Trail Cameras 101: Complete Guide

| Last Updated July 1, 2021

Trail cameras can be invaluable in locating potential prey and viewing their activities. 

While some people use trail cameras simply to watch wildlife on their property, using them for hunting purposes will help you hone in on the activities of the animals you are hunting. In this article, we will discuss what these devices do, how they work, and how to pick the right one. 

Photo Credit: MossyOak.com

If you already have a pressing question, use our table of contents to jump to the section you need. 

Table of Contents

Trail Camera Basics

Trail Camera Tips

Read Before Buying

When To Replace Your Trail Camera

Popular Trail Camera Brands

Conclusion

Trail Camera Basics

If you are a hunter who needs to scope out an area or simply want to be able to view the wildlife that lives on your property, a trail camera may be the perfect option. For someone who has never used one, they can seem complicated and confusing. We are here to help clear things up for you.  

What is a Trail Camera? 

 A trail camera uses a combination of motion and heat sensors to detect movement of living creatures, which then triggers the camera to automatically snap the picture. When animals are active and moving around, you may be able to get many images of the creatures that roam your property, the direction they are heading, and when they are most active. 

Other common names for these are trap, wildlife, or game cameras. No matter what you call them, they all serve the same purpose. It is very helpful and interesting to view all the various types of animals that frequent an area. Most cameras have some amount of night vision technology to allow for images in varying light conditions. 

Photo Credit: CarolinaSportsman.com

How Does a Trail Camera Work? 

Trail cameras contain a battery since they are likely located well out of reach of electrical outlets. They are completely contained, weather-resistant cameras that lay in a “sleep” state most of the time. 
A scope contains lenses that work together to make this happen similarly to a telescope. The objective lens at the forward end of the scope determines how much light enters the tube. 

A motion sensor remains awake and when a nearby animal moves, it activates the system. This sensor is generally in the form of a PIR (Passive Infrared) detector, similar to those used in home security systems.
The image then appears at the ocular lens for the shooter. 

Once the camera is awake, it adjusts the flash to current lighting levels and the device autofocuses. 

Several snapshots are taken and stored in the storage device, most often in the form of an SD card

Once the motion has ceased, the camera returns to a latent state. 

Photo Credit: BoneCollector.com

Types of Trail Cameras

Trail cameras are classified not by type but by features. Here are some common divisions.

Night Vision

Night vision trail cameras are able to capture images even in dim or dark conditions.

Power

There are primarily two types of power for trail cameras; solar power and battery power. Solar obviously has an advantage in that it continuously charges in with the sun’s rays which means you won’t have to continuously retrieve and recharge the camera. 

Battery-powered trail cameras use a rechargeable battery to keep the device functioning. These require you to regularly retrieve the camera and replace or recharge the battery.

Flash

The type of flash is a preference for many hunters. There are no-glow trail cameras where the flash is undetectable but still enables you to get a good image. However, this results only in black and white images. This feature usually comes at a significantly elevated cost.

Next, we have low-glow cameras that have a visible flash but it is less bright. This will also result only in black and white images.

Lastly are the flash cameras we all know, which provide a white flash. Your images will be in full color this way but will likely scare off any further wildlife activity for a while. 

Cellular/WiFi/No Connection

How your camera provides images is another division. Wireless trail cameras communicate wirelessly in one of two ways, by using a cellular data connection to relay images, or through a nearby Wi-Fi connection to allow you to see images without having to retrieve the camera. 

Read Before Buying


Obviously, there are options when choosing a trail camera. So how can you be sure you choose the right one for you? We’re glad you asked. 

How to Choose a Trail Camera 

Choosing a trail camera really depends on what you intend to do with the information. If you are just looking to observe the animal activity in an area, certain aspects won’t be as important as if you are looking to identify individual animals or distinguish characteristics.

Here are some things you will need to keep in mind when choosing a trail camera. 

Picture Quality/Resolution

Again, this is dependent upon how much detail your activities require. If you need sharp, detailed images, you will need to find a high-resolution camera. This is usually indicated by the MP (megapixel) number. Just be sure to look at user ratings and actual experiences, as the MP number may be unattainable in all but ideal conditions. Be sure to get a camera that can produce the quality you want and need. 

Modes- Time Lapse/Burst

Know what kind of modes you are wanting. Time-lapse mode will take pictures throughout the day to give you a view of the landscape over time, regardless of activity. Burst mode takes several pictures per second to be sure you don’t miss a movement. This is especially helpful in fast-moving animals. Learn about these modes and decide which are a must-have and which are not vital to your success.

Detection Range

The detection range refers to the farthest point that the camera can sense movement and trigger a photo. The typical range falls between 40 and 120 feet, however, consider your image quality in relation to the range. Further out images may be of reduced quality. You have to decide which is more desirable for you. 

