So You Want To Buy A Cellular Trail Camera
There is no question that trail or game cameras have definitely made their mark in the hunting industry. They have given us an insiders look at the wild, 24 hours a day. Now with cellular technology carving out it's corner in the trail-cam industry, we are able to stay "connected" to our hunting lands in a whole new way, but that does not come without some limitations and sometimes aggravations.
I remember back in the 90's seeing the ads in hunting magazines for the old cuddeback camera with two motion units and a separate mount with an Olympus 35mm camera that had an epoxied plug on the top that was hardwired to the internals. A cable connected the camera to one of the motion units. I couldn't wait to get it and start seeing what was out where I hunted. The Lord only knows how much gas I burned and 35mm film I wasted, but I do remember being disappointed many times when the one hour photo returned 24 blank pictures from a runaway camera that blew through the film. Never the less, I was still hooked.
Next came the models that are all in one and digital. They have a slot for an sd card that stores the images so you can view everything on a computer, tablet, or even smart phone right in the field. Just like with the invention of the wheel to make someones life easier and technology evolving at a rate that seems out of control we now have trail-cameras that are basically a cellphone in a trail-camera format.
I started using cellular trail-cameras around 2011 and have been even more addicted than I was with my very first one. Cell cams can be a source of enjoyment, but also aggravation, as we experience the quirks of tech devices mass produced at a cost that the average consumer can afford. I am writing the blog to try and prepare the would be cell cam purchaser for what to expect. I have done my best to cover the bases, but I am sure I will miss something. I will also highlight the features of my favorite cell cams, the Spartan GoCam from HCO Outdoors. This is a company that I have used and sold their cameras for 10+ years and can say they stay on the forefront of trail-cam technology, as well as offer some of the best customer service in the industry.
- Cost: First and foremost understand cellular trail cameras are not cheap and they can come with costs beyond the initial purchase. There is a fee for using cellular service and depending on camera brand and cell carrier the cost varies. In the case of Spartan and Verizon or US Celluar the camera just adds to your existing phone data plan for $5 per month. Spartan and ATT is slighlty more if you buy a year and 4gb for $75. Be sure to check with the brand camera to see what plans they offer. Spartan also has a premium features package that is an additional fee. This is paid to Spartan and is in addition to the cell service plan paid to the cell carrier. The price ranges from $4 for one month (called credits) to $3 if you buy 12 months worth up front. I use the premium on all my cameras and truly feel it is worth every penny. It gives you access to the web portal where there is an online storage hub, all the adjustable camera settings and use of the mobile app where all the pictures and videos are delivered on your phone. With premium you can manage the camera's settings in portal or the app , request video (on the 2018 models), request HD pictures and view your stored pictures and videos. In addition to these there are batteries and optional but not required accessories like security box and lock cable, mounts, high capacity external batteries and booster antenna's.
- 3g or 4g lte? This is really a no brainier now. Cellular companies are phasing out 3g networks even though AT&T hasn't announced an official end date it's coming and all the major Cell Cam companies now offer 4g cameras. If you purchase a 3g camera in 2019 be aware that if you can get it activated it likely won't have service many years from now.
- Patience: I'm not sure if this should be second or first but for sure it is a priority, you need to have or learn patience. There are so many factors that work together with cell cams and often times when you are having an issue it will be the one you are not looking at. I would venture to say that 80+% of issues are a missed step in setup. Being thorough in following the proper setup steps is a must.
- Brand: More and more brands are releasing their own cellular trail cameras. Spartan, Covert, Cuddeback, Stealth Cam, Spypoint, Boly, Snyper and Bushnell all have models on the market and it looks like Exodus will soon release their version. There are also a number of lesser known names being sold direct from overseas you can find on Ebay and Amazon but support may be more difficult to contact. The brands mentioned all have good products and ultimately the decision will be up to the buyer. I encourage you to do your research before making a purchase. You should always buy from an Authorized Dealer to ensure your warranty is valid should you need to make a claim. Companies will require proof of purchase from an authorized dealer to honor warranties. Herd 360 is an authorized dealer for Spartan and Snyper. Personally I have the most experience with Spartan and have used and sold their company HCO Outdoors cameras for the last 10 or more years. They continue to be a force in the trail camera industry setting the standards that others follow. They have fantastic customer service and a two year warranty. Spartan continues to be my personal choice with cellular trail cameras but that doesn't mean they will be the best choice for every buyer.
- Cellular Signal: These cameras work off cellular signal so it must be present at the camera site. Many things effect signal; weather, distance to towers, terrain and even leaves on the trees. So that camera that had adequate signal through the winter may not even connect after the leaf-out in the spring. Most of the cameras available have an external antenna and my experience at least with Spartan GoCams is that they pick up better than my cell phone. If however you have marginal signal there may be a solution covered in the next topic.
- High Gain Antennas. If you want to put a cell camera out, but the signal is marginal, don't give up, there is some hope. High gain external antennas come with a cable to screw in to the camera where the factory fits. I like to mount mine on a 10' stick of 1" conduit and strap to a tree pointed in the direction of the nearest cell tower. You can do an internet search for cell towers in your area to help get you in the ball park direction. If you need a little signal boost I have High Gain Cellular Antennas on my website
- Text vs Data: The earlier model cell cams worked strictly off of SMS or texting. Most worked off of a prepaid card and you would pay for the amount of texts per month. Some still operate this way, but with cellular networks now transmitting data most camera manufactures are utilizing data. Data allows the cameras to transmit larger files and higher quality images, and, in the case of Spartan, short video clips can now be transmitted. Data also allows a wide range of communication with the camera like being able to change settings and request full resolution images from the camera.
- Batteries: This is a huge one. A camera hanging on a tree in the woods communicating with a cellular network transmitting data files requires lots of power. Think about how long your cellphone lasts and you will realize trail-cam manufactures have done a pretty good job of utilizing the power and battery life of AA batteries. Still there are many factors that come in to play. Ever get in an area with weak cell signal and your phone battery drains rapidly? Cell cams are no different. Weather will also be a factor. Heat and extreme cold shorten the life of batteries. Energizer Lithium batteries offer the longest life but they come at a cost. The cameras are equipped with auxiliary power inputs so you can add a large external battery pack or a solar charged battery pack. I build various external batteries boxes and solar units with chew proof cables that can be found on my website at Herd 360.
- Security and Bear Protection: Unfortunately people are not always honest and for that reason you should think about protecting your investment. There are various security box manufactures on the market to help deter would be thieves. You can also get creative with mounting locations, such as mounting up high or using camouflage. Many users also use a cheap standard trail-cam to monitor their cell cam. If you live in an area where bears are present then you may already know they can and will be curious about anything new in their environment. They can destroy a trail-cam so a bear safe box is a must. Antenna protection is still an ongoing issue and hopefully someone will develop a device to protect them.
- Customer Support: There Is No Perfect Camera. Keep in mind that you are placing an electronic device out in the wild in all sorts of harsh elements. None of them are perfect and work 100% for 100% of the time. Man made it so it can have flaws. This is where patience comes in to play. As a dealer I go above and beyond to help my customers with issues that may arise from setup to ought troubleshooting. If I can't solve it I will direct it to the customer service of the manufacture. This is what allows the cream to rise to the top. Research the companies customer support, call them and see if you get someone to talk too.