Trail Cameras are a fantastic invention and have revolutionised hunting and wildlife watching since they became affordable. A trail camera, also sometimes known as a game camera, trophy camera or camera trap normally consists of a fairly simple camera in a rugged box which protects it from rain, snow and to a certain extent from being tampered with, along with the best trail camera there will be a motion sensor which activates the camera when something passes by allowing you to capture a picture or video of passing wildlife or people.
Odium [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Table of Contents
- How Do Trail Cameras Work?
- Uses for Trail Game Cameras
- Tips for Setting Up Your Trail Camera
- Tracking and Wildlife Signs
- Top 10 Best Trail Camera on the Market Review
- 1 VICTURE trail Camera
- 2 Bushnell Trophy Cam HD
- 3 Browning Strike Force Trail Camera
- 4 Wildgame Innovations Digital Game Camera
- 5 Foxelli Trail Camera
- 6 Kuool 4G Cellular & GPS Trail Camera
- 7 Spartan Go Cam
- 8 Browning Strike Force Pro XD Dual Lens
- 9 Stealth Cam Dual Sensor Trail Camera (2 pack)
- 10 BlazeVideo Game Trail Camera
How Do Trail Cameras Work?
Trail Cameras function as stand-alone devices which once set up only need maintenance to replace their batteries or to collect recorded images from their memory card, some higher end models will even send images directly to your phone or email.
They are equipped with motion sensors which activates the camera, and they can generally be set to take either stills or video depending on your preference. I find that video is generally easier to capture as with stills, if you are filming along a game trail you will often just get the animal leaving the frame as by the time the sensor activates the camera it will already have crossed the frame. There are tricks to avoid this and some cameras have features to improve your pictures, we’ll cover those tricks later but the features which can be used to avoid poorly framed stills need to be discussed if you are to understand how atrial camera works.
The sensor, or sensors which activate the camera are passive infrared sensors, normally referred to as PIR and they detect infrared light radiating from objects, most models can be adjusted for fine, medium or low sensitivity and many have multiple sensors. You do need to be aware of the effective angle of the sensors on your camera some will have a wide angle sensor while others will have multiple sensors to increase the effective angle in which motion can be detected. Those cameras with a narrower PIR field will generally only detect a subject as it comes into frame but additional sensors set at angles to either side of the cameras frame, or a wider angle sensor can detect your subjects before they enter the frame and activate the camera in time to get a decent still photo of it or a video. Bear these sensors in mind when you purchase your cameras for the best results.
Most trail cameras will also be equipped with a bank of infrared LED’s to illuminate subjects at night and allow the camera to take pictures during the hours of darkness.
Most of these cameras have no internal memory and will require an SD memory card to store images, some more advanced models can send those images directly to you or be transferred to you by WiFi if you have the right device. Some models provide a direct output to a TV or monitor and some also allow you to view captured images directly on an built in viewer screen.
Most models hinge open providing access to buttons for setting up the camera, a screen, memory card slot, batteries and other functions and will close with a waterproof seal and sturdy clips. Some can be sealed and fastened with a padlock, and dedicated armoured boxes are available to provide additional protection and security and prevent the theft of your trail cameras. Nylon straps are normally provided to secure your camera to a tree or post.
They really are very simple items to use but with some very clever technology that is becoming cheaper and cheaper and making these items more accessible. When I first started using trail cameras they couldn’t be had for less than a couple of hundred dollars each and while there are still some commanding those prices simple models can now be had very cheaply.
Uses for Trail Game Cameras
Most Trail cameras will be used for wildlife watching, particularly by hunters to help identify where the game is, and the time which it normally passes by and whether there are any good trophy animals to pursue, hence the alternative name of trophy camera. They are also useful for securing your home, property or livestock.
For General Wildlife Watching
A lot of the satisfaction of outdoor activities comes from the opportunities to observe wildlife, whether your particular interest is birds or mammals or even if you just have a casual interest in wildlife in general you will be familiar with the frustration of not seeing something that you really hoped to on a trip.