Trigger Speed

Trigger speed is the rate that it takes for the camera to sense movement and for a photo to be taken. You want a fast trigger speed so the animal hasn’t left the detection range by the time the photo is taken. Trigger speeds of less than a half-second are desirable. This ranges from 0.1-4 seconds. Longer times are only good in areas where animals might congregate for extended periods such as food plots and watering areas. 

Recovery Speed

Recovery speed is different from trigger speed. This is the amount of time it takes from the time a picture is taken and stored until the device is ready to take another photo. This speed is often adjustable to avoid taking hundreds of photos of the same animal doing its business in range.

Time Stamp

It is frustrating to have a bunch of images but not be able to remember when they were taken. Having a timestamp option allows each photo to be tagged so you know exactly the date and time the image was captured. 

Battery Life

During periods of high activity, your trail camera battery can drain pretty quickly. This is also affected by the mode you are using and the flash. Be sure you choose a model with sufficient battery life so you aren’t having to make extra trips to change the battery or risk losing shots. 

Data Connection

Modern trail cameras can connect directly to your computer or phone by using either a cellular connection or a nearby Wi-Fi connection. Others solely store the images and the only way you’ll see them is to collect the device. Decide which option is the best choice for you. 

Be sure to consider your specific needs to be sure the camera lives up to your expectations. 

Popular Trail Camera Brands

Many brands are known for their quality trail cameras. These brands usually offer cutting-edge technology as well as useful features that experienced hunters have requested over the years. Choosing a reputable company will ensure you are satisfied with your purchase for years to come. Research the brands to decide which to focus on. Here are a few brands to consider:

Moultrie

● Bushnell

● Reconyx

Stealth

Browning

Trail Camera Maintenance Tips

There are some things you can do to take care of your trail camera and keep it working for as long as possible.

Common Trail Camera Issues and Troubleshooting

When you depend on your trail camera to provide you with reconnaissance for your upcoming hunting trip, it can be frustrating to encounter issues. Here are some common problems and troubleshooting tips.

SD Card Problems- There can be many different problems with an SD card. You could have a bad card or a damaged slot. 

Photo Credit: GoHunt.com

First, try a different card to see if it works, also try the current card in a different camera. 

If this does not reveal an issue, look for dirty or damaged pins on the card itself- clean with isopropyl alcohol and a cotton swab if you notice anything. 

Make sure the “lock” button is not pushed down. 

Does your card need to be formatted? If nothing else works, you’ve likely lost anything you had anyway, so try formatting to see if it functions properly after this. 

Is your card full? A full card cannot store more images. Clear out all current photos and try your card again.

Lastly, if none of that worked, you may have a corrupted card or damaged SD slot and will need to replace the damaged component. 

Blurry or Empty Images – Few things are more frustrating than knowing your camera took pictures but you can’t see them. Here are some tips.

Photo Credit: ExodusOutdoorGear.com

When this is happening, something is interfering with your images. Be sure your lens is clean and unobstructed. 

Check your settings. Go into “Setup” and try switching the mode to “Auto” or “Multi-Shot”. Then move around the area and check the images. 

Change the camera’s position. The wind and sun may be causing the images to be overexposed and therefore, look empty or blurred. 

Battery Issues- If you’ve just recharged the battery or put new batteries in and your camera still dies too fast, try using Lithium batteries. This is a bit of a cost but is worth it in the long run. 

Test the batteries regularly to be sure they are functional and retaining a charge. If not, replace them. You should always have a backup battery on hand to account for issues.

Trail Camera Won’t Turn On- Your first line of defense is to check the battery and change it out with a battery you know works.

Next check to see if the camera is turned on.

Check the power switch for damage or moisture. This is a common cause which causes your display to flicker that you have intermittent power or no power. If this is the case, you can send your camera in if under warranty. If not, you can try a DIY solution or get a new camera. 

Corrupt Files- Often this will cause images to have lines running through them. The issue can be caused by a firmware issue or an SD card issue. 

Update your firmware first. 

Then check the SD card for damage. Format the card and try again. 

How and Where to Set Up a Trail Camera

Setting up your trail camera takes some thought and planning.

Your first decision is where to set it up. Location is everything. Setting up near runs, mock scrapes, food or water sources, and mineral stations are great options. This allows for plenty of traffic to come into view. 

Photo Credit: BowhuntingMag.com

Next, you need to decide how high you want the camera. Height is important for two reasons. The first is you want to clearly see what you are hunting, so having it low enough for a good view is helpful. However, you also need to consider the land you are using. For public lands, you’ll want to make the camera fairly inaccessible to avoid the possibility of it being stolen. 

