View Full Version : ULA Circuit Review

09-09-2010, 11:49
Just thought I would do a review on this pack as I recently completed a thru-hike of the Northville - Lake Placid Trail in New York. As someone who worked in the pack industry for 10 years, along with hiking a few thousand miles in 3 countries, this review should prove robust and accurate for most pack users.

I will break it down into the following categories:
1. Fit
2. Suspension
3. Overall feel
4. Packbag Design
5. Overall Impressions

The Fit:
Generally speaking, most ultralight packs do not fit all that well so I was happy to find the fit fairly solid on this pack model. I believe the pack comes in 3 sizes and has multiple hipbelts (5) that can be swapped out for a better fit (or in my case custom made to exclude hipbelt pockets). For example, I use a medium frame with a small hipbelt. Unfortunately, the shoulder harness is sewn into the pack which is a drawback for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that ULA does not have the best cut shoulder harness - it's average at best. This is most likely done because it's far cheaper to produce, however I never consider the price of something, just function, but I accept price is a concern for a small time American made pack company.

The hipbelt is thin, pliable and sturdy. This combined with a solid cut means a fairly solid belt with minimal chaffing (on me at least). I was happy overall with the hipbelt. I would point out that the hipbelt stabilizer straps should not be sewn into the bottom edge of the hipbelt, but rather terminate somewhere along the vertical existing seam hidden by the hipbelt pockets (I don't have hipbelt pockets on my belt, so can see this clearly). The way it is now, it places more weight on the bottom of the hipbelt rather than the middle where it should be. The 1 inch hipbelt buckle appears to be fragile for such a major point of stress - so you might also want a backup buckle in case it snaps under stress, or more likely, you step on it and break it.

3 frame sizes is a solid, proven method of sizing. Personally speaking, I think ULA could benefit from shortening each frame size a half inch in order to make the packs align with some other packs, meaning...they run slightly big in my opinion. This however is something very few, if any, hikers would ever notice.

Suspension - I'm a fan of suspension systems, and I would like to point out that a piece of foam or plastic IS NOT a suspension system, foam and plastic are suspension aids, not primary agents of weight transfer. In this department, the Circuit delivers well. Consider the pack is only 38 ounces with an aluminum stay, plus carbon fiber struts connected with a Delrin rod at the top means a supportive, solid suspension for minimal weight. I had to carry two heavy loads (carried my partners food!) plus a 6 pound tent, so I had this pack up to about 35-37lbs at times. It stood up, did not sag under stress (it settled a bit, but never sagged) and this surprised me. I expected this pack to collapse a bit and it didn't.

I haven't carried the pack without the stay for more than a few minutes, so my experience is limited. My knowledge and experience tells me the pack wouldn't be overly compromised without the stay however. I might point out that ULA does not know how to bend a stay yet...their pre-bend is poor in my view and for a competent pack fitter it's no drama...remove the stay and custom bend it, but for most hikers this wouldn't be an option. I wouldn't stress about this point, but you might notice it if you're paying attention. Worst case scenario, remove the stay...the pack will still work without it.

Overall Feel - I wouldn't report any noticeable hotspots, sags, stresses or anything like that. The pack is stable (when fit properly, loaded properly and put on correctly) and I also don't put anything outside of my packs. Attaching anything outside a internal frame pack WILL compromise the way it performs, and call me crazy...I'm not into doing extra work!

I already mentioned the shoulder straps...I don't love the cut of them, outside of this, the overall feels was impressive in my view, especially considering some of the heavier loads I carried (35 lbs).

Packbag Design - I couldn't help but feel the packbag has the 'short and fat' look to it. Most packbags are either teardrop shape, or cylinder, this pack is most narrow at the base, so bulky sleeping bags might prove annoying when trying to load it. This is more of a personal hangup I have, and I don't think it means all that much, but for me, a more cylinder, slightly taller packbag would be more attractive.

