Running trail cameras year-round on public land, I’ve experienced my share of monkey business. It amazes me the trouble some folks will go through to mess with my cameras. I’ve had SD cards stolen. I’ve found SD cards in my cameras that weren’t the brand I use. Numerous times, people have deleted the photos off of my cards before putting them back in the cameras. I’ve even had people move my cameras from one tree to another. But none of those mind games mean much in the whole scheme of things, and they’re just minor nuisances compared to having cameras stolen.
Theft can happen anywhere, even on private posted property, and it’s always a downer when it happens. Over the years, I’ve learned to not let it bother me too much, and I don’t trash talk the whole human race just because one dishonest jerk ruined my day. That’s not to say I haven’t learned the hard way, though.
I've heard it said that "the worst sinners often make the best preachers." Well, in a similar spirit, perhaps those who've had the most cameras stolen can offer some solid advice advice about how to not have them stolen. So here's what I've learned from the cameras that were stolen, and from those that weren't:
When to Set and Check
There are two times of year when I’ve had the most trail cameras stolen: during the spring turkey season and during the fall gun season. The turkey season thefts I attribute to ignorance, not just because someone stole my cameras, but because perhaps they saw the cameras and believed them to be abandoned or forgotten. For most people, the idea of running trail cameras year-round still hasn’t caught on.
The thefts during gun season, especially regarding the 6 (count ‘em 6!) trail cameras I had stolen in a single day, were due to my own stupidity of checking them after a fresh snow. Gun season on public lands sees an influx of new people into the area I hunt, and the snow hung around and my tracks showed everybody the location of every camera. Lesson learned. Now I pull all of my cameras before these two seasons and don’t reset them until most of those folks are out of the woods.
I’m a little cagier now when it comes to checking cameras, too. I stay away when there’s snow on the ground. On public land, where hunter and non-hunter traffic increases on weekends, I’ve found mid-week or rainy days are both good options for swapping out SD cards.
One of the first things I do when planning to set trail cameras in high traffic areas is remove the factory straps and use a bracket or screw-in mount to attach cameras to trees. This allows me to be more versatile with placement and gives my overall setup a smaller profile. But if I'm on public land that prohibits me from screwing a bracket into a tree, I'll opt for camouflage-colored bungy cords and shove leaves down between it to help break up the outline.
In nature, straight lines and shapes stand out. Many times, I’ve found the trail cameras of other hunters because I spotted the horizontal line of the strap wrapped around the tree. That line is even more pronounced after a dusting of snow when a white line of snow settles on the upper edge of the strap.
Dealing with Roads and Trails
Something as simple as facing cameras away from roads and well-used trails can prevent theft. For instance, several heavy deer crossings that I like to put cameras on are along a hard-top road. Unfortunately, the woods are fairly open here, too, and anyone driving by can easily spot a trail camera.
But when I find a good place for my cameras, I’m stubborn. In this location, I removed the straps from the camera and utilized one of the screw-in mounts just mentioned. I then found a couple of trees wide enough to shield the cameras from the road. Problem solved.
Also, instead of hanging cameras directly on trails, I put them back 10-20 feet and in whatever brush I can find. I use whatever I can to help camouflage and break up the camera’s outline. One of my favorite tactics is to hide the camera in between two logs. Even if the only tree available to attach the camera to is a sapling, I’ll tie the straps in a way that helps break up the camera’s outline and situate the camera so that it’s looking out between two logs or clumps of brush. The setup doesn’t always look pretty, but I’ve never had a camera stolen when doing this…knock on wood!
Elevating the camera is another great trick to prevent theft, too. As most people walk or hike in the woods, their focus is on the ground and objects up to about waist level. Hikers in general are usually thinking about footing and how to best navigate the trail. Next time you’re scouting, pay attention to where your focus is, and I’ll bet you find that it’s primarily on or close to the ground. After all, that’s where you find the scrapes and trails and shed antlers.
I’ve been able to place trail cameras in some really high traffic areas on public land by simply hanging them at eye level or higher. I even get a number of photos of people passing within feet of the camera, and I basically get their mugshot as they walk by, but they seldom realize the camera’s even there. On every occasion, in every photo of every person who walks by, their focus is always downward.
Elevating my trail cameras also solves a lot of issues with another pesky visitor: bears. I hunt primarily public land, all of which is located in bear country. In the summer of 2020 alone, I had 3 cameras destroyed by black bears. Bears are naturally curious animals. Although not known for having great eyesight, it’s amazing how they can zero in on things that seem out of place, such as the square shape of a camera against a tree. Over the years, I’ve learned that if I put a camera on any good game trail, or even to keep watch on a scrape or mock scrape, I’d better put it above a bear’s natural line of sight.
Lock it Up
The ultimate in trail camera protection, of course, is placing the camera inside a security box that can be locked. Anyone wanting to mess with these cameras will find it too much trouble to be worth the effort. And most of them are somewhat bear proof, which is a plus if you’re operating in bear country.
The downside is that security boxes are not always cost effective if you run a lot of cameras. But then, I guess a $25 investment in a security box might just be worthwhile if you’re using a high-priced trail camera.
Most of the trail cameras I use were purchased for less than $50 apiece, usually bought on sale or on clearance, but it still stings to have one stolen. That’s money lost, and it can put a real damper on your mood. But sometimes I just have to accept that some loss is inevitable, no matter how much I try to prevent it, regardless of whether I’m on public or private land. I’ve found that the best thing to do is keep a positive attitude and move on and try to hide it better next time. It’s not worth letting it ruin your day.