Trail cameras can be incredible tools for hunters, wildlife watchers, or home security. No matter the application the principal is the same, taking pictures or video of movement in front of the camera. Originally designed for deer hunting enthusiasts, a modern trail camera has a multitude of uses. It can be hard to sort through the many brands and styles of trail cameras with hundreds of options available on the market.
Trail Cameras are small, usually inconspicuous, cameras that attach to trees or other fixed objects in order to capture pictures or video. Triggered by movement, these small cameras capture real time data from a fixed location set by the user. Tail Cameras are also called “game cameras” and were originally designed for hunters to scout multiple locations remotely.
Modern day trail cameras have many more applications since technology has advanced. With high definition (HD) photographs and crystal clear video, the sky’s the limit when discussing their uses. Commonly used for hunting, home security, hobbyists, and law enforcement, trail cams are something that everyone can own.
The best part about buying a trail camera is that they don’t cost an arm and a leg. In fact, the best trail cameras in 2021 (when this article was written) are very affordable. These extremely useful cameras range in price from $50 to a moderate price of $750 and everywhere in between. Let’s discuss further what makes a good trail camera, Key features you should look for when buying one, and how to set up and use a trail cam in your backyard or the backcountry.
What Makes a Good Trail Camera?
A good trail camera for any application has to work reliably, take high-quality pictures and video, work at night and have sufficient memory. Other features such as warranty and customer support should also be considered when purchasing. There is no best trail camera for everyone – different people need different features.
What should you look for when buying a trail camera
- Detection Range
- Trigger Speed
- Photo Resolution
- Video Resolution
- SD Card Capacity
- Cellular Data Enabled
- Power Supply
- Customer Reviews
Detection range is the distance a camera will detect motion and trigger itself to go into “work” mode. A camera with a longer detection range will activate when it senses motion that is a long way away. With a shorter detection range, it won’t activate unless there is motion nearby.
While a longer detection range is usually better, a shorter range is sometimes fine or even preferable. If you want your camera to survey a large field, go with a longer detection range. You should also get a longer detection range if you are going to move the camera to many different locations.
Sometimes, it is not possible for the camera to see very far – there might be thick forest in the way, for example. In that case, a shorter detection range is good enough. You might also prefer a shorter detection range if the camera often activates when there is a narrow area you wish to monitor.
Imagine your trail camera mounted to a tree somewhere. The camera is on but in “sleep mode” awaiting motion in front of the sensor. Suddenly, a deer, car, or person walks in front of the camera. In a split second, the camera goes from sleep mode to work mode snapping pictures or taking video in whatever capacity you programmed it for.
The time it takes a game or trail camera to switch from rest mode to work mode is called the trigger time. trigger times can vary and depend on the application of use, which can be an integral feature to consider when buying.
When to Use Fast Trigger Speeds
When trying to record fast moving objects such as cars or birds you will need the camera to trigger faster resulting in photos of the intended target. If the trigger is too slow the camera will take photos that come out blurry or empty. This results in more photos or videos being stored on the SD card thus reaching its memory capacity sooner.
When Slow Trigger Speeds Are Acceptable
Slower trigger speeds are fine if you are capturing stationary objects. Maybe you’re attempting to photograph a watering hole, an open area, bait stations, or slow moving animals such as bears. Slower trigger speeds would still activate in time to take high quality trail camera pics.
A high-quality picture is one of the more important features, but not always the most important. Many people want an excellent picture; many others don’t need it. The picture quality is often measured in megapixels or millions of total pixels in the image. Most modern trail cameras have around 5 megapixel resolution
How many megapixels do you need in a trail camera?
A higher number of megapixels usually means a better picture, but this is not always true. Sometimes, a lower-resolution picture can look better. The number of megapixels is not the only thing that determines image quality.
If you are using the camera for nature photography, you want an excellent high-resolution picture. If you are using a trail camera for deer, a lower resolution might be good enough.
A camera with a lower number of megapixels does not produce a bad, unclear, hard-to-read image. The image is still more than clear enough for you to identify what animals are in your area. You do not need impressive, crystal-clear images to scout out locations.
Check the manufacturer’s website when buying a game camera. Typically they will have images taken by the camera you are considering. Another great place to look at how well your trail camera takes pictures in amazon reviews. Customers these days love posting reviews and many consumers rely on them for data. Game cameras are not different.
While many trail cameras only take still pictures, more and more of them can record video. Trail cameras take pictures or record video only when they detect motion. Video cameras measure their image quality in resolution rather than megapixels. They can be standard definition (640*480), or high-definition (720p or 1080p).
Trail cameras with 4K resolution are not yet common, but you can get them. Not everyone needs very high resolution, but it is available for those who want it and are willing to pay extra for it. Cameras that use video will run out of battery power much faster than cameras that only take still pictures. If you want the batteries to last as long as possible, you might go with a still picture trail camera or turn video features off.
