ULA was founded by Brian Frankle in 2001, after he 'discovered' UL gear (the story of the whole cottage industry?). In the early days all the pack-making was done by Brian as well - in his garage (of course). After a while he got some help, to reduce the well-known delays in delivery. Late in 2009 Brian sold the company to Chris McMaster, another UL enthusiast.
The packs featured here are quite distinctive, with a frame design somewhat different from most. There are two upright rods or tubes running down the very outer corners, and a cross bar at the top made from flexible Delrin plastic. The design ends up a bit squarer than most because of the frame tubes. However, there is only a thin layer of firm foam down the harness face, not hard plastic. A consequence of this soft back is that you can make the middle of the harness face bulge outwards in a most uncomfortable manner if you stuff (fill) the bag too hard. You need to keep the packing a bit soft on all these packs so the bag can adapt to your back. Overloading (jamming stuff in tightly) is not advised.
All three of the packs have a very tapered or tilted bottom, so that none of them are able to sit upright on the ground. We found this a bit irritating (OK, very irritating) when they fell over every time. The taper also made impossible to put a quilt or sleeping bag at the bottom of the pack if it had been put into a stuff sack. Doing so left a large empty gap under the round stuff sack, with a natural loss of even more volume.
ULA Circuit Pack
|Circuit||Average||Light, but care needed in packing|
This is a roll-top pack. You don't have to roll the throat down: you can just fold it over once and hold it in place with the side straps and the over-the-top strap. It just isn't very weather-resistant that way. A consequence of the roll-top design is that it is very hard to define the 'real' volume. I am a bit conservative and insisted on being able to do a dry-bag seal with the top, but this resulted in a measured volume of only 48 L (2,900 cuin): far below the claimed 69 L (4,200 cuin). However, things are not that simple, as ULA measures each compartment separately, and then adds them all up. The figures given on the web site are thus: Main bag: 39 L (2,400 cuin); External collar: 8 L (500 cuin) (total main bag: 47 L or 2,900 cuin); Back pocket: 6.5 L (400 cuin); Side pockets: 5.7 L (350 cuin) each; Hip belt pockets: 1.6 L (100 cuin) each; Total: 69 L (4,200 cuin).
ULA Circuit, 1.16 kg (2.56 lb), 48 L (2900 cuin), S, M, L. *In addition to coming in three torso lengths, the hip belt is adjustable and comes in XS, S, M, L & XL sizes. If you get the wrong hip-belt, you can replace it.
You can see that our measured volume of 48 L for the main bag is actually very close to the claimed volume for the main bag. However, the ASTM Standard does not permit you to claim the open mesh pockets when measuring pack volume - per the Standard, anyhow. So while our measurements do match the details of the ULA measurements, we disagree as to what you can claim for the pack as a whole. If we are to treat the ULA packs the same as all the other packs, than we have to ignore their claimed Total Volume.
The Circuit was delivered with a Medium hip belt. At first I found that the bottom edge of the hip belt dug into the tops of my thighs while I was walking. It is 125 mm wide - about the widest hip belt tested; many other brands of hip belts are about 100 mm wide. I was able to handle the problem to some degree. The hip belt is held in place with a large area of hook&loop fastening on front and back, and it can be moved up and down. It was delivered at maximum torso length (too long for either of us), so I moved the hip belt up, with the aid of several sheets of stiff card slid between the faces of the hook&loop fastening (without this trick I found it almost impossible to adjust the hip belt). This adjustment helped a bit, but moving the hip belt up meant the top edge was digging into my lower ribs. I swapped the Medium out for a Small hip belt, which was 115 mm across. Better, but still a problem. So I turned the Small hip belt upside down, and that worked OK - except that the hip belt pockets were now upside down. Maybe the design is just meant for people with a taller waist than me, but that is something to check carefully.
I didn't use the large mesh pocket on the back for gear, but I did find it collected scrub very easily. I had to empty it out when I got home before I could bring the pack inside. That wouldn't happen much if you stayed on trails all the time.
The roll top made it difficult to decide where to put a wet tent. If all you have is a one-man tarp, this may not be a problem: you can stick it in the mesh back pocket. However, my two-man tunnel tent was too big (and too heavy) for that. I think this is a case of a pack really tuned for one sort of gear only.
