You need a spotting scope, a good one, when hunting for deer or elk out West, or when glassing for whitetails on prairies or in large grain fields in the Midwest and elsewhere.
Without a spotter you might have to hike 3 miles and waste an hour to take a closer look at a buck or bull that you found with binoculars. Much more efficient is to glass an animal, set up a scope, zero and focus and determine quickly, “Nope, too small” or “Yes, a shooter let’s go!”
Most big game hunters do well to select a good spotting scope, but then defeat their purpose by choosing a flimsy $50 tripod for it. Big mistake, because you can’t use a spotter effectively—to zoom and size antlers or horns with rock-solid focus–without mounting it atop a quality tripod like the one reviewed here.
Manfrotto’s legendary full-size tripods are popular with professional photographers (some of our cameramen for Big Deer TV carry them). The company developed the Befree line for both amateurs and professionals who need a compact tripod that one can carry off the beaten path to get the perfect picture, without sacrificing the stability needed to grab a sharp image. So designed, the Befree has become a great choice for hunters and their spotting scopes.
I tested and carried the Befree MKBFRA4-BH all-aluminum model dozens of miles last deer season, and used it to steady my Trijicon 20X-60X spotting scope (review on that optic to come later).
My first evaluation of any piece of hunt gear, be it a gun, bow or tripod, is simply the feel of it. First time you pick up the Befree tripod it feels sturdy and well-built.
The Befree tripod and ball head combo (more on the head later) weighs 3.09 pounds. The legs have an interesting “inverted-leg” folding design. Retract the legs, turn them over and fold them up and around the head to form a compact 15.75-inch package that fits easily into a medium-size backpack. The folded legs completely enclose and protect the head, a feature I like.
The legs of many compact tripods only extend 22 inches or so, and confine you to spot from sitting or kneeling, which is generally okay because much of the time you’re on your butt and leaned back into a hillside as you look. But the Befree has 3 retractable sections on each leg that, when fully deployed and with the center arm extended, raise the tripod to around 57 inches. Now you can run your scope from the standing position as well, a big bonus.
The legs extend and retract easily and smoothly, and the 3 spring-loaded thumb toggles on each leg lock the sections securely into place.
On top of each leg is a silver selector knob. Twist each knob once and it sets and locks the tripod into a standard angle of 51 degrees. Twist it again to splay and lock the legs farther apart, to 25 degrees. This feature is designed to allow photographers to spread the tripod super low for dynamic ground-level shots. It can come in handy when you lay into the side of a mountain to glass for hours. With the tripod splayed and scope sitting about 14 inches off the ground, you have an incredibly solid spotting station.
To me a tripod is only as good as the head that holds, aims and pans your scope. The Befree’s aluminum ball head is small and moves smoothly and fluidly in its housing. You work a single wing knob to control the ball’s tension and aim your scope, which attaches to the ball’s platform with a quick release plate and mechanism. This mechanism does take a bit to practice and jiggling to figure out how to lock it in.
While I generally prefer a pistol-grip head with a spotting scope, the wing knob works. It’s smooth and the tension control is precise as you move the scope a fraction in, out, up and down to find and focus on an animal.
This Befree model is designed to support cameras that weigh up to 8.8 pounds, so it can handle any spotting scope for hunting. My Trijicon scope weighs 4 pounds and balances well on this tripod at various extended heights.
Professional photographers do a simple vibration test to check the stability of a tripod, and I did the same. I extended the Befree’s legs and rapid center column to 55 inches, and attached the scope. At full extension is when any tripod is least stable and susceptible to flexing that can put a camera or scope slightly off focus.
I’d tap the scope and use the stopwatch on my phone to record how long the scope vibrated. The less the “tremor time,” during which an animal would be out of focus in the scope, the better.
In 6 tremor tests, the scope vibrated for 3.8 seconds to 4.2 seconds before settling back into solid position. I kept my eye in the scope and on the target, and the real time of this vibration was negligible in a typical hunting/spotting scenario. Since the tripod proved steady enough at full extension, it would be even more stable the lower you use it for spotting.
Out west and on the prairies, the tripod was easy to set up and proved solid. I was impressed on the 4 really windy days I used it. In the wind I lowered the legs and spotted from a slouched sitting position, and worked the glass with negligible wind shake.
In the end, at 7 pounds this tripod with my choice of spotter attached is not super lightweight (again the scope weighs 4 pounds) but the rig is easily packed for 95 percent of the deer and elk hunting we do. The Befree tripod alone is an excellent blend of compact size, light weight, stability and versatility for spotting of game.
No more cheap, flimsy tripods for me. I’ll be using the aluminum Befree travel tripod for many years. It is currently available at Amazon for $213, a killer deal in my book.