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Reviews > Packs > Internal and External Framed Backpacks > ULA Equipment Catalyst > Owner Review by Richard Lyon
ŰLA EQUIPMENT CATALYST BACKPACK
Personal Details and Backpacking Background
Male, 60 years
I've been backpacking for 45 years on and off, and regularly in the Rockies since 1986. I do a week long trip every summer, and often take three-day trips. I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 13000 ft (1500 - 4000 m). I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp, but I do my share of forced marches too. Though always looking for ways to reduce weight, I'm not yet a lightweight hiker and I usually choose a bit more weight over foregoing camp conveniences I've come to expect.
Manufacturer: Ultralight Adventure Equipment (ULA), Logan, Utah USA
Colors: Green and white
grid fabric, black trim. A few straps
ULA has a
convenient sizing guide on its website that enables a customer to determine the
proper frame size, from Small to Extra Large, based upon torso length, and hip
belt size, from Extra Small to Extra Large, based upon waist size.
Note: Per email correspondence with ULA owner Brian Frankle the Catalyst with XL frame has an overall capacity of about 5200 cubic inches (85 liters).
Warranty: Lifetime warranty to original owner against defects in workmanship and materials. Also: "All packs are returnable if the product does not meet your needs. It does no good for either of us to have you using a pack you do not like. Packs will ONLY be accepted if they are returned in a new, unused condition. Shipping costs WILL NOT be refunded when your payment is reimbursed."
The Catalyst, ULA's largest pack, is an internal frame backpack designed to minimize weight without sacrificing "the basic components of traditional backpacking -- comfort, function, and durability." ULA introduced it in 2006 as an upgraded version of its P-2 backpack. The buyer specifies which optional accessories and consequent additional weight he or she desires. I ordered mine with dual frame sheet, stash pocket, hydration sleeve, hand loops, and one water bottle holder (on the left), bringing the total list price to $251 US.
ULA's approach to backpack modularity in the Catalyst is to allow the user to adapt the pack to loads of different sizes by using (or not) different compartments or sleeves included as standard issue, rather than adding or subtracting pockets, holsters, straps, or different-sized pack bags from a stripped-down frame. This pack has a large mesh pocket across most of the front of the pack that's criss-crossed by bungee cord-like elastic bands, so that I can use the pocket for a large item and then stuff a smaller item into the cords. In the photo my sleeping pad is in the pocket and my rain jacket stuffed into the cords. The mesh can also be loosened or cinched down somewhat by means of hook-and-loop attachments at the top on either side; these also allow safe and effective storage of long items like the trekking poles in the photo. Large mesh sleeves with elastic collars run diagonally across each side of the pack, similarly permitting use for many different things.
The pack bag of the Catalyst has a single compartment, a top-loader. I'm not sure what ULA's description of "dry bag style top closure" means, as the lip of the pack bag and of the cover have no hook-and-loop closures, but they can be rolled up together and clipped securely if the pack is less than full. When the load in the bag rises above the sides of the pack, the extended cover can be adjusted with side compression straps that attach with quick-release snaps to keep everything snug and covered. A long strap with a male connector and compression slide runs from the back of the pack down the center of the cover to a female connector at the top of the front pocket that also has a compression strap. Each side panel has a compression strap that allows cinching up less-than-full loads.
Sewn-on zippered hip belt pockets and tool loop at the bottom of each corner of the front mesh pocket provide additional storage for smaller items.
I used the Catalyst as my primary pack last summer on day hikes and overnighters in the Rockies in August, September, and November, and on several day hikes in the Texas Hill Country last fall and winter, and very recently on two day hikes in Montana. Temperatures ranged from 30 to 90 F (- 1 to 32 C). The August and September hikes included some steep on-trail hiking, with daily elevation gain of between 2500-3000 feet (800-950 m), with a pack weight of between 35 and 50 pounds (16-23 kg), including food and water. Low humidity but still plenty of sweat on the uphill climbs! The Montana day hike loads were in the 30-pound (14 kg) range, artificially inflated because I volunteered to carry some children's food and gear and to see how well a stove that I am testing packed into the Catalyst. These day hikes were relatively short but with an elevation gain of about 1000 feet (300 m), starting at 5000 feet (1500 m). I wore the Catalyst once on a cloudless day ski in Wyoming, elevation about 10000 feet (3000 m) in January, with temperatures hovering around 0 F (-18 C), with a load of perhaps 20 pounds (9 kg). In the following section I mention some particular items included in various pack loads.
While I was fortunate enough to have fair weather most of the time, I did hike through a couple of showers and a brief thunderstorm while wearing the Catalyst.
Disclaimer. I don't consider myself an expert on backpacks. For the past twenty years I've used only two on a regular basis when overnight camping, and they were similar to each other: a pre-Kelty Dana Design Terraplane and a Mystery Ranch BDSB. Even when looking for a permanent replacement for the Terraplane my experimenting was limited to a couple of Mystery Ranch prototypes. For those unfamiliar with these two great packs, both fall firmly (and heavily) into the expedition pack category. Each weighs more than eight pounds (3.7 kg) and lists capacity in excess of 6000 cubic inches (98 liters). Only last year did I decide to seek some serious weight reduction for shorter trips, and the Catalyst was one of the candidates I examined. It's possible that my opinions in this review are colored by my first exposure to a pack designed and intended for those who describe themselves as "lightweight" backpackers.
