September 23, 2021
I think about hunting season every day and often find myself wondering, What is happening right this moment in the life of the buck or bull I will hopefully encounter this fall? Is he curled up in the shadows taking a nap? Foraging through the forest? Visiting a creek or waterhole? Thanks to cellular trail cameras, I don’t have to wonder about such things as much as I used to, since they allow me to remotely monitor multiple locations across several properties in near real time! The intelligence those cameras provide allows me to make some educated guesses about bedding locations, travel patterns, preferred food sources and more.
Regardless of your personal hunting situation — whether you own or lease hunting ground far from home, you have too many acres to cover locally or you just love running trail cameras — chances are you can benefit from cellular trail-cam technology. That’s why we tested nine top models and took a deep dive into how to best employ them to your benefit.
As you will see from the volume of information this article contains, deciding on the wireless camera that’s right for you can be quite daunting. My recommendation is that you take time to write down what you really want from a camera in terms of features, performance, price, etc. While each trail camera manufacturer touts certain features, they may or may not be important for your intended use. With that, let’s dig in!
Although cellular technology — the ability to transmit images directly from the field to your phone and/or computer — is all the rage these days, don’t forget that the camera itself is the foundation of your surveillance efforts. In other words, the best cellular technology in the world won’t do a thing for you unless the basic work of detecting motion and capturing quality photos is being done correctly.
Trail-cam attributes such as resolution, detection range, flash range, trigger speed and field of view are all important considerations. It’s also worth mentioning that when it comes to wireless trail cameras, one specification we removed from our testing is trigger recovery time. Why? Because it is a highly misunderstood metric due to all the variables involved. We’ll discuss this more in our section on Real-World Testing, but the accompanying features chart will allow you to easily compare the basic capabilities of all nine models in our test.
Running wireless trail cameras, especially as you start to add multiple units to your arsenal, can become a significant expense. Batteries alone will rack up a shocking bill in no time, not to mention the monthly or annual data plan required for each camera.
When determining your out-of-pocket expense, you must consider the up-front cost of the camera, battery life, the ability to use alternate power sources such as solar panels and data subscription costs to get a true apples-to-apples comparison from one camera to the next. For example, just because the up-front cost for a particular is less than other options doesn’t mean it will be cheaper to use in the long run if it drains batteries quickly and/or requires a costly monthly data plan. The accompanying chart gives you a detailed cost breakdown for the nine cameras in our test.
You’ve made the decision to go with Company A and — after setting up your new camera in the field — tons of pictures start flowing in. You can literally end up with hundreds of pictures in a 24-hour period, and before you know it there are thousands of images to manage. What to do? Is there a way to separate bucks from does, deer from hogs, bears from bulls via image-recognition software? If so, can you easily organize the images into separate folders or delete photos of animals you are not interested in tracking?
What about managing the camera itself? Can you remotely change settings, view signal and battery strength and see how much storage is left on your SD card? Do you know how many days are left on your cell plan? The accompanying chart will give you a quick overview of wat is possible with each unit.
When considering a thorough review of today’s cellular trail cameras, we decided that real, in-the-field testing would be most effective — and interesting. As with all our testing, we try to level the playing field and conduct a true, apples-to-apples comparison.
We determined that nine cameras would be too many to place on one test board, so we broke the lot into two groups, each with its own “control camera” used to serve as a performance baseline. Both control cameras were non-cellular models with extremely fast trigger speeds and trigger recovery times, with no built-in delay. This was done to ensure we knew the number of deer per event and the approximate time the event lasted, which were then listed in the header for each event. The cellular cameras were then evaluated for each event in the following categories: number of photos taken, number of photos successfully transmitted, number of deer captured, number of photos containing deer, and number of deer identifiable as male/female. The first two columns simply indicate whether the camera transmitted all the photos taken. The third column lets you know if the camera offered enough data to determine the total number of deer in the event; that doesn’t necessarily mean photos of full deer. Column four indicates how many photos out of the total contained any part of a deer.
Depending on a camera’s trigger speed, coupled with motion-detection angle and the camera’s field of view, you can and will encounter situations where the camera is triggered while the animal is not actually in the camera frame. Of course, this only matters if no other pictures of the animal are captured. That brings us to our last column — number of deer identifiable as male or female. I understand trail cameras are used to determine the health of deer and other identifying characteristics; however, most bowhunters are primarily interested in knowing about the bucks/bulls they can focus their hunting efforts on. This column should really be, “Can the deer’s head be seen?”
