A Newbie's Guide to Trail Cameras

The basics of what trail cameras to look for if you have never used them before.

Jun 26th, 2019 #hunting#biggame

Spypoint trail cam

My experience with trail cameras is limited to scouring their contents for evidence of Bigfoot. If all the damn deer, elk, moose, mountain lions, coyotes, rodents, and other hunters would get out of the way of my trail cams, I’d probably have a crystal-clear shot of Sasquatch by now.

Kidding aside, trail cams are a really useful tool us modern hunters have. They’re especially useful for the hunters who can’t scout as often as they’d like. And it’s just plain fun to see what other animals show up when you’re not around.

For someone new to hunting, though, adding trail cams to the list of gear to buy just adds another mystery in need of solving. New hunters likely wonder what trail cams they need, why do they need them, and can they possibly get by without them?

Let’s take a stab at answering those three questions today.

Muddy trail cam

What trail cam do I need?

The short answer is the one you can afford. As with everything in hunting, you get what you pay for with trail cams. Decent cams from companies like Stealth Cam and Moultrie start at around $100 and go up from there.

The flip side to that argument is that there’s no guarantee you’ll have that trail camera for very long. Two years ago I was out scouting elk with a buddy of mine in early September. He had a trail cam overlooking a good wallow, so we hiked in to see if the elk had been in the wallow lately, and to pull the card from the camera and pop in a fresh one.

We got to the wallow – no sign of recent elk use – and the trail camera was gone. Someone had removed it from the tree, presumably because they didn’t want anyone else looking in on this wallow.

That was the second or third trail cam that particular buddy had lost that year. He only spent $20 on each cam, so he wasn’t out too much money. But even at $20 a pop, I don’t like the idea of leaving gear hanging from a tree for just anyone to come by and take.

On the other hand, another hunting buddy of mine has a few dozen trail cams dotted around the forest we grew up in. He’s never had a camera stolen.

The short of it is that you need to be comfortable with potentially losing whatever cam you buy. With that in mind, though, it’s nice when your trail cams have features like:

  • High megapixel count for better image quality
  • Various trigger and time lapse control settings
  • Large detection zones
  • Good flash for pictures at night and low-light
  • Hefty battery life

Find something in your price range that meets most of those requirements, and you’ll be in business.

Spypoint trail cam

Why do I need a trail cam?

I grew up in a small town in a part of Utah that was rural, but thanks to the influx of California tech bros to the Salt Lake City area, that small town isn’t rural anymore. Anyways, back before the town was ruined, I remember hearing the old-timers talk about these new “game cameras” and how they were “gonna make a bunch of lazy-ass hunters outta everyone.”

Those old-timers didn’t see the use for trail cams, and for a while I wrote them off as an unneeded accessory. Unlike the old-timers, though, I came around to trail cams.

I still wouldn’t call them an absolute must-have, but trail cams help immensely with the following:

  • Scouting
  • Identifying watering/eating habits of different game
  • Where animals get pushed as the hunting season goes on

Not all of us live a half-hour from their hunting grounds, or can head up there on a whim. So while I can go scout for deer and elk just about every day, most folks can’t. A trail cam helps out a lot with that problem, because it records game movements while you’re busy working.

Specifically, trail cams give you a good indication of when game animals are coming out to feed and water. You’ll obviously need to place your cams above good water and feed areas to gather that intel, just like you’d glass those spots if you had the time to sit on the mountain for a few hours every night.

Finally, if you’re a rifle hunter, you’re likely hunting after the archery, muzzleloader, and limited-entry or premium hunts have ended. The game have been pushed around, and having trail cameras in various locations can help you see where they’re moving, and if animals seek higher or lower ground in response to hunting pressure.

Can I get by without a trail cam?

Absolutely. I hunted for years without trail cams, and I rarely use them still. The caveat there is that I live on the side of a mountain, and my backyard is literally a national forest. Hell, on the more balmy autumn days I sit on my back deck in my underwear with my spotting scope and binos, tracking the movement of deer across the ridges and draws that tower over my home.

Most hunters don’t have that luxury. If you can’t commit as many weekends to scouting as you’d like, or you’re exploring hunting a new area, trail cams are a great tool to help you learn the movements of animals. While nothing replaces actually sitting in the wilderness and watching animals with your own eyes, trail cameras are as close to the real thing as you’ll get.

Do you hunt with cameras? If so, which ones do you use, and why? Let us know in the comments.

Spencer DurrantSpringville, Utah, United States
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Wildolaceadventures I've recently started putting cameras on my trap line, it adds some fun to the day when I get to see what is traveling a trail or looking at a bait pile. It also helps understand the animals in the area better and their reaction to changes I make. I am returning one that for some reason doesn't take pics once it leaves my house and have had good luck with the stealth cam so far.
4 months ago
Bob Caperton I started using trail cameras in 2018. Originally it's was out of curiosity and just for fun. I really got hooked on them when I started getting great elk pictures. Now I run several cameras all year. I get pictures of coyotes, foxes, deer, elk and antelope. I bought my first 4 cameras used from a store in town. Then I bought several Stealth Cam units. The images got significantly better. I got drawn for elk in SD Black Hills in 2019 and added two Moultrie cellular cameras. That was a game changer. They allow me to view the images without having to walk through the area that I placed them in. Excellent images from the Moultrie cameras. They helped me determine where to hunt and helped me tag my elk on the second morning of the season.
3 months ago
invictus1218 Nice info. I am new to hunting and I already got my pack it's a Kuiu 1850 Icon Pro from https://huntmode.com and I also want to get a camera. This really helped in my decision whether to get one or not. I am now looking for hunting outfitters that sells trail cameras. Thanks again.
2 months ago