Pics or it didn’t happen may be a fun Internet game, but car dash cams are useful for far more than recording yourself (or other people) doing silly stuff in your car for YouTube. While YouTubers like Monthly Fails rack up millions of views compiling the best car dash cam videos, the best car dash cams can help you establish the truth of a car accident, monitor driver behavior, and even help you catch a vandal or car thief in the act. Here’s what you should know about dash cams, from how to choose the best one for your needs to how to install a dash cam in your vehicle.
The Types of Dash Cams
There are several types of dash cams on the market, each of them best suited for particular uses or needs. They include traditional dash cams that mount on the dashboard or windshield of your car, mirror-mounted dash cams, and front and rear dash cams. They vary by power source, recording capabilities, whether or not they’re GPS enabled, and whether they record audio as well as video, among other things. And while you generally get what you pay for, you’ll find that there are many car dash cams for under $100 that include lots of the features found in the pricier options.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Dash Cam
As this guy at Popular Science found when he went looking, the hardest part of installing a dash cam is finding the right one for your car and for your needs. While there are many buyer’s guides available online, they all hit on these important considerations when choosing the right car dash cam.
Why Are You Using a Dash Cam?
Before you even start looking, you should figure out exactly what you need your dash cam to do. Insurance companies are among the biggest proponents of dash cams, with good reason. Here are some of the things they love about in-car cameras.
- Footage from your dash cam can quickly help establish who was at fault in an auto accident.
- A dash cam with parking mode, [AP1] which automatically starts recording when it senses an impact, can help you identify the culprit if your vehicle is hit or vandalized while it’s parked.
- Built-in GPS can help track your car if it’s stolen—or lets you monitor where your teen is driving.
- Dash cam footage can help you get out of a ticket for a moving violation.
- A front and rear dash cam lets you monitor traffic behind you—or squeeze into a tight parking spot.
Where Will You Put the Dash Cam?
There are several different places you can mount your dash cam, but your state and local laws may place some restrictions on that choice. In most cases, a cam that mounts behind or to your rear-view mirror may be legal, but be sure to check. It’s important that the device doesn’t obstruct your view of the road at all—and in some cases, a device that records audio as well as video may get you into trouble if you don’t alert people that they’re being recorded.
What Features Are Important in a Dash Cam?
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty—the important features to consider when choosing an in-vehicle camera.
- Power Source: Some cams can be hardwired to your battery, but most plug into the power outlet/cigarette lighter in your vehicle. In addition, some are powered by batteries. The one you choose will depend on which power sources are available to you.
- Field of View: A wide angle lens determines how much your camera sees. Look for at least 140 to 160 degrees, so you can see the sides of your car as well as the front.
- Resolution/Frame Rate: The sharper the image, the more useful your footage will be. Higher resolution and frame rate give you better images.
- Night Vision: How well does the camera record in low-light conditions?
- Camera Views: The most basic dash cams will record video through your windshield. Dual-view dash cams record the front and back views. Some cameras include a third camera that can record the driver or others in the car.
- GPS: GPS-enabled cameras do more than tell you where your car is. When they connect to various apps, they can help plan your route to avoid traffic, get you directions to where you want to go, and tag footage with the location where it was recorded.
- Built-in Screen: Some cameras have a built-in screen that allows you to view what’s being recorded. The most basic cams require another device or a PC to view the footage.
- Loop Record: Dash cams generally record to an SD card. When the card is full, they may either stop recording, or start recording over the oldest footage. The best cams include collision detection that “locks” the video that’s been recorded before and after an accident so it won’t accidentally be overwritten.
How to Install a Dash Cam
If you’re choosing to hard-wire a dash cam to your car battery, stop right here. That’s a job for a professional. If, on the other hand, you’re installing a dash cam that connects to an in-car power source, such as the cigarette lighter, it’s actually pretty easy to do with a few basic tools. Here’s how.
- Once you’ve decided where to mount the camera, clean the surface well to remove all dirt and oil that might cause the adhesive to fail. These tips for cleaning tile and glass can help. Pro Tip: Rubbing alcohol is the best cleaner for removing every last bit of grease and oil.
- Most dash cams will come with the adhesives and prep pads needed to attach your new cam. It’s always a good plan to have some extras on hand just in case, though. Choose adhesive mounting pads that are designed specifically for attaching dash cams.
- Follow the manufacturer’s directions to mount your camera in place.
- Plug the camera in to make sure it works. You’re halfway done.
- Hiding the wires is probably the trickiest part of this job. You can use wire clips—like these transparent ones—to secure them in place, but hiding them under the car trim gives you a much more finished look.
- Carefully pry the interior trim along the top and side of the windshield loose. Car trim tools make this much easier.
- Tuck the wires behind the trim. Roll the trim back into place.
- Continue pushing the wires under the weather stripping until you reach the power plug in your car. Caution: Avoid crossing the wires over the passenger side airbag for safety’s sake.
- Repeat the process for any additional cameras.
Best Dash Cams Under $100
While you can spend a small fortune on a dash camera, you don’t have to. There are lots of models and options available for less than $100. These offer nearly all the bells and whistles of the more expensive car dash cams at a fraction of the price.
Dual Front and Rear Camera includes seamless loop recording, a G-sensor to detect collision, and standby parking mode, as well as 1080P resolution for clear, crisp images.
The Dual Dash Cam features both front and rear HD camera (1140P/1080P), GPS, high-sensitivity night vision, built-in WiFi, and a G-sensor for collision lock and parking standby mode. It also supports an SD card up to 128GB for longer recording. The built-in touch screen can display while it records, though you can connect to an app for a larger screen.
Whatever your reasons for joining the dash cam culture, there’s a camera that’s ideal for your needs. Do your research ahead of time, get prepped with the tools you need, and in no time you’ll be recording your adventures on the open road with a dash cam you installed with your own two hands.
Shop the article:
- Adhesive mounting pads
- Transparent wire clips
- Car trim tools
- Dual front and rear camera
- Dual dash cam
Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer who specializes in home, education, and lifestyle topics. She draws on her experiences as a teacher, mother, grandmother, and all-around creative spirit to help others achieve their own goals.