Weight Distribution. I learned my first lesson very quickly, that this pack demands careful packing to ensure a comfortable carrying load. If I follow my sloppy giant pack ways and pay close attention only to my sleeping bag I find myself shifting the adjusters, pulling on the hand loops to counter the pack's pulling away from my shoulders, or listing to port or starboard. Not only that, with the pack less than fully loaded things tend to move about inside the main pack bag. These early experiences got me to focus on balancing the weight and at the same time taught me how to take advantage of the Catalyst's different storage options. Anything in the side or rear pockets should be waterproof, of course, but with some practice it's now fairly easy for me to keep things balanced out and me relatively comfortable. Here's an example of a recent pack load and where each item was stored:
Main compartment: Sleeping bag in stuff sack at the bottom, with food packets at each end. Tent body (left) and down sweater in a compression sack (right) above these. Then Jetboil PCS, spare pair of socks inside an insulated cup, backcountry fly fishing kit (reel and gear box), clean merino underwear for sleeping (in a stuff sack), toilet kit, and additional food. 2L hydration bladder in the sleeve. Spare shirt, socks, Aquamira kit, and other small items stuffed in. Car keys and wallet in the stash pocket.
Front pocket: Sleeping pad, with rain jacket on the outside.
Left mesh pocket: Tent poles and stakes in stuff sack, rain pants, first aid kit.
Right mesh pocket: Fly rod in tube, windshirt in a plastic bag, map, trowel and toilet paper in Zip-Lock bag.
Left hip belt pocket: Tube of sunscreen and bottle of bug juice, in a Zip-Lock bag; Clif Bar; pocket knife, headlamp.
Right hip belt pocket: Camera
Left shoulder strap: 0.75 l/qt water bottle.
When I have packed it carefully the Catalyst does a very good job of weight distribution. The forty-pound (18 kg) rating is if anything conservative, as I've packed with as much as 50 lb (23 kg) on a ten-mile (16 km) hike with no particular problems.
Fine tuning. Straps at the top of the shoulder pads and a sternum strap aid weight distribution by allowing me to hike up the pack so that it rides on my hips and stays close to my back. I've been able to tighten these one-handed while wearing the pack; loosening any one of them sometimes requires both hands. There are also adjustable straps between the bottom of the shoulder straps and the hip belt; these I must adjust before placing the pack on my shoulders. With the heaviest load, 50 lb (23 kg) the pack will occasionally slip down my back slightly. I didn't try this pack on before buying it and I have once or twice thought that perhaps the frame is too long, but I've met with this problem on other packs that the pack designer himself custom fitted to me, so I'm inclined to blame this issue on less-than-perfect packing or adjusting on my part. I can report that I haven't yet had sore shoulders at the end of any day and haven't had that dreaded feeling of lugging a boulder that comes when the top of my pack pulls away from my shoulders. Ten compression straps – two on the lid of the pack, four on the shoulder straps, one on each side, and two on the strap that runs across the middle of the cover – are effective at choking the pack size down when necessary. So effective, in fact, that now that I'm used to it I haven't minded using the Catalyst as a day pack.
Durability. So far so good. I haven't bushwhacked extensively in this pack, but it's held up very well in its rookie year, with no tears, scratch marks, loose threads, or jammed zippers. The fabric is water resistant when exposed to intermittent showers.
Options. With one reservation each optional accessory does its job. I haven't been able to measure or compare, of course, but I believe that the dual frame sheet has aided carrying capacity, given the comfortable ride of the pack at a weight in excess of its recommended capacity. I like the hand loops for minor weight adjustments and, as advertised, as an alternative to trekking poles on less rigorous hikes. The hydration sleeve works just fine with the minor tweaking discussed below. I really appreciate the stash pocket; I'm paranoid about storing car keys in anything other than a zippered pocket and now I know exactly where they are. My only issue is with the water bottle holder. This is a means of carrying extra water that's less intrusive than a holster on a hip belt, but even after cinching the bungee as much as possible a bottle often slips out when I'm swinging the pack onto or off of my shoulders. Making sure that the top cord is set in the groove between bottle and cap reduces this risk somewhat. A bottle with a throat stays put more often than the cylinder shown in the photo. I haven't had the bottle impede arm movement when hiking.
Overall I give this pack very high marks; what follows are especially noteworthy items:
Weight distribution. It's really, really good. I've been spoiled by my expedition packs, but I don't lose much in this category when I fill up the Catalyst properly. Saving more than four pounds (1.7 kg) just by taking the Catalyst instead of one of my expedition packs makes this a worthwhile trade-off for me.
Versatility. I can use it for a weekend or an afternoon.
Simplicity. Everything has a purpose and there's no feature that I haven't used to good effect. Very little has gone wrong.
The hip belt pockets are perfectly placed for easy access. Because they're sewn on there's no chance of their slipping around on the belt or catching on something and coming off. Truly useful on every outing.
Similarly, the mesh pocket and cord system on the front of the pack make for very efficient packing.
I do have some nitpicks and suggestions for improvement:
The hydration ports at the sides of the main compartment are too small. I had difficulty forcing the bite valve of my Platypus system through, and a larger valve on a Camelbak system that I have won't fit, requiring me to detach the tube from the lid or the valve for insertion through the port. A minor inconvenience except in winter when the tube wears a neoprene sleeve, when it's a real struggle.
A necessary consequence of use of the side pockets for real storage means that the mesh on the side pockets tends to sag, making the pockets bulge out when not stuffed with gear. (This can be seen in the top photo.) I've had a problem with these snagging on bushes that are close to the trail. It also means less-than-ideal tension when all that's in the pocket is an expensive fly rod. I'd like a bungee cord-type of tensioner (like the one on the front pocket) to take account of a less-than-full load.
As noted, the water bottle holder requires attention every time I put on or take off the pack.
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