Updated Aug 12, 2022 3:02 PM I hadn’t played whack-a-mole since I was a kid, but the buck had sucked me i
Updated Aug 12, 2022 3:02 PM
I hadn’t played whack-a-mole since I was a kid, but the buck had sucked me into the game and I had the best cellular trail camera to thank. I’d be at the office working, my phone would ping and a pic of the whitetail buck walking past one of my stands would appear. So, the next day I’d pile into that stand and ping! I’d get a trail cam pic of the buck trotting past a different setup.
And so it went for two weeks—the buck popping up on one camera, me chasing and failing to catch up with the wide-racked giant. While I didn’t tag that buck my neighbor did, thanks largely to the wealth of information from the deer camera that I was able to share about the when and where of the buck’s location. I can honestly say it was more fun than I’d had in the deer woods in a while, and wireless trail cameras made it all possible.
The Best Cellular Trail Cameras
I can still remember, not too awfully long ago, being wowed by the thought of a trail cam sending a pic straight to my phone. But once the “eureka” period passed, I realized I’d become enough of a deer camera snob that I expected the same from a wireless cam that I did a conventional model: a reasonably-quick trigger speed, a lens that took sharp pics, reliability, and decent battery life. And as I gained experience, I realized a wireless camera had its own standards: a reasonable data plan, solid receptivity, and a price that wouldn’t break the bank.
The five models below exhibit all, or most of those qualities—and represent some of the best-performing cellular trail camera models available.
Best Cellular Trail Camera No. 1: Tactacam Reveal X
- Megapixels: 16
- Trigger Speed: Sub-.5 second
- Detection Range: 96 feet
- Power: 12 AA batteries, plus solar panel assist
- Price: $140
Gear Review of the Tactacam Reveal X Trail Camera
Tactacam stirred up the wireless cam world last year with its introduction of the “Reveal,” a cellular trail camera that retailed for a C-note. While many (including me) were skeptical that a wireless cam priced that reasonably could be made without serious flaws, word of mouth on the Reveal started well and only got better. I have three buddies who are trail cam junkies, and they have yet to experience a major hiccup.
The Reveal X is the 2021 version of the same camera and it has some interesting features. The camera’s on-board wifi connects to the company’s app, which allows for simple setup. And while most companies force the user to choose between Verizon and ATT for carriers, the Reveal X adapts to each. Instead of setting up a long-term service contract, users can activate the camera(s) only as needed, and sign up for monthly data plans. The Reveal X shoots thumbnails to a mobile device, where the user can download a hi-res version if desired, and the camera will organize pics into folders using the camera’s app. Another user-friendly feature is an LED indicator that displays signal strength and battery life.
While the Reveal X will probably not outshine some of the high-performance trail cams in terms of trigger speed and picture quality, it’s an outstanding camera for the money. If you’ve contemplated entry into the wireless market, this is an excellent camera to help you take the plunge.
Best Cellular Trail Camera No. 2: Spypoint Link-Micro S LTE
- Megapixels: 10
- Trigger Speed: .4 second
- Detection Range: 80 feet
- Power: 10 rechargeable AA batteries, plus solar charging assist
- Price: $170
Gear Review of the Spypoint Link-Micro S LTE Trail Camera
Spypoint is one of those companies pushing the envelope in terms of performance and user-friendly features in its trail camera lineup, and the Link-Micro S is the latest example. For starters, they’re the only company I know that offers 100 pics/month for free. Granted, if your deer camera is on a mineral lick or feeder, you’ll burn through that in a day or two. But still…free! And the fees on their plans are certainly among the most reasonable I’m aware of—with $10/month for unlimited pics ($8 for “Insiders Club” members).
It gets better. The solar panel that assists in keeping the rechargeable battery pack going comes with the camera. This was a $50 accessory only last year. I’ve got an Indiana buddy who’s had his solar-charged Spypoint out for 9 months and it’s still humming along. And for icing on the proverbial cake, the Link-Micro S comes with a two-year warranty.
