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5 Best Trail Cameras For Wildlife Observation and Surveillance in 2023

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Despite having a generalist interest in wildlife and nature, my primary passion, for the longest time, has always been reptiles and amphibians–groups of animals that don’t really lend themselves all that well to camera trap observation. 

As I have become more interested in observing animals like birds and mammals, however, I’ve gotten a lot more into the hobby. 

the best trail cameras can capture wildlife right under your balcony

The below article is a list of X of the best trail cameras for wildlife observation right now. These are cameras that I have used personally, as well as ones that are used by wildlife monitoring professionals and conservationists. 

I reached out to places like Guanacaste Wildlife Monitoring in Costa Rica, Arizona National Parks, and others to see what they use to capture amazing footage of often elusive and secretive animals. 

I’ve also included a synthesis of buyer comments (feeding ChatGPT with a long list and asking it to parse it for recurring positive and negative feedback). 

Let’s get into it. 


Best 720p trail camera: The Browning DarkOps

The Browning DarkOps trail cam set against a mountain trail background

This was my first trail camera, and I actually got it by accident. 

This was something I picked up before heading to Las Guacamayas Biological Station in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve–a place renowned for its large mammal conservation (particularly its healthy population of Jaguars and Baird’s Tapir). 

Originally planning to get something a little more powerful, I was in Mexico at the time of purchase, and it was proving quite difficult to get Browning products shipped down there, so I settled for whatever I could get. 

Specs:

Video: 720HDImage: 16MPNight vision: invisible “Night Vision” infrared LED illumination of up to 80 feet
Video length: 5 seconds to 2 minute clips. Dimensions: 4.5 x 3.25 x 2.5 inchesBattery: Alkaline or Lithium

As most people reading this probably know, 720p is not amazing. What this small, affordable trail camera lacks in image quality, it makes up for in robustness, exceptional battery life, and a powerful, discrete sensor. 

Here’s what other owners have to say about it


Best trail camera under $100: Browning Strike Force HD

Browning Strike Force HD with a wooden game observation tower in the background

There are a lot of trail cameras under $100, but I really only trust Browning for anything less than 100. This is my pick for the best trail camera under $100. 

This is the kind of you can expect: 

1600 x 900p HD video with sound, 18MP stills, 100-foot night vision range and at only 3.38 x 9 x 4.87 inches, this is a powerful, compact little trail cam for the money. 

Specs

Video: 1080HDImage: 22MPNight vision: 110-foot infrared flash range
Video length: 5 seconds to 2 minute clips. Dimensions: ‎3.38 x 9 x 4.87 inchesBattery: Alkaline or lithium

What owners have to say


Best Dual Camera Trail Cam: Browning Recon Force Patriot

Browning Recon Force Patriot trail camera set against a background of thick north american deciduous forest

This is a wildlife cam that was recommended to me by Costa Rican biologist Vincent Loasso of Guanacaste Wildlife Monitoring. His Instagram is well worth checking out. 

I reached out to ask him what he records with, and he said both the Recon Force Patriot as well as the Spec Ops (which is the next trail camera I will cover). 

Recon Force Patriot Specs

Video: 1080HD at 60fpsImage: 24MPNight vision: military grade night vision sensor and lens system up to 90 feet
Video length: 5 seconds to 2 minute clips. Dimensions: ‎9 x 4.8 x 3.5 inchesBattery: Alkaline or lithium

The 24MP stills, contrasted with those from the DarkOps, are, of course, notably better.

still images of deer taken with the Recon Force Patriot trail camera

I think the most important thing Vicent said about the Recon Force was that its infrared indicator light was visible at night while the SpecOps (covered next) was not. 

It’s hard to say whether or not visible light has a major impact on wildlife viewing opportunities–whether animals are warier of the trail cam or more skittish in front of it. 

Based on the trove of beautiful footage from Guanacaste Wildlife Monitoring, I would say it doesn’t have much of an impact. 

What owners have to say: 


The best Browning trail camera (all around): Browning Recon Force Elite HP5 

Browning Recon Force Elite HP5 trail camera with elephants around an African watering hole in the background

The Recon Force Elite is Browning’s latest release, and it builds on the Recon Force Patriot with better detection range (100 feet), better night vision (130-foot IR range) and 24MP stills. 

Check out this video from Browning of a doe and fawn shot on the HP5.

Here’s an African Genet at night: 

This is also a trail camera that was recommended to me by Sally Naser, Director of Conservation Restriction Stewardship for The Trustees of Reservations in Massachusetts. She’s a skilled camera trap technician, and her Instagram profile is well worth subscribing to. 

She said this shoots fantastic video, and she actually prefers it to her 4K stealth cam. The Recon Force Elite, despite shooting in 1080p vs the stealth cam’s 4k, produces better video, according to Sally. 

If you want something a year older and a bit less expensive that still shoots 1080p (and is another of Sally’s recommendations), the Recon Force HP4 is a good choice. 

