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ULA Circuit, ULA Catalyst, and ULA Camino Packs

Mini-review for the 2010 State of the Market Report on Internal Frame Backpacks.

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by Roger Caffin | 2010-09-28 00:00:00-06

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

Pack Rating Qualifications
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, ULA Catalyst, and ULA Camino Packs - 1
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

Pack Rating Qualifications
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 Circuit, ULA Catalyst, and ULA Camino Packs - 2
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

Pack Rating Qualifications
Camino Average Suits hostellers

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 Circuit, ULA Catalyst, and ULA Camino Packs - 3
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.

  • Part 1A covers the very basics and lists all the packs in the survey.
  • Part 1B covers the frame and harness which carry the pack itself.
  • Part 1C covers the main bag and all the other pockets, plus the all-important question of comfort.
  • Part 2 in this series covers the individual packs tested.

Citation

"ULA Circuit, ULA Catalyst, and ULA Camino Packs," by Roger Caffin. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/ula_circuit_ula_catalyst_ula_camino.html, 2010-09-28 00:00:00-06.

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Lightweight Internal Frame Packs: a State of the Market Report - Part 2: The Packs
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Coin Page
(Page0018) - MLife

Locale: Southeastern USA
External Frame Packs? on 10/18/2010 20:47:02 MDT Print View

Thanks for a nice review Roger.

Perhaps outside the scope of this review, but since the subject of external frame packs has come up: do you have any recommendations for lightweight, commercially available, external frame packs that capture your "H - frame" idea?

Back in the old days, my external frame pack and hip belt could shift almost all the weight onto my iliac crests, or alternatively, onto the greater trochanters.

I find now, with increasing age, a decreased tolerance for prolonged heavy loading of the L5-S1 disk, and the SI joints. Anything much over 20 lbs all day, no matter how it's distributed over the shoulders or the lumbar area, starts to hurt.

Some of the individual pack reviews and comments above suggest some of these packs come close, but it sounds like you think the external frame is better at overall comfort - issues of durability, fragility and standing up to heavy brush aside.

Am I on the right track here? Any advice. How can I get most of the load back on the sides of my hips - the iliac crests - and still go lightweight?

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: External Frame Packs? on 10/20/2010 23:43:42 MDT Print View

Hi Coin

Sorry, but I don't have a simple answer for you. I think I noted somewhere in the review that my hips are rather narrow, such that many hip belts do not work very well on me. For this reason I have always preferred to carry the load on my back. This does *not* mean 'on my shoulders'.

With my design I find the load does go through the mesh on the back of the pack to the full area of my back. Frankly, I am not really sure why this works so well, but it does work for me.

I am sure that it won't work for many other people, and that a solid hip belt will work better for them. In this sense, fitting a pack to a person is very much like fitting a pair of shoes. I sigh (for the same reason) when I see someone ask 'what shoes should I buy' and then read a reply that they should buy SuperDucksMultiWeb shoes.

However ... I will offer the following advice - which is also in the Review somewhere. Try to buy a pack which matches your torso length, but do not buy a pack with a torso length which is too short. Better to have a pack torso length slightly longer than your torso length: that will throw the load onto your hips more effectively.

Even better: pick a pack in the right size with an adjustable torso length. Then fine tune over several trips how it fits you. Yes, I definitely give brownie points to packs with an adjustable torso length.

I also give brownie points to packs with a solid stiff harness or frame. Frameless packs are all very well if my total load is under 6 -8 kg. Over that the weight of the harness is far outweighed by the added comfort it brings. Now, I know this comment will attract numerous responses contradicting me and saying how wonderful a frameless pack is. Well, as with shoes ...

Can an external frame pack (like mine) stand up the 'heavy brush'? Chuckle. Trust me, the scrub in the Australian Blue Mountains (and in SW Tasmania) is definitely world class.

A commercial equivalent? Sorry - at this stage I cannot make a recommendation, because I don't know.

Cheers

Cameron Semple
(camS) - F

Locale: Brisbane, Australia
Shadow on 10/21/2010 06:43:52 MDT Print View

I had a look at a Shadow this evening at a local distributor. I liked the clean, no frills look. Didn't have time to load it up though. You mentioned the thick webbing used on the hip belt. I found it virtually impossible to tighten the belt once fitted. The webbing was so rough that it wouldn't pull through easily. Combined with the older style of pulling the straps out rather than into the middle.