For sheer camera performance, this should be as competitive a unit as you’ll find—with a solid 80-foot detection range and a trigger speed that, while not the quickest on the market, is perfectly fine at 0.4 seconds. Image quality, especially on controlled setups like scrapes, licks, and feed stations, is good-to-excellent. Image detection on a Spypoint trail camera is always superior, and recovery times of just over a second are among the fastest on the market. If there’s a downside, the “burst mode” on this cam tops off at two, and there’s no video mode. Still, you’ll have to work hard to find a better cellular trail camera for the money.
Best Cellular Trail Camera No. 3: Browning Defender Wireless
- Megapixels: 20
- Trigger Speed: .3 to .7 second
- Detection Range: 80 feet
- Power: 16 AA batteries
- Price: $300
Gear Review of the Browning Defender Wireless Trail Camera
I’ve run Browning trail cameras for years and found them not only eminently rugged and dependable, but tough to beat for taking high-quality pics and video. The Defender Pro Scout continues that tradition while adding wireless capability. Like many companies, Browning has its own app for setting up, changing, and managing game camera settings and picture/video collections. In addition, a range of plan options means you can customize costs for anticipated use. Whether you’re dipping your toe in the cellular cam market or a guide running dozens of units, there’s a reasonable plan in the Browning app. If there’s a negative, there’s the absence of an “unlimited” option, which comes in handy when you’re running several cams or anticipate high action.
As noted, the Browning name is synonymous with high performance. At .22 seconds, the trigger speed is among the best on the market, and the recovery time is only slightly slower. When I’ve tested Browning cams in the past, I’ve found the advertised detection range is often greater than the advertised number; which is as excellent as it is rare. I’m not exactly sure how Browning’s “Illuma-Smart” technology works, but it senses the amount of flash needed for a night-time pic and adjusts accordingly; this results in clearer flash pics than normal.
The uptake here is pretty simple. You can save a few bucks and buy another cam, but it would be tough to find one that offers the high-performance you can count on with a Browning. On the downside, availability of the Defender Pro Scout seems to be highly limited right now; whether this is due to the simple popularity of the line, or a production glitch caused by microchip sources isn’t clear. My advice: if you can get your hands on one, snatch up a Defender Pro Scout.
Best Cellular Trail Camera No. 4: Reconyx Hyperfire 2 Cellular
- Megapixels: 3
- Trigger Speed: .2 second
- Detection Range: 90 feet
- Power: 12 AA batteries
- Price: $599
Gear Review of the Reconyx Hyperfire 2 Cellular Trail Camera
With a slew of cameras on the market that cost half—or less—than the Reconyx, the natural question is, “Why spend this kind of money?” And the answer is, “More and better pictures.” I’ve used Reconyx for years and it’s my go-to cam for those situations where: A) I absolutely can’t afford to miss a shot, and B) I want the pic to be as good as it can be. When I know I’m dealing with a deer that I might not get many “shots” at, there’s little question which trail camera I’m using, because if the Reconyx can’t get the pic, it’s probably not get-able.
Why does the Reconyx take sharper pics with a lower megapixel lens than many cams? Well for starters, MP’s in cameras are kinda like IBO speeds on bows: They get exaggerated by companies, but this is a whole other story. Trigger speed (how quickly a camera trips the shutter when it detects movement) is the deal-sealer when it comes to capturing quality images. The quicker the trigger speed, the better the pics, and Reconyx has been an industry leader in this category for years. There’s more to love here too. The recovery time is uber-zippy (just over a second), the case is solid and durable, and setup is intuitive and easy. For the price tag it’s tempting to think you’ll be piloting a Cadillac, but running the Reconyx is more like driving a Ford. Final bonus: The company offers a 5-year warranty.
If there’s a downside beside the initial investment, it’s probably battery cost. It takes a dozen batteries (by the way, if you’re not using lithium on all your cams, forget the additional cost; they simply last longer and are worth it) to power a Reconyx. And my sense is that, because the camera is shooting more pics, it makes sense that it runs through its power source more quickly. So yeah, you can find cheaper cameras to run. You just can’t find many better.
