Online Resources for Selecting and Using a Trail Camera

Lost cat investigates trap, which is elevated to keep out skunks.

Trail cameras (also called wildlife, game, scouting, motion-sensitive, surveillance or remote cameras) can be highly effective tools for helping locate and recover displaced cats (including escaped indoor-only cats) and skittish lost dogs.  They can help provide evidence that the lost pet is in the area and whether s/he will enter a humane trap if one is set up.  For an example, see Kat Albrecht’s recent blog “Catching Bill.” However, the effectiveness of the camera is dependent on several factors including the quality of the camera and where/how it is set up.

Selecting a trail camera can be a daunting task, especially if you intend to purchase a quantity of cameras to rent out to clients.  There are so many brands available, none of them are particularly cheap, and they all seem to have some technical issues.  The TrailCamPro.com website provides some very useful information for making this decision.  They have a “First Time” Trail Camera Buyer’s Guide that covers many important aspects of selecting a camera including:

  • Trigger Time
  • Detection Zone
  • Recovery Time
  • Picture Quality
  • Type of Flash
  • Battery Life
  • Security Options

There is even a step-by-step Trail Camera Selection Guide that picks a camera for you based on the criteria you select.  The information is interesting, but you are limited to selecting from the cameras that they sell.  I was happy to see that the best quality affordable camera that they suggest is the one that I currently use: the Bushnell Trophy Cam.  TrailCamPro.com sells them for $200+, but you can buy them for around $150 on Amazon.com.  I only say “affordable” because the next step up is their best camera, the Reconyx, which sells for $500+.

If you are really serious about learning all the features and how different brand cameras compare, then you should also check out the TrailCamPro.com Trail Camera Tests including trigger speed, detection zone, recovery time, and flash range tests.  Both TrailCamPro.com and Chasing Game also provide in-depth reviews of many different trail cameras.  I was unhappy to find that Chasing Game has some rather unflattering reviews of the Bushnell Trophy Cam based on camera performance and customer service issues.  TrailCamPro.com also indicated that the Warranty Rate for the 2010 Bushnell Trophy Cam was 3.8%, while the best made cameras have a return rate of less than 1%.  However, until I find a better camera for the same cost, I’m probably going to stick with Bushnell.

Whichever camera you select, you can improve your success by setting up the camera effectively because even a great camera won’t get a single picture of a lost pet if set up poorly.  TrailCamPro.com provides a useful Trail Camera Checklist.  Since their website is aimed primarily at deer hunters, the height that they suggest placing the camera (24”-36”) is too high for cats and small dogs, but most of the information is applicable to setting up a camera to locate missing pets.  Chasing Game also has some useful set-up information under the “Getting Started” tab.  In addition, they cover the topics of camera camouflage and security, which TrailCamPro.com does not cover on their checklist.

If you want even more in-depth information or are seeking answers to a particular question, there are many forums and discussion groups online.  Among the hunting forums, I found the Chasing Game forum particularly user-friendly and informative.  Besides hunters, wildlife biologists are the other heavy users of trail cameras, which they generally refer to as “camera traps.”  The Yahoo! Camera Trap Group is another good source for information and questions on camera selection and set-up.

I am currently researching wildlife studies that use camera traps.  I am particularly interested in those that compare using trail cameras to other methods of detecting animals such as track plates (a method of recording animal tracks), box trapping, and spotlighting to determine which is more effective.  I am also hoping to learn more about how to most effectively set-up cameras for cats and dogs by researching wildlife studies on similar size carnivores such as wildcats, foxes, and coyotes.

The Primos Truth Cam 35 and Bushnell Trophy Cam are two of my favorite cameras.

I haven’t had the chance to try these cameras yet, but the Bushnell Aggressor No Glow and the Browning Dark Ops Elite are highly rated by TrailCamPro.com as the lowest priced of the higher quality cameras on the market.  The Browning in particular has a feature that adjusts the strength of the flash based on how close the animal is to the camera.  A too bright flash that whites out the animal in the photo is a common problem with many wildlife cameras.

If you can afford them, Reconyx supposedly sells the best quality trail cameras on the market.  They also have a high resale value on Ebay or Amazon.com, so you could resell yours after you get your lost dog or cat back home.

For more detailed information on selecting and using a wildlife camera to find a missing pet, check out the Lost Pet Recovery Instructions.

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