Trail Camera Buying Guide

1. What is Trail Camera?

A “trail camera” is a particular type of remote camera which designed to be rugged and weatherproof, the better to withstand exposure to the elements, changes in temperature, and encounters involving wild animals. It is meant for prolonged use out of doors, and is generally used to monitor the activity patterns of wild animals within a particular location – to which end it will record images, whether in the form of video footage or a series of still photographs.

It is often set up to be motion-triggered, and may include infrared imaging capacity in order to make it functional at night without causing a flash (which would disrupt animals’ normal activity patterns, making the act of recording them irrelevant). The trail camera may be used by researchers and documentary filmmakers, as well as by hunters looking to establish the behavioral patterns of their prey – with the latter function contributing to the often-used monikers “game camera” and “game trail camera.”

2. Types of Trail Camera

There are two fundamental types of trail cameras available, which differ in terms of how they record their imagery. These are flash trail cameras and infrared trail cameras.

2.1 Flash Trail Camera

Flash, or “incandescent” cameras use a bright flash consistent with standard daytime photograph to capture high-quality, full-color images at night. Their images are of much higher quality than those which are produced by infrared trail cameras. There are down sides to the use of flash trail cameras, however: they are more expensive in terms of energy consumption, resulting in fewer images and less video taken on the same battery power as compared to an infrared camera.

The bright flash also spooks some types of animals, keeping them away from the camera location, and it can alert other people to the presence of a camera within a given area… possibly tipping off a favorite hunting location. Because the flash of an incandescent camera is likely to affect animals’ activity patterns, this type of camera is most likely to be used by a hunter.

​2.2 Infrared Trail Cameras

Infrared cameras can only produce full-color images during the daytime. By night, they rely upon an infrared flash which results in black and white images, which are often blurry. The advantages to an infrared camera, aside from not spooking wildlife and having a much longer battery life than an incandescent camera, include a faster shutter speed; an infrared trail camera may take pictures much more frequently than a flash trail camera.

This functionality, coupled with the lack of a bright flash, makes the infrared trail camera popular among scientists and other researchers, who may find themselves wanting to monitor the nocturnal habits of a particular type of animal being pursued or studied.

3. Wireless Trail Cameras

Some cameras possess wireless capacity, and are able to instantly upload captured images or video from their location to a remotely located computer. Aside from range limitations, the primary concerns with wireless trail cameras are those of cost and energy efficiency. Wireless cameras are considerably more expensive than an ordinary trail camera, and they burn through battery power more quickly than conventional trail cameras, which require manual interaction in order to download their captured images. Otherwise, the image quality produced by either type of camera (flash versus infrared) is more or less the same.

4. Important Features to Bear in Mind While Considering a Trail Camera

Once you’ve determined what you need in terms of a camera’s features, pay attention to the following aspects of a given product’s description. Pay close attention to those particular functions which are critical to your purposes; if you are researching wild animals at night, for instance, you most likely don’t want a camera which will disrupt their natural behavioral patterns by brilliantly flashing before it takes a photograph.

4.1 Flash

A camera is either a flash, or “incandescent” camera, which takes well-lit full color photos at night with the aid of a bright flash, or it is an infrared camera, which does not have a visible flash and will not disturb most forms of wildlife.

4.2 Detection Circuit

Your camera’s detection circuit governs all aspects of its ability to detect motion and activate appropriately in response, capturing imagery or video of whatever triggered it. These functions include the trigger speed, the recovery time, and the detection zone of your camera, all of which must be appropriately balanced relative to each other to determine the optimal rate at which the camera is most likely to capture quality images.

4.3 Detection Zone

Detection Zone figure
Camera Detection zone figure

A trail camera’s detection zone determines the area of the field in which the camera detects motion, thereby activating. It concerns not just the distance from the camera, but also the measurement in degrees of its field of view. Too small a detection zone and you will miss out on anything that does not come right up to the camera; too broad, and your camera will burn through its power supply taking peripheral images.

4.4 Trigger Speed

This is how long it takes the camera to snap a picture after detecting the presence of a moving target. Too long a delay, and you risk the intended target moving out of the camera’s field of view before a picture is taken. Too short, and you’ll be capturing partial, peripheral images of your intended targets before they are completely within the camera’s field of view.

4.5 Recovery Time

Once triggered, a trail camera requires a certain amount of time to be reset before it may be triggered again. The recovery time is a measure of how long it must wait between recording images. A short delay allows for the capturing of multiple images of the same subject, which may be advantageous or disadvantageous depending upon your reasons for monitoring wildlife in the first place.

4.6 Image Quality

Image quality refers to contrast, resolution, and other aspects which help to define the overall clarity of an image. Generally speaking, incandescent cameras provide the highest quality images by far – but are also far more likely to spook wild animals at night. On average, flash trail cameras take only one viable image for every three or four captured by an infrared trail camera.

4.7 Battery Life

Battery life is measured in how many images or how much footage a camera may record, on average, before its batteries require recharging. With very few exceptions, all trail cameras are generally battery-operated, as they are located remotely without access to standard electrical power sources.

4.8 Types of Batteries

bushnell camera battery
Camera battery case

There are multiple viable battery types to consider when it comes to powering your trail camera, as well as a few other potential sources of power which may be more or less convenient depending upon your purposes. Be sure to buy a camera which includes the type of battery that’s right for your purposes.

4.8.1 Rechargeable Nimh Batteries

In the long run, these batteries will save you both time and money. Their rechargeable quality makes them a better option than standard alkaline batteries, but they lack the power supply of certain other battery types, such as lithium batteries.