I like the rolldown top (I always remove the lid of any pack anyhow) so this was right up my alley. I do think a center closure, like velcro, would help align the roll down top a bit easier, however this would wear out over time like a velcro wallet.

The mesh pockets are great for things like raingear and small fuel bottles, I like that they are adjustable and can be left 'open'.

The major drawback on this pack however is the compression, essentially no compression below the side straps high up on the pack. I suspect ULA might point out the bungy cord on the back will help compress the pack somewhat, and I would tell them that's an empty point. This pack would benefit from a more elaborate compression system. Personally speaking, I had no issues filling the pack tightly with it's relatively moderate capacity, but for people carrying less gear, this could prove problematic.

Hydration port worked well, one on each side above each shoulder harness, solid haul loop that's bartacked into main seam, etc...

Overall Impressions - I really like this pack, and I'm a huge critic of ultralight packs...mainly because most of them lack major core pack components in order to save weight. This pack delivers overall, and I would strongly recommend it provided:
- You know how to pack a pack, and don't strap junk outside of the pack
- You keep your weight moderate, under 35lbs, pref under 30 (not base weight, COMPLETE WEIGHT)
- You can get by on it's capacity, see first point

Recommendations to ULA:
1. Redesign the shoulder harness, no one does this better than Osprey (if you can't beat them, at least learn from them)
2. Consider at least one lower compression strap
3. Sew the hipbelt stabilizer strap into the vertical seam on the hipbelt (where the patch of ripstop green is) instead of the bottom, taped edge of the hipbelt
4. Change your pre-bend on your stays, no one does this better than Gregory

09-09-2010, 15:48
Good review. I haven't looked at my Circuit that closely, but I've used it a lot and like it a lot.

09-09-2010, 15:49
Stranger, while you bring up several good observations on how to possibly improve on this pack you make too many seemingly general observations about this pack when in actually they are specific to your body, fit, features desired, and hiking style.

For example, I think, the comment, "generally speaking, most ultralight packs do not fit all that well", refer more to your personal experience rather then to people's general experience. Another example is your comment, "ULA does not have the best cut shoulder harness." I think both these comments are specific to your body and how you use the pack.

Some pack shoulder harnesses, or more specifically, shoulder straps, are sewn onto the pack at the top of the straps not primarily because it's cheaper to do that way, but because it saves wt. as opposed to a beefier floating pack shoulder harness. Again, different goals based on different uses. You need to keep that in focus!

Some UL pack manufacturers, like ULA, purposefully have designed their packs to allow you to remove the stay(s). One of the BIG reasons this is done is so you can bend the stay(s) to custom fit your body. They know the pre-bend of the stay is not going to fit all hikers under all hiker conditions!

Strapping "junk"(gear) to the outside of ANY backpack can change the load carrying aspects of the ride. That is not specific to this pack.

I think you were right about the compression of this pack. If it's not loaded to near capacity it tends to be a bit floppy on your back. I solve this issue by dialing in particular volumed backpacks for each hike, maybe even for specific sections of a thru-hike, based on the volume of gear I'm carrying or distance between resupply pts, for example. I know not everyone can be afforded a wide range of different volumed backbacks like I opt for so perhaps this pack can have designed into it a way to compress smaller volumed loads like GoLite has on some of their packs. I also think I could be better advised on how to use the outside bungee under various volume configurations which may solve some/all of the "floppiness" with undersized loads.

You are also comparing and desiring some of the features and design of an UL pack(hence the name ULA), with different design goals, with other backpacks which really are in separate class of backpacks. Some of what you want in a backpack is the reason why the Circuit weighs in at roughly 38 ozs(about 2 lbs 2 ozs) and the same volumed pack made by Osprey or Gregory, designed with different aims in mind and materials, would weigh in at roughly 5 lbs!

IMHO, I know you didn't directly say this about this UL pack, but this pack Does Not lack any MAJOR core pack components. What it lacks is some features YOU find YOU want in a backpack!

This pack needs/should be rightly accessed within the context for what it was designed for!

09-09-2010, 16:03
Great stuff guys. Thanks for the posts.

