Tips for Public Land Trail Camera use

Trail cameras are becoming more and more popular over the past decade as technology has driven down the cost, reduced the size, and improved reliability.  In fact, it is common place for many hunters to set up surveillance around their private hunting property that would rival the security system Fort Knox.  The advantage provided by motion sensor cameras for scouting and identifying target animals are obvious.  That being said, I often talk to hunters that are reluctant to utilize cameras as part of their public land scouting tactics, citing the primary concerns or theft, ability to check, and packing the additional equipment into the backcountry.   Living in Oregon, where my best hunting opportunities are in our state and national forests, I have adapted a few techniques for using cameras as part of my scouting in the field.  Here are my tips for utilizing trail cameras on public land.
Theft Prevention
Let’s face it.  As much as we would like to believe our brotherhood of hunters would never steal or deface another’s personal property, it happens.  Trail camera theft and/or vandalism is a major concern on any property with public access.  Although budget trail cameras have declined in price over the past few years, even with the cheapest camera, you are still out at least $100 bill with batteries and a memory card.  That is scratch I’d rather spend on hunting gear!  In the past 4 years of running trail cameras on public land, I’ve been the victim of one theft.  Coincidently, it was the first camera I ever placed on public land.  It lasted about 6 months.  I put it up in the spring and it made it through bow season, but was gone when I went to check it one day come November.  This got me thinking about placement and security.  The obvious option for most would be to install cameras with lockboxes designed to deter theft.  Almost every camera manufacturer offers an associated lockbox that can be securely mounted to a tree and locked.  Although these are a great option in many circumstances, carrying multiple boxes and a cordless drill to some of my hunting locations is not feasible.  The boxes also don’t prevent vandalism.  A buddy of mine had the lens smashed on one of his cameras that was secured in a box, basically rendering it useless.  For me, the more viable option was more covert placement and securement.
The downside to placing your camera in areas of (potential) high activity is that eventually another good hunter will follow the sign and wander through.  No matter their morale code of ethics, it is still always best that they do not spot your camera.  Mounting straps that accompany trail cameras these days serve their purpose well enough, but are still easily spotted when secured to a tree.  They offer no pan/tilt adjustment, which require placement at roughly eye level and wrap around the entire tree.  The presence of any camera secured with a strap is obvious to any passerby.
Searching for other options I came across, and now utilize, a screw-in camera mount that permits an unlimited amount of horizontal and vertical adjustments.  This allows me to place cameras above the normal field of view and presents a far less obvious indicator to anyone walking past.  At the very least I mount my cameras as high as I can reach to get them out of the normal field of view for anyone walking through.  For the most part this keeps them out of the public eye and un-noticed if anyone should happen to walk by.  It also keeps cameras above the game animals passing through, reducing the chances of the camera being “adjusted” by the rump of an elk who decides use my tree as a scratching post and he saunters by.

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If added security in a well-traveled area is necessary, take along a few screw-in tree steps and mount your camera about 10 feet off the ground.  Although nothing is full proof, and this can limit the field of view, it will discourage all but the most determined and prepared would-be thieves from snagging your cam.  Just remember to pack the steps when going check your cameras; I know all too well the frustration of hiking in to check a camera that is 10’ off the ground without any way to reach it!

Chad Harvey Tree Steps

Checking Your Camera
Somewhat bewildered, I have listened to the time-strapped hunter claim “I just don’t have the time to go check them”.   OK.  The whole idea of a trail camera is to collect information because we do not have the time to be on the mountain 24/7/365.  Once in hand and set, your only commitment to a trail camera is that you will (someday) return.  Depending on your needs and schedule, this can be anywhere from days, to months, to even years the future.  The wonderful thing about trail cameras is that they are there doing their job from the moment you walk away.  A trail camera is no more an obligation than it is to go hunting every year.  I have some cameras as far as 8 miles from the nearest road.  They get checked roughly twice a year.  Once when the snow clears, and again in the fall when I go to chase elk.  Although there is some initial investment in the camera and time to go set it up, there is virtually no maintenance required once in position.
Batteries are a minimal concern.  How long will your camera last on a set of batteries?  Hard to say, and depends on the camera and activity, but worst case scenario you have a dead battery with thousands of pictures to add to your scouting effort.  From my experience, Energizer Ultimate Lithium provide the longest duration of camera activity.  I use rechargeable batteries in all my more “frequently” checked cams to save a little cash.  I have one camera that has been operating on the same AA batteries for almost two years.
Common sense also applies to memory cards.  Most of my cameras use 8GB cards, which are good from anywhere from 5000 to 8000 pictures depending on camera and quality setting.  Do the math on 16GB, 32GB , 64GB, etc , and choose accordingly for your needs.
Packing
The downside to hunting public land is that anyone has access.  There may be 1 or 100 different bowhunters with eyes on your spot.  For the hardcore this means hiking beyond the comfort distance of your competitor.  As mentioned, I have some cameras in excess of 8 miles from the closest road.  Fortunately, technology has cameras getting smaller and smaller each year.  The common D cell camera available a decade ago has been converted to a AA operated cam at ½ th size.  Although this is a leap in progress, there really are no tips here.  Only you can decide if the weight/bulk is worth packing miles into the backcountry.  For most I assume this isn’t worth the effort, but for me it can be the difference between hunting a 350” bull at this spot, or traveling to the next drainage over.  No fear for the backcountry bowhunter, I have no doubt that cameras the size of your thumbnail and operate off watch batteries are out there.  Only a matter of time before the industry catches up, and they can have my credit card number when they do!
Conclusion
Trail cameras are an awesome innovation of the time we live in, use them to the best of your ability.  I use, and monitor, cameras year round.  They are an excellent tool to show you what is, and isn’t, present in a promising hunting area.  Not only for hunting season, cameras provide useful information for predator season and a good insight to antlers dropping for shed hunting.  Witnessing antler growth from beginning to end is also a natural phenomenon worth documenting.  Take my word, checking cameras any time of the year is comparable to Christmas morning for any bowhunting addict!

By Chad Harvey

BOWADX Pro Staff