4.8.2 Alkaline Batteries

Alkaline batteries may or may not be rechargeable, but are generally among the cheapest options available to you individually. Their power supply will last considerably longer than an individual use of some of the less potent rechargeable battery types will last. The major advantage to the use of alkaline batteries is their dry cell construction, which makes them unusually resistant to corrosion; this is a potentially valuable feature in a device that is meant to endure the elements outdoors for along period of time.

4.8.3 Lithium Batteries

Lithium batteries represent the latest generation of battery power. They are generally rechargeable, and they offer the advantage of not experiencing any significant loss in maximum capacity after a given recharge – even if they weren’t completely depleted; also, lithium batteries offer significantly longer battery life relative to certain older types of batteries.

4.9 Other Power Options

There are certain other power options available for some high-end trail cameras on the market today. Bear in mind that these are often expensive devices, and their applicability is profoundly limited. They will, however, allow your camera to operate more or less indefinitely under certain conditions.

4.9.1 Solar Power Panels

It is possible to purchase a trail camera powered by solar energy. This energy is collected during the daytime, during which time it also powers the camera reliably – weather conditions notwithstanding, as heavy cloud cover will negatively affect the camera’s ability to operate. Stored energy may be carried over during the night, but a camera is unable to be able to operate indefinitely during nighttime hours on stored energy left over from the daytime.

4.10 Video

Not all trail cameras incorporate the option of taking video footage. Video conveys a lot more information than still photos, which makes it valuable to hunters and researchers alike. It is also far more expensive in terms of storage capacity and power expenditure. A trail camera with video will require regular check-ins so that its stored footage may be extracted, unless it is wireless (in which case you’re looking at a very expensive, but highly functional camera).

4.11 Memory

It doesn’t matter how much power your trail camera has left if it doesn’t have anywhere to put the images it’s trying to take. Your camera’s memory capacity determines the amount of media it can hold in storage at any given time. Wireless capacity will allow you to access its stored media remotely, and to erase the camera’s memory as need be, in order to begin storing new images.

4.12 Built-in Viewer

Some cameras incorporate a built-in viewer, allowing you to view their stored media without first having to download them onto a separate device with a screen. The viewer can be expensive, costing $50 or more as compared to a camera model which does not have such a feature. Opinions are mixed as to whether or not this is a valuable feature; some see it as a convenient option. Others believe that it is unnecessary, even “just one more feature to break” over long exposure to the elements.

4.13 Security

Trail cameras cost hundreds of dollars apiece, and are meant to be left unmonitored in remote locations for long periods of time. They make attractive targets for thieves as a result. There are various tips and tricks involved in making your camera a less obvious target – which starts with not hanging it in obvious, well-traveled locations. There are security features available, however – including some cameras which require the entry of a security code in order for them to function.

Camera hanged with tree
Camera security

4.14 Other Features

Some cameras come with unusual features or options. A trail camera may have a built-in viewing screen for instant access to the images or video it has recorded. It might be camouflaged to help it blend in with a particular environment, or even with a particular type of tree. Spend some time browsing; it helps to have an idea of what you need in mind, before you start looking.

4.14 Design

Most trail cameras incorporate similar features, and include many of the same design elements. With few exceptions, trail cameras tend to be boxy affairs, but there may be certain differences between models in terms of how they are fixed in place, their coloration and appearance (including efforts to help them “cloak” in their environment) and whether or not they have wireless capability.

5. Common Mistakes with Trail Cameras

There are a number of mistakes made by people mounting trail cameras, particularly when doing so for the first time.The first common mistake takes place before the mounting process, during the buying process. People don’t pay careful attention to what they need, relative to what is available, and to what their intended purpose calls for.

Individuals have been known to buy much more expensive cameras than what they require for their purposes, including the purchase of optional features which they may simply not be aware of as being option – such as wireless connectivity, or built-in viewers. This can mean the difference between a $100 camera and a $500 camera. Check out our best top 5 picks under $200

In addition, you want to buy the camera that will work for the purposes you need. If you are researching the natural habits of nocturnal animals, you need to buy an infrared camera – which won’t scare them off with a brilliantly visible flash. If you want something to hang undisturbed and collect still images over a long period of time, you want a camera which focuses on a long battery life – and which takes still images, as opposed to video.

Another extremely common mistake involving the use of trail cameras occurs during the hanging process. As was previously mentioned, the theft of trail cameras is a problem. They’re expensive devices, sometimes running several thousand dollars. They contain sophisticated electronics, which aren’t found in a lot of common electronic appliances, and they are meant to be left unattended for long periods of time.

Built-in security features aside, the best way to deter thieves is to hang your camera someplace inconspicuous. Camouflage is helpful in breaking up your camera’s outline, but not if you hang it in broad daylight. Putting it someplace where it might be partly obscured by vegetation, without interfering with its field of vision too much, is advisable. It is also advisable to avoid well-traveled trails, areas where other hunters congregate, and places where trees are being felled – basically, anywhere with a reason to host regular human traffic.

6. How To Mount a Trail Camera Quickly and Easily

There are several ways to quickly and easily mount a trail camera, the simplest one being to strap it in place around a tree, a pole, or some other similar protrusion. This is the quickest and easiest method by far, but it is not suggested for particularly long-term duration.

It is possible to fix a camera directly to a tree (with trees being the preferred mounting locations), but a far better option is to buy one of many available containers to hold your camera. These containers are often made of heavy-duty aluminum, and can be fixed to a tree with a power drill and two outdoor screws. They have lids which can be fastened in place over your camera by means of a padlock, resulting in a fixture which will almost certainly require considerable effort and some heavy-duty tools to remove illegitimately.

It is further possible to camouflage such a container through the use of brush, leaves, or other plant material placed around its edges. Depending upon what you’re after, and where you place

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