With the popularity of doorbell cameras such as Ring, most people are now familiar with the fun and practicality of the trail cameras hunters have been using for decades. Who wouldn’t appreciate the utility of using an unmanned camera to see who’s been rooting through your trash or to see what kind of game animals pass through your backyard or favorite hunting spot? Since these cameras are automatically triggered and make very little noise, they’re ideal for spotting normally jumpy characters such as wildlife and intruders.
Trail cameras have evolved significantly over the past few decades from expensive, niche products for antler-obsessed hunters into easy-to-use consumer products anyone might appreciate for security, hunting, and even just wildlife observation. The newer models have also started to adopt features found in those ubiquitous doorbell cameras, like the ability to receive images instantly or live stream directly to your phone.
Picking the best trail camera will hinge on where, when, and why you want to use it, your budget, how important image quality is to you, and how high-tech you want to go. To help you choose the right trail cam for your needs, I highlighted the most important features to look for and then narrowed my recommendations to the best models for each type of user and budget.
The Best Trail Cameras
- Best Overall: Toguard 4K 48MP WiFi Trail Camera
- Best Features: BOG Blood Moon Infrared Game Camera
- Best Budget: WOSPORTS Infrared Mini Trail Camera
- Best Splurge: Bushnell Cellucore Live Cellular Trail Camera
- Best Cellular: Moultrie Mobile Edge Cellular Trail Camera
What to Look For in a Trail Camera
Networked or Not
One of the main divisions in the trail camera market is if your trail camera does or does not connect to a cellular network, which would allow you to wirelessly send images over greater distances. Connected models are so common now that AT&T and Verizon offer monthly service plans that often come bundled with the camera.
If You’re On the Hunt For More: Best Ladder Stands • Best One-Person Tents • Best Hammocks for Camping and Backpacking
This connectivity means that you don’t have to physically visit your camera to check out the imagery it has captured—a benefit that’s most tangible when cameras are placed in far-flung hunting spots, but less valuable if you’re using the camera closer to your house. The cellular connection also makes the cameras easier to operate since most cell-connected cameras can be controlled via your smartphone through apps. These allow you to use remote-control camera settings to switch between photo and video modes, adjusting camera sensitivity, and check battery levels.
Networked cameras are addictive to use because they can provide instant or at least frequent gratification from your camera(s). However, there’s usually a recurring data plan cost in addition to setup complexity. Bottom line: Be sure you really need the connectivity. There also may be legal restrictions on wirelessly connected cameras that limit on how you can use them. Be sure to double check your state’s regulations before buying.
This might seem like a minor detail, but given that many people want their trail camera to capture their subjects without alerting those subjects to the camera’s presence, the camera’s exterior color can be a critical factor. Since a majority of trail cameras are marketed to hunters and are intended to be used outdoors, these devices generally come in solid earth tones or camouflage patterns.
If you’re a hunter, you probably already have a good sense of what patterns are most appropriate for your area. If not, snap some photos of the trunks of the trees where you intend to mount the camera; then compare them to the patterns on the cameras you’re considering.
Cameron Shrum, avid bowhunter and co-owner of C&K Archery in Frisco, Colo., says, “People will get a good deal on a camera and not realize how important it is to have [it] match [their] habitat. The goal is to get pictures of animals without them knowing they are being watched, and when something is out of place, game animals have a tendency to figure it out.”
Megapixels and Picture Quality
As a professional photographer and videographer, I can tell you that megapixels aren’t everything. While they can be a decent clue to the quality of an image that you might expect from a camera, there are other factors that contribute to the final image quality from your trail cam, including sensor size, trigger speed, shutter speed, pixel size, and more.
The best way to gauge the quality of a trail camera is to look at real images taken from that camera. Online reviews on sites like Amazon often include photos taken by real users, and these can be a great shortcut to evaluating image quality. While trail cameras rarely take print-worthy shots, I’ve definitely come to appreciate the better quality images produced by my newer trail cameras, including 4K videos, compared to the relatively crude and fuzzy images generated by my first trail cams.
Since trail cams are motion-activated, a fast trigger is obviously important. You’ll want the camera to snap a photo as quickly as possible when the motion trigger is activated in order to best capture the subject. Imagine a deer running full-tilt past your trail camera. If the camera takes nearly a second to actuate, that deer may not even appear in the camera’s frame. An acceptable standard to shoot for is 0.5 second trigger or faster.
Since trail cameras are often left alone for days, weeks, and sometimes months at a time, check that your camera is set up properly. Not only do you want to choose a location where you expect your desired subjects to pass through, but you also want to position the camera so it has a clear line of sight on a fairly broad area. Hiding a trail camera in a dense thicket means you’ll get pictures only when something passes right in front of the camera.
Shrum of C&K Archery recommends testing your trail camera before you walk away. “Have it snap a few pictures with you walking by and then review them. Sometimes you may not have the right angle; it may be too high or too low. Try to set the height and angle to capture the game in the center of the camera’s view.”
Testing can also reveal if you have any technical issues. Sometimes you may need to format your memory card in order for it to save photos and video, or you might see an incorrect date/time stamp and realize that you forgot to set those parameters.
I recommend using only lithium batteries in trail cameras. Especially with cheaper cameras, I’ve found that regular alkaline batteries don’t provide enough voltage for the IR flash and, many times, a trail camera may not record video with underpowered batteries (alkaline batteries start decreasing in voltage as soon as you start using them). Lithium batteries deliver higher voltage consistently, and they work better in the cold.
If you’re setting up a cellular trail cam, make sure you check signal strength in the area. If you have a camera that offers an app or website (as many now do) that lets you view images on your smartphone, try triggering the camera and see if you receive the notification and image.
Many trail cameras are reasonably weatherproof, but it still makes sense to find a somewhat sheltered location. Rain and snow can temporarily obscure your trail camera’s lens and ruin some great images, and direct sun hitting your triggers can lead to empty images or throw the camera’s sensors off. Try to avoid lots of plants or branches in the immediate foreground as wind-triggered movement from them can lead to empty images as well.
How We Selected Trail Cameras
My recommendations are based on conversations with other hunters— Cameron Shrum of C&K Archery, who uses and sells trail cameras for hunters— and from my own firsthand experience testing dozens of models of trail cameras. I usually set trail cameras a month or two before I intend to hunt an area and leave them. As the season draws nearer, I review results and generally start moving cameras around to new spots for shorter periods of time as I start spending more time in the woods.
Because I like having several cameras that I check manually, I favor cheaper, simpler cameras so my trail camera budget doesn’t go overboard. I do know hunters who use only expensive, connected cameras because they live more than an hour from their hunting grounds and want to stay up on the images being captured. More recently, I’ve started using several Moultrie Mobile cellular cameras that take me more than an hour to reach, in addition to a fleet of more hands-on cameras.
The trail cameras below include the more common brands that show up in stores such as Cabela’s and local outdoor shops in North America as well as online. These picks offer guidance if you’ve already narrowed down your search.