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How to Buy a Trail Camera: A Buyer’s Guide for Beginners

Thinking of buying a trail camera? Cool!

Trail cameras are amazing and provide a great way for hunters to track and identify their game. It has redefined the way hunters hunt and has proven itself invaluable.

trail camera

Whether it’s for deer hunting or tracking other animals, these cameras are proving themselves useful.

Any hunter worth his salt most likely has a trail camera in their arsenal. You should too. But, with the many options that are available today, choosing and settling for one can be a tough decision.

This is why we’ve created this super-concise guide to help you understand what’s important in choosing one. By the time you’re done reading this article, you should have enough information to decide on the best trail camera for your situation. 

If you’re looking for a camera to take with you while hiking on the trail, you’ll obviously need completely different gear.

What Flash Options Are the Best?

Close up of best trail camera flash

You have a couple of choices here.  This may be the single most important choice of this entire process, so don’t be afraid to take some time on it.

I tend to think the best game camera option for flash is infrared.

Incandescent and white LED flash models do provide superior photos, however.  Hands down. 

The most important aspect of any picture is light.  Those damn flashes can brighten up the darkest of nights.

We’ve all had someone surprise us with a camera flash.  It takes 5 minutes until you can see clearly again.  The same thing happens to the game too.  Talk about being spooked!  

Keep in mind that the same flash that spooks the game may attract a thief as well.  Or even a couple of crazy kids with nothing to do.  You never know. Infrared light is not visible to humans or animals.  You may be able to make out a dim red “glow”, but that’s about it.  Negligible at most. 

Infrared flashes don’t have to charge before each picture either.  You get a couple of benefits from this as well. Faster trigger time and longer battery life are the two most important and the ones that jump out to me first.  Some incandescent cameras can be almost an entire second slower in the dark because of the lag from the flash “warm up”.  You’ve seen those deer move!  A second is a big difference.

The questions to ask about infrared are:

  • How bright will my nighttime pictures be?
  • Is this a red glow or no glow unit?
  • Can I deal with inferior pictures for the other benefits?

Check out this guide to the best cameras for hiking and backpacking instead.

Picture Quality

The key thing about your trail camera is that it must be able to take clear, high-quality pictures and videos. This is the single biggest reason why you’ll be buying them.

If you’ll be switching to the video mode, make sure that it produces clear, non-blurry images. Some wildlife cameras come with VGA and HD modes on them, as well as ample storage space. 

It must also show a distinct contrast with the subject as well as highlight the foreground and backgrounds. The point is the camera should have a clear resolution; enough to highlight all parts of nature and scenery that you want. 

Most importantly, picture quality in regular and low light. Remember here that high megapixels don’t mean anything. In fact, they’re mostly selling gimmicks used by manufacturers to get you to buy their wildlife cameras. Don’t fall for it.

Instead, ask to see pictures shot by that exact trail camera. Most online shops will show you samples that you can compare. But, if you have access to an offline store, walk in and see how they perform. 

Trail Camera Night Mode

Also speaking of pictures, make sure there’s one with a night mode option on. Even if you won’t be hunting at night -many hunters prefer daytime hunting- you want to make sure that you at least know where what subjects are and at what time of the day. 

The night mode feature is what separates all trail cameras from other cameras. It’s the ability to track animals at night. Make sure that it has infrared and black LED flash. The latter is very crucial because regular flash bulbs are bound to scare away wildlife at night. 

Nocturnal animals tend to scare easy. So, when there’s a sudden burst of light, it’ll cause them to scamper away, and avoid that area for a while. 

Understandably, nighttime pictures will not be as clear as daytime ones. Not to worry, just make sure that the trail camera produces clear crisp pictures that’ll help you clearly highlight the game’s features. 

If you can, get the one that doesn’t give animals the red/orange eye. Those are better and produce better night mode pictures. 

Detection Circuit

This is a collection of features that detect when the game is near or around the trail camera. It’s made up of the trigger speed and time, detection zone, sensors, and recovery time. Each of these components plays a crucial role in getting game images. 

The trigger speed, for instance, is the speed at which the camera takes its shots once the game enters the detection zone. The detection zone itself is like the maximum area/range that a trail camera can cover.

It’s like a motion sensor. There’s a limit beyond which it won’t detect animals. But, once the animals are within range, it automatically starts taking pictures or recording videos. 

Speaking of sensors, this is what tells the camera that the animal is close, thus triggering it to take the necessary pictures. These are usually infrared sensors in the camera. 

Recovery time is the length of time it takes for a camera to store its images and be ready to take other shots. So, bottom line, you want a detection circuit with a wide detection zone, speedy trigger, sensitive sensor, and fast recovery time. 

These make the best trail cameras. And they don’t have to be expensive either. There are always good deals for the best trail camera under 100 dollars online on eBay or in a local store.  

Memory and Battery

It goes without saying that your trail camera must have enough juice to last as long as necessary, and good storage capacity. The good news is almost all of them come with both these days. 

Some units, however, have the added advantage of a power saving mode, while others don’t. Ideally, the 8 AA batteries that they come with, are often enough to take about 16,000 pictures. Others with power saving mode can store a lot more. 