Any ideas when the 2011 line of packs will be available? The Umbra looks interesting.

Edited by camS on 10/21/2010 06:45:49 MDT.

Alan Bradley
(ahbradley)
small manufacturers / osprey atmos on 10/21/2010 15:46:43 MDT Print View

Roger (Caffin):
Would any of the ultralight small manufacturers be interested in making your external frame sacks.

The osprey atmos 50/65 has a kind of all back mesh (for ventilation) but I think the gap between back and pack is bigger. I didnt like the shooulder straps.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: small manufacturers / osprey atmos on 10/21/2010 20:58:46 MDT Print View

> Would any of the ultralight small manufacturers be interested in
> making your external frame sacks.

I would be delighted if someone did want to.

Cheers

Alan Bradley
(ahbradley)
osprey exos possible equiv to Roger (Caffins) MYOG external frame on 10/22/2010 04:55:27 MDT Print View

Roger (Caffin):

Actually, from reviews, the osprey exos 46/58 looks better than the atmos, as still has kind of all back mesh (for ventilation) but the gap between back and pack seems smaller, and the rucsac storage looks less curved.

Perhaps you could borrow one and compare it (not using waist belt) against your external frame pack.

Coin Page
(Page0018) - MLife

Locale: Southeastern USA
External Frame Packs? on 10/24/2010 09:12:13 MDT Print View

Thanks Roger.

Yes, like finding well fitting shoes. But I did find those (wider), so I keep my optimism for finding the perfect pack for heavier loads. Thanks for the reminder/emphasis on torso length (longer for me).

The Aarn packs, and LuxerLite pack seem hopeful. Discussions of these packs over the last 5 years give lots of opinions both ways. I would love to hear from owners/users of these packs what they still think of them now.

Any other packs in this general class - lightweight with enough frame to transfer all the weight to my hips if I want to - that anyone thinks I should also consider? Any packs in the review above come close for a long torso?

Thanks.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: osprey exos possible equiv to Roger (Caffins) MYOG external frame on 10/24/2010 15:35:08 MDT Print View

Hi Alan

The survey covered both the Exos 46 and the Exos 58. Nice packs.

Cheers

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: External Frame Packs? on 10/24/2010 15:38:09 MDT Print View

Hi Coin

The survey lists the available pack sizes. I was testing Medium in just about everything, but many of them have a Large model available.

Which one to choose? Ahhh... Very personal. 'Every body is subtly different ...' as they say on the planes.

Cheers

Lynn Tramper
(retropump) - F

Locale: The Antipodes of La Coruna
Re: External Frame Packs? on 10/25/2010 12:46:16 MDT Print View

"The Aarn packs, and LuxerLite pack seem hopeful. Discussions of these packs over the last 5 years give lots of opinions both ways. I would love to hear from owners/users of these packs what they still think of them now."

I have used both of these, and in both cases they are nice packs, but I ended up using them without the front pockets. They just didn't work for me. however, if you like front pockets, I find the LuxuryLite pocket (and frame) to be more functional and cooler. I also ditched the LuxuryLite cylinders and modifies a GoLite Gust to attach to the frame. Excellent volume and comfortable carrying. Note: the LuxuryLite pocket restricts you vision more than the Aarn. Also note, I have both of these for sale. If you are interested, shoot me a PM and we can negotiate a price.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
frogs ... on 10/26/2010 06:24:59 MDT Print View

just a note for others that the french site i-trekkings has done a similar test with packs in roughly the same weight and volume range

note how the Decathlon Forclaz 50 Ultralight scored very high in comfort and on score/price while being the cheapest and lightest pack

just shows you what can be done ..

just use google translater on the links below



http://www.i-trekkings.net/bibliotheque/articles/tests/sacados/Test-sacados_comparatif.pdf


http://www.i-trekkings.net/Xdossiers/dossiers.php?val=29_comparatif+sac+dos+30++50+litres

Edited by bearbreeder on 10/26/2010 06:28:48 MDT.

Alan Bradley
(ahbradley)
exos 58 usage with no load thru hip belt on 10/27/2010 15:08:48 MDT Print View

Roger (Caffin):

I checked the articles 1A-C,2 butt did not find a mention of testing the exos 58 with no load bearing via the hip belt i.e. a comparison against the way your your external frame myog pack is used.