Additionally the difficulty of observing nocturnal wildlife without specialist, and usually very expensive night vision equipment can’t be understated. Luckily trail cameras offer you night vision capability comparably cheaply and also allow you to record wildlife without the need to be present yourself so you don’t risk spooking or scaring what you are watching.
Some of the satisfaction of seeing that particular bird or animal with your own eyes is absent when using trail cameras but if you can work out where to site the camera so you can get a good picture or video they can be a great tool to give you some evidence of birds and animals especially at night.
You will need a good knowledge of where best to set them to have a good chance of catching your target, a good understanding of the habits and behaviours of your intended subjects as well as knowledge of tracks and signs to help you choose where best to set them will be essential.
Being able to spot regularly used ‘runs’ to help you work out where to set your trail cameras is an essential skill and also some skill in differentiating between the kind of runs and tracks different animals leave so you stand a good chance of photographing and filming the species you really want to see and not something else which may be less interesting. You can even bait the target area to attract the species you want to photograph or to guarantee that it will stop for a good picture rather than just giving you a fleeting glimpse as it passes by. This might be particularly important for birds as many don’t leave much obvious sign on the ground and some don’t come to the ground much at all, so bait can be very important in putting them in a good position to capture them with your trail camera.
For Professional Wildlife Management and Ecological Surveying
Trail Cameras are used a lot in professional wildlife management, surveying and research. They allow ecologists and wildlife managers to observe wildlife without having to directly be on the scene and also with a network of well-placed cameras to cover vast areas that would be impossible with the limited time and budgets that most of them have.
They might be used to observe and document the distribution and habits of a rare species, or to get an idea of the number of invasive species in an area so they can be controlled, or to keep an eye out for poachers, or to record the numbers of a particular species. They can also be really useful to record whether work carried out i s effective in terms of attracting new wildlife to an area or in documenting damage by invasive species.
As a professional countryside and wildlife manager I’ve used trail cameras for all these reasons and they are so useful, survey work that would have once taken a long time or large teams of people now takes very little time and a network of inexpensive cameras. I can document the value of the work I do by filming the wildlife in the woods I manage or demonstrate a need to control deer in a certain woodland because they are eating the newly coppiced trees.
Hunters can make great use of trail cameras for determining when and where game are passing a certain place and for identifying trophy animals. This is particularly useful for professional hunters who need to make the most of their time in the field and perhaps reach a certain quota of animals culled. These cameras allow them to keep an eye on the game and get used to the patterns and schedules of movement and put themselves in the best place to ensure success.
It also helps when choosing where to site a blind, hide or high seat if you stake out the area first with a trail camera to get an idea of the amount of traffic the area gets and whether it will be a good spot for your seat.
They can also be used in conjunction with bait to get a general idea of the game in an area but unless you plan to hunt over bait as well then there isn’t much point in this as it won’t help you learn where the game are moving. Bait hunting is frowned on in some places and looked down on by some hunters who consider it cheating or unsportsmanlike.
Whether for the security of your own home or for your livestock trail cameras can be very useful. As they are motion activated they can record people or dangerous animals who may approach your property or livestock. There are smaller more discreet cameras available for home security but trail cameras are often a cheaper alternative. While many of them will blend in well in the woods and some models have camouflage casings they blend in less well around urban areas unless they are set up in some sort of box and perhaps disguised as a mail box or something similar.
Trail cameras are normally attached to trees with the straps provided with them but if you are setting them up around a house or perhaps on fences around your property this kind of mount might be more appropriate.
For securing your livestock though, especially from predators trail cameras are the best option as they are weatherproof and can easily be set up remotely. I use them to record comings and goings around my pheasant pens in case of human poachers or of predators such as foxes. With the evidence of the trail cameras I can then plan my approach to dealing with any threat to the security of my livestock whether that be to report poachers to the police or to set traps or head out with the rifle.
Tips for Setting Up Your Trail Camera
Whatever your reason for using trail cameras; as a hunter, ecologist, for security or just for general wildlife observation here are a few tips and tricks that will help you get the best results possible;
#1 - Set your camera trap so it looks up or down a trail rather than across it; This will give you the best pictures or video rather than a crossing shot of something as it goes in or out of frame.
