Love them or hate them, the trail camera's effectiveness as a scouting tool is undeniable. When properly utilized, the camera can tell you a whole lot of information about what animals are and are not using a specific area, when they are using it and how often.
The key is "properly utilized". It takes some planning and forethought to develop an effective strategy, especially out west, on public land, where animal density is usually far less than Midwestern agricultural areas.
Anyone can drive out to their hunting area and strap a camera on a tree or fence post near a water hole and probably get summer time pictures of a lot of game. Unless you plan on sitting on this water during hunting season, the information you get is not all that helpful for several reasons.
1. Your camera is going to get stolen or vandalized. Bank on it. There are people out there now that are going from water hole to water hole with the tools to remove and steal your camera, regardless of how well you have secured it.
2. There will often be other people with cameras on the same water. Not only are they seeing the same (deer, elk, bears, etc) you are, they are also putting more pressure on them through noise and scent. The exception would a remote spring or seep rock pool at the bottom of a canyon that requires a long and/or difficult hike in and out. There are some places, like units 9 and 10 units north of the Grand Canyon, where water is scarce and tags are limits than water near the road or a short hike away can be helpful. But you won't be alone and often there will be 3 or more cameras on THE SAME TREE.
3. Cattle. If you like getting 1,000's of pictures or video's of cows....road side water is your answer.
4. On big water tanks, you will need 2 or more cameras to effectively survey the tank for animal activity. There will usually be obvious spots where the animals are drinking but often times the older, more experienced and mature animals will not use these spots because hey know predators use water to hunt also.
Animals use trails. We all know this. I mean, its called a "trail camera" after all. Not all trails are the same. Some lead from feeding to bedding and vice versa. Some lead to water. Some are used by animals as the easiest path from one drainage or canyon to another. All are used at some point during the animals life. Some are used more than others and some are only used at certain times of the year or specific conditions.
A trail leading to and from bedding areas will obviously be used more than a migratory type trail that leads to and from high country summer range to winter range. All can be effective for tail camera use, but you need to determine when to concentrate on the different types.
Here is a quick video tip on what to look for when when targeting coues deer with your trail camera
Traditional bedding areas are almost always on a north facing slope. Using your mapping software or Google Earth, look for north slopes with shade and vegetation that the animals can bed in safely. Once you find these areas, look for a saddle on the ridge line near the bedding area. This is a great place to set up a camera as the animals will often use the saddle (low spot) on the ridge to cross over from south or east facing slopes where they like to feed.
What camera to buy?
There are many camera manufactures today. Most make a usable product. When trying to decide which camera to buy, her are some questions you need to ask yourself.
1. Do I want the best possible picture I can get or am I just trying to find a big buck or bull to hunt and don't really need high quality pictures? If you are just wanting to get pictures of animals for yourself and record the time they come through your chosen location, things you need to look for are flash distance, trigger speed, battery life and flash type (no glow, IR, white flash etc). Some of the lower megapixel cameras have the best trigger times and are often cheaper.
If you are looking for high quality pictures and video, Generally speaking, the higher the megapixel the camera is, the better the pictures and video will be.. Many times however, this is not the case. A 12 MP from a reputable and well establish manufacture will often take far superior pictures and video than a camera advertised as 20 MP but from a manufacturer that uses cheaper lenses, flash, sensors, etc. Megapixel count should not be your deciding factor.
Look for Cameras that takes at least 10MP, have a trigger speed of around 1 second and are from a reputable and well established manufacturer. The cameras that take HD (720p or better yet 1080p) or 4K video will usually take magnificent still photos also. Go to Amazon, message boards, etc to read the reviews and look at real life example pictures. DO NOT rely on the pictures that manufacturer displays on their packaging, advertisements or websites. these are often improved with post processing software. Also, the pictures that people post on their social media are often post processed or filtered. A great place to check out camera reviews and actual examples of pictures and video is Youtube.
Where to buy?
There are literally 1,000's of places to buy a trail camera. Sporting good stores, Walmart, Amazon, the manufactures websites are all places you can purchase either over the counter or online. It really does not matter, but for me I find that Ebay is a great place to find cameras at the best price. You need to be careful though. Read the entire description. Look at at the sellers rating. Read the sellers feedback, not just the percentage of satisfied customers. Look at where the item is located and avoid overseas sellers. even though their prices are usually much lower, the item is often a counterfeit.
Ebay also is a great place to find some slightly used or older discontinued models at significant savings. If you plan on utilizing a lot of cameras, this is a big deal.
This link will search Ebay for the following trail cameras -
Location - US Only
Brands - Browning, Moultrie, Stealth, Bushnell and Primos
Megapixel - 10,12,14,16 18 and 20
Condition - New
Ebay Search - Trail Cameras
Most cameras come with everything you need to hang the camera. Either cords or a strap. These wok fine in most cases but do have some issues.
Straps are usually long for those places that you need to hang the camera on a large tree. The problem is, when you are using a small tree, there is a lot of excess strap that you need to do something with. Most of use just wrap the extra strap around the tree. This does make the camera more visible to thieves and can flap around on windy days, etc.
The problem with trying to mount a camera with cords is that they are often too short to wrap around a decent size tree.
I like to use either baling wire or black, rubberized wire. You can cut this to length at your tree stand site, is very discreet compared to straps and is more durable. The metal wire is also not going to be chewed on by squirrels.
I like to take tree steps to some of my setups, especially ones in the mountains where I am hanging the camera on a steep slope. If the tree you want to use to mount your camera is down slope of where you expect to the animals to be traveling, it can be hard to get the camera high enough on the tree for the proper angle. With a couple of tree steps, you can get a few feet off the ground and get you camera higher up the tree. Another benefit is that your camera will be out of reach of any potential thieves.
Memory cards are so cheap now it does not make sense to skimp on size or manufacturer. Get a new, name brand 16gb or larger card. SanDisk and Kingston are two reliable brands. I try to avoid the microsd cards. I have had problems with them in trail cameras. Also, make sure you are gettting the Class 10 type cards. These record faster and ensures your high definition videos get saved properly.
Here is an Ebay search for New SD cards that ship from the USA and are new.