Video recording features are popular among consumers purchasing a trail camera for home security. A clear video can aid in identifying or rendering clues for police and homeowners.
Some cameras will record only a few seconds of video, others several minutes. Just as not everyone needs excellent image quality, not everyone needs a camera that can record five minutes of footage. Only pay for the features you want.
Consider again SD storage capacity when selecting a camera with longer record times. You will most definitely need a larger than normal sd card for those instances. We will talk more about SD memory cards in a moment.
Audio can also be great depending on what you are using the camera for. Some people might like audio if they are using a camera to track wild game, although others might not bother with it. Audio can definitely help you if you are using the camera for security. Hearing what people are saying or talking about might be an added benefit for home security.
Additionally, hunters may require audio in order to hear animals in the background. When turkey hunting, for example, capturing a hen in the video during the breeding season might not seem important. Add audio of a tom in the background calling to her though and you have yourself a different story.
Whether you are using the trail cam for scouting for game, photography, or security, it needs to work at night. It needs a powerful flash to illuminate whatever it photographs. This can easily be more important than things like the image resolution or the recording time.
If you wish to capture photos and video with your game camera at night, then you will need artificial light to do it. This is where a flash comes into play. As with any camera, the perfect flash provides adequate lighting to capture clear and crisp images. There are three types of flashes trail cameras offer.
White Flash – The first is your typical white flash produced by most cameras. This technology is becoming obsolete in modern trail camera technology.
Red Infrared – The second type of flash is Infrared flash or low-glow flash. It emits a red light that is slightly visible at night and produces a black and white photograph.
Black Infrared – Also called no-glow flash, emits light still but at a much less visible level. Unless you’re standing right in front of the camera, most likely you will not see it with the naked eye.
Black infrared is ideal when trying not to spook your subjects. Most hunting trail cameras use this type of flash for this very reason. Using red or white flash would undoubtedly spook the game and defeat the purpose of scouting.
The last thing to mention about flash in the “flash range”. The flash range is the distance the flash can cover and still provide a clear photograph or video. Flash range is not always listed as a specification on some trail cameras but it is important to know.
Modern trail cameras tend to store many images without running out of memory. You might be able to store thousands to more than 10,000 images on a trail camera. Newer trail cameras use powerful SD memory cards with plenty of storage space.
If you buy a trail camera that shoots video and not still pictures, it is easier to run out of memory. Make sure that your trail camera is compatible with a large SD card. The less often you want to check your camera, the more memory you need.
Make sure the memory card in your trail camera is high-quality. A poor memory card can only be written over a limited number of times before it stops working properly.
SD cards are not all created equal. I only use name brand sd cards when documenting important images. SanDisk and Samsung sd cards are pretty much all I will use because I know I can trust them. They cost slightly more but are worth the reliability and ease of use in most trail cams.
Wireless/Cellular Data Enabled Cameras
These cameras are at the forefront of new age technology. Wireless and cellular data enabled trail cameras are not your standard run of the mill camera. Contrary to popular belief, wireless and cellular are not the same things. Wireless means that a game camera is internet compatible. It connects to a home or business internet connection to send photos, video, and audio through the internet.
Wireless enabled trail cams to connect through cellular service providers to send photos, video, and audio files to a cell phone or home device. If you hunt in places without service or power, like most hunters, then these types of cameras will be of no use to you.
If you are someone looking for a quality trail camera for home security or backyard use then these features can prove extremely useful. With wireless or cellular features you can check your footage any time of day from anywhere as long as the camera has power and enough memory to record.
Newer state of the art cameras can even allow live streaming straight from your game or trail cameras. The day has come that we can view, send and delete files from the comfort of your couch. Scouting trails and viewing wildlife has never been easier, however, I will always be a fan of buying a pair of binoculars and putting in the hard work when scouting an area.
Trail cameras commonly run off of AA batteries but can also run on lithium batteries and even 6-12 volt batteries or power bank.
A trail camera that uses regular alkaline batteries is not recommended, as regular batteries run out too quickly. lithium batteries are far more powerful and can last for months or even longer, depending on how many photographs your camera takes.
You can also get solar-powered trail cameras. They can theoretically last forever without running out of power, but they have their limitations. You have to set them up somewhere where the sun can reach the panels, which is not always possible. In the end, use the batteries recommended by the manufacturer for the best results.
Trail Camera Mounting
Deciding where to mount your trail camera is completely up to you. Again, depending on user intent you will mount your camera in different locations. Someone wishing to capture deer with a trail camera will mount at or near eye level on a tree in the forest. A bird watcher may mount a camera watching a nest high up in a tree. ANd someone using a trail camera for security may attach it to the house, fence, or tree for the best results.
Trail cameras can often be mounted on a tripod as well. Tripods allow users to record in areas that may not have a natural mounting object such as a tree. Using tripods with trail cameras can be useful in areas like open yards or fields. Maybe you wish to get footage of your cat giving birth. Using a tripod set on or near the birthing area would do the trick.
