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Anyone else slightly underwhelmed by ULA packs? [crickets chirping]
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Derek M.
(dmusashe) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Anyone else slightly underwhelmed by ULA packs? [crickets chirping] on 08/19/2013 04:31:52 MDT Print View

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!!!? :)

Edited by dmusashe on 08/19/2013 04:35:18 MDT.

Kat ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Little bit on 08/19/2013 05:51:36 MDT Print View

I have an Ohm that was going to be mainly used by my daughter. She much prefers my Osprey Hornet, and I let her use it when we go together. So I have only used the pack maybe 14 days total in the last couple of years. I like the pack well enough as far as comfort and load distribution. What I am a little disappointed about was the fact that with such little use I did not expect there to already be a hole in the sleeve that houses the end of the stay. The stays have no tips surrounding the metal and the sleeves are straight fabric. Before leaving the trail head on my last trip I had to fashion a tip made out of a plastic lid that was wide enough to barely fit it the sleeve and not fall through the hole in it.
That seems like a pretty obvious issue.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Anyone else slightly underwhelmed by ULA packs? [crickets chirping] on 08/19/2013 06:16:41 MDT Print View

I'm still very happy with my Ohm v1.0. Packs are such the personal choice. I hope you find something you are happy with.

Edit: My Ohm never squeaked. I thought it a problem of later design, but apparently not. My bad.

Edited by kthompson on 08/19/2013 18:23:44 MDT.

mik matra
(mikmik) - M

Locale: Allways on the move
I have the Circuit on 08/19/2013 06:36:02 MDT Print View

Yeah I bought the pack on just info I found on the net.

Couple points;

1. After a few trips I have come to the conclusion that I plainly and simply just don't like the rolltop closure. When the bag is very full it won't even close up properly as there is not enough material to 'roll up'. I am going to sow a zipper in there myself.
2.It may be just adjustment (I haven't had time to tinker that much to get a definite) but I find the side pockets which is where I carry my 1.5L plastic drinking bottles too high and difficult to reach around to pull my water bottles out of.
3.Yes it does feel like carrying a board on your back especially when the bag is full and tends to curve to accentuate this issue. The flat back also doesn't allow your back to air and I end up having a wet back from sweat more often than not.
4.Yes straps a too long (unnecessarily so) but the one that baffles me is the strap that goes from the handloop where you pick the bag up off the ground with, over the top and clips onto the pack just above the mesh pocket. This strap seems 4 times longer needs to be.
5.The front mesh elastic cord is long enough to stretch a fair way but the mesh material will not expand this far.....there is not a lot I can fit in there and am thinking of altering this for myself.
6. My mate got the Osprey pack. Now for a comparative price and weight the Osprey pack has far more features that I find impressive. I think that is a better pack.

Not a rant but my 2c worth.

Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

ULA Packs on 08/19/2013 06:45:18 MDT Print View

Wow long post.

1) The stays/framesheet in my Catalyst are certainly pre-shaped. They fit well.
2) The squeaky Ohm suspension that Ken mentions pre-dates the current ownership
3) I've been really happy with my Ohm and Catalyst. Both transfer weight well for their weight and are well designed.

ULA packs may not look as professional as some mainstream offerings, but next to packs from most other cottage manufacturers they look pretty darn refined.

Edited by dandydan on 08/19/2013 06:46:35 MDT.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: ULA Packs on 08/19/2013 06:50:41 MDT Print View

2) The squeaky Ohm suspension that Ken mentions pre-dates the current ownership

That was not my experience talking with folks at the GGG, including Brian Frankel as well. We picked apart changes made over the years. YMMV. Saw changes in the Catalyst that accelerates wear on the hip belt.

Great when you can get 20 customers in one place. Everyone has a different issue.

Mike Whitesell
(madgoat) - F

Locale: Ohio
squeaky Ohm on 08/19/2013 07:27:44 MDT Print View

I have an original Ohm made by Brian. Before Brian sold the company, and before the Ohm 2.0 came out, Brian introduced an upgraded hipbelt that had pockets on it. I sent my pack back to Brian to get it upgraded to the Ohm 1.1 with the revised hipbelt.

I have somewhere around 500 miles on the pack and have been very pleased with it.