Best Cellular Trail Camera No. 5: Spartan GoLive
- Megapixels: 4
- Trigger Speed: .45 second
- Detection Range: 80 feet
- Power: 12 AA batteries
- Price: $449
Gear Review of the Spartan GoLive Trail Camera
The Spartan GoLive is the only deer camera on the market that can send you pics and video in real-time. Even the fastest delivery on most game cameras ensures some downtime between the camera triggering and the pic appearing on your device. The GoLive nixes all that, with a near-instantaneous send-off of both pics and videos.
While this may not mean a ton to some hunters, it’s certainly impressive technology. And if you’re one of those who asks his camera to do double duty in home/business security as well as scouting, it’s downright huge. Even better, this is a serious camera that takes great pics and clear video, thanks to a solid 4MP camera and a respectable 0.45-second trigger speed. Of course, if you want to take the GoLive off the streaming function, it can also serve as a simple cellular or conventional cam, so that’s some pretty great adaptability in my book.
Naturally, streaming requires data, and unless you have an unlimited plan, count on spending some money for this feature. Other than that, there’s not much bad to say about this technology-packed model. Sure it’s more expensive than some, but you’re actually getting extra performance. If that’s worth it to you, you’ll look hard to find a better camera choice.
I’ve been deer hunting for nearly 50 seasons, and I regard trail cameras as one of the most exciting and significant developments associated with my favorite activity. The first trail cams I used literally had a 35mm film camera mounted inside a box, and when the 24- or 36-shot roll was used up, I ran to a one-hour photo developing shop (yes, young readers, those actually existed) to see what I had. (Sometimes all I had was three dozen shots of a weed blowing in the wind.) Obviously, things have changed a whole lot, mostly for the better. I recently pulled an SD card from one of my most active cams to discover over 3,000 pics were stored on that tiny, wafer-thin card, and the camera’s batteries were still running strong. Incredible.
Cellular trail cams are the new hot ticket, and of course I’m excited about them. Three falls ago, I engaged in a game of whack-a-mole with a huge buck I was chasing, thanks largely to my wireless cam. The cam would send a pic to my phone, showing me the buck was in one area, so I’d set up there, only to have another cellular cam tell me he was now on the opposite end of the property. So I’d move there and—you guessed it—he’d slide over to another spot. This went on for a couple of weeks, until the neighbor kid (who hadn’t hunted all fall) decided to put in an afternoon in a blind…and killed the buck 15 minutes later. Frustrating? Not one bit. I honestly can’t remember being that entertained in ages.
So yeah, trail cams can be awesome, but they come with their own set of challenges. Here is the criteria I applied when evaluating these models.
- Ease of Setup: The term “user friendly” has been tossed around a lot since the advent of computers, but it applies to wireless cams too. Most wireless camera companies have accepted the fact that not all their customers are 25 and were born with a smartphone in their hand—but some have not. Cellular trail cams should come with clear instructions and be easy to A) Program and B) Get running.
- Cost: As so often happens with mass-produced technology, prices for cell cams are coming down. But they’re still not cheap. And, just like other mass-produced technology, there can be a fine line between saving money and getting decent performance. Also, there are data plans to consider. If you’re on a tight budget, getting tons of pics (especially if you have multiple cams) can add up in a hurry.
- Picture Quality: This can be tied into cost (as in, the more you spend, the better the pics), but not always. Trust me on this: After awhile the novelty of getting pics sent to your phone will wear off, and you’ll get irritated by blurred and grainy images. Some people are willing to give cell cams a pass on pic quality because they provide other benefits. I’m not one of them.
Q: How Much Does it Cost to Run a Cellular Trail Camera?
Costs for running a cellular trail cam vary and are dictated largely by how you use the camera. For example, if you use the camera to shoot and transmit a lot of video, you’ll go through batteries quickly and incur more costs. If you’re just shooting pictures, it’ll be easier on batteries and, therefore, cheaper. You’ll also need to buy a plan from the camera company (see the “subscription” question below).
As an example, I took a Bushnell trail camera and put it on a reasonably active clover plot last summer. I bought a plan that cost $20 per month that covered my photo usage and then some. For the price of 12 lithium batteries, I got 450 high-quality day and night pics sent to my phone. Total cost $36.29 for the month of July—or just over $1 per day.
Q: Do Cellular Trail Cams Require a Subscription?
