An Introduction to Trail Cameras

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You've seen his tracks and they're huge! Nearby scrapes and rubs suggest he could be a monster buck. Now it's decision time. Which stand do you sit? If only you could lay eyes on him, or better yet, figure out when he uses that particular trail . . . you'd have it made!

Not long ago trail timers were a new invention allowing us to record when an animal traveled a given path. This was great, but we still couldn't identify the animal. Thanks to recent innovations, those timers have evolved. No longer limited to logging time and date alone, today's trail cameras capture the image on film. This advent is literally revolutionizing the way we hunt. Whether used during the off-season or in concert with our daily hunting routines, trail cameras have a multitude of applications year around. Thanks to these little beauties armed with an infrared sensor beam, anything that passes in front of the camera is captured on film.

Perpetually yearning to learn more about the animals we hunt, a wealth of opportunity is now at our fingertips. As with any winning invention, a number of manufacturers have jumped on the trail camera bandwagon. Frankly, I'm surprised it took so long for such a tool to come of age. Most widely used by whitetail hunters, today's trail cameras are affordable, portable, durable and reliable.

It could be that you've been using them for a while already. The truth is, I can't believe it took me so long to try it! If you can't tell by now, I'm hopelessly addicted. My wife thinks I'm nuts, but I don't care.

Living in Alberta, Canada, this past winter proved to be ideal for off-season scouting. Blessed with a good dose of snow, deer were yarded up and following the same trails on a regular basis. On one hand, there is no better time to capture images of deer than during the mid-winter months. The biggest value for me, is identifying which deer made it through the season and what condition they are in. As an outfitter and fanatical hunter, I really like using them throughout the months of January and February. With most bucks shedding their antlers by the end of February, the cameras provide great information. They allow me to see which bucks made it through the hunting season, what the doe groups look like, and even when the bucks are dropping their antlers. By identifying heavily used trails to and from bedding and feeding, I simply position a camera for the best shot, hit the switch and let it do its thing. It's great ... no waiting out in the cold and no need to sit on stand for hours.

Alternatively, trail cameras can help narrow your search during pre-season scouting. I can't wait to use them in August as a preliminary to the September bow season. A nice feature inherent with today's trail cameras is a time and/or date stamp. Given that whitetails are creatures of habit, particularly during the pre-rut, if you capture a good buck on film, chances are reasonably good that he will return another day around the same time. This can eliminate much of the guessing game and in turn, the number of hours you invest on stand.

During any open season trail cameras metaphorically allow you to be in more than one place at one time. It's true, you can only physically hunt in one spot, but by running trail cameras simultaneously, you can virtually monitor multiple locations simultaneously. For a reasonable expenditure, these simple inventions are radically changing the way I scout and hunt. If I've peaked your curiosity, read on and I'll share a few tips for acquiring and using them in the field.

Choosing a Trail Camera

Like any equipment, there are decisions to be made when choosing a trail camera. The most glaring is whether you want photos, which can be costly, or digital images that can be easily erased and stored in a database. After researching at length, three units have found their way into my inventory; two print film-based cameras and one digital camera. With plenty to choose from, I considered four factors including image quality, user-friendliness, cost, and durability. When the dust settled, I chose Trail Timer's Photo Hunter and Game Vu's Digital Camera (with monitor).

After analyzing photos taken with the Photo Hunter, it was clear that this camera captured good images in the daylight and at night. Likewise, it was simple to use; literally a push of the button and its turned on. Most trail cameras are reasonably priced. Today's trail cameras generally carry a price tag ranging from $200.00 to $600.00. Trail Timer's Photo Hunter is a great buy at around $250.00. To top it off, this camera is encased in a durable weatherproof shell. If you don't mind purchasing, loading, unloading and developing film, then film-based cameras are a great way to go. I like them because images can be viewed in alternate locations and then cataloged in a photo album. Clean crisp images are great for most of my applications because I like to show clients what some of the deer look like in the areas they are hunting. But that said, there are pros and cons to each type of camera.

