This post is intended to be an outlet of sorts for anyone else out there who is a little puzzled by the hype surrounding ULA packs (maybe I'm the only one!). I am not, however, intending to bash ULA in any way, I am well aware that packs are like shoes-- even some otherwise great ones are not going to fit you for whatever reason.
With that said, I am fortunate enough to live close to an outfitter that carries ULA packs (I have learned that this is rare), but for the longest time they haven't had any medium-sized packs in stock; so when I called them up the other day and found out that they recently got a new shipment in, I was really excited to go try on some packs! I had only ever heard great things (on BPL and the rest of the internet) about the ULA packs and I wanted to see what all the rave reviews were about (plus I'm in the market for a pack). In short, I really wanted to like these packs.
All I was interested in trying on was the Circuit and the Catalyst, so, full disclaimer: that's all I tried out. I found out quickly that the right size for me was a medium pack bag and a small hipbelt (as I suspected would be the case). I carefully packed 26 pounds in each pack (making sure the weight was as realistically distributed as I could get it) and tested them out for fit and comfort.
I was disappointed.
Everyone seemed to be saying that these packs will really transfer weight effectively to your hips and I didn't find that to be the case at all. It's actually still kind of puzzling to me that so many people feel so strongly about this aspect of the ULA line (at least the Circuit, and even more so the Catalyst). The most I felt I could get was about a 60/40 hip to shoulder weight distribution ratio. This wasn't simple user error as this was not my first rodeo... I know how to adjust a pack. And still, I couldn't get it to where I liked it.
Accepting all the caveats of how trying on packs for a few hours in a store is not really an ideal scenario for judging pack performance and fit, I still think one can get a relatively decent gut impression of how something will or won't work for them, and the ULA packs were just not working for me.
I was also really unimpressed with the ergonomics and aesthetics of the packs. Imagine the very highest quality pack that you could make with high quality fabrics and foams on a really nice heavy duty home sewing machine if you were an expert seamstress (but not necessarily an expert pack designer) and this is what the ULA packs are like IMHO. Make no mistake, they are very well made, but the design won't knock your socks off (and to many, this is the point... I get it). I still think a pack that is really pared down while still being extremely ergonomic. In my opinion, ULA got the pared down (yet functional) part right, but not so much with the ergonomics.
I think the most glaring problem I found with the packs is that there is absolutely no shape to the suspension. The stays in the Catalyst at not even remotely pre-shaped, and the hoop frame in the Circuit is just as bad (i.e. straight as a rod). I just don't understand why a manufacturer would try to sell packs like this. If you are really good at shaping your own stays, then more power to you, but for all the rest of us, I'm not sure how it would work. I guess these packs just conform to you over time? I'm not really sure.
The packs just sort of felt boardlike on my back... Not sure how else to describe it. It wasn't like I was in agony or anything, but it certainly wasn't all that comfortable.
Also, the buckle on the hipbelt was weirdly long and narrow, making it hard to close (compared with the more commonly used wider and shorter variety), and I didn't like the dual-pull cinch design on the belt (it struck me as an overly complicated way to do the same thing that a simple redirect would accomplish). On the plus side, the hipbelt was fairly comfortable to me, once properly adjusted.
Nearly all the straps on the bag are WAY too long, but I'm sure that's intended, since it's easier to cut a strap to fit your needs then to make it longer. So I had not problem with this, even though it can be a little distracting when you are trying to adjust everything in the store.
What I did have a problem with was the way the bag secured the load. I don't know how else to put it, but it just wasn't as secure as many other packs I've tried (for instance, Osprey packs). I know that this is a hard thing to get a handle on when using weight bags in a store, but I've had much better luck with other packs under the same circumstances. Take that for what you will I guess, the bag just seemed a little "shifty" to me.
Anyway, it became clear pretty quickly that these packs weren't working for me, and that's ok. It was apparent to me that a lot of care went into making the packs (all the seams looked great, good attention to detail) and lots of people have hiked thousands and thousands of miles with these packs, so you may have a much different experience than me (seeing as how I can't find a negative review anywhere, this is most likely the case).
In the end I wanted to get to the bottom of the ULA hype and see how I liked the packs myself, and it just didn't end up being a good fit for me.
I never really trust any product that only has good reviews, so maybe I'm doing ULA a favor with this post ;). I hope that's the case, because they are a cottage manufacturer here in the U.S. making quality products that serve a small but dedicated niche market-- and how can you root against that?
Anyway, best of luck to all of you out there that want to try out a ULA pack for the first time. Hopefully you'll have better luck than me!
Edit: Holy moly this is long post, what was I thinking!!!? :)