Specs:

Video: 1080HD at 30 or 60fpsImage: 24MPNight vision: 130ft infrared flash range, 
Video length: 5 seconds to 2 minute clips. Dimensions: ‎3.5 x 10.5 x 5.25 inchesBattery: Alkaline or lithium

Best for night videos: Spartan SR3 Lumen

Spartan SR3 Lumen trail camera with a coyote at night in the background

This is another of Sally Naser’s recommendations. She prefers the SR3 as a night camera because it uses a white flash. Video quality on a white flash cam like the Spartan is better than black flash. 

She did mention that she didn’t like the fact that it used a micro SD card, but if you’re willing to deal with that feature, its night vision footage is noticeably better than most of the brownings. 

*one thing to note. The Spartan SR3 Lumen is not available on Amazon. There are, however, other Spartan models available there, but they are wireless, while the Spartan is wired. 

Specs:

Video: 1080HD at 30 or 60fpsImage: 24MPNight vision: 130ft infrared flash range, 
Video length: 5 seconds to 1 minute clips. Dimensions: 4-1/2 x 4 x 2-3/4 (in)Battery: lithium

Bear in mind that the Spartan SR3 lumen has a shorter detection range (80ft) and shorter video recording times (0:05 to 1:00 vs 0:05 to 2:00 for all the others). 

Criteria to consider when buying a trail camera

Want to know how to choose a trail camera for your proposes (location, weather, types of animals, etc.)? Here are some of the most important criteria to keep in mind. 

  • Type of LEDs: Trail cameras use infrared LEDs for capturing images in the dark. There are two main types: “No Glow” LEDs, which are nearly invisible to subjects, and “Low Glow” LEDs, which emit a faint red glow. No Glow LEDs are ideal for stealth, while Low Glow LEDs offer better illumination over longer distances.
  • Trigger Speed: Trigger speed is the time it takes for the camera to capture a photo after detecting movement. Faster trigger speeds (below 0.3 seconds) are essential for capturing fast-moving subjects before they leave the frame.
  • Recovery Time: Recovery time is the duration required for the camera to process an image and be ready for the next shot. Shorter recovery times are crucial if you want to capture multiple images of a subject as it enters the camera’s field of view.
  • Hybrid Mode: Some cameras offer a hybrid mode that allows simultaneous video and photo capture. Consider this feature if you aim to collect as much footage as possible. If your focus is solely on photographs or videos, this mode may be less important.
  • Resolution and Interpolation: Image and video quality depends on the camera’s resolution. Some cameras offer settings for altering resolution through compression or interpolation. 

Compression conserves memory card capacity, while interpolation increases image size. To assess image quality, examine sample photos and videos, as the displayed megapixel value often results from interpolation. True sensor resolution can usually be found in the camera’s specifications.

  • Screen: Many trail cameras come with built-in viewing screens, allowing you to review photos and videos in the field. This feature is particularly handy for taking test shots and checking camera positioning.

IR, Flash or Black Flash

This one deserves its own section because, in a lot of cases, you’re going to be recording at night. 

  • Flash (i.e., white flash) Camera: Ideal for high-quality colour images day and night.
  • IR Camera: Shoots night videos, and captures detailed nocturnal activities.
  • Black Flash Camera: Great for discreet placement with no visible glow and improved surveillance.

As Sally Naser said, white flash is better for night videos than black flash. If you’re worried about glow, then black flash might work better. Generally, speaking, white flash gives you greater detail, while also being a lot more conspicuous. 

Camera trap placement

One thing you notice when reading the reviews of people who have purchased the trail cams I’ve covered on this list, and others, is that there are a lot of complaints about over-sensitive cams picking up things like branches and leaves. 

They conclude that the camera must not be defective if they’re not recording BBC Planet Earth-level nature footage. 

This is definitely not the case. Success with wildlife cams is about strategic placement and also blind luck. 

You want to find somewhere that animals are actually going to be, and then you have to be lucky enough for them to be there. It’s going to be harder to get lucky in the middle of a sprawling national park than it will be if you’re setting up next to a chicken coop where you know foxes or coyotes are all but guaranteed to show up every night. 

That said, below are some of the most productive sites for camera traps: 

  • Watering holes
  • River and stream crossings
  • Man-made trails
  • Cave entrances
  • Mineral deposits
  • Transit trees

Watering holes

This one is probably the most intuitive, even if you have no camera trap experience. 

coatis around a watering hole in the Maya Biosphere Reserve

Here’s a group of coatis from the Las Guacamayas Biostation inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Nothern Guatemala. 

The Asociación Belam, which runs the station and does conversation work within the Laguna del Tigre National Park, has staked out a series of natural springs in the area surrounding the station where, even in the height of the dry season, small trickles of underground water still fill up rock depressions scattered throughout the park that attract everything from mammals to birds to reptiles. 

The YouTube channel NamibCam, which monitors wildlife in southwest Africa’s extremely arid Namib Desert: 

Oryx and waterhogs around a watering hole in the Namib Desert

Water sustains life. Locate watering holes, particularly in the dry season, and you have a great chance of capturing wildlife on camera. 