09-09-2010, 18:30
Dogwood...first off, I think the review is a strong review for the pack, I think I made it quite clear that I'm impressed by the pack and would recommend it for the vast majority of people out there. The tone of your response seems to indicate some form of defensiveness, so not sure what the story is there.

Second, on the issue of the shoulder harness, this is not solely my personal experience as a pack user. I fit thousands of packs, product tested and consulted for around 10 years and have seen hundred of designs and cuts over the years. One can not argue, could not argue...with any form of credibility that ULA has a better, or even comparable, should harness 'cut' as Osprey.

In terms of sewing the harness to the pack to save weight? Perhaps...but I highly doubt it. Saving money and easier production is far likely the real reasons in my extensive experience. If it was about weight, surely the hipbelt would be sewn in as well?

Lastly... on the stay, your point is empty. The bend on a ULA pack will fit such a small amount of people off the shelf it's hardly worth mentioning. This does not mean there are people out there who 'think' the pack fits them...ignorance is bliss after all.

Obviously the stay can be bent...I mentioned that in my post. However, as anyone knows who has extensive pack fitting experience...80-90% of packs out there are not fitted, and many fitted packs are not fitted properly anyhow. However, having a good, accurate pre-bend in the stay would only help customers get a better fit than they do now, because very few ULA's will be customized anyhow, and their current pre-bend is terrible.

One final note...terrible prebends are fairly common, this is not limited to ULA, and this does not mean the pack won't perform well, it simply means the pack is not working as well as it can work.

Aren't we all after having the best gear we can?

Dogwood, ULA is a good pack company, I think my review praised them.

Criticism however is the key to great products, praising something that is flawed is just silly, why not make it better?

09-09-2010, 18:43
Couple more points for Dogwood as there is alot of speculation in that post...

Most ultralight packs NO NOT fit all that well, this is a fact, not an opinion. The reason why many ultralight packs do not fit as well as their heavier cousins is because they lack fit options.

A pack that comes in 2 sizes will never fit as well as a pack that comes in 4, for the majority of people, same with having different shoulder harnesses and hipbelts, the more options you have, the better the fit. I am speaking generally based on 10 years of experience in pack fitting.

You assume I am speaking about myself, I never speak about myself, I speak based on experience. I am 5' 10'', 180lbs, almost every pack fits me...I'm Joe average. My observations are based on experience of others, not myself.

Final point I promise haha....the comparisons to Gregory and Osprey were made because Osprey has the best overall shoulder harness 'cut' that I've ever seen, anywhere in the world, and Gregory has the best stay bend I've ever seen.

I never compared the Circuit to a Gregory or Osprey pack that weighed double it's weight...there is alot of speculation in your post.

Anyhow, I hope the review helps people out there. If the review offends anyone, I would encourage you to find a hobby!

09-09-2010, 19:33
I appreciate the review. You are obviously an experienced backpacker and did this as a service to the rest of us.

A review is a detailed opinion of the reviewer. Don't like it, do your own review. Ask questions. Don't review the reviewer's review!

Don H
09-09-2010, 21:35
I have the ULA Circuit with aluminum stay, I bent it to fit me, no problem. The first time I used it I did notice the shoulder straps are thin in width, with little padding. No where near as comfortable as my Granite Gear pack. Overall I think it's a good pack for me up to about 25 pounds.

09-10-2010, 01:25
I never said your review doesn't have merits. I'll repeat myself. You make some valid pts. Notice, I'm not disagreeing with your entire review just certain aspects of it. I think I have the right to voice my opinion just like you did.

While I do appreciate your experience using and fitting a pack, and it shows in many of your comments of this pack, NO ONE, including myself is beyond offering an opinion that not everyone will agree with, even if they are an experienced or accomplished this or that. I'm not attacking your credibility as a pack fitter or pack user! Don't become so annoyed/offended with my opinons if they diasagree with yours! My comments added to yours just makes for more discussion and possible insight. I'm often very direct and sometimes contentious. At least you know exactly how I feel even if we do disagree about SOME pts! Be mindful that what we are doing is only offering opinons! We both can lighten up a bit!