So here are my long term pros and cons with the ULA Ohm 1.1 made by Brian:

-1.5 pounds
-great water bottle pockets that hold 2 quarts each. bottles always stay in place and can easily be reached without taking off the pack.
-side compression cords work great.
-pack bag works great. has proven to be durable. prefer the drawstring closure on the ohm over the roll top on the circuit.
-love the elastic mesh back pocket. it provides it's own compression and holds everything securely. easy access for rain gear and other things that require quick access.

-Suspension works fine, but 25 lbs is about the max comfortable weight. pack bag is large enough that you can easily overload the suspension.
-Suspension on my ohm 1.1 is squeaky. it's not awful, but its always there.
-Flat cord on the drawstring packbag closure gets wound up and makes opening and closing difficult at times. this could be fixed by changing to a stiffer round cord.

Replacement Plan:
So far my Ohm is still doing fine with only minor cosmetic issues. I have no immediate plans for replacing the pack. At this point, I haven't made up my mind what my next pack would be if I were in the market now. ULA is still top of my list for consideration, since I heard a couple people have had a custom Ohm made for them with the Circuit's full frame/suspension. That is appealing to me. But I also want to see what Ron and Brian come up with over at Six Moon Designs.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Stay-Pocket Hole on 08/19/2013 07:30:35 MDT Print View

"The stays have no tips surrounding the metal and the sleeves are straight fabric. Before leaving the trail head on my last trip I had to fashion a tip made out of a plastic lid that was wide enough to barely fit it the sleeve and not fall through the hole in it. "

Without a photo this is only a WAG. And since mine was one of the very first, changes along the way may make my guess BS. But...

Originally the stay had a piece of webbing that went around it as it went into the pocket, to protect against abrasion. It sounds like yours didn't get it, or it ended up in the wrong place.

My guess is the based on the number of OHMs that are out there and that this is one of the few cases that have come to light.

Mine occurred as a result of "user error" when I removed the stay for some work and then put it back in, not knowing about the webbing "cup" in the bottom. It took about 5 days for the stay to cut through the fabric.

When I suggested that a fix was needed to Chris he said "yep", and ..."send in the pack and we'll take care of it", even though it pre-dated him as an owner and was several years old.

Edited by greg23 on 08/19/2013 07:31:08 MDT.

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Anyone else slightly underwhelmed by ULA packs? nope, not us on 08/19/2013 09:06:46 MDT Print View

Originally the stay had a piece of webbing that went around it as it went into the pocket, to protect against abrasion. It sounds like yours didn't get it, or it ended up in the wrong place. ..Mine occurred as a result of "user error" when I removed the stay for some work and then put it back in, not knowing about the webbing "cup" in the bottom. It took about 5 days for the stay to cut through the fabric.
Same for us. Jim's stay on his Brian-days-Ohm-1 broke through the bottom, and we discovered that we had mis-inserted it after taking the stay out to wash the bag. It's a combination of user error and design flaw - the design shouldn't have allowed the user to make the error. We were on the trail in Spain, and fixed it by carving a socket into a wine cork and shoving the cork down into the bottom of the sleeve :)

The stay on my Circuit was pre-bent and worked for me out of the box. So if they're now shipping them without a bend that does seem like it puts a burden on the user to get it approximately right.

Jim and I have been using ULA packs since 2002. Eight different packs in all (four each). None has worn out. Quality and durability are fantastic, or at least were in Brian's day. Only one of our packs is a post-Brian pack.

I'm currently experimenting with Gossamer Gear Mariposa, just to see if I can improve on my Circuit. I've used the Mariposa for only seven weeks so far. Comparing the two:

Both are plenty comfortable for me and my loads of up to 25 pounds.

Mariposa is lighter than the Circuit (that was the inspiration for trying it).

Hipbelt pockets on Mariposa are next to useless. For this reason alone I'm considering abandoning the pack. The volume of the pockets on the ULA packs is perhaps 50-75% larger, which doesn't sound like much, but for me matters a lot. In the GG pack, I can fit one pair of wraparound sunglasses plus a pair of reading glasses in a belt pocket and it's functionally full. In the ULA packs, I can fit the glasses plus a bag of nuts and a bar. In the second ULA pocket I can easily put my wool hat and mitts, whereas I can only get one or the other in the GG pockets. It might sound minor, but that kind of difference matters a lot to me.