Trail camera set looking up a woodland trail captured this young roe buck
#2 - Remember to clear undergrowth out of the way of the camera; It might seem sensible to camouflage it with leaves but these will obscure the view and maybe even prevent the sensors from functioning properly.
#3 - Choose the sensitivity setting wisely; Most trail cameras have variable settings to choose between highly sensitive, medium or low sensitivity. Unless you are trying to film moths and insects the high sensitivity setting is often a waste of time. I’ve lost count of the hours I have spent flicking through and deleting trail cam footage of nothing but a moth flitting across the lens.
#4 - Use a security box; If you are in very remote areas where people aren’t likely to interfere with your use of trail cameras this won’t be necessary but if you are operating on public land particularly if it is visited a lot it will be worth getting a security box for your trail cameras just to avoid people tampering with them or stealing them.
Trail camera security box; remember to get one that is compatible with your particular model of trail camera.
#5 - Don’t forget a memory card; It sounds obvious but very few trail cameras have internal memory and if you have hiked out somewhere to set a load of cameras and have forgotten the memory cards you will have wasted your time. Also consider how large the cards are and how often you are planning to check your cameras you don’t want to come back to your camera after a few days and find that the memory card was full after the first day or two.
#6 - Change batteries regularly; Modern trail cameras are quit e efficient in terms of battery life but it is worth changing them regularly, if you use rechargeable batteries changing them every time you check your camera won’t necessarily cost you any more in batteries and will save you the frustration of finding that your batteries ran out shortly after you last checked the camera.
#7 - Choose a stable platform; Don’t attach your trail camera to something that flops around too much in the wind, a tree that is constantly swaying in the breeze will trigger your camera and give you loads of pointless pictures or videos.
#8 - Take a test shot; It can sometimes be difficult to predict exactly where the camera is pointed, once you have it set up step back to where you hope it is pointing and wander around a bit to deliberately trigger it and then check the results to see if you need to adjust the position of the camera. Don’t just wander off once its set and hope for the best you might be disappointed.
#9 - Use bait; Bait can draw the subject you want to the place where you have set your camera, it could be food but it doesn’t have to be, salt or mineral licks are great bait for some species. You can also set your trail camera to watch watering holes rather than having to set out bait yourself. Don’t be too reliant on bait though if you are using your cameras for security around your livestock and to keep an eye on predators you won’t be baiting them to draw things in and for ecological surveying when you want a more accurate representation of the behaviour of wildlife baiting isn’t always in keeping with the method of they surveys.
#10 - Use a combination of videos and stills; Many models of trail camera will allow you to take videos and stills simultaneously so you can get the best of both worlds and have some nice still photos to share as well as videos.
#11 - Use more than one camera; If you are filming a baited area then one camera might suffice but to carry out a proper survey or for security purposes multiple cameras will be required, the newer cheaper trail cameras make this possible even with a limited budget as individual cameras can cost as little as $50 so setting yourself up with a whole suite of cameras doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive.
#12 - Don’t just set the camera randomly; If you just set a trail camera randomly on any old tree you probably won’t get the best results, it will still catch anything that’s passing which might be useful to someone conducting a proper wildlife survey, setting out a network of cameras in random location might be a ‘fair’ way to conduct the survey and give a reliable result but if you are trying to get decent pictures you will get better results if you learn a bit about interpreting wildlife signs so you can set your cameras in a place that will give you the best results.
Tracking and Wildlife Signs
The key to selecting suitable locations for your trail cameras is being able to interpret the signs you can see in nature that tell you where wildlife has been, and spotting where they move about regularly so you can set the camera in the best place for regular results.
Another reason that tracking is so important in setting up your trail cameras, and the reason that trail cameras are so useful in viewing wildlife, is that many wild mammals are most active at night or are at least so sensitive to human encroachment that they will stay out of the way of most casual observers very easily. Not only does tracking help you find the best location for your camera but it also gives you additional evidence of the presence of wildlife.
