Trail Cameras: A Buyer's Guide
Author: Dan Carlson
There is no substitute for preseason scouting when it comes to success during deer season, but many of us don’t have as much time as we’d like to look for active trails, rubs, scrapes, tracks and sign on our hunting ground. Even when we do find evidence of game activity, it’s often not easy to know the number, size and trophy quality of animals in the area. That’s where the trail camera comes in.
Trail cameras have revolutionized scouting by providing hunters and wildlife watchers with precise information about what kind of animals frequent an area. A quality camera will not only show you the number, gender, size and trophy quality of game animals around the area in which it is mounted, but will also snap pictures of other animals that happen to wander by. More advanced models will even display the time, date, location, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and moon phase at the moment a picture was taken.
Early models of trail cameras used 35mm film and had to be checked regularly because an active night could consume the entire roll of film. It didn’t take long to run up quite a bill in film development costs. Today most models are digital, and that has opened up whole new possibilities to hunters.
The use of memory cards in trail cameras permits the storage of dozens, even hundreds of pictures taken over a prolonged period depending on the memory capacity of the card and programmed activation times. The more memory on the SD and Compact Flash cards you use, the longer the periods of time you can wait before checking the camera. It’s always desirable to minimize human activity in the areas you’ll be hunting. On trail cameras with video capability, cards with larger amounts of memory also can store several video clips. Depending on the camera model you have, these videos of animal action in front of the camera can be replayed on your home computer, on your TV set, or even on remote viewing screens called portable field viewers without leaving the vicinity of the camera. Many digital models come with a USB connector to hook up to your home computer or TV-out cables to hook up to your TV. With a computer, you can sort, edit and analyze your trail camera pictures in great detail.
Trail cameras are typically mounted to a tree or post in areas where deer and other game animals are expected to be active. It’s important to mount the camera at a height and position so that it has an unobstructed view of the area you wish to monitor. It is recommended that the camera not be set up facing the east or west as the rising and setting sun could cause "white-outs" of images taken at those critical times. Many have a test mode that will allow you to trip the activation a time or two before leaving the area to make sure the camera is positioned where you want it. The camera’s electronics are usually housed in a durable, weather-resistant case, and batteries specified by the manufacturer supply power. There are models that use C, D, AA and even 6-volt and 12-volt batteries. Some cameras even have optional solar panel inputs that can use the sun to power the unit during the day so your batteries are charged for the nighttime shots. A battery-level indicator is a handy feature to have on your camera because it shows you when it’s time to change out the batteries, especially in cold weather.
Theft of your trail camera is a concern, but there are measures you can take to minimize this unfortunate occurrence. Mount your camera as inconspicuously as possible, and take advantage of the locking and security features offered by many manufacturers. There are models that can be programmed to stamp the owner’s name and phone number on images taken, which is a wise precaution.
You may be wondering just how many features you need on a trail camera. That is entirely up to you. There are basic trail camera models that take black-and-white pictures with a conventional flash and are priced less than $100, and there are digital models that produce high-resolution images complete with meteorological data and computer mapping interface features that cost several hundred dollars. The less expensive models will serve you well if you only want to know if there is game in the area and what kind it is. If you intend to research time and conditions associated with peak activity, record color video clips, want the highest resolution images possible and will make use of computer interface options, then you’ll want a trail camera with more features.
For a complete look at trail cameras, the features each model has, and the accessories available for trail cameras, just type "trail camera" in the search bar at the top of this page.