Quality of workmanship is WAY better in the ULA pack. We've been using ULA packs exclusively (except those 7 weeks I mentioned) since 2002. Thousands of miles for each of us. The ONLY failure was the above-mentioned stay. Whereas I've got several problems already in my GG pack - in many places the seams appear to not have been back-tacked and I've had to do several repairs already.

I really like the closure on the Mariposa, although I did fuss with the string to make it a single strand instead of a loop. Both roll-top and string closures on the ULA packs have been fine for us too.

FWIW, I tried an Osprey Talon 44 on one four day trip and my poor bruised hips said "never again". That belt was a failure for the shape of my hip bones.

Stephen Barber
(grampa) - MLife

Locale: SoCal
Too small? on 08/19/2013 09:12:38 MDT Print View

To the OP: I understand you've had plenty of experience with packs, but if you were only able to get a 60/40 distribution of weight with a Circuit, I suggest you look at the large sized pack. You're back may effectively be longer than you think. When measured by REI experts, I always come out as a medium, but loaded up, a large pack size always works better on me.

I have regularly used the Catalyst for several years now, and found it to be excellent for weight distribution and carry. Yes, it's heavier than the Circuit, but the aluminum stays can be shaped to one's back, which doesn't happen with the carbon stays. I get good weight distribution with the Ohm as well, but the flat back is not as comfortable as the Catalyst. Still carries well.

FWIW, and I apologize for the topic movement, I just received my new McHale pack - which totally blows away any other pack I've seen. Amazingly versatile, with brilliant yet simple innovations to make the hike more enjoyable! The man is a genius! The McHale pack does indeed make my ULA look like a pack from a different century!

Chad B
(CenAZwalker) - F

Locale: Southwest
Interesting on 08/19/2013 09:40:29 MDT Print View

I always figured I was in the minority, but I feel the same way. For me, the two I have tried (CDT, Circuit), did not fit well, at all. Nor did I care for the over all design. I have wanted to check out the OHM though, so I would be willing to give them another chance. But yeah, over all, I am not all that impressed.

James DeGraaf
(jdegraaf) - MLife

Locale: Bay Area
Catalyst on 08/19/2013 09:41:14 MDT Print View

I too felt a bit underwhelmed by my Catalyst the time I used it. I was more pleased with my Elemental Horizons Kailas pack. I feel it fits better, carries better, and IMHO looks better too (it is also lighter). Granted I lost a few liters for packing but I rarely need anything more than40-50L anyway. If you're still in the market looking for a pack I would suggest Elemental Horizons.


Marko Botsaris
(millonas) - F - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
Re: Too small? on 08/19/2013 09:42:55 MDT Print View

Ditto on on that. Check your fit. It is common for people (even ones backpacking for years) who think they have the right fit to be quite a bit off, and among those the vast majority are too short. Send a picture, if you like, of you wearing the pack.

Unless you are a mutant you can take our - and the many through hikers who use the pack - word for it that these pack DO support well for most folks, but %90 of the "fit" issue is the responsibility of buyer to select the right size and adjust ting correctly.

If there are aluminum stays you should be able to bend them to get a better fit to you back shape once you are sure you have the overall fit right. In my version of the pack (an old one) there were actually instructions on doing this, but it should be a no-brainer to make that adjustment.

Aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder. At this point for me all the "do-dads" that most bigger commercial pack makers put on their packs, and that supposedly make the more attractive to the average customer, are horrible eyesores to my eyes. I see only extra weight I have to carry for a features that I at best don't need, and at worst actively make my life on the trail more complicated. So even the aesthetics of the ULA packs appeal to me. Guess I'm like the one guy in the old listerine commercials who LIKES the taste. LOL

That said, I have recently sent my 10-11 year old primary pack (a ULA P2) into a well deserved retirement and (like James) plan on using my Kalais pack. Pretty much have the same attitude about it as James - it is like the update on the ULA that you WISH they had made. The Kalais is lighter, has a nice closure, and aesthetically without blemish to my eyes. You might want to take a gander at that one,but you will not be able to find it in a store to try on.You might be able to work something out with Matt.

Edited by millonas on 08/19/2013 09:51:55 MDT.

Kat ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Re: Re: Stay-Pocket Hole on 08/19/2013 09:43:25 MDT Print View

Thanks for the info on the reinforced strip. I'll look into it. The plastic lid is working well for now.

