these were decidedly “ripe.” The process of gutting them out in order to approximate what a hunter would be dragging was even more disgusting. He also had the DNR called a few times in response to people seeing him hauling what appeared to be a “poached” deer around in the back of his pick-up. There was also the time someone on campus (evidently one of the “let the deer live” crowd) defaced his vehicle in protest.