Tracking would once have been an important skill for our hunter gatherer ancestors who would have had to learn and practice their tracking skills probably on a daily basis. The ability to interpret tracks and other signs such a droppings and feeding sign would have enabled our forebears to understand what prey species, or potentially dangerous predators, used an area and also how they used it; for food, water, shelter, as a migration route, etc… It would have allowed hunting trips to be accurately targeted, in the same way we want to target the placing of our trail cameras and for our ancestors literally could have made the difference between life and death for a family group.
Tracks and signs come in different forms, footprints are the obvious one but there are all sorts of other signs you can look for too;
Being able to distinguish between footprints is important so that you can choose where to put your cameras for the species you are targeting, there is no point trying to get pictures of deer by setting your camera on a coyote run. Muddy river banks are often the first visual indication of their presence. Deer tracks at the point they cross a ditch or push through a hedge can indicate where they access an area of woodland. In winter searching in fresh snow is a great way to see what has been out and about recently. You can also create a simple sand trap if there is nowhere else to look for tracks, baiting these sand traps should guarantee you a few tracks to check.
Don’t forget that birds leave footprints too, and sometimes wing prints where their wing tips and tails touch the ground, especially in snow.
Sometimes when animals move through an area in herds or are moving over very soft, or hard ground their individual tracks are indistinguishable from the mass of other footprints. Instead you are left with a general trail or run which might give you clues as to the animals using the trail or just a general clue as the size and numbers of animals frequenting the area. Well defined trails are a great place to set trail cameras.
Many mammal species use droppings as a means of marking their territory, placing them in obvious visual positions on a distinctive feature (e.g. foxes) or in a latrine (e.g. badgers). Droppings under trees or other structures can give away favoured roosting areas for birds. Owl pellets, while not strictly droppings, provide a range of information including their diet if you prise them apart and identify what the owl was eating. Droppings are a great additional clue as to the identity of the animals you are tracking especially if you can’t get enough clues from footprints, droppings will help you confirm what you suspect is in the area.
These signs are often far more difficult to identify, and certainly harder to pin to a specific species. Some are obvious; badgers or wild boar rooting in fields or under trees are fairly easy to identify, beaver sign can’t really be anything else but there are less obvious signs that might just provide a bit more evidence as to the animal you are tracking in conjunction with other information from prints and droppings. Places with lots of feeding sign are great places for setting up your cameras.
Feeding sign doesn’t just have to be signs of browsing or grazing on plants such as stripped bark or nibbled shoots and leaves but could indicate the presence of a predator. Plucked feathers beneath a high up perch or a post may indicate the presence of a hawk or marten and the way in which feather have been either bitten off or plucked out could help you work out whether the predator of that particular bird was a mammal or bird of prey.
Nests & Couches
Some species build nests, others such as deer and hares create ‘couches’ or scrapes on the ground, these can give you general clues as to the presence of wildlife or more specific clues to the identity of a species with practice. Deer couches for example are normally roughly kidney shaped and could just be a depression in the surrounding undergrowth or be an area scraped clear of leaves and debris for them to squat down in. Some birds’ nests are very difficult to tell apart, others are very distinctive. Certain birds will create elaborate spherical nests of moss tied together with spiders’ webs and stuffed with feathers or long nests of mud and reeds and others just piles of twigs and sticks.
Fur, Feathers etc...
Hair caught on barbed wire fences or undergrowth could identify whatever has passed as a deer, fox, badger or just a domestic dog, shed feathers under roosting sites, sloughed reptile skin; all can give useful indicators if not of a specific species, then at least that the area is used, and by what sort of animals.
Burrows & Holes
Badger setts, fox earths and other burrows not only prove the presence of a species, as long as thos burrows are active which can be determined using other signs but they give you an idea of the range of the resident animal. Burrows normally sit in the centre of an animals range and can be good places to set your cameras as long as you do so carefully to avoid disturbance.
Holes in trees can be home to squirrels, bats or birds and some birds also dig burrows, kingfishers and sand martens for example.
Recognising tracks, well used animal paths, regularly used feeding areas or ‘home addresses’ will enable camera traps to be placed where they have the best possible chance of capturing the target species, or indeed any species! All these signs if interpreted correctly and used wisely can help you set your trail cameras ensuring the best results.
Now that you know how to look for sign that will give you clues as to where to set your trail cameras which are the best trail cameras to buy?