Do you still have one for a hip-beltless comparison against your external frame pack.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: exos 58 usage with no load thru hip belt on 12/16/2010 20:22:34 MST Print View

Hi Alan

Sorry, this dropped off the radar for a while.
Unfortunately no: the Exos packs were farmed out to Australian readers.

Cheers

Eric Botshon
(Ebotshon) - F
Exos 46 on 07/12/2011 10:36:03 MDT Print View

The review mentioned that the osprey pack was closer to 40 than 46 liters.

Any chance this test was done with a size small pack instead of the medium? The smal torso length pack is smaller than the stated 46.

Willem knopper
(willem65) - MLife
Exos Frame on 09/08/2011 15:41:10 MDT Print View

I have tried the Exos and I find them to be to very ridged, the pack does not move with you (back) at all. I personally think they are really just a fancy external frame pack. I did like the idea of the air flow but was just very disappointed how it restricted your movement especially if you were to use it doing any walking other than on the flat.

Regards

Phillip Damiano
(Phillipsart)

Locale: Australia
Jansport Big Bear on 03/22/2012 21:42:44 MDT Print View

Roger mentioned in one of his comments here:
(Yes, we kept a few, for specific functions. The rest have been passed on to Australian & NZ BPL members (kept the postage down) for further field testing. I expect that they will provide some Reader Reviews in due course).

I'm one of those Australian BPL member, I've recently acquired one of the Jansport Big Bear 63 prototype packs of Roger.
The pack has only been in my possession for a few weeks now, tested on day hikes including some rock climbing.
The Harness is very comfortable and the material is very durable. I've tested this on a Off-track hike recently with very thick vegetation. I got scratches over me, the pack survived with no scratches.

I'm yet to test it out as a Overnight hike, but I can't see it causing any problems there. It's a nice pack. I do like the colour that the prototype pack was supplied in with the orange trims.

This is an on going review, I will keep you's updated on my findings on my next overnight hike, which is not for another 3 weeks from today. In a couple days, I've got a day hike I'm planning on, I will pack all my overnight hiking gear into the pack for a test to see how the pack feels with some weight in it. My base weight is just under the 8Kg. I'll add a few litres of water to that, making a total weight of 11kg.

So far, I like the pack. It's not exactly on the ultra light weight at just under 1.5kg but it does have a good frame and harness.Jansport Big Bear Prototype Pack

Edited by Phillipsart on 03/22/2012 21:51:42 MDT.

Phillip Damiano
(Phillipsart)

Locale: Australia
Re: Jansport Big Bear on 03/24/2012 19:33:34 MDT Print View

Packed my hiking gear into the Jansport Big Bear pack yesterday and went for a walk around the block with apx 12kg load. Pack is comfortable, enough room for 5 or 6 days of food. No complaints.

Will be continuing wearing the pack with my gear on daily hikes for the next couple of weeks as training for an upcoming 3 day overnight hike in some steep terrain.

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
"Pocket Man" on 06/14/2012 21:41:39 MDT Print View

I own an older - and IMHO better - version of the REI Flash 60. It's the REI Cruise UL 60 (2nd model). That pack absolutely NEEDED side pockets. Fortunately REI had "aftermarket" pockets at that time, but no longer.

I like side pockets because they store stuff I may need quickly like 1st aid kit, water treatment kit, toilet kit, potty kit, and things I don't want inside my pack
Like stove stuff including fuel. (For ex., ESBIT tabs smell fishy -like two other things I know of. ;O)

My REI pockets add 400 cu. in. each and make the pack "complete" in my dinosaur mind. Yeah, I'm a geezer and like exterior pockets. As another poster said of the Ospey EXOS that front "shovel" pocket is nice and can hold that wet tent, etc. Same goes for my Cruise UL 60 - which should really be called the "UL 50" - sorta like many post-recession 401-K funds should really be called "201-K" funds.

SPIRIDON Papapetroy
(spotlight) - F
Osprey Exos on 09/09/2012 21:15:47 MDT Print View

Has anyone had pain in the part of the body where the lower part of the frame touches it. I am a bit worried because it doesn't have any padding.