The What, Where, When, Why and How of Trail Cameras 

Christian | |

When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you. Learn more.

Deer can sometimes seem magical. It’s like they teleport from one side of the woods to the other. Yeah, you see them all the time driving down the highway, but then when you’re in the stand, they’re nowhere to be seen. Luckily, trail cameras get you those candid shots of even the shyest deer. Once you know how to set up a game camera and which get the best results, you’re one step closer to a productive herd and a successful hunt.

My Favorite Trail Cameras

Note: Our individual reviews are below, but you can also click any of the links above to check current prices on Amazon and other retailers

Why to Set Up a Trail Camera

Trail cameras are one of the best ways to gain insights into the local deer herd on your property or even specific deer, especially dominant, mature bucks. They can give you information about the deer’s movements, including where and when, their physical appearance, and their behavior. 

Do they head back to their bedding area at dawn? Have they changed their feeding habits? Has your trophy buck finally started chasing the does? Whether you want to get your herd better nutrition in the summer or stock up on venison in the winter, trail cameras can mean extra precision when managing your deer.

How to Set Up a Trail Camera

Physically setting up the trail camera is usually pretty straightforward. Most have a simple strap that you can wrap around a tree and tighten based on the tree’s width.

Trail camera setup on a tree
Most trail cameras have a simple tree strap mechanism

Ideally, pick a sturdy tree that’s fairly straight. You should also clear out all the brush in a wide clearing in the camera’s field of vision, not just because it will get in the way of the photos or video, but because brush moving in the wind could set off the trail camera and run down the battery.

One main thing to pay attention to is how high your trail camera should be off the ground. Usually, you should install it at about chest height as this will get you the best images of deer in the accurate proportions.

Unfortunately, this is also the ideal height for human beings to steal the game camera. If you’re hunting public land, you may want to install them slightly higher but angled down so you’re still getting a full picture of the deer without the camera’s location being so obvious to would-be thieves.

A couple of other tips, try to position the camera about 10 yards back from where you expect the deer to be. Also, point the camera north if you can. That will avoid glare from the sun, which moves across the southern sky during hunting season in the northern hemisphere.

How to Program a Trail Camera

The more complicated aspect of hunting camera setup is programming it. Not that you have a tech wizard or anything, but there are a lot of things to be aware of:

  • Date and time: First and foremost, you need to make sure the date and time is correct on the camera. You don’t want to think your trophy buck passed by 4 AM on Tuesday when it was really 10 PM on Sunday.
  • Check the SD card: Most likely, if it’s a new SD card, you can just stick it in the game camera and you’re good to go. That said, you never know when it’s not formatted correctly or something like that. Try taking some photos with the SD memory card in at home and then see if you can see them on your computer.
  • Set Your Capture Mode: The majority of modern trail cameras can work on video or photo mode. For hunting purposes, photo mode is almost always enough while video will just drain the battery and take up space on the SD card. However, if you’re concerned about a detailed aspect of your herd’s behavior, you might need to use video mode.
  • Set the Delay: When the camera is tripped, how long does it have to wait before movement will trip it again? If you’re setting it up on a deer run, you might set this pretty low, maybe five or 10 minutes. However, if you’re covering a food plot where the deer are going to hang out for a while, you don’t want the camera constantly taking photos and draining the battery. Set a delay of 30 minutes to an hour.

Where to Set Up a Trail Camera

Trail camera setup is like opening up a restaurant. It’s all about location, location, location. The only thing is that this location depends on what deer or which behavior you’re trying to capture. Prime spots for game cameras include:

Feeding Areas and Watering Holes

Eating and drinking takes up a considerable amount of a deer’s time (and mine too if we’re being honest). Naturally, you’re likely to get some good photos of them if you position your camera near these areas.

Food sources change with the season. During summer the deer will be eating beans and seed grains to get protein, so if you have any of these in your food plots, you can see if the deer are getting the nutrition they need. 

As the weather gets colder, deer switch over to high energy sources, usually starting with fruit and then acorns as these begin falling. Lastly, they’ll move on to clover and grains like corn and wheat by the rut.

Trails

As hunting season and the rut approaches, game trails are the ideal place to put cameras, hence the name. Why? Because you can get a sense of the deer’s movements so you know where to put your stand that season. The best place is the intersection of multiple deer trails since these are high-traffic areas where you’ll catch the most movement.

With Bait

Instead of putting your cameras where the deer are, another option is to get the deer to come to the cameras. If you’ve found a good clearing with the perfect tree to set up your trail camera, consider placing a salt or mineral lick or another bait like a persimmon feeder. While this doesn’t give you any insight into the deer’s natural behavior, it’s a good way to finally get a photo of the mature buck in your area.

Trail camera setup is like opening up a restaurant. It’s all about location, location, location.

When to Set Up a Trail Camera

As for time of year, you can set up a trail camera whenever you want. In the summer, it’s better to set up your camera to see how well the herd is feeding and if they’re getting the proper nutrients. In the fall, you want to see how the deer are moving. In the winter, you can use a camera to see how well the herd is surviving the cold to make plans for management the next season.

As for time of day, the only important thing is to set up the camera when the deer aren’t there. Deer are cautious animals and if they run into you, they’ll likely never visit that spot again. If you’re going for feeding areas, you can set up the camera in the middle of the day when the deer are sleeping. Conversely, if you’re trying to capture a bedding area, it’s better to go at night when the deer are active.

What Trail Camera to Use

Cabela’s Outfitter Gen 3

Cabelas Outfitter Gen 3
Cabelas Outfitter Gen 3 – My Go To Trail Camera

The Outfitter Gen 3 is my go-to. The half-second trigger speed is enough to capture deer even if they’re galloping down the trail. I also like how well-calibrated the trigger comes, meaning fewer false captures, meaning more battery life. That said, what I really like is the quality of the photos. With 30MP photos and 1080P video, you’ll have no problem counting points on your trophy buck.

What we liked:

  • Half-second trigger
  • 80-ft detection zone
  • Crystal clear photos
  • SD card and batteries included

What we didn’t:

  • Not much!

Bushnell CelluCORE

Obviously, the draw of the CelluCORE is the ability to seamlessly connect it with your smartphone. I’d highly recommend it for anyone who’s serious about managing a herd on their property and wants up-to-date info on their deer. You have to pay a little more for that high tech—and it needs more power—but you get the same cool features like a half-second trigger.

Bushnell CelluCore
Bushnell CelluCore – seamless smartphone connection

What we liked:

  • Connects to your smartphone
  • Half-second trigger speed
  • No-glow function

What we didn’t:

  • Price range
  • Requires 12 batteries

Wildgame Innovations Switch Lightsout

This is a great value option for trail cams. Its picture quality is a bit less, but if you’re just tracking movement, you don’t need the best on the market. Operation and setup is a breeze, and it comes with an SD card and batteries, so you’re ready to go.

Wildgame Innovations Switch Lightsout
Wildgame Innovations Switch Lightsout – A great value trail cam with easy setup

What we liked:

  • Great value
  • Easy setup and programming
  • SD card and batteries included

What we didn’t:

  • Lower picture quality
  • Lower detection range

Leave a Comment