River and stream crossings

Most animals prefer not to get wet–even those that can swim (cats, monkeys). Dry and warm are the ideal states in nature, especially in humid environments. 

If there’s a way to cross a river or a stream without having to get your fur wet, you do it. Sometimes, it’s not even a question of keeping dry but avoiding potentially dangerous current. 

For this Tayra, it’s likely a case of both. 

A tayra using a fallen log to cross a fast-flowing river

Source: Guanacaste Wildlife Monitoring

Man-made trails

Animals, especially large mammals (including us humans), like ready-made paths through an environment. Often referred to as desire paths, They’re easier to walk and often the shortest route between points A and B. 

Less effort means less energy expenditure. This Ocelot at Las Guacamayas Biological Station understands.

A jaguar captured on trail camera walking down a jungle trail

Obviously, if there is constant foot traffic (and, even worse, vehicle traffic), you’re going to lower the odds of seeing wildlife–especially during the day. But game trails and forest paths are usually good places to set up a camera trap, particularly if they provide a shortcut to water. 

Cave entrances

A lot of animals will build and dig their own shelters, but ideally, something ready-made is preferable. Why spend all that time digging a den or respite when there’s a perfectly good tree stump, rock crevice or cave? 

The entrance to a cave in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Wild pigs, wild dogs, felines and much more utilize caves. 

Mineral deposits (aka mineral “licks”)

According to the Journal of Ecology and Evolution in their article on “Temporal patterns of visitation of birds and mammals at mineral licks in the Peruvian Amazon,” “mineral licks are key ecological resources for many species of birds and mammals in Amazonia, providing essential dietary nutrients and clays.”

I was at Sunka Biological Station in the Ecuadorian Amazon in April-May of 2023, shooting promotional content for the site in the forests of the Cutucu Mountain Range, and, unfortunately, I showed up just after a team of biologists had spent ten days camera trapping the area. 

I was told by our guide that the most productive area for the researchers had been a mineral deposit they had staked out. Their trail cameras had captured cats, birds, deer, coatis, pigs, porcupines and more. 

Bear in mind that these mineral deposits are affected by seasonality, among other things. 

Transit trees

Transit trees is not an official scientific or ecological term, but it’s something I’ve noticed both first-hand, observing how animals move about their environments, as well as while watching camera trap footage. 

Of course, it only applies to arboreal animals and those that are good climbers, but there’s a reason a lot of conservationists put their traps in these trees. This Tayra illustrates why. 

A tayra walking along the branch of a large tree while staying into a trail camera

Credit: Guanacaste Wildlife Monitoring 

Why these arboreal thoroughfares? Because it’s often riskier to cross open ground. It also might simply be shorter to walk across a big tree limb. 

If you’re a monkey or a tayra or a coati or a raccoon in a Mesoamerican forest, you never know what might be lurking in the bushes, ready to ambush you, as you cross open ground. 


People also tend to have the following questions when it comes to trail cams

What is the best trail camera on the market today?

The best commercial trail camera on the market today is the Browning Recon Force Elite. It has fantastic detection range, invisible night vision, shoots 24MP stills and 1080p video.

As far as manufacturers go, I’ve only used and only really trust Browning. They are a respected hunting, optics and outdoors brand and, as with anything tech-related, there are a ton of cheaply-made Chinese alternatives that promise the world but, in my view, aren’t to be trusted.

What is the best trail camera under $100?

Both the Browning Strike Force HD Max and the Browning Command Ops Elite are both under $100 and both shoot 720p videos. Other than that, it’s hard to find a decent-quality trail camera under $100. 

What is the easiest trail camera to use?

It really depends. I think Browing Camreas, generally speaking, are easy to use. T

The menus are short and easy to navigate, and actually attaching and detaching the cameras to trees, poles, etc., is simple with the clasp and durable nylon tether.

The difficult part with any camera trap is calculating the right height and angle to fully capture your subjects.

That’s why it’s important to test out your camera (preferably in your actual filming location) before leaving it to record. 

Are trail cameras worth it?

Commercial, consumer-grade trail cameras are worth it because they are effective, affordable and great for research and educational purposes.

Whether you’re doing animal population research and other conservation work, have an amateur interest in wildlife, need a source of wildlife-related content for your nature and wildlife-travel-related social media, or are wondering what kind of animals keep stealing your cat’s or dog’s food off the porch at night, or really anything else, trail cameras are a worthwhile investment. 


There you go

Those are my top choices for the best trail cameras for wildlife observation.

Really appreciate the input of conservationists Sally Naser of CR Wildlife Cams and Vincent Loasso of Guanacaste Wildlife Monitoring, who generously shared their knowledge with me and helped point me towards the best trail cams both for my own purposes and so that I could better review them. 

Trail cams are a ton of fun and a great thing to bring travelling if you travel to see nature and wildlife. Your odds of running into an ocelot, a tayra or a sun bear are quite low when you’re out traipsing through the forests. 

Leave a trail cam close by, and you have a much higher chance of capturing some candid footage of wonderful wildlife. 

Cheers,

Alex.

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