I found that the stiff shoulder straps tended to dig into my ribs a bit. This may be associated with my problems with the hip belt or my general body shape - I don't know. The bottom ends of the shoulder straps go to the outer corners of the frame. Combine this with the tendency of the middle of the back to bulge outwards, and the result was that we found that this pack carried a bit 'heavier' than many others. It can hold weight, but it seems the design is really meant for very light loads.
ULA Catalyst Pack
|Catalyst||Above average||Light, but care needed in packing|
The Catalyst is the big one of the ULA series, but once again the volume is not that great if you follow the ASTM Standard. The breakdown for the various compartments is as follows according to ULA (we did not measure these separately): Main Body: 43 L (2,600 cuin); External Collar: 10 L (600 cuin) (total main bag: 52 L or 3,200 cuin); Front Mesh Pocket: 10 L (600 cuin); Side Mesh Pocket: 5.7 L (350 cuin) each; Hipbelt Pockets: 1.6 L (100 cuin) each Total: 75 L (4,600 cuin). It would seem that my packing of the main bag (or the number of rolls in the closure of the throat) is a bit more conservative that ULA's, but I have a fixation on keeping my gear dry.
ULA Catalyst, 1.49 kg (3.28 lb), 46 L (2800 cuin), S, M, L, XL
The hip belt on the Catalyst is also exchangeable, and available in XS, S, M, L, XL.
All the comments about the Circuit apply to the Catalyst as well. Basically, it seems the Catalyst is simply a larger Circuit. We had hoped that this pack would be at the top end of the volume range, but obviously this did not happen.
At least this is one of the few packs which has large side pockets which remain usable even when the main bag is really full. You would have to use these pockets to get enough volume for a long trip in poorer weather (when you need a bit more gear). Using the side pockets would mean minimising the distance from your back to the centre of gravity, which is a Good Thing of course. Water bottles, suitably anchored, come to mind for the side pockets.
ULA Camino Pack
This is a panel loader pack, not a top loader. One might well ask what a panel loader pack is doing in a serious review of real walkers' packs, when they are normally reserved for... well, not 'real walkers.' Basically, the reason is that the Camino was very new (not on the website at the time of writing), and Brian Frankle thought it carried well. OK, if you are zipping around some European trail staying in gites and mountain refuges, a panel loader might actually be quite convenient. Hey, with some of those high refuges there is barely enough room for your bed, let alone space to put a pack on the floor! So, we included it.
ULA Camino, 1.45 kg (3.20 lb), 59 L (3600 cuin).
I have to report that the bottom end of the Camino is as tapered as the other two ULA packs, and yes, it falls over just as easily. We found that annoying. The volume of the main bag is not large, even when I jiggled the packing to fill every nook and cranny. I ended up having to put the two water bottles in the side pockets and the orange stuff sack in the mesh back pocket, in order to get all the Test Gear in. This worked, but was stretching the capacity a bit. Of course, if you are going to be going from hut to hut in Europe, you might not need to carry as much food and gear anyhow. Many walkers over there seem to just carry a towel (being a cool frood) and a toothbrush... and a credit card.
The design of a panel loader means it can be stuffed too full and made to bulge at the back very easily - perhaps even more easily then the Circuit and the Catalyst. However, if not stuffed too full, the fit can be quite comfortable. Part of the secret is to not do up the internal straps (shown in the left photo) very tightly. However, if you don't use them at all there can be a bit of strain on the long zip when you are doing it up. A delicate balance is needed - and possible.
The hip belt is a little complex in its arrangement. I think you are meant to be able to adjust the tilt of the hip belt by adjusting the upper and lower webbing buckles on the hip belt, but on the pre-production model provided this was rather ineffective. It may be that this part of the design, or at least the way the main buckle is used, will be changed before the pack is released.
The shoulder straps sported an interesting refinement. There are D-rings near the shoulders (as found on a number of packs). Attached to these D-rings were some fancy adjustable loops just meant for holding onto with your thumbs to support your arms. They are very adjustable in length - but they are extra weight. Some may like them despite that. Others might like the idea, but simplify it.
This is a mini-review in the 2010 Lightweight Internal Frame Pack State of the Market Report. The articles in this series are as follows (mini-reviews can be found in Part 2), and a subscription to our site is needed to read them.