Also, be sure to orient your camera away from obstructions like branches and never face a camera due east or west because the sun will blow out any chance you have of capturing a good image. North-facing cameras tend to provide the best images. 

You’ll want the camera to be as close as possible to the animals you’re trying to photograph. Ten yards or less is the goal. This gives you a suitable close-up with plenty of detail. 

Play with the settings and decide whether you want images or video. Each has its own benefit but also comes with drawbacks. Learning your camera’s settings and figuring out which work best for you will be one of the biggest challenges. For more information on programming your trail camera, check out this article

Finally, secure your camera. You can use a steel cable or other way to secure the device to the tree to prevent it from being stolen or knocked off by wildlife. 

Photo Credit: ArcheryBusiness.com

How to Maintain Your Trail Camera 

There are various ways to ensure your trail camera lasts a long time. Here are some maintenance tips to extend your camera’s life. 

Update the Firmware

Regularly check to see if your camera has a firmware update. This will ensure the device operates properly and updates are applied to improve the functionality. 

Check Your Battery

Batteries should be removed when stored in the off-seasons and fully tested and charged before the season begins. Always have a backup set of batteries in case of unexpected issues. Lithium batteries are considered the gold standard for trail cameras. Also be sure to clean the battery terminals and tray before inserting your batteries often. 

Check For Pests

Since your camera is often outside, insects can crawl inside. Ants are especially likely to infest a camera as they are attracted to the electromagnetic field. If the camera is infested, you’ll need to disassemble and clean out the inside. Start by freezing the camera in a zippered plastic bag for 24 hours. Then open and clean out the internal components. To prevent this, you should seal the openings and also use an insecticide around NOT in the camera. Be sure to use something that won’t deter other animals from frequenting the area. 

Inspect and Properly Seat Seals

The seals are your trail camera’s defense against moisture and pests. Be sure to examine all seals, make sure they are intact, clean, and properly seated. If you see dirt, wipe down the seals with a damp cloth and then reseat them. Then use an approved lubricant with a cotton swab to apply. 

Clean The Camera

As these are subject to the elements, trail cameras often get dirty. Regularly use a gentle cleaner to wipe down the housing of the unit. Be sure to remove any dirt and grime build-up but do so gently to avoid damaging the components.

Pay special attention to the sensor, flash, and camera lens. Before cleaning, be sure to remove any abrasive substance such as dirt particles by using canned air. Abrasives can cause irreparable scratching if rubbed against these delicate surfaces. Once these are clean, you might consider using a rain repellent applied with a cotton swab to keep your images clear. 

Photo Credit: GoHunt.com

How Often Should I Clean a Trail Camera?

Your camera should be cleaned each time you come out to check it, replace batteries, or move it to a new location. It should also be cleaned both before and after every season. Regular cleaning will ensure your camera operates as expected and is ready when you need it. 

When is it Time to Replace My Trail Camera?

Trail cameras are subjected to animals, weather conditions, and are subject to damage regularly from falls or bumps. Anytime your camera is not performing to your expectations, it is time to find a replacement. 

Electronics can fail inside a camera so if your camera performance is intermittent or the quality has deteriorated, this is a sign you need to replace. 

If your images are coming back blurry or empty and you’ve tried our troubleshooting methods to no avail, you likely need a replacement. 

When lenses or sensors become unresponsive or less responsive, you know you need to find a new model. 

There are a number of things you can try if you are experiencing problems with your trail camera, however, if none of those bring your camera back to its original quality, you’ll likely need to find a replacement. 

Photo Credit: GameAndFish.com

Can You Really Find a Quality Trail Camera That’s Affordable? 

You can find affordable options as long as your expectations are in check. If you are on a budget, figure out how much you can spend on a trail camera. Then narrow down your options.

You should also figure out which features are necessary for your needs and which are more of a “want” than a “need”. Things like Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity may be necessary, or in a remote location, may not work regardless. So considering your specific use and needs is essential to finding a high-quality camera in your budget range. 

Conclusion

Trail cameras are an amazing piece of tech that can greatly enhance your hunting experience. They are also great if you are just looking to learn more about the wildlife in a particular area. New technology is constantly being added to make your trail camera experience easier and more productive. 

A beautiful white rail deer in the middle of the jungle captured in Pennsylvania

We hope this guide on trail cameras answered your questions and has helped you to understand them a bit better. Thanks for reading. 

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My name is Jeff and I have been hunting and fishing for over 40 years. I am an avid archery lover, bass fisherman, and all-around outdoorsman. Currently, I'm obsessed with elk hunting but I'm sure I'll move onto a different favorite soon. You gotta love hunting for that reason :) If you have any questions, or just want chat about your latest hunting score or big catch, you can reach me at admin@biggamelogic.com. Read more about Big Game Logic.