Top 10 Best Trail Camera on the Market Review
This section will help you choose the product with the best trail camera features and will include some of the very best trail camera brands as well as some of the budget options which are reaching the market now.
1 VICTURE trail Camera
At under $100 this trail camera is a great deal but still features everything you would expect from higher end models, it goes without saying that it is waterproof, this might sound like an obvious feature but trail cameras need to be very waterproof as any water inside them might not only destroy the internal workings of them but could also mist up the screens and lenses ruining potential pictures and videos.
It is capable of taking 16 megapixel images as well as 1080P HD video offering you the very best images possible. It runs of eight AA batteries but can also be powered externally which might be useful if you are using it for home security.
As well as standard picture and video settings it allows you to capture time lapse and also features a multi shot mode for taking bursts of photos every time the camera is activated giving you fantastic action shots.
2 Bushnell Trophy Cam HD
Whether it’s hunting optics, binoculars or trail cameras Bushnell has a product for you, they have been leading the field in trail cameras since their original trophy cam came out and dominated the market a few years ago.
This updated model offers excellent value for money at a little over $100 a huge decrease from the original $400 price tags of the original trophy cams. Unlike many of it’s competitors it offer a full year long battery life leaving you with one less thing you need to think about and the peace of mind to leave your cameras out for days, weeks and even months at a time if you need to and have a big enough memory card.
This trail camera has an auto exposure feature which detects the light level and adjusts the camera accordingly to avoid the annoyance of pictures completely ‘whited out’ by glare which can happen in bad light with the lower end models.
Another advantage of using the bushnell products is their warranty and proven customer service something which may be lacking on cheaper models.
3 Browning Strike Force Trail Camera
This isn’t your average trail camera, produced by reputed gun makers browning this is a ‘micro’ trail cam offering the features of the larger until but in a tiny package. It measures only 4.5 inches tall by 3.25 wide but still takes 16 mega pixel images and HD video with sound. It’s 0.4 second trigger speed isn’t quite as fast as some others but is still good enough for most situations.
Many of the cheaper options are only compatible with relatively small SD memory cards but this offering from browning can handle 512 Gigabyte cards so you can realistically leave this in the field for ages without fear of running out of space on your card. Consider this tiny camera from browning if space in your pack is at a premium and you have lots of cameras to set. The fact that this is made by a reputable company like browning is another great thing about this product.
You will notice that this, and many of the other products here feature a camouflage pattern, this simple camouflage is often the best way to hide your trail camera, as long as there are no lights on it an animal won’t be too concerned by the presence of this funny little box.
4 Wildgame Innovations Digital Game Camera
A product for the budget conscious this camera, at under $40, might be the solution for those of you on a budget or if you need lots of cameras. It doesn’t have the specs of some of the more expensive models but it still takes 12 megapixel images takes HD video. This inexpensive unit is easy to use but won’t accept more than a 32 GB card something which will mean that you need to check your camera and replace or empty the card regularly. To put that in perspective I have a camera watching a couple of pheasant carcasses so I can work out what time foxes are visiting the area so I can eventually shoot them, it runs out of memory about every four days and in that time will take about 500 5 second videos. Most of those videos are of mice or squirrels or a buzzard which comes and eats the carcasses but that’s the sort of time scale you need to bear in mind when it comes to checking cameras with smaller memory cards.
5 Foxelli Trail Camera
Another camera offering great performance for under $50, 14 megapixel stills and 1080P HD video are a bargain at this price and the 2.4 inch colour LCD screen allows you to get a proper look at your pictures and video without having to download them to a computer first.
The 120 degree wide angle lens gives you a great wide field of view for your pictures and videos and should mean that you don’t get too many images with your subject disappearing strait out of shot.
You do need to be aware though that this camera takes a micro Sd card rather than a standard sized SD card so don’t get the wrong one.
6 Kuool 4G Cellular & GPS Trail Camera
This trail camera is more expensive than some other options here but considering the features it offers is still a great deal. This offering from Kuool not only shoots 12 MP images and 1080P full HD video but as long as you equip it with a sim card it can send your images directly to your email or phone. There will of course be a subscription fee for the Sim just as there would be for a cell phone but this feature allows you to monitor your trail cameras remotely and particularly if you are using them for security take immediate action if you spot something is amiss. You can even control the camera from an app on your phone.
Perhaps more than some people need but for security and professional hunters this is a great product at a very reasonable price.
7 Spartan Go Cam
This isn’t just a trail camera this is a whole package, with the Spartan Go Cam you will also get a steel security box for the camera, microfiber lens cloths and the sim card is included, although a subscription will be required for it for as little as $5 per month with no long term commitment required.
These Spartan products may be a little more expensive but offer great features and very high quality as well as wireless capability to send pictures directly to you. This model can also be set to only activate at the required time so you don’t waste your memory card by taking loads of pictures in the middle of the day if all you really want is pictures at primary hours for hunting at dusk and dawn.
A very well thought out design and the security box is a great addition; not only does it help hide and secure your expensive game camera but its durable construction adds an exrtra level of protection.
8 Browning Strike Force Pro XD Dual Lens
The bigger brother of the mini Browning camera this premium product still comes in under $200 and offers two lenses, one specialist day time lens and one for night shooting without compromise. It takes pictures of an unbelievable 24 megapixel quality but to save space this can be adjusted down to 4MP, it features a trigger speed of only 0.15 seconds it is the fastest camera here and should catch all the detail you want and need. At under $200 this camera represents seriously good value, especially when you consider the features it has.
9 Stealth Cam Dual Sensor Trail Camera (2 pack)
It’s worth considering buying your trail cameras in packs of more than one as you will inevitably save some money if you do, if you are doing more than casual wildlife observation you will need more than one camera so this is a very cost effective way to set up a network of cameras to cover the whole area you are surveying or scouting for your next hunting trip. These Stealth Cam products are some of the best on the market and this particular model is one of their latest offerings. It offers 30 megapixel image quality and 4K HD video recording. The ‘no glo’ IR emitters don’t scare wildlife or alert them to the presence of the camera as some others can. This package gives you two Stealth Cams for under $400.
Not only do you have all the settings and adjustability you would expect from your average trail cameras but with this model you can adjust the range of the PIR sensor so you can adjust it to watch your bait station or a specific trail without the camera being activated by things passing by in the background.
10 BlazeVideo Game Trail Camera
Another budget option the BlazeVideo camera offers 16 MP images and 1080P HD video recording for under $70 and as you can see from the picture above offers excellent image quality. The simple but foolproof design offers all the necessary functionality but it does have a relatively limited sensor field of view of 65 degrees compared to almost double that of some of the other models featured here.
A feature this model does have though which isn’t present on many of this price is the ability to take time lapse images which could produce some really excellent results for the money.
Any of these cameras will be suitable for your remote wildlife photography needs, for the absolute best quality and for products supported by great customer service and warranties the Bushnell, Browning and Stealth Cam products can’t be beaten. Any of those would give you fantastic results like the footage below;
This footage of a European badger was taken with an older model of a Bushnell Trophy Cam and you can see clearly that it spots the camera, the newer ‘no glo’ style IR LED’s should stop that and make it harder for them to spot the camera at night.
This footage was taken with an earlier Stealth Cam of a fairly ragged looking Chinese Water Deer buck, while it doesn’t sport any antlers, Chinese Water Deer Never do, the footage is good enough to show its large canine tusks which mark it as a trophy quality animal. Trail Cameras are particularly useful for deer hunting, deer are great subject for trail cameras as they offer a nice big target, while it’s perfectly possible to photograph and video small game and garden birds big game such as deer make better subjects and trail cameras are even often used for bear and very large wild game and exotic animals.
The most up to date best trail camera will offer even better footage than these and for a fraction of the cost of the first trail cameras to hit the market. Even the budget options now will produce footage that is very useful and if you need a lot of cameras you would be foolish not to take advantage of the cheaper models that can be had at prices of under $50 each.
Whatever model you choose make sure you get out and use it, even if you just set it up in your backyard for a while until you get a chance to use it in earnest out in the woods but take time to get used to the settings and features so you can make the most of them in the field.