Saturday, May 18, 2013

Gear Review: ULA Catalyst and Kid's Circuit Packs

Here are our impressions of some of the packs used on our 2012 PCT hike.

Heather's Pack:  The ULA Catalyst

Before we hiked the PCT, I always used backpacks from traditional (heavy) gear manufacturers such as Osprey.  And I loved my Osprey Ariel pack.  It was roomy and comfortable, with space for anything and everything I might need or want out on the trail.  It also weighed 5 pounds.  Empty.

Knowing I would need to lower my baseweight if I was going to successfully carry food and shared gear for two people, I started researching lighter options.  Hikers have successfully completed the PCT carrying ultralight packs that weighed less than a pound, but I knew that a frameless pack with no structure or waistbelt would not adequately support the heavy resupplies we would need for some sections of the trail.  Enter the ULA Catalyst.

At 48 ounces (3 pounds), the ULA Catalyst is not the lightest of the ultralight packs, but it is a fully featured, comfortable pack with plenty of room for gear, food and, when necessary, a bear can.  With its internal frame and suspension, the manufacturer recommends the Catalyst for loads up to 40 pounds.  I can personally attest to the pack's comfort carrying 40 pounds and, at times, even more.  The Catalyst's padded waistbelt and shoulder straps, internal frame, load lifter straps, and other features kept the pack's weight comfortably on my hips and off my shoulders.

The Catalyst has plenty of room to carry what you need in the main compartment (unless what you need includes the kitchen sink).  It also has an outer mesh pocket to stash gear you might want to access more quickly during the day.  The large side pockets are perfect for carrying water bottles and other gear, and the waistbelt includes two roomy snack pockets.  I used one for snacks and the other for my journal, sunscreen, lip balm, and other items I wanted to be able to access on the trail.  The waistbelt pockets would easily accommodate a compact camera, with room for more.

A thru-hike is notoriously hard on gear, but the Catalyst held up well.  And when my waistbelt wore out in Northern California (probably due to my overloading the pack, carrying more than the recommended 40 pounds during long resupplies in the mountains), Chris at ULA Equipment sent a new one and had it waiting for me when I reached Ashland.  Great customer service!

Sierra's Pack:  The ULA Circuit, XS Kid's Version

Few gear manufacturer's made real backpacks for kids.  We tried the Osprey Jib model, but the waistbelt did not stay put on Sierra's slender form.  We considered lightweight adult daypacks from GoLite and other brands, but could not find one with both (1) enough capacity to hold Sierra's gear; and (2) a waistbelt that could cinch up tight enough.  Finally, we contacted Chris at ULA to find out if he could customize a pack to fit Sierra.  Turns out, Chris already made an XS Circuit, but (at that time), didn't have it listed on his site.

The ULA Circuit XS Kid's version has all the same features (and almost as much capacity) as the adult model, but uses an adjustable harness and extra small waistbelt to customize the fit to shorter torsos and tiny waists.  The Circuit had plenty of capacity for all of Sierra's gear, with room to spare.  The mesh back pocket was great for storing gear she wanted to access quickly, and the large side pockets were great for storing water bottles and drinks.  Sierra also loved the two waistbelt pockets, which were perfect for storing snacks, her iPod Nano (she loved audiobooks in the afternoon), and any treasures she picked up along the way.  The pack carried comfortably, held up well, and will definitely be accompanying us on future adventures!


  1. how much weight did Seirra carry including food and water?

  2. Sierra carried her own gear and water, but none of the shared gear or food (except her snacks for the day). Total pack weight probably ranged between 15-18 pounds ... plenty of weight for an 8 or 9 year old!