As for memory, you want one with ample storage space, particularly if you’ll be using the video feature, and leaving the camera on for days. Most trail cameras come with an internal storage capacity. But that’s not enough. You’ll want to get one with an external storage option.

A 64GB micro SD card should suffice. Get two of these. This makes it very easy to swap out and replace memory cards. It also takes very little time to do that. In fact, you can be in and out in 3-5 minutes.

All you have to do is remove the precious memory card, and replace with the empty one. Then, go download the images on to your computer or phone someplace else.  

External Power Supply

External Power Supply

Most scout cameras have an input for either a 6v or 12v external battery supply.  If you live far away or are just plain short on time this is an excellent solution.  A word of advice though, you should buy the appropriate battery manufactured to go with your exact model device.

Many times I have seen somebody try to modify their tractor or quad batteries to try to power their device by rigging a connector.  At best you have 50/50 shot to NOT fry your camera.  Weatherproof boxes are really non-negotiable as well.

You may even consider putting it inside of a black trash bag (extra weather protection) and then covering it with some bark or brush or something (extra thieving bastard protection).  I would always try to hide it a bit though if at all possible.

Solar Power Panels

This is a technology that has also improved greatly over the past 2 or 3 years.  An example:  I have a Moultrie Power Panel on my D-55IR camera and haven’t had to change the batteries in almost 2 years! 

At an average of $10-$12 a whack to change the batteries (this camera takes 6 C’s), it is a no-brainer for me.  I leave my cams up year round.  Some of the best game camera photos I’ve ever gotten have come in the off-season.

Other Available Options

Security

You should always make an attempt to protect your investment.  Sadly, people as a whole prove to not be trustworthy every day.  When finally decide on the best game camera, you must be willing to accept that it may be stolen.

At best, you are only going to be able to minimize the opportunity.  Like everywhere in life, nothing is going to stop a determined thief.  Period.  Cable cutters work.  In extreme cases, cable locks just slip off trees that have been cut down!  Sounds crazy, but it has happened.

You may be able to hang them a bit higher as a bit of a deterrent.  You get better pictures from down lower (about 2-3 feet of the ground), but if you feel that is too risky, thieves rarely look up to find cameras.  Even if they do spot it, it will be harder to reach.

The security boxes and anti-theft cables do work as a casual deterrent.  But they aren’t 100%.  Even if they end up not being able to steal the camera, some of the degenerates will destroy them.  The boxes and cables add more cost to the camera as well, so you should weigh that into your decision.

Viewing Screens

You will find some units with built-in LCD screens.  These are nice because they will tell you how many pictures have been taken and even let you view the pictures out in the field. 

The quality isn’t going to be as high as if you took them home to view on your computer, but you can at least get an idea.  You wouldn’t have to get all the way home and then decide you maybe had the camera in the wrong place.  This will have a negative impact on battery life though.  But it may be worth it to you.  

If you wanted to be super official, you could even get a digital picture viewer.  If you already have a digital camera you can use though, it may be overkill.

If you don’t have a viewing screen in your game camera, you can put the SD (or whatever type) into a regular digital camera so you can still view the pictures from the field.

If you take advantage of this last tip, DO NOT erase pictures or alter the SD card in any way from the external camera. It gets a little technical for me, but you might overwrite the file structure the unit needs to be able to save photos to that SD card. Always reformat from the game camera itself to be safe.

Wireless/Cellular

Get pictures from your trailcam texted to you!

Properly equipped wireless cams in 2015 can either transmit signals through local Wi-Fi signals or via radio frequencies.  (Sometimes up to a mile away).  Some of the more advanced ones can chain units together, allowing you to skip photos from one to another up to many miles away.

Cellular cameras work, in the same way, as texting someone a picture.  You need a SIM card to operate these, as well as valid cellular service.  Both cost extra.

The biggest pro for the Wi-Fi is that it doesn’t require any monthly subscription, like it’s cellular counterpart.  They usually have terrible battery life and very limited range, depending on the terrain where you place it.

Cell cams, like the Covert Special Ops, can be used anywhere there is decent cell service.  They can be set to alert you via text or email whenever there is any activity.  These make great security cameras as well, because of the instant notification feature.  Excellent for cabins that are off the grid, boat docks or even storage sheds.

Which Did You Like The Best?

You have heard all about what is important in a trail camera to me.  We have gone over many of the popular features available on models today.  We even checked out some of the best trail cameras side by side.

Now it is time for you to decide what you want included in your ideal game camera. Remember to consider what you are going to be using it for, where you will be mounting it (ie- weather, etc) and what kind of flash you think is going to work best for your needs.

You are now armed with all the information you need to make a decision and are well on your way to scouting 24/7.  

Making a Final Decision on a Trail Camera

The aforementioned are the basics that every trail camera must have. There are units with remote viewing capabilities. These are often called cellular or trail wireless cameras.

These send pictures directly to your phone or computer while you’re miles away from the location. They are convenient and provide you with real-time feedback. 

At the end of the day, you want something that works and meets your hunting needs. A good trail camera with all the mentioned features will.

If you want more information on trail cameras and other hunting gears, check out the Plans Outdoor Blog

Happy Hunting!