Although I do like ULA packs, I have several, I really don't care if you like or dislike ULA or the ULA Circuit so I'm not being defensive in that regard, but I do think you are making comparisons between an UL pack with its specific design parameters with its typically more limited features with the features and designs of packs that are considered to be more conventional/mainstream. I think this can lead to unfair comparisons. I think a fairer comparison is to be judging packs in the same UL category with similar volume! I think this happens quite frequently when someone desires an UL piece of gear with its wt but still wants the features of a heavier pack! And, yes, I do think you are comparing some typical features and designs associated with heavier conventional packs with an UL pack that doesn't always have all the same design goals and features. That's not speculation!

I'm of the same opinion as yours in regards to Osprey's shoulder harness/shoulder straps cut. They are some of the best fit/cut of all the packs I've seen, used, or reviewed. I love the way they fit personally on my Osprey big load hauler. After many in store and in the field questions about Osprey's shoulder cut I have rarely heard anything negative when the pack is used within its intended load carrying capacity range. However, when comparing the comfort of Ospreys shoulder harness with ULA's Circuit I think you start getting into that sticky area of comparing a heavier harness and different design goal of a conventionally weighted pack with an UL one where the primary design goal is creating a decently comfortable harness that weighs less and the pack is designed for lighter loads. I don't know about you, and I'll say it again, but I find it always helpful to compare UL gear with UL gear and conventionally weighted gear with like gear.

We have a definite difference of opinion on the stay(s) because I don't think my pt about the stay(s) is empty. It's removable so you can custom bend it or don't need/want it based on load and pack wt desires. Not usually a BIG deal for most folks(ULers) or those transitioning to lighter wt gear who would buy this pack anyway. I really don't even know why you make a pt of mentioning it in your initial review. Some other UL load haulers and even some conventionally weighted packs have the same design feature of being able to remove the framesheet or stay(s) with the express idea that you custom shape it to your body. Either way I think you and I both agree that it's a moot pt. Just take the stay out and custom shape it to your own body and for your own use.

Your pt about less fit/adjustment options with UL packs is well taken. Specific to this pack review you said yourself that the ULA Circuit comes in 3 torso sizes and 5 different hipbelt size options! If I'm recalling my statistical mathematics correctly I think that's 15 different fits right there.The shoulder straps are adjustable for fit. The hipbelt is adjustable for fit. The hipbelt stabilizer straps are not adjustable enough in your opinion and the pt is taken. Notice I didn't disagree with your pt about the hipbelt stabilizer straps and your recommendation about improving its design. It sounds like a good idea! Personally I think hipbelt stabilizer straps are often useless wt and a needless adjustment particularly for certain beefier hipbelt designs and a pack designed for this load carrying capacity and typical use, but that's my opinion and based on how I backpack. The load lifters are adjustable for fit. The sternum strap is adjustable for fit. How much fitting/adjustment straps do you really need with a pack, especially a pack that's designed for lighter loads? Again, I think you want the features of a conventionally weighted and designed pack with an UL wt. We may disagree, but IMHO, even with conventional packs some of the super fine tuning/fitting options are way overkill! Just an opinion!

Let me honestly say this. Thank you for your pack review and responding to my comments! They show an interest in completing an indepth review!

If you want to yell at me or call me bnames do it in a personal E Mail! LOL

09-10-2010, 11:28
Thanks for the review!

I received my own ULA Circuit yesterday, a lightly used 2010. The Circuit and Catalyst were both on my short list when buying a new pack this summer. I ended up getting a Granite Gear Nimbus Meridian, but when the opportunity arose to get the Circuit used I went for it. I'm glad I did- so far, I'm impressed.