Link .
(annapurna) - MLife
Re: Re: Too small? on 08/19/2013 09:56:22 MDT Print View

I love my Elemental Horizon Kalais also,and I agree Matt is great to work with.


Locale: Outdoors -MN
Not at all undewhelmed by ULA on 08/19/2013 09:56:58 MDT Print View

My experience is the exact oposite as the original poster's. After triying nearly every pack REI had to offer, (REI, Gregory, Granite Gear, Osprey, Deuter) I had nearly given up finding a pack to replace my REI Wonderland external frame (comfortable but noisy).

An alternate retailer turned my attention to the ULA Catalyst. At 5'8" and ~220 lbs a medium pack w/large hip belt not only fits me well, but exceeded in comfort other brands I had tried. Loaded to 40 lbs, the catalyst was far more comfortable than the others tried; especially at the front of my shoulders (I am a bit thick there).

Rather than too short, I found the shoulder adjustment straps could be a wee bit longer. The Large hip belt fits my 38-40 inch waist perfectly with just the right abount of extra webbing for adjustment.

I'll admit the roll-top closure did not initially apeal to me. I nearly decided against his pack for that reason alone. However, with a cuben fiber liner, I have grown to like the simplicity of the roll-top.

Comfort: after numerous training hikes loaded to ~ 40lbs, and trips to Glacier NP and Isle Royale NP overloaded to ~45-50lbs, I am extremely pleased with this purchase. The Cataylst distributed my load well. I rarely had to make any mid-hike adjustments. I ended my Glacier hike of ~ 25 miles and my Isle Royale hike of ~ 40 miles with zero pack related discomfort or complaint.

I am fortunate that a retailer in my area carries ULA packs. I would not have discovered the Catalyst otherwise.

Edited by OCDave on 08/19/2013 10:02:59 MDT.

Marko Botsaris
(millonas) - F - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz Mountains, CA
Re: Not at all undewhelmed on 08/19/2013 10:02:18 MDT Print View

Yep - not a conspiracy. Your reaction seem to be in line with most people's. Still, pack fit is a personal thing.

Joe A
(dirtbaghiker) - M
CDT on 08/19/2013 10:51:35 MDT Print View

I love my CDT pack from ULA. My base weight is right around 9 lbs and this pack carries it like a dream for me. I personally couldn't be happier.

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
Re: Anyone else slightly underwhelmed by ULA packs? [crickets chirping] on 08/19/2013 12:38:45 MDT Print View

I don't understand the point of a rolltop if the packbag isn't actually waterproof (as with a drybag hauler). But ULA are far from the only ones to use that design. Aesthetically I think they are fine (I happen to like green, though; ymmv).

I admit that for some time I wanted both a Camino and an Epic, to satisfy my organizational kink and my obsession with keeping stuff dry, respectively. This, despite known design flaws in each (width and collapse on the Camino, low carry on the Epic). But I picked up a different panel-loader on gear swap and an external frame on craigslist that I'm converting so I've largely stopped lusting after them.

I agree with those who suggested you try the larger size. I am only 5'4'' and on the upper end of most medium torso size ranges. I think a lot of people wear their packs too short, if only b/c I can't imagine people several inches taller than me have 100% of that height in their legs. That said, pack fit is personal and there is a limited range of shapes that a non-custom pack can fit.

peter vacco

Locale: no. california
Re: Anyone else slightly underwhelmed by ULA packs? [crickets chirping] on 08/19/2013 12:50:08 MDT Print View

" 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? "

ohh dear... goodness no.
they don't do anything like that at all.
You have to bend them, and that can take more than a few attempts. if you mke them the shape of your back, which seems reasonable, it will suck. because once you put a load in it, and tighten things down, all that chnges. but go ahead and make them back shape at first anyway.
you'll want to 'open up' the top bend to make up for shoulder strap tension. do this in 1/2" increments.
you "may" want to open up the bottm arc as well, so as to exploit the hip belt pulling the pack into the small of our back. 1/4" a shot is about right for that trick.
and so it goes. a fine tool for stay bending is a picnic table. nice padded slots of varrying width, what more could we ask for.
any time the pack mfg does the bending for you, it won;t be right anyway, and they'll get calls about it. so be brave, and sieze the moment !
bottom line, you have more work to do before it's the pack's fault.