The short answer is, yes. Most companies have subscription (or “data”) plans that allow X number of photos per month that will cost Y dollars. And that’s where you have to anticipate the kind of action your camera will have. If 200 pics in a month is the most you’ve ever shot at a site, it makes no sense to have a plan that gives you 500 pics…unless you think you’ll move the camera to a hotter location where deer are more active.
If you don’t have a clue how many pics your camera will shoot in a month, there’s great news: Several companies offer an introductory plan that gives you unlimited pics for the first month for free or greatly reduced cost. Once you’ve got a month under your belt, you’ll have a better idea of how many pics you’ll need in your data plan. For the average user, subscriptions or plans run about $6-$20 per month for several hundred photos, which is usually enough for most of us…unless you’re mounting the camera on a mineral lick or feeder. Since deer typically linger at such sites, you can rack up tons of pics in a hurry. Either buy a bigger data plan or adjust your cam settings to only take a single photo per trigger. Most companies allow you to change your plan from month to month. Or, if you tag out early and don’t care what deer are doing afterward, you can simply cancel the plan.
Q: Do Cellular Trail Cameras Need Wifi?
Actually very few game cameras use wifi, as there is rarely a convenient wifi hotspot in the deer woods. Instead, most trail cams that send pics to your phone are cellular trail cameras. This means they function exactly like your cellphone or smartphone. Still, hunters often interchange the term “wireless” with “cellular.”
So instead of needing wifi, your trail camera actually needs a strong cell signal from a local phone provided. That’s why most cam companies will ask you to select between AT&T or Verizon carriers, depending on which carrier works best in your area. The camera will be relaying signals with those local towers, then transmitting them to your phone. Which means if you can’t make a phone call from a certain point on your deer lease, your camera will be able to take a picture there, but you probably won’t get it on your phone.
Q: Are Cellular Trail Cams Worth it?
Well, that depends. If you’d benefit from up-to-the minute information on what game is doing on your hunting ground and have the extra money to spend for the technology, they’re absolutely awesome. Wireless cams provide all the fun of conventional cams, with the added benefit of MRI (most recent information), which has the potential to help your hunting plan in ways unthinkable only a few years ago. One aspect of wireless cams that’s often ignored is that you can place them in sensitive spots (such as bedding areas) and not have to check them for months at a time. That’s a huge benefit, especially when you’re targeting mature bucks.
But there are drawbacks. Most cellular cams are more expensive than conventional game cams, and that’s before you purchase a data plan. While the cost of both are coming down, it’s still a consideration for any hunter on a budget. Second, if the wireless service is poor (or nonexistent) in your hunting area, cellular cams are simply a waste of money, forcing you to incur extra costs with little benefit. Finally, cellular cams are packed with more technology than conventional cams….which means there’s more stuff that can go wrong. I’ve had my share of cell-cams go on the fritz, and I’ve got a couple friends who just won’t use them any more, devoting their cell cam effort to conventional models.
So, if you’ve got some extra spending money, strong cell reception in your area, and want the latest info on your bucks, you’ll have a blast with a good cell cam. If you can’t check all, or most of, those boxes, I’d stick with regular cams.
Q: How Do Cellular Cams Work?
Cellular cams communicate with area cell towers, just like your phone does. And, just like your cell phone, how well a wireless camera performs depends on how strong the signal (based on radio waves) in your area is. So in some areas, cellular cams just won’t perform well, if at all. The good news is that even if something affects the communication between the camera and the cell tower, the camera will continue to shoot pics, just like a conventional camera.
When your cam takes a pic, it typically sends a low-resolution version of the photo (called a “thumbnail”) to your phone, either directly or to an app developed by the company. You’ll have to purchase a data plan from the company that allows you a specified number of pictures per month. Some companies allow you to customize your coverage; you can purchase a one-year subscription, for example, but only use it for three months during the fall.
One relatively new, but very nice, feature on apps developed by many companies is the ability to control your camera remotely. You can check battery levels, change settings, and even turn a camera on or off by manipulating the settings from your phone. Again, your ability to do this will be affected by the signal strength between your cellular camera and local cell towers.