On the shoulder harness- yes, it is your personal experience. It doesn't matter how many packs you've fit and worn yourself, it's still your own personal experience speaking. There simply isn't an objective way to declare who makes "the best" harness- there's always going to be differences in fit, weight, and feature preferences. The shoulder on the Osprey Aether is indeed nice, but that's a plushy, heavy pack. I've not achieved a great fit with their ultralight packs

The Circuit has a very well-done shoulder harness for my body, especially for an ultralight pack. Gobs better than the GoLite Peak or Jam. I do appreciate the contour of Osprey's harness as well as the adjustable width and pivot of Granite Gear's harness, features that Osprey doesn't even have.

Having a non-adjustable torso isn't simply a matter of money- weight penalty is another reason. Osprey's adjustable torso packs are great examples- probably adds another 6-12 oz. A company like ULA wouldn't be where it is today if it just produced Osprey and Gregory clones made of Dyneema X. That said, it'd be nice to see on a heavier pack like the Catalyst.

There's no reason that suspensions made of plastic don't constitute real "suspensions." If it achieves the same end, what does it matter if it's made of aluminum, carbon fiber, or some plastic? Granite Gear's suspensions are great counter-examples, IMHO.

I had similar feelings about the lack of compression straps on the bottom end of the pack... Until I noticed where the shoulder straps attach at the bottom of the pack. It's not a perfect solution, but it seemed pretty effective with my gear loaded into the pack and I give them points for clever.

Criticism however is the key to great products, praising something that is flawed is just silly, why not make it better?



09-10-2010, 13:25
Thanks for taking the time to review the pack and give your thoughts. Obviously some of us don't agree with a few minor points, but overall its an excellent review that should help many in choosing a pack.

If memory serves me correctly, Brian (the founder and former owner of ULA until last year) did redesign the shoulder strap design a few years ago. He tested it on a long multi-week hike and thought it was more comfortable then what he had been using on his packs. However, after changing the design in production, packs started to get returned due to severe discomfort. Seems that men who were fleshy around the chest and shoulders (ie. dare I say more chunky?) were having difficulty with the straps digging in the skin. Brian recalled all the new packs and changed the shoulder strap back to the older design. I think he was hesitant to change the strap design ever again after that.

Personally, I found the comfort of the shoulder straps of the circuit to be excellent, even when I was technically overloaded at 43lbs once on my thru-hike. My only complaint with the pack was that if I wasn't careful how I packed it when it was far from being full, the back area would sag some above the hipbelt area. This didn't cause any real discomfort. No one else I met with a ULA pack had that problem but I normally use a smaller pack (ie. the ULA Conduit now the CDT) for weeklong trips so my gear was really undersized for the circuit and my total weight was often only in the mid 20's leaving town. However, I had wanted the larger capacity pack for those 30mile waterless stretches and for a 10day carry with a bearcan that you encounter on the PCT where I appreciated having the Circuit. Overall, I don't think most people will have problems with a circuit as long as their loads remain within the specs of the pack. Its a good durable pack that carries well for what it is.

09-10-2010, 22:33
I think you were right about the compression of this pack. If it's not loaded to near capacity it tends to be a bit floppy on your back. I solve this issue by dialing in particular volumed backpacks for each hike, maybe even for specific sections of a thru-hike, based on the volume of gear I'm carrying or distance between resupply pts, for example. I know not everyone can be afforded a wide range of different volumed backbacks like I opt for so perhaps this pack can have designed into it a way to compress smaller volumed loads like GoLite has on some of their packs. I also think I could be better advised on how to use the outside bungee under various volume configurations which may solve some/all of the "floppiness" with undersized loads.

I carry a Circuit and i sleep on a Zlite and when my pack is "floppy" i put the Zlite in the pack instead of on the back. Another option is to put your sleeping bag in NOT in a stuff sack so it expands filling more space.

scott bonder
09-29-2010, 15:06
Very helpful reviews. thanks.

09-29-2010, 15:48
All I can say is that it worked good for me, no aluminum stay in mine.

02-18-2011, 22:08
Works great for me too....I ordered the stay but havent felt the need ot use it.