If you prefer instant gratification, you may want to go digital. Game Vu takes hunting into the computer age. Competitively priced at $300.00 for the camera alone, or $400.00 for the camera and built-in portable monitor, it is also easy to use. With a silent infrared illuminator and motion detector, positioned correctly this camera is excellent during daylight hours and at night. Although the image is not as crisp as those captured on print film, this camera allows me to view and save or delete images at will without having to take a roll of film in to be developed. An added bonus for future reference is the ability to catalog the images on my computer. With an additional photo program easily installed on my PC, I can transfer and save images digitally as well. While I find Game Vu's camera to be an outstanding tool, the biggest drawback is that viewing requires either the portable monitor or related software.

Set-Up and Use

Set up for both cameras is easy. The most important thing to remember is programming the time and date stamps. This is simply done by pressing a few buttons.

Powering your trail camera is an issue. Batteries can be costly, but longevity is important when outside temperatures rise and fall dramatically. Although expensive, good batteries are necessary to ensure that your camera works all the time. In the summer this is not a big deal. At warmer temperatures, cameras can run for a couple months without much concern. When temperatures drop below freezing, that's when you've got to keep a close eye on your power source. Extreme cold winter temperatures can wreak havoc on battery life. To ensure longevity, I use lithium batteries as recommended. Even with the mercury reading at double negative digits this past winter, I found that I could run the camera for up to almost a month without much concern. Although AA batteries are practical for both models, to combat extreme cold, Game Vu recommends using a small 12-volt battery to power their digital camera.

Finding a sturdy fence post or tree within a few feet of the trail you want to monitor is a priority. I like to use deciduous trees that measure between six and 10 inches in diameter. Any sturdy post or tree will do as long as it doesn’t have any leaves or branches that might obstruct the camera lens. Whether you’re curious about the deer in your favorite woods, or anxious to know what kind of bears are visiting your bait site, how you set up your camera will dictate the quality of your images. Take Trail Timer for example – they suggest that the sensors have an effective range of up to 60 feet, but in practice, you are best to position the camera within 15 feet of where you intend to capture your subject. Game Vu suggests that their digital camera has an effective range of up to 24 feet, but again I’ve found that 15 feet is about as far as I like to set up. In an ideal situation, I prefer to position all of my cameras less than eight feet from any given trail. The key is to position it at a right angle to the trail approximately three to four feet off the ground, so that the subject moves broadside across the sensor. This allows the camera to capture the best image possible.

The biggest concern with leaving trail cameras in the woods is the potential for theft. Particularly in populated areas, leaving an expensive piece of hardware unattended can be risky business. You’ve basically got two options. The first is to choose trails less visible to others who might be exploring the same woods. You may also opt to camouflage around the camera using branches and leafy cover. Alternatively, you can invest in a lock and cable for just a few dollars. Regardless of your approach, you do take a risk by leaving it in the woods.

Results can vary a great deal between locations and depending on the time of year. For instance, more images will be captured during the rut than other times of the year based on increased movement as bucks search for does. That said, if you strategically mount your camera on heavily used trails in areas with good deer densities, you can expect to capture anywhere from four to 15 images a day. Most will be does, but bucks will eventually make their debut. Whenever possible, I like to check my camera every couple days both to make sure it is working and to confirm the number of images captured.

Applications & Conclusion

Trail cameras can be used for any species, at any time of the year. They can be a huge asset at mineral licks, wallows, trail crossings, on field edges, bait sites, or watering holes. I’m hoping to use them at some point for virtually all of the animals I hunt. Bear are on my list and I can’t wait to see what’s visiting my baits. I’ve also got a few mineral licks that I’m dying to monitor. With elk, moose and deer tracks littering these locations, I know that if I post the trail cameras during the hot summer months, I’m bound to capture some great images. But most importantly, I can’t wait for the whitetail rut. I’ve got numerous traditional scrape lines that I intend to keep an eye on. Last fall I captured a number of good bucks on film. Setting up near one of the camera locations, one of my hunters managed to tag a good buck within a day and a half of sitting the stand. On that note, I’m hoping to have as many cameras running as possible to identify when and where the big bucks are running next fall.

If you find your time in the field is limited, but want to invest in equipment that will improve your odds afield, give trail cameras a try … you won’t be disappointed!

Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing, waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his outfitting services, visit
Member of OWAA & OWC.

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