Why two setups? Well, as we worked through all the camera details, configurations, features and performance, we became aware of a variable that can dramatically impact the outcome. In short, when contemplating trigger recovery time (the time required for a camera to rearm itself and take a second triggered photo after the first triggered photo is captured) it is apparent from my communication with multiple manufacturers that a camera’s actual trigger recovery time may not be realized when the camera is transmitting cellularly. Most cameras must wait for a transmission to be completed before they can rearm and take a subsequent photo. Many wireless trail-cam users want to know the moment a deer is moving past our cameras. So, we set the camera to send each photo immediately after it is taken. Two things happen when we do this. One, we significantly reduce the camera’s battery life. Two, we hinder the camera’s ability to rearm and take additional photos of other animals that may be passing in front of the camera. This is a BIG deal and one everyone should be aware of. We tested this by changing the settings on all cameras from immediate transmission to transmitting once every 12 or 24 hours. You can see the differences here, in terms of the number of pictures taken and transmitted, in the accompanying charts.
I will leave interpretation of results up to the reader. However, I believe some context is in order:
Our control cameras did not actually give us as much data as we expected. So, we relied on all the cameras, controls included, as a group to get the whole picture of each event.
- While there were other events during our testing, we chose those that had the most straightforward series of pictures. In other words, there weren’t birds flying into the field of view to trip the trigger, deer weren’t meandering in and out of the field of view, etc.
- Moultrie, which had good overall picture numbers, completely missed Event #6. The reason is the camera’s relatively narrow field of view (FOV in the charts). The star of that event, a small buck, never made it far into the collective picture (from the left) as he appeared to notice the cameras (heard them, saw them or both) and took off only to re-appear, again on the left edge, but this time much further away where most of the cameras did not catch him.
- Why no nighttime events? Our test setup had all cameras positioned in close proximity, and we did not want the flash from one unit to impact the results for another.
- You will notice the Bushnell camera took more photos than the other cameras. That is a result of dual processors that allow the camera to keep taking pictures while also transmitting.
- Covert was not available for the “Scheduled Send” portion of the testing as we were using a pre-production unit and this part of the software was not complete at the time of testing.
Tips and Tricks
- As we gathered equipment, reviewed camera features, talked to manufacturers, set up data subscription accounts and conducted testing, we learned several important things along the way. To me, the biggest takeaway is how much more effective it is to schedule each camera to transmit images once or twice each day rather than immediately after an image is taken. Not only does using this method greatly prolong battery life; it also results in more pictures being taken. You can’t beat that combination!
- Make sure to understand the difference between trigger recovery time and trigger delay time. Trigger recovery time is the fastest a camera can reset and trigger a second photo after taking the first. Trigger delay time is a manual setting you can adjust in the camera menu, such as spacing images 10, 15 or 30 seconds apart. And, as previously noted, if you set your camera to transmit images immediately, you are likely to experience a trigger delay between images far greater than the camera’s advertised trigger recovery time, or the delay time you specify within the camera settings.
- The cellular network you use for your cell phone has nothing to do with the network you can or should use for your wireless cameras. Most manufacturers offer a choice of multiple service providers, and you should always choose the network that offers the best coverage in the area where you intend to use the camera.
- We found we really like simplicity and straightforward operation and controls. In my opinion, every trail camera should have an on/off/setup switch you have to physically slide. I don’t want to get home and realize a digital switch didn’t result in an activated camera, forcing me to return to the field and start over! And while some like the ability to change camera settings both remotely and on the actual camera, I do not. On some cameras, I experienced conflicts between settings made remotely and on the camera, again forcing me to go back into the field to resolve the issue. I would like to see manufacturers that include on-board adjustments to ensure all settings can also be adjusted remotely and include a failsafe in the operating software that prevents conflicts between local and remote settings adjustments.
- The same attributes we look for in non-cellular cameras are still critical when searching for a cellular camera, with some additional considerations thrown in the mix. I want to see all target animals that cross in front of my camera, in enough detail and with enough information to know exactly what species it is, what headgear it is sporting, if any, and the particulars surrounding the event (time, temp, moon phase, etc.). That sounds simple enough, but it takes the right combination of user knowledge and camera performance to make it happen. Just like the manufacturers, I try to get better each year and adapt to the ever-changing technologies. Anyone can throw a camera on a tree and get some pictures of deer, but those willing to learn the intricacies of their cameras, set them up properly and organize the data they provide in a way that reveals deer patterns will see their success reach the next level!