The last way to mount a trail camera is to fabricate a DIY mount. Making a mount specifically for your specific needs may be the only way to get your camera in the perfect position. Do a simple youtube search for a diy trail camera mount for some inspiration.
A top level product warranty may be just what you need to make that final decision when buying a trail camera. After all, buyers want to know that a company stands by its product. Many reputable manufacturers offer lucrative warranties that can put your mind at ease. One of these top notch companies is Bushnell. The Bushnell brand has a 2-year warranty on all of its trail cameras covering factory defect and workmanship.
When buying on Amazon many cameras don’t explain that a warranty is included or not included. Searching the manufacturer’s website may reveal the information you are looking for. Typically you can scroll down to the footer section of the site and search for the link labeled warranty.
Customer reviews are a great place to find pertinent information about products. Equally important is the start rating the actual users provide as feedback. It’s reported that the modern shopper thinks reviews are the most important factor when determining whether or not to buy a product. A good reliable game trail camera will be evident by ample positive reviews.
Another great place to find actual customer reviews is online forums. Places like Quora and Reddit provide a place to ask specific questions on a particular game cam. Users are open to discussing what they like or dislike about a particular product.
Best Trail Cameras for Beginners
Now that you have a better understanding of trail cameras and how to use them, here are a couple of really good options to get you started. Please don’t just take my word for it though, use the information provided in this article to decide if any of these cameras are right for you. For more great trail cameras visit our Top Rated Trail Cameras article.
1. Best Budget Friendly Trail Camera
The Wosports Mini trail camera has all the features needed to capture great photos with a very friendly price tag. Nothing fancy here just a pure workhorse camera. The trigger speed is slightly slower than I would like but it still captures great photos. This is an ideal camera for those of you looking to capture wildlife or stationary objects.
Wosports Mini Trail Camera
Wosports Mini Key Features
- 1080P HD Photos
- 12 Mega Pixels
- 0.55 Second Trigger Time
- Low-Glow Infrared
- Small & Portable
2. Best Mid Range Trail Camera
The Vikeri E2 Trail Camera is hands down the most bought trail camera on Aamzon.com and boasts over 8,000 reviews. With a multitude of features and ease of use, this camera is great for the average run of the mill use. Vikeri E2 all of the makings of a great piece of equipment without the heavy price tag.
Vikeri E2 Trail Camera
Vikeri E2 Key Features
- 1080P 16MP Trail Camera
- 120°Wide-Angle Motion Detection
- 0.2s Trigger Time
- 940nm No Glow Flash
- IP66 Waterproof Rated
- 2.4” LCD Screen
3. Best Overall Trail Camera
The Tactacam Reveal X trail camera is a state of the art device that allows users to access through cellular providers AT&T and Verizon as well as wifi. It boasts an outstanding 96-foot flash range and uses a low-glow infrared flash. Users brag about the great image quality and ease of use. This camera also has live stream capabilities making it a leader in the trail camera industry.
TACTACAM Reveal X Trail Camera
Tacacam Key Features
- 96′ flash range
- Cellular Enabled
- Pre-activated SIM card
- Super-fast trigger
- Low glow infrared flash
- Easy to setup
Trail Camera Frequently Asked Questions
Can you use a trail camera for home security?
Yes, trail cameras do work reasonably well for home security. A real home security system is better but is also more expensive. Some people use trail cameras to set up improvised home security systems.
Trail cams are good enough to work as security cameras because they work well at night. They also record the time and date, which makes it easier to use your video as evidence. The resolution is good enough to capture details that can be used in court.
While trail cameras do not capture long videos (just a few seconds to five minutes of footage), they still add benefit. The trail camera will switch on when it sees motion and record video, often with sharp resolution. Personally, I have used trail cameras on my long driveway to capture license plate numbers and the like.
Using dummy cameras is a good way to alert lurking criminals as well that there is a security system in place. Using cheap or broken trail cameras in plain sight is an affordable way to put trespassers on notice. The working, reliable, incriminating cameras will be better disguised and hidden capturing every move.
What’s the best place to put a trail camera for deer?
Deer are oftentimes hard to locate and track. Placing trail cameras on distinguished game trails is a great place to start. Other great places are near food and water sources. Deer will frequent these areas usually twice per day. Set up your trail camera mid day if possible so as to not spook them.
Mount the game camera to a small tree or tripod at chest level. This allows you to see a wider range of views with your images and video.
Why is my trail camera not recording video or taking pictures?
A typical reason for trail cameras not taking photographs or video is because of issues with the sd card. Limited storage or malfunctioning cards are easy to diagnose. Simply insert another sd card into your trail camera to see if the sd card is the culprit.
Other common problems are low battery life and operator error. If you’re confident that you are doing everything correctly and the device is still not working properly, contact the manufacturer for customer support. Faulty components